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.

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