Early Reflections on the Lambeth Conference

The Lambeth Conference, the worldwide Anglican Communion’s once-a-decade meeting of bishops, began yesterday in Canterbury, England. Christopher at Betwixt and Between has some timely reflections on our church’s various models of interpretive authority, and their benefits and pitfalls. This is a long post worth reading in full; I’ve merely pulled out a few favorite passages here:

Anglicanism on the whole took on additionally a certain reassessment not only of the relationship of Scripture to doctrine, but also of the community to faith found in the moderation of the likes of Hooker, but perhaps best summed in Article XIX:

As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch have erred: so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.

Note carefully that the Church has erred not only in matters of living and ceremony, but in matters of faith. In other words, the Church can get it wrong with regard to in Whom we put our trust where the Whom and the content explicated from that Whom are not separable. In essence, the Churches of the Reformation put the Church on notice as to the real possibility of error, even in doctrine, having seen that the kernel of the kerygma, God saves or God justifies the ungodly, had been seemingly overthrown.

What this comely development, perhaps the true genuine genius and most vital contribution of the Reformation (and we might say a truly “Modern” contribution at that), does is complicate our “basic” models of interpretive authority a great deal. It forces us to live eschatologically, to live open before the Living God without the crutch of certitude of book or of community. It means that we will remain a wrestling community, and likely a community not of one mind on an assortment of matters beyond those things necessary for salvation found in our sufficient statements of faith contra tendencies these days to sew up our history in neater packages. Such a development actually allows us to remain rooted in history and to recognize that the Church happens in history with all contingency that implies rather than happening in flights of fancy to perfect ecclesiological models, perfect communities, and perfect interpretations of the book.

In other words, neither authority located in Scripture, nor authority located in the community are “done deals” except with regard to some very particular matters, namely that distilled into our various ordinals in one form or another: Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation (but also quite a few other things not necessarily so and not necessarily to be required or even salvific if understood outside of the lens of Jesus Christ and/or the Creeds), and that those things, that content necessary to believe, put one’s faith in, have trust upon are found in our Creeds as sufficient statements of faith.

I want to concern myself more with the catholic model than the Protestant because I think this is actually our greater danger at the present moment, a danger that a thoroughly Anglican appreciation for “epistemic humility” or “contingency” can meet more squarely. You see, to suggest that the community can err in matters of living, ceremony, and even faith is to say that the catholic loop is broken open. The community itself can get things wrong and thus itself is found to be permanently under scrutiny—even if not always open to it….

Being both catholic and Protestant, we not only embrace the community as locus for our life together but we also hold up the community, that means us, to the Gospel critique.

In a time when “community” is celebrated almost ad nauseam and “consensus” has been suggested as the final arbiter of the true and the good, Anglicans should not labor under romantic notions about such things. To do so is to ignore much of our complicated history in favour of an Hegelian or Foucaultian flight from history to processes or humanless discourse. Real flesh-and-blood life, that locus in which we understand God is working (even if our understanding of that work is at best limited), doesn’t work so simply.

No easy resort to absolute declarations that this thing here is the work of the Holy Spirit in our time, but also no easy resort to absolute declarations that this thing here is not the work of the Holy Spirit because or unless the community decides and affirms as such. Such a refusal of a romantic notion of community (of which the Acts version is a prime example in light of the more realistic Galatian or Corinthian letters) also denies that simply because the community decides something that that therefore is the true and good or that that settles the matter (If we take Acts at face value, Paul obviously thought not by then overturning the matter about meat sacrificed to idols–meat likely to have been strangled or still full of blood). If something is true and good, even if the community says otherwise, that something is still true and good. Do we dismiss the marriages of enslaved Africans as not marriages because the Anglican Churches (and others besides) said these weren’t marriages? On the contrary, we in hindsight recognize the brutality of enslavement and the horror of how families were treated under such a “Christian” system. To suggest otherwise is a form of communal relativism that subtly places the community as Archimedian point or suggests the community (the Church) rather than the Community (the Holy Trinity) is God, a dangerous notion or alignment of Church and Trinity to which Anglicans are particularly prone with our “Incarnational spirituality”, but a notion our Reformation ancestors refused to labor under with their more eschatological emphases inherited from St. Augustine. Yes, the gates of hell will not finally prevail against the Church. In the ultimate count, God saves. But the Church cannot save itself, and in the short run sometimes hell has wreaked quite a lot havoc with the ecclesia militans or ecclesia crucis, the Church here on earth. The Scotist points us to yet one more beginning attempt, this one by Primus Jonas of Scotland, at articulating a more complicated Trinitarian ecclesiology than the romantic notions offered to-date.

We know from recent history that a lot of wackos use God, the Holy Spirit, Jesus, etc. to do justify and commit terrible things, even to overthrow core doctrine, and in the moment these things seem good, this overthrow seems necessary, only to lead us into grave error toward our fellows, which is not separable from dismissing the Incarnate God. But we also know that communities can claim consensus for decisions and actions that turns out to be diabolical though in the moment these things seem good, and that sadly, has and does include the Church.

The end result of this breaking open, this development in interpretation of which we are heirs, is that the Holy Spirit remains free, free to unearth the truth, in the book, in the community, in the lone voice, and even in the world if necessary. This undoes a recent Anglican trend to suggest that the community tests without being clear that the community is also tested.

Read the whole post here.

Whereas Christopher urges the differing factions in the Anglican Communion to stay together, recognizing one another as fellow sinners rather than heretics, Hugo thinks it may be time to consider a “good divorce”:

What compromises are worth making, and what compromises end up tragically compromising our essential identity? Sometimes divorce is necessary, I believe. Sometimes, the church needs to experience schism. But some marriages can be saved, and some communions can be held together. By the end of this summer, I suspect those of us in the worldwide Anglican Communion will have a clearer answer as to the way forward.

The essential equality of women with men is not an issue for compromise. Like most progressives, I don’t want to see women bishops sacrificed in the name of unity. I don’t want to see the right of gays and lesbians to have their unions blessed surrendered either, merely out of a desire to remain in relationship with those traditionalists who find women priests and gay spouses to be an abhorrent manifestation of modern perversity. When we prioritize unity over justice, we make an idol out of unity. The right-wing might well say the same about those of us on the progressive left; why should they be forced to live under the supervision of bishops whose authority they find unbiblical?

Rather than search for a compromise that will inevitably end up sacrificing the core dignity of one major constituency in the Anglican Communion, perhaps the time has come to do something really new and marvelous: have the world’s first loving, friendly, and entirely non-litigious schism. Let the traditionalists band together under their right-wing Third World prelates; let the progressives form a loose coalition centered on North America, the United Kingdom, and parts of Australasia. Let each parish decide with whom it will cast its lot, and let there be no recriminations or lawsuits. Let both traditionalists and progressives strive to outdo each other in fidelity to Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 6.

Unity is a good. It is a very high good. But I think we can all agree it is not the highest of goods, not up there with justice, with mercy, and humility. The Anglican Communion began with a schism, and it has enjoyed a fine run of nearly five centuries. Let it end with another schism, but this time a cheerful one, with no heads sent rolling and no martyrs burnt. I’m not willing to wait any longer for gay marriages for the sake of keeping a traditionalist in Uganda happy; I see no reason why that same traditionalist should be forced to remain in a Communion that sanctions what he finds anathema. Let’s say goodbye with affection, with charity, but for God’s sake, let’s say goodbye.

Meanwhile, Steve Parelli and Jose Ortiz, who run the ministry Other Sheep East Africa, continue to challenge the simplistic analysis of Anglican schism as a culture war between liberal white imperialists and orthodox Africans. Other Sheep hosted a conference on Christianity and Homosexuality in Nairobi earlier this month, where a small band of gay Christians and straight allies risked stigma and violence to discuss how they reconciled their Biblical faith with acceptance of same-sex partnerships. The apparent consensus within the African church, which conservative commentators use to portray the Episcopal Church USA as a fringe party, is maintained by often-brutal silencing of voices that offer a different interpretation.

And, in other news that shouldn’t be news, Brian at Creedal Christian proclaims in the headline of a recent post: “Episcopal Church Website Affirms Orthodox Christology”. To which I can only add, Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only…

13 comments on “Early Reflections on the Lambeth Conference

  1. Steve says:

    While I am able to follow the argument in this post, and others like it, and I understand the heat projected by so many of those in the debate, my overwhelming emotions are fatigue, followed by profound relief that I have elected (and felt led) to step away from this for a time and to stroll the pastures picking flowers. I feel enormously grateful for that – which feels strange to me.

    The debates about the balance of authority in church or scripture, Spirit or tradition, community or conscience, seem to me to be impossible to resolve in any meaningful fashion. There is no trump argument or a priori set of axioms against which to verify or validate the positions. The conversations are like political debates – well crafted, but at their foundations a matter of chosen principles, which amounts to little more than opinion when it’s expressed rationally. I think that’s what wearies me about the debates. How can people continue to strive to prove what can’t be more than a persuasive argument, at worst, and an act of faith at best? Maybe it’s my mind that is out picking the daisies – and maybe that’s where it belongs. Maybe in the end this one, because the head will never be able to definitively settle it, must be decided by the heart.

    And oh wouldn’t some people hate that? And oh wouldn’t others find that what they want to do might not be what the heart truly wants – at least not the heart of Jesus?

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