Sunday, July 4, 2010

Troubling Text

For nearly a week now I have been thinking off and on about the sermon Presiding Bishop Schori preached in New Zealand last Sunday (the same sermon in Auckland in the morning as in Christchurch in the evening). The full text is published here. Part of my hesitancy in writing anything about this sermon is that, inevitably, it can be seen as a 'picking on the bishop'. But a lot is at stake these days in the life of global Anglicanism, including events in the days since the sermon when it is possible that some moves have been made which add up to the dominance of one theology over another in the make up of the AC Standing Committee.

The sermon, as sermons go, as sermons delivered by bishops go (in my experience of some 40 years of knowingly hearing episcopal sermons), is fine. One sermon cannot be expected to have all doctrinal "i"s dotted and "t"s crossed. Most sermons I hear (and, in all likelihood, also the ones I deliver) have a flaw. In evangelical circles, for example, it is worrying how many profess to preach grace and then apply works as remedy for life's ills! Nevertheless, this sermon is representative of something larger than itself, a theological tendenz in other published writings emanating from the high levels of TEC. (Yes, also representative of thinking we can find in my own church, which also has a member on the AC Standing Committee).

It is within the following paragraphs that I find my reading of the sermon as most troubled:

"The guy who drove me to the airport went a way I hadn’t gone before. It was an eye-opener. We went by a Jewish center with beautiful mosaics on the front of the building, and young men in yarmulkes walking down the street.

We stopped at a red light and I looked over at the next car, to see a Sikh in turban and full beard, with a ceremonial knife hanging from his rear view mirror. That knife is actually a symbol of freedom – in the ability to choose non-violence.

The next block was filled by a beautiful old stone church complex – Mary, Queen of Martyrs Roman Catholic Church. The shops and storefronts gave evidence of the world’s many families, languages, peoples, and nations.

Are we free enough to see that as blessing? Are we free enough to meet all the world’s people with a desire for their full flourishing? Can we be martyrs – witnesses – to the image of God in all people?

The freedom we have is to choose for those on the margins, to be in solidarity with the friendless and forgotten, the despised and the demonized. Exercising that freedom is almost always challenging – it annoys people who don’t see any need to change the status quo, it offends those in power, it challenges the ways of the world that say, “me first.” "

In the end I am simply unclear as a reader/hearer of this sermon whether the diversity of people belonging to other faiths is any kind of problem. It seems to be fine that some people in this world do not know Christ. Also unclear here is what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is. If the Gospel of Christ is a message of the transforming power of Christ to bring people from darkness to light, from bondage to the power of sin to freedom in the Spirit of God, available universally to all people, then that is opaque. It seems that the gospel is about 'full flourishing' of people (without address as to their responsibility for not fully flourishing (i.e. that 'all have sinned') since the responsibility by implications lies with those not on the margins, such as 'those in power'). Despite reference to the full flourishing of 'all the world's people', the gospel witness of Christians is to one side of the world divided into two sides: what Christians say to the marginalisers, the despisers, the demonizers about their being made in the image of God is not said.

But the most troubling aspect of what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is lies in these words,

"Can we be martyrs – witnesses – to the image of God in all people?".

The sentiment is understandable. People are made in the image of God, but not all know this, and knowing this could help significantly in confidently reaching out to embrace a fully flourishing life.

But questions flourish here. Where is the Gospel, and our witness to it defined in Scripture or theology as bearing witness to the image of God in all people? The normal sense of witness in relation to the Gospel is witness to Christ, better to Christ and what he has done for us on the cross. When the cross is at the heart of the gospel the connection to the idea of being made in the image of God is not 'that we are made in the image of God' but that we are marred as the image of God with the good news that through Christ the image may be restored. Further, this understanding applies to every human being, rich and poor, centre and margin, powerful and weak.

The crucial difference between the Gospel of Christ as taught in the New Testament and the Gospel represented here is that the difference the gospel makes is not through knowledge (overcoming my ignorance of my being made in the image of God) but through power (Christ transforming my life on the basis of his work on the cross forgiving my sin and defeating the powers of sin and death).

The difference will seem small, even negligible to many Anglicans. But on it turns quite a lot. When we get the gospel wrong, even on a small part, we are like a ship on a course relative to another ship. Initially the wrong bearing matters little because each ship can see each other. Eventually they become miles apart, and finally they are completely separated. The genius of Anglicanism, in a sense, is that it has held two or more ships together in its fleet, here and there correcting direction to enable each to be in sight of the other. The breakdown of Anglicanism in the 21st century could occur not because it has (as some allege) 'two religions' in its midst, but because it fails as a whole, or one or other or both religions fail, to correct course.

But then I may be wrong ...


Gene Packwood said...

And if a companion has gone off course, how far dare we follow, hoping to help them get back on course, before we lose our way?

Peter Carrell said...

Excellent point, Gene! There are some voices within TEC wondering just that about the wayward Communion :)

Tim Harris said...

Another thoughtful post Peter, and I especially appreciate your analogy of setting a compass course by just a few degrees of difference and noting the much greater consequences further into the journey.

I am intrigued, however, by how readily and confidently you dismiss the possibility there may be 'two religions' within one church, without giving reasons why. Is this because there have been no 'official' statements to that effect? A stronger case for a 'de facto' shift can be made, especially allied with the reluctance/refusal of bodies such as General Convention or General Synods to affirm traditional core doctrinal formulations.

It seems to me the PB demonstrates the art of employing traditional gospel terminology while actually making very different claims about the gospel.

The reference to the 'image of God' in all people is a classic case in point. She uses the phrase in exactly the same way as her mentor John Shelby Spong. It is statement of panentheism, and reflects a dismissal of any theistic understanding of God's independent existence.

I have little doubt that St Paul (or Peter and John for that matter) would describe such teaching as 'another Gospel'.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Tim
I may well be guilty of dismissing the fact of 'two religions' too lightly. However I am trying to reflect the fact that for centuries 'two religions' have jostled within the Anglican church. Not necessarily the same two religions through that time, and not necessarily retaining the two religions (one might think, for instance, of the inability to contain Methodism within 18th and early 19th century Anglicanism). Mt sense is that, even if we were (so to speak) to extinguish "TECism", we would be left with 'two religions' ... certainly within ACANZP, listening carefully to some things said, there are at least 'two religions' in our midst, and nothing to do with TEC per se, though panentheism figures in the mix!!

Anonymous said...

Mention of Spong is salutary. If this charlatan is indeed Schori's mentor, then we must doubt she is meaningfully Christian, i.e., within the meaning of the Nicene Creed. The compass metaphor is an old favorite of mine too, and its significance for the Creed is reflected in the homoousion vs. homoiousion, where an iota does make a lot of difference.
Spong's extreme heterodoxy has been known for years.
Al Mynors

Tim Harris said...

I think it is at this point your analogy of journeys proceeding from differing coordinates is especially pertinent. In creedal terms, in previous centuries and up to three decades ago the differences amounted to variations of core affirmations (for instance, alternate ways to construe a line or phrase of the creed, if you like). Now the scale is much greater (denials of the premises underlying the creeds themselves), and the dismissive pronouncements both more flagrant and coming from senior church leaders.

In terms of your analogy, at what point does the distance between ships mean that any semblance of being a recognisable flotilla is an illusion, especially where there is an avowed determination to make no change of course?

In a previous comment I made reference to Anglicanism's 'tea party and cream' approach to theological dialogue. All very interesting, and usually polite - but in my view, it too often lacks 'charitable candour' and allows theological journeys to progress without the warnings about losing the apostolic anchor points of faith.

The result (IMHO) is that Anglicanism in the west is fast becoming an insipid imitation of the Church we are called to be, with its failure to clearly, boldly and faithfully proclaim 'the Faith once delivered.'

We are still too concerned to step on toes or be decried by other persons within the church, and as a result continue to play clever games with words.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Tim,
I agree there needs to be plain speaking about theological difference between ships allegedly in the same flotilla apparently meant to be sailing in roughly the same direction!

It raises some questions about Communion bodies charged with doctrinal and other responsibilities, at least one of which is a body with some voting members made consultants!

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Al,
I have no idea who PB Schori's mentors are!

Anonymous said...

To extend the homoousion/homoiousion point: Nicea 325 didn't end Arianism, neither did Constantinople 381, because political Arianism continued as the preferred creed of the Visigoths and other barbarians. The struggle continued through the fifth and sixth centuries, until the conversion of Reccared I in Spain. Both creeds claimed to true to Scripture and could use biblical language.
Al Mynors

Howard Pilgrim said...

Al, you have an interesting point about the Arian controversy when you write, "Both creeds claimed to true to Scripture and could use biblical language." I am a little rusty on Nicean history, but as I recall, Arius was the outstanding biblical exegete and preacher of his day, and his opponents suffered under a major disadvantage of having to counter a great weight of scriptural texts read in their "plain sense" supporting his position. The issue was ultimately decided by political and military means, rather than the sanctity or scriptural correctness of those who emerged claiming the spoils of "orthodoxy". Not a good precedent for our current controversy!

Anonymous said...

Perhaps not quite as simple as that, Howard, although the decree od Theodosius was certainly important. There were still local babbles over Arianism - and church ownership - when Augustine was in Milan with Ambrose. Arius was renowned in his circles and had the mobs of Alexandria on his side, but Athanasius was equally renowned as an exegete, and he labored to show that while texts like John 14.28 ('The Father is greater than I') taken *in isolation* might be construed to teach ontological subordination, the consensus of the NT (and John's Gospel itself) resisted this notion. Athanasius had to labor for many years, suffering exile and attempts on his life by the Arian party, writing polemical tracts as well as calmer theological writings like De Incarnatione. The middle years of the 4th century roiled the Church, not least in the fallout from Julian the Apostate (David B. Hart is good on this time). The Catholic party largely prevailed within the Empire, but Arian missionaries like Ulfilas spread their creed among the barbarian foederati, who took Arianism to Spain and North Africa, taking Hippo Regius and Carthage as Augustine lay dying.
It was a long time before the Arian Visigothic rulers of Spain accepted Catholicism, c. 587 IIRC. So the Arian creed had to wait until Judge Russell rediscovered it in the 129th century.
(Of course, Arianism is a lot easier to understand for practical Germanic warriors than Nicene Trinitarianism! :))
Al Mynors

Anonymous said...

'local battles' - there were probably babbles too.

Al M.

Fr. Bryan Owen said...

I, too, have been hesitant to criticize my Presiding Bishop, concerned that it would, indeed, appear as "picking on the bishop." But last summer I finally had enough and posted on my blog a piece critical of her response to the question, "Is the only way to God through Jesus?" I concluded:

As I read it, the Presiding Bishop's response to the question, "Is the only way to God through Jesus?" is, "No, Jesus isn't the only way. Jesus is one of many valid ways to God. You have your way. We Christians have our way." ... Since the whole world already has access to God anyway, the Presiding Bishop concludes that special revelation is not so special, Jesus is not unique or necessary for salvation, and persons don't have to respond to the Gospel to be saved. Pushed to its limit, this line of reasoning denies the necessity of the Church itself in the economy of salvation.

My experience with what I have read from her both prior and subsequent to my blog posting is almost always troubling. Her thinking is often riddled with inconsistencies if not outright contradictions. But what's more troubling is that, however subtly, the signs of a theology that's driven off the Christian reservation are almost always there.

Bryden Black said...

While it is certainly true there were remnants of the Arian view of things, as one who has written and read much around the development of Nicene Theology, what was truly at stake was a basic clash of world-views. Classical Hellenism with its dualism versus the sheer 'fact' of God's freedom to become a human creature: as Barth wld put it many years later, "the actuality determines the possibility".
Today's clashes are similarly about putative possibilities - and lest we simply descend into "my experience" versus "your experience", even the possibilities are understood via socially "plausible" "availabilities" (Ricoeur).
What breaks the dead-lock is whether there is any Voice from Beyond, as opposed to merely own voices bouncing around our immanent world-views. That's what finally determined the win of Nicaea over Arianism: God's sheer Incarnational 'fact'.