Thursday, December 30, 2004

Overreach

more on Windsor Report by a devout Canadian Anglican thinker:

Dear Peter,

The blessings of the Child Christ be upon you and
yours. Here is a little opinion piece that may interest
you.

In Christ,

David Curry
Overreach

The Windsor Report offers a series of snap-shots of the Anglican Communion. It will, of course, be analyzed to death and from a variety of different points of view, each vying to wrest some claim to integrity and justification for their respective positions. But perhaps, it is best read by flipping through it as through a pack of cartoon stills to give the illusion of something dynamic.

At its best and with respect to the presenting issue of the actions of the North American Churches about human sexuality or, more truthfully, the sexuality of those who call themselves ‘homosexuals’, the report is abundantly clear that the Diocese of New Westminster in British Columbia, Canada, and the Diocese of New Hampshire in the United States, together with ECUSA itself, have overreached themselves in allowing for the “blessings of same-sex couples” and for the ordination to the episcopate of a self-proclaimed ‘homosexual’. The Report is clear that such decisions have broken “the bonds of affection” in the Anglican Communion. But in what way?

By way of the violation of process. By acting unilaterally and precipitously. While the report acknowledges that there are matters of scriptural and theological principles at stake for many in the Communion on this question, it fails to recognize in an open and clear way that there are any properly constituted theological principles that define the Anglican identity within the Church Universal. In this respect, the report is a snap-shot, whether as a series of moving stills or not, of the doctrinal and intellectual bankruptcy of the Anglican Communion. It assumes as primary matters of process.

In this respect the report is a perfect mirror of the intellectual character of the reigning liberalism in politics and law. The assumption, championed by the leading architects of American jurisprudence such as Kingman Brewster and others who were of his circle, such as Paul Moore who became Bishop of New York, is captured by Brewster’s biographer Geoffrey Kabaservice as process thinking, the idea “that any decision was fine as long as the process leading to it was fair…the idea of process was in a sense the credo and self-justification of the liberal establishment”.

From the standpoint of the Windsor Report, the problem is that the North American Churches were too hasty and lacked the patience that would allow for the policy of reception to take its course. What is missing is the idea that there are any governing principles on fundamental theology with respect to essential doctrine, orders or morality that are in any way definitive. The Articles of Religion, The Ordinal and The Book of Common Prayer, for instance, with their clear sense of the principle of doctrinal sufficiency or restraint have been sidelined if not silenced by the primacy granted to the process of reception, a process which has been violated by the North American Churches and has resulted in the situation of impairment. The Communion is fractured. It is, in fact, a fiction.

In some ways, the report is the best and the worst that could be expected. At best, it might provide some breathing room for the recovery of the principles which should and must inform the life of the Body of the Christ in the institutional moments of the various churches of the Communion. At worst, it shows the serious intellectual limitations of the Anglican Communion in its inability to define the theological principles of its own being, throwing the Communion open to the political winds of power and compromise without recourse to the anchors of doctrine. The principle is the process. In effect, there is no doctrine.

The problem is one of Episcopal and Synodical overreach. The problem lies in the restlessness of the liberal ascendancy to accept and to live within any set of limits – even those which are accepted by them are never really binding but only transitional until there is a measure of acceptance for whatever new concern emerges. Yet, it remains unclear what the measure of acceptance could really ever be since the Communion has never established any mechanisms that can hold the various churches of the Communion accountable to one another, let alone to matters of basic Christian doctrine. In effect, the Windsor Report is the whine of the invented magisterium of ‘the Committees of the Stratosphere’ such as the Anglican Consultative Council, the Lambeth Council, and the Primates themselves in various configurations, to make up what constitutes the belief of the Anglican Communion over and against the claim of the local and national dioceses synodically and episcopally to define what constitutes the “Faith”; in short, to constitute themselves as the magisterium – the doctrinal authority.

The problem is that the Communion as a whole and in its parts remains uncommitted to basic scriptural, creedal and doctrinal orthodoxy even in the face of the explicit principles embodying Trinitarian orthodoxy for Anglicans in all parts of the Communion to a greater or lesser extent. From the standpoint of the process thinkers, there is no principle such as Trinitarian orthodoxy that cannot be altered or changed and no way to distinguish in a hierarchy of importance one position from another.

The forms of Episcopal and Synodical overreach with respect to Scripture and Doctrine are legion but they need to be exposed to view in order to highlight the untenable situation that the now fictional Communion is in. What follows does not intend to be exhaustive but seeks to provide a snap-shot of the doctrinal and moral bankruptcy of the churches of the Anglican Communion.

The Communion has long been exercised by the question about the Ordination of Women to the ordained ministry. In the Windsor Report, for example, that question is used as an example of the process of reception that should have but has not been followed by the North American Churches with respect to the same-sex controversies. The Report is na├»ve in supposing that a pax dissendentium, a form of reasonable dissent that recognizes that there are and must be room for different theological opinions on this matter, exists within and throughout the community. ‘T isn’t so, as the Canadian Church clearly shows.

In 1986, the Canadian Church, without any consideration for the larger Communion, revoked the conscience clause with respect to the Ordination of Women to the ministry thus making acceptance and approval of the Ordination of Women to the ministry a sine qua non of membership in the Anglican Church of Canada and requiring, through the mechanisms of process in most dioceses, subscription to this matter and proscribing any forms of dissent either practically or notionally. In the case of ordinands who might be suspected of harbouring doubts or uncertainties about the Ordination of Women to the ministry, they were subjected to liturgical test-cases to see if they would receive communion or not from women priests. The process of reception was a one-way street; the only exception was a grandfather clause for those who had been ordained prior to the 1986 General Synod decision.

The matter of the Ordination of Women to the ministry may very well be “the right thing”, but, as T.S. Eliot so clearly reminds us in Murder in the Cathedral, “to do the right deed for the wrong reason is the greatest treason”. The matter of the Ordination of Women to the ministry lacks theological consensus and compelling theological justification throughout the Anglican Communion, within and without the particular churches, not to mention the wider Church. It remains an advocacy issue. It is a matter upon which there can be any number of perfectly legitimate points of view theologically. The problem with the Canadian Church is that its General Synod effectively made the acceptance of the Ordination of Women to the ministry a first–order matter, raising a matter of orders to a matter of Faith requiring, not just acceptance, but reception of it as definitive, excepting only those ordained before the 1986 decision. Effectively, there can be only one view.

This clear example of Episcopal and Synodical overreach reveals the tendenz of the synodical bodies who assume a power and a magisterium which they do not have. In the absence of any effective mechanism to limit their decisions they have effectively trespassed on matters of doctrine and faith which are denied to them by their own foundational principles. Synods do not have the power to determine on matters of doctrine and worship. Those matters are subject to the doctrinal authority of The Articles, The Ordinal and The Book of Common Prayer.

This does not mean that there cannot be, for instance, alternative liturgical rites, or even such developments as the Ordination of Women. What it means is that such things have to be subject to the doctrinal authority of such principles and that nothing can be compelled or accepted that stands opposed to them or that is not explicitly allowed by them. In the case of the Ordination of Women, it has to be said, that it could be allowed but not required. Humility and honesty would have to acknowledge this issue as one upon which there is and continues to be a legitimate variety of theological opinions that constrain the presumptuous acts of bishops and their synods; in short, that this is a matter requiring and providing for the legitimate diversity of theological views, not proscribing some in favour of one. In failing to do so, the Anglican Church of Canada violated its claim to be an integral portion of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. Its synodical action was sectarian.

But the disease of overreach does not stop there but extends explicitly to creedal doctrine both in Canada and elsewhere in the Anglican Communion precisely because there is no mechanism to hold the churches accountable to essential doctrine. The Anglican Church in New Zealand in its 1989 A New Zealand Prayer Book provided in place of the three classical Creeds, liturgical affirmations of the Faith which obscure the identity of the Father and the Son; in short, they are not Trinitarian. In Canada, and only in Canada, we might add, the filioque clause was dropped from the version of the Nicene Creed provided for use in the 1985 Book of Alternative Services. As well, provision was made to allow the Shema – the “Hear, O Israel” – to be used as a creedal alternative to the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds. Such provisions undermine the Trinitarian orthodoxy of the Anglican Church and its undeniably western character.

The clear point that has to be made is that these churches, through their Synodical instruments, had no authority to make such substantial changes in matters of fundamental doctrine to the liturgies. In the matter of the filioque clause one has to accept that it is the form in which the Western Churches have understood, prayed and proclaimed the Doctrine of the Trinity, which in no way invalidates the Eastern Orthodox tradition that omits the filioque, subscribing to a different but legitimate way of thinking and praying the Trinity, a point which Anglican divines such as John Pearson in his classic On the Creed, was at pains to establish.

The Churches that emerged in the early modern period, like the emerging national states in which they found themselves, had to give much thought and expression to distinctions which are currently lost in our contemporary confusions. Both the Churches of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation had to work out what it means to be the Church in the form of the various churches. The main distinctions had to do with recognizing the respective spheres of doctrine and polity and their interrelation. With respect to doctrine, the upshot of the English Reformation was a clear determination to hold fast to what one might call a minimalist view of essential doctrine, especially the Trinitarian orthodoxy embodied in the creeds, and to enshrine this in the liturgy.

The betrayal of Trinitarian orthodoxy was further advanced in the Anglican Church of Canada which in 1995 allowed for use three Eucharistic prayers, two of which explicitly and self-consciously denied the identity of the Son of God. As with every other issue in the Canadian Church what is most apparent is the inviolability of the process. It is what remains sacred. Doctrine is about nothing more than those who shout the loudest capturing the attention of those who presume to be the makers of doctrine.

Much of this must be laid squarely at the feet of the bishops who have either been the slaves of their synods or have used them as their poodles. In every case, there has been an overreach of authority. The latest controversy about “same-sex” belongs to the same reality. For if God can be re-imaged, what on earth can prevent the re-defining of marriage and, for that matter, ourselves. Is not everything a social construct, after all?

Against the clear and undeniable principle of Christian marriage unambiguously presented in The Book of Common Prayer, the teaching which in principle Bishops and clergy are obliged to uphold, Bishops and Synods presume that the doctrine of marriage itself is subject to alteration and change. And as with every other matter, so here, the discourse is clouded by the failure or inability to make distinctions theologically, politically and pastorally. In the present case, for example, the re-marriage of divorced persons and the blessings of animals are invoked as justification for the church’s redefining of the received institution of Christian marriage. The one is a negative argument – making the sad situation of failure the basis for the normative; the other is indeterminate and strangely insulting – making no distinction between the objects and kinds of blessing and equating the blessing of same-sex couples with the blessing of animals!

Sadly, what is also lost is the recognition of the role and place of Christian friendship. Relationships are invariably reduced to some form of sexual activity. The prevailing view of the indeterminate Trinity – any three will do – debases the Doctrine of the Trinity in the concreteness of its expression of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. This has its parallel in the debasing of both friendship and marriage. Any form of ‘committed relationship’ will do.

The overreach does not constrain itself to matters of doctrine, orders and morals now in such confused disarray. It also extends to property. Episcopal authority increasingly seeks to have complete control over the parishes and priests in ways that violate the legitimate and various forms of relationship between parishes, priests and bishops. Synods, too, are drawn into this either in collusion with Episcopal agendas or as arrogating unto themselves powers which were formally resident in the bishops. At stake is the viability of the Anglican witness in the land. Episcopal and Synodical overreach serves the interest of the bureaucratic or committee church, busily passing motions of how the world should run while living off the avails of the parishes to their destruction.

The Windsor Report belongs to the same mind-set that has bankrupted the Communion. Without the integrity of principle, all matters of process are inherently flawed. It matters for ecclesiology whether one’s Trinitarian theology is Arian or Athanasian. One might make the argument more pointedly and say that it matters for the ecclesiology of the churches of the Anglican Communion – if there is to be one – whether one’s Trinitarian theology is western or not. How? Because orthodox Trinitarian theology, significantly in its western form, upholds the basis for a polity that is constitutional and limited, that recognizes and respects the legitimate diversity of theological points of view through the deep commitment to essential doctrine which it refuses to compromise in the name of expediency and advocacy. It alone allows for the principled engagement with the various forms of secularism – both the good and the bad – which arise from Western Christianity.

The Windsor Report reveals just how completely the Bishops and the Synods have betrayed what has been entrusted to them. Paradoxically, given the Anglican enlightenment experience when there were attempts to re-write the foundational doctrines such as the Articles and the Liturgy that failed, the current Anglican position doctrinally is caught between an existential animism, on the one hand, and a dry and brain-dead deism, on the other hand; in short, what has been compromised is Trinitarian orthodoxy. Such is the consequence of the overreach of Bishops and Synods, the unbridled authority of process over principle.

David Curry
Windsor, NS
December 29th, 2004

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