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.

No comments: