Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Hitchens Dawkins Axis of Anti Religion

Religion: poison or life-giving, false or true?

(Update: For another view on current promotion of atheism see a column by Theodore Dalrymple. Hat tip to Ron Ashford).

Alongside The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins as a pot-stirrer in the world of religion is a book called God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens. Richard Dawkins himself reviews the latter in the Times Literary Supplement in a review entitled ‘Bible Belter’ (accessible from Powell's Reviews).

Before taking up some challenges posed by Dawkins in the review, let me briefly introduce Christopher Hitchens to readers unfamiliar with him. Hitchens is a brilliant writer of columns, articles, and books; British in origin, currently domiciled in the States, and becoming widely known as a maker and shaper of opinions. Some of those opinions are sharply divided about the philosophical integrity of the man as he was once perceived to be unambiguously ‘left-wing’ but now, post-9/11 leading to Hitchen’s support for Bush’s militant response via Afghanistan and Iraq, he is often criticised by former colleagues on the left, even as he vigorously asserts that his present convictions are contiguous with those he has always held! Anyway, back to the Dawkins review:

Challenge One: attacks on theism are not rebutted by suggesting atheism requires as much faith as theism.

“Peter Hitchens begins his negative review in the Daily Mail quite well ("Am I my brother's reviewer?"), but the substance of his complaint seems to be that Christopher is as confident in his disbelief as any fundamentalist is confident in his belief. The answer to the familiar accusation of atheist fundamentalism is plain enough. The onus is not on the atheist to demonstrate the non-existence of the invisible unicorn in the room, and we cannot be accused of undue confidence in our disbelief. The devout churchgoer recites the Nicene Creed weekly, enumerating a detailed and precise list of things he positively believes, with no more evidence than supports the unicorn. Now that's overconfidence. By contrast, the atheist says the humble thing: of all the millions of possible entities that one might imagine, I believe only in those for which
there is evidence -- trombones, pelicans and electrons, say, but not unicorns or leprechauns, not Thor with his hammer, not Ganesh the elephant god, not the Holy Ghost.”

Response: setting aside the fact that Dawkins under-rates the ‘case for God’ which underlines the Nicene Creed, I suggest he also under-rates the many things people believe in without evidence such as life having a purpose, the concept of beauty having meaning, and so on. But he has a point: if being a Christian (to name the particular religious preference I identify with among all possible religious choices in the world) is accepted by Christians themselves as involving faith which goes beyond bounds of reason and evidence (‘we live by faith not by sight’), it is a bit rich of us to respond to an atheist whose worldview is consistently materialist and rationalist by saying, ‘you have as much faith in what you believe as we do.’

Challenge Two: attacks on religion are not negated by suggesting that there is a difference between bad religion and good religion and its only bad religion which is the problem.

“The second commonest complaint from reviewers is that Christopher Hitchens attacks bad religion. Real religion (the religion the reviewer subscribes to) is immune to such criticism. Here is the theologian Stephen Prothero in the Washington Post:

"To read this oddly innocent book as gospel is to believe that ordinary Catholics are proud of the Inquisition...and that ordinary Jews cheer when a renegade Orthodox rebbe sucks the blood off a freshly circumcised penis."

This complaint, too, is familiar, and the answer (even when the point is not exaggerated, as it is by Prothero) is obvious. If only all religions were as humane and as nuanced as yours, gentle theologian, all would be well, and Hitchens would not have needed to write this book. But come down to earth in the real world: in Islamabad, say, in Jerusalem, or in Hitchens's home town, Washington DC, where the President of the most powerful nation on earth takes his marching orders directly from God. Channel-hop your television in any American hotel room, look aghast at the huge sums of money subscribed to build megachurches, at museums depicting dinosaurs walking with men, and see what I mean.”

Response: I think Dawkins is right and wrong here. He is right that even when a religion is being true to itself and acting in the best possible way according to its core values and beliefs, it is not thereby immune to criticism. Further, he is right to raise the question why religions seem to struggle to be ‘good’ rather than ‘bad’. But he is wrong to imply, as he does by the way he characterises Christianity solely in terms of Bush, money-grabbing churches, and creationism, that each religion has no merit or is incapable of exhibiting merit. There are great swathes of Christianity, for example, which (accepting for a moment Dawkins critical measurements) do not support Bush, building mega-churches, or promoting creationism AND which contribute to the development of the world through building great Christian lives, assisting the poor, and caring for the needy. (Picking up on Hitchen’s subtitle) many Christians (and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists) do NOT experience the practice of their faith as poisonous and are baffled by how religions have, in some places, at some times, become so horrible. To speak from a openly Christian position, it is difficult to understand how a grace-filled, love-your-enemies as well as love-your-neighbours, caring for the poor Christ-like manner of life is necessarily poisonous.

Challenge Three: The lifestyle and values of the messenger do not negate the message.

“Finally, there are those critics who can't resist the ad hominem blow: "Don't you know Christopher Hitchens supported the invasion of Iraq?" But so what? I'm not reviewing his politics, I'm reviewing his book. And what a splendid, boisterously virile broadside of a book it is.”

Response: this is the easiest challenge to respond to. We can agree with Richard Dawkins. Ad hominem attacks are exciting in the bear pit of a debating arena, but valueless as ideas. Occasionally the lifestyle and values of a proponent undermine the case they are trying to make (e.g. a serial murderer trying to tell us we should not resort to violence), but Hitchen’s views on Iraq have nothing to do with the case he brings against religion.

In sum, Christians in the face of the Hitchens/Dawkins onslaught need to take care: poor reactive arguments will be ravaged! We would also do well to humbly accept fair criticism and make changes when repentance is required. Ditto, standing back when sacred cows are being slaughtered (which of course does not require an atheist to be the throat-cutter; Luther and co were pretty sharp in this area)! But Dawkins/Hitchens have not made the case that religions, Christianity in particular, are completely, utterly, and permanently wrong.

A final thought, perhaps we need to prove Dawkins and Hitchens wrong by our deeds and not by our words.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Who is deluded: God or Dawkins?

The God Delusion

To many people Richard Dawkins needs no introduction. He’s that scientist chappy who promotes evolution, and denigrates religion with equal fervour in books with snappy titles such as The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker. I confess to never having read any of his books, despite hearing much about him from atheist friends, and thus recognising that at some point I should engage with his arguments. On a recent visit to a bookshop I handed over $40 to purchase his latest (2006) book The God Delusion. I am pleased to report that his book is easy to read and I have read it; which actually says something good about Dawkins’ style because I read very few books these days in toto. Let me confess something else. I read such books with a little bit of trepidation – what if the argument of the book is compelling and I find myself persuaded to give up believing in God? I suppose if I became an atheist like Dawkins then I should be pleased to move from being a ‘minister of religion’ to being an ex-minister. But life is not that simple; and I have made an emotional investment in a way of life, just as I have in a marriage and in a family, and I cannot imagine giving any of the three up without the gravest of difficulty. So I am not an impartial reader of Dawkins’ attempt to persuade me (and every one of his readers) of the folly and danger of believing in God. Dawkins is, by the way, an ‘evangelist’ for atheism: religion is bad news in all its forms, moderate and extreme, but salvation both for the individual and for humanity lies in leaving religion behind and disavowing belief in God. He is very clear that he is delighted when he hears that he has influenced someone away from belief.

In the end, however, I think Dawkins makes it easy for someone like me. He has no compelling argument to give up belief in God even as he does provide compelling arguments for the comprehensive explanatory power of Darwinian evolution and does, I suggest, provide a compelling case for an atheist not to become a theist. In coming to this conclusion I may not be an impartial reader, but an internet trawl – not only of Christian reviewers – suggests I am not wrong either! To expand my conclusions in reverse order: Dawkins pulls out all stops as he makes the case that religion is nonsense, malevolent, and a curse on humankind. After reading The God Delusion no atheist would be tempted to think ‘but perhaps there is something to commend religion after all.’ There is just nothing, Dawkins argues, since religion is not true and thus even its putative consolatory value is fraudulent. Better by far to embrace life as it is – at least Dawkins is not pessimist and life as it is, without God, is not bleak, since we have the possibility of making as much of life as we want.

I am not much of a biologist and have largely left the ‘creationism versus evolutionism’ arguments alone until recently. But Dawkins is compelling as he handles that which he knows well: the variety of life we find on earth is well-explained by natural selection, and nothing about the development of life requires another explanation. However, far from thinking this made God unnecessary (as Dawkins argues) I found myself wondering whether God is incredibly smart. Silly me, of course God is – God is omniscient (according to theism, as Dawkins frequently reminds the reader before he points out some logical folly of such belief) – but what I wondered was this: it’s a lot of mental work (say) to invent flowers which reward bees with nectar in return for bees taking pollen to another flower, while keeping a restrictive eye on the potential for unwanted cross-pollination, and then having the nifty thought that perhaps nectar could both feed bees and humans … multiply all that kind of ‘design’ by a trillion times and you start to have an idea of what God had to do to both create and develop life on a non-Darwinian model (‘creationism’ if you will); but what if God was ‘smart’ more than ‘omniscient’ and decided to simply create energy and let it all happen (‘the big bang’ which Dawkins is inclined to accept, along with the associated theory that the universe is expanding rather than in a cycle of ‘bang-expand-contract-bang’)? That way the apparent design of life was accomplished on Earth by God’s masterstroke idea of ‘natural selection’ (maybe God had a wee hand in aligning Earth’s orbit so that life could begin and develop here in a way that almost certainly has not happened on the other planets of our solar system). The brilliance of ‘natural selection’ is not only that it ‘designs’ particular organisms, but it enables them to all live together in beneficial ways (though the lion might be more inclined than the antelope to agree with that description of the inter-connectedness of life). Dawkins would find my musing here highly disagreeable: his point is that ‘natural selection’ undoes the one possible – in his view - argument for the existence of God – the so called argument from design. My response invokes a God who is not necessary and that is irrational.

Except that my musings are not purely a response to Dawkins masterly account of the power of ‘natural selection’. Along the way Dawkins necessarily has to say something about how life began, for ‘natural selection’ can only apply to the development of life and not to its beginning. Here Dawkins leads me towards God and not away from God, hence my musings about the Creator God who saves mental effort when planning the development of life (is such a creator God ‘more perfect’ than the ‘creationist’ God?). For Dawkins recognises that the Earth is in a remarkably propitious position for life to begin and to develop (neither too close nor too far away from the sun; in a solar system with just one sun; etc). Are we stupendously lucky, or what? But then that’s the point: maybe we are in this perfect place because it was made just so, not is just so. Dawkins won’t agree but his problem is that many do agree and in one form of religion or another express their belief in the theistic God who made our world. Thus God is less disposable from the world than Dawkins reckons not least because he (i.e. Dawkins) has such a lovely description of the wonder of the world that, for this reader at least, I find myself seeing God at work in the world, not least in setting it up as the best of all possible nurseries for life to begin.

Finally, why has Dawkins not provided a compelling argument for a theist to turn atheist? Essentially Dawkins loses by exaggerating the evils, faults and pitfalls of religion to the point where what he says is ‘religion’ is unrecognisable as the ‘typical’ experience of the ‘mainstream’ religionist. If Christianity – even the conservative Christianity I have experienced all my life – were Dawkinish in character then let me out of here. No doubt it is in some of its fringes – experienced by Dawkins in various ways, including some terrible hate mail he has received – but it just ain’t so in its ‘average’ reality. (Similarly, I suggest, for Muslims experience of Islam, Buddhists experience of Buddhism, etc). Even in Dawkins’ attack on Scripture, he misses the bus. Every terrible act of ethnic cleansing, barbaric punishment, and extreme religiosity (e.g. God asking Abraham to kill his only son) is heavily underlined by Dawkins. But by failing to find any sign of God’s grace in Scripture, he effectively asks his Christian readers to reject a caricature of Scripture and not Scripture itself. There is a case against the truth of Christianity (and against each of the other religions) which can be made, but Dawkins has yet to discover it. However, he is a scientist, so perhaps one day he will find it!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

A Book Review

John Spong Jesus for the non religious: recovering the divine at the heart of the human New York: HarperCollins, 2007. ISBN 13: 978 0 73228495 4.

This is an odd book by John Spong, retired bishop of The Episcopal Church and prolific author of books urging change to Christianity. For starters the title is wrong. This book is not about ‘Jesus for the non religious’ but about ‘a non religious Jesus for the religious’. Then there is the question of what the book seeks to achieve. Is Spong saving Christianity from irrelevancy, from an inevitable death if it does not change its mode of believing (p. xiii), or articulating an alternative to ‘the Christianity that is now emerging in America and in the Third World … with which I do not choose to be identified’ (p. 7)? Christianity cannot both be dying and already renewed in its life! This is not an idle jab at a trivial piece of inconsistency. The hectoring tone in the book – most Christians past and present are hysterical, insecure, and defensive – presumes the urgency of Spong’s rescue. But Christianity is alive and well. If we accept this fact which Spong himself recognises however briefly, we may wonder if the hectoring tone means Spong is actually the hysterical one as he kicks against that which he does not like.

Certainly Spong goes to extreme lengths to distance himself from normative Christian understanding of Jesus as he strips him of traditional beliefs in order to reveal the attractive and inspiring essence of Jesus. Off go the nativity stories, Joseph and Mary and her virginity, the Twelve Disciples, all the miracle stories, the crucifixion narrative (‘liturgy masquerading as history’) and (of course) the resurrection in respect of any thought of its literalness, physical reality, or basis in an empty tomb. Revealed is the wonder of Jesus the person in whom the divine is perfectly and completely at one with his humanity. Thus encountered, Jesus beyond death transformed the outlook of the disciples (the true resurrection) and inspired the gospels and epistles, along with the development of the Christian movement. For Spong, this essential Jesus, is what all humanity, religious and non-religious needs to (re)discover in order that we might be transformed beyond the racism, chauvinism, homophobia, etc which restrict our experience of the ‘abundant life’ promised by Jesus. Certainly Spong arrives via this route at a very attractive Jesus. The odd thing is that he appears to have no ability to understand that Christianity full of the beliefs he strips away is just as able to arrive at the same conclusion.

In fact Spong repeatedly demonstrates his inability to acknowledge that there are other possibilities to consider at each significant point in his argument. Thus the reader, through Spong’s undoubted cleverness in logic and clarity of writing, is easily led to think that Christianity is clueless and irrational. How can miracles have happened since, if they have taken place, then God is exposed to the charge of evil neglect of all the sick people who are not healed? Stupid traditional Christianity! But it is Spong who is neglectful, failing to widen his discussion to present the reader with the possibility that miracles are intended as signs confirming the truth of God’s message rather than as arbitrary acts of an ultimately cruel God. Or, we might consider Spong’s theory of the composition of the gospels as largely driven by the needs of the early church to create an annual cycle of readings and thus prone to invent stories to fill the gaps. Here Spong relies heavily on the work of Michael Goulder, a brilliant British scholar, available to the world of scholarship for over thirty years. But the reader receives no inkling of the fact that Goulder has not persuaded the majority of scholars, and thus that other explanations should be considered.

But the deepest flaw is Spong’s approach to the role of ‘theism’ in the development of both Scripture and the history of Christianity. Theism is the notion that God exists beyond humanity, independently of any projection of human need for ‘a god’, yet is involved in human life. For Spong, theism originated from the fear of primeval humanity which projected the existence of a god with power to overcome human insecurity. At precisely this point of positing projection as its origin Spong begins to falsely characterize theism, so that before long theism is responsible for all kinds of evil in humanity such as racism, chauvinism and homophobia. Thus Spong defines ‘theism’ with no acknowledgement that other definitions might be less susceptible to his withering scorn. Then Spong argues that the essence of Jesus is the unity of the human and the (non-theistic) divine (cf. the second half of the title, ‘recovering the divine at the heart of the human’). On Spong’s presupposition this Jesus quickly got overlaid with theistic miracle stories in order to express his divinity, and the Christian movement which followed became bedevilled with theistic theology. Only now (with a bit of help from theological predecessors such as Schleiermacher and Tillich) is the true ‘God-in-Christ’ revealed through Spong’s scholarly investigations.

The rich ironies here seem totally lost on Spong. How pathetic is the Spongian God that (s)he should have been lost for such a long time? Given his acknowledgement of the greater power of secularism than Christianity in overcoming (in large measure) evils such as racism, chauvinism, and homophobia (p. 229), why does he remain a Christian (let alone a bishop of a Christian church)? If Spong is correct, and virtually all of Christianity, past and present is wrong, is he not himself a great and wonderful saviour, not only of Christianity but of the world himself?

But beyond humour when reflecting on these ironies is this serious issue: does Spong’s God exist beyond the bounds of humanity? It seems from this book that ‘God’ is indistinguishable from the perfection of human life and has no existence other than the projection of human desire. If this is so, then Spong’s stripped down Jesus is troublingly inconsistent with his new apostle’s devotion, for the unstrippable characteristic of Jesus is that he served, spoke for and prayed to a theistic ‘God’. Further questions arise. Why Jesus? When such hard work is required to penetrate through the theistic forest to the pure essence of Jesus, the reader is entitled to wonder whether better examples of the divine encountered in the human could be adduced (St Francis, Buddha, Ghandi, Mother Teresa?). Which Jesus? In common with many others who have sought some version of the real Jesus lying behind the Jesus of Scripture (apparently always a false Jesus!), the discovered Jesus bears uncanny resemblance to its discoverer! The reality of Jesus, however, has always been that he has been an uncomfortable figure, challenging all who attempt to adjust the picture of him to better fit some version of current reality. In the end Spong’s reading of Jesus is a failure because he predetermines that Jesus will be coherent with Spong’s vision of how the world should be. The real Jesus always asks people to follow him and not the other way round!

A lecture given in 2005

Anglican Evangelicals: Mainstream or Taliban?
By: The Revd Dr Peter Carrell
Latimer Fellowship of New Zealand
Annual General Meeting– 20 September 2005

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Anyone for women bishops?

The arguments for and against women being ordained to the office of deacon, priest, and bishop in the Anglican Church do not receive much discussion in the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia. This is because the state of the play is fairly settled, with the usual suspects in arguments against such ordinations in the wider Anglican Communion (evangelicals, anglo-catholics) generally in our Kiwi context being unconvinced that God is against such ordinations. However a couple of events have prompted me to review my own thinking on the matter in recent days.

First, we hosted Rev. Professor Gerald Bray in our Diocese. Gerald is Editor of The Churchman (among other roles), and some of my reading of his editorials alerted me to the importance he attaches to the decision to ordain women to the priesthood in the Church of England (early 1990s) and to the current debate in that church over the possibility of approval being given to the ordination of women as bishops. This importance concerns the role of Scripture in the process of making decisions in the church, with a clear sight on the continuing debate over the ordination of partnered gay men and lesbian women, and the authorisation of blessings of same sex couples. One aspect of Gerald Bray’s thinking on these matters is that conservative evangelicals do not have consistent Scripture-based arguments for ordination of women and against ordination of partnered gays and lesbians.

Secondly, I notice that an important decision within the Anglican Church of Australia has been published (late September, 2007), whereby a tribunal with high authority on such matters has said that no legal impediment exists to proceeding to ordain women as diocesan bishops. That is, no rules need to be changed, which is a sigh of relief to those Australian Anglicans who wish to see women become bishops as they realise they would be unlikely to succeed with a change of rules given the opposition of the Diocese of Sydney to such ordinations (which also extends to opposition to the ordination of women to the priesthood). Thus a conservative evangelical such as myself has been reminded that I am in disagreement with conservative evangelicals such as Gerald Bray and Archbishop Peter Jensen whom I respect immensely and with whom I understand myself to share many cherished theological beliefs. The reason why I am in disagreement begins with a piece of autobiography!

More years ago than I care to remember, when I was a student at Canterbury University involved in the Christian Union (i.e. conservative evangelical student group), we had a constitution which forbade women from becoming President of the Christian Union. Women could take up any other role on the executive committee (except for Men’s Vice-President; men could take up any role except for Women’s Vice-President). The Canterbury University Students’ Association discovered this clause and asked us to change it – it may have been more of a threat, actually: change or else leave the Association (and the use of the CUSA building). Naturally we had a meeting about this and I recall being to the forefront of arguments to change our constitution. I do not recall any great profound theological contribution on my part. But what I do recall, both from that occasion, and from other interactions in the world of Christian Union activity, at Canterbury, at Otago, and nationally through Tertiary Student Christian Fellowship conferences and councils, is developing the conviction that where we find women who are gifted, able leaders, then gender discrimination should not prevent them exercising leadership at the highest level of church or other Christian organisation. I have known some remarkable women leaders. I have never observed failure in an organisation or parish where these leaders were in charge. (Of course, I have also known some unsatisfactory leaders and observed sad results from their leadership, but here is the thing: they have been both male and female!)

Naturally the question arises in the mind of a conservative evangelical, what about Scripture and its widely-understood prohibition of women at the highest levels of leadership in the life of the church? In my own thinking about this question I find myself drawn first to the experience of the early church and also before that to the experience of Israel. In Scripture we find that at certain times and places women rise up to positions of leadership which are all the more striking because of our recognition that the societies of ancient Israel and the Graeco-Roman Mediterranean world were patriarchal. Deborah (Judges 4-5), Abigail (1 Samuel 25) and Huldah (2 Kings 22) stand out from the Old Testament and stand alongside Prisca, Phoebe, Junia (Romans 16), and Euodia and Syntyche from the New Testament. (I am particularly intrigued by the latter two whom Paul describes as having ‘laboured side by side with me in the gospel’ (Philippians 4:3); not, ‘laboured subordinate to me in the gospel.’) The sense I get from the history of the earliest church as conveyed in the New Testament is that there was no universal rule applying on a timeless basis which prohibited women participating in the leadership of the church. The way in which references are made to women such as those mentioned above, and others (especially in Romans 16) without comment about any rules which were kept or broken by their example suggests we are wrong to respond to their examples, as some do, by saying ‘well, Prisca always taught with her husband by her side, and Phoebe was not a leader over anyone, she served and supplied the funds for the church to operate, and so on, so they all kept within the rules.’ That there was no universal, timeless rule applying is not surprising when we recognise that a hallmark of the Christian movement was freedom, in particular a freedom to be flexible about shape and structure of the movement as it took root in different places and in different cultures. Generally the early Christians, following the example of Jesus, dispensed with rules rather than made rules.

With this background in mind, the most discussed passage in respect of women in leadership, 1 Timothy 2:11-15 (addressed to the church in Ephesus), seems more than a little curious. First, a very clear rule is laid down, ‘Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness’ (v. 11). Then a personal ruling is given, ‘I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent’ (v. 12). The mood here seems a long way from Paul’s affectionate respect and collegial concern for Phoebe, Prisca, Junia and company. It’s also some distance from Paul’s baptismal inclusiveness in Galatians 3.28. I suggest we are entitled to wonder if some circumstance – a difficult and demanding one at that – has provoked the rules of 2:11-12.

A further hint of this difficulty is found in 1 Timothy 2:15. Here a very long exegetical story must be cut short for our present purpose, but we begin by observing that in complete contradiction of Pauline teaching on salvation through faith in the completed work of Christ on the cross, this verse implies that women will be saved by a work of their own, bearing children. Surely this verse does not mean what it appears to say. My own suggestion, taking a cue from 1 Timothy 4:3 with its concern about false teachers in the Ephesian church who ‘forbid marriage’, is that what 1 Timothy 2:15 means is ‘Contrary to those false teachers who argue that marriage imperils one’s salvation, woman will not lose their salvation through bearing children, rather they will be saved even though they bear children, providing (as with all Christian men and women) they persevere in faith, love, holiness, with modesty.’ But whether this particular suggestion carries conviction or not, 1 Timothy 2:15 certainly invites us to ponder the peculiar circumstances of the Ephesian church addressed by Paul through Timothy. As a matter of fact, so does 2:12 which uses a rare Greek word, authentein, translated above as ‘to have authority over’. Why use this rare word? Again, is it possible (as some commentators think) that Paul was not addressing the ordinary situation of one person being in authority over others but the situation in which one person (here, one or more Ephesian women) exercises an unhealthy domination over others (here, men in the congregation). In turn, in respect of 1 Timothy 2:13-14, is Paul challenging the process by which women have become dominators of men: like Eve of old they have first been deceived (by the false teachers) and then they have led their husbands astray?

Again, let’s be clear that a very long exegetical account is required here to work through the many issues these verses raise – a small book’s worth and not a few paragraphs in a web column! But the gist of the argument is discernible: there are grounds for contemplating that 1 Timothy 2:11-12, much quoted by conservative evangelicals in support of refusing the ordination of women to the priesthood and to the episcopate, involves rulings relating to extraordinary circumstances (which, to be sure, could arise in any generation and in any culture) and not to the ordinary situation of the church.

If this argument be accepted then much of the Scripture-based opposition from conservative evangelicals to the ordination of women to the priesthood and to the episcopate collapses. This in turn allows conservative evangelicals to embrace the spirit of the New Testament which is remarkably open to the involvement of women in every aspect of church leadership. This spirit is, of course, demonstrated in Jesus’ own ministry and mission, where we find women disciples (e.g. Luke 8:2-3), and women associated with the key salvific events of the cross and the resurrection as primary witnesses. In our present context in which boards and committees of human persons sit in evaluative judgement of people as they seek acceptance for ordination and apply for appointments, we can ourselves demonstrate this spirit of openness by considering each applicant on the basis of the calling discerned within their lives and the gifts and abilities recognised in their service of the gospel, without regard for whether they are male or female!

This argument, as already indicated, requires a more detailed exposition if it is to carry weight. In brief, I would see it needing extension through consideration of passages such as 1 Corinthians 11:2-18 (where one point to be made is that male ‘headship’ pertains to marriage and not to church leadership) and 14:33-36 (which is similar in sentiment to 1 Timothy 2:11); supported by consideration of the ‘tendency’ within the New Testament to affirm and advance the equality of men and women in the kingdom of God; and strengthened by considering the achievement of the cross in effecting transformation of fallen humanity, including the implication of 1 Timothy 2: 14 that women are prone to being ‘deceived’. But I offer this argument as a demonstration that conservative evangelicals can support the possibility of women being priests and bishops in the Anglican Church without diminution of commitment to upholding and honouring the authority of Scripture.

Communion or Community of Communions?

At risk of over simplification, I suggest two movements within the Anglican Communion are driving the current crisis forward to its eschaton. One movement could be described as ‘Jude 3’ since it understands ‘the faith’ as that which ‘was once for all delivered to the saints.’ In this movement there is complete conviction that our theology and our ethics were more or less settled with the final writings of the New Testament at the close of the first century A.D. When proposals come forward which appear novel, such as endorsing faithful same sex partnerships through blessing or ordination, or softening the exclusivity of Jesus from ‘the way’ to ‘a way’ to God, this movement is unmoved. What has been delivered once for all does not permit such endorsement or such softening. To be sure this movement is not completely united on some matters such as the ordination of women which is novel and unacceptable to some in the movement but is a flowering of that seeded in the apostolic age and thus acceptable to others.

The other movement could be described as ‘John 16:13’ since it works on the basis that ‘When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.’ In other words ‘the faith’ was delivered to the saints but the saints did not receive all the truth. In this movement there is complete conviction that our theology and our ethics are not yet, perhaps never will be settled. Novel proposals tend to be welcomed rather than rejected; the Spirit guiding into all truth, after all, is to be expected to catalyse such possibilities.

Whether either or both these two movements are legitimate developments of any preceding stage in Anglicanism need not detain us. These movements are entrenched in the reality of Anglicanism in the twenty-first century. Neither is going to be ruled out by denying its validity as an ‘Anglican’ phenomenon because it is (say) lacking coherency with Hooker or repugnant to the Thirty Nine Articles. Either, even both movements (‘a plague on both your houses’) might be dispossessed of membership of the Anglican Communion but that would not stop vigorous assertion of claims by each movement to be truly and thoroughly ‘Anglican’. Thus the question which will not readily go away is whether the Anglican Communion can find a way to live with both movements or whether it cannot contain what Anglicanism has become.

Between John 16:13 and Jude 3 lies Philippians 2:2, ‘complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind’ (with acknowledgement to Ephraim Radner’s recent emphasis on this verse in relation to Anglican Communion troubles). What joy it would be if Anglican koinonia can be refreshed! Currently there are several strategies in the air concerning the goal of a common mind for the Anglican Communion. One strategy is the pursuit of a common mind through change of mind: those reluctant to embrace the Windsor Report, for example, are urged (even demanded) to commit to it; or, those seemingly unable to envisage communing at the same table of fellowship as the Bishop of New Hampshire are encouraged to enlarge their vision of the divergencies which Anglican comprehensiveness can include. Another strategy is similar but with a different focus and involves reaching a common mind through a process of agreement which probably (if not certainly) involves some change, though not necessarily a change of mind. Thus the proposed Anglican Covenant is envisaged as focusing the minds of current member churches of the Anglican Communion in respect of the issues contributing to the current crisis: might some change of mind be involved before signing? Might some lack of change of mind lead to not signing the Covenant and thus concomitantly to some new relationship with the signers of the Covenant (e.g. associate membership rather than full membership of the Anglican Communion)? Might signing the Covenant lead to some consequential discipline of a signing church? Another strategy seeks a common mind by calling together those of a common mind. In its own way the Lambeth 2008 invitation does this by stressing the importance of commitment to the Windsor Report and to the idea of an Anglican Covenant.

Without intention of preferring any one of the strategies outlined above (or any other strategy) we offer here some reflection on whether there is any hope for the wish of Philippians 2:2 to be fulfilled in our Communion troubled as it is by the movements of ‘John 16:13’ and ‘Jude 3’. One observation is that there is real distance between the two movements. Intrinsic to the ‘Jude 3’ movement is an intensity of conviction developed through 2000 years of contending for the doctrine of the church, both in external and internal contexts. With specific respect to issues of human sexuality, the ‘Jude 3’ movement’s conviction is intensified through the weight of history: for centuries before Christ and for twenty centuries since the people of God have known only one standard, monogamous marriage or celibacy, however many deviations from the standard may have occurred in the history of Israel (polygamy in particular). Conversely, the ‘John 16:13’ movement feels no such weight and feeds from a different reading of 2000 years of history. In that reading the highlights are the points of change in attitude by the church – to slavery, to women, to people of colour, and now to gay and lesbian people. A second, related observation is that each movement faces issues of the late modern and post-modern eras as different challenges. For ‘Jude 3’ the possibility of acceptance of same sex partnerships is revolutionary, for ‘John 16:13’ it is evolutionary. For the former a move towards Jesus as ‘a saviour’ rather than ‘the saviour’ is a denial of truth written with the blood of martyrs; for the latter it is an affirmation of truth consequential on dialogue with other world religions. Already we can begin to see that finding grounds for hope of Philippians 2:2 being fulfilled in the Anglican Communion may ultimately be elusive!

Yet it can also be observed that there is much to be lost by thinking we are justified in being party to the Communion fracturing. A first consideration is the question whether there is such difference that warrants a parting of the ways. Speaking personally, I have noticed over the years some considerable difference in theology between myself and brothers and sisters in Christ who otherwise inhabit the world of ‘conservative evangelicalism’, yet I have not broken fellowship with them. Sorely tempted though I may be in this present crisis, have I grounds for walking apart? A second consideration is the question what would be achieved in respect of (a) ‘ordinary parishioners’ and (b) ‘census Anglicans’? Someone recently observed to me that the current battles are largely between the ‘elites’ in our church! It is possible that the consciences of theologically-sensitized leaders will be salved by separation but the thinking of ‘ordinary parishioners’ become confused. Further, do we not run the risk that many ‘census Anglicans’ will be even less motivated to become active Anglicans, convinced that a church divided over sex is completely out of touch with society? A third consideration concerns whether there would be unity in any one part of a divided Communion? Let’s put this another way: having framed description of difference in the Communion in terms of two competing movements, as we have done here, there is a certain attraction in thinking of two new dynamic entities arising from the ashes of the old Communion, each fervently proclaiming the gospel of Christ, albeit with different content. This might not be a disaster … we could reasonably hope! But the fact is that, at least on the day of writing these words, there are grounds for believing that the Communion will not be neatly divided but fractured into several parts, if not splintered into many pieces!

In the end, taking a cue from a recent piece of Archbishop Peter Jensen’s thinking, we may find that the – inevitable – compromise is that the Anglican Communion can no longer be a Communion in the sense of one people gathered round one table with one mind but will develop different arrangements. Might we become an Anglican Community of Communions, a set of Anglican tables around each of which people of one mind unite, with the common mind of this Community based on shared appreciation for our heritage and not on shared approach to Scripture and theology?

Lessons from Church History

Recently I read a whole book on the history of the Church of England. I think its the first time I have done that. It is a very interesting history and I reckon there are a few things we can learn from it. But rather than get too serious about those lessons I offer the following:

Whimsical reflections from the History of the Church of England at a time of upheaval among the ‘descendants’ of the Mother Church: draw your own analogies with our day!

(1) Despite disagreement and division, a settlement in favour of ‘comprehensiveness’ is always possible:
- the Synod of Whitby (664) brought together Celtic and Roman Anglicans and resolved a sharp dispute over the date of Easter
- the Elizabethan Settlement (1559) steered the church carefully between the Scylla of Rome and the Charybdis of Geneva

(2) Despite earnest attempts to include or retain those on one edge or other of the church, it may not happen:
- The Toleration Act of 1689 which granted freedom of worship to orthodox Protestant Nonconformists sealed the schism between Nonconformism and Anglicanism. It came after an attempt to include the Nonconformists in the Church of England with one part of the church rewriting the Book of Common Prayer was rejected by another.
- John Wesley died ‘within’ the Church of England (1791), but his Methodist movement diverged from it, and that movement itself split down its Arminian and Calvinist flanks. (Actually its arguable that the CofE did not try very hard to retain the Methodists).
- John Newman left the Church of England for Rome (1845) but other Tractarians, notably Pusey and Keble, remained in the Church of England.

(3) If you are a controversialist, do not think death is the end of your troubles:
- John Wycliffe’s body was dug up years after he was buried (1384), burned, and the ashes thrown in a river (1428).

(4) Schism may be simply a prelude to reconciliation:
- the Nonjurors were a group of bishops and clergy who decided in 1689, when William III and Mary were granted the throne in favour of the ejected James II, that they could not transfer their oath of allegiance from one sovereign to another. They seceded from the church, managed to provide a succession of bishops, but could not maintain the schism beyond the beginning of the nineteenth century.

(5) It is possible to be both wrong and right at the same time:
- the Nonjurors (again): they were right to be loyal to their oath to their king (James II) but they were wrong to overlook his Romanism which would have undermined their Anglicanism should he and his line have remained on the throne.

(6) (With an eye on those in the Anglican Communion opposed to female leadership) Some of the best years have been under a woman governor:
- Elizabeth I: after the blood and gore of the Henry VIII to Queen Mary switchback era, things settled down, peace broke out, and Hooker wrote the greatest work of Anglican theology apart from the BCP itself, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.
- Anne: in 1704 Queen Anne restored to the church the tenths and first-fruits annexed to the Crown in 1534 by – who else – Henry VIII. This sum was called Queen Anne’s Bounty and was used for augmenting clergy stipends.
- Victoria: during Queen Vic’s reign the Church of England grew its offshore presence to the point where it could truly claim to be a ‘catholic’ in the sense of ‘worldwide’ church, and the first Lambeth Conference was held in 1868.

(7) Long periods of conflict can lead to Anglicans with unusual names: it is said that Latitudinarianisn in the late seventeenth century arose because ‘a century of religious strife and religious confusion had produced in many men a sense of sheer weariness’ and so they escaped from the factionalism of Anglicans with short descriptive names, i.e. from the quarrels between ‘High’ and ‘Low’ church!!

(8) It is the permanent character of the Anglican Church to oscillate between the primacy of Scripture and the primacy of other things (the papacy, philosophy, ritual, etc):
- Wycliffe, Tyndale, Cranmer, the Puritans, the Wesleys, the Clapham Sect each represent strong ‘Scripture-based’ movements in the life of the Church of England, each battled against other movements and moods in the life of the church, and each had their day in the sun; but none ‘triumphed’ in the sense that the change they brought continued without challenge, revision, or reversion to some degree or another.

(9) The future may be with us in the present, but it can be difficult to recognise:
- who in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries recognised that the maligned and persecuted Lollards were the precursors of the Protestants of the sixteenth century?

(10) Foreign intervention can do a lot of good:
- the English Reformation benefited enormously from the likes of Europeans Peter Martyr, Martin Bucer, and A Lasco who shifted to England from the Continent.
- would we have had the King James Version of the Bible if James I had not shifted from Scotland to England?
- William III, a Dutch Calvinist, brought over with his wife Mary to replace James II, finished off Romanist tendencies in the English monarchy once and for all. - Moravians living in London were instrumental in the conversion of John Wesley.