Sunday, November 27, 2022

NZ churches sliding, sliding, in bewilderment, into irrelevancy?

My former and very brilliant church history professor (when at Knox Theological Hall in the mid 1980s), Peter Matheson, has written a stirring column for the Otago Daily Times. (H/T Anglican Taonga for notice of the article).

Its heading is "Churches Must Rise to the Challenges of the Modern World."

He begins with a description of our sad state:

"It's an interesting experience being a churchgoer these days. We’ve been nudged to the periphery of society and lost out in numbers and influence.

Countless revelations about sexual misconduct by clergy have shaken public confidence. The accumulation of negative publicity in very recent times has been remarkable: Dilworth School, Gloriavale, Destiny Church’s antics, Arise Church’s leadership woes. The list seems endless, the latest issue being Simon O’Connor lauding the US Supreme Court’s verdict on Roe v Wade.

To any neutral observer it might well seem that the Christian churches stand for utterly regressive social and gender policies and all too often for the scandalous abuse of power.

So it’s been quite a turnaround for us churchgoers. In my student days at Otago the churches were at the forefront of radical action. The first anti-nuclear march in Dunedin was largely church-led."

He ends with some helpful suggestions:

"When talking with my non-Christian friends I often pose the question: where are we to get our values as a post-Christian nation?

The celebration of Matariki highlights a welcome awareness of what matauranga (Maori knowledge) has to offer us. We cannot, however, expect Maoridom to offer solutions to all the problems created by Pakeha: the stubborn indifference of suburbia to environmental meltdown, the worrying addiction of young people to social media

Maybe we need to pause, and think again about the rich resources that the Christian tradition of spirituality, theology and creative action has to offer.

As compassion fatigue looms, the churches’ discipline of daily and communal prayer for others is a crucial corrective.

The tough challenge, for sure, to the churches is to get their house in order, to package their transcendent message to meet the needs of the world of today. Reformata reformanda!"

Can any NZ reader here (or overseas observer) disagree with the thrust of what Peter is saying here, that "We’ve been nudged to the periphery of society and lost out in numbers and influence"?

To the degree that we have been nudged (or, indeed, nudged ourselves) to the periphery of society, there are definitely elements of (i) we deserve it (because of our failings), and (ii) we are bewildered - on which I offer some reflection in the next paragraph - and some timeout at the periphery could be valuable for sorting ourselves out.

A bewildered NZ church?

When Peter Matheson recalls church leaders at the forefront of (e.g.) anti-nuclear marches, the church in NZ was a simpler network of churches than today: the classic mainstream Protestant denominations, the Catholic church and some fledgling Pentecostal churches. And there was some good organisation of most of these churches, through the National Council of Churches. Church leaders could speak up and, more or less, profess to speak for the NZ church of God. Today, the NZ church is a varied, diverse bunches of churches, including not only many more Pentecostal churches, but also variants of the classic denominations (e.g. alternative Anglican, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches). This makes it harder to say, "I the leader of church X speak for all churches when I say Y." Not least, this is so, because in the expanding array of churches in our nation, there has been a growth in the conservative character of the NZ church, so the chances are remote that where social or political change is desired by society as a whole, then the church here would see itself as at the vanguard of change rather than at the forefront of resistance to change. Notably, during the Covid years, churches here found themselves internally stricken with division over vaccination.

There is one issue on which, just possibly, we are open to taking a lead, resistance to climate change, but this is a big, complex issue, and, apart from general messages about how we ought to resist climate change, coming up with particular initiatives is proving bewilderingly difficult.

How might we rise again?

To be frank, I do not know. 

But I like, very much, Peter's final point. In a post-Christian society which emphasises the "Christian" character of our nation by many beautiful acts of compassion, churches still have something to contribute by way of our spiritual treasures so that compassion fatigue is relieved and new vigour is given to the values widely espoused across our communities.

We are not finished yet!

But we will need to work on our relevancy rather than assume it.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Apocalyptic Anglicanism in Advent?

I have noticed recently, in the run up to Advent, the odd grizzle or two on Anglican social media about the lectionary providing readings for Morning Prayer from Daniel and from Revelation: "It's a bit too much," is the gist of the grizzles.

Naturally that gets me thinking, perhaps you too, about the role of apocalyptic literature such as Daniel and Revelation in Christian life generally, in Anglican life particularly, and in the last days [that was a subtle joke] before Advent and during Advent itself when we are invited by various readings to think about "the End" and "the Second Coming."

Some Anglicans might think talk of the Second Coming is not very Anglican, more the concern of certain fundamentalists from a certain northern continent. In which case, let me remind you of the collect for the Third Sunday in Advent from the Book of Common Prayer:

O Lord Jesu Christ, who at they first coming didst send they messenger to prepare the way before thee; Grant that the ministers and stewards of they mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready they way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at thy second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in thy sight, who livest and reignst with the Father and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

OK, so may be Anglicans do not talk about the Second Coming with capital letters, but we do talk about the second coming of Christ!

Anyhoo, back to Daniel and Revelation.

I think it a very good idea that the lectionary exposes us to the full breadth of Scripture, from Genesis to, er, Revelation, and thus we are confronted with what the message or messages of Daniel, Revelation and all similar apocalyptic (i.e. revealing, disclosing, unveiling) literature in Scripture is or are.

Apocalyptic literature is literature of stress and duress. 

Israel (of Maccabean times, c. 167 BC) stressed by the invasion of Greece, draws on the memories of the duress experienced when Jerusalem was sacked (597/587 BC) and Judah went into exile in Babylon, and produces Daniel, a set of tales of a faithful Jew which include visions which give insight into the hidden powers of darkness which work through the imperial forces focused against God's holy people and reveal the stronger powers of God's angelic rulers in order to strengthen Judah's resolve to be faithful.

Revelation, composed at the end of the first century AD, draws heavily on Daniel (and to a lesser degree on Ezekiel, Zechariah and Isaiah), to update for the followers of Jesus under stress (primarily a threat of imminent persecution) the kind of insights Daniel provided: hidden behind the activities of Rome and its local supporters and henchman throughout the empire are satanic forces; powerful though they are, the angels of God and the spirits of God, and, most importantly, Jesus Christ the risen, exalted Word and Lamb of God have got them covered and are about to swipe them off the face of the earth.

So, point (1): We may grizzle at the apocalyptic overload of reading both Daniel and Revelation on the same morning for a week or two because we are unstressed, but in our day, there are plenty of Christians under stress, particularly the threat of persecution and the challenge of being faithful when threatened with violence and loss of livelihood. Let's read Daniel and Revelation in solidarity with them.

Apocalyptic literature is literature of resistance

Both Daniel and Revelation call out imperial powers - human attempts to orchestrate people to submit against their better judgement to the arbitrary ambitions of despots and tyrants - and show them up for what they are: expressions of evil, idolatries rebelling against the rule of the Creator and Redeemer God of Israel. In doing so, like all apocalyptic literature, they ask of their readers that they stand firm in their faith in God and thus resist the encroachment of the evil powers.

So, point 2: We read Daniel and Revelation as a double dose of fortifying resolution to be godly people who resist imperialism wherever we find it, and in whatever guise we find it in today's world.

Apocalyptic literature is literature of disruption

Both Daniel and Revelation (and material in the gospels and in the epistles) propose that history is not endless: the story of human life is coming to an end. History as a tale of people marrying and producing offspring who marry and produce offspring etcetera is denied by apocalyptic literature which tells us God will disrupt life as we know it and dramatically turn the tables on the forces of evil and rescue God's people from complete destruction and annihilation.

So, point 3: We read Daniel and Revelation as alternative narratives to the stories we generally tell ourselves about studying, embarking on a career, finding a life partner to marry and raise a family, wisely setting aside money for later life, for a long, active and happy retirement, all premised on dying in our sleep at a very grand old age. Tomorrow the world may end. Am I ready? Tomorrow the axe of oppression may fall on me and my congregation. Are we prepared? Tomorrow I may be thrown to the lions? Will that be the end or does God have another future in store? Disruption is a part of history. We should not be surprised when it comes.

Of course, in a world in which some of us are growing old steadily (I had my 60-something birthday the other day), there are plenty of possibilities for disruption, even when we are not living in Ukraine or Iran. North Korea is firing off practice missiles. The world economy could tank. Twitter may fall over. Climate change may disrupt life in ways not even imaginable after the disruptive storms, floods, and fires of the past few years.

To be honest, of all ways of being Christian, being Anglican is not the best way to be ready for disruption.

We do steady state complacency rather well! We have often been on the side of empires rather than resisting their growth and standing against their rapaciousness.

In the run up to and the run through Advent, how will we Anglicans read Daniel and Revelation and those gospel passages speaking of the End?

Not with grizzles, I hope.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Lambeth 2022 wasn't a failure, was it?

Whether Lambeth 2022 was a failure or a success, on some definition of each, may or may not matter in the great scheme of God's plan for the unity of all things (Ephesian 1:9-10), but I am interested in the "lesser scheme" of God's work within that part of the Christian world described as "Anglican", and the contribution Lambeth 2022 may be judged - short, medium or long term - to have made to that work.

Thus in recent days my eyes have alighted on the following articles, some of which have only appeared in the past week.

+George Sumner  (TEC), writing back in August 2022, offers a nuanced, hopeful, Global South-oriented view of the Communion's future, and looks forward to Lambeth 2032.

Andrew Goddard (England), writing as recently as 9 November 2022, offers a significant, detailed critique of what was said at Lambeth 2022, principally by ++Welby, in relation to matters of dispute and decision-making for the Communion as a body variously filled with provincial autonomies and interdependence aspirations. He concludes, in the end, somewhat bleakly:

"Elements of the Archbishop’s contributions, particularly in his final address, give hope for some degree of continuity with the Communion’s historic self-understanding and vision. Other elements, however, raise a number of serious questions and concerns particularly concerning autonomy and subsidiarity. These apparently represent a major break with the received account of these key concepts. This then results in drawing dangerous implications for ordering the Communion’s life. If these features are embraced as the fruit of the Conference’s “intense ecclesiological development” or simply allowed to stand by default (rather than being subject to further scrutiny and refinement, such as that implicit in the Global South’s communiqué) then sadly Ephraim Radner will be proved right and we have just witnessed, despite all the good it has accomplished relationally, “The Last Lambeth Conference.”"

So, what did Ephraim Radner (Canada) make of Lambeth 2022 in the article Goddard references? Writing in First Things in October this year, Radner opens with this paragraph:

"July’s was probably the last recognizable assembly of the Lambeth Conference we shall see in this generation (and perhaps the next). No longer will “all” the bishops of the Anglican Communion gather, but only some, and only from some places. No longer will the deliberation of the Communion’s bishops give rise to common teaching on matters of doctrine and morals. No longer will Anglicans around the world see themselves as engaged in a common evangelical mission."

His analysis of the situation, borne along by his resolute view that the threads which we hold in common are devoid of any substantial common agreements, leads to this - frankly bizarre - estimation of the Communion's common theology and mission:

"To judge by the words of its most public leaders, the Anglican Communion has come to represent a progressive version of the works of mercy: addressing injustice, fighting corruption, combating climate change. The time has come to admit that works of mercy provide the only framework for the current Anglican vocation."

On the other hand, there is the Lambeth 2022 conference I actually attended which highlighted our common commitment to discipleship - to following Jesus as the giver of divine life and embodiment of divine love.

Back to Radner: his final paragraphs about the future of the Communion could be summed up by the word "bleak." 

Is there hope?

Thankfully +Joseph Wandera (Kenya) offers some hope for the Communion's future. Before we get to that expression of hope, I love the observation Wandera makes in this paragraph about a phenomenon I saw myself (and felt a bit guilty about not myself making videos for consumption back in my diocese):

"It was quite common during the breaks to see a number of bishops, especially from the West, rushing to set up in a corner and convey news of the conference back to their home dioceses, using their digital devices. At one point, I was invited by an American bishop to be interviewed for his home diocese. How was I to communicate the deliberations at Lambeth back home to my largely rural congregations, where our infrastructure is limited, and smart phones are a luxury they cannot afford?"

The crucial and critical observation Wandera brings to this post's set of articles is Lambeth 2022's failure to engage with damaging, longstanding issues in economic injustice (such as the crippling effects of national debts), not least because we First World bishops only superficially connected with Third World bishops. Fair point.

But Wandera's conclusion is hopeful that Lambeth conferences will continue and will learn from shortcomings of the past:

"The Christian story is woven around the event of the Incarnation, and so embodiment such as what we experienced at Lambeth was an experience of a lifetime. However, such embodiment ought to be extended to our communities in real ways if it is going to have impact.

There is need for a new orientation around Lambeth, making it more relational, and sustainable around our common issues.

Thankfully, we are all on a pilgrimage, and Lambeth remains a powerful reminder of our connectedness as followers of Jesus."

A specific transition to a new future for the conference proposed by Wandera would be for it to take place away from England, say, in Nairobi. Why not?

Lurking in all the articles linked to above is the question of "who" is actually in rather than out of the Communion. If we bewail the lack of communion for the Communion, what is the Communion that suffers this lack?

++Linda Nicholls (Canada) opines in an article that Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda have effectively separated from the Communion by not turning up to Lambeth 2022. (Others quoted in the article take different views).

Interstingly, at this point in time we can reasonably ask an important question of the Anglican province with the most Anglicans and most bishops in it.

What is Nigeria up to? It's with GAFCON rather than with the Communion isn't it? Well, "you be the judge" after reading this report in which Nigeria is busy establishing a Nigerian Anglican church in North America which is not part of ACNA (the GAFCON-alternative to TEC and ACCanada) - a move which has led a Nigerian bishop in the States, with his Diocese, to choose alignment with ACNA and not with Nigeria.

In the ten years between now and 2032, assuming there will be a Lambeth conference that year, what changes to global Anglicanism will we see take place? 

Will a blogpost in 2031 be reflecting on how Nigeria's global aspirations for its ruthlessly pure form of Anglicanism relate to GAFCON's more conciliarity global aspirations for pure Anglicanism relate to the Anglican Communion's bold faith that 90% of all provinces are represented at Lambeth 2032?

If there is one thing missing from the most critical articles above, it is the failure to recognise that the Communion consists of 42 provinces and only three failed to have representative bishops show up.

Monday, November 7, 2022

Can we ever change anything of substance in the life of the church?

A question thrown up by English events of the past few days,* is represented in the contents of a tweet which I copy here:

"Bishop of Oxford says he no longer believes in the Church of England teaching which he took an oath to uphold and protect.

If he had any integrity he would therefore resign his position."

That is, the question this post is concerned with is: How might the teaching of the church change? 

When we who are officers of the church (i.e. those who sign up to the teaching of the church) begin to think that something could or should be different, are we bound to suppress those thoughts, or to resign? What is the process by which the church changes its minds on a matter if its official leaders are bound to express no thoughts out loud about the possibility of change?

In other words, it is absurd to equate a commitment to the teaching of the church with a resolve to never, ever question it.

Sure, there are better ways and means to raise questions than others (think of the bishops through the years who have publicly questioned the resurrection and caused dismay and despair in the pews), but when there are issues which involve significant differences among members, and big questions over the church's relationship to society, it is appropriate to raise questions and consider changes and revisions.

On the content of the tweet cited above, rigorously enforced since, say, 1559, we would not have women ordained as clergy, there would be no remarriage in churches of divorced persons, the Book of Common Prayer would not be revised into a new prayer book which captured changes in Anglican eucharistic theology, and, noting the anti-Papalism of the 39A, there would be no ARCIC conversations.

(A Roman Catholic - Thomas Moore? - might go further, and say, that is precisely why the English Reformation is both wrong and bad: clergy forsook their vows!).

In what way may we who vowed to uphold the teaching of the church also be permitted to review it, develop it or even change it?

Historians of theology here will recall the great irony that John Newman forsook his vows to uphold the CofE's doctrines by leaving it, only to then, as a Roman Catholic, begin a long influence of his new church via the notion of "development" of doctrine, an influence which, arguably, is behind (or underneath) present day turmoil in the Roman Catholic church.

Current English turmoil

Following immediately on the heels of the departure of CofE bishops from a meeting about their response to the CofE process called Living in Faith and Love, the Bishop of Oxford, Steven Croft last week wrote a response to recent deliberations within the CofE. (The actual book he has written is purchaseable etc rather than available for free view or download). See also these articles in Church Times: an extract from the book here and a report here.

I wonder if the key question in this new phase of debate in the CofE is this (in the extract linked to above):

"The more the Church commends the goods of permanent, stable, and faithful relationships for heterosexual people in marriage, the more difficult it becomes to justify denying those goods and blessings to people who happen to be homosexual."

Do the rejoinders actually tackle this question? That could be a question for the CofE and its debates!

Speaking of rejoinders, there is:

A prompt rejoinder by Ian Paul at Psephizo.

And another by Vaughan Roberts, a vicar in the city of Oxford (download his pdf from this link).

CEEC statement here.

Perhaps most helpful of all, Angela Tilby, inspired by John Milbank, on a needed third way.

Except, in response to Tilby-Milbank's "third way", a friend on Twitter has tweeted that "second class" is not for him.

If on Twitter, you may see various back and forth, some very supportive tweets, and some disagreeing strongly. Unfortunately, social media responses not seen by me include, according to a tweet I have seen, abusive, hateful responses to +Steven.

Any how, this post is not intended to be a further foray into argument, but a note that the mother church of our Communion is moving into a new phase in its own journey on these matters. 

Having waited for Lambeth 2022 to be concluded, the relatively united front of their bishops (i.e. to refrain from much comment, one way or another), has now moved to a phase in which bishops such as +Steven (and a few others who have signalled public agreeement) are voicing their views.

The CofE bishops are meeting again before Christmas, and there is a next session of their General Synod in February 2023. What change might be proposed? What might be agreed to?

Nothing less than the unity of the CofE is at stake, even as nothing less than a "better deal" for the gay members of the CofE is also at stake.

Watch this space. It is critical to the way in which the future of the Communion itself will be shaped.

please comment on the question at the beginning of this post and not on That Topic ... and please take great care about any ad hominen comments. They will not be published, even if they are 1% of an otherwise 99% fine comment. Am too busy to moderate otherwise.