Monday, December 03, 2007

On "A Taxonomy of Cognition:" Reflecting With Canon Twinamanni

The Rev. Canon Benjamin Twinamaani of Uganda has published a very interesting reflection on current issues in the Anglican Communion. His reflections are based on his own experience serving in an Episcopal Church beginning in 1990. It is well worth the time to read. You can find it here at Covenant (and thanks to Thinking Anglicans for pointing to it).

Canon Twinamaani has an interesting analysis of the cultural differences between the United States and “other parts of the Anglican Communion, particularly from the Global South.” He offers “a taxonomy of cognition,” intent on analyzing the ways in which American Anglicans think differently, and the circumstances that have shaped them.

Let me say first that the Canon is clearly acting in good faith. He speaks of admiration for his American colleagues and friends, and I’m convinced he means it. Moreover, I think he is trying to provide for colleagues in the Global South a context for understanding the American scene, and the American church as part of it (including, although not equally, the Episcopal Church and its separatists, both from the 1970’s and from the past decade.”

However, there are some points about which I think he has missed important information. I think that these are important enough as critiques of his paper.

The Canon addresses three points (two of them integrally linked) which he considers relevant in understanding American thinking.

“Taxonomy Item No. 1A. The legal base of Episcopal churches in America (why it is easy for a congregation to break up or leave ECUSA and set up shop across the street under CANA, and for congregations to buck all and any authority, especially bishops).” In essence, the Canon’s point here is that “laws are enforceable.” That is, the institution of law, as well as other social institutions, are more powerful than individuals. As a result, Americans enjoy a level of social and political stability that most in the Global South do not experience, and perhaps cannot imagine. Institutions and communities can safely differ because, as the laws apply to all, none is significantly threatened by another.

However, because there is no real threat from difference, neither is there any danger in not reconciling; “live and let live” can function in a way it manifestly does not in other parts of the world. In troubled places in the Global South it is the Church that provides stability that the society does not. As a result, there is a need perceived for the Church that does not exist in America; and there is a need for the Church to seek reconciliation within the society for the stability and security of church members.

“Taxonomy Item No. 1B. The Canonical Base of the Anglican Church in America.” In essence, the same dynamic applies in the American Church that applies in the culture around it. The Church is not immune from civil laws, nor does a bishop in the Church see himself or herself as independent from canon laws. The power of bishops is restrained, and there may be actions a bishop cannot take, even against his or her better judgement.

In parallel, Canon Twinamaani sees that the Church in the Global South experiences both within and without the instability of the culture. Civil law exists, but is secondary to the power of individual political leaders. Canon law exists, but is secondary to the power of individual bishops. A bishop is free to act on his judgment, whether or not that accords with canon law.

“Taxonomy Item No. 2. The Civil Rights Legal Base and History in American Culture.” The result of the Civil Rights Movement was legal change. Specifically, “In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the US Civil Rights Act into law. John F. Kennedy, killed the year before, initiated it. It stipulated that no American would be discriminated against on account of race, religion, and gender.” The point was primarily to bring civil rights to Black Americans; but once in place it allowed a “slippery slope” that could be used first by women and then by the gay community to pursue civil rights. Once this had become the law of the land, the Church was not immune from enforcement. Any theological argument that might be made in defense would be overwhelmed by the legal argument. Bishops, restrained as they were, could not prevent new groups from claiming rights, even within the Church; and since “laws are enforceable,” there’s nothing to prevent new groups from claiming the same rights (and, yes, he does descend to the same old “scare list,” mentioning explicitly pedophilia and polyamorous relationships).

In responding, let me take the last premise first. The Canon is correct that the Civil Rights Movement of the past century significantly shaped the agenda of American Anglicans. It is an interesting note, but it is shallow on two points. First, he focuses on the Movement as an effort to provide equal rights for African Americans, without appreciation that other minority communities were significantly shaped by it. Indeed, he posits that

Since in American history it is the black people that had the lowest legal status (regarded by law as slaves and property or as disenfranchised subhumans in the 1600-1890s and far beyond), once the black people got their civil rights legislated into law, it followed suit as night follows day, that all other groups in America must have the same rights, if not more. Let me be blunt. It is not possible for black people to have the civil rights that any other group cannot have, by virtue of the historical precedent that black people had the lowest status in the nation’s history.

Thus, other groups, either contemporary or subsequent, asserting civil rights are measured by that standard. By largely dismissing other cultural groups (Asian Americans, Native Americans, etc.) he misses the point that the movement for Civil Rights was that they were human rights, appropriate for all. He thus discounts the Women’s Movement, describing it as an effort to “keep ahead of black people,” rather than recognition of the humanity of women.

He also focuses on the results of the Civil Rights Movement as legal and social events. In a culture where “the laws are enforceable,” the legal consequences of the Movement are most important. Indeed, he contrasts making arguments for women’s’ rights or GLBT rights on a legal basis, which cannot be resisted, with making arguments on a theological basis, which apparently cannot be sustained.

In doing so, he completely misses how profoundly the Civil Rights Movement was a theological movement, and how many leaders of the Movement were profoundly motivated by the conviction that justice is a Biblical, even a Gospel mandate. He completely ignores the contribution of the Black Churches. Indeed, it was Black Christian leaders who sustained the Movement, and brought other religious leaders into the struggle. They saw this as indeed rooted in the Gospel and reflected in the teachings of the Prophets, and not simply a social or legal issue. To misunderstand the importance of the theological dynamics of the Civil Rights struggle then is to misunderstand them (or ignore them) today.

Returning to his first, linked theses, the Canon appreciates the importance in American thought of the stability we enjoy because "the law is enforceable." However, he seems to suggest that this is unique to the United States. He does not note how many other provinces enjoy such stability. I think the same could safely be said of Australia, Canada, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United Kingdom, just to begin with. It is also notable that each of those nations has faced and is facing its own movements for civil rights, based on race, national origin, and/or immigration. The Canon, I think, overstates the uniqueness of the American context. In doing so, his assertion “that it is the American Church and its leadership and membership, and no other entity, that can solve the crisis,” misses the investment other provinces might have in the same issues relevant in America.

Canon Twinamaani clearly admires the stability Americans enjoy. At the same time, he expresses no thought (and perhaps he has no hope) that the Church might be an agent for change in the Global South. It is well known how important the Anglican Church was in those efforts in South Africa. It has been reported how the Church has advocated for justice in Kenya and Nigeria. The Canon, however, expresses no desire for change in the status quo.

That is true of his sense of the status quo both in the culture and in the Church. Arguably, however, the Church could make the necessary changes internally without waiting for the wider culture. Surely, the Anglican in the pew would feel encouraged if what was "enforceable" within the Church was "law," and not simply the agenda of the individual bishop, however well intentioned.

At that point, of course, it is the intentions of bishops that would be critical. It would involve bishops trusting clergy and laity, and delegating authority. In many ways, bishops would experience the biggest changes. Perhaps Anglicans in the pews would experience the greatest benefits, both in seeing the stability within the Church, and in seeing the Church model stability for the wider society.

Canon Twinamaani has offered a gift in his "taxonomy of cognition." To the extent it does indeed improve mutual understanding we can hope it will contribute to efforts to communicate and work together across cultural differences. At the same time, I think it is undermined by some apparent misunderstanding of the American context, lack of appreciation of similar dynamics in other Anglican provinces, and significantly less critical reflection on the Global South context he describes for contrast. He has offered his paper in good faith, and for that we should be grateful. I think we can best show our gratitude by critical engagement and reflection on his offering.

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