Monday, July 24, 2006

Consensus or Prophetic Action?

I read an article yesterday in the Church Times that offered extracts from a sermon given earlier this month by the Rev. Canon Marilyn McCord Adams, Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford. I could not locate the entire text of this sermon, so decided not to bring it to your attention. Imagine my pleasant surprise to discover this morning that Jim Naughton has provided us with the complete text! Enjoy your vacation, Jim; it is well deserved.

Here's an excerpt that I think is worth discussing:

...The reason local churches should 'wait upon' the consensus of the world-wide Anglican communion is that 'only the whole Church knows the whole Truth'! Local churches that break ranks to 'act upon what they passionately believe' run the risk of being wrong: prophetic action enjoys no 'cast-iron guarantee' that it's right; one might just be 'settling down complacently with what it or its surrounding society finds comfortable.'

Historically, this sort of epistemology has proved controversial, enjoying ancient and honourable precedents but attracting distinguished dissidents as well. When Luther uttered his famous, 'Here I stand, I can do no other!' he did not wait to act until the Roman Catholic Church could be brought around.

Neither did Calvin or Zwingli or Thomas Cranmer! Still earlier, the Jesus movement and its first generation leaders did not cease and desist until the Jewish establishment could be got to agree. Peter left them to judge whether it was right to abandon personal discernment, to obey human beings rather than what he understood to be God's commands. Mid-twentieth century, Martin Luther King tried in many and various ways to persuade segregationist white church people. But Rosa Parks didn't wait until he was successful before she took a seat on that bus!

Prophetic action is risky. What 'Challenge and Hope' assumes is that groups are less likely to be wrong than individuals. Sometimes this is plausible. If I am the only one in the room who seems to see a pink elephant in the corner, the reasonable conclusion is that I am hallucinating. Since pink elephants don't live in these parts, I should not rush out to buy peanuts, before asking others, rubbing my eyes and looking again.

Nevertheless, other times, where systemic evils - such as racism, classism, tribalism, sexism, and homophobia - are concerned, groups are the ones that are more apt to make mistakes. The reason is simple: such evils are the product of deep structures that constitute the group in question; uprooting them is not surface slicing to remove a mole, but abdominal surgery that reroutes the digestive track. Where the status quo is working well for most people, or at least for the most powerful people, the collective has every incentive to deny the problems and to resist any change. Re-read Acts 7, the speech of Stephen, or Bishop Gore's 'The Holy Spirit and the Inspiration of Scripture', where both retail Israel's history: when her society gets tied in knots of social injustice and big-power-politics idolatry, God has to raise up individuals to declare what the group doesn't want to hear. Put otherwise, the bible tells how status quo conservatism that complacently settles into its accustomed values and lifestyles, is also risky. Where systemic evils are concerned, waiting upon one another runs the greater chance of betraying the Gospel of God!
I recall when the "consensus" model was encouraged for Vestries to use. My experience is that it is the best method if the goal is to put on the brakes and do nothing. I hope that this model is not becoming in fashion once again in TEC. Since when was it a mistake to "agree to disagree" on some matters? My experience has been that most adults can passionately advocate for a position, but if they lose the vote, have no problem with setting aside their passion and moving on to the next item on the agenda, as long as they felt their position was heard and carefully considered.

I think the "consensus" argument, which is clearly what Abp. Williams is advocating, is not only going to be ineffective in addressing our current unpleasantness, but will add to the disconnect more and more people are experiencing in regards to communities of faith. Most of the world recognizes that certain segments of the Church have always been at least 50 years behind the discussions of the general public. By the time the Church begins to address some issues, no one is any longer talking about them. And we wonder why so many folks find the Church to be irrelevant?

There are good reasons to use caution if our brothers and sisters in Christ disagree with our perceived revelation from God. As one who regularly walks the razor's edge of sanity, I know the value of allowing others to be the word of God firsthand. But, after testing that revelation, and finding sufficient evidence that it may indeed be a sign of God doing a new thing in our midst, does it continue to be prudent to wait for a consensus?


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