Monday, November 30, 2009

The wounded spirit of our church

Writing in the Journal of Anglican Studies Vol 7.2 (November 2009), which is devoted to Lambeth 2008, Peter John Lee, Bishop of the Diocese of Christ the King in South Africa, makes an observation which I have never thought about. It came to him while reading MacDiarmid's biography of Cranmer:

"It was then that I realized how wounded the spirit of our church is, not from the nineteenth but at the latest the sixteenth century. We thought it was acceptable to torture, burn, and eliminate our opponents in the name of the Gospel; we took part in the venomous spirit of those who could do such things; and we took on the fear that others could really and truly want to do such things to us. Of course we may no longer do so with flames but we would do it in common rooms with our tongues (remember the Epistle of James and ts strictures about those kinds of forest fires!); we would do it acidly in courts of law, despite the strictures of Paul; we would speak violently and dismissively of other Anglicans; and we would see church politics as a means to eliminate others - or for them to eliminate us - from participation in the church of our birth. The twentieth century truly saw some parties in Anglicanism trying to eliminate others from their patrimony.

"Of course it was all very polite, academic and rational. But the words behind the scenes of Anglican conversation belied the neutral words on the page; the same is true up to Virginia and Windsor. We can't understand why no one takes our words at face value or debates them coolly; that is because the passions in the community operate at a different, more visceral, more fearful, more violent level than the words we think are vehicles of our meaning. But they are not." (pp. 156-157)

Bishop Lee's article is entitled "Indaba as obedience". It includes reflections on the experience of Lambeth 2008's various groups for conversation and study. The observation cited above is part of an argument Lee develops: the Church of England was and has been rent by controversies which it has exported around the world. This exporting has taken place because Anglican mission has proceeded from the different divisions in the Church of England without these division first overcoming their disunity.

"... those who have been driven by a spirit of mission have not always been equally gripped by the call to unity or the dominical demand for reconciliation." (p. 157)

Lee cites as instances "the Community of the Resurrection in South Africa, great as it was, mendaciously told their people that theirs was the only authentic version of the Anglican faith. The South American Missionary Society told people the same thing in Argentina. But there was no congruence between the two realities, which they claimed to be the only genuine article." (P. 157)

In other words (i.e my words), Lee argues for a new effort at Anglican reconciliation, one that works from the roots of division, which lie much further in the past, and therefore much deeper in our collective consciousness than we may realise, and certainly deeper than supposing that if only we could rewind to (say) 2003 and start again, all would be well.

In conclusion Lee proposes two theological steps. One, to reinvigorate our commitment to the church as the body of Christ: this Pauline imagery has been at the heart of many ecclesial issues in the last century, "However, those of us who were nurtured in the Church of England never followed the logic of seeing the Church of England itself as such a body, or (with more ecumenical sensitivity) as a reflection of that One Body. We lived with the divisions as if they did not matter and did not require attention." (p. 161) The consequence, which now needs undoing, has been that we have become, "passionate about all kinds of missional agendas, but not about celebrating healing and transformation" (p. 161).

Two, to develop a theology of communication, based on James 3 and Matthew 18, which enables "a theology of reconciliation to emerge." (p. 161) From James 3 we observe the tendency of our tongues to create firestorms, and from Matthew 18 "Jesus bids us desist from the pattern of fire-laying, and to extinguish the blaze as close to home, and as close to the outbreak of the conflagration, as we can." (p. 160)

We have work to do!


Kurt said...

I basically agree with what Bishop Lee is saying. For years I have thought that, ultimately, a lot of the responses to current controversies have to do with the different historical periods in which Anglicanism was introduced into the various countries. Anglican Churches in many countries, including Australia, New Zealand and the Global South, were initiated during the previous period of Evangelical ascendancy in the CofE, and reflect this history---particularly the conflict with the emergent Catholic Revival. That tension is still very much present in some places (e.g., Sydney).

A few provinces, such as the American Church, date from much earlier times, and therefore have had quite different experiences. When the “Flogging Parson” Samuel Marsden stepped ashore at Oihi, Rangihoua Bay in December 1814, the history of Anglicanism in America was already 235 years old. Traditions of Low Church Latitudinarianism and High Church Catholicism were very entrenched in American Episcopalianism by 1814---though Evangelicalism was growing (particularly in Virginia). In the American Church, then as now, the growth of Evangelicalism produced conflict rather than harmony, and the most rigid Calvinistic Evangelicals eventually departed 140 years ago in the Cummins schism. Today, the most rigid are departing with the ACNA.

Nevertheless, we must deal with the present reality as we find it. To my knowledge, the New Zealand Church has yet to experience schisms. Imagine if there were organized elements in the New Zealand Church who not only challenged its historic ethos, but who also attempted to walk off with parish properties---including such historic buildings as Christ Church, Taita (1854) or St. Stephen’s Chapel, Parnell (1857). Would you folks be complacent if this were the case in New Zealand? I think not. Why, then, expect us Americans to allow the schematics to take our properties---including The Falls Church (1769) in Virginia? Of course we are going to fight to retain our properties---particularly those of historic association that have served Episcopalians for generations.

Kurt Hill
Brooklyn USA

Kurt said...

Spell Check is limited! I meant, of course, schismatics, not schematics.--kh

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Kurt
I would like to think that if we were faced with a schism then we would work on a negotiated settlement rather than recourse to courts; with that settlement acknowledging the nature of trusts held by our church at diocesan and at general synod level, various inherent values around "heritage", investment of parishioners in church plant, and the general well-being of Christianity in Aotearoa New Zealand.

From a distance it is far from clear that on one or more "sides" of the schism(s) in North America there is a willingness to enter a negotiated settlement!

Anonymous said...

Of course another possibility is envisaged inMatthew 18 - "if they refuse to listen even to the church, let them be to you as a gentile of tax collector". Sincere as the reconciliation process must be, there are plenty of signs in the gospels of the possibility that reconciliation will not, cannot and should not be made.