Friday, July 27, 2012

Teaching the Church

No passage so symbolizes the impasse of the church today than the British prime minister David Cameron lecturing his own church on their sexual ethics. Of equal note is the context of the speech: a reception at 10 Downing Street for "the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans-sexual community" (to quote the Church Times article on the event). OK, so here is where it is at: a man who is a churchman listens to pressure groups, and presumes to pressure the church on their behalf, as though the church has nothing to teach him on that matter.

But then, the church has ceased to speak with one voice on the matter. Anyone who guessed that the CT article is graced with a photograph of the event could also guess that said picture shows perennial episcopal aspirant Jeffrey John, who is transparent as glass about his desire to make whatever diocese he attains dominion over as a power base for dictating approval of people, well, like himself. Church teaching becomes thus something to be captured and made to serve his views. But then, what's the point? The PM has already shown that church teaching is held inferior to, well, whoever it is that taught him. Or maybe it is simply his own urges and calculations which rule him.

There has been a lot of going on about Ross Douthat's doubts on the prospects of liberal Christianity. A lot of the rejoinders don't seem to be able to get past the adolescent observation that the conservative denominations are also on the ropes. But really, considering Cameron's remarks, it's hardly surprising. The various churches are all having a hard time getting people to care, I think for somewhat different reasons. The Catholic Church's problems in the USA, for instance, are plainly derived in part from reaction to the high-profile sex scandals. But the secularists are also getting their wish: it is they who are setting society's agenda, and the churches are, by and large, simply buying into the programs given to them by worldly authorities.

This corrupts the conservatives and liberals differently, because they are in bondage to different secular authorities with different aims. The conservatives are controlled by business interests who are uninterested in theology, and this means that they are free to adhere to basic theological doctrines while at the same time their moral teaching is contaminated with neo- and paleo-con economic and social dogmas. The liberals, however, are enslaved by the academic and social bureaucratic establishment, and these people are notoriously adverse to Christian tradition. The irreligion of the academy produces a derivative irreligion in their ecclesiastical followers, so that the result is that, as Douthat says, "the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism."

There remain centrists, of various political views, who are not beholden to the outside, but they are conspicuously beleaguered. Their faith that scripture- and tradition-based theology is the starting point for moral reasoning and "lifestyle" (as though one works out how to live in the same manner as one works out how to get one's hair cut at the barber or salon) is dismissed as antique. If they represent the best foundation for a church going forward (for they do make an argument for religion above and before their moral teaching), they are also crippled by institutions which abuse their otherwise commendable loyalty. I have tended to have little use for the "emergent" movement, because too many of its proponents (Brian McLaren, I'm looking down the road at you) are object lessons in the corruption of hitherto conservative non-denom evangelicals by the same intellectual forces which ruined mainline theology. But as it stands, the only hope going forward is to break free of existing institutions, and indeed perhaps to see institutionality itself in different terms, because of the obsession with church power which so drives liberal Christianity.

That said, I'm not abandoning the Episcopal Church this week. But right now its claim to my loyalty is based very weakly on being able to find a sufficiently orthodox parish, and nothing else.


The Archer of the Forest said...

The Ordinariate always has a place for you.

rick allen said...

It used to bother and perplex me that American Catholic politicians, Republican or Democrat, never seemed entirely in sync with Catholic moral and social teaching. Democrats loved and extolled the teaching on social responsibility, openness to immigrants, the right to organize, restrictions on war, but balked at Catholic teaching regarding marriage, abortion and euthanasia. Republican Catholics were all enthusiastic the opposite way.

I finally came to see that, in a political system dominated by two (to me) rather arbitrarily committed parties, it is the party platform that dictates success for a politician, and that that almost invariably works as a filter.

So, for example, if I want to run for office, and the two things I care about most are, say, (to take a couple of hot button issues), abolishing the death penalty and outlawing purely elective abortions, I am already dead in the water in both parties, however many ordinary citizens may find both positions palatable.

This is not a problem for those whose religious views line up perfectly with the political views of a particular party. There seem to be those on both sides. But for the rest of us I think we need to face the fact that parties dictate the "line-up" of acceptable positions, at least for the time being.

Parties do change over time, of course. These things aren't set in stone. But I thinks it helps in seeing how politicians can so easily claim a religious identity and still have so little problem with taking positions wildly at odds with it. If they didn't, they'd have to have real jobs like the rest of us.

Whit Johnstone said...

The ordinariate has a place for you, yeah. Unless you're a Freemason, or don't believe in papal infalliblity, or believe that the Virgin Mary was a redeemed sinner like the rest of us, or any of a thousand sectarian RC beliefs.

Whit Johnstone said...

I'm sorry, the previous comment I made came out as more sarcastic and anti-Roman then I wanted it too. I am getting over a brief bout of "Roman Fever" myself. I do want to reiterate for the benefit of the "Costly Grace" poster, who seems to be, like me a serious Freemason, that the Ordinariate is not an option if you are committed to remaining in the Lodge.

C. Wingate said...

I am fortunate, I suppose, in even having the option of going to an ordinariate parish at all (Mt. Calvary being in driving range). But for me to go there in good conscience, I would have to stop being Anglican in theology, and that isn't going to happen.

Whit Johnstone said...

I would note that for what it's worth, when Justin Duckworth founded Urban Vision New Zealand in 1998 he considered himself emerging or emergent and thought of all mainstream denominations as hopelessly compromised. He evidently changed his mind about this, and wound up leading Urban Vision into a relationship with the Anglican Church, and sought and, as the head of the semi-monastic community received ordination as a priest. He was recently consecrated as the Bishop of Wellington, which places him at the heart of an establishment he used to despise.