Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Shoes of the Fisherman are some Jive Ass Slippers!*

James Carroll and Ross Douthat discusses the Anglican Communion/Roman Catholic issue in terms (without mentioning them) of Richard Niebuhr's analysis of Christ and Culture, which is a very interesting way to go. Carroll says:

The invitation to “disgruntled’’ members of the Church of England’s extended family to abandon the Thames for the Tiber is a rejection of contemporary human experience, a resounding response of “No!’’ The church against the modern world, after all. Not only a cruel assault on a fellow Christian communion that is valiantly struggling to strike a balance between liberal and conservative impulses; not only an insult to loyal Catholic liberals who will be denied what converted Anglicans are offered (notably a married clergy); not only a slap at women and homosexuals whose progress toward equality is a global measure of justice; not only a stark contrast with the common Anglican practice of fully welcoming alienated Roman Catholics, while eschewing any pressure on them to convert - there is more.

Equally damaging, the Vatican’s preemptive exploitation of Anglican distress explicitly ducks the large and urgent challenge facing every religion and every religious person, which is how to positively reconcile tradition with the massive changes in awareness, knowledge, and communication that come with the scientific and technological breakthroughs that daily alter the meaning of existence.
Douthat agrees "there is more," but the "more" is not modernity nor the reaction to it, at least by Christians. The "more" is Islam:

This could be the real significance of last week’s invitation. What’s being interpreted, for now, as an intra-Christian skirmish may eventually be remembered as the first step toward a united Anglican-Catholic front — not against liberalism or atheism, but against Christianity’s most enduring and impressive foe.
What's interesting is that even Douthat can't accept that modernity is the enemy. That is, after all, a primarily "fundamentalist" point of view, and while there are Opus Dei and other arch-conservative Catholic movements, there is no real equivalent of fundamentalism in Roman Catholicism. This is because fundamentalism defends Protestant orthodoxy, among which is the principal of direct access by the believer to God, without the intermediary of an institution. Islam has taken to fundamentalism because, like Protestant Christianity, it does not depend upon an intermediary to be a necessary component of Islamic faith.

Carroll sets the dichotomy between Christ (or church) and culture this way:

While the Vatican and its recruits just say no, the rest of us attempt to apply tested modes of ethical reasoning to revolutions, for example, in genetic science that separate reproduction from sexuality. While the Vatican just says no, the rest of us reckon with the ways in which the woon of poverty. While the Vatican just says no, the rest of us see the link between triumphalist rejection of pluralism and the intolerance that undergirds most of the world’s violence.
Douthat sets it this way:

This is not the way well-mannered modern churches are supposed to behave. Spurred by the optimism of the early 1960s, the major denominations of Western Christendom have spent half a century being exquisitely polite to one another, setting aside a history of strife in the name of greater Christian unity.

This ecumenical era has borne real theological fruit, especially on issues that divided Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation. But what began as a daring experiment has decayed into bureaucratized complacency — a dull round of interdenominational statements on global warming and Third World debt, only tenuously connected to the Gospel.

At the same time, the more ecumenically minded denominations have lost believers to more assertive faiths — Pentecostalism, Evangelicalism, Mormonism and even Islam — or seen them drift into agnosticism and apathy.

Nobody is more aware of this erosion than Benedict. So the pope is going back to basics — touting the particular witness of Catholicism even when he’s addressing universal subjects, and seeking converts more than common ground.
It's an interesting argument because it is essentially a cultural argument: he who has the most numbers, wins! It's not even the quasi-theological argument that more members is a sign of God's approval. It's simply the argument that numbers equals success, and success equals power, and power equals victory, so "the more ecumenically minded denominations" are dull and losers (I have to agree with him, by the way, on those "interdenominational statements on global warming and Third World debt, only tenuously connected to the Gospel." But that agreement doesn't negate what I see as the justice of Carroll's assertion about what is going on in spite of church hierarchies.) Then there's the view of Hans Kung (everybody into the pool!), who says, more or less, what I've been saying:

After Pope Benedict XVI's offences against the Jews and the Muslims, Protestants and reform-oriented Catholics, it is now the turn of the Anglican communion, which encompasses some 77 million members and is the third largest Christian confession after the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches. Having brought back the extreme anti-reformist faction of the Pius X fraternity into the fold, Pope Benedict now hopes to fill up the dwindling ranks of the Catholic church with Anglicans sympathetic to Rome. Their conversion to the Catholic church is supposed to be made easier: Anglican priests and bishops shall be allowed to retain their standing, even when married. Traditionalists of the churches, unite! Under the cupola of St Peter's! The Fisher of Men is angling in waters of the extreme religious right.
Extreme religious right, of course, is a matter of perspective:

[The Anglican Church] is already suffering from the consequences of the heedless and unnecessary election of an avowed gay priest as bishop in the US, an event that split his own diocese and the whole Anglican communion. This friction has been enhanced by the ambivalent attitude of the church's leadership with respect to homosexual partnerships. Many Anglicans would accept a civil registration of such couples with wide-ranging legal consequences, for instance in inheritance law, and would even accept an ecclesiastical blessing for them, but they would not accept a "marriage" in the traditional sense reserved for partnerships between a man and a woman, nor would they accept a right to adoption for such couples.
One wants to point out it is a communion, not a "church," and the Archbishop of Canterbury is not a kind of ersatz Pope. But one really wants to say: "Really, Fr. Kung? Really?" And then one re-reads his recap of reconciliation between Rome and Canterbury, and one realizes one has encountered yet another strand of Christ and Culture, because Kung's argument ends here:

As I wrote in 1967, "a resumption of ecclesial community between the Catholic church and the Anglican church" would be possible, when "the Church of England, on the one side, shall be given the guarantee that its current autochthonous and autonomous church order under the Primate of Canterbury will be preserved fully" and when, "on the other side, the Church of England shall recognise the existence of a pastoral primacy of Petrine ministry as the supreme authority for mediation and arbitration between the churches." "In this way," I expressed my hopes then, "out of the Roman imperium might emerge a Catholic commonwealth."
With, again, Rome in control. Mitey Rome. Gee, I wonder why reconciliation hasn't happened earlier in the past 500 years?

Kung's argument is not about numbers, but about history. Who wears the Shoes of the Fisherman, and who doesn't? Except that isn't a bedrock concern of Protestants, be they Anglicans or evangelicals, fundamentalists or members of the United Church of Christ. The issue of authority is itself a cultural issue: but if there can be only one, whose culture will it be? Far from approaching the question of whose rules rule, we can't even agree on where the playing field is. Between these three, we can't even tell what we're fighting for, or who we're fighting. And maybe that's still the problem: the issue is not who has power, but who is in charge. That's still the fundamental divide between Rome and those not with Rome. I do not condemn Rome, or Canterbury, for that matter. But I do hold to what I consider the central teaching of the gospel: the power of powerlessness. And that teaching gives no power to hierarchies, or judicatories, or anyone. Yet it puts us at the obligation of everyone who confesses Jesus as Lord. And everyone who doesn't. If we would be first of all, we must be last and servant of all.

Which raises a whole new set of interesting cultural and theological questions.

*A song by Charles Mingus, not an invention of yr. humble host

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