Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Os Guinness and the future of the (Comm)Union

As a young teenager, in the early 1970s I heard Os Guinness speak, and read his fantastic book The Dust of Death. His voice is always worth attending to. Here he is, courtesy of USA Today, on the future of religion in public life in the USA, prompted by the outcry over Obama's choice of Rick Warren to pray at the Inauguration:

"Second, the American settlement of religion and public life shows signs of strain, and needs its first principles renegotiated in light of contemporary social challenges. Though the most successful of the modern Western settlements, vital changes have taken place since the passing of the First Amendment in 1791 — in particular, two factors that are behind the culture wars: an exploding pluralism, reinforced by conflicting views of constitutional interpretation that has skewed the Founders' brilliant understanding of the separation of church and state.

Third, the culture wars have thrown up two broad extremes over the past generation. Both are embodied in movements that are well-funded, nationally led, and receive passionate, though limited, popular support. On one side is a vision of a sacred public square, in which one religion or another is privileged, though not established — associated for better or worse with the religious right. On the other side is a vision of a naked public square, in which all religions and religious symbols are excluded from public life. It is now evident that neither of these extremes lives up to the promise of the Founders' provisions, and neither is just and workable for all Americans. The courts have said as much. To continue the present course of the culture wars is to invite controversies and lawsuits without end, and to undermine America's greatest achievement and one of America's great lessons for the world: the way in which e pluribus unum (Out of many, one) has become a reality and not just a motto.

Fourth, the answer to these extremes and to the culture wars at large lies in the restoration of a civil and cosmopolitan public square. This includes an understanding of public life in which citizens of all faiths — and none — are free to enter and engage public life on the basis of their faith, but within a framework of what is agreed to be just and free for people of all other faiths, too. Such a view of civility is not a matter of niceness, political correctness or squeamishness about giving offense. Nor is it a search for an interfaith dialogue or lowest common denominator unity that glosses over serious and important differences. Rather, it is a framework in which differences are taken seriously, conflicts are debated robustly and policy are decided civilly — something that is a republican virtue and a democratic necessity."

I suggest he has something to say which, mutatis mutandis, applies to the future of the Anglican Communion. We are as divided as America is by its 'culture wars' and there are no signs of one side giving way. We have had a long time of talking together without the particular goal of a united way forward which transcends our differences. Schism becomes more attractive to some the longer this conversation continues. If we are to remain together - because our shared commitment to Christ demands a shared communion even when little else is shared - then we need to begin now to find what Guinness describes as "a civil and cosmopolitan public square [for the Anglican Communion in which there is] a framework in which differences are taken seriously, conflicts are debated robustly and policy are decided civilly".

In a few days time the Primates of the Communion meet in Alexandria, Egypt. That is nicely symbolic in at least this way: from the earliest days one of the emerging differences within theology was that between the school of theology in Alexandria and the school in Antioch. In the centuries since, the polarities which we may describe in terms such as Protestant v Catholic or conservative v liberal etc can be traced back to the original Alexandria v Antioch polarity. (Yes, one can trace that polarity further back, into the Old Testament itself!!). It is true that sometimes these polarities have resulted in schism, for example, the Reformation itself. But it is also true that for long periods within the life of particular expressions of the church, these polarities have been transcended, contained within the one communion of ecclesial life in Christ. The longest period was, of course, the life of the undivided church through the first millennium.

Will the Primates go to that meeting with a vision for the Communion of the kind which Os Guinness is articulating for the Union (of the States of America)?

No comments: