Tuesday, February 19, 2008
The Power of A Wafer: 'Open Communion' to 'Authority' to 'The End of the Church'
Over at HOB/D (House of Bishops/Deputies Listserv, we're still yammering on and on about 'Open Communion". I know. Can you believe it?
Interesting, though. Our Lutheran Sisters and Brothers, with whom we're in communion now, practice what they call "Open Communion" to all the baptized. Perhaps this is the reason behind the switch to the less elegant but more specific term of "Communion of the un-Baptized."
One leading conservative, evangelical theologian wrote: "Although this is significant in and of itself, it is also more significant of a symptom of something else, namely a loss of an agreed sense of authority. Communities that lose this are in danger of disintegrating."
Surprised by this, I responded: "I would argue that arguing about "an agreed sense of authority" is part of what it is to be Christian. We see it in scripture whenever Jesus speaks to Pharisees and Sadducees. Whether the issue is circumcision or dietary laws, we see it when Peter and Paul argue about membership in the early church. There is great documentation for this debate in the tradition of the church - sometimes causing new manifestations of the Body of Christ to be called into being (like our own). Anglicans in general and Episcopalians in particular have been arguing about 'an agreed sense of authority' since the beginning. Some might argue that is the core issue of our faith."
Well! The wrath of the Lord was upon me! Several evangelical conservative (male) priests wrote me, offline and on, to tell me that I was wrong, wrong, wrong. One wrote: "It is in the postmodern critique of modernity that we have the whole questioning of authority, lack of metanarrative, deconstruction of language, and so on, that seems so well to fit (the) concern of lack of an agreed sense of authority. I would also point to serpent in the Garden of Eden who first questioned authority when it asked, "Did God really say?"
One even gave evidence of this "loss sense of agreed authority" in the fact that "I hear clergy change the language of the prayer book rite because they disagree with the language, Part of the catholic tradition is that we are under authority. I am under the authority of my bishop. I am under the authority of the prayer book. I am under the authority of the canons. That's what I signed onto when I was ordained. I don't have the right to change the language of the prayer book based upon my own theological preferences"
So, here's my current natter on the subject. I'd love to hear yours.
First question: “How is this ‘what it means to be post-modern’?”
To my knowledge, limited as it admittedly is, the weight of evidence in scripture and tradition clearly outweigh the claim that this is a post-modern phenomenon. I’ve already made brief mention of how I read scripture and tradition. How do you read? Are you not standing on only one leg of the ‘three legged stool’ of Anglicanism. I get your ‘reason’. Where, then, is scripture and tradition?
Which leads me to ask, “So who is now insisting on his own way?”
No one has changed the language of the BCP. Neither has anyone changed the language of the ordination vows, which I took right after I signed the Oath of Conformity without crossing my fingers behind my back. If asked and administered today, I am confident that I would pass a lie detector test.
How is “the agreed sense of authority” diminished or challenged for clergy - or anyone, for that matter – by offering prayer in the context of public worship in the manner in which they believe and in the language that makes sense to them? Is this not the modern application of Cranmer’s philosophy of a ‘common language’ – not the mass in Latin but in the common language of the people? In a diverse culture such as ours, is this not why we take pains to translate our public worship into Spanish, Creole, Native American, Asian, etc.?
What of the feminist theologians in those cultures? Are we to sit as women of stone?
I understand completely that the image of God you hold and the one I pray to are probably vastly different. It would, of course, follow that the language we use would be different. And yet, through the mystery that is the God we both worship and adore, we are praying to the one and the same God who hears both of our prayers and takes them to heart.
Is this not a manifestation of the redemption of the Tower of Babel at Pentecost? Why the insistance that I and everyone else pray the way you do in order for our prayers to somehow be ‘authentic’ and in conformity with ‘authority’?
That’s not an accusation. I’m just trying to understand.
Which leads me to another, perhaps predictable, question: “Whatever became of Anglican tolerance (AKA ‘comprehensiveness’ or ‘Pragmatism’)?
Help me understand this need for ‘every knee to bend” in exactly the same way and “every tongue” to speak in conformity. As I’ve said before, “Anglican Covenant” is an oxymoron to my understanding of the great history and tradition of being a member of the Anglican Communion.
We have taken great pride in not being a ‘confessional’ church; neither do we constellate our spirituality around the personality or piety of one religious leader. We are not strictly an ‘experiential’ faith, like, say, the Pentecostals or Assemblies of God who have a particular experience of God and the Holy Spirit which directs or frames our worship, piety, doctrine or polity.
Ours is what has been described as a ‘pragmatic’ faith. True, at worst we can become what someone once called “flabby theologians” – not exactly ‘anything goes” but not exactly the kind of clarity of theological thought which has been a hallmark of Anglicanism.
But we have always been protestant AND catholic AND evangelical AND orthodox. We remain so to this very day. Just look at Eucharistic Prayers A, B, C and D in the 1979 BCP for evidence of that. What has changed? Why?
Here’s my curiosity behind the term “agreed sense of authority”. I don’t think there’s any accident or coincidence that this term is being used at this particular point in our history as Episcopalians.
We presently have a woman who is Presiding Bishop and a woman who is President of the House of Deputies. We presently have more and more women who are priests who hold positions of rectors in significant parishes, deans of and canons in cathedrals, and bishops.
We have one diocese which has already left TEC which does not ordain women, one diocese which is considering leaving TEC which does not ordain women, and one diocese which is considering leaving TEC which does ordain women, but whose bishop has said, in a remarkable call to tolerance, that the disagreement over the ordination of women in their ranks is something that would have to be worked out among them over time.
You know where this is going. One ought not be surprised by the curiosity behind my perspective. I’m a woman. I’m an ordained woman who is a rector of a fairly significant parish. The challenge to my authority as a woman in a role, which has been traditionally male, comes with surprising frequency even in a diocese like Newark.
Are we really surprised, then, that suddenly the buzzword du jour is about “the agreed sense of authority”? In that sense, I’ll concede your point that this particular aspect of the present discussion regarding authority is a post-modern phenomenon.
All things carefully considered, I would have to re-affirm my original conclusion: This is not the deal-breaker for me. Indeed, I see it as a sign of health.
The minute we stop arguing over ‘an agreed sense of authority” I’ll know we’re really in trouble.