Sunday, January 18, 2009

Quo Vadis ... which way?

Ephraim Radner is a member of the Covenant Design Group, a 'canonically resident' clergyman in TEC, though 'professionally resident' as a teacher of theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto, Canada. He has written an open letter to the CDG, part of the purpose of which is to remind the CDG that before their eyes the Communion is disintegrating around the issue of homosexuality, at least to the extent in which bishops of TEC continue to undertake actions at variance with recommendations of the Windsor Report which, whatever their moral, Scriptural, or theological import and veracity, are designed to keep the Communion together. Ipso facto, the Covenant also has that job to do. You can read the open letter here.

Concomitantly one of the discussion threads on the Fulcrum Forum is entitled 'New Anglican province in North America?' Part of that discussion concerns why homosexuality appears to be both a 'Communion-breaking' issue, as well as a 'biblical/not-biblical' evaluative measure. One commenter, Roger Hurding, makes an observation in respect of the latter, which itself includes a citation from a leading Anglican theologian in the Church of England, Richard Burridge, which is worth noting:

"My central argument with regard to homosexuality is that, as well as those who discard biblical perspectives on the matter, there is a substantial minority of those with a high view of Scripture who question the absolutism of traditional interpretations on the subject, arguing that there is an exegetical debate to be had.

Richard Burridge makes the point well in his recent book, Imitating Jesus: An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics:

"It is puzzling why being against homosexuality, about which Jesus and the gospels have nothing to say and Paul has only...passing references alongside many other sins equally common to heterosexuals, should have become the acid test of what it means to be truly 'biblical' in a number of quarters over recent years."

Within the AC we have learnt to agree to differ on the OoW without breaking fellowship. Might there be (should there not be) a comparable understanding within the communion with respect to homosexuality, where both positions, biblically-argued, are held by mutual respect?"

Between the Radner piece and the Fulcrum thread I am reminded of the following simplicities in regard to the future of the Anglican Communion, which I shall put as questions:

(i) The Anglican Communion has (albeit not completely successfully in every local context) been a Communion whose unity has transcended difference over the ordination of women: can it maintain that unity transcendant over difference in respect of ordination/blessing of same sex partnered persons/partnerships?

Comment: It's hard to think of anyone who answers this question with a straightforward 'Yes'; easy to think of those who answer with a straightforward 'No' or an uncertain 'Maybe' or 'I really hope so'.

(ii)Is homosexuality an issue 'worthy' of dividing the Communion in formal schism?

Comment: some are answering this question 'Yes' but for differing reasons ('Yes, our commitment to gay and lesbian Anglicans is worth it'; and 'Yes, our commitment to the authority of Scripture demands it'); others are saying either 'No' or 'I do not know'. Sometimes I think we forget that church division can occur over comparatively small yet significant differences: on the question of baptising infants or not, churches are divided from each other. On the face of it this is 'merely a question of practice with respect to chronology' - seemingly a small issue - but in reality (e.g. the reality of attempting negotiate a union of adult baptising and infant baptising churches) there is a complex of issues concerning salvation, church membership, covenant(s), sacraments, and interpretation of Scripture and the practice of the ancient church. Homosexuality is raising for the Anglican Communion significant questions around the interpretation of Scripture, the meaning of marriage, the relationship of church and culture, salvation, ethics, etc. Any one of these might not be worth schism, the accumulation of these might be.

(iii) Where is the biblical case for acceptance/endorsement of blessings of same sex partnerships and for ordination of persons in same sex partnerships being articulated in an accessible form?

Comment: personally I am not sure of the answer to this question, but it requires an answer if evangelical Anglicans are to recognise the possibility that homosexuality need not be a litmus test of 'biblical' Christianity.

(iv) In the particular matter of TEC, if homosexuality were excluded from consideration, is there a case for considering TEC to have lost its way in respect of the true character of Anglicanism (at best) or to be deliberately embracing another (heterodox, even heretical) way (at worst)?

Comment: in my view quite a lot of talk re Communion schism over the issue of homosexuality boils down to the place of TEC in the Communion (in, out, on the second tier). I sense that if TEC were 'out' or 'on the second tier' then the issue of homosexuality would remain for the Communion to engage with it, but its engagement would be gentler and kinder. But its hard to see the Communion agreeing to the ousting or demoting of TEC on the basis of a single ethical issue. It might do it on the basis of its declension from orthodox Anglican theology. But has it so declined? I know the answer is obvious to some (especially those involved in forming the New American Province) but it seem non-obvious to others. Who is to judge?

For what it is worth, I think question (ii) above (Is homosexuality an issue 'worthy' of dividing the Communion in formal schism?) is itself a crucial point of dividing of the Communion. In 2009 - a General Convention meeting year - I can see attitudes hardening on the part of those who would answer the question 'Yes' (as noted above, a group itself motivated in at least two different ways), and I can see a continuing lack of commitment to dividing on the part of others - especially lay Anglicans.


Anonymous said...

Pleonasm aside, I don't think Richard Burridge is 'a leading Anglican theologian in the Church of England'; he's a moderately liberal Synoptics scholar from an evangelical background, and fairly typical of most of those who can be read on the 'Fulcrum' website. They're the kind of people who get appointed in the closed shop of the English Establishment to become deans, canons and suffragan bishops - conservative evangelicals need not apply. The liberal or open evangelicals don't, for the most part, run large parishes but they do work the diocesan and national synods. So that's howe they get known.
I do wonder if Burridge has ever engaged with Gagnon. Such a feeble comment from him!

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Anonymous
Burridge may not have engaged with Gagnon but he has been engaged by ++Rowan (to contribute to the Lambeth studies, I believe); and he is oft-quoted and mentioned in C of E dispatches, hence my description of him (carefully not calling him, for example, a 'leading British theologian').
Nevertheless your point and associated sub-points are well-made!!

Anonymous said...

... and my own sniffy comment aside, let me say that I have used with profit Burridge's own work on the Gospels as 'bioi' and some of his more popular writing. I haven't read him on NT ethics; I still find Richard Hays' 'Moral Vision of the NT' a fine opus on this. A wonderful free resource I've come across are these mp3's from David C. Jones, which traverse a lot of the terrain of his 1994 book:

The larger frame question that Roger Hurding introduces is the potential relationship between women's ordination and same-sex relations. Many evangelicals who support WO strenuously deny there is any connection, while the more catholic-inclined argue that there is - e.g. William Tighe (ex-Anglican, now RC). The Orthodox, of course, are wholly unconvinced.
Hurding (a GP and psychotherapist) seems to be at that softer and fuzzier end of evangelicalism in which 'pastoral' considerations set the agenda, rather than the classical doctrinal outlook of evangelicalism. After all, who could deny that a same-sex couple could have a kindly, supportive relationship? Or that loneliness is a painful burden? Framing the question this way ('sub specie experientiae' rather than 'sub specie aeternitatis') points in a fairly clear direction. And if one goes on to insist (against the consensus of church history)that 'Scripture isn't clear on X', then hey presto, the onus probandi has been placed on the upholders of tradition, not innovation.
... but what if WO wasn't right after all? How would we know?

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Anonymous
I do not think we would ever know if WO was not right because two factors tend towards the conclusion that it is right and thus muddy the waters for those who are inclined to think it is not right: (a) a lot of good comes from WO (b) in the NT itself the ministry of women in leadership is frequently affirmed.

It would be strange, would it not, for evangelicals to read their Scripture carefully and note the ministry work of Phoebe, Priscilla, Euodia, Syntyche etc and then make common cause with a Catholic/Orthodox understanding that 'tradition' militates against WO?

The linkage between WO and SSR is, I think, a nuanced one. There certainly is a linkage when questions are framed from a 'rights' perspective: women are a group in the church with rights, gays and lesbians are groups in the church with rights, etc.

But there is no linkage when one frames questions about ministry from the pages of church history within Scripture: were women involved in the ministry of the NT church? Answer: Yes, there is evidence for this and grounds for a wide-ranging discussion about the character of this involvement and its implications for the church today. But a different answer for a different question: were same sex partnered Christians involved in the ministry of the NT church? Answer: There is no evidence of this.

Anonymous said...

Peter: of course Priscilla etc were involved in diakonia. The Orthodox and Catholics will be the first to insist on this - then they'll say that Protestants created a problem for themselves by getting rid of nuns. For the issue is not 'ministry' but leadership or headship - or 'ruling elders' as it's sometimes glossed. Priscilla's ministry was shared with her husband Aquila. Isn't this a better picture of the kind of biblical leadership Anglicans should aim at? I don't think we can find any evidence from the NT (or from early church history, for that matter) of women exercizing pastoral leadership over men in the way that Paul instructed Timothy and Titus to conduct their ministry. If we want to argue in favor, we would have to invoke vaguer, more subjective principles, like 'the trajectory of NT teaching' or 'deeper egalitarian principles' (a la Schussler Fiorenza); or claim that the NT is essentially silent on the subject, or vague and difficult to interpret. And that's how proponents of same-sex relations argue for their innovation.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Anonymous
(Brief points)
- it would be good to see the affirmation of Phoebe translate into actual ordinations of women to the diaconate in Orthodox/Roman/and certain Anglican churches
- ditto the affirmation of the joint ministry of Priscilla and Aquila: it would be good to see ordinations of married women and men ...
- I do not think 'trajectory' is entirely subjective because it coheres with the objective fact of change in the role, status and value of women in many societies around the world: that this change should have no impact on certain churches is, to be frank, weird (and detractive from the gospel's incarnation in the world today) ... in reality there is often an impact: witness, for example, the newly found roles for lay women in Catholic parishes ... but this only makes the resistance to ordaining women more and more a form of legalism and less and less in keeping with the gospel of freedom and equality-in-redemption (cf. Galatians 3:28)
- Lydia always strikes me as an intriguing possibility for a woman president of a fledgling church!!

Tim Harris said...

I second the comments of Anonymous regarding Burridge, especially regarding sexuality - his views are superficial and ignore a significant 'giveness' in Jesus' acceptance of tradition Jewish sexual ethics, reflected in his teaching about marriage; and also all that is implied in porneia. Richard Hays' 'Moral Vision' is a much better treatment (both as exegesis and hermeneutics).

There is a fairly objective measure of the extent to which revisionist readings have gained any credibility in NT academic circles, especially by way of comparison between the sexual ethics on one hand, and women's ministry on the other. Both revisionist concerns have been current for similar period of time, largely dating from 1970's on with various proposals for alternative interpretations and understandings. After 30+ years of consideration and response, the acceptance or otherwise of such readings in major critical commentaries is a reasonable measure.

In reviewing all major commentaries published over the past 15 years, there is little doubt that 'revisionist' readings regarding women and ministry are taken seriously, and now would be reflected in the majority (but certainly not all) of recent critical commentaries.

In considering alternative proposals regarding the 'same-sex' passages (especially Romans 1), I have yet to find one major commentary that gives such views any credence, even when they interact with such views in detail. I think it is reasonable to say that the majority are far from persuaded - and there still remains to be any serious response or rebuttal to Robert Gagnon's work.

To my mind, I wouldn't be willing to put women's ministry/ordination in anything like the same category as same-sex revisionism

Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Tim
That's a very helpful 'objective' distinction (between 'revisionist' readings re women's ordination and re homosexuality in terms of their having made a different impact on NT scholarship)!

Anonymous said...

"In reviewing all major commentaries published over the past 15 years, there is little doubt that 'revisionist' readings regarding women and ministry are taken seriously, and now would be reflected in the majority (but certainly not all) of recent critical commentaries."

It's obvious to any reader that women in the first century taught the faith to other women and to children, and that Priscilla and Aquila did some teaching (of Apollos) together. And that they encouraged the spread of faith - as Lydia did. But beyond this, what has been established? Did a woman ever found a church or exercize spiritual leadership over a congregation as episkopos/presbuteros? This is the essential question in the historical debate.