Sunday, September 20, 2009

More on Rowan Williams

The second in a series of reflections
on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s reflection

“The truth shall set you free”--Jesus.

The Archbishop asks, “Is the Church free to recognize same-sex unions by means of public blessings?” The Rev. Anne Vouga, Priest of the Episcopal Church canonically resident in the Diocese of Kentucky and passionate reader of the Archbishop’s theological work, has suggested that I should say more about the Archbishop’s use of the word “free.” She suspects it may be for him an important concept and his use of it may mean that he is indeed being proscriptive rather than descriptive.

I have already indicated some of the problems with a “proscriptive” reading of his reflection and have concluded that his reflection is best understood as “descriptive.” Further, I have said that if descriptive, I can find no fault in his requirements for a positive answer to the question he posits. If, however, his reflection is taken as proscriptive, I find his requirements to be problematic. Finally, I have suggested that we be generous in our reading and assume he is being descriptive. I now turn to a less generous reading.

As Archbishop, Rowan Williams has felt constrained. He has said that his office, as Archbishop of Canterbury, constrains him to speak only of behalf of the Anglican Communion and forces him to lay aside his own theological convictions. Perhaps, better said, would be to say that he “brackets” his theological convictions in a Husserlian sort of way, perhaps unbracketing them at such a time when he no longer finds himself encumbered by the duties and obligations of being the Archbishop of Canterbury. Conversely, one could say he does not feel free to speak his mind--only the mind of the Anglican Communion. Thus, it is easy for observers to conclude that his deepest theological conviction (a particular ecclesiology perhaps) supersedes his theological commitment to the theological concept of being free. In fact, he may not see “freedom” as theological at all, but merely political or social.

I suppose that when a Yankee speaks of freedom to a Brit, the specter of the American Revolution necessarily raises its head. The British do seem to be rather preoccupied by Colonization, the British Empire (and its fragmentation),, in a way reminiscent to the way the Vietnam War haunted Americans two decades ago (and still haunts in some quarters). Since, arguably, the Anglican Communion is the last vestige of British Empire, perhaps it would not be shocking for the Archbishop to hear the word “free” in a political and not a theological way. Certainly, in the quote from Jesus with which I opened this essay, it is not easy (if even possible) to disentangle the political from the theological. One must remember that the context of Jesus’ remark was his living under the colonization of another empire--the Roman Empire.

With that caveat, however, I find it hard to believe the Archbishop would be vulnerable to that particular British malady. He is, no doubt, familiar with the theological concept of freedom and its importance. Despite his reference to “civil liberties,” I find it difficult to believe that he hears all talk of freedom to be outside the bounds of theology. Perhaps, he simply believes that some in the conversation have a merely secular understanding of freedom that is forming the basis of their convictions on this particular issue. In so far as that is true (and I cannot say one way or the other), then he is certainly correct to say that a purely secular understanding of civil liberties is insufficient to ground a doctrine of the Church. Likewise, if one’s belief in human dignity is grounded in the United Nations declaration of Human Rights, then such a grounding would be insufficient for the grounding of a doctrine of the Church.

He does not allude to the freedom one finds in Christ. He does not speak to the notions of justice and love embodied in the prophets. His mentioning of the forming of the individual conscious of the believer, does, however, bring to mind the Baptist doctrine of “soul competency.” Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ have also done considerable theological work in this area. I am supposing that this is the theological background for his use of the word “free.” He combines this background with the Christian obligation to be “pastoral” in our response to those in need or want. For the prophets those in need or want were the widows and orphans and others marginalized by their society. For Jesus it was women, Samaritans, tax collectors, lepers, and others marginalized by their society.

While he chastises those who do not have a theological understanding of being “free.” He also suggests that even those who do, are not appropriately applying the concept in this conversation. If this is the correct reading of his phrase, “...the issue is not simply about civil liberties or human dignity or even about pastoral sensitivity to the freedom of individual Christians to form their consciences on this matter,” then he perhaps setting up a dichotomy between the sort of freedom individuals have and the sort of freedom the Church has. Perhaps, this dichotomy is rooted in his own experience in being the Archbishop of Canterbury. Remember he feels that while he has the freedom of forming his own conscience, he does not have the freedom of expressing that conscience in his role as the Archbishop of Canterbury--he can only express the conscience of the Anglican Communion. Likewise, perhaps he is suggesting that while other individual members of the Episcopal Church have the same freedom, the Episcopal Church as a whole should only express the conscience of the Anglican Communion (or the Church with a capital C). If so, perhaps his requirements are indeed proscribing the appropriate behavior (in his mind) of the Episcopal Church.

I am tempted at this point to explore the notion of a group having a conscience analogous to that of an individual. I am also tempted to explore the paradox of one acting upon their conviction that others cannot act on their convictions. I will, however, resist these temptations and instead continue on the course already set.

The Archbishop’s comments on the Anglican Communion being a “mere federation” might be instructive here. Some have taken his dismissive attitude to “federation” as preferring some other way of organizing ourselves--such as monarchical. Perhaps, however, he is simply dismissing as unimportant a political analysis of the situation. If all we are is a particular way of organizing ourselves (whether federal, monarchical or whatever), then we are not Church. Perhaps, he does not want to engage a political analysis, but to raise the conversation to the theological. Perhaps he feels we are stuck on the level of political analysis and we should be moving on to a theological analysis of the situation.

If this is his intent--I have a word of caution for the Archbishop. Just as it is difficult to disentangle the political from the theological in my opening quote from Jesus, likewise it is difficult to disentangle the political from the theological in this situation. Aristotle’s great insight was that form and substance are always found together. Thomas of Aquinas found Aristotle helpful to his theological project, perhaps the Archbishop should as well.

Meanwhile, the Archbishop may be suggesting that if we only understood the organic nature of the Church, we would bracket our convictions the way he has done as Archbishop, and do nothing that is not representative of the whole. In this, if this is indeed his intent, I fear he is in error.

First, the Episcopal Church is not the Archbishop of Canterbury. He may feel that he represents the whole of the Anglican Communion and cannot take any stance that is not representative of the whole. The Episcopal Church, however, does not represent the whole of the Anglican Communion. We are but one of thirty-eight provinces of the Anglican Communion.

Second, I do not know why he feels compelled to use Lambeth Resolutions as infallible doctrinal statements reflecting “the mind” of the Anglican Communion. If that is the role of such resolutions, we should not pass anymore resolutions. The Episcopal Church has never agreed to the Anglican Communion having any binding authority upon us. No instrument of unity, no resolution of any one of the instruments of unity, are binding or enforceable. This is the political analysis the Archbishop dismisses, but it is the concrete manifestation of our theological convictions. The same theology that prevents the Eastern Orthodox Church from recognizing papal authority, prevents the Episcopal Church from recognizing the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury and any of the “instruments” that office has developed in recent years in the hope of promoting some sort of “unity” among Anglicans. If the concrete manifestation of his theology is converting the Primates meeting into a Roman style Curia, then his theology is in error. If the concrete manifestation of his theology is converting the Archbishop of Canterbury into a Roman style Pope, then his theology is in error. He would be better served looking to the East (as he has often done) for better models of organizing. Further, the theological impulse he dislikes and sees as merely secular, is rooted in our reformation heritage. Being Anglican means being both Catholic and Reformed. As Archbishop of Canterbury he needs to remember, if he is to represent the whole, to be both--not just Catholic, but Catholic and Reformed.

1 comment:

Charles Hawkins said...

Here is something interesting that the Rev. Anne Vouga pointed out to me:

"Sacramental practice seems to speak most clearly of loss, dependence, and interdependence, solidarities we do not choose: none of them themes that are particularly welcome or audible in the social world we currently inhabit as secular subjects. We are told, in effect, that the failure to see ourselves and find ourselves in one or another kind of corporateness is a failure in truthfulness that is profoundly risky. Our liberty to choose and define our goals as individuals or as limited groups with common interest is set alongside the vision of a society in which almost the only thing we can know about the good we are to seek is that it is no one's possession, the triumph of no party's interests. The search for my or our good becomes the search for a good that does not violently dispossess any other--and this not on the basis of rights whose balance must be adjudicated, but because of a conviction that the creative regard calling and sustaining myself is precisely what sustains all. And what makes this something different than an imposed collectivism is the fact that it is appropriated by no force but by trust, by the recognition of the hidden unities of human interest: our own transition, our own 'passover', into the need of the other, wherever and whoever the other may be." ("Sacraments of the New Society," in On Christian Theology, p. 219.

Also, "The baptismal perspective, in insisting that we are caught up in solidarities we have not chosen, is an admittedly uncomfortable partner for the post-Enlightenment social thinker. It gives disappointingly little ground for developing a discourse of human rights or claims, since it sidesteps the whole milieu of the tribunal in which I can enforce what is owing to me: in the baptismal perspective, we confront something we cannot 'plead' with. The decisions have already been taken. Yet if--and it is an enormous if--we are quite serious about the radical difference of God or the radical liberty of God, the consequent picture of human status is perhaps still more challenging than the conventional construction of 'rights.' Not only is a fundamental equality established by the indiscriminate regard of God, but, still more significantly, a fundamental compatibility and interdependence in human goals when rightly perceived. In that God's affirming regard is given to the subject specifically as a member of a community, the implication is that, within that community, what is good or desirable for each is consistent with what is good and desirable for all others." (see above, 213).