Friday, October 14, 2005

Countryman: "Arrogant Evangelicals Must Repent"

The first chapter of Gays and the Future of Anglicanism: Responses to the Windsor Report is an essay written by L. William Countryman, the Sherman E. Johnson Professor in Biblical Studies at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California. He focuses on two areas of the Report; polity and the use of scripture.

His critique of the revision of the polity of the Anglican Communion as proposed by Windsor is based on the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, the model used by Anglicans for all ecumenical dialogues. He specifically highlights one of the four criteria listed in the Quadrilateral; "The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of god into the Unity of His Church."

Countryman correctly points out that the phrase "locally adapted" is included to acknowledge that not even Anglicans are in agreement regarding the form of organization of the church, or the amount of authority to give our bishops. It was this phrase which allowed us to finally come to agreement with the ELCA regarding full communion, by the way. We had little difficulty agreeing on the other three criteria of the Quadrilateral; the scriptures, the creeds and the sacraments. The struggle was over holy orders. Countryman is suggesting that this is also the struggle we are presented with in the Windsor Report; specifically the proposal that we all agree on the authority we will grant to our bishops.

American Anglicans are not organized the same way as other parts of the Communion. Due to our particular history, we are not comfortable granting great authority to our bishops. We prefer to balance that authority with other clergy and lay people. We prefer to vote on things, rather than have pronouncements handed down by a prince of the church. We Yankees have a deeply embedded distrust of the aristocracy. We don't feel any need to apologize for our "locally adapted" historic episcopate. We think it works just fine, and are not interested in any attempts to change it. Or, as Countryman puts it;

The American Church is thus markedly different from some of the Anglican provinces that might be called "Commonwealth churches" by virtue of their devolution from the British Empire. We did not originate in a top-down fashion. Nor are we presently organized in such fashion. Such an arrangement is at home neither in our history, nor in our culture. An effort to turn the American church into a top-down, episcopally controlled structure is not only unlikely to succeed, but it would violate the fundamental Chicago-Lambeth criterion of an episcopate adapted to local needs.
Countryman continues by noting that the concept of "Primate" is also a foreign notion to most Americans. The title "Presiding Bishop" (never Archbishop or Metropolitan) designates an honorary role, originally simply signifying our senior bishop who would preside over the House of Bishops. Our Presiding Bishop does not have the authority to speak for the Episcopal Church. The only entity given that authority is General Convention.

Consequently, the development of the role of the Primates in the Windsor Report, and the way this group of men have grasped those recommendations since the release of Windsor and attempted to put themselves in the role of the ultimate voice of authority in the Anglican Communion is quite troubling to Americans. Here is Countryman's articulation of this discomfort;

Nothing is more astonishing in our present conflicts than the sudden prominence of a group that did not even exist a few decades ago and has no real grounding in our ecclesiology: the Primates' meeting. We have never distinguished an order of Metropolitans or Primates as if they were anything other than bishops, albeit bishops with somewhat broadened responsibilities. Windsor, however, elevates them to one "Instrument of Unity" among four. And the Primates themselves have now gone on to turn themselves into the principal such instrument by presuming to give directions to another of the instruments, the Anglican Consultative Council.
With the Primates insisting they be appointed to the ACC, they have effectively made themselves the most powerful source of authority within the Anglican Communion. The Archbishop of Canterbury appears hesitant to stand up against them. The Lambeth Conference meets every ten years, which is not often enough to allow Lambeth to be an effective counterbalance. What this group of elderly men seem to not comprehend is that the more they throw their weight around, and the more threats they make, the more they give the Americans reason to be suspicious of them. Yanks don't respond well to threats. At least this Yank doesn't.

Countryman then shifts his focus on the use of scripture in Windsor. He begins by pointing to the ways in which the Report gets it right;

The Report rightly adds that the authority of scripture always points beyond itself to the authority of God. It can never substitute for the latter. To treat scripture as if it were the very voice of God in the present moment is to commit the favorite sin of the religious: idolatry. Idolatry takes some good gift of God and treats it as if God were so fully involved in it that one can no longer tell the two apart. This is what we are doing when we assume that the bible, by itself, can provide us with complete and unproblematic access to the authority of God here and now - the idea that a single text or a short catena of texts can resolve complex problems like the ones Anglicans are now debating.
Countryman expresses his concern with the statement within the Report that one of the essential components of a bishop's authority is found in their designation as "teachers of scripture." Countryman points out that bishops are elected or appointed for many reasons. Being a biblical scholar is not necessarily an essential qualification. The same is true for Archbishops as well. As Countryman says, "Not every archbishop is a William Temple." Some of the Primates have eagerly embraced this new definition of their role, and have found within the Report "a license for them to clothe themselves in scriptural authority as the chief teachers of the bible and therefore, to all intents and purposes, the voice of God."

Countryman finds this an especially troublesome development coming out of the Report, as it fails to recognize one of the most difficult issues arising out of our current crisis; the elevation of a particular way of reading the bible as the criterion by which it will be decided if a person is a "real Christian" or not. The label Countryman gives those with this peculiar perspective is the "evangelical right." It's not a label I tend to use, as it inclines all evangelicals, right, left or center, to take offense. I prefer "the extreme conservatives," although both labels most likely have their limitations.

Countryman connects the modern evangelical right to the Puritans with whom Richard Hooker argued. I think there are clear similarities. There is no desire for dialogue, no possibility that their interpretation of scripture might contain error, and to disagree with them is not challenging their understanding, but a challenge of the bible itself. Unless you agree with their interpretation, you are not considered a Christian, and they will have nothing to do with you. This was quite apparent during the mandated dialogues on human sexuality held across the Episcopal Church during the early 90s. This was the opportunity to talk about these topics. The response from the evangelical right/extreme conservatives was to simply not participate, while continuing to shout that the Church was going to hell in a handbasket. How can one work towards unity with those who hold such an arrogant attitude? I'm not sure we can. Countryman refers to it as "abusive," and I tend to agree. If so, I'm not sure it is necessary to even respond to those who wield the bible as a weapon.

I will end with some of Countryman's thoughts regarding our modern day Puritans;

The long period of dialogue in ECUSA leading up to the ratification of Gene Robinson's election was marked by a "godlike" refusal of the evangelical right to participate. It was a refusal that took various forms. To a great extent, they simply did not attend parish and diocesan events intended to encourage dialogue. When they did attend, they simply repeated their existing position without any effort to show how it might connect with other perspectives. Most damaging of all, they refused to listen to the other people present and merely dismissed everyone and everything with which they disagreed. After the "dialogue," they went right on identifying their position with that of the bible as if nothing else were possible, as if no one else had ever read scripture or argued for a different reading of the text.

The behavior can only be described as abusive toward the community as a whole, and its effects are still unrolling before us in the threats of schisms by which they propose to replicate in organizational ways a long-standing refusal to treat their fellow Anglicans as faithful Christians...A more critical factor in producing this result in the insistence of one party that only their voice deserves to be heard. The report hopes that "our shared reading of scriptures across boundaries of culture, region and tradition" can guide "us together into appropriately rich and diverse unity by leading us forward from entrenched positions into fresh appreciation of the riches of the gospel as articulated in the scriptures." If that is to happen, the next step will have to be repentance on the part of a great many evangelicals for their arrogance in commandeering scripture as their peculiar property - and on the part of other Anglicans for having tolerated it for too long.
J.

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