Monday, November 29, 2021

Returning serve?

Down Under in Aotearoa New Zealand we are moving into the Traffic Lights mode on Friday this week, meaning when a region is Green certain freedoms are permitted, Orange fewer freedoms, more restrictions, and Red the most restrictions and least freedoms, where, roughly, more freedom is granted to the fully vaccinated (adjudicated by possession of a vaccination pass) and more restrictions apply to the non-vaccinated.

Last Friday the bishops of Tikanga Pakeha of ACANZP issued the following pastoral statement:

"From the time of our nation’s first lockdown response to the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequently throughout these extraordinary times, we as Bishops have met weekly together to pray, to support one another and to reflect on our leadership through the rapid changes in our nation’s continuing response to Covid-19.  The foundational unit of the Anglican Church is the Diocese; that group of individuals, communities and organisations who gather around the bishop. We honour and respect the independence and integrity of each Diocese, whilst seeking in these circumstances, to offer as much consistency and commonality as we possibly can. 

Out of a deep love for the church and the people we serve, we have sought to approach the next stage of our nation’s response to this world-wide health emergency in a way that reflects two key agreements in common:


    1. The normative position for worship, events and gatherings, is that they will be fully-vaccinated. In other words, vaccine certificates will be required to attend services of worship, events and gatherings.  This fully vaccinated approach, as the norm, reflects the best and most current health advice available to us, as we seek to do all that we can to minimise the risk of anyone becoming infected with Covid-19. 


    1. We have a pastoral responsibility for the care of all people. This responsibility is to both vaccinated and non-vaccinated, but particularly to the most vulnerable. This care includes those who may not be able to worship with us because they have chosen not to be vaccinated. It also includes those who are in quarantine after exposure to infected people and are awaiting test results. Such pastoral responsibility also includes those who are ill, or those who are choosing to limit their potential exposure to infection because of their level of vulnerability or the level of vulnerability to members of their households. We are committed to supporting local Churches in finding ways to minister to all.

As bishops, we are committed to constantly reviewing these principles, and the protocols and policies that are being established in each Diocese regularly, to ensure that we continue to reflect the greatest level of care possible. 

 As we continue to navigate this season together, we would also like to take this opportunity to thank and honour all those who lead and serve within our church in Christ’s name and who work for the coming of Christ’s Kingdom. We continue to faithfully hold each other before God in prayer.

 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7

Yours in Christ,

            Bishop Ross Bay

Bishop Steven Benford

Bishop Peter Carrell

Bishop Justin Duckworth

Bishop Andrew Hedge

Bishop Steve Maina

Bishop Philip Richardson

Bishop Eleanor Sanderson"

There is, I note in some comments in NZ social media, some lines of response to church leaders who (e.g. above) follow rather than resist the Government's lead in managing our national response to Covid-19, which accuse us of a degree of spinelessness.

"If you want to attend church this Advent or Christmas, bend them knee and show your govt papers at the door.

What has the country come to? Or the churches that accept this?

"The church's subjugation to the state is one of the more disturbing aspects of NZ's situation"

"When churches allow govts to determine who may or may not worship, they have bent the knee."

A slightly different strategy is to cheer on one of our MPs when he writes to the Government asking why they would not support his attempt to amend legislation passed last week so that churches are exempt from requiring vaccination passes from our attendees.

There are other ideas and ecclesiastical decisions to be found on the net (which I won't link to because this post is not intended to spark discussion of other church leaders' announcements), the gist of which amounts to "the church must not exclude people so must not impose vaccination pass requirements."

Are some churches - my own included - both spineless and exclusive?

On the latter, the question of "exclusion" is not quite as simple as it might seem. Under the Traffic Lights Framework, for instance, to include the unvaccinated in services is to exclude people who turn up once the maximum number for a service is reached (100 at Green, 50 at Orange, and 25 at Red). Given that we are heading towards 90+% of the population being fully vaccinated and that at Green and Orange there is no ceiling on numbers of attendees, there is actually greater inclusiveness of people gathering together in person for worship when vaccination passes are required.

Further, as our statement above makes clear (and similarly but with some differences, also the Roman Catholic Church), even where vaccination passes are deemed normative, there is an obligation to find ways and means to connect with the unvaccinated. One way is that "normative" actually allows for some services to be exempted from the norm.

What about the matter of meekness in following the Government? The charge that we have too readily given in to allowing the Government to determine who can come to worship and who cannot?

Is it time to "return serve"?

My response is:

1. We are in a pandemic fighting a virus which (a) affects people irrespective of nationality, race, culture, colour or creed, and (b) is well known to spread quickly through unvaccinated people gathering for large events, but less quickly through vaccinated people when they gather.

2. Accordingly there are no special groups who have special ability to determine their own health and safety requirements let alone special reason to be exempt from regulations and guidelines that apply to all gatherings. (The MP's letter mentioned above is very strange in its special pleading without rational underpinning.)

3. In my experience travelling around my Diocese, Christians are not uniformly compliant with requests from their church leadership to do things which are currently only enccouraged: mask wearing is the stand out example of variability across congregations.

4. Further, the range of viewpoints among Christians on how the virus spreads and what is best to manage its spread is a large range, so the chances of a church or a denomination determining for itself what would be best practice and for that best practice to be supported by sound scientific advice is remote.

5. Put a little differently, there is no reason to think that churches could do better than the Ministry of Health advised Government in the determining of regulations and the issuing of guidelines.

6. Ergo, what the Government advises is the best we can do under the circumstances.

7. Consequently, to follow that advice is a matter of wisdom and not of abject subjugation to a secular power.

8. Much matters here re the language we use. Yes, a vaccination pass can be described as "a Government paper" but it can also be described, in the context of a pandemic, as a declaration of health status and of minimal risk factor in spreading the virus. And that declaration is important to all the people planning to gather for worship through this season.

As we say in our message above:

"Out of a deep love for the church and the people we serve, we have sought to approach the next stage of our nation’s response to this world-wide health emergency ..."


1. The above apologia for the line we Anglicans (and other churches) are taking is not intended to critique churches which are taking a different line (e.g. to live with limits and to not impose vaccination pass requirements). A decision has to be made, one way or another, and there are good reasons for decisions being made. The apologia is against the critique of being subjugated, not against those whose decision is different.

2. After composing the above, I happened to read a little further on into Rowan Williams' book Looking East in Winter: Contemporary Thought and the Eastern Christian Tradition (subject of some posts here recently). Just before I sat down to write this Addendum I posted a comment below to the original post which mentions Bonhoeffer ...

++Rowan, discussing both Evagrius and Bonhoeffer, in a chapter entitled, "Justice, Distance and Love," writes, with some pertinence to my discussion above:

"... a 'contemploative' political practice might be summed up as one that seeks to make room for the narrative of the other; one that does not begin by attempting to absorb this narrarive into itself, and thus is willing to learn how it is itself seen and understood. Only a practice of this sort can ultimately ground a politics that works towards the difficult common ground on which majority and minority can negotiate together: the prevalent pathology of our political life seems to be the idea that majorities obliterate the interst of the minority and that political victory is - while it lasts - licence for a majority to enforce its agenda. ... [pp. 192-93]

"To say we must learn to distance ourselves from our commitments in politics in order to arrive at both justice and love is at first sight a bizarre recommendation, suggesting a corrosive indifferentism. But the dustance involved is not a refusal of commitment; it has rather to do with what it is that we are committed to. Bonhoeffer's commitment is manifestly a serious and costly affair, but it is a commitment neither to victory nor to innocence. It is a commitment to the Wirklichkeit he evokes - the reality both of a many-layered and historically complex acting self and to the rpecise demands of a particular context; as well as a commitment to a radical and all-powerful mercy beyond all planning and justification.  [p. 193]"

Monday, November 22, 2021

Is Theology Immutable? On Modernism, Innovation and Development

Theology, one might say, working from blog to blog in the 21st century, is either in a state of constant flux (new thoughts, changing ideas for changing times, let's keep up folks or the church is doomed, doomed I tell you to be extinct by 2063 or even 2047) or desperation (true theology is truth, the truth cannot change, and all the churches in the world, even the Roman Catholic Church under Francis, trying desperately for 'relevance' are doomed, doomed I tell you, unless they get back to core and very ancient beliefs ... for which the eminent guide is "my" blog). 

On the sidebar of this blog I link to other blogsites, one of which belongs to a Catholic philosopher, Edward Feser. Edward's latest blogpost is a review of a book by someone I have never heard of, Peter Geach. [H/T Bowman Walton in a comment o last week's post]. 

"Catholic philosopher Peter Geach’s book Providence and Evil is interesting not only for what it says about the topics referred to in the title, but also for its many insights and arguments concerning other matters that Geach treats along the way.  Among these passing remarks is a brief but trenchant critique of those who propose a “denatured” brand of Christianity in the name of “man’s evolution and progress” (p. 85).  Theirs is the view that Christian tradition is “mutable,” so that “with the progress of knowledge a doctrine hitherto continuously taught in one sense now needs to be construed in another sense” (pp. 86-87).  Geach doesn’t use the label “modernism,” but that is what he is talking about.  "

The post then unfolds in an interesting way as a discussion of truth, its sources in revelation and reason, and the danger of Christianity becoming a modernist version of itself to its detriment and effective death. 

So far so good (as far as the argument goes) but what then interested me is the discussion which develops in the comments below the post. In this discussion one point made is that whatever we think of modernism we should take care that we do not have an argument against modernism (e.g. as an unwelcome development of theology or, more simply, an innovation) which is also an argument against any development in theology (with the particular frisson in a Catholic context of the presence of developments in theology which are not well explained by either revelation or reason such as the Assumption of Mary). In such discussion there is some consideration of the difference between "innovation" and "development" (and that recalls for me somewhere in Rowan Williams' book of recent posting here the Eastern Orthodox position of immense suspicion of "development").

What is a theologian to do?

Here are a few quickish thoughts, in no particular order of priority:

1. Is "revelation" a set of ironclad rules, regulations and propositions (albeit found within narratives as well as sayings and statements in Scripture) so that, indeed, once understood, there can be no change?

2. Is "revelation" a revealing of who God is (Father, Son and Holy Spirit; with the Son incarnated in the life of the world as Jesus of Nazareth) so that, indeed, there might be development in understanding of revelation (e.g. from Mark's Gospel to John's Gospel, from John's Gospel to Paul's Gospel) as well as an ironclad  bulwark against error such as Modernism (because it denies revelation and is no development of it)?

3. And if we answer (2) affirmatively, do we then have other possibilities for development (even, it might be argued, innovation) in our understanding, providing we always work from the revelation starting point? For instance, a new understanding of women in church leadership is possible through a new appraisal of the meaning for human life of the Incarnation (of God inhabiting human life for the sake of the abundant life of all). There is no "development" of the basic revelation of the Incarnation but there is a development of the meaning of the Incarnation for women as well as for men.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Assisted Dying in Aotearoa New Zealand

I am pretty confident that when the NZ Catholic Bishops write a paper, the last thing they think about is what Archbishop Cranmer (aka the blog of that name, not the 16th century archbishop) will say about it. But say something Archbishop Cranmer did, when the NZ Catholic Bishops published "Ministers of Consolation and Hope Ngā Kaiārahi o te Aroha me te Tūmanako: Principles and Guidelines for those working with and ministering to people contemplating assisted dying."

The Catholic bishops proposed:

"With the advent of assisted dying in New Zealand, we find our beliefs about human life at odds in a new way with the law of our country. 

The law change provides us with an opportunity to renew our commitment to the dignity of every person in practical ways: advocating for equitably available effective palliative care; forming outward looking parishes that reach out to the lonely, sick, elderly and disabled and their whānau; supporting in prayer and other ways those who are engaged in caring for people at the end of life, including those contemplating assisted dying. 

At the same time, those ministering to the dying and their whānau will find themselves facing new challenges brought on by the introduction of euthanasia to our land. Aware, on the one hand, of the Church’s clear teaching about euthanasia and, on the other hand, equally aware of the Church’s clear teaching on accompaniment and the Christian duty to bear witness to the compassion and mercy of our loving God who never abandons his people, some priests, chaplains, spiritual companions and other lay ministers may find themselves in a place they would rather not be – a place of personal tension or struggle. 

The following guidelines draw on sacred Scripture, the Church’s long tradition of caring for the sick and dying, and the Magisterium’s insights concerning ‘accompaniment’, which all remind us that the role of every Christian minister is to be a bearer of the enduring hope and consolation that flows from our central belief in the power of the Lord’s resurrection."

So far so good (I reckon) and the detail in the paper is clear, careful and caring. There is much to learn from it and to put into practice in the light of it. But within the paper there is a proposal which perhaps will give many readers pause for thought and prayer (my italics):

"If an individual priest, chaplain, pastoral worker, healthcare professional or caregiver decides that there is a limit to their ability to accompany a person seeking assisted dying, such a decision should be fully respected. At the same time, they should ensure that provision is made for the person to be accompanied by another" (7.ii)

There is a bit to think about there, is there not? If I disagree with a person's choice to end their life, and my objection is a moral one, based on (say) my understanding of doctrine, or my concern that this choice is made under duress, the moral basis for my determination to not accompany them is a moral basis for not seeking a replacement.

That's about as far as I want to go re a critique of this document. Cranmer goes further. Here I want to make some supportive observations (with gratitude for the paper and the work that lies behind it) before concluding with a general concern about pastoral care post the legislation coming into effect just over a week ago.

1. Accompaniment of people on a journey towards death is a kind response to a person whether or not that journey involves a choice to hasten the end. No pastor should be penalised for setting aside their own convictions about that choice in order to be a minister of God for the dying person. Every pastor should be permitted to accompany a person choosing to bring their life to an end. (We should recall that the Act permits such choice only under circumstances which could be summed up a medically severe.)

2. Accompaniment (it seems to me, reflecting on other situations of accompanying people in life's journey) is a greater opportunity to influence a person to reconsider their decision than not accompanying them.

A general concern:

3. Yet ... there is a question of whether a commitment to accompany in such situations has a consequence NZ churches might not be comfortable with: the embedding of euthanasia as a morally correct option within our society. 

Worse: could the embedding of euthanasia as a morally correct option within our society diminish the possibility of palliative care as another option for the journey towards death? That question lurks within this article today on Stuff. Over time there is the prospect that euthanasia will become the only option for medical progress for the terminally ill and/or those experiencing an overwhelming suffering.

What are pastors to do?

Monday, November 8, 2021

Looking East in Spring: enjoying and making sense of Rowan Williams (3/3)

This will be the last post on Rowan Williams' book on Eastern Orthodox theology (for the time being, at least) and other things are on the horizon of interest (including the NZ Catholic Bishops advising on pastoral care when people choose to end their lives (per NZ legislation coming into effect yesterday, per notice from Archbishop Cranmer of all bloggers!)


Yesterday's sermon, working from Ruth 3/4, Hebrews 9 and Mark 12, prompted me to talk about Jesus as the centre of history: anticipated in Jesus' genealogy per Ruth, and looked back on per Hebrews, especially in Hebrews 9:26:

"But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself."

What is history but the imperfection of the world playing out. A Garden of Eden would generate no history (because no conflict, no change, no fear of future change). History flows from the fall and not from creation. What is the centre of history but the intervention of God in Christ to "remove sin". The end of history is then the fullness of salvation from sin, Hebrews 9:28:

"so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him."

Looking East

Such thoughts, however, are given a bit of a nudge by Rowan Williams' discussion of the theology of Olivier-Maurice Clément (November 17, 1921 – January 15, 2009). In a chapter discussing "liturgical humanism" he introduces the reader to the theological outlook of Clément and includes this from him:

"The meaning of history, like the meaning of the human subject, is to be found beyond the limits of the world - but this is a "beyond" that has, in the Incarnation,become interior to history and humanity ... It is the death and resurretion of God made human that truly constitutes the End of history, or rather the End in history so that the word "end" does not signify some kind of closure but an infinite opening, a threshold of light. This is an End that judges history's totalitarian pretensions, its illusions and hypnoses, this End, we have argued, wounds history with the wound of eternity and opens up in it the path of repentance and so of hope." (pp. 142-43, cited from La revolte de l'spirit (Paris, Stock 1979), p. 141.*

But this means, Williams elucidates, that to be human 

"is to be summoned to 'communion'" 


"The invitation to engage with the act of love that has eternally engaged me is at the same time the invitation to engage with the human other who, like me, is already seen by God and addressed by God" (p. 143). 

Williams goes on, p. 144, to point out that nothing here is particularly novel to Clément but what the latter points us to is 

"how liturgical life and experience embody the new humanity ... The humanism to which Clément directs us is visible and effective s liturgy, specifically as eucharistic litrugy; and if we are concerned to engage persuasively with a world threatened with an immense range of dehumanizing forces, we must be explciit about the connection between Christian anthropology and Christian liturgy" (p. 144).

I find this (and other things time and space do not permit me to share in this post) to be exciting: liturgy is the living out of the new world God in Christ has invited us to live in, the new creation is experienced in the old history which Christ has "Ended".

Something of the passion of Clément for the eucharist is captured in what Williams says next:

"Clément, in the autobiograph from which I have already quoted, describes his pre-Christian frustration in terms of being 'hungry for the Eucharist', hungry for a practice that would exhibit the new humanity he was gradually becomieng aware of - a humanity characterized by royal authority, priestly mediation and prophetic showing of 'the End already present.'" (p. 144 citing Clément's L'autre soleil (Paris, Stock 1975), p. 142).

That is a wonderful liturgical and humanist vision, and one Anglicans can embrace! 

*Williams backs this up with a lovely quote from Henri de Lubac who once wrote that 

"Christianity is not one of the great things of history: it is history which is one of the great things of Christianity" (Paradoxes of Faith (San Francisco, Ignatius Press 1987), p. 145, cited by Williams, op. cit. p. 144 n8.

Monday, November 1, 2021

Looking East in Spring: enjoying and making sense of Rowan Williams (2/n)

(The title of the post, and the book referred to in the post are introduced in the post below, from last week).

There are some lovely moments in this book - one might even (taking a cue from a citation below) call them epiphanic - illuminating, enlightening, opening up new insight(s) into the truth of God.

Here are a couple of those moments, for this week ...

"not a programme or an ideology, but an epiphany" (p. 7)

That is (in my paraphrase of that whole page) we shouldn't compress what it means to be a Christian or our "understanding of the kingdom of God" or what it means for the church to be church into an ideology or a programme (a course, a cycle of worship services and meetings, a specific application of  theology to life). When (to cite something else from that page) "finite being is summoned to a communion with infinite trinitarian being in which the act and purpose of that infinite love is ... a permeating or saturating presence" we are zooming beyond "ideology" and "programme" to an experience of the divine life which overwhelms us, which floods us with light - the light of pure truth, truth beyond text and ordinary experience - to epiphany - God breaking into our lives.

Then, this paragraph, on the "social Trinity" in the course of discussion of what "filiation" means, that is, "we are adopted into the relation that Jesus enjoys with the Father and [] we are enabled to pray with his prayer [Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6; Farewell Discourses of Fourth Gospel] (pp. 71-72):

"The maxim that 'the Holy Trinity is our social programme' can readily be misunderstood as a naive picture of divine and human 'sociality' assimilated to one another, the persons of the Trinity being thought of as separate subjects brought into harmony; but there is a sense in which it can perhaps be defended. The self-communicating, self-repeating life of God is such that its activity sets up a chain of implication for us, whereby we see that what we desire for our own healing is inseparable from the desire for the healing of others - because the communication of who and what God is entails the sharing of an energy that cannot but make for personal communion, and thus cannot but make for a state of affairs in which each agent is involved in bringing alive in every other the reality of self-communicating/self-repeating life - life that gives life and so give the liberty to give life all over again."

In the language of a bear with a much smaller brain than that of ++Rowan and the Orthodox theologians he is engaging with, if the Trinitarian life of God, received through our adoption into the relation which Jesus enjoys with the Father, means we are made whole (healed) and, moreover, are energized by the same power of love which has filiated us into the Trinitarian communion of love, then we cannot but want to both share that love with others and pray with Jesus that they also will be made whole in the same way that we are; and such healed individuals, necessarily will be healed not only as discrete individuals, but also as individuals who relate to others, and so the society of humanity is also healed. Thus the Holy Trinity is our social programme!

Next week, likely a bit of good stuff on liturgy ...