Wednesday, August 5, 2009

What Has Rowan Williams Done?

On July 22 I posted on "What Will Rowan Williams Do?" with reference to the decisions of The Episcopal Church USA (TEC) at its recent General Convention. Since then Archbishop Williams has written a response to the TEC actions and posted it on his website: Communion, Covenant and Our Anglican Future.

A veritable avalanche of comment and analysis has ensued. See a good article by Jordon Hylden at First Things entitled: Rowan Williams and the Anglican Future. The Internet is filled with other reactions. But the one by N. T. Wright at the Anglican Communion Institute entitled "Rowan's Reflections: Unpacking the Archbishop's Statement" stands out for its clarity and urgency. It is also important because Wright has been one of Williams biggest supporters all through the Covenant process, but one senses that his frustration with Williams' inaction is growing. This was evident in his article in the Times of London entitled: "The Americans Know This Will End in Schism." Talk is fine; but talk alone has never deterred TEC from its schismatic and heretical course.

Where does the Anglican Communion stand today and what is its future? And what does the apparent failure of the Anglican Communion to hold together mean for future prospects for Christian reunion? These are serious questions and require attention from all Christians who lament the present divided state of Christ's body on earth.

In a nutshell, Williams' proposal is that a Covenant be adopted and that it be signed by any province (and maybe diocese or parish) that wishes to do so. Those who sign would be considered Track One Anglicans (i.e. full members of the Communion). Those who do not (like TEC as a whole) would be Track Two Anglicans. Track Two Anglicans would be barred from participating in ecumenical dialogue and the highest levels of Communion decision-making. The status of the orthodox bishops in TEC - the so-called "Communion Bishops" - remains fuzzy and the status of orthodox Rectors in non-Communion Bishop dioceses is even fuzzier. Is all this clear so far? It should not be.

The basic idea is to find a way to avoid schism at all costs. A very high value - perhaps even the highest value - is placed on holding the institution together and keeping all parties at the table. The hope is that eventually orthodoxy will prevail through argument, prayer, discussion and fellowship. The horror of division is rooted in an honourable conviction that we already have too many schisms, too many divisions and too many sects. The need is for greater unity and Williams cannot see the way to greater unity passing through yet one more division. I grant that Williams, Wright, the Anglican Communion Institute, the Communion Bishops, the Communion Rectors and others who are striving for Christian unity are honorable in their intentions and sincerely seeking the unity of the Church. For this they are to be commended.

However, I have some questions about this strategy.

First, why is unity a higher priority than truth and is this apostolic? This is not a question that was first asked at the time of the 16th century Reformation. The Nicene Fathers, including Athanasius, were willing to depose heretical bishops and sever communion with heretics in defense of the "faith once delivered." They simply did not place unity as a higher priority than doctrinal truth. Of course, all possible alternatives to excommunication must be tried first: but when the crunch comes the apostolic instruction of Scripture in I Cor. 5 and Titus 3:10-11 must be followed.

Second, why has this repsonse occurred over the consecration of a homosexual bishop and not over the ordination of women as bishops, the ordination of women as priests, the ordination of unrepentant, practicing homosexuals as priests? What is being said about the current crisis - that one part of the Church cannot unilaterally upend two millennia of Christian tradition without gaining the consent of the whole Church surely applies to all these cases as well. Since the 1970's TEC and other Western branches of Anglicanism have been trampling over tradition with impunity. Why is this suddenly a crisis?

Well, to be fair, there are a number of practical reasons why the consecration of Gene Robinson has been the flashpoint. Here are some of them.

1. The third world branches of Anglicanism have been growing and maturing in numbers, confidence and theological acumen and have now reached the point of daring to and being able effectively to challenge Western revisionism.

2. The Internet has made it much more difficult for things to be done "in a corner" and to be interpreted by skilled spin doctors so as to keep people confused.

3. There was always hope that the Western provinces would eventually come to their senses and put a brake on the revisionism, heresy and begin to turn back the tide of secular humanism that had been flowing into the Church since the 1960's. The consecration of a practicing, unrepentant homosexual as a bishop was a dramatic event that made it clear that further degeneration was imminent.

4. The acceptence of sexual perversion as normal and good in Western Anglicanism involves a number of important theological principles including the authority of Scripture, theological anthropology and ethics in general.

Third, why is schism occurring over ethics rather than doctrine? The heresies of Bishop James Pike, Bishop John Robinson, Bishop John Spong and now Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, to name only the most well-known, are well-documented going back 50 years. Why did schism not occur when John Spong began writing his heretical screeds without being in any way disciplined by the TEC House of Bishops? Is doctrine really less important than ethics?

Well, from a patrisitic and biblical perspective there is really no hard and fast distinction between doctrine and ethics and when biblical truth is denied it should come as no surprise that moral deviancy is not far behind. Karl Barth once said that the Church is always one generation away from becoming a pagan Church and he witnessed such a declension first hand in Germany. Still, I wish that the focus could be put on doctrines like the doctrine of salvation through personal repentance and faith or the doctrine of the virgin birth, sinless life, miracles, atoning death, bodily resurrection and personal future return of Jesus. As things stand, all these doctrinal issues are implied and stand in the background. No one should be in doubt of that fact.

Fourth, does Williams really expect that TEC will accept second class status in the Anglican Communion? If he does, then he is probably very naive. Perhaps his goal is to force TEC to make the move to schism, rather than being cast out. That would imply a degree of resolution Williams has not displayed to date, but it would be a sensible approach to take. What is not realistic is to expect that TEC will not challenge Canterbury for supremacy if Canterbury proves resistant to TEC manipulation. Ruth Gledhill reports on early moves to set up liberal structures in England that could accommodate C. of E. liberal dissenters on her blog and in the Times. She says that the battle for the Church of England has begun in earnest. Will the C. of E. follow TEC down the road of revisionism or will it side with the Global South and the orthodox elements in Western Anglicanism? We may get a big clue in the next six months as the battle to recognize the Anglican Church in North America as a province takes place in the General Synod of the C. of E. amid elections to synod that may set the direction for the future of the C. of E.

Fifth, when will Williams recognize that there are two religions battling for the soul of the Anglican Communion? If it were a matter of Calvinists versus Lutherans or Eastern Orthodox versus Roman Catholic, then it would be a matter of Christian unity. But the liberal revisionism driving the TEC heresies is not a legitimate form of Christianity at all; it is a heretical, new religion based on experience not revelation. It does not preach the biblical gospel and it does not believe in the faith of Scripture and Creeds. It is a form of modern, secular humanism dressed up in Christian vestments.

If TEC and Canterbury do separate, what will be the fate of TEC? No one really knows, but if I had to hazzard a guess, I could imagine some form of the following scenario. It is highly likely that TEC will lose financial viability and be driven to merge with other like-minded bodies such as the Evanglical Lutheran Church of America, the Church of Christ and other liberal Protestant groups. On the other hand, I could see an orthodox Anglicanism becoming a bridge for closer ties between conservative Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church. (And this would be to me a most welcome development.) At some point, the liberals in the Roman Catholic Church probably will give up in their failed bid to take over the Roman Church and leave to join with the Protestant Liberals (which is what they really are anyway). But because of the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, which have prevented liberalism from gaining control of the hierarchy, this group of dissenters will not be able to take the property and name with them. Therefore they will be absorbed into liberal Protestantism and this has so far been a major incentive to stay put. But at some point, schism in the Western Roman Catholic Church seems inevitable. One could make the case that it has already happened spiritually and doctrinally and merely needs to be legally and institutionally formalized.

What has Rowan Williams done in his latest document? Precious little in terms of action. But as for his words, I would highlight three things: two positive and one negative. First the positive:

1. He has given his strongest statement yet against the revisionist arguments for homosexuality. Basically, if you read his words carefully you discover that he feels that he has been given very little by TEC in terms of biblical exegesis and doctrinal argument to which he could respond. If there is a case for revisionism on the point of homosexuality, TEC has not even made a bad one yet, let alone a good one. This is an important pillar for building a response to the TEC.

2. He has considered and rejected as implausible the spin attempted by Jefferts Schori and Co. to the effect that the resolutions adopted at General Convention do not constitute a rejection of the moratorium. His unwillingness to be bamboozled on this point is commendable. The announcement of several homosexual candidates for vacant bishoprics in Minnesota and Los Angeles this week supports his skepticism. The election of any one of them would drive a stake in the heart of compromise for the sake of unity.

And then the negative:

3. Near the end of his document he seems to open the door to a relativism in which homosexuality is recognized by all Anglicans as right and proper in certain provinces and as sinful and evil in other provinces. He says:

"It helps to be clear about these possible futures, however much we think them less than ideal, and to speak about them not in apocalyptic terms of schism and excommunication but plainly as what they are – two styles of being Anglican, whose mutual relation will certainly need working out but which would not exclude co-operation in mission and service of the kind now shared in the Communion. It should not need to be said that a competitive hostility between the two would be one of the worst possible outcomes, and needs to be clearly repudiated. The ideal is that both 'tracks' should be able to pursue what they believe God is calling them to be as Church, with greater integrity and consistency. It is right to hope for and work for the best kinds of shared networks and institutions of common interest that could be maintained as between different visions of the Anglican heritage."

If he literally means what he says here, then he is basically advocating the liberal position. The liberals want "diversity" during the interim period between when their revisionism is first accepted and the point where they acquire hegemony and can impose their agenda on everyone. It is difficult to conceive of a Covenant structure where any meaningful discipline has been imposed on TEC if all that is implied by signing or not signing the Covenant is "two styles of being Anglican."


David said...

I recently read William's book on Dostoevsky, and it would probably be helpful to know that for him the inability to continue being open to dialogue is a mark of evil. He writes [p. 113]: 'if the Devil's aim is silence, God's is speech, the dialogic speech by which we shape each other.' That doesn't excuse him, but it might go some way to explaining that what looks like an extremely high view of unity is in actual fact an even higher view of keeping dialogue permanently open, whatever the risk. [p. 132] ‘If we speak what we believe to be the truth - especially truth about ourselves - we must not be surprised if it is misheard or consciously distorted. To enter into conversation is always to be in this sense at risk.’
Of course, you're right that doctrinal integrity is more important than unity though. I don't envy him at all!

Craig Carter said...

Williams' position only makes sense on the presupposition that the dialogue partner is a Christian. Otherwise, he appears to be flat out wrong. Eve's dialogue with the Devil led to the Fall. Israel was not called to be
"shaped by the other" in her relationship to the pagan religions in the Land of Canaan. The prophets typically announce God's Word rather than calling for mutually shaping dialogue with idolaters. Jesus wasn't looking for dialogue, but faith.

The whole Covenant idea rests on the premise that sincere Christians have two different views on an ethical issue (homosexuality) and so continuing dialogue is the way forward. Presumeably each side needs to shape the other in some way. But to view the Pikes, Spongs, Jefforts Schoris etc. as sincere, orthodox Christians who just happen to have a different opinion on one issue seems not to face up to reality.

David said...

You are right. Williams' position seems to rely on the fallacy that people are basically good and enough talk, enough explaining and dialogue will eventually bring them round. Plenty of good intentions - the road to hell is almost finished!
For Williams to realise that there is nothing more to say or hear from these schismatic bishops would be (for him) a terrible personal failure. Like admitting that the devil had finally won. That would of course be subtly prideful.

By the way, have you seen Schoris on youtube? This clip is enough to convince anyone who doubts it that she is not talking from within Christianity:

Craig Carter said...

Yes, I have seen it and I'll have a post on it soon.