Monday, August 27, 2007

Fried Chicken Tonight?

Last week a rather lame accusation was bouncing around one side of the Current Conflict, involving a letter from Akinola about which the Church Times says that Software suggests Minns rewrote Akinola’s letter. (BTW, that's an impressively unflattering photo heading the article. I have to wonder whether they went with it only because they couldn't find one that made him look more doofy/addled.) So what does the revelation that Minns may have ghost-written the missive mean? Let's go to Fr. Jake:
What this reveals is what many have suspected for some time; that it is Western conservatives who are behind the extreme positions that are being presented as the position of the Global South.

So let me ask this question: how many of you remember the chicken dinners? For those who don't: after the Lambeth conference of 1998, when the homosexuality vote went against the liberals, there were apparently claims from two bishops present that the Africans were essentially bribed into voting for the resolution through chicken dinners. At this late date, it is hard to say how accurate those claims are; one can be traced to Ruth Gledhill's summary of remarks by David Holloway, and the other (claimed of Barbara Harris) appears to have only been reported by David Virtue-- not my idea of an ironclad solitary source. Those remarks, and the large context in which they arose, have had little effect other than to reinforce a lot of ill will. And that basically what's going to happen here.

It doesn't shock me to learn that Minns had, at some point, served as Akinola's speechwriter, and never mind that the evidence isn't conclusive. Internet communications, even in Africa, facilitates this kind of shared work. The revelation hardly proves what is being claimed for it, however. It is perhaps true that the Africans wouldn't have made such an issue of the matter in 1998 without conservative American facilitation, if only because those Americans supplied organization which helped the "global south" to put up a united front. (That this was effective was illustrated by a late vote in which confusion about what was being voted on helped bring about a liberal success.) It seems more questionable to me that the Africans wouldn't have cared about the issue without American prodding. It seems absolutely certain that, when asked, the Africans would express condemnation of ECUSA positions without further prompting.

As to whether it is improper for the American conservatives to raise the level of African anxiety about this issue, I'm inclined to say that it isn't (ignoring my personal feelings about sexuality). Surely the relationships between African and American clerics are more complex than the nearly one dimensional pictures that both sides paint, but it's hard to miss the consequences of the fact that American institutional power does not extend across the Atlantic, and especially in light of a few conspicuous cases in which American parishes resorted to outright blackmail in pressuring Africans to back down from their opposition.

Beyond that, I have gotten reports from several directions indicating a lot of liberal willingness to drive conservatives from ECUSA as a consequence of their tactics. And if the American church has to choose between staying in the communion and continuing their present course (and I suspect that this time they will not be able to count on the British resolution writers to relieve them of this choice), I'm betting on schism. I am uncharitably (but I suspect accurately) inclined to suspect a great deal of liberal resentment that their power only extends as far as their diocesan borders; but it is quite clear that they aren't going to give up any of their power within those borders.

At any rate, the incident is only going to confirm liberals in their prejudices, and confirm conservatives in their (self-)righteousnesses. Naive moderates will continue not to notice, and informed moderates are likely not to be swayed. In other words, other than maintaining the current polarization, it's all going to amount to nothing.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Too Much Standing, Not Enough Sitting

Tobias Haller and Leslie Fairfield have a virtual exchange of statements on why the two positions remain intractable. But the medium itself vitiates the "discussion", because it is all too easy to talk past each other and to avoid difficult confrontation.

These statements inevitably need to present the opposite side in order to address it, and inevitably those characterizations are vulnerable to criticism. In the present conflict the matter is blurred by the two "sides" being in actuality broad coalitions united in common cause but quite divergent in theological grounding. It is easy to pick extremes on the other side or dissociate oneself from them on own's own side. Cheap shots are thus easy, and because of sin, common.

So let's take a strawman that appears in the present exchange: Jack Spong. I would guess that the vast majority of Episcopalians-- even clerics-- think Spong's current denials are too far out there to profess for themselves. Using Spong as a type of one side is surely incorrect and unfair. But the question as to how much he is UNlike other modernists is much more interesting, and potentially illuminating.

My personal reading of Tillich (on whom Spong bases his program) never gets very far, because I cannot agree to Tillich's presuppositions. Yet it seems hard to escape those presuppositions; they practically define modernist theology.

It is popular in Catholic and Orthodox circles to posit that Protestantism in gnereal always begets the kind of excesses one sees in Spong. In an uninteresting way, it is true; yet protestantism is inevitable because intellectual criticism of tradition's reasons is innately possible. The only way one can avoid criticisms of one's arguments is not to argue at all; and this tradition does not do. On the other hand, it is equally obligatory to defend one's doubts; and this the modernists do not generally do. Modernists routinely misrepresent the variety of viewpoints arrayed against them, reducing everyone to Southern Baptists in dog collars. Catholic and Orthodox polemicists routinely overstate the degree to which modernism is found in the Episcopal Church (though it is certainly pervasive enough). The thing is that in the past, these theological commitments were never what Anglicanism was about.

The modernist version of Anglicanism cannot be long tolerated. Its dogmatism on sexuality and gender is impossible to defend in an Anglican framework, and its manifest use of clerical power to establish its views as church doctrine make theological discussion pointless, besides being off-putting in its uncharitibility. On the other hand, the dream of having a church where one doesn't have to argue is a recipe for fragmentation, and for the loss of the bulk of the denomination. A lot of people are Anglicans because they are comfortable with argument and difference, and do not want these taken away from them. This seems to me to be a major reason why the continuing churches are not able to gather up the bulk of the Episcopal Church.

But then there's the "heresy is worse than schism" moderates. This too is a position that nobody can live with. The truth is, this is only a position for clerics, who can control what goes on in their own churches. Us lay people all have limits; none of us can tolerate any heresy. Right now, we're coming up against issues-- homosexual "marriage", neuter language for God, universalism-- where larger and larger chunks of the laity have hit the limits of their tolerance. The steady decline since 2003 speaks for itself, after a decade of stable numbers. And I expect that a lot of these people are going to go fishing in the non-denom world, or simply become unchurched, because the churches around them cannot step up to admitting that theology is netiher wide open nor a totally solved problem. Catholic churches and Orthodox churches may pick up some, but a lot of those people will be silent dissenters making the most of a bad situation. They will remain Anglican refugees, not true converts.

The only hope for a continued Anglican church is for its bishops and clerics to back down from the "here I stand" arrogance that is driving the current battle, and to engage in genuine theological discourse: not a dialogue where canned responses are traded back and forth, but a real effort to mark out lines on the theological map. There is no hope whatsoever for this, because within PECUSA the modernists have enough power to destroy their opponents if they just keep at it. The real Anglicans will gradually give up hope, or have their parishes taken away from them, or grow old and die; the Episcopal Church will be left with a lot of expensive real estate in the Northeast which will lapse into disrepair without the rest of the church to pay for maintenance. They will be reduced, like the Unitarians, to an upper middle class dalliance in spirituality.

It doesn't have to happen. But these days, it is going to happen.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

It's From Them That I Expect to Hear the F-Word

In Christianity, of course, the "F-word" is fundamentalism. It's the cheap slur of "enlightened" and "civilized" religion, used against anyone who insists on any hard limits to theological statements.

The real Fundamentalism is a particular Protestant theological system, and many American preachers commonly associated with it are not in fact fundamentalists, by this strict standard. Jerry Falwell was a true fundamentalist; Pat Robertson is not. It takes a fair bit of digging to find this out, because the mainstream media are tone-deaf about this (and really don't care anyway). And so, for that matter, are a lot of mainline clerics and theologians, not to mention laymen.

It's popular to point at Akinola and other African bishops as fundamentalists, implying that they are ignorant, bigotted rubes. Well, I don't know about bigotry, but as far as education is concerned, their papers at least some them to be the equals of their American counterparts, if not superiors. There seems to be enough bigotry to go all around.

Anyway, courtesy of the young fogey we have a nice little bit from Eunomia about the use of the word these days, this time with respect to Islam.
No offense to Mr. Krikorian, but does he really think that Muslims are going to conceive of their religion as an “ideology” and “way of life” that have failed? If they believe, as I assume they do, that their religion is the final revelation of God to humanity, it will take a lot more than its “inadequacy” to adapt to modernity to persuade them to abandon it.

Well, sort of. He goes on to say that
The lesson of mainline Protestantism, to follow his comparison, is that religion without substance and conviction is dead and uninspiring and doomed to stagnation and irrelevance. People flee it as they would from the plague. Those inclined to belong to religious communities are going to seek out communities where there is a sense that the religion they practice is true and edifying.

The thing is that American religious communities don't work exactly this way. The religious community is the parish or congregation; larger units like dioceses or presbyteries or synods or conferences or denominations don't function as communities in the sense that immediately comes to mind. They tend to function (for laymen, anyway) as distant potentates who make occaisional intrusive appearances, but have little to do with the week-to-week life of the parish. And particularly with mainline protestants, it is often possible to live as a deviant refuge within a hostile church.

And fundamentalism-- the real thing-- is precisely such a posture. One of the problems with modernism (and not coincidentally part of what gave rise to postmodernism) is that life in self-examination is emphatically subjective. It invites external criticism, and among sinful men, that is often hard to swallow. Modernist theology has been conspicuously arrogant in this from the start, especially following WW I and the European-based "nobody knows the trouble I've seen" rejection of any other standing to criticize it. Fundamentalism exists precisely as such a criticism, and is thus, in its way, modern.

In considering the claims of disiilusionment proffered by the modernists, one would do well to remember that those two great conservators of the past, Tolkien and Lewis, were quite literally in the trenches in the Great War. Both had close friends killed; Tolkien caught trench foot, and Lewis was wounded. Lewis in particular expressed impatience with the notion that the horrors of the twentieth century were crucially alienating, a position I have to agree with. For me one of the biggest issues with theology in the century just past is that hardly anyone is willing to step up to the task of trying to pull of of these disparate strands together; the loudest sound in the theological synod is that of not listening to others. Here I think Anglicanism had the possibility of being post-modern early, for the via media was based in the restraint of one's ego to the point of being able to agree to disagree. But like other mainline churches, Anglican theology has in practice been captured by modernists, and the position of Anglican revisionists-- those in the driving seat of the Episcopal Church-- is conspicuously modernist, arrogant and political. What "fundamentalist" means is really anyone who is willing to admit that they do not feel the "disillusionment" that the moderns claim is universal, because those people then appeal to the texts and to older tradition in criticizing the modernist program.

There is clearly a problem because the whole claim of disillusionment goes unresolved. The moderns can't defend it, and the others cannot get past it. But "fundamentalism" per se has little to do with it. It's simply a way of dodging the obligation to defend modernist precepts.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Can't Tell Your Churchmanship Without a Scorecard

One of the things that happens all the time in the Anglican Wars is people trying to position their group over the "right" churchmanship labels. The result has been that with maybe one exception these labels have become pretty unclear.

It hasn't helped that the average liturgical practice in the church has shifted considerably over the decades-- mostly upward and in some cases more "catholic"-ward. Twenty years ago I had to go to the cathedral in Wilmington, DE to get a communion service on a fourth Sunday; now communion every week is the rule almost everywhere. Anglocatholic-identified practices such as use of incense have spread.

I came into the church in the center of the old "high and wide" churchmanship, the sort that characterized many of the big east coast cathedrals thirty or more years ago. Or perhaps forty-five years would be more apropos. Back in those days the Broad issue was racism, a cause that allowed it to be easily allied with the A-Cs. When the Broad issues turned to the middle class (sexism and homosexuality), Anglo-Catholics became the enemy, because they were bound to teaching what they had always taught.

Women's ordination did not help the church hold together, but it did not wound it as grievously as the current battles are wounding it. But women's ordination took the church away from advocacy for the downtrodden, though it is impolitic to say so. Those women who were ordained were middle and upper-middle and perhaps even upper class, drawn from the same pool which produced male priests. Homosexuality has the same pattern. They are closely coupled to academic theorists who are more of the same. Thus the church turned away from advocating for others, and towards advocating for its own.

In the end, the old churchmanship distinctions have been overcome by the theological differentiation which is driving the current crisis. And it's been exacerbated by a loss of nerve about the liturgy. In one way, the 1979 liturgy has emerged triumphant: all discussion of further revision takes its considerable structural innovations for granted. But the revisors increasingly cannot say its words, and from the other direction the attacks upon its changes are so virulent as to force a division among those who resist the current wave of revisionism. From what I see, a considerable part of the Episcopal Church falls in a rather small range of churchmanship, fairly high but basically conservative within its own context (that is, that of 1979); but when the Anglo-Catholics are set aside, the other two other parties are on the one hand a Roman/evangelical-looking group which tends to use the 1979 framework for a liturgy well outside old Episcopal style, and on the other hand a high-looking party which is theologically adventurous. The old labels just don't work for these groups.

Those who know too much history are also condemned to repeat it, because they are unable to see any other course. Churchmanship has largely become a distraction; the real differences, the ones that matter in PECUSA today, arise out of theology, both in the answers and in the way these answers are brought forth. Increasingly the old tolerant modes are failing, and with them, the continuance of the church is increasingly in jeopardy.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Faith and Belief are Brothers

While I appreciate some of what Fr. Jake says in his recent post on faith and belief, I'm afraid he's guilty of eliding over some of the difficult spots. Well, and one major misstatement that throws the whole thing crucially awry.

At one point he says, "Christianity is not built on intellectual ideas. It is about having a relationship with the living God." Well, I don't know about intellectual ideas, for as a mental holist I doubt the existence of non- intellectual ideas. But one would think it obvious that Christianity is about relationship with the living Christ. And this opens up all of the problems that talking about God allows one to sweep under the rug.

When we are talking about Christ, we aren't just talking about a theological abstraction, but also talking about Jesus. And about Jesus, one cannot hide behind the unknowability and indefinability of the divine. Jesus was (and is) a man, a human being, and thus can be talked about just like any other man. Faith in Jesus and belief about Jesus are quite inseparable, particularly when talking to the unbaptized.

And speaking of faith, I must also disagree that "faith has an absolute quality that belief does not." Actually, I'd say that it's the other way around. Beliefs themselves, being propositions, tend to be cast as absolutely true/false statements. In fact, that's part of the problem with them: they tend to cast matters into categories more rigidly than is often reasonable. Faith, on the other hand, beig like unto trust, is present in degrees.

Let me illustrate this by turning to that very modern divinity: Science. Natural science is something that modern educated people, as a rule, have some degree of faith in, often a very high degree. And a great deal of school science curriculum is devoted to instilling this faith, by presenting the mechanisms of scientific inquiry and building confidence that these methods do indeed work. The thing is that the degree of this trust varies, and ought to. On the level of ordinary, low-energy physics, Newtonian mechanics has earned an extremely high level of trust. Certainly on big enough or small enough scales relativistic and quantum effects intrude, but they do not invalidate the Newtonian framework that is indeed part of those other theories. Other scientific conclusions inspire similar high trust, but others are more dubious. A knowledgable and sophisticated observer understands, for instance, that cosmology is at present highly speculative, that the underlying forces of evolutions are poorly understood, that biology has a very long way to go, and that economics is close to voodoo. This is not to say that any of these fields is groundless nonsense, but simply reflects a judgement that not all pronouncements should be taken with the same seriousness.

Part of the reason I used science here is that there is a tendency of late to pit faith in science against faith in the traditions of the church. Here we come into some curious contradictions. Anyone can, for example, deduce scientifically that people are "fallen"-- that is to say, that they are wont to violate their own moral codes, much less some absolute morality. What is curious is that the other side of the human nature coin-- that people are intrinsically good-- is not so observable. Indeed, the very statement borders on the metaphysical. Yet it is this statement that most people will ratify, and the other that many will essentially deny. More commonly, statements about human nature have to be couched statistically, bringing in that dangerous word "normal". To a statistician, "normal" has a definite, objective meaning; but "normal" in that sense does not imply a meaningful distinction. It's simply a kind of 80-20 rule, with no implication that for non-statistical reasons 80 and 20 are the right numbers. Outside of statistics, of course, "normal" carries a ton of value judgments, easily prompting fallacious conclusions.

Theology being a kind of science, it is subject to the same reservations on confidence-- whatever the pope or the church fathers would say. But the traditional formula is that faith in Jesus leads to faith in the Church. If faith must be absolute in general, then this faith also must be absolute-- at least, so says an Orthodox Catholic. It is a sure thing that Fr. Jake has no such absolute faith, but it is equally sure that, to some degree, he has some faith in the church. And that is indeed the Protestant problem: that one must rely on the church to some degree for one's faith, but that the church as we see it does not merit the kind of total faith that can be placed in God (and therefore, in Jesus). And that leasds to the same issues about faith in the church's other teachings. Part of the problematic nature of Christianity is that we simply are not provided with the kind of absolute roadmap to Christian living that would obviate thought, and therefore the holding of beliefs. Theology is unavoidably necessary, at least for us adults; at the very least, we have to work out how to act morally, because we are not given rules that do not need interpretation.

That's why I think making this particular faith vs. belief distinction is a mistake: it is precisely at this level that they aren't separable.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Funny, I Don't Feel Welcomed

South Carolina has cast down the gauntlet again, and Lambeth inches closer, and the ACN meeting sends Ephraim Radner off to stew in his tent (not that I don't blame him, but that's a different post). It's not a good time to be a centrist Anglican, but then, these days seem to be bad for anything reasonable in PECUSA.

So Father Jake drops a "Welcome Home" plan for "those who may become disillusioned with the apparent splintering that has begun among the secessionists." Well, I dunno. I'm not a party to the "secessionists", but it's been obvious for some time that a division of some sort is necessary. The three "catholic" bishops (as one of my friends refers to them) will not be accommodated in the present Episcopal Church. If South Carolina is having trouble electing a bishop, San Joaquin, Ft. Worth, and Quincy have no hope at all of getting consents. Too many righteous liberals will demand that they toe the line. At this point, it still seems to come down to making sure that the "other side" ends up with as few dioceses and parishes as possible.

As for disillusionment? Well, I at least haven't held out much hope throughout this. I'll talk about the "splitters" in the next post, but there is a lot about them that doesn't appeal to me. But the problem remains that PECUSA increasingly offers the prospect of a church that is tending towards making it impossible for me to worship in its liturgies. I do not think the less radical liberals are going to be able to hold the theological revisionists in check. It's hard to become more disillusioned than I already am, because I feel increasingly faced with having no place to go to church.

But let's get back to Fr. Jake's plan. Let's tart with Point One: "Seek ways to remove clergy from their posts who need to be removed without humiliating them[.]" Right away we have a big problem, because most of the really problematic clerics in need of removal have been on the liberal side. Let's just start with the adulterous: when we look at the bishops, only Jones of Montana was forced out of office. Grein and Bennison's appalling antics haven't brought significant censure. And then there's Spong: if we couldn't get rid of him on theological grounds, we cannot get rid of any liberal. So it's easy to see how this goes: easier removal translates into easier consolidation of power.

Offering DEPO: I suspect why this has been a non-starter is that trust has dropped so far that simple delegation of oversight isn't considered enough. But it's worth a try.

Implement a non-biased way to identify conservative congregations so that they can be more easily found by those seeking them. I honestly don't see the point of this. The problem isn't that the conservatives are hard to find; it's that they seem to be besieged by bishops and dioceses who are determined to end their conservatism if possible.

Make a commitment to not hinder a congregation that seeks only male clergy. Well, this a point that isn't going to be conceded. The big fights in the Diocese of Washington were precisely over forcing Jane Dixon on parishes. I simply cannot believe that the liberal powers would say, "OK, fine, we aren't going to do anything to push you into hiring a female priest or even accepting a woman as a bishop." Indeed, what I see is that the liberal side sees a moral imperative in making all parishes friendly to their causes.

And indeed, Fr. Stockton's reply pretty much says this. It is, again, very much about power, and putting the (waning) authority of the church behind liberal social causes. I tolerated this when I was a younger man, though I knew even then that the coupling diminished the church. The thing is that Protestants are going to pass judgement on the church for doing this, and they are not going to stand for being instructed by it under such circumstances. The Episcopal Church will increasingly sink into being the self-righteous indulgence of upper middle class intellectual snobs who appreciate high production values in their liturgy, thanking God that they are not like those benighted fundamentalists (who are an increasingly irrelevant group, but never mind that) or those benighted Roman Catholics.

Not that the alternatives are looking that good....