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Saturday, February 03, 2007

Marilyn McCord Adams: How to divide the church.

Marilyn McCord Adams, professor of Divinity, Oxford, is one of my favorite theologians and historians. Her sermons always sparkle with intelligence, humor and wit and are always served up with a heavy dollop of love for the Body of Christ and the Gospel it professes to incarnate and proclaim. She is bold and unafraid to tell the truth as she perceives and understands it.

The following is in response to the Archbishop of Canterbury's reflections on the Anglican Communion, entitled

"The Challenge and Hope of Being an Anglican Today: A Reflection for the Bishops, Clergy and Faithful of the Anglican Communion."


Until recently, at least for the past 150 years, the Church of England was - as an established church arguably needs to be - a broad church, whose institutional definition came from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer; from its threefold norms of Scripture, tradition, and reason; from its daily/weekly recitation of historic--Apostles’ and Nicene--creeds;from its observance of the dominical sacraments;and from its episcopal form of government.

It was a Church wide enough to embrace evangelicals whose heart-of-hearts resonated to sola scriptura and Anglo-catholics who--amidst smells and bells and clouds of smoke--secretly longed for clearer cut magisterium and for reunion with Rome.

It was a Church that left room in the middle for wayfarers of all sorts and conditions, a Church whose very refusal to subject members to orthdoxy tests or to weekly cross-examination in the confessional, created an atmosphere of acceptance that allowed it to be a home for all seasons.

It was a Church centered on worship of a Mystery bigger than we can ask or imagine, a God to Whose praise it returned, week by week, day by day. Its twin books--Bible and BCP, its historic creeds and church fathers, were in service of articulating the Mystery, of enabling human beings - talking animals - to speak and think what we have tasted and seen.

It was a Church that understood how humans are bodymind-spirit multi-dimensional, how we grow and develop in spurts and fits with parts out of phase. It was a Church convinced that the Mystery gets hold of, enfolds and pervades us, remolds and remakes us in ways that escape our conscious comprehension.

It was a Church that confessed a relentless God, Whose hold on us is firmer than what we happen to believe or feel at the moment, a God Who knows how to wait us out, to let us roam, and yet--through sheer attractiveness--to lure us back in the end.

Broad church wasn’t everybody’s first choice, but it worked to keep the church together. Turn-to-the twentieth century Anglicans like Bishop Gore boasted that - by contrast with Rome - the English church knew better than to over-dogmatize, that it was the thinking man’s church, one that did not require him - and yes, Bishop Gore did think in terms of ‘him’ - to check his mind or his conscience at the door.

It was a Church for adults, a Church that could give members room to explore, because three-legged stools are stable, and because it always brought people back to the Bible and the BCP, back to the sacrament of the altar to meet the Mystery on their knees.

Over the last decade and a half, however, various forces have come together to re-identify our Church, to give the worldwide Anglican communion sharper definition.

The Windsor Report spelled out a new international polity that vests authority in so-called instruments of union (the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council, and the Primates’ Meeting).

This week’s document ‘Challenge and Hope’ oils the machinery for immediate
function, and in effect gives clear instructions on how to divide the Church.

Local churches are to be given the option of signing a voluntary covenant to submit any substantive changes in doctrine or practice-- particularly those that pertain to sacramental acts, to whom we ordain and to what we bless--to the instruments of union, and to ‘wait upon’ their approval before allowing the changes to take effect.

Local churches who sign the covenant will be counted ‘constitutive’ members of the Anglican communion and enjoy full and unrestricted sacramental communion.

Ecclesial bodies that choose not to ‘limit local freedoms for the sake of wider witness’ may be at best ‘associated Churches’ - like the Methodist Church, with personal and historical but no tight institutional ties.

‘Associates’ would have no part in Anglican Communion decision-making although they might be allowed some sort of observer status at times.

Within the document, ‘local church’ refers primarily to distinctions among national church bodies. ‘Challenge and Hope’ intends first of all to put the American church on notice - formerly ECUSA now TEC, which in ‘03 ordained a coupled gay man Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire, and which this year chose the gay-friendly woman bishop of Nevada Jefferts-Schori as its new president.

Unless it voluntarily covenants to submit its policies on ordination and the
blessing of same-gendered partnerships to the instruments of union, unless it chooses to wait upon their approval, the American church will count itself out of constituent membership in the Anglican communion.

The voluntary setting aside or putting on hold of national- church discernment, is what full membership in the Anglican communion will come to mean.

But ‘Challenge and Hope’ goes further to imply that the constituent/associate divide might run not only between, but within national churches. Evidently, not only national churches are covenanters, but provinces and dioceses (say, Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, South Carolina, and San Joachin) and nongeographical networks, perhaps even local parishes.

The document calls on local churches to work at ‘ordered and mutually respectful separation’--no lawsuits over who gets to keep the property? a friendly rather than an acrimonious divorce?!

Once it’s settled that associates are no closer kin than Anglicans and Methodists, there’s no reason why the diocese of Sydney should not send missionaries to Melbourne, or Africans to America to plant constituent parishes to compete in the same neighborhood with a merely associated church.

How would this scheme apply within England itself? We thought we had problems with flying bishops and a third province. Will England be presumed to be a signatory, because Canterbury is one of her sees?

Hasn’t transferred episcopal oversight already opened the door to letting individual parishes decide whether to be covenanters or non-jurors? Will individual clergy be put to the test of swearing further oaths?

Prima facie, it looks as if ‘Challenge and Hope’ will revert to chaos, to break up the ark of the Church, to raise the spectre of division and deprivation that broad church was invented to put to rest.

Political documents are about institutional power. But like most church political documents, ‘Challenge and Hope’ furnishes a theological rationale. Refusing any dichotomy between Truth and Unity, it posits unity or rather unified judgment, unanimous consensus, as a criterion of truth.

The reason local churches should ‘wait upon’ the consensus of the world-wide Anglican communion is that ‘only the whole Church knows the whole Truth’!

Local churches that break ranks to ‘act upon what they passionately believe’ run the risk of being wrong: prophetic action enjoys no ‘cast-iron guarantee’that it’s right; one might just be ‘settling down complacently with what it or its surrounding society finds comfortable.’

Historically, this sort of epistemology has proved controversial, enjoying ancient and honourable precedents but attracting distinguished dissidents as well. When Luther uttered his famous,‘Here I stand, I can do no other!’ he did not wait to act until the Roman Catholic Church could be brought around.

Neither did Calvin or Zwingli or Thomas Cranmer!

Still earlier, the Jesus movement and its first generation leaders did not cease and desist until the Jewish establishment could be got to agree. Peter left them to judge whether it was right to abandon personal discernment, to obey human beings rather than what he understood to be God’s commands.

Mid-twentieth century, Martin Luther King tried in many and various ways to persuade segregationist white church people. But Rosa Parks didn’t wait until he was successful before she took a seat on that bus!

Prophetic action is risky. What ‘Challenge and Hope’ assumes is that groups are less likely to be wrong than individuals. Sometimes this is plausible. If I am the only one in the room who seems to see a pink elephant in the corner, the reasonable conclusion is that I am hallucinating. Since pink elephants don’t live in these parts, I should not rush out to buy peanuts, before asking others, rubbing my eyes and looking again.

Nevertheless, other times, where systemic evils - such as racism, classism, tribalism, sexism, and homophobia - are concerned, groups are the ones that are more apt to make mistakes. The reason is simple: such evils are the product of deep structures that constitute the group in question; uprooting them is not surface slicing to remove a mole, but abdominal surgery that reroutes the digestive track.

Where the status quo is working well for most people, or at least for the most powerful people, the collective has every incentive to deny the problems and to resist any change.

Re-read Acts 7, the speech of Stephen, or Bishop Gore’s ‘The Holy Spirit and the Inspiration of Scripture’, where both retail Israel’s history: when her society gets tied in knots of social injustice and big-power-politics idolatry, God has to raise up individuals to declare what the group doesn’t want to hear.

Put otherwise, the bible tells how status quo conservatism that complacently settles into its accustomed values and lifestyles, is also risky. Where systemic evils are concerned, waiting upon one another runs the greater chance of betraying the Gospel of God!

Sadly, ‘Challenge and Hope’ reads like a recipe for dividing the Church and so does not hold out much hope for the unity it purports to prize. Should we conclude that this has been an unredeemably bad week, with no Good News to be found?

By no means!

For the document does not say that associates will be to constitutive churches as Gentiles and tax collectors. It compares them to the Methodists, and Methodists are celebrated in this cathedral most every day.

The preacher mounting the pulpit steps over a stone in John and Charles Wesley’s honour. How many days of the week, do we sing Charles’ hymns?

Moreover, our second lesson is taken from the Acts of the Apostles, whose constant refrain - no matter what happens - is ‘And the Word of God grew and multiplied!’ How many bushels of Gospel seed did John Wesley’s preaching sow?

The worst case scenario is division, where non-jurors become like the Methodists, running around sowing Gospel seed like John Wesley, so that the Word of God grows and multiplies in Jerusalem and Samaria, in London and Los Angeles, to the ends of the earth!

The Reverend Marilyn McCord Adams
Canon of Christ Church, Oxford
Regius Professor of Divinity, University of Oxford.


revsusan said...

Brilliant as always!

Saint Pat said...

She articulated what I've felt, but haven't been able to formulate in a way to set to paper. Thank you so much -- and her.

Magdalene6127 said...

Well, she rocks.


Jack said...

Most of the time I am able to keep my Christian attitude when speaking with the ultra othodox folks. But on rainy days like today I just want to show them my favorite Erika Badu Video called "Tyrone". Or in my case just insert Akinola for Tyrone. If you listen to the video it fits!!!