Thursday, November 11, 2004

Witch Hunts in a Pluralistic World

I'll hold off on saying much more about Keith Ward, due to an apparent lack of interest. I do highly recommend his work, however.

One of the points he makes is that in our current phase of the history of religion, we are called to view religion from a global perspective. Some, like John Hick, will claim that such pluralism will require us to affirm that all paths to God are incomplete, yet all are valid approaches. Ward would suggest that it is better to stand within one's own tradition, developed by various factors unique to our situation, such as culture and education, and listen to the voices from other traditions, especially their criticisms. He refers to Hick's approach as "hard pluralism." His approach, "inclusivity," he refers to as "soft pluralism."

There is a biblical basis for the "inclusive" approach. In Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth, we find these words;

For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
In the seventeenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, we find Paul in Athens, commending the people for their deep love for religion. He then goes on to tell them about the God who belongs in their "temple to the unknown God." He does not start out by condemnation; he uses the inclusive approach.

Patrick of Ireland and Columba of Iona used the "soft pluralism" approach as missionaries among the Druids. The Celtic cross was in existence before the arrival of the Church. It's symbolism was redefined by Patrick, but it was not banished as "pagan." The architecture of some of the chapels and cathedrals include carvings of tree trunks and limbs joining at the ceiling, as a reminder of the sacred groves. The tonsure of Patrick and Iona followed the tradition of the Druids until the 8th century. It has been recorded that Columba claimed "Christ is my Druid."

Both scripture and the Christian tradition seem to affirm that meeting people where they are in their spiritual life, and not immediately dragging them to where we think they should be, is an appropriate form of evangelism.

In the last few weeks, there has been an attempt to destroy the lives of two Episcopal priests when it was discovered that they were involved with a Druidic group. Some links to some of the background of this tragic story can be found here. My initial outrage regarding the witch hunt that resulted can be found here. There may be a valid discussion as to if what appears to be an approach based on Hick's "hard pluralism" was appropriate in this case, but even that discussion would be speculative. We do not know the content of most of the dialogue that was happening here. All we have are pieces compiled by the inquisitors during their witch hunt.

If you think "witch hunt" is too strong a term, I'll let you decide for yourself. Here, here, here and here are just a few examples. The comments are especially incriminating, it seems to me. Note no attempt to control the direction of the comments by the owners of these sites.

Although this attack was started by a political organization; The Institute on Religion and Democracy, it was quickly picked up by Christianity Today, most likely because both organizations share board members. Both organizations also share the agenda of the religious right, and have much in common with the likes of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, of whom we might expect such attempts to destroy people. What astonished me was how quickly some conservative Anglicans were to jump on board this modern day inquisition. Shouting from the rooftops that the devil is in the Church, condemning labyrinths, meditation, and anything smelling of being "Celtic" might be expected from the extreme right. But from Anglicans? How can I make sense out of such reactionary behavior? Anglicans who would be in league with those whose goal is an American theocracy is absolutely astounding to me.

So far, all I can come up with is that this is a further attempt by the American Anglican Council, whose mailing address is the same as the political advocacy group I previously mentioned, the IRD, to destroy the Episcopal Church. The AAC, and the Network which it spawned, are the Anglican contingent of the religious right, and will use any tool they can find; apparently even unscrupulous ones.

Both priests have placed themselves at the mercy of their bishop, and have apologized and recanted. Bill Melnyk has resigned his position as rector. But the inquisition goes on. The new targets are two women. One is the seminarian intern who originally posted the questionable rite on the Women's Ministry site. Her sponsoring parish and the name of her bishop have been made public; an obvious attempt to make sure e-mails are sent out in attempt to destroy this woman. No doubt such e-mails have indeed been sent. Now the woman who is in charge of the Women's Ministries site is under attack, with demands that she both apologize and resign.

The rite in question referred to God our Mother. I think another part of all this outrage can be found in a article that I find more and more insightful as time goes on; Fear of the Feminine.

The Melnyk's Bishop has recently spoken to reporters regarding all of this. I'll reproduce the article in its entirety for those who may not be able to access it;

Episcopal couple won't be suspended
Pa.'s bishop said a group of conservatives spurred the criticism of 2 priests involved in Druidic rites.
By Jim Remsen
Inquirer Faith Life Editor

Episcopal Bishop Charles E. Bennison said yesterday that he would not suspend the local clergy couple found to be involved in Druid activity - and he blamed the scandal on "right-wing" groups out to destabilize the Episcopal Church USA.

In his first interview since the scandal erupted last month, Bennison, leader of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, said the Rev. William Melnyk and the Rev. Glyn Ruppe-Melnyk had taken part, as students of pre-Christian Celtic spirituality, in "exploratory thinking" with Druid circles.

But his discussions with the couple, he said, convinced him that they had not led any Druid groups or joined nature-worshiping Druid rites.

"They made a small error of judgment that has been very costly to their ministry and their church, and the church at large," Bennison said.

An outspoken church liberal, Bennison balanced his criticism of the couple with a determination that the diocese be "a safe place" for theological experimentation.

Melnyk resigned Saturday as rector of St. James' Church in Downingtown, after the parish vestry board asked him to step down because of the scandal. His wife remains rector of St. Francis-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Malvern, with the support of her vestry.

The couple's involvement in Druid circles surfaced late last month when the national church's office of women's ministry posted two of their Druidic liturgies on its Web site for possible use in developing feminist liturgies. One was a eucharistic service praising "God the Mother."

Christian watchdog groups - particularly conservative ones enraged at the Episcopal Church USA's gay-rights stances and liberal theologies - pounced. They accused Episcopal officials of promoting pagan rites. The church quickly removed the liturgies, but the furor continued.

On Thursday, the Melnyks wrote letters of apology, saying they "recanted and repudiated" their Druid connection. The goal of the work, they said, had been to reach out to marginal Christians.

Bennison said he would send written reprimands, called "pastoral directions," to the couple.

Melnyk - using the name OakWyse - had posted an Internet call to worship for those "who believe in the underlying unity of all faiths that follow the ideals of love for the Divine, love for sister and brother Human Beings, and doing harm to no one."

Bennison said Melnyk "will be directed to be much more aware of what he says and does, . . . that, as a priest, he is responsible not simply for his own reality but for others' perceptions of his reality."

Also, the bishop said, Ruppe-Melnyk's "God the Mother" service "is not a Christian rite as most people would understand Christianity." But the church has many alternative rites, he said, "and Glyn has never used it as Christian worship or even in private prayer."

Bennison said the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative Christian group in Washington, fomented the scandal by alerting Christian media to Ruppe-Melnyk's online rite.

The institute, Bennison said, aims "to intimidate people in our church who would exercise theological imaginations, who would think out of the box. . . . We want a church where people can fail and be forgiven rather than a church where no one takes risks."

Erik Nelson, research associate for the institute's Episcopal Action Project, said he was surprised Bennison "would continue to defend [the two priests] when they repented and admitted it was wrong."

"There are ways of getting women to be more involved, within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy," Nelson said. "But they had a rite encouraging worship of a goddess, and it was wrong and should have been repudiated not only by the priests but the women's office."

Bennison said that the couple remained priests in good standing in the diocese, and that Melnyk was receiving financial support from both his old parish and the diocese's clergy emergency fund.

Melnyk had served as rector for only two years, to his wife's four, "so he didn't have as much confidence among the people to be able to survive the attacks that came at him," the bishop said.

"This has been devastating to him, this Christian man, this priest of the church," Bennison said. "If he wants to go back to work, I'll talk to him about that."

Ruppe-Melnyk, reached at her church yesterday, said, "We are just trying to keep from escalating an unfortunate and misrepresented situation."

Melnyk has not responded to requests for comment.
Thank you Bishop Bennison. I just wish that the bishop would have spoken up a few days earlier. Bill might still have his position as Rector.

The damage that has been done to our ability to witness to those outside of Christendom by this witch hunt is hard to ascertain. My lovely wife, Demi, offers much better insights on this aspect of this sad episode. I think an apology for their most unChristian behavior from those who leaped to attack these two priests, and continue to attack the staff of the Episcopal Church, is in order. But I won't hold my breath.


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