Sunday, March 30, 2008

Dialectical hermeneutics and evangelical theology (2)

The use of the word 'dialectical' in anything to do with evangelical theology is liable to raise some alarm bells for "real" conservative evangelicals. Dialectical theology is something associated with Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, and Karl Barth is often described as 'neo-orthodox' which seems to be a quasi-heterodox rather than truly orthodox position in the eyes of some! (As a matter of fact, reading Barth rather than reading about Barth one cannot help recognising how he strives to be orthodox by constantly grounding his proposals in theologians such as Calvin and Luther). However, at least for the time being, I am goign to stick with 'dialectical' in this particular exploration of the relationship between hermeneutics and evangelical theology.

Nevertheless I recognise the potential for an embedded problem with 'dialectical hermeneutics' namely that if this means 'continuous dialogue' between text, theology and readers of Scripture, does one/the church ever reach a conclusion? After all, not reaching a conclusion, always being on the journey and exalting it as better than the destination is (sometimes) the strategy of liberal theologians and ecclesiastics as they seek to avoid settling on an orthodoxy at odds with this or that particular view they wish the whole church would agree to.

However I do not think a continuous, non-conclusive dialogue is a necessary feature of dialectical hermeneutics. We do not start with a blank sheet of theological paper. Theology is already formed in the church. Orthodoxy is established even if it is also being critiqued and reviewed. Dialectical hermeneutics is (I suggest) about an ongoing dialogue in which the conclusions of orthodox theology are refined and deepened through engagement with Scripture, and our understanding of Scripture is shaped and sharpened through interaction with orthodoxy.

Friday, March 28, 2008

On Women Bishops

We need have no reservations about having a woman bishop in our church. The gifts and skills of leadership are given by God without gender discrimination. Esther, Huldah, Deborah, Priscilla, Phoebe, Junia, Euodia and Syntyche are a distinguished but not exhaustive list of female leaders (can you find them in the Bible?). Its been my personal experience and privilege to serve with and under some remarkable women. Whatever else their ministry has signified, it has determined that women are not intrinsically prone to lead the church astray when they preach and have authority over men as per one interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12-15 which lies at the foundation of many Scriptural arguments against women as church leaders. The implications of this passage when deemed to apply universally, through all generations, are incredible: namely that women, without exception, are liable to be gullible and deceiving. Thus it is reasonable to conclude that the application of 1 Timothy 2:12, ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over men,’ is not universal but of a limited kind. It may apply, for example, to situations marked by excessive and manipulative domination of men by women.

Another line of argument proposed is one which accepts women taking up leadership roles in the church providing they do not take up the role of ‘head’ of the church. Thus, on this line of argument, a woman might be an assistant priest but not the vicar, or might be a deacon but not a priest, or might be a vicar but not a bishop. Some women live with such distinctions; others feel demeaned by them. I think it fair to ask what difference the gender of the preacher makes to the content of a sermon or whether an objection on the grounds of biology constitutes sufficient reason to prevent a qualified, capable and called woman becoming a ‘head’ leader of a church. To those who say ‘no, its really an objection on the grounds of theology and not biology’ I simply ask, ‘what theology?’ For, if it is a theology of ‘headship’ as taught in the New Testament, then is not this teaching directed to married couples rather than local or regional churches?

We can acknowledge that on balance and over the long term most leaders will likely be men (Britain’s only had one woman Prime Minister, the States is yet to have a woman President, etc) so there is no need to worry about women ‘taking over’ (and so what if they did – are we men so great at running the show? On my last checking, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Genghis Khan, and Nero were all men!) If a faithful, gifted, tried and true woman is available for leadership in the church, it is in keeping with the teaching of the whole of the New Testament to appoint rather than to prohibit her.

[Also published in the Witness, the Diocese of Nelson magazine, April 2008]

Monday, March 24, 2008

Dialectical hermeneutics and evangelical theology

Dialectic - the art of investigating the truth of opinions, the testing of truth by discussion; logical disputation.

I have been thinking about what I find agreeable and what I find disagreeable about evangelical theology and the handling of Scripture within the world of 'evangelicalism'.

Very briefly I find agreeable an approach to understanding Scripture (i.e. hermeneutics) which involves a form of dialogue or discussion between 'text', 'theology', and relevant 'knowledge' including ancient and modern 'culture'. Thus, to take one example, the question of the ordination of women, there are those (it seems in my experience) who have simply presumed its fine but not worked on the hard questions raised by texts such as 1 Timothy 2:12 and those for whom 1T 2:12 is definitive in its 'no' to women being ordained to positions of authority (i.e. priest and bishop in Anglican polity). My own position I think can be described as 'dialectical' since it both proceeds from a testing of truth by discussion and continues to remain open to logical disputation - where partners in the discussion (if we may call 'texts' contributors to discussion) include both 1T 2:12 and Romans 16 and the like, along with actual experience of women in ministry (which gives lie to the implication of one reading of 1T 2:12-15 that women are necessarily and universally gullible and liable to deceive). Included in the discussion are, of course, actual human contributors who wish to chip their twopennies worth into the dialogue.

This openness to continuing engagement between Scripture and life enables evangelical theology to be responsive to life while being faithful to Scripture. To an extent every evangelical is a dialectician, but some evangelicals seem more closed rather than open to the possibility of change, exemplified in the fixedness of some around the ordination of women and the impossibility of evolution.

I will develop my ideas on dialectical hermeneutics and evangelical theology in further posts.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Don't you just hate it when

people say things like this about Anglican theology.

'precisely wherein lies the nub of the problems in the Anglican Communion, from a history of theological incoherence to WO to SSBs' [Women's Ordination, Same Sex Blessings]

What does 'theological incoherence' mean here? I presume it means inherent faults in the content and method of Anglican theology such that our theology is destined to yield flawed conclusions. I also presume this comment (posted on Ruth Gledhill's Times weblog in response to a piece by her about a theological movement called 'Radical Orthodoxy') is made by a Roman Catholic so that Anglican incoherency is being contrasted with Catholic coherency.

For me Anglican theological incoherency is certainly possible - indeed it abounds in the life of our Communion at this time. But is incoherence inherent in our theology? That is where I part company with the comment cited above. Our theology is coherent, provided it remains connected with its foundations in Scripture, the great tradition of the church expressed in its creeds, and the Thirty Nine Articles (which represent the reformation of Anglican theology, pruning its theological tradition of unnecessary accretions ... according to the gold standard of Scripture). Our weakness is certainly that we have no strong magisterium to police the boundaries of our theology ... that's perhaps the point where the charge made above has some force. But the converse can be noted: our strength is that we have a weak magisterium - not, note, no magisterium - through our synods, and episcopal leadership, providing both are willing to follow Scripture, acknowledging that apart from Scripture, councils of men and women do err. With a weak magisterium we have at least one advantage over Roman Catholicism - a greater flexibility around change.

The key here is Scripture. One of my sadnesses at this time in the life of Anglicanism is the readiness of people who should know better (i.e. bishops) to place canon law on a higher plane of authority and allegiance than Scripture. (In respect of the charges laid above 'from theological incoherency to WO and SSB', Scripture offers a coherent case for WO and against SSB.)

Intriguingly, on the night I read this comment, I was at a party with some Roman Catholics. When one learned that my day job is training Anglican ministers, he asked if we could spare some for them. Another observed that the rules for Catholic priesthood might have to change - there is a desperate shortage of priests in Kiwiland. This will not happen until RC theology entertains a means of becoming more flexible - allowing, one might say, a smidgeon of incoherency into the coherency oof their theology!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Mark Thompson and Paul Gibson: different takes on future stakes

Paul Gibson, a Canadian Anglican theologian, and Mark Thompson, an Australian Anglican theologian have had papers posted on the internet in the past few days. Mark Thompson is from Sydney and his The Anglican Debacle: Roots and Patterns is, well, very Sydney. Paul Gibson’s Why I am Not Afraid of Schism might or might not be Sydney in respect of its title, but much of the content is not Sydney.

Let’s look at Debacle first. Mark Thompson argues bleakly that,

‘Evangelical Anglicans have struggled in a hostile environment within the denomination for a very long time. Sometimes their ministry has flourished, despite the hostility of the hierarchy.’

We might ask whether the impression given of a uniform and endlessly hostile environment is fair – sometimes the environment has been apathetic, sometimes self-defeating (i.e. when evangelicals quarrel with each other), and evangelicals have their own ways of being hostile to outsiders, but let’s move to Thompson’s argument that there are now five new factors in the situation. These are (set out here mostly shorn of supporting evidence):

‘1. … an increasing number of public challenges to orthodox doctrine grounded in plain biblical teaching by serving bishops and other leaders in the Anglican Communion.’

‘2. … the redefinition of the gospel that has occurred in some parts of the Anglican Communion. It is increasingly clear that the gospel of salvation by the cross and resurrection of Jesus, with its call to faith and repentance has been replaced in some
quarters by a liberal gospel of universal reconciliation, what some call ‘the gospel of inclusion’.’

‘3. … attempts have been made to officially endorse teaching which is in direct conflict with the teaching of Scripture. This could be illustrated in a number of areas. We might focus on the defeat of a motion affirming the authority of Scripture on the floor of the General Synod of ECUSA in August 2003. Or we could think again about the refusal of the Australian General Synod even to allow a vote on a motion rejoicing in what God has done for us in the cross of Jesus just last year.’

‘4. … the way these developments have taken place in full knowledge and in open defiance of the objections of the rest of the Anglican Communion, most commonly on biblical grounds.’

‘5. The fifth and final feature I want to highlight is for many people one of the most disturbing of all. It is the open persecution by the hierarchy of the Episcopal Church and the Bishop and Diocese of New Westminster (and indeed others) of all who dissent from their program of doctrinal and moral revision.’

This is strong language which does not entirely, in succeeding paragraphs, spell out the character of the ‘dissent’ which has included contravention of the canons of the respective churches making the bishops’ responses in a number of instances something different to ‘persecution’.

Thompson’s summary is this:

‘The crisis we face at the moment has a different character to the background struggle that evangelical Anglicans have long endured. These five factors have taken us further down the road of denominational apostasy than we have ever been before. The embrace of teaching and practice which is directly opposed to the teaching of Scripture is now being institutionalised in a new way. And it is being done in the face of careful, godly, biblical calls to stop. What’s more, those who are making that call are being recast as the villains and every effort is being made to disenfranchise them and remove them from the Communion.’

The weak point here is the failure to recognise the counter-claims on the basis of the Bible available to those Thompson disputes. “Our case,” they might say, “for institutionalising ‘teaching and practice’ which Thompson describes as ‘directly opposed to the teaching of Scripture’ is that it IS the teaching of Scripture – teaching that we must act justly, treat humans fairly and indiscriminately.” The strong point in the summary is spelling out the extraordinary feature of this time, that Anglicans with solid claims to be orthodox in doctrine by almost any historical standard ‘are being recast as the villains’.

So Thompson overstates his case in some respects and understates the counter-case of those he opposes. Let’s take a look at a representative of those opponents, Paul Gibson, and his paper Schism. His thesis is

‘that schism is far from being a catastrophic situation, let alone the most desperate condition that may overtake a church.’

His supporting arguments include recognition that the church for most of its life has lived with division in its midst, that the Reformation approximates to a ‘good’ schism (I’ll take a punt and suggest our previous essay writer above would agree with him on this), that schisms can be enduring as they are expressed in strong churches such as the now one thousand year cleavage between eastern and western Christianity, and that schisms can be repaired as various (re)-unitings of Presbyterians and Methodists have demonstrated.

The central questions for Gibson concern the merits of ‘unity’ versus ‘schism’ where the latter is the result of pursuing a biblical agenda of justice and compassion:

‘If the price of unity is the continued treatment of homosexual people as second-class human beings (if that) and second-class Christians for one more year, one more month, one more week, one more day, would unity be worth it? Do the biblical virtues of justice, compassion, and recognition of the image of God in all of humanity have the higher claim?’

Gibson is unequivocable in his answers, ‘no’ and ‘yes’. First up we can note that his argument is primarily directed to the anxiety of the Canadian bishops who are worried that they are presiding over schism. Effectively he says, “Get over it. Something more important than unity is at stake.” Secondly, we can observe something curious about his handling of the Bible in relation to his goal.

‘I am not afraid of schism … I am afraid of a church in which righteousness is understood to be the enforcement of a small number of prejudicially selected biblical texts to the exclusion of many others, some of greater clarity, forgetting that in the bible righteousness is realized in the practice of justice. There are at the most seven references to homosexuality in the bible (some of them are disputed and all require contextual interpretation) but the word "justice" (or its negative "injustice") appears 194 times.’

This is amazingly tendentious. Why do texts on homosexuality ‘require contextual interpretation’ and texts on justice do not? Context has everything to do with justice, and one such context is biblical teaching on the judgement of God which commends obedience to God’s commands. Are important issues decided on the mathematics of texts? I can think, for example, of only one text which declares ‘God is love’ but it is rare to have it dismissed because its just one text. How on earth does one decide that texts have been ‘prejudicially selected’? Are there any texts brought to bear on any matter which have not been ‘prejudicially selected’? Prejudicial, incidentally, is the very characterizing of the issue of the Bible and homosexuality in terms of ‘at most seven references’. Does the pervasive and normative experience of heterosexuality in the Bible, including teaching on marriage have nothing to say to the matter?

I suggest Gibson is on better grounds when he concludes with this paragraph of vision and hope:

‘Justice is not merely the even-handed imposition of law; it is that which builds peace, harmony and prosperity for all in the community, including homosexual people who want to ask for a divine blessing on their mutual commitment. This is more important than unity.’

Here Gibson sets the Bible aside and works on an unobjectionable vision for justice ‘that which builds peace, harmony and prosperity for all in the community’. He then affirms ‘homosexual people who want to ask for a divine blessing on their mutual commitment’ as among ‘all in the community’. If we agree with this vision then we can scarcely allow ‘unity’ to deny the fulfilment of the vision.

Yet there are problems here which we could easily elide over. For instance, within the church as ‘community’ Gibson’s vision runs the risk of dividing the very community for which peace, harmony and prosperity are being built by justice. That is, justice (as Gibson understands it in respect of homosexuals’ wishes for blessing of mutual commitments) could divide the community it seeks to prosper. But a greater elision centres on the concept of ‘divine blessing’. Gibson presumes here that the church controls the (just) distribution of divine blessing. But what is ‘divine blessing’ if it is not something which belongs to God and is bestowed by God. The minister at a service of blessing does not bless; God blesses through the minister. So we come back to the Bible: does it provide evidence to believe that God blesses the mutual commitment of homosexual couples or not? On Gibson’s own handling of the Bible in this essay he does not give reason to think the evidence can be found to support an affirmative answer.

Where does this leave Gibson? He is absolutely convinced that the just treatment of homosexuals in respect of blessings is more important than church unity. The arguments which support this conviction are questionable. I suspect that observation – if agreed by Gibson – would not lead him to change his mind. His convictions are driven as much by compassion as by logic. But these questionable arguments highlight current division in the Anglican Communion. One side can live with them as it advances its case, another seeks more solid arguments before it will change its mind and, arguably, another side, the many Anglicans in ‘the centre’ also look for solid arguments in order to make up their minds one way or another.

A possible question for both Gibson and Thompson (and those theologians and bishops of similar minds) is this: are you doing your utmost (i.e. refining arguments, reviewing Scripture, listening to counter-claims, etc) in your theological utterances to find common ground? A subsequent question would then be, If you could find common ground, would you then work towards a compromise which averted schism?

In these days leading up to GAFCON and a boycotted-Lambeth it is becoming increasingly clear that some significant ‘players’ (i.e. bishops and theologians) are either not committed to finding common ground or have judged it cannot be found. I sense that by the end of this year the Anglican Communion is going to acknowledge openly that the impaired communion of the Communion is broken (acknowledging in making this prediction that some would say ‘it already is’). Perhaps that will be for the best … that different parts will get on with the mission of the church organised around themes such as ‘justice’ and ‘Bible’ … and one day we will find that one and not another has found a successful method for being Anglican in the twenty-first century.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Wolfhart Pannenberg is right

"Here lies the boundary of a Christian church that allows itself to be bound by the authority of Scripture. Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism. If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church."

Sorry don't know where this quote came from originally, but I recall using it (or at least being influenced strongly by it) in a speech to General Synod (ACANZP) at Rotorua 2004. In one paragraph WP sets out key issues at stake for a church such as the Anglican Communion as it heads towards Lambeth 2008:

will it be bound by the authority of Holy Scripture?
what is the norm of its teaching on human sexuality?
are homosexual unions the equivalent of marriage?
what is the unequivocal witness of Scripture in respect of homosexuality and other issues in human sexuality?
does the AC wish to be 'one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church'?

Philip Jensen is wrong

“I would urge those bishops who believe that unrepentant active homosexuality is wrong not to compromise their own beliefs, the scriptures, the church of God and the holiness of Christ. If they have already accepted the invitation they should repent and apologise. It is not good to go back on your word. But you should not have given it in the first place. And
to reinforce your error of judgement by attending is to make the same mistake as Herod when he executed John the Baptist. Such faithfulness to your word and promise is perverse rationalisation for continued wrongdoing.

To those bishops who go to Lambeth knowing that unrepentant homosexual activity is wrong - your profession of evangelical credentials will always be tarnished. You cannot expect God's people to trust you as you pick and choose which parts of the Bible apply to others and apply to you.

Actions have divisive effects. You are now put under incredible pressure to act on an issue that is not your own choosing. But you cannot avoid the consequences of your action. Attending is to fellowship with false teachers in their wicked work. It cannot help but diminish faithful Christians' confidence in you as a leader. To believe otherwise is a further illustration of the naivety, which leads you to attend.”

These are strong words by Dean Philip Jensen (Sydney), at the conclusion of a paper on the Limits of Fellowship. They come after an extensive Bible study on false teaching. I do not think I can fault the general argument here, that false teachers should not be fellowshipped with. I could not, for example, share in eucharistic fellowship with a member of the Jehovah’s Witness, or offer the eucharist to a Hindu. I could enter into dialogue with a Jehovah’s Witness and a Hindu, but I could not share the pulpit with either in the context of an authorised service of worship.

But I do fault these words: “To those bishops who go to Lambeth knowing that unrepentant homosexual activity is wrong - your profession of evangelical credentials will always be tarnished. You cannot expect God's people to trust you as you pick and choose which parts of the Bible apply to others and apply to you.” And I do fault the particular judgement that presupposes Philip Jensen’s anti-Lambeth line, false teacher bishops will be present therefore true teacher bishops should not be, namely that the TEC bishops confirming the election and taking part in the consecration of Gene Robinson are false teachers. They may be false teachers. Clearly a number of Anglicans think they are. As a matter of fact I am one of those.

But these American bishops do not think they themselves are false teachers, and a number of Anglicans within TEC and beyond either agree with them or have resolved to make no judgement for the time being, while considering all sides of the matter. Further, the Communion as a corporate body has not yet made the decision that they are false teachers.

At first sight Lambeth 1.10 (1998) declares the true teaching of the Anglican Communion on unrepentant homosexual activity. But at second sight this resolution, on any supposition of fair legal dealing, needs strengthening in at least two ways before we could say that the Communion has decided they are false teachers: (i) spelling out what actions or statements would constitute ‘false teaching’ measured against this resolution; (ii) confirmation of the resolution in 2008 after ten further years of reflection and debate.

Thus it is quite fair and proper for evangelical bishops of the belief that unrepentant homosexual activity is wrong to participate at Lambeth 2008. If there is any tarnishing of reputation around Lambeth – and I humbly suggest there is none because there is so much scrutiny these days of episcopal imperfections in understanding of Bible and canons that all are liable to be found faulty – it should not be on those who attend Lambeth. Bishops should go to Lambeth in order to see what progress can be made on settling the matter of what is true teaching and what is false teaching according to the theology of the Anglican Communion. When the council of the early church met to sort out disputes (and indeed pretty much every other council since) it included all sorts of teachers, some of whom, if they did not toe the line of the conclusions of the council would become false teachers. But the council did not prejudge who was true and false until it met (Acts 15).

Only when we have settled once and for all as a Communion what is true and what is false might any one warn evangelical bishops about the danger of their reputations being tarnished. And as for this grim warning, “You cannot expect God's people to trust you as you pick and choose which parts of the Bible apply to others and apply to you” – please take me to the bishop who does not do this. How wonderful to serve under her or him. And how tough that bishop must be on clergy in their jurisdiction who seek remarriage after a divorce.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Why Holy Scripture and Dogma Should Matter to Anglicans

An Anglican church in Auckland advertises itself on the internet as ‘free from dogma’. TEC and ACCanada have suddenly discovered that canons matter when its ministers challenge the order of the church, having conveniently forgotten the canons when its ministers challenged the doctrine of the church. One wonders when the canons of the Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia will be brought to bear on the a-dogmatic parish in Auckland!

Let it be said, gently, graciously, humbly, that the Anglican Church, historically and presently, is a church with Holy Scripture at its foundation and Holy Scripture over it as its authority. This church of, for, and by Holy Scripture cannot be other than full of dogma, for Scripture both teaches sound doctrine and lays on the ministers of the church the responsibility for teaching sound doctrine, aye, even more, for contending for sound doctrine.

And why this emphasis on ‘Holy Scripture’? My friend Bryden Black reminds me of the reason when he cited Eberhard Jungel on a recent Anglicans All post:

‘The traditional language of Christianity insists, therefore, on the fact that we must have said to us what the word “God” should be thought to mean. The presupposition is that ultimately only the speaking God himself can say what the word “God” should provide us to think about. Theology comprehends this whole subject under the category of revelation.’ (E. Jungel, God as the Mystery of the World, T&T Clark, 1983, p. 13).

Holy Scripture is not a ‘book’ in the sense of a bound writing which can be waved in argument at other bound writings such as ‘prayer book’ or ‘book of canons’ as though each is the same kind of book. No. Holy Scripture is the writing down of the revelation of God – the written speech of the speaking God. Anglicans, it appears, are apt to forget this fundamental character of Scripture. We need to rediscover it. We might resolve some of our problems if we did, for then we might unite together in obedience to the voice of God rather than the current imbroglio in which ‘obedience’ seems to be the last thing on our minds (unless to the canons of the church).

Sunday, March 16, 2008

History repeating itself

Here's an excerpt from IVP's New Dictionary of Theology:

"Hippolytus led his followers into schism shortly after Callistus was elected Bishop of Rome in 217. The two men were personal rivals ... the two men clashed on church discipline: which sinners could be reconciled to the church and on what terms, and what would be the church's attitude in fellowship on social and moral questions. Callistus favoured taking a forgiving and moderate approach, willing to reconcile those guilty of sexual sins and to recognize marriages not sanctioned by Roman law. Since the church is a saving society it should be inclusive in membership. Hippolytus favoured keeping serious sinners under discipline until their deathbed, leaving forgiveness in the hands of God. He wanted a church of the pure. The two men also represented rival Christologies. Callistus emphasized the oneness of God, trying to walk a middle way between the modalism of Sabellius and what he called the ditheism of Hippolytus. The latter developed his doctrine of Christ from the Logos Christology of the Apologists and from Ireneaus."

That sounds more than a bit like current moves and motivations in the Anglican Communion today!

But the article goes on:

"Hippolytus and Pontianus, Callistus' second successor, were exiled at the same time. They apparently became reconciled, for the two parties reunited and commemorated both men as martyrs."

Which is a point I have made before: where possible avoid schism since the warring parties will only have to reconcile eventually!

(Excerpts from 'Hippolytus' by E. Ferguson, in New Dictionary of Theology, IVP, 1988, p. 304).

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Conservatism versus conservatism (3)

Just when one might hope things get better for conservatism in the Anglican Communion, they may have gotten worse with this stringent examination of the meaning of GAFCON by a leading Global South theologian. If I understand this divergence of opinion correctly it boils down to different answers to this question: are conservative Anglicans committed to remaining and working wholeheartedly within the Anglican Communion? I think it’s a statement of fact rather than a deprecatory judgement to say that GAFCON represents conservative Anglicans less than wholehearted about the Anglican Communion. Many bishops at GAFCON will not also be at Lambeth, and this event has been organised without reference to the Archbishop of Canterbury (let alone the ACC or the Primates Meeting or the Joint Standing Committee).

But there are other conservative Anglicans who are committed wholeheartedly to the Anglican Communion united around the Archbishop of Canterbury. These conservatives include the Anglican Communion Institute, a number of folk associated with Global South, and relatively insignificant folk such as myself. As I understand this wholeheartedness, it is in the face of the strong liberal ascendancy in western/northern/Australasian parts of the Communion rather than in denial of that ascendancy or with na├»ve belief that somehow the influence of liberalism can be made to quickly disappear. By contrast the less than wholehearted conservatives are reserved or even rebellious towards the Communion precisely because they have decided the liberal ascendancy will not go away and they think that Anglican mission and ministry will advance better through some form of disconnection with liberal Anglicanism. In broad terms the two kinds of conservatives can be described as (so-called) ‘federation conservatives’ and ‘communion conservatives’.

I am sure there will be conservatives of both kinds at GAFCON (and so there should be so that there is continuing dialogue and so that each grouping has first-hand rather than internet-hand knowledge of latest news and views), but I presume that federation conservatives will be in the ascendancy. By contrast one would expect from bits and pieces on the internet that the number of federation conservatives at Lambeth will be quite small relative to the communion conservatives.

When the situation is described in this way then one can move to a next step of seeing the advantages and disadvantages of both strategies without denigrating either side (which all too often happens in comments on the internet). For conservatives there is sorrow whatever happens, but perhaps for communion conservatives there is a double sorrow if the federation conservatives disconnect in such a way that actual separation takes place, for then we will be a much smaller minority in the western/northern/Australasian part of the Anglican Communion than would be the case if we stuck together and remained wholeheartedly within the Anglican Communion.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Conservatism versus conservatism (2)

If I occasionally disagree with conservative evangelical Anglicans it does not mean I find myself heading with enthusiasm to conservative Roman Catholicism (as some do). On the one hand RCism is not as uniform in its thinking as some drawn to it assume. Check this great post on what a German Archbishop thinks of Protestant churches (big tick) but note how his superior unwittingly amuses us with his explanation of this theological deviancy. On the other hand there is a conservatism within the RC church which invites some searching criticism, brilliantly captured by Giles Fraser via Tony Benn, because it defines the way of Jesus with an inflexible line on a map which seems to be drawn more by human hands than the hand of God.

The beauty of Anglicanism continues to be its heritage in the great tradition of Christianity married to a freedom and flexibility to make appropriate adaptation to the times and the surrounding culture. This is not without its dangers, for example that we might become enthralled by love for relevance. But that danger is easy to fend off if we stick to Scripture - reading, as Barth suggested, the Bible and the newspaper together! After all, if relevance is a danger, irrelevance is a potential disaster!

In working out what the shape of (conservative) evangelical Anglicanism might be in the twenty-first century - I do not think we can escape the question of relevance. In our mission we relate to the world as it is, even if a goal of mission is to transform the way the world is. In my previous post I touched on the immense challenge and opportunity which change in the role and standing of women presents to the church. In this post I want to begin to take account of the similarly immense challenge and opportunity which change to human sexuality presents to the church. This challenge essentially is that humanity in the Western world, at least, has accepted a wide variety of possibilities as acceptable styles of conducting sexual relationships: singleness and marriage remain options, but to them are added de facto relationships or 'partnerships', civil unions, 'sex in the city'-type casual serial flings, polygamy (cf. acceptance of immigrants in such relationships, and the 'Big Love' TV serial about Mormon polygamists), polyamory, and that's not even beginning on the homosexual versions of such possibilities! The opportunity includes studying Scripture afresh on these matters and reaching out with the love of God to those who have been hurt by the inadequacy of different styles.

Here is one set of questions. Let's suppose we can agree that in the kingdom of God on earth people are either single or married, and divorces do not happen. But how does the church of God minister to the reality around us? Can it uniformly find ministers who are either single or married and never divorced-and-remarried? If it cannot is it possible that our reasonable expectation should be that ministers will reflect a significant part of the reality? (OK we can probably quickly draw some lines around no polygamy, polyamory, or sex in the city-typ casual serial flings, but that leaves quite a bit that does not fit the kingdom ideal).

Let me put it another way: conservatives in particular have some high standards around the conduct of sexual relationships (i.e. be single or be married) and, with the notable exception of a number of remarried divorcees among conservative ministry leaders, generally uphold those standards, but can we expect those standards to be applied across the whole of the Anglican Church?

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Conservatism versus conservatism (1)

Recently I came across this point made within a comment on a meeting between conservatives of the Diocese of South Carolina and the Presiding Bishop of TEC, Katharine Jefferts Schori: "by separating to win the latest Anglican battles in the culture wars, the conservatives are setting themselves up to actually lose the larger cultural war over time. Interesting survey data reports that even the younger USA evangelical believers are much, much more gay-friendly than their parents or their grandparents ever were - as citizens, as believers."

As a conservative Anglican I do not always find myself agreeing with fellow conservatives. The quote above captures an important aspect of the kind of disagreement I can find myself in! Namely, I struggle on some issues to see how they are going to bring the whole of the church down; and, conversely, I am amazed that the bigger picture of change in society impacts so little on some issues within the conservative fold. That is, we can get pretty intense over 'battles' and not look up and around long enough to get a measure of the 'war' we might yet lose.

A case in point is women in authority. Whatever the meaning and application of 1 Timothy 2:12-15, the fact is that it does not describe the uniform and unerring character of women in leadership. The advances of society in respect of recognising the equality of men and women have been followed (sic) for the most part by the church which has discovered that (e.g.) women may be educated to the same degree as men and be as faithful or as feckless as men in upholding orthodoxy. The facts are simple: if even one woman appointed to a position of authority over men in the life of the church proves to be faithful, undeceived and undeceiving then 1 Timothy 2:12-15 is not a universal and timeless rule prohibiting women from being in authority (since the reason for this rule being given is a disposition in women, running from their matriarch Eve, towards being gullible and deceiving). Tried and true women are present in the life of the church. Given the maleness of the John Spongs, Paul Tillichs, Teilhard de Chardins, and the like, if the church be charged with erring because of false teaching, the blame does not fall on women alone! Yet some conservatives - people I cherish and respect for their obedience to God and their skill in exegesis - continue to fight the battle against women in leadership.

But here is the rub. Despite winning some large congregations in places, is the church overall growing in numbers because of this particular 'faithfulness' to Scripture? Is the church under pure male leadership of mixed congregations with women leaders only over women and children impacting throughout society, town and country, upper, middle, and lower classes? The answer to both questions is 'no'. Is it possible that 50 or 100 years from now conservative churches opposed to women in leadership over men will be a marginal oddity on the edge of society? I think the answer is 'yes'!

Well there is more to say ... on 'relevance' and its dangers, on human sexuality and its challenges re 'battles' and 'wars' .... look out for more postings!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

God help us to be reasonable

Read the following, posted on Titus One Nine recently:

QUOTE: Canon law expert Perry says, however, that the 39 Articles also spell out that a priest must be appointed by the local bishop to be allowed to preach within a diocese, something the Network churches have relinquished by voting to split.

"The notion that a parish could be freestanding and claim to be Anglican is perverse in the Anglican structure," he said. "It just wouldn't exist."

Liberal Anglicans also argue that theological understanding continues to evolve.

"It's an ongoing revelation," Niagara Archdeacon Michael Patterson says.

And there is no requirement that the revelation be the same for everyone, says Perry, adding that a founding principle of the church was that, unlike the Catholic Church from which it split in the 16th century, there is no central authority decreeing the beliefs that define an Anglican.

Says Perry, "Somebody once said that the good thing about the Church of England is that it doesn't tend to interfere with your religion."

In fact, he says, the openness to diversity of opinion has traditionally been its strength, enabling it to span divergent cultures around the world. UNQUOTE.

So, says this Bear of Small Brain, Perry and Patterson understand that on matters of Anglican theology, revelation changes, develops, and can be contradictory (providing not occurring in the same place). But on matters of Anglican polity there can be no change, no development, and no contradiction.

The logic is somewhat baffling to this BoSB. But let's suppose I have it correct. How can it be, I feel compelled to ask, that we can etch in concrete the law of the church but write in sand the Word of God? Should it not be the other way round?

This is not the only occasion recently when I have noticed 'liberal' Anglican voices on the internet proclaim the irrevocable character of Anglican polity while sitting light and loose to what God has said through God's written Word.

Here's the thing: one cannot treat God's Word lightly. Judgement follows prophecy. My hunch is that many parts of the Anglican Church are doomed to die within the next 50 years ... unless there is a reawakening to the import of Scripture!

Monday, March 3, 2008

Conservatives have a point

Conservatives seem to get up the noses of many people in the church. I am not sure why, really, because church by definition is conservative - believing the same truth for millennia, believing only God has the power to make changes that really matter. But conservatives might have a point - don't you know! Take the issue of human sexuality where conservatives' 'marriage or singleness' ethic gets up the noses of many because its inflexible, out of step with society, unloving, etc.

But conservatives are unclear what criticism of this ethic is about. Is it purely about homosexuality and a less restrictive ethic re same sex partnerships or is it about a general ethic of sexual freedom? It would help to know. Take, as an example, a phenomenon in our society which is becoming more public about its existence: polyamory (couples extending to inclusion of one or more people in their relationship), which has featured not once but twice in The Press (Christchurch, NZ) of late. Check the latest article.

If critics of a conservative Christian sexual ethic do not wish to include acceptance of polyamory in the revised sexual ethic they would like the church to adopt, it would be good to know this, and even better to know on what grounds they would reject polyamory.

The sneaking conservative suspicion is that once the Bible is set aside as a relevant text in the discussion of homosexuality it becomes an irrelevant text fullstop in the dicussion of sexual ethics!