Monday, September 25, 2006

An Alternative to Hegemony in Anglican Arguments

How did I get all the way to here? I’ll get to where here is momentarily; but there is value in the journey, and I also want to share that.

Last Tuesday I received this story from the Episcopal News Service about the redesign of the Theological Education for All website of the Episcopal Church. I found there more resources than I could get a handle on, even with my junk room mind. There are links for schools, articles, programs – all sorts of stuff for lay folk and professionals. Much it is specifically Episcopal and Anglican; but not all of it. It’s worth the time to peruse for things you can use.

From that site I linked to the site of the Anglican Theological Review. ATR is a well-established academic journal within the Episcopal Church. On the site you can read abstracts of articles past and present. You can’t access whole articles, but the abstracts are themselves helpful. The site also has an extensive Resources page.

Which is where I discovered the Journal of Anglican Studies from Australia. This is an interesting journal, offering a different perspective on things Anglican – different, at least, to what parochial Episcopalians sometimes here. The articles are intelligent, but are relatively brief, so they’re eminently readable.

And it’s where I discovered “Conversation: Abandoning the Hegemonic Model,” by Terry Brown, Bishop of Malaita of the Province of Melanesia (Journal of Anglican Studies 2006 4: 113-116). You might be able to read it online here (I found I could from my office, but not from home....).

In light of the current arguments going on in the Anglican Communion, his is an interesting perspective. He is, as he says, “writing from the ‘periphery’, a small island in the midst of a small country in the middle of the Pacific.” Surely this is a Third World setting. At the same time, “having come from a famous ‘centre’, Toronto, but having spent the last nine years on the ‘periphery’, Malaita and the Solomon Islands,” he has some awareness of the view of the world from both perspectives.

In that light, I was struck by his concern with “the fundamental weakness of what might be called the ‘hegemony model’—the power of rich and wealthy forces (whether on the political or theological ‘right’ or ‘left’) to overwhelm small local cultures and make the world into a fundamentally homogenous place.”

“Within this model, there is a ‘purity’ (a traditional culture, a particular form of church life, a language, an ethical code, a way of reading the Bible or a lifestyle, to name but a few) to be defended from a powerful and threatening hegemonic power. Whatever the issue, the model is the same, and often some form of isolation and protection from, if not defeat of the invading hegemonic power is the answer, whether that be political defeat or church excommunication.”

Part of what is striking is his hopefulness for the “small local cultures” to adapt to “hegemonic power.”

“My experience of the Solomons is that people here have (and historically have had) tremendous capacity to resist, adopt, adapt, accept and reject outside influences as they see fit, in incredibly creative ways. Traditional cultures still have tremendous powers of relationship, creativity and reconciliation, both inward and outward. Rather than cultural or religious ‘purity’ as the aim, we need to accept what I would call, ‘loving hybridity’ as the goal, as we move beyond ‘subject’ and ‘object’ to the freedom of persons and cultures to move in the directions in which they wish....

That is not to say that there is no powerful hegemonic control or powerlessness, or even a certain degree of economic determinism, but if people are healthy, if the traditional (and I would add, Christian) culture is fully alive, with good relationships and confidence, with some resources, then people can emerge with very creative ‘impure’ and ‘hybrid’ solutions. And for Christians, this movement towards life-giving creative hybridity should also be a reflection of Christ’s death and resurrection.”

He acknowledges that “Abandoning the hegemonic model (while still regarding it as useful and often even true), one is left with the disorienting experience in which what was once thought to be easily understood is no longer understood.” His response? “The only real anchor is a Christian faith and spirituality that ‘hangs a bit loose’ to any supposedly objective and definitive answer to such questions, though, of course, not descending to unreason.” And what makes it worthwhile? “Our common home in Christ, our heavenly home, partially experienced in the Eucharist and Christian koinonia, is our true goal—such that one must be prepared for disorientation and, indeed, even pleasant surprises.”

I think this is a very helpful perspective. The fact that it comes from someone with history in both the center and the periphery offers perspective that most of us lack in our parochialism. After all, much theology, like politics, is local. In addition, this offers recognition that both (local) cultural and transcultural aspects of the faith can be integral and vital. To each of us in our own “hegemonic” perspective this suggests not only that we might learn something, but that in fact we might be blessed by what we learn.

Certainly, there will be those horrified by the thought of “hybridity,” however “loving” it might be. Each of us, to the extent we are convicted of our “rightness,” will feel some need to defend it. I can hear the cries of “Syncretism!” now. The recent statement from the meeting of Global South Primates in Kigali, Rwanda, with its apparent impetus toward a narrow confessional communion, would seem particularly hostile to such “hybridity.”

At the same time, bath water does need at times to be changed; and the only true necessity is to save the baby. I would argue that in their generations the translation of the truths of the faith into the philosophical frameworks of Neoplatonism and then to Aristotelianism reflected such hybridity. This is implicit for Anglicans in our conviction that people should hear the faith “in a tongue...understanded of the people.” And clearly, if we are to truly embrace a “listening process,” one in which any and all of us are open to and might experience change, this is meaningful. How can I be said to have listened if I am not willing to risk being affected by what I hear?

Americans, including American Anglicans/Episcopalians, can be so very parochial in our opinions. International conversations certainly help expand our horizons, but especially in proportion to our ability to hear voices that really differ from us. Bishop Brown’s suggestion that we return to “conversation” with a new model, challenging our “hegemonic” perspectives and holding up the possibility that “hybridity” can be loving and faithful, and can reflect growth, is refreshing. We will still argue about what in the faith constitutes the baby to be saved. However, perhaps we might do so in an environment of hope, and not in one of defense and doubt and fear.


Closed said...

I think this post-colonial thinking is key, and not simply for thinking globally, but for cultures within a single national Church...after all, there is a developing queer Christian culture just as there is a an African American culture and both bring gifts and challenge the American Church.

When my partner and I sought out blessing, gathered friends and family, and a Benedictine sister to officiate, we were participating in that budding queer culture that takes so seriously our baptism that if priests and bishops won't do what needs to be done, we will.

Marshall Scott said...

*christopher, I certainly agree. Moreover, I think we need to distinguish between those accretions that might, as it were, obscure the baby; and those that clean or oil or anoint the baby. Not all acceptance of culture is syncretism.

What I think might be hardest for many is to accept that this has happened before, and we found it served the faith rather than destroying it. I mentioned the translation into two philsophical vocabularies. But I think that goes on all the time: that the theological task is to translate the truth of the faith into the contemporary vernacular, "the tongue understanded of the people." What we might lose of a small sense of "purity" is far surpassed by what we gain in our perspective of how God can speak to us in the world in our time.

Jon said...

The one part that worries me is that by standing loose to supposedly objective answers we could find ourselves starting to reject the pursuit of truth. To use your image of the baby in the bath, it's important to remember there really is a baby and that what counts as part of the baby isn't something we can define however we like.


Bob G+ said...

Marshall -

Very interesting post. Thank you for posting the pieces and for your comments. Good stuff to think about.

Marshall Scott said...

Bob: Thanks for your comment.

Jon: Thanks for yours as well. I do agree with you. The hard part is knowing what is bath water dripping from a finger, what is finger tip, and what is finger nail. I do think that often it is in the encounter with "the other" that we are able, and indeed are required, to make that close examination once again.