Sunday, January 31, 2016


A couple of new links re the Primates' Meeting to read carefully.

There are lots out there (e.g. the list here).

Christopher Wells of The Living Church writes something close to my heart (as posted here recently) when he reflects on catholicity and apostolicity in the PM's communique. Verdict: not much progress.

Secretary-General Josiah Idowu-Fearon gives some inside oil on the Primates' Meeting, attempting to bust some myths and derail some legend making (H/T B. Walton). I note that he acknowledges a moment in the meeting when the primates thought a way forward was "to let two different Anglican Communions get on with their lives without having to worry about offending the other." The miracle of the meeting is that the primates resiled from this option and chose instead to walk together, to remain in unity. I wonder if the howls of outrage about the suspension of TEC from aspects of Communion life would soften if the howlers were to recognise that the alternative would be a completely different set of global Anglican arrangements in which TEC would not be part of the larger of two Anglican Communion? But the most important insight in Idowu-Fearon's article concerns the understanding he brings as to what life for an African Anglican primate is like.

Friday, January 29, 2016

TEC could yet shrink Communion to Ten Members

It is amazing, is it not, when Christians resort to strict interpretations of the law in order to defeat (say) the wisdom of the elders, or the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is as though we have never read the gospels, with their reiterated debates between Jesus and the scribes/Pharisees/Sadducees/lawyers.

Yet that is what is happening in TEC as ++Curry gives expression to the view that the Primates are one body (and not constitutionally important) and the ACC is another body (and constitutionally important).

"THE Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, the Rt Revd Michael Curry, has emphasised the autonomy of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC), in the wake of the Primates’ decision to censure his Church.
At their meeting in Canterbury earlier this month, the Primates’ required the US Episcopal Church to no longer represent them on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, not serve on the Primates or ACC standing committees, and not vote on matters of polity and doctrine at the ACC for a period of three years, as a consequence of its support for same-sex marriage. 
The Primates’ gathering, however, has no official executive status. The authority to enforce such steps rests with the ACC itself. 
Bishop Curry was asked directly whether he would contest these “consequences” at the next meeting of the ACC in April. On Wednesday, he would say only: “The ACC is the only formal constitutional body of the Anglican Communion and it will decide what it will do. Our representatives from the Episcopal Church look forward to being there.” 
Earlier this week, a prominent canon lawyer, Professor Norman Doe, state that the Primates’ ruling was not binding (News, 19 January). He described it as “completely unacceptable interference with the autonomy of each of these bodies as they transact their own business”."

Here is the thing about the Communion: it is not a society of members who paid their individual subs and get shirty when a coffee group of disgruntled grandees bypasses the constitutionally elected executive committee and makes a pronouncement. The Communion is made up of member churches. When the Primates meet, they bring their churches with them and so, when they speak and vote on certain matters, especially matters which boil down to, "Will my church remain a member or not?", it behoves the Communion to sit up and listen. It is not appropriate to invoke trivial legalisms like ++Curry (and a host of others) are doing when the primates have represented the views of their churches and not acted as 38 individuals randomly gathered in a meeting.

Let me spell it out. THE FUTURE OF THE COMMUNION AS A BODY OF 38 PROVINCES IS AT STAKE. If TEC play legal hardball and go to ACC intent on ignoring the Primates' decision then almost certainly the two-thirds or so provinces represented by the two-thirds or so primates voting to discipline TEC will walk away from future Primates' Meetings, Lambeth and maybe even ACC itself.

There would be, on my reckoning, about ten provinces willing to go along with TEC (even as great noises were made by most of them about staying in relationship with the 28 walking away).

So, go ahead TEC. Make our day. But history will judge you as responsible for carving Africa and Asia off the Communion.

Talk about the triumph of imperial and colonial powers ...

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A picture paints a thousand words

What thousand words is this picture saying?

++David Moxon's own report is here, but I suspect Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox might have their own thousands of words to say.

Pope Francis is really pulling out all the stops to reach out, beyond the strict literalness of Roman law (which, for instance, declares Mr David Moxon to be a layperson) and previously expressed papal views (that, saving the Eastern Orthodox) other Christians belong to "ecclesial communities" and not to actual, real churches. So here he includes Archbishop David Moxon in a shared blessing of thousands of Christians gathered at the end of a week of prayer for Christian unity.

But, wait, there is more.

Pope Francis has also said these words in his homily on the occasion. Words which are full of extraordinary grace and hope for real progress to be made towards actual Christian unity:

""As Bishop of Rome and pastor of the Catholic Church, I want to ask for mercy and forgiveness for the behavior of Catholics towards Christians of other Churches which has not reflected Gospel values. At the same time, I invite all Catholic brothers and sisters to forgive if they, today or in the past, have been offended by other Christians. We cannot cancel out what has happened, but we do not want to let the weight of past faults continue to contaminate our relationships. God’s mercy will renew our relationships."" (from the same link above)

Note that Pope Francis is crystal clear: he talks of "other Churches" (not, "ecclesial communities").
Let me put that in another way: other Churches.
And in case I have not clearly pointed out to you the expression he used, it was: OTHER CHURCHES.

Actually, even more important than such recognition, is the recognition that Catholics have erred. But so have Protestants and I think the "ball" of confession, forgiveness and repentance has been lobbed into our church courts. Who will make reply?

We are living in a new ecumenical era. The wave is flowing, will we catch it or miss it?

Monday, January 25, 2016

The best inside story from the Primates' Meeting

As fuel consumers the world over know, the real oil comes from the Middle East (sorry, USA!). And it is from the Middle East that the real oil on the Primates' Meeting comes. Archbishop Mouneer Anis has posted a personal blogpost on what happened (H/T Bowman Walton). (Curiously he gets a vote count different from another primate, so we need to remember that personal reports of meetings are not guaranteed infallibility!)

The post is available here.

These are the money paragraphs, in my judgment, since they tell us about the consistency and continuity of the Communion, upheld by the centre:

"The Primates have seen that the “change in their [TEC’s] Canon on marriage represent a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching held by the majority of our Provinces on the doctrine of marriage”. The standard teaching of the Anglican Communion on human sexuality and marriage is found in Lambeth 1.10 in its entirety. This was affirmed by two Lambeth Conferences, several Primates’ Meetings, the Windsor Report, and the Windsor Continuation Group.
Some of the Primates came with the desire to walk apart; those who support same-sex marriage in one direction and the others who do not in another. On the other hand, there were those who believed that the issue of same-sex marriage is not a core doctrinal issue and hence is not an essential of faith. These are the two ends of the spectrum.
In the middle, however, there are Primates who are aware that within TEC and Canada, there are people who hold the standard and acceptable teaching of the Anglican Communion in regard to the issue of human sexuality. Any kind of complete exclusion will affect these people. These Primates in the middle believe in diversity, but not unlimited diversity: diversity on the non-essentials and unity on the essentials of faith like the authority of the scripture."

Fascinatingly, and wonderfully, ++Mouneer attributes a decisive moment to an intervention by one of the ACANZP primates, ++Winston Halapua:

"The turning point of the discussions came when Archbishop Winston Halapua of Polynesia asked the question, “how can we bless each other even if we walk in different directions?” In response to this question, I asked the presiding bishop of TEC and the Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Canada to sit together with me for lunch. The Archbishop of York joined as well as the Archbishop of Uganda.
We had a frank and gracious discussion about how each of us felt and how the issue at hand had affected our respective provinces. We then moved on to consider the way ahead. I shared a thought I had had prior to the Primates Meeting of 2011. This idea was to create a “distance and continuous dialogue”. In other words this would create a space for contemplation without tension as a first step towards restoring our Communion. It does not involve excommunication of TEC, but limits their full participation in the Anglican Councils for a period or space.
When we shared this with the rest of the Primates, they wanted to know the nature of this distance. As a result, the Archbishop of Canterbury appointed a balanced working group to work out a proposal, which you can now see in the Communiqué."

Note carefully in the above paragraphs the theologically crucial word, "and"! (I have emboldened it.)

++Mouneer makes a useful point in response to those who question the authority of the primates when they meet together:

"I am aware of those who challenge the authority of the Primates to make decisions. I would say that the decisions of the Primates’ Meeting as they appeared in the Communiqué, are not new, they are “consistent with previous statements” from the different Instruments of Communion."


Incidentally, if you are wondering how much change is in the air of the Holy Spirit moving across the waters of the globe at the moment, check out Liturgy's latest post!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Communion Crisis Has Deepened As Much As Resolution Has Been Delayed


Wow! Whizzing around Anglicanland via blogs and Tweets this past week, the Primates' Meeting has stirred up the Anglican "Hornets' Nest" Communion.

They sure have stirred up deep feelings about what it means to be an Anglican/Episcopalian.

They have also provoked an outpouring of words, many of which are inaccurate, unhelpful, even hubristic, and imprecise. Quick examples:
- the word "suspend" figures in headlines and content, but this is inaccurate, as Bosco Peters points out;
- as Episcopalian bishops - seemingly every last one of them - make comment, there is a bit (or a lot) of hubris, such as +Marc Handley Andrus of Los Angeles claiming as one bishop that he knows the mind of Christ better than all the primates put together;
- then note Mark Harris rightly pointing out that even the ABC himself claiming that it is about "consequences" not "sanctions" is unhelpfully playing with words, as well as alerting us to the use of the word "punishment" in a GAFCON statement.
- Finally, on "imprecise," here and there I notice frequent criticism of the Primates Meeting along the lines of "38 men, who do they speak for, who are they to make decisions on behalf of the rest of us?" Precision, in this context, would be recognition that we are an episcopal communion of churches, led by bishops chosen through guidance of the Holy Spirit and set apart for leadership over us by the same Spirit, from among whom primates are chosen to be representative leaders of our episcopal churches. When the primates meet together it is imprecise to dismiss any decisions* they make on the grounds of gender or being mere individuals coincidentally present in one room. Precision would be to dismiss their decisions on the grounds that the collected wisdom of 38 Anglican provinces, represented and distilled through especially chosen and empowered leaders was of no account. (*Yes, I understand that from a canonical/legal perspective, they can only give advice to the Communion. Here's the thing: if we don't take their advice, the Communion (as a Communion) will be in even more trouble than it is.)

Let me offer a further few words to the thousands out there, as accurately, precisely, helpfully and non-hubristically as possible. In these words I want to argue that as much as the primates have delayed resolution of the deep division in our Communion concerning homosexuality, they have also (unintentionally) deepened the crisis of the Communion.

The crisis

The crisis for the Communion concerns what it means to be a "Communion." Let's remember, at all times, that Anglican churches are free to make any decision they see fit, and there is no trademark on "Anglican" or "Episcopalian" so they can continue to use these words to describe themselves. Nor is there any crisis for individual member churches as churches if the Communion dissolves. Each member church can carry along fine, and they can relate to any other churches they see fit.

But there is a crisis for the Communion when member churches having formed an Anglican Communion then dispute what "Communion" means. Sociologically speaking voluntary groups such as the AngComm form. Groups argue, groups divide and groups dissolve. It happens. The peculiarity of the Communion as an arguing, fractious group is first that it keeps refusing to divide into two or more separate communions and second that it cannot decide rules or arbitration process which might (once and for all) settle what is divisive (cf. failure of proposed Covenant to gain unanimous support).

Why does the Communion keep refusing to divide into two or more separate communions?

We can advance reasons concerning historic ties, family resemblances, desire to be some kind of global match to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Perhaps also there is something about status involved too. On any reckoning, the See of Canterbury is respected and revered throughout the Christian world. While any church can call itself "Anglican", not every such church is connected to Canterbury as the member churches of the Communion are. Walking apart from communion with Canterbury is not a step to be taken lightly by those who wish to call themselves Anglican.


But I wonder if something deeper and more (ecclesiastically) earthy is pumping  the emotions at the heart of our "bonds of affection." That is our catholicity. The four widely agreed marks of a true church of God are "one, holy, catholic and apostolic." Catholicity speaks of universality, of the whole church gathering up all God's people in one extended family. Catholicity is the instinct of the local gathering of God's people to connect with other gatherings, and gatherings of gatherings so that the local belongs to the global (even as, yes, to be theologically correct, the local church always expresses the global or catholic church). Catholicity means the church is always more than what we currently belong - even the world's most globally embedded Christians belong to something they cannot see, the church of all the saints through all ages.

Catholicity for Anglicans pushes us to be parishes in dioceses in provinces in the fellowship of provinces known as the Anglican Communion. And it doesn't stop there: every conversation we have in local church ecumenical networks and in formal global church to global church dialogue (e.g. ARCIC), is the catholic pulse beating in our ecclesial hearts.

When we continue to appeal to Scripture, to say the ancient creeds, to cite the Cappadocian Fathers and so forth, we are also catholic: we recognise and affirm that the church is shaped and founded by shared belief, historically (through saints departed and present) and globally. Our universality is held together by a common mind even as our comprehensiveness incorporates our diversities. Where those diversities are substantive, the catholicity of the one church of God is fractured if not broken (cf. East and West Christianities, and the fractures within each of them).

It is catholicity which held the Primates Meeting together last week and catholicity which inhabits the communique. First catholic sign: it offers a sign of commitment to belong together:

"Over the past week the unanimous decision of the Primates was to walk together, however painful this is, and despite our differences, as a deep expression of our unity in the body of Christ."

Second catholic sign: the sanctions (or, officially, "consequences"):

"However given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years TEC no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity."

To belong to the catholic body of the church is a serious matter because commonalities express belonging together through shared beliefs (the apostolic mark of the church) and shared behaviours (the holy mark).

[Catholicity, incidentally, is not the same as general inclusiveness. Even the most inclusive statements of an extraordinarily inclusive church such as TEC do not pretend that (say) Mormon belief is compatible with doctrine in TEC].

That seriousness about being catholic means that differences may be indifferent (adiaphora) or they may represent a break in the commonalities, that is, a diminishment of catholicity. With respect to catholicity within the Anglican Communion and catholicity as the Communion engages in dialogue with other catholic communions, a question mark exists over TEC (see further below) so it is appropriate that neither TEC nor the Anglican Communion pretends that all is well concerning our catholicity as a communion. All is not well because unresolved difference has emerged these past dozen years or so. Thus for TEC at this time to contribute to either representing the Communion or leading the Communion would be to ignore a problem in our midst (or to make a pretence that it doesn't matter).

To give credit where it is due, catholicity is also enabling TEC leadership - as I read various statements being made - in a gracious and considerate way to voice their commitment to the Communion even as they voice considerable angst and pain about the disciplinary steps taken by the Primates.

The question mark over TEC's participation in the Anglican Communion as a catholic communion is given more precision in the Primates' communique that perhaps has been the case previously:

"Their work, consistent with previous statements of the Primates’ meetings,addressed what consequences follow for The Episcopal Church in relation to the Anglican Communion following its recent change of marriage doctrine."

That "recent change", Anglican Curmudgeon reminds us, includes a significant reworking of Scripture, as evidenced in these liturgical words:

"Dearly beloved: We have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless the joining together of N. and N. in Holy Matrimony. The joining of two people in a life of mutual fidelity signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church, and so it is worthy of being honored among all people."

Whether or not we agree with Curmudgeon's critical evaluation of these words, the words he emboldens highlights a significant departure from what the catholic church has understood marriage to be about, not only between a man and a woman, but with the man symbolising Christ and the woman the church, and their difference-in-unity expressing the "mystery of the union between Christ and his Church" in ways going beyond "mutual fidelity."

It is right and proper that a communion aspiring to be catholic, to walk together holding common beliefs, questions whether this innovative doctrine of marriage is consonant with the catholicity of the church (that is, with what the whole church believes or, in this case, at least what the Communion believes). Note that the criticism being poured out on the primates, by extension is poured out on all God's people, Protestant and Catholic and Orthodox and Pentecostal who share their reservations about embracing this innovation.** The problem for the catholic Anglican Communion - from a liberal/progressive on homosexuality perspective - is not that it is dominated by a bunch of (alleged) homophobic fundy primates but that it has a majority of member churches which think and act as the majority of churches around the world do.

What kind of catholic future for global Anglicanism?

So, there is a kerfuffle, Anglican-style. Some voices post last week's meeting are stridently critical. In the face of the overwhelming cause of justice for the LGBT people, catholic considerations appear to matter little to some Anglicans. In that sense, the crisis (of catholicity) of the Communion has deepened this past week: by acting in a catholic manner, the primates have sharpened the battle for future of the Communion, a future which could be determined more by considerations of justice than by doctrinal coherency. Yet what is sought via the push for justice is likely to unravel the Communion as it is currently constituted. Delayed resolution could result in squaring the circle of justice - doctrine - catholicity. But it could lead - we might even say it will probably lead - to a new set of Communions claiming the "Anglican" (or "Episcopalian") moniker.

In charting the future, which the proposed Task Force will no doubt always have in the back of their minds even as they do and say everything to avoid formal fractionation, many Anglicans will no doubt be encouraged through the next three years by this part of the communique:

"4.The traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union. The majority of those gathered reaffirm this teaching.
5.In keeping with the consistent position of previous Primates’ meetings such unilateral actions on a matter of doctrine without Catholic unity is considered by many of us as a departure from the mutual accountability and interdependence implied through being in relationship with each other in the Anglican Communion."

Here catholicity involves the whole church agreeing on (i.e. united around) doctrine and "unilateral actions on a matter of doctrine" break that unity and thus divide the universal church. (Remember: on the particular statement "traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union", the majority of the Anglican Communion is united with the vast majority of all other churches around the world, so the catholicity broken here is not just that of the Communion but that of the Communion as itself a branch of the whole catholic church of God.)

Now it is not rocket science to work out that in pretty much any debate over which church or Communion is living out its catholic character or not, the majority set of churches claiming to be catholic with supporting evidence re sharing the teaching of the catholic church wins over one or two or even six Anglican churches claiming to be catholic while departing from agreed doctrine!

In other words, beyond the weird, wild, wonderful and sometimes winsome reactions in Anglicanland to the Primates Meeting, there is a simple sign pointing to the future of global Anglicanism: the majority voice will determine the present Anglican Communion's direction. Those voicing the minority view (i.e. that doctrinal innovation should be accommodated irrespective of agreement or disagreement with it) will face a crossroads, either to stay with the majority, or to find another expression of Anglicanism, with a different understanding of what it means to be catholic.


To my way of thinking, the last few days since the end of the Primates Meeting has highlighted how deep the gulf is between competing understandings of what the Communion means, with special reference to what value is placed on its catholic character. I cannot see that gulf being readily bridged, let alone filled in anytime soon - though I will prayerfully hold high hopes for the Task Force the Primates Meeting has asked the ABC to set up.

In fact so highlighted has that gulf been that I suggest the Primates Meeting has, no doubt inadvertently, deepened the crisis in the Communion as much as it has enabled resolution of the crisis to be (yet again) delayed.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

**ADDENDUM: I very much appreciate a point made by Tim Chesterton here in recent days, in comments he has made, that whether or not we agree with Anglicans approving and undertaking same sex marriages, such marriages are now a feature of a growing number of countries and Anglicans need to have some way of pastorally responding well to couples married in this way and wishing to participate in congregational life. The Primates' communique is devoid of assistance and advice on this need.

ANOTHER ADDENDUM: Wesley Hill is well worth a read.

YET ANOTHER ADDENDUM: ACI-Canada has spoken, robustly.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Messy Communion, nascent Federation? [Updated]

UPDATE Good to hear from one of our Primates, Archbishop Philip Richardson, about the Primates Meeting.

Only a little bit of dust has settled after yesterday's storm through Anglicanland, following what turns out to be a partial release, "Addendum A," of the ultimate communique of the Primates 2016 meeting/gathering. Part of that dust settling is a comment I read - somewhere - that, in the end, a sober reflection concludes, TEC has been sanctioned for being out of step in doctrinal innovation, not for pioneering new gospel obligations or implementing justice for the hitherto marginalized LGBT community and so forth.

Critically and crucially, we must take on board the full text of the final communique, here.

There we find, for instance, an important missing piece from Addendum A,

"The Primates condemned homophobic prejudice and violence and resolved to work together to offer pastoral care and loving service irrespective of sexual orientation. This conviction arises out of our discipleship of Jesus Christ. The Primates reaffirmed their rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted people.
The Primates recognise that the Christian church and within it the Anglican Communion have often acted in a way towards people on the basis of their sexual orientation that has caused deep hurt. Where this has happened they express their profound sorrow and affirm again that God's love for every human being is the same, regardless of their sexuality, and that the church should never by its actions give any other impression."

We also find the first signs on the horizon of "when" the next Lambeth Conference will be,

"The Primates supported the Archbishop of Canterbury in his proposal to call a Lambeth Conference in 2020."

And there is a "map" for future Primates' Meetings:

"The Primates agreed to meet again in 2017 and 2019."

The question of the status of ACNA and of ++Foley Beach as its Archbishop/Primate is on the minds of many observers. Within the communique itself we read this:

"The consideration of the required application for admission to membership of the Communion of the Anglican Church of North America was recognised as properly belonging to the Anglican Consultative Council. The Primates recognise that such an application, were it to come forward, would raise significant questions of polity and jurisdiction."

Of course, as some I am reading are observing, if that application came up in the next three years, TEC could not vote on it as a question of polity!

There is a superb interview of ++Beach by David Virtue here.

Church Times notes that far from ++Beach only staying for a few days, he actually stayed the whole time and took part in voting (save for declining to vote on the resolution re TEC). If that is not recognition of the validity of ++Beach's role as an Archbishop and Primate of an Anglican province, it is hard to see what more could be offered in support, save for formal membership of ACNA in the Communion. We now have a "fact on the ground" re ACNA and that is simply this: the majority of provinces of the Communion have forced the hand of the Archbishop of Canterbury to recognise the primatial ministry of the episcopal leader of an Anglican church not formally a member of the formal Anglican Communion. This is realpolitik trumping legalities!

But questions remain about the Anglican Communion as a communion = full eucharistic participation of all members (as observed, e.g., in comments to the previous post). It would appear from the following account of ++Beach in the Virtueonline interview that the Primates' Meeting did not involve a communion service solely for the primates present, rather those who chose to went to communion services at Canterbury Cathedral:

"We did not take communion with TEC or ACoC archbishops. Canterbury Cathedral has regularly scheduled offices of Morning Prayer, Communion and Evensong. Many of the Primates attended the Offices, but I did attend Communion."

The statement also makes clear that were a primatial communion service to have been offered, there would not have been full participation. So we remain somewhat still in limbo on the question whether we are dying as a(n impaired) Communion and seeing, even if most do not recognise it as a possibility, a nascent Federation emerging and evolving from the fractures of the past decades. (So, yes, I am walking backwards a bit the wording of the title to yesterday's post!)

Nevertheless, there is much to ponder, reasons for hope, and, as always, much to pray for.


The Guardian has a perceptive editorial here, gently pointing out the ambiguities of cleverness, clarity, and concealed conflict in both the dynamics of the Primates Meeting, and how things may work out from hereon.

In further thinking, I suggest continued reflection on how a future Communion or set of communion/network arrangements might work. Comments on the post immediately below and on this post raise the question of what could be deemed a "north" and "south" split, with the "north" Anglican churches reaching out to other "catholic" churches of like minds (though the "north" in this scenario could include bits and pieces of Australasian and South Pacific Anglican churches).


George Conger has a very good paragraph summing up the outcomes of the meeting from different perspectives (in an article probing what course the meeting actually took):

"For Foley Beach the issues are salvation and fidelity to Scripture. For Michael Curry it is social justice, welcoming the outcaste, and fidelity to Scripture. For Justin Welby the issue was preserving the family – keeping up appearances so that the Communion’s life goes on “as heretofore.” For traditionalists the sanctions imposed on the Episcopal Church were too light, but a start in the right direction. For the Episcopal Church and its allies the sanctions were a disgrace to the witness of the church in a broken world. For the Archbishop of Canterbury and those in his van, they were sufficient to keep the conversation going in hopes that a solution may one day be found."

Friday, January 15, 2016


One moment I am looking at my Twitter feed seeing nothing in particular about #Primates2016, "nek minit", 99% of Tweets concern breaking news from the Primates Meeting in Canterbury.

The key, vital and authoritative statement is on the Primates' site itself: here.
(Note that it is produced now because of a leakage* so some of what you read today on other sites needs discernment as to whether it is discussing the leaked statement (and other misinformation?) or the full and final statement. *It is a blot on the Anglican landscape that not even at the level of primates meeting together do we have integrity about NOT releasing that which is not for releasing. WHO was the leaker????)

Clearly TEC won't be over the moon about this (neither will ACCan and it is a either a stumbling block or a speed-bump for some in our own church), but it is also a problem for ++Ngatali of Uganda (here). It is not clear as I first write this whether any other GAFCON Primates have left the meeting early.

OK, to the statement itself: here is a framework for interpreting the statement:

(1) A Communion holds things in common.
(2) A majority of the Communion hold that marriage doctrine is and should be among those things held in common.
(3) It is not for a minority of the Communion to endlessly attempt to impose on the majority its view of what things do not need to be held in common.
(4) There are consequences when a Communion fails to hold its common things in common.
(5) Two possible consequences are that the Communion fractures (i.e. fails to be a Communion, other than in name only) or the Communion disciplines those who dispute the common things held by the majority of the Communion (i.e. the majority acts to uphold the majority view).
(6) You can work out whether the statement goes with the former or the latter!

Reading the comments on this Thinking Anglican report, I wonder if anyone there understands what a "Communion" is!


I am awarding "Top of the Class" for care and consideration in analysis to Ian Paul at Psephizo.

Our own Taonga report is here.

Archbishop Mouneer is happy.

This report says that Archbishop Foley was given a voice and a vote for the meeting but refused to vote on the statement as that would have been "improper."

Important Episcopal news/views report/reaction here.

A fascinating Changing Attitudes Scotland response here i.e. finding the half-full glass.

Some may be asking the question "Why not Canada also?" The answer is in here.

For some ACANZP reaction via fast and furious Tweeting involving me, you may be interested to follow up on my tweets this morning at @petercarrell .

The GAFCON Primates have spoken, with a statement which needs unpacking ...

David Ould posts here making an important point via Kendall Harmon that not much is actually new in the sanctions re TEC since something similar came up a few years back. There is also the important observation that the meeting may represent a small but significant shift of weighting of "authority" in the Communion towards GAFCON rather than away from it. (My own view on that, if it is so, is that it would not have happened if GAFCON primates walked out early!)

David Ould also posts an insider insight on some of the dynamics of the meeting which is well worth a look.

Incidentally, with reference to Ould's report mentioning what galvanised the meeting, and distinguished TEC from ACCan, and in shameless self-promotion, in two posts last year, I pointed out the problematic nature of TEC's decision, here and there. However, I would also like to point out that my previous call that the Communion is becoming a Federation is - for the time being - quite wrong. I believe we remain a Communion! Though I would like to know if all the Primates this week actually gathered around the one Lord's Table ...

Susan Russell has a superbly eye-catching headline at Huffington Post, "On Becoming Second-Class Anglicans for Treating LGBT as First-Class Christians." What I do not think she reckons with is this. Let us suppose she is completely correct in her understanding of the gospel and its obligations and (crucially) its understandings and applications. Then that understanding is out of kilter with what the majority of Primates have determined the majority of provinces in the Communion understand. In which case there is a case, an argument for not just discipline but for division, so that each understanding may go its own way.

Giles Fraser, not unexpectedly, has something to say in the Guardian. Again, let us suppose with Giles that the CofE has another stage or three to go in its ongoing reformation. That direction is at odds with the majority of the Communion and would mean, in the long run, that the CofE must walk apart from the Communion because it is impossible to see the majority of provinces agreeing that they too must keep reforming in that direction.

 In other words both Fraser and Russell, logically, would be happy, along with some conservative commentators, if there had been a division this week which irrevocably distinguished and separated one lot of Anglicans from the other lot!

Lionel Deimel has a considered point by point analysis and some interesting things to say re a possible future American Anglican Communion (see also Bowman Walton's comments below).

Anglican Curmudgeon is curmudgeonly bleak but sees an evolving Communion which will include ACNA.

Zachary Guiliano at the Living Church is commendably hopeful in "Rumors of Communion's Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated." He makes the point that we really should wait till the Friday afternoon final press conference and announcements (UK time).

Some further thoughts from me (reading extensively on Twitter and on blogs through this first twelve hours or so of response and reaction):

1. People are upset with the primates, from both liberal and conservative perspectives, but a lot of the upset amounts to "I disagree" or "My province disagrees". What is difficult to understand about a global Communion across 38 provinces trying to reach agreement? The blunt alternative to (disagreeable) agreement is the end of the Communion and each province doing its thing its way (and even each Anglican going her or his own way). What do we Anglicans want?

2. Very few people are picking up on the possibilities here. There is no sanction of Canada because they have not formally changed their provincial canons on marriage. Doesn't that mean quite a bit of room is left for (say) blessing of same sex partnerships which do not canonically change doctrine of marriage? If this line holds - and, of course, in the cold light of day back in GAFCON provinces, it may not - surely this is a new step for the Communion as a whole?

3. Of course 2 is very unsatisfactory for Anglicans who are committed to "equal marriage." Nevertheless I find it extraordinary that from the perspective of equal marriage the Primates statement is being harshly judged (excluding and casting out LGBT people etc). Where is the gracious "moment" or "pause" for theological and biblical reflection here where we ask ourselves, even as Western Anglicans driven by winds of social change, 
Is equal marriage in fact an obligation of the gospel to pursue or a value of the kingdom, as taught by Jesus? 
Yes, I am conservative and biased in that direction re such a question, but I am really struggling to understand why an affirmative answer to that question is so obvious that those who (with theological and biblical reflection) do not arrive at an affirmative answer are to be so dismissed as the moderate and conservative primates behind today's statement are being dismissed.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Watch this space for news of the Primates' Meeting - Daily Updates!!

No doubt there will be all sorts of bits and pieces of news (and speculation) emerging from the Primates' Meeting this week, and from assorted pundits and prophets gathering around it (vultures thinking there might be a carcass of the Communion to feed on?)

I will only post further here if I think there is something to report and comment on. Otherwise the space will be blank ... but feel free to comment on "whatever" and "whomever" in comments below.


This sentence is worth pondering for what it says about a walkout as a measure of success in the eyes of some conservatives for the meeting:

"From the conservative camp outside the meetings there has been some disquiet about the continued presence of the conservative Primates."

It comes from David Ould's blogpost at the beginning of Day Four (UK time).

I suggest the longer the primates continue talking to each other, the more we keep praying for them, the greater the chance that the conclusion of the meeting might be ... not quite what anyone predicted!

Frankly, conservative though I am, the cited sentence above shocks me. If our hope in Christ means anything at all as Bible-believing Christians then we should yearn  for the primates to find a way forward as one Communion, not be disquieted by the lack of a walkout! This isn't shop stewards meeting with the management about ways to avert a threatened strike! In God's church there might be a movement of the Spirit?


I do not put much store by news that x/38 (?40) primates haven't turned up to Evensong. The primates will be tired, many of us have been to conferences where skipping worship might be viewed dimly by others but, hey, we need a kip before the evening session, etc.

By contrast we can put quite a bit of store with the following news:

If all the primates were at Evensong then none have left the meeting. If (as noted on Peter Ould's Facebook page), ++Foley Beach is still present, then maybe, just maybe the discussion/negotiation/whatever is happening is, well, continuing to happen!

I am going to permit myself two speculations:

One thing I suspect is a "wedge" in proceedings is TEC's recent decision to canonically endorse same sex marriage. If for no other reason than that, conservatives and moderates are likely to find common accord that TEC has some explaining to do around how it sees that as "common" doctrine, shared or potentially able to be shared across the Anglican Common-union.

Two: (and recalling and seguing from a recent(ish) conversation with someone of note somewhere in the AC), I would be most surprised if (what I will call) moderate-ish-to-conservative primates offer any support to GAFCON primates walking out of the meeting. That is, I wouldn't be surprised if some 30 primates (excluding TEC and ACCan) are saying to the 8 or so GAFCON primates: if you walk, you walk apart without our support let alone blessing, we want to resolve this together with TEC and ACCan. If so, the GAFCON primates have paused on pushing the WALK button and remain in the meeting.

DAY TWO The good news is, they are still meeting in the same room. The depending-on-your-perspective-sad/glad/bad news is that maybe nothing much is changing by way of giving ground towards a classic/typical/hoped for Anglican "accommodation": David Ould is up with the play here.

An even bleaker report is here, from George Conger. (With superb comment from BabyBlueOnline on something that struck me as dodgy too about proceedings.)

Speculative though these reports may be, they do conform to certain expectations: that certain views would be steadfastly held, that compromise towards accommodation would be hard to find.


++Justin's address to the Primates on Day One (H/T BabyBlueOnline ... I cannot find it on ...). BUT this is a non-attributed, non-authenticated version of what ++Justin may have actually said (or not): the official AngComm press officers are not confirming this is what ++Welby actually said!

[Nevertheless, there are ... ] Many pearls, including this:

"We so easily take our divisions as normal, but they are in fact an obscenity, a denial of Christ’s call and equipping of the church. If we exist to point people to Christ, as was done for me, our pointing is deeply damaged by division. Every Lambeth Conference of the 20th century spoke of the wounds in the body of Christ. Yet some say, it does not matter, God sees the truth of spiritual unity and the church globally still grows. Well, it does for the moment, but the world does not see the spiritual church but a divided and wounded body. Jesus said to his disciples, “as the Father sent me so send I you”. That sending is in perfect unity, which is why even at Corinth and at the Council of Jerusalem, we find that truth must be found together rather than show a divided Christ to the world."

We can rely on Stand Firm to supply a bleak view of proceedings, analysing the significance of division between stoles and suits from a photo found here!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Could Gramsci, Lenin and Trotsky offer way forward for Primates' Meeting?

With the profoundest of respect for the learning and acumen of the Anglican primates winging their way across the world even as I write the first draft of this post, I don't imagine they regularly dip into International Socialism: A Quarterly Review of Socialist Theory. Which may be a pity because a recent article by Mark Thomas holds an interesting clue to the way in which the Anglican Communion could hold together and even move forward on certain troubling issues.

I am sure they are even less likely to read this post, so I share the following thoughts for the benefit of dear ADU readers rather than our dear leaders! The article is a lengthy reflection on the recent history of the British Labour Party, the reasons why Jeremy Corbyn has become its leader, the pitfalls he must avoid if he is to remain and the challenges a left leaning Labour Party faces in achieving its objectives. I am not asking you to read all that, unless you are a political nutgeek. Bear with ...

Towards the end of the article, Thomas explores the essential limitation of the Labour Party from a revolutionary socialist perspective: Labour is a reformist organisation, constrained to work within the electoral system, destined to only seek change within capitalism rather than overthrow it altogether. In turn that raises the question whether revolutionaries can work with (mere) reformers. Revolutionaries, Thomas argues,

"insist that the battle for reforms is most effectively waged via self-activity from below and especially through the mobilisation of working class power at the point of production; that is, through direct confrontation rather than methods that rely on negotiation from above. The key arena is the class struggle outside of parliament."

This is at odds with the aims and goals of an electoral party such as the British Labour Party. But the author is emboldened by Gramsci, Lenin and Trotsky to encourage his fellow revolutionaries to persist in working with  the reformers.

He cites Gramsci following Lenin's advice (in a particular Italian context in the early 20th century):

"“Separate yourselves from Turati [the leading Italian reformist], and then make an alliance with him”—Antonio Gramsci, recalling Lenin’s advice to Italian Communists."

Trotsky gets a mention too:

"Leon Trotsky, writing in the midst of a sharp swing to the left by social democracy across Europe in the mid-1930s, argued that it was crucial for revolutionaries not to stand aside from reformist workers and denounce the hopes they place in left social democracy as pointless, but instead to identify strongly with their desire to challenge capital and fight for improvements in workers’ conditions without, however, giving ground to any notion that social democracy’s parliamentary orientation can deliver: “We share the difficulties of the struggle but not the illusions”. Trotsky translated this approach into the need for revolutionaries to pursue a dual approach, combining “ideological intransigence”—because we do not share the illusion in left reformism and must warn workers about its limitations—with a “flexible united front policy” because we want to share the difficulties, to unite in struggle and prove in practice how the obstacles workers face can be overcome."

By now you will be desperate to know how this fits in with the Primates' Meeting!

One difficulty going into the meeting is how the "revolutionaries" (in this case, GAFCON primates who, apparently, are willing to overthrow the Communion "system" and to work outside of it, if necessary) can find any kind of common cause with the "reformers" (in this case, moderate evangelicals such as ++Welby and ++Sentamu, along with primates from other provinces who are willing to work within the system rather than overthrow it).

There is also another significant and greater difficulty, that of how the "revolutionaries" might even talk with the "Tories" (in this case, TEC and ACCan), but the key to that I think is resolving the first difficulty. If the "revolutionaries" and "reformers" work together then the "Tories" will need to do their own hard work of finding how they can make accommodation with the majority of the Communion. So, back to the first difficulty.

The Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci line is that revolutionaries need to both carve out their distinctive place by claiming their "ideological intransigence" while scornfully informing the reformers of their "illusions" and to share with the reformers in the difficulties of the "struggle", even "to unite in struggle." Is there a way for the GAFCON primates both to carve out their distinctive place in the Communion and to share with other primates in the struggle of Christian life in a hostile world?

It seems to me that GAFCON to date has been very good at claiming its distinctive theological "intransigence" (the Jerusalem Declaration) while often commenting on the "illusions" of those who think ongoing dialogue within the Communion can square the circle on human sexuality. Is this week the week when GAFCON primates demonstrate how GAFCON might nevertheless continue to work with the remainder of the Communion and not walk apart from it?

Friday, January 8, 2016

And ... it's Anglican Communion Quiz Time (last questions before the Primates' Meeting begins)

... continuing from the post below ... (I encourage you, late Saturday 9 January, to read the dialogue in the comments below between Bryden Black and Bowman Walton) ...

8. Friday 8 January Am I feeling overwhelmed by the number of posts across the Angliglobe today?

Answer: Yes, but please read on!!

If there is one and only one post you (and, I hope, also ++Justin, ++Peter Jensen, Dean Martyn Percy and all the ++Primates) read before Monday then it is:

High Stakes, Three Facts by Bowman Walton.

There are some very, very good (= thoughtful and/or important statements of position) other posts to consider:

Why the Primates Meeting is Important by Mark Harris

A Letter from Archbishop Stanley Ntagali to his Anglican Church in Uganda, headed up "Uganda will walk out of Primates Meeting, if "godly" order not restored" on Anglican Ink. I don't think this is posturing because ++Ntagali states clearly that he is bound by decisions of his church in terms of what he can and cannot agree to.

On beyond Primates by Jesse Zink. I don't agree with all Jesse says (e.g. about the relative unimportance of the Primates' Meetings) but he puts his finger on something extremely important: beyond primates, bishops, and such, Anglicans are very good at personally relating to one another even in disagreement. Can we take the "personal" virtue of Anglicanism and somehow embed it in the "institutional" (which, in this case of the PM, would be about finding ways to be a "communion" even when there are different "canonicities"). If those last few words do not make sense, go back to Bowman Walton's article linked above!

Pope Gregory and #Primates2016 - diversity, sex, and church order by Miranda Threlfall-Holmes. Ecclesial Groundhog Day?

9. Saturday 9 January Did you realise that James Bond is working behind the scenes of the Primates' Meeting?

Answer: Neither did I, until I saw this headline, "Spectre of walkout ..."

Actually, something important must be at stake because the Church Times, bless it, has not put the James Bond article behind its paywall!

10. Sunday 10 January* Is David Ould predictably right?

Answer: We will know in a few days time! I think his prognostication is a fair one on the basis of what we all know (and on the basis of some further knowledge David knows). If he is proved wrong, then it could be through a "moment/movement of the Spirit" which no one has seen coming; or it could be that human politicking all gets rather more complicated than we think (e.g. some kind of postponement of a decision).

I am posting this question Saturday evening NZ time ... I have rather a busy morning at church tomorrow!

11. Monday 11 January Will this letter make any difference?

Answer: We may never know. Brother Ivo gives a reasoned explanation for his signing of the letter. He rightly draws attention to something said to the recent CofE General Synod by Fr. Raniero:

"We should never allow a moral issue like that of sexuality divide us more than love for Jesus Christ unites us."

Postscript to Monday: a few other posts I think are worthy of note. (Absent posts might mean I am not that caring about what is in them!)


Psephizo, and I later note, another Psephizo post, making a response to another Martyn Percy article. (For what it is worth, since I was quite critical of the first Martyn Percy article, a few weeks back here on ADU, I both agree with Ian Paul's theological analysis of the weakness of Percy's thinking re (alleged) (semi-) Pelagianism and I support Percy reminding us of two things: we are talking about people, not only principles, people who are our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, best friends and recent acquaintances, many of whom are being turned off God by the way these matters are being handled; secondly, it is discrimination to harp on about one group of Christians imperilling their salvation. My best understanding of myself is that daily (make that hourly and minute by minute) I am a continuing sinner in danger of losing my salvation. We all need a blast from Scripture about living in the Spirit and walking according to the law of Christ!)

In a Godward Direction

Anglican Curmudgeon

The last word for now is appropriately from The Living Church.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

And ... it's Anglican Communion Quiz Time (new questions every day ...)

1. Which two Anglican churches are sending two primates to the forthcoming Primates' Meeting, beginning 11 January 2016?

PS The answer is not "North America"!?!

As far as I can tell the answer is "the Church of England" (who send the ABC and the ABY) and (... drumroll ...) the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia (as you can see in this press release).

2. Supplementary question Which Anglican News service is seriously wrong in its understanding of ACANZP's three tikanga structure?

PS The answer is not "Anglican Down Under".

I reckon the answer is "Anglican Ink" (and any other agency relying on it). In its article about two primates going from our church, it says this:

"Alone among the churches of the Anglican Communion, the ACNZP [sic], is divided along racial lines into separate but equal churches with three co-primates."

Rather oddly the article begins with a photo of an American-African bishop, but let's pass by that oddity and deal with the myth-information around the use of the word "racial": our church is structured along cultural lines, not racial lines. I'll put this in bold type: any member of any race may belong to any of our tikanga. Pakeha (European or other non-indigenous extraction) belong to Tikanga Maori, ditto for Tikanga Pasefika (which is multi-racial because the Anglican church of the South Pacific islands includes Fijians, Melanesians, Indians, Tongans, Samoans, Chinese as well as expatriate Kiwis and Aussies and anyone else.

3. Why are we sending two of our three Primates, given that even England only gets to send two because the ABC is busy chairing the meeting so the ABY steps up to represent the CofE?

Well, that's the big question, is it not? Let's see what emerges in the media in the run up to the beginning of the meeting on 11 January 2016.

In the meantime, let's be praying for this meeting which may just be the "make or break" meeting about the future of the Anglican Communion. Will it be a "Communion" or a "Federation" or a "something a little bit the same and quite a bit different"? Will there be a commitment to making a next Lambeth Conference work?

4. Monday 4 January's question: Which usual suspects are reported as intending to walk out of the Primates' Meeting (but they might not, or maybe they will, or ...)?

Clue: starts with G and ends with N, but it's not "Gene Robinson".

Answer here.

5. Tuesday 5 January's question: Who has the most to gain and who has the most to lose from the Primates' Meeting?

Answer: you are most welcome to work out your own answer to the question but a very, very interesting answer is here. (H/T Thinking Anglicans) In this answer Christopher Craig Brittain analyses the situation with Game Theory. I think this leads - in the end - to the possibility noted in a comment below by Bowman Walton about the possible triumph of the centrists.

I very much like what Brittain has to say but think his analysis may overlook a couple of points. For instance, if the Anglican churches in some African countries are losing ground to Pentecostal churches, then that might be a stronger pointer to those churches maintaining rigorous conservatism than wishing to maintain present status quo Communion links. Also, Game Theory analysis begins and ends with the present Communion structure and winners/losers relative to that, but what if ++Welby's underlying agenda is to change the structure, for instance, towards "federation" rather than "communion", might all be winners in such a structure compared with the possibility that an unchanged Communion post-Primates would necessarily mean "winners" and "losers".

Think of it this way: each Primate needs to go back to his (or, in our case, their) home province and assure the province that (a) it remains Anglican (b) it is in relationship with the ABC and other provinces which matter in the eyes of the home province (c) no ground already attained in the spectrum of commitments re human sexuality has been given away. Assurance (b) is consistent with a speculated GAFCON (+/-) primates "walk out", and a "walk out" now or refusal to countenance another Lambeth Conference might be required if TEC/ACofC do not "repent" in respect of (c). But a new "federal" structure would permit (a) and (c), and (b) would be met if this structure permitted groupings of provinces according to differing commitments under (c).

Now, of course, my paragraph above itself is speculative, so ignore it if you please!

6. Wednesday 6 January Will the primates listen to each other?

Answer: That is something we should be praying for as we pray for the meeting!

For instance, will certain African primates hear (mark, digest, inwardly reflect) on the concern many Anglicans have that they have implicitly or even explicitly supported criminalization-with-excessive-punishment of gay and lesbian citizens?

And, will certain Western primates hear (mark, digest, inwardly reflect) on the concern many Anglicans have that they have supported or are contemplating supporting changes to understanding marriage which fundamentally disrupt common Anglican understanding of marriage since at least the time of the English Reformation? 

Which leads me to another question, which I will pose tomorrow ... Stay tuned!

7. Thursday 7 January What is the role of Charles Raven in GAFCON?

Answer: He is the writer of this thoughtful article published on the GAFCON website, 16 December 2015, on the importance of the Primates' Meeting. Charles works in Kenya after many years of ministry in the Church of England. He is described both as "adviser to the Most Revd Eliud Wabukala, Primate of Kenya, who is Chair of the GAFCON Primates’ Council" and as "the Archbishop of Kenya’s Officer for Anglican Communion Affairs." He is also responsible for the development of GAFCON communications.

Bonus question: Did you know the Primates' Meeting has its own website?

Answer: I am guessing you didn't know that! You can find it here.

PS If you do not like my set of questions, there is another set here.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Epic Epiphanic Thoughts About Historicity of Gospel Birth Narratives

Readers may be familiar with the thought that either or both the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke are creations of the authors with little to do with the facts of the matter (other than that Jesus Christ was born to a woman, as all humans are). It is not hard to imagine each author adding some colour to what they inherited from Mark (who begins the story of Jesus at his baptism). Eventually an eager public wants to know when and how their hero was brought up and so, in their own distinctive ways, Matthew and Luke supply the missing narrative (according to this hypothesis).

The invention hypothesis

Matthew takes the route of imagining Joseph's perspective and what a colourful perspective it is, with dreams in which God speaks, visits from exotic strangers bearing expensive gifts, and an exciting escape to a foreign land from marauding Herod. Matthew's "epiphany" has a (literally) "epic" quality!

Luke takes another route. The alternative to a Josephine perspective is a Marian perspective which Luke takes up with enthusiasm and he includes a bonus-for-his-readers, a second birth narrative, that of John the Baptist (who, we might recall, appears as a significant character just before Jesus makes his appearance in Mark's narrative). Luke has no dreams, no escapes and no sojourn in Egypt, but there are visitations by angels, theologically suggestive songs by leading characters (Zechariah, Mary, Simeon) and a bunch of bewildered shepherds turning up in the middle of the night. There is also an historically awkward presentation of Jesus in the Temple (awkward because it is not at all clear that it was what the law prescribed).

Oh, and to make the inventions of Matthew and Luke more plausible as an explanation of the origin of the narratives, there are the very inconvenient facts that Matthew's genealogy of Jesus does not tally with Luke's, that Luke may be simply wrong about the census under Quirinius (as previously posted here), and the geographical arc of each narrative reverses the other. Matthew's Jesus is born in Bethlehem to (it would appear) Bethlehem citizens but they choose to live in Nazareth after the return from Egypt, whereas Luke's Jesus is born to Mary who with her husband Joseph travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the birth and then return to Nazareth. Luke's "epiphany" involves no exotic wise men, just local congregants of the Temple, Simeon and Anna, and his "epic" journey is pretty straightforward and short, Bethlehem to Nazareth. (By contrast, John's Gospel's Prologue's "epic" journey begins before time and its "epiphany" is no less than the revelation that the light which enlightens everything has come into the world.)

Put like that, why would we have any regard at all for either Matthew or Luke's accounts of the birth of Jesus as historical narratives? Why not treat them as sheer fiction relative to the actual but unknown historical facts of Jesus' birth and as narratival theology on a par with the explicitly theological prologue of John's Gospel? And, of course, if we head towards the conclusion that the narratives are not historical, why not cast doubt on the miraculous conception of Jesus?

But let's not leap to an unwarranted conclusion

There are several reasons not to jump towards such a conclusion, at least not to jump to such a conclusion as the complete evaluation of the whole of each narrative.

First, our doubts largely arise because of the nature of the accounts themselves and not because we have an alternative set of facts with which to judge them. It is not as though there is a birth certificate for Jesus which states he was born in Hebron, nor a record of shepherd movements on the night when he was born which proves that all shepherds in the vicinity of his birthplace were sound asleep from dusk till dawn. Neither are there immigration records from Herod's kingdom which tell us the only Magi visiting Palestine in those years arrived from the North in 9 BC, five years too early.

True, there is considerable doubt as to whether Luke has got his facts straight about (a) a census being taken at the likely time of Jesus' birth and (b) such a census requiring people moving to their hometown, but that observation in itself does not rule out the possibility that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, that Mary and Joseph did travel there (for some reason) in time for his birth. It is also true that there is an absence of confirmatory external historical records, notably for something as striking as a massacre of infants in and around Bethlehem, late in the reign of Herod the Great's rule, but absence of confirmation is not confirmation of absence. That is, with the exception of well-known difficulties squaring Luke's account of a census under Quirinius with what we know about Roman censuses in that era, we have no alternative proven historical facts which deny the historicity of either Matthew or Luke's birth narratives. In other words, if the accounts cannot be proven to be historical, neither can they be proven to be unhistorical.

That leads, secondly, to the possibility that there is an interweaving of history and theological interpretation of history going on in these stories, perhaps with more theological interpretation than history. Some interesting aspects of the two birth narratives are stubbornly common to both accounts. Jesus' mother is Mary, his step-father is Joseph. His conception is miraculous. His birth is in Bethlehem. His upbringing is in Nazareth. By themselves these observations do not constitute assured historical facts, but they do raise the possibility that they are facts which Matthew and Luke agree on because they are facts and they cannot be theologised into something else. (One of the oddest features of modern gospel scholarship is that the hypothesized source document Q - defined as the common source for non-Markan material in Matthew and Luke - does not include these common non-Markan aspects of their respective birth narratives).

Then, thirdly, we should consider the intrinsic possibility that a distinctive, indeed unique person such as Jesus Christ had unusual things happening in and around his conception, birth and infancy, even if they look like some kind of convenient theological fiction (written, e.g., as a presumed fulfilment of ancient prophecies, a particular possibility for Matthew's Gospel, or as a rewritten set of stories and songs from Israel's scriptures, a particular possibility for Luke's Gospel).

Moreover, all parents treasure in their hearts the circumstances of their children's coming into the world and early years. It would be historically unusual if Joseph and Mary had no memories of Mary discovering her pregnancy, carrying Jesus to term, his birth and his infancy and even more unusual if they never shared those memories with others and if close family members themselves had no memories of baby Jesus. Thus, why should Matthew not have had access to the Josephine version of events? Although Joseph is largely absent in the gospels beyond the birth and infancy narratives (and thus presumed to have died in Jesus' youth), there is nothing intrinsically improbable about his siblings and cousins, to say nothing of Jesus' own (perhaps older) siblings, having heard from him about Jesus' conception and birth, and told and retold what they heard so that Matthew drills into that particular rich ore of Jesus' personal history. Ditto, Luke drawing on a Marian ore of treasured memories (incidentally, conceivably from Mary herself, if Luke began his gospel investigations in (say) the late 40s and early 50s AD). In other words, there is potential complementarity rather than contradiction between Matthew and Luke's two approaches to telling the birth narrative of Jesus with important common details between the two narratives.

A fourth observation to make is that there is nothing intrinsically improbable within the historiography of Israel (as we understand it from the Old Testament) of a Joseph being communicated to by God through dreams, of angels making announcements to shepherds and of wise men interpreting unusual signs among the stars and the planets. (On the possibility that the star was a particular planetary appearance, see this). Indeed, to this day, the Middle East remains - in my personal experience - a region of the world where many people testify to experiences of divine communication through dreams and angels. Nor, for that matter, is there anything improbable in a Herod feeling threatened by news of a potential rival king and exercising subsequent tyrannical measures to ensure the rival never made it to adulthood. Again, observing these things does not conjure up facts where none actually exist, but such observations should caution those of us with mindsets tempted in a post Enlightenment Western manner to dismiss aspects of the narratives which do not fit the historiography we have developed.

My conclusion

To cut to a conclusion: yes, there are a significant number of reasons to wonder very loudly what is history and what is not in the birth narratives, and indeed to even wonder whether there is any sound history beyond the mere fact that a baby was born who became Jesus of Nazareth. But there are also significant reasons for not moving from wondering about these things to determining that we "know" there is little or no history involved in the narratives. We do not have facts at hand to make such determination. In the end, the narratives are the history of Jesus' birth and infancy we have as God's people. There is no other history available to us.

Postscript: a much better post (regarding detailed examination of the text in relation to the question of historicity) is here, by Ian Paul.

Friday, January 1, 2016

The battle of 2016

And a Happy New Year to you all, Dear Reader (sic, singular - I am expecting the plurality are at the beach NOT wasting their time on blogs).

I saw something like the title above on a Tweet recently and thought it pretty negative in late December, looking ahead to the year ahead as a "battle." But taking the title in a slightly different way, and thinking Christianly, 2016 looks like it must be reckoned with as a year of continuing fisticuffs and fierce fighting. Daesh remains to be defeated. And whether it is defeated or not, there is a battle going on re understanding of 'true Islam', how Islam is to be welcomed and accommodated (or not) in the West. Speaking of the West, culture wars in the West continue. Arguments within churches abound. In my own church arguments will continue about Christchurch cathedral in the Square and about same sex blessings (see May 2016 General Synod).

But today I want to simply draw your attention to a formidable essay by Ross Douthat on "A Crisis of Conservative Catholicism" to be published in First Things this month.

I suggest it is worth reading on two grounds.

(1) For all Christians interested in the significance of Pope Francis for 21st century Roman Catholicism, then this is a "must read."

(2) Although Douthat (as a conservative Catholic) is focused on the crisis of conservative Catholicism, it does not take much brainpower - dulled as it may be by post-Christmas recovery from overeating and New Year somnambulance by the beach - to read his magisterial offering as an account of a larger crisis in 21st century global Christianity.