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.
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