Thursday, January 27, 2005

A Clash of Cultures

The Primates of the Anglican Communion will meet next month to discuss the Windsor Report. Archbishops from quite diverse cultural backgrounds will attempt to arrive at some consensus regarding what may and what may not be allowed if one is to remain a part of the communion. I don't see how this can be accomplished. The cultural differences are simply too vast.

This is the primary reason why I am troubled by Archbishop Akinola's, as one example, insistence that the rest of the world must adopt his cultural perspective. Africa is a quite different place from Europe or North America. Whenever I attempt to point this out, inevitably someone will raise the cry of racism and elitism. Bishop Spong tried to articulate it, and was roundly condemned for his efforts. Consequently, since the 2003 General Convention, the issue of cultural dissonance is avoided. I think this is a mistake. We need to talk about it. We need to say the words, even if they make us wince.

Someone else has finally spoken up. Fr. John Julian, of the Order of Julian of Norwich, responded to a criticism of a quite blunt essay he wrote regarding the Windsor Report. His response is even more blunt, yet I think it finally brings into the light of day some things that have remained hidden for too long. The essay is entitled Understanding What is and What Must Be? Responding to the Windsor Report. Here is the response;

One reader of the essay above responded:

I could hardly believe someone would write: "We are dealing with an inevitable clash of cultures, and the cultures represented by Africa, some of the far East, and the Southern Cone are as much as 200 to 300 years behind the cultures of the West in social progress, societal structure, and the development of the individual."
The statement is condescending and reeks of paternalism. I found it offensive. What benefit is to be derived from heaping scorn upon those whose views are different? Especially where those views happen to be entirely consitent with those of many of the so-called more culturally advanced.

Fr. John-Julian responded:

Since when does recognizing observable, plain, historical, sociological facts become "condescending" and paternalistic?
And it is not heaping "scorn" to say that a culture which approves female genital mutilation is behind the West in social progress. I don't think I am falsifying anything to say that broad literacy demonstrates more social progress in a culture than broad illiteracy. I don't think a culture which solves its massive racial hatreds with machetes and genocide is "advanced." I don't think cultures in which dictatorship is the norm are equal in social development to Western democracies. A culture whose best roads are mere muddy trails is not as socially progressive as a culture with Interstate Highways. A culture in which the majority of its members has no electricity or toilets or medical facilities is surely not as socially developed as cultures in which the majority has all those things. Cultures in which the political opposition is imprisoned and/or murdered can hardly be compared with a culture in which free elections are the norm. What do you say about a culture which in my own lifetime was run by a dictator who actually ate the flesh of his victims? Is there a Western democracy that can compare in social regression to that?

These are not "moral" judgments on my part. I don't think a middle-class American is morally superior to a rural Nigerian peasant. But neither am I ready to say that any American ought to be forced to follow the cultural norms of a nation ruled by an Idi Amin, or a culture in which a government drops bombs on its own people, or a culture where a bishop drive the owners off a huge agricultural estate so he can have it for himself, or a culture in which women are not even allowed to leave their homes, to say nothing of attending school or voting in elections.

The point of my posting was not that we are BETTER because we live in a more modern or more socially-developed culture. My point was only that our decisions and our actions and our choices cannot reasonably be expected to be governed by people who live immeasurably different cultural lives than we do. And the same goes for the reverse: I don't think Archbishop Akinola should be forced to make the same decisions and take the same actions within his culture which we can (and should) take in ours.

I had a gay friend who was an observer at the last Lambeth Conference. He wrote to tell me of a conversation with the wife of an African bishop (who shall remain nameless). The conversation came to an end when she said, "Of course we don't have any homosexuals in our country -- because when we find one, we kill him."

Wouldn't you say that suggests a rather regressive social norm? At least the Bush administration has not been quite so blatant about its hatred of gays.

John-Julian, OJN
"...our actions and our choices cannot reasonably be expected to be governed by people who live immeasurably different cultural lives than we do..." Exactly.

John Julian was the conductor of a retreat I attended many years ago. His passion was almost frightening. He didn't pull any punches. That's not his style. It may not be a style that you are receptive to, but I am thankful we have such passionate people serving the household of God. Sometimes it takes a John Julian for the truth to finally come out.

So, what can we do about this cultural clash? Since the "big tent" of Anglicanism appears to no longer be big enough for such cultural diversity, is it time to break camp? If not, how can we mend the seams that are on the verge of being torn apart?


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