A different Church

What kind of church?
Washington National Cathedral

The question of whether homosexuals should be full members of the church has been the occasion of conflict or, more exactly, it became the focal point of a much deeper and pre-existing conflict.

The underlying compliant has always been that the western church, of which TEC is seen as the forerunner and epitome, has subordinated itself to secular mores, values and agenda.

Instead, say the conservatives, a church should ground itself wholly in scripture and thence oppose the secular world and its values.

I think this is a false dichotomy.

I would assert that every church is inevitably and inescapably in-and-against the state (both secular society and government). The walls of a church are porous, they allow in secular ways of thinking whether those taught in universities at one end of the spectrum or those held privately beneath the public radar at the other end. Their walls also hold their distinctiveness: the Christian faith (as inherited and as lived), special buildings, clear leadership and most important, communal worship.

I suggest that more fundamental questions are: in the context of in-and-against the state, what is the church itself? What could it be?

The critique from conservatives is that the church should be against the state (both secular society and where they fall short of Christian values, secular governments too). A church should proclaim a redemptive critique of the society in which it is set. I note, for example, the statements of the Church in Nigeria criticising corruption and other aspects of the Nigerian State as well as Western morals.

For these conservatives, the authority, content and imperative with which to make such a critique lies wholly in Scripture.

Liberals are not merely perceived to have failed in this redemptive proclamation but to have taken a spiritually fatal step further. They have embedded secular values and structures in the church itself, displacing scriptural values. Thus liberal democratic notions have been allowed to reshape (some of) Anglicanism along secular lines which are antithetic to the things of God. Conservatives regard this as an ecclesiological impossibility, hence the rhetoric of a ‘new’ faith or religion.

Their alternative is an ecclesial monarchy: as God is Lord of the Church so too archbishops and bishops should be lords within an episcopal church.

Ironically this is particularly important for those who put so much weight on the authority of scripture. The authority of scripture is essentially anarchic: everyone who can read the Bible is their own interpreter and, in citing scripture, everyone has the authority of God.

Therefore those who believe that Christians should come together in ordered communities of any sort and who believe that scripture is the sole and sufficient source of authority for that community have a problem. The problem is solved by making church leaders authoritative and authoritarian.

Thus the Word of God was liberated from the control of the Catholic Church and Protestants then imprisoned the reader.

Mouneer Anis
I believe Bishop Mouneer Anis to be a devout and honest conservative and a good spokesman for that strand of Anglicanism. He is utterly convinced of the exclusive authority of scripture and yet still wants to hang onto the importance of Anglican tradition as far as, and so long as, it accords with his valuation of scripture.

He gives examples of the Church of England, and the Anglican Communion, repeatedly reasserting the centrality and authority of scripture. Be because these statements are not binding they are insufficient. As a result the Church has fallen away from the rectitude it once held into its present morass.

He forgets the deeply Erastian nature of the Church of England from the honestly named 1533 Submission of the Clergy Act onwards. He forgets the legacy of conformity to state and society which the CofE bequeathed to much of the Communion – the CofE rejoiced in being the ‘national’ church in as many meanings as it could sustain. He uses statements from the past, like proof-texts, selectively and in a wholly ahistorical manner.

Anis’ remedy is a conciliar-command structure for the church. Difficult or contested questions should be debated by those with the authority to do so (primarily bishops and primates). Once a decision is reached it would then be binding on all believers. Again, he omits to mention that such powers currently reside in a province (depending on its own constitution) and that to grant these powers to the Communion would be a significant innovation.

He also, incidentally, wishes to ‘start Biblical literacy programs’ - to encourage people to read the Bible and, no doubt, to ensure they do so correctly.

A different church
Mouneer Anis is talking about a different church from the one he has inherited.

Conservatives want a command structure where there never was one. They want a church which is wholly and exclusively scripture-based, though Anglicanism never was. They long for a church whose function is to oppose the standards and values of the society in which it is set, forgetting that the Church of England has always been willingly subordinate to the state.

And this is why schism is inevitable.

Undoubtedly some kind of modus vivendi over homosexuality could have been worked out, given time, not least because the vast majority of people are bored with the fight and want to get on with life. We could all learn to agree to disagree over degrees of in-or-against the state practised in the different national settings of the church. The re-assignment of power in the Communion as a result of the conflict is being worked out through the Covenant at the moment.

But conservatives want much more. They want a new church, one never before seen in Anglicanism. Their ecclesiology will not fit into the same shoe as the majority ecclesiology of Anglicanism. Therefore there must be division. Working things out is not an option.

Only this won’t be another Great Ejection, more like a dribbling apart.

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