Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Blurring the issues

According to reports the Diocese of Christchurch has chosen a woman as its nominee for its next bishop. (Only after confirmation by our bishops and our General Synod is the nominee deemed to be elected). Some in the Diocese are known to disagree with the notion that woman can be head of a local church so inevitably there must be some profound meditation and reflection going on. One associated issue when this kind of issue arises in conservative evangelical circles goes like this, 'If we allow that the Bible permits women in leadership of the church, then we will feel pressure to allow active homosexuals in leadership because we will have admitted that the Bible is unclear on one issue and thus be liable to pressure by those who think the Bible is unclear on the other issue.' Thus does some opposition to women in leadership seem to be driven by unintended consequences for other issues.

But this bears a little bit of probing. First, the Bible can be clear on an issue and unclear on another. Responses to alcohol consumption across all churches suggests that Christians are not universally agreed on whether the Bible encourages or discourages alcohol consumption. By contrast all Christians agree that the Bible prohibits stealing. Secondly, if the Bible is mostly agreed to be unclear on one issue and much less agreed to be unclear on another issue, then that is the way it is. Its a matter of both grace and a broad mind to recognise that (say) my clarity about each issue is simply not shared by the majority. My challenge is to persuade people that the situation is otherwise, but if I cannot, I need to take stock of my options. One of those options is to be patient and live with the situation. Out of that patience I may yet see my own mind or other minds change!

But, thirdly, it seems odd to have a reserved attitude to women in leadership because of concerns about the behaviour of men!

For the record let me state that I understand the Bible to indicate an equality of women and men in Christ which presumes no ultimate and universal barrier to equality of possibility of participation in leadership; such participation exemplified by Priscilla, Phoebe, Euodia, Syntyche, Junia and others. Against this theological supposition, statements in the New Testament, most notably 1 Timothy 2:12, which prohibit women in leadership can and should be read as limited to special circumstances in the life of the church. By contrast the Bible does not indicate in any way shape or form the equality of same sex partnerships with marriage, repeatedly prohibits the possibility that same sex sexual relationships can be understood to be approved by God, and generally upholds through story and statement that sexual intercourse is intended by God, from creation, to take place within marriage between a man and a woman.

These days I do not think an Anglican can end his profession of clarity there! I acknowledge that Anglicans - to the left and the right of me!! - do not share the clarity with which I have just written. With that observation comes the challenge of living with difference.

Monday, February 25, 2008


One of my most memorable encounters at university was not with an academic but with an administrator - a very intelligent and learned administrator nevertheless. He was a mentor to the Christian Union executive. One day we were discussing things and he said to me, 'Peter, you can sum up the Anglican Church in one word.' I looked at him very expectantly, awed that such a complex church could be reduced to one word, and wondering what on earth this word could be!

'Accommodation', he said, and I have never forgotten that word. Some thirty years later 'accommodation' still seems as good a one word summary of our church as it was then.

In terms of my series of posts on difference in the Anglican Church (Athens v Jerusalem etc) I am wondering if 'accommodation' could be a guiding theme in our discussion which might take some of the heat and sting out of current debates. For example, could all sides agree that all Anglicans 'accommodate' the world, surrounding culture, and prevailing mores, taboos, and fashions to some extent or another? An oft-made point, as an instance, is the accommodation virtually all parts - including conservative - of the Anglican Church have made to divorce and remarriage. Or, to take a slightly different matter, its frequently observed that classic exposition of liberal theology (at least circa 1960s) as well as classic exposition of conservative evangelical theology (at least circa 1950s) owes much to 'modernism' even as such theologies present themselves as drawing on deeper wells from the past. If we could agree that we all acommodate then our debate might be a softer and more diplomatic one around the proper, warranted extent of accommodation. Currently however the debate is a rougher and more bruising one along the lines of 'we are pure biblical Christian Anglicans, you are heterodox or worse' and 'no, you are blind fools who do not realise how selectively biblical you are, and we are just as orthodox as you, probably more so 'cause we wear robes according to Anglican rules'.

A debate around the proper, warranted extent of accommodation at the least would involve more respect for each other. No dissing each other from some moral high ground of 'we are pure' or 'you are deceived'. Rather, mutual recognition of the difficulty of living as Christians 'in' the world but not 'of' it should lead to a genuine listening process: 'tell us more about why you think the way you do ... we are genuinely interested in how your reading of Scripture and your reading of the world has led to the conclusions you have drawn'.

Increasingly as I reflect on current Anglican debates, especially in the peculiar countdown of 2008 towards Lambeth and (now) GAFCON, I recognise that the two emerging forms of Anglicanism - for convenience I will simply call them, without intention of pejorativeness, liberal Anglicanism and conservative Anglicanism - are here to stay. Our question is not whether one will triumph or not. In the short to medium term neither will triumph - and perhaps not even in the long-term. Our question is how we can live together with our difference. The tempting answer is 'let's separate, if not divorce, for then we do not have to live with our difference.' But this is folly. It assumes, on the basis on one reading of Anglican history, that our church is a marriage of convenience. In fact the Anglican Communion is better understood as a 'family' than as a 'marriage'. Families can break up, members can stop talking to each other, but families remain families. In particular, so long as we claim the same family name, we Anglicans are linked together, not least in the eyes of the world to which God sends us in mission. And broken families always come under pressure over time to reconcile their differences.

No, better for the Anglican Communion to get over itself: we are divided by our difference but we need not separate over it. Our energy should be focused on how we can live with that difference. Naturally that involves some accommodation from each side of the division. But, if we are honest, we have already learned to accommodate ... can we apply that lesson to accommodating the other side?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Jerusalem or Antioch?

Just as there is a contrast between 'Jerusalem' (metaphor for faith, revelation, seminary, church) and 'Athens' (metaphor for philosophy, reason, university, world), so there is one between 'Jerusalem' and 'Antioch'. In the latter contrast Jerusalem stands for the church strongly connected to its heritage, conservative in thinking and traditional in values, and Antioch stands for the church facing its future in a new world of competing faiths and non-faiths, radical in thinking and with mission as the foremost of its values (further details in the Acts of the Apostles)!

We could also think of Antioch as the place where the first reformation of the church began. In Jerusalem a largely Jewish church worked out its identity in a Jewish environment. In Antioch the church sent out mission workers to the Gentile world with the result that the church became Jewish and Gentile, and developed an identity marked by distance from Judaism rather than inclusion within it. Increasingly I am understanding the twenty-first century as the time of a new reformation of the church (and particuarly of the Anglican Church to which I belong). The raging controversy over the Archbishop of Canterbury's promotion of sharia law (scarcely abated by subsequent attempts at clarification) actually has a huge amount in common with the unending controversy over sexuality issues. In both cases the church is wrestling with life in a changing world and seeking to find a way live it's life as a community among other communities. Questions posed in both controversies include, Can our community live at peace with other communities, and how? If our community is to relate to other communities what do we need to accommodate by way of values, beliefs, and customs?

Its the sense emerging that solutions from the past are inadequate for present challenges which supports the conclusion that this is a time of significant reformation. But what the church will look like post-reformation is somewhat unclear to me. Though I may just be a bear with a small brain! But, again, consider the controversies of sexuality and sharia. One is pushing the church to accommodate the global liberal culture of Western post-modern societies. The other is pushing the church to accomodate the global conservative culture of Islam. Can anyone predict what will emerge from that balancing act?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Please, Rowan, do not undervalue democracy

Archbishop Rowan Williams' remarks about sharia law continue to make waves. See here, for example, for a robust dismissal of Archbishop Rowan's self-defence. Something I am not seeing comment on is this: the relationship between sharia law and democracy. Can anyone name a country in which sharia law dominates the legal system which is also an open democracy? By 'open democracy' I mean a society in which the media is free, the judiciary is impartial and beyond political interference, and regular elections to a parliament are held, in which multiple parties are able to campaign without let or hindrance. I look forward to at least a couple of countries being named.

But I am pretty sure the answer to the next question is nil. How many countries have moved from negligible influence of sharia to a growing dominance of sharia and matched that transformation with an increasingly open democracy?

Thus there is an added culpability on the Archbishop's side of the furore: a failure to uphold open democracy since any advancement of sharia is accompanied by the lessening of democracy. And just before anyone says something like, What's so great about democracy?, please think about the alternative system you would like to live in, and tell me about its advantages!

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Return to Athens for a moment

Archbishop Rowan Williams has made the headlines big time with his remarks about the apparent inevitability of sharia law being incorporated into mainstream law in Britain. (See here for links to lots of articles). One main theme in reaction has been his reversion to being a theology professor, forgetting that he is the Archbishop of Canterbury. Hence the reappearance of 'Athens' in the title of this post! My comment is simply this: if Rowan Williams can get this kind of thing wrong, what is he getting wrong in his handling of Communion matters?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Jerusalem edging ahead of Athens?

Since my last post, during some days when I have been away from the internet, a lot has happened. First up, in my own reflections I have been revising my 'the Anglican Communion is splitting in two and no one can stop it' theme. I suspect that what is happening is that a chunk of the Anglican Communion is splitting off, but its more of an 80:20 thing than a 50:50. Numbers here are trickery - when Nigeria is part of any Anglican calculations is it 1 member church or tens of millions of individual Anglicans? I think from a "Communion" perspective its 1 member church, though a very significant member because of the huge number of individuals which make it up.

Next there is the decision of the Sydney bishops, led by Archbishop Peter Jensen, not to go to Lambeth. A sad mistake. Communication matters. It is always the way forward - what did God do when all was lost for humanity? God sent his Word!! By way of brilliant contrast, read this piece from Bishop James Jones of Liverpool in which he sets out how his own thinking is developing due to engagement with conversations around sexuality and the Anglican Communion, and manages a very, very big apology for a decision he made.

Then there are two great documents which have been published. The first will receive a lot of attention in coming months. Its the latest draft of the Anglican Covenant (to be known as the St Andrew's version, in contrast to the earlier Nassau version). I think this is a vast improvement on the first - better on Scripture, clearer on how to deal with controversy, better on acknowledgement of the autonomy of member churches, clearer that the Covenant is about the life of the Communion and its rules of membership. The second document is an offering from the Global South on an Anglican Catechism. Look closely at its authorship - very distinguished.

Could it be, that in the tussle over whether Jerusalem or Athens (i.e. Scripture or reason) is to be capital city for the Communion, this week has seen Jerusalem edging ahead?