Wednesday, November 24, 2004

What is Essential?

The Windsor Report (which is summarized here) reintroduces us to an obscure term that has been out of circulation since the 17th century. It is the term adiaphora. Here is the Commission's definition;

Such holding together across differences within Anglicanism has made use of the vital doctrine of adiaphora (literally, "things that do not make a difference"). This is explained further in section B. For the moment, we simply note that Anglicans have always recognized a key distinction between core doctrines of the church (remembering that ethics, liturgy and pastoral practice, if authentically Christian, are all rooted in theology and doctrine) and those upon which disagreement can be tolerated without endangering unity[21]. Paul urged Christians in Corinth and Rome to recognize some matters in this way (what to eat or not to eat being a prime example). When something is seen in this way, an individual church, at whatever level, can make its own decisions on the matter.
This doctrine is further explored by the Commission in section B;

As the Church has explored the question of limits to diversity, it has frequently made use of the notion of adiaphora: things which do not make a difference, matters regarded as non-essential, issues about which one can disagree without dividing the Church. This notion lies at the heart of many current disputes. The classic biblical statements of the principle are in Romans 14.1-15.13 and 1 Corinthians 8-10. There, in different though related contexts, Paul insists that such matters as food and drink (eating meat and drinking wine, or abstaining from doing so; eating meat that had been offered to idols, or refusing to do so), are matters of private conviction over which Christians who take different positions ought not to judge one another. They must strive for that united worship and witness which celebrate and display the fact that they are worshipping the same God and are servants of the same Lord...

...The question then naturally arises as to how one can tell, and indeed as to who can decide, which types of behaviour count as 'adiaphora' and which do not. For Paul, the categories are not arbitrary, but clearly distinct. For instance: that which would otherwise separate Jew and Gentile within the Church is 'adiaphora'. That which embodies and expresses renewed humanity in Christ is always mandatory for Christians; that which embodies the dehumanising turning-away-from-God which Paul characterises with such terms as 'sin', 'flesh', and so on, is always forbidden. This, of course, leaves several questions unanswered, but at least sketches a map on which further discussions may be located...
In his essay on the Windsor Report entitled The Windsor Knot, Tobias S. Haller questions the way the Commission is using this term, and suggests even more dire implications;

...The WR is rather seriously flawed in the section dealing with adiaphora. First of all, it seems to take this term to refer to matters upon which there is difference of opinion but "about which one can disagree without dividing the Church." (87) But this is not what is meant by adiaphora, either in the Pauline sense (noting that Paul never uses the word) or in the sense in which it was used in the controversies of the 16th-17th centuries. It wasn't that the matters under discussion made no difference to the church (and hence ought not have impact on it), but that they made no difference to salvation. And that is a very different matter. It was precisely because some segment of the church thought this or that doctrine was essential to salvation while the rest of the church didn't that division came any number of times - and only those who survive have the privilege of saying, "Oh, that's a matter of indifference"...

... The report cites Romans 14-15 and 1 Corinthians 8-10, but fails to bring to light the most important Pauline text on matters of indifference, Galatians 5:1-6. Circumcision or uncircumcision makes no difference to salvation, but if you insist it does make a difference then you have "cut" yourself off from Christ. And while Paul had the Apostolic Council on his side on circumcision, his claim that eating meat offered to idols was indifferent challenged the decision of that same Council. Those who insist that obedience to a particular moral code (or set of Council resolutions) is salvific (thereby relying on what Paul called "the flesh") are in error; and those who stand in opposition to Councils that wrongly declare that certain matters are of the essence of the faith are relying on what Paul called "his gospel." If you take something indifferent and try to make it a "core doctrine" you risk cutting yourself off from Christ.

In addition, in the process for determining whether a matter is indifferent (90), the paper alludes (perhaps unconsciously) to Galatians, but neglects to note that in addition to matters that separate Jew and Gentile, Paul also declared Christ to have set aside (for the baptized) all that separated slave and free, and male and female. This too has relevance for the present discussion and ought not be omitted. If "gender" is truly a matter of indifference in Christ, then it is wrong to make matters involving it core values of the gospel...
Not only is it wrong, by so doing one may risk being cut off from Christ!

Are we struggling with core doctrines right now in the Episcopal Church? If so, then I would think that the decision of Lambeth in 1988 allowing the baptism and reception of African Anglicans in polygamous marriages, a decision that my culture finds quite distasteful, would also fall under such an "essential" doctrine, would it not? If one continent is given permission to redefine marriage for pastoral reasons, it would seem to me that the mind of the Communion is that such definitions are a matter of indifference. If so, why are we witnessing such moral outrage when North America desires to address it's pastoral concerns? Ironically, some of the most strident indignation to this is coming out of Africa.

This all seems too familiar. Back in the late 80s, when I arrived green and naive at Nashotah House, I was shocked to witness the level of outrage among some of the student body regarding women's ordination. I was told it would destroy the Episcopal Church and that we were no longer "Catholic," all stated with such passion to lead me to believe that my salvation was indeed resting on which side I chose on this one issue.

Let me give you an example of how ugly it got at times. One morning at the House we had a guest preacher who happened to be a woman. The deacon of the mass was a senior student. When the liturgical party lined up for the procession, this student noticed that the woman was wearing a stole. He demanded that she remove it. When she refused, and a member of the faculty intervened, the student returned to the sacristy, removed his vestments, and left the chapel.

Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident. Such unbelievably rude behavior continues today. The policy of the House to this day is that women priests may not perform any sacerdotal functions on the grounds (although they do accept the tuition fees of female seminarians; quite the conundrum). Seminarians at Nashotah House, those in a very vulnerable and impressionable phase of their formation, continue to be encouraged to make matters that seem to me less than essential into "core doctrine," and in so doing, risk cutting themselves off from Christ.

I believe adiaphora may indeed be at the root of the wounds being inflicted upon the Anglican Communion right now. The Windsor Report suggests that the way of healing involves developing a mechanism by which what is essential and what is not can be sorted out. The mechanism they recommend is increased authority for the Archbishop of Canterbury and the establishment of a council of advise. I'm uncomfortable with that structure, but I don't have a better suggestion.

I'll continue to pray for the Church, that we might more fully know the healing power of God's love. In the end, regardless of who is declared "right" or "wrong," God will still reign. What seems essential to me right now is to always keep in mind that regardless of our correct or incorrect understanding of doctrine, our relationship with the living God must continue to be nurtured. Our hope is placed in God, not an institution, as it is God who will heal these wounds.


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