Thursday, March 22, 2007

Nobody Expects the Anglican Inquisition

Eddie Izzard explains our problems:

(and dressed like a bit part from an old Dr. Who episode at that)

The ex-Anglican Obsession

It seems almost inevitable that Anglican priests who depart for Rome or Constantinople start to harp on ecclesiology. This time it is Fr. Stephen Freeman, whose post The Problem of Church was brought to my attention in All Too Common, where the following passage is quoted:
Of course, all of that latter sentiment is delusion. It is only my imaginary relationship with Christ (if the Church is invisible it is little more than imaginary). It is the visible character of the Church, and the possibility of boundary (everything visible has some boundary) that creates the “problem.”

For if there is a boundary, then someone is not within the Church. If there is a boundary then you can be inside it or you can be outside of it. And there is the problem. Who says where the boundaries are to be set?

As far as any man is concerned, the important thing is to be inside it. And for any man who does not doubt his current affiliation, the answer seems inevitably to be, "Where I am, there is the church." But the not-at-all subtle subtext of the ex-Anglicans seems to be to definitively put the Episcopal Church in particular outside the church; the principle of the moment would appear to be, "where I came from, there is not the church."

Now, I am certainly among the unhappy to whom these appeals are directed. Anyone with even vaguely orthodox views has to feel some discomfort with the theological winds that blow through Anglicanism these days. But the claims of definite boundaries are self-evidently problematic. It is the catholic faith that the church is, in some senses, invisible, so that it isn't utterly without reason that its visible component might not be utterly identifiably; and the reality is that it is not immediately identifiable, or else there wouldn't be so much controversy surrounding its identification. In another sense, the church is manifestly visible, even if only in the steeples and towers I pass as I drive by. And while I know that India exists, as testified to by maps and some of my officemates, I don't think its existence is made imaginary by the ongoing dispute between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir.

The fact of ecclesiological dispute is not as easily brushed off as this. A thousand years of East/West schism and five hundred years of Protestantism are ample evidence that the question cannot be reasonably resolved. It is obvious both that reason is necessary, and that reason is insufficient. And it's also just as obvious that personal judgement is all over this issue, contrary to frequent assertion. The driving force for all of this is personal dissonance with the teachings of (in this case) authorities within the Episcopal Church. There are several reasons why I don't come up with the same answer, but one of them is that I have plenty of theological dissonance with the Roman Catholic Church. There seems to be no recourse to getting past that other than more argument (especially since I have for the most part found the RC church to be sacramentally repugnant), so somewhere along the line, the arguments have to work as arguments. And since they aren't working, I would have to conclude that Catholicism's insistence on an absence of theological defect is in fact itself a defect-- which leaves me an Anglican.

The problem with Orthodoxy is more subtle, but runs far deeper. Let me return to where I started: that we are particularly hearing from ex-Anglican priests about this. I cannot but understand this as Orthodox and Catholic bishops taking advantage of priests which Anglicanism has formed, however much either church denies the legitimacy of Anglican orders. It's particularly contradictory in the Roman case, seeing how may of these priests could not have become so had they not already been Anglican "phony" priests. But at any rate, the appeal here is from one churchman to another. And that's a problem, because it is in essence saying that what I'm missing isn't anything as objective as obedience to Christian moral teaching. No, what I'm missing is the magic pixie dust of sacramental validity. And that's a huge problem, because the only way to maintain that position is to deny the relevance of personal experience. Fr. Freeman starts to slide into this, when he comments,
One’s personal history is important, but in the larger scheme it’s very little for us to go on, except for the fact that you cannot live someone else’s history.

But crucially this statement is untrue, because we are all, in essence, trying to live out the personal history of the original apostles as literal witnesses to the ressurection. Accepting it all uncritically is one thing, but to suggest that it can all be rejected equally uncritically is to invite rejection of the Christian witness. All of these appeals to ecclesiology, as they are directed to me, rely on my status as a faithful Anglican. And if my Anglicanism is so invalid, then such appeals strike me as illegitimate. It's the flip side of Al Kimel's "parasite" remark: Orthodoxy and Catholicism become parasites on Anglicanism's apparent power to produce half- or three-quarters-formed Christians.

I can contemplate the day when I may have to abandon the Episcopal Church, and it will be a day of loss indeed for me if or when it comes. But should it come, honesty will prevent me denying the reality of my former Anglican faith. I will never in good conscience be able to say, "I was never a Christian before".

Monday, March 05, 2007

Another Look at Catholicity and Reason

In tracing back a bit further from the posts which prompted my just-previous entry, I found a post by Fr. WB in his blog in response to a passage from Alexei Khomiakov discussing Anglican legitimacy. I find myself largely in agreement, but I think there is one point which calls for further elaboration.

A point which is constantly misunderstood about the Anglican scripture/tradition/reason triad is that it is intended as a prescription. Well, it is, I suppose, in the sense that one ought to be aware of it: but it is more fundamentally descriptive. It is simply the way that everyone does theology, whether or not they claim otherwise. It is inarguably true of the Roman theological process, whose reference to the three components is evident to anyone. It's also true of low "bible-only" Protestants who can be seen to appeal to their own traditions and their own reasoning.

There is no getting the reasoning out of theology. And while I'm at it, Eastern snipes at the West for using "Hellenistic" reasoning is complete bullhockey. Yeah, Aristotle was dead wrong about natural science and how to go about it, but the basic notion that there are rules of proper thinking and that arguments can be tested against procedure is simply inassailable. Eastern theologians use that Hellenistic reasoning too-- indeed, as is the rule where the Anglican triad is denounced, they are all the more bound by it because they refuse to see that it is in every sentence they utter. (The Palamite "energies/essence" distinction is an object example of such bondage.) And if reasoning is everywhere in theology, then personal judgement is also everywhere-- not in the degenerate sense of someone sitting in their room and trying to work everything out without consultation, but in the much more pervasive sense of propositions requiring assent. For Roman loyalists, perhaps such assent is easy-- though as someone pointed out elsewhere, Roman Catholics as a rule have found difficulty in assenting to Humane Vitae. For someone who is not yet a Roman (or Eastern) loyalist, there's no substitute for presentation of a sound argument to which the potential convert can assent through his own judgement-- or perhaps reaching his reason through some route which does not involve theological propositions, but that's not the route of choice here.

In all of this, the Vincentian canon helps, but in the wrong way. The typical sectarian usage by Roman or Eastern correspondents is so painfully tendentious as to not bear rehashing. And obviously the expansion to include everyone who ever called themselves a Christian is hopeless: there's simply not enough commonality, especially if you include people like Spong in the mix. But what the canon does tell a person is that there's more to theology than just convincing onesself. It has to fit into the bigger theological picture, and especially into the greater community, and especially into the historical picture. And not just historically, but into the future. "At all times and places" means that one has to keep convincing people that a proposition is true, and if that conviction fails, the proposition is called into question. I don't think that the Southern Baptists get to trump Catholic positions, but to state that the Catholic Church doesn't even have to answer SBC objections satisfactorily (which is to say, reasonably) is state an absurdity.

In the long haul, theology objectively looks like many other sciences which have run aground on the shoals too much "reasoning" and not enough knowledge. If it were otherwise, the divisions wouldn't be as extreme; as it is, I can't justify the kind of absolute commitments demanded by Rome or the East on the basis of theological proposition alone.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Serial Catholicity

Over in All Too Common we have a little essay by Andrew Bartus: Why Should Anglicans Accept Roman Ecclesiology?, addressing a post by Al Kimel on Parasitic Catholicism. "Catholicism" is really not the right word here anyway, because the problem point is catholicity; as Bartus points out, the "parasite" problem plagues Catholicism with respect to Orthodoxy in the same way that Anglicans are "parasites" to Catholicism. "Parasite" is also a problem word when Rome is skimming off the priests which Canterbury (or, to stretch the point, Mt. St. Albans) has made.

I'm not an Anglo-Catholic, so my analysis of the situation is going to go a bit further afield than Bartus's. I not only tolerate but must assert more difference from Rome than he would accept on his own. But at any rate my views are based more on the empirical psychology of the matter, and how this interacts with human nature as the church teaches.

I've been wont to say that human sinfulness is the one empirically verifiable doctrine of the church. Anyone, Christian or not, can see that people are prone to sinning. When it comes to theology, sin leads people to bad arguments, and to defend bad arguments. Now, those who do not consider a theological question are like Adam and Eve in the garden; but we here have tasted the forbidden fruit of theology, and for better or worse have to live with the descernment that is now required of us. And this is particularly obvious in ecclesiology. A child is raised in a church, and unless he is unusually rebellious (or perhaps, if the church is unusually vile) he simply accepts the legitimacy of that church. And if he is educated far enough, he may simply accept the official ecclesiology of that church on authority. This discussion isn't for those people, except to cast doubt upon them and force them to take up the problems of theology. Personally, I think it is cruel to rattle these people in their faith, but again, that is beside the point.

What is not beside the point, however, is that all this takes place in the context of theological strife in Anglicanism. For those of us who are theologically inclined, it is natural to resolve the question of where to go to church through a theological judgement. And as it must in the end be made as one's own judgement, there is no way to get "private judgement" out of the picture-- at least not as Anglicans have historically understood it (and in fact, as it is).

Way down in the comments on All Too Common, Al makes the claim that Roman ecclesiology is more "pneumatic" and "sacramental" than "juridical". I find this utterly unconvincing-- even counter-productive-- as far as inducing me to swim the Tiber. I would understand the first two terms to mean that I go to church where I find the Spirit and the sacraments-- and since I found Him and them in an Anglican chapel, that puts paid on that, even if that very place be something of "a bare ruined choir" in this latter day. The problem, all too obviously, is that objectively we fail to see, in the large, where the Spirit and the sacraments are. If we could, then the dispute would disappear. As it is the Spirit is too hidden, or too infrequently revealed; or sin clouds our vision too far. But in all cases it behooves me to take that seriously and start from the assumption that Roman vision is just as obscured as any other, until evidence proves otherwise. Likewise, theological reasoning is subject to all the demands of ordinary reasoning; invocation of infallibility is tantamount to an admission of inadequate arguments.

It doesn't bother me that Anglicanism is in some sense derivative of Catholicism; but the problem remains that I cannot go to church in an RC church. If nothing else, the frailties of my nature hamper my worship in the vast sea of liturgical badness and crappy preaching that is the church around here. (And what really irks me is that people keep trying to reproduce this badness in my chuurch.) And there's too much bad theology, which at least, as a Protestant, I haven't yet been made to swear fealty to in my own church. And only an idiot or a radical progressive would say that PECUSA is without its worse problems in the theology department. I will not, however, assign consent to loyalty. Of any person I will hold that they believe what they themselves believe, and not what membership in any organization would hold them believe. In any case, all those ex-Anglicans know perfectly well that I cannot be held to believe what Jack Spong (heaven forbid!) writes in his tendentious tomes.

And as a layman, likely doomed to remain so forever, I have an actual issue which none of the clerics and proto-clerics have: I can't do anything about the badness of church. The clerical re-ordinands, frankly, have a lot more leeway to talk about ecclesiology than I do, because whether they take their ordination, they have power to make church happen as they feel is right. I don't, and when I'm stuck with a dog of a priest, my only recourse is to shop for a better parish.

And that's really what this is all about: church shopping. The only dispute is about the terms, and again we are right back at the problem that there isn't consensus about what the right approach is. No agreement suggests, if not implies, that nobody really knows. But if a layman does this on the basis of theological correctness, he can always find someone who will tell him that wherevent he is now isn't "really" Catholic, and that he needs to move to a genuinely correct group. And thus the Orthodox forums are littered with serial Cyprianists who move from one true church to another, until they are completely cracked.

The reverse of church shopping is skimming. After the things I've said, I don't know if any of the online Catholics would want me in their parish. Plenty of others would, if only for my voice. I have to wonder what would happen to around here if the Anglican crack-up were to drive large numbers of ordinary central churchmen into RC parishes. I expect they would be out in short order, if they even made it that far, because they would find that ecclessiological correctness wouldn't be enough.