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SOME PRIMATES TO MEET

Shortly the primates of the provinces which constitute the Anglican Communion will meet in Dublin. One should say that some of the primates will meet. Quite a few will stay at home. They will do so to avoid sitting at the same table with the Primates of the American and Canadian churches.

Ireland is no stranger to religious division. It is somewhat appropriate that this meeting will assemble in that green, fair land, for which and in which intolerance and violence scarred the landscape for centuries. Irish divisions were both religious and cultural, two camps living in their own reactive world, neither representative of the aspirations of all the people or of the best ideals of their heritage and culture.

It seems extraordinary that such stark division  existed for so long in such a small island or that Ireland  still supports two nations.  These considerations should remind us that our own unhappy divisions are not merely “religious” or doctrinal. They are cultural and between cultures that rarely touch each other intimately and in which exist militant minorities who survive by stressing their own particularity.

Two factors complicate this scene. The US has the means to export its own culture and cultural assumptions in a manner rarely open to other cultures. Its movies, music, products, cultures flood the world. While it hasn’t embraced colonialism, the occupation of other cultures by conquest, followed by long periods of external rule, the US has inherited the mantle of particularity, the assumption that its more progressive, more civilized, more free, better governed than all other nations and cultures. American politicians advance such a claim in almost every public utterance. Now there is nothing intrinsically wrong with all this, and much is the inevitable result of being the dominant political power. It is also inevitable that other cultures will instinctively feel threatened or insecure.

It is therefore perhaps not a puzzle that the US church, representing as it does both a “religion” and a cultural context threatens other provinces particularly those which recently emerged from long periods of colonial rule. Note that those provinces which reflect western cultural experience have much less problem with some aspects of TEC cultural religion, although they may lament North American assertiveness.

It is also a fact that the US church has also exported its cultural divisions. In portraying itself as a persecuted minority American separatists have managed to cloak their equally “particular” political convictions. There exists a convincing connection between American right-wing politics and Anglican separatists, a connection which includes subscription to the conviction that the US possesses a unique excellence among all other cultures. Ironically it is in such a context that the Left and the Right in TEC portray a degree of similarity.

The reluctance of the post-colonial primates to occupy the same space as their North American counterparts is not merely about doctrine. It is a mistake to brand the absentee primates as modern pharisees or fanatics. They fear that their culture, their tradition, their identity is threatened by a western and largely American culture. They hear and note comments which suggest just how backward and unenlightened they are. They note how they are described as theologically backward. In short in any conversation they are on the defensive, even if they enjoy numerical superiority..

Traditionalists in the American church experience something of the same feelings. The militant assumption of cultural superiority of one section over another incites reaction and separatism. Until and unless the Communion comes to grips with the complexity of its own divisions, and TEC begins to demonstrate a deeper self-knowledge, a more empathetic approach to other provinces, we shall remain just where we are, a Communion rent asunder not just by doctrinal conflict but by culture wars. One hopes and prays that the primates who meet in Dublin will talk and pray together about the cultural realities which orchestrate our unhappy divisions and cling to our doctrinal and ethical assumptions. The Communion deserves and desperately needs to hear our leaders summoning us to self-sacrificial transformation, a crucifixion of that which demeans and a resurrection of that which makes all things new in Christ.

THE LOVE THING

When I was a student – I admit in the Dark Ages – I met a young man from India  and fell into a conversation about dating. After he described the process of his arranged engagement and I attempted to wax romantic about falling in love, about which I knew little,  he said to me “But surely it is easier for friends to fall in love than for lovers to fall into friendship.” I thought his remark medieval. And yet in the late 1950’s I was not too far away in time from a culture in which marriages were arranged or at least supervised.  As we now have birth control methods, live much longer and can divorce easily, our culture has placed all its eggs, so to speak, in the romantic love basket. We speak of “attraction” as a civil right, the utterly necessary component of “true love”. Our youngsters spend an enormous amount of time and money worrying about whether they are attractive enough. Sexual desire and the ability to “lure” have become obsessions. Media makes a fortune pandering to our obsession with romance.

And what then tends to happen when  inevitably what remains is no longer largely passion and one discovers that one’s friends at work and play are more interesting than one’s partner, leaving aside sexual attraction, or that one would much rather be alone?  What then happens when having fun with a friend turns sexual and we take on board self-deception and guilt, to be expunged by our friendly and expensive therapist?

One of the problems we face in the debate on sexuality is that in practice the church has surrendered to the notion of romance as it has developed in Western culture over the past century or so and therefore is obliged to champion “Falling in love” as the acid test of valid marital relationship. In the process the church says little about the vocation to friendship, let alone a mutual commitment to provide a stable and safe home for children, homes in which what it is to be masculine and what feminine are seen to be different but complimentary, something biologically obvious as well as psychologically wholesome. Now this is not to say that persons of the same-sex can’t bring up children. Literature is not without reference to orphaned children brought up by aunts, although I can’t think of uncles, there must be some.

We still get a little emotional when we meet two older people who have been married for long years and are inseparable, good friends through thick and thin. We can manage and even exalt such a state, while perhaps shyly thinking that Viagra must be such a blessing to them. What we can’t manage is the thought of an ideal of marriage in which sexual attraction and desire plays a lesser role in inception. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why we can’t engage the “Global non-West” in constructive conversation about marriage and who may or may not be married. We blithely believe we are progressive when it comes to love and they regressive. We fill our minds with Romeo and Juliet plots and horrid visions of forced marriages of which there must be many in other cultures just as the worst fears our interlocutors have about Western ideals of “love” are played out in divorce court and sit com.

And yet as the next advertisement for a dating service appears on our TV screens, peopled by young, attractive, in shape men and women and our teen daughter demands to be pierced in the most extraordinary places or our sons tattooed all over, and as we hear that Joe, bored with his wife is seeing Mary who thinks Bob is a bore, we may wonder whether we need, as Christians to examine what we mean by love and marriage before we open the institution even wider and define its essence even more loosely. A good place to start would be a revival of a robust theology of friendship..