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THE CORE OF UNITY

I’ve just read a delightful interview which +Rowan Williams did on the BBC recently. It contrasted with one I also read giving account of the Bishop of New Hampshire’s visit to the General Theological Seminary.

The Archbishop proposed that the source of Christian and Anglican unity lies in the relationship of the Trinity to the bishop and through the bishop to the Eucharistic community. He might have added that the Eucharistic community is established and under girded by God’s initiative to us all in baptism.

His interlocutor suggested that not all Anglicans would agree with +Rowan’s theology of the church. For sure! There’s a growing neo-Puritan movement in our midst, which suggests that the personal or institutional trend in biblical interpretation, the converted or lack of converted state of the individual and moral conduct together form a type of litmus test to evaluate a church as to whether the church is there or has somehow evaporated.

On the other hand we have the Bishop of New Hampshire’s dream or vision of the purpose and mission of the Episcopal Church. In short its mission is to eradicate patriarchy and liberate all from its thralldom, at any cost or expense, including the loss of members within the Episcopal Church and a rupture within the Anglican Communion, at least until the rest of the Church and the churches catch up with +Gene’s vision.

All three proposals have their difficulties. In option one, what happens when the bishop, and the Eucharistic community seem to be miles away from the teachings of the jurisdiction to which they have pledged themselves and of whom they are representatives to the world.? This is no new problem. It occurred during the Arian schism, one of the few major dust ups in our history which ended in unity and not permanent division.

Some may suggest that some of the Edwardian Reformers in the 16th Century strayed close to heresy. Cranmer proposed that the godly monarch could ordain bishops by himself. Theological speculation seemed to come close to denying the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the priestly nature of the ordained ministry, Apostolic Succession, other than a line in an “historic episcopate”, the use of vestments –even the surplice – and the abolition of the parish, replaced by the gathering of the elect into distinct and closed meeting houses. Roman controversialists made much of all this and denied that the Church of England was a true church. True its people met in communion with their bishops and broke bread, from time to time. But were they really Christians and Catholics?

In Latitudinarian days, although there’s been too much written about too little in this era, leading Divines steered close to denying the doctrine of the Trinity and taught that the church was only the religious arm of the State, existing to bolster the social order and to improve manners. The Eucharist was infrequently and sloppily celebrated and sermons were long, boring moralistic and failed to address the extraordinary lapses in public conduct led by a dissolute Court. We left that to the Methodists and church-evangelicals who played a positive and optimistic role in reviving the church.

The second option has its roots in the Puritan Tradition. It relies very much on personal judgment even if that personal judgment is “collective.” Godly people may stand apart and assess portions of the Church, making value judgments based on such factors as the way Scripture is evaluated, interpreted, preached and taught, the moral climate within such a church, local, national or international, the converted or otherwise state of its leaders, it mission program and even the validity or otherwise of some of its clergy. One of the problems is that many of the judgments made are based on theories of biblical inerrancy and proof texting which are not held even by the most formidable moderate biblical scholars today. Indeed “proof-texting” is forbidden by the Articles of Religion.

The vision which emerges is that of fortress church, erecting bastions of purity designed for the elect who have appointed themselves as judges and juries to pronounce on the authenticity of a particular church or churches and to take such action as they deem necessary to separate themselves from the ungodly. Private judgment writ large.

The last option has a distinctly evangelical tone to it. It might be dubbed “inverted fundamentalism.” The task of the church is to be the agent of social change, the eradication of poverty and injustice, freedom from male domination and the mutual recognition of all lifestyles as valid and appropriate as long as faithful to a vague principle of love. There is much to be said for this utopian post-millennial vision. But it again sets itself up in an ad hoc way to judge the church and the churches by a very narrow rule. It constitutes an elitist movement, as elite as any patriarchal or matriarchal system. Its leaders claim some private gnosis which interprets Jesus’ Kingdom theology and action into a narrow, 21st Century, political ideology and is laced through and through with a Pelagian conviction that programs, crusades, initiatives, committees, political and social action are, in themselves capable of bringing in a brave new world. With sublime historical indifference these people forget that their proposals have been tried and tested, in much their present form, since the mid-19th Century. Inconveniently their programs have been interrupted by the reality and power of evil among us and the destruction and murder of millions upon millions of innocent people.

This is not to say that much good progress has been made. Women have been freed at least in the West. Minority racial groups have been liberated, at least politically. Don’t go to the edges of a Southern City or a Reservation in South Dakota though. Our church has been vocal in these advances, although we often over-estimate just how much we have been or are noted or noticed by the watching world. We do have a tendency, at least in General Convention, of adopting enthusiasms and then, once legislation has been adopted, going on with scarcely a glance backward to see what happens next.

There are compelling similarities between options two and three. Both groups view the church as a bastion for right-thinking/believing people. Both groups look out on a hostile world peopled by unbelievers or right-wingers. Both believe they can transfom the world either by individual and corporate action if only they can get enough people on their side and their ideas across. Both are allied closely, with secular political parties, lobbies and pressure groups whose ideology are taken in fairly uncritical forms.Niether seems much good at testing what they stand for in prayerful contact and dialog with others, or against the receievd faith of the Church through history, with its conflicting and sometimes curious voice. Both lack that essential liberality and breadth which typifies Anglicanism. However, at their best these two historic parties, have contributed in a vital manner to the Anglican whole as their insights have been heard, evaluated, accepted, amended or rejected in the constant development of our tradition.

I return to option one. I would suggest that what the church believes, what it teaches, what its moral stance is, is not to be discovered anecdotally or by self-appointed guardians of public ecclesiastical morality, nor by pressure groups whose vision of he church is narrow, partisan and “me” centered. What the church teaches and believes, at least for Anglicans is to be discovered in the text of the Book of Common Prayer, in the rites provided, in that which the prayers and the shape of the liturgy actually state, pray and offer to God and in the Catechism and other theological statements printed in the Prayer Book. The shape, form and content of Liturgy isn’t merely antiquarian poetry. The Prayer Book is the theological arm of the Constitution and Canons
. It is so because the church, formally, officially, regards the Prayer Book as being biblical, traditional and reasonable. It conforms to the historic faith, doctrine, discipline and worship of the Church Universal. The Episcopal Church isn’t a sect or a denomination. It is the Church Catholic, locally expressed. Unless or until General Convention decides to make radical alterations in our Liturgy which deny core doctrines, “those matters necessary unto salvation” the church remains the Church. It remains so on the basis of objective, historical standards and not on the basis of the private collective judgments of parties or factions within the church, who at their best have enriched our tradition and at the worst have poisoned our communion.

In short our Liturgy provides the basis of our Communion. Through it we have a succession of bishops, “valid” through Apostolic Incorporation in part because bishops-elect corporately and individually, at their ordinations and consecrations solemnly promise to uphold and guard the unity, truth and mission of the Church Catholic. Through the Liturgy we have Baptism, the rite of the Church Catholic – not an Episcopal denominational activity – which ineradicably binds all Christians together in unity. Through the Prayer Book we have the Eucharistic Community, the visible sign of God’s Kingdom come, the place where the royal priesthood, by delegation from the Great High Priest, continues the work of reconciling and restoring the world to God and God to the world. “Where the bishop is, there is the Church.”

What if the bishop is a heretic or heterodox, stark staring mad, or incompetent? In times of good order or competent authority, such characters may be dealt with, with mercy and compassion. In other days it should be remembered that a bishop is not a bishop in that he/she is +Bert or +Molly, the human being, but by virtue of his or her office. The Articles again speak loud on the subject of unworthy ministers. What happens if a local Provinces’s Synod – call it what you will – legislates odd or even down right unChristian policies. Councils err we are told, and will err.

But there was the Arian schism. But there was a Great Schism. But the Early Church was divided. But we broke fom Rome or Rome from us. Yes and brutes beat their wives and rape old ladies. Faults of the past are not excuses for present sins but warnings against what we as Christians are capable of inflicting on each other when the font disappears from our faith-view. We are called to a more excellent way.

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