Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Will Anglican conservatives be left behind? Are Roman conservatives the new Pharisees? (1)

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the recent synod in Rome - see various preceding posts - is that Pope Francis permitted an openness to the synod which lifted the lid on the diversity of considerations being canvassed as Rome engages with sex, marriage and family in the 21st century.

What we have seen, including statements about votes for each section of the final document, is a church which acts like other churches synodically (to a degree, I acknowledge it was bishops voting, not other clergy let alone laity). In the statement of the voting, and in some reported comments about the course of debate, we see a church as prone to division into 'conservative' and 'liberal' camps as many other churches.

After the synod, who would swim the Tiber for the sake of joining a church which had every issue on human sexuality sewn up, neatly packaged and guaranteed to provide stable, 'conservative' answers for the remainder of this century?

Of course, if one yearns for a very slow gradual development of doctrine and its application to real life, then Rome is your church. It would be a mistake to read too much into the synod's openness to change last week. In one sense at least, in respect of doctrine, of who may formally be welcomed at the eucharist, nothing changed. But was there anything in the synod to discourage bishops and priests who tacitly welcome the remarried or those in an openly same sex partnership to communion?

Within our own Kiwi ranks, Archbishop John Dew has nailed his liberal (i.e. open-to-change) colours to the mast here.

On Roman conservatism I have been alerted to an extraordinary pairing of columns, one from Ross Douthat representing tough, no nonsense conservatism and a reply by Andrew Sullivan representing a robust, liberal appreciation for Francis and his perceived aims.

Douthat has this extraordinary paragraph, though ordinary enough for quite a few conservatives as it expresses sentiments I have been seeing on the internet these past few weeks:

"But it [i.e. a reversal of approach by the church] would leave many of the church’s bishops and theologians in an untenable position, and it would sow confusion among the church’s orthodox adherents — encouraging doubt and defections, apocalypticism and paranoia (remember there is another pope still living!) and eventually even a real schism.

Those adherents are, yes, a minority — sometimes a small minority — among self-identified Catholics in the West. But they are the people who have done the most to keep the church vital in an age of institutional decline: who have given their energy and time and money in an era when the church is stained by scandal, who have struggled to raise families and live up to demanding teachings, who have joined the priesthood and religious life in an age when those vocations are not honored as they once were. They have kept the faith amid moral betrayals by their leaders; they do not deserve a theological betrayal."

This kind of claim, of superior orthodoxy through morally worthy behaviour in holding the church together in the face of countervailing tendencies towards diminished orthodoxy or disintegration of the church, is palpable nonsense. If worthiness favoured the worthy (in their own eyes) Jesus would never have taken the Pharisees on! The challenge to be merciful - thanks be to God for Francis making this challenge - is not to be dismissed by the vague possibility that to show mercy will undermine those who need no mercy because they are righteous.

Peter Steinfels takes Douthat on in Commonweal. One part of his critique is the simple observation that all is not simple when it comes to human relationships which fail to live to the ideal. The history of the church shows that, actually, it has not held, universally, to one and only one line:

"Is it possible that the problem posed by the dynastic marriage between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, a Spanish princess and the aunt of the Emperor Charles V, whose imperial forces had just sacked Rome and imprisoned the pope, is not altogether determinative of contemporary cases of failed marriages and lasting remarriages?

Might he recognize that the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, whose sacraments and clergy Rome accepts as valid, is no less aware of Jesus’ words about adultery but has reached different conclusions regarding remarriage and admission to communion? Is he aware of the early church’s complicated history surrounding the question of admission and readmission to communion?
Questions about divorce, remarriage, and reception of communion are not easily resolved, least of all by me. But Douthat’s assertions that the matter is simply “not debatable” is unfounded. Likewise his claim that anything besides categorically judging a second marriage adulterous would necessarily reverse rather than develop church teaching. "

If a question arises from the Douthat (and others') approach to the moral rights of conservatives to impose their will on the whole church as to a new Pharisaism arising, there is another question to ponder, closer to our Anglican home. As Rome engages with reality, are Anglican conservatives in danger of being left behind in a changing churchscape?

1 comment:

Father Ron Smith said...

Meanwhile, ACNS reports on a new consensus between Anglican and Oriental Orthodox on the theology of Incarnation!

Not all Church bodies are content to remain in isolation from one another in matters of God's intersection with us human beings - on a fleshly basis.