Monday, February 18, 2008

Anglican Catechism in Outline: The Good

I have taken time this weekend to look at the Anglican Catechism in Outline (ACIO). It is included in the Interim Report of the The Global South Anglican (GSA) Theological Formation and Education Task Force. The full report also includes several commentaries, appendices and reports, some of which I will comment on separately.

I will admit that when I first heard that this was coming, I was concerned. I was concerned because the first notice was the announcement that a Preliminary Report had been approved by Global South Primates in Kigali; and some of them at least are much more evangelical than I, and than the majority of Episcopalians. However, in fact I was pleased and impressed with ACIO. I think this could indeed be used with some adaptation to local circumstances.

Let me comment on some things that I appreciate about ACIO. To begin with, I appreciate that the Committee produced a “framework,” and not a detailed catechism. It is, if you will, a "rich outline," with some detail on most topics. That allows the necessary flexibility in setting and design of educational method. As the Task Force authors wrote,

At the same time, communicating Christianity well requires sensitive understanding of the particular missionary situations. Provinces are in better positions to attend to such tasks. Provinces should also make every effort to understand the social contexts of their mission. They need to teach the Christian faith in creative ways, drawing out its implications and communicating it in languages that are accessible to the laity in general. Therefore different provinces should find suitable ways to implement the recommendations.

I appreciate the Committee's comments on the importance of catechesis. Over the years I've served as a supply priest in many congregations. I've been surprised and saddened over the years at the number that appeared to have no organized educational activities at all. I would note, too, that the Task Force is even handed in emphasizing the need, not singling out one province or even one area of the Communion: “Anglicans often remain biblically illiterate and uninformed about their particular faith traditions. At the same time, radical reinterpretation of the Christian faith and morals are taking place both in the Southern Hemisphere and in the Northern Hemisphere where Christianity has historically been a dominant presence.”

The “framework” itself is laid out in the Report in a section titled “Key Recommendations.” The recommendations are centered around three questions:

A. What is the content of the catechesis?
B. What infrastructures should be in place?
C. Where and when catechetical processes take place? [sic]

It was in the first section on Content that I anticipated the most concern. I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised. It is only six pages (pages 10-15 of the Interim Report), and it’s well worth the few minutes it takes to read.

The framework organizes the content under the categories of Faith, Hope, and Love. Under these categories it outlines expositions of the Creeds, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Summary of the Law. It seems sufficiently thorough, and is punctuated with illustrative scripture citations. It includes opportunities to discuss current issues, without speaking specifically to the issues that we are currently struggling with. Task Force members have made a concerted effort to produce a work “for the whole Communion and [looking] towards its longer-term future” and “for each and every diocese in the Communion.”

This is not to say that there aren’t aspects of the interpretations within the framework with which I would take issue. This is certainly in the evangelical perspective within the Anglican tradition. For example, the sacraments are mentioned within the exposition of the section of the Creed devoted to the action of the Holy Spirit, with no further interpretation. The first topic cited under “Interpersonal character of social existence” is “Christian understanding of marriage,” and the Scripture citations with regard to family are from Paul, and do not include Jesus’ statements that faith will divide families or redefine them (“Those who do the will of my Father are my mother and brothers and sisters.”). There is a distinct tone of reflective of Niebuhr's categories of "Christ against culture," or even "Christ and culture in paradox," instead of "Christ transforming culture," more common in the Episcopal Church. At the same time, there is a good deal more interpretation included regarding “Treatment in divine authorization of secular government” than would be comfortable for Americans (To quote: “Government under and through law is God’s will for the earthly protection of all people.”), and three full paragraphs of interpretation on this when there is only the barest reference to sacraments seems out of balance. Still, these are aspects of the interpretation within this “rich outline,” and do not invalidate the framework in general. These are simply areas for the adaptation I referred to above.

The section on infrastructures is also interesting. It does “affirm the central role of bishops as chief pastors and teachers in their dioceses,” something that I fear would be interpreted differently in different provinces. It also encourages rethinking “the purposes and methodologies of theological education, specifically that it become more connected to the catechetical work at the congregational level.” There is also a footnote promising “a fuller recommendation on theological education (in relation to catechetical responsibility) in the Final Report.” This highlights a tension that has long obtained in the Church as to whether the seminaries best serve the Church in forming students by reinforcing the core or by pressing the boundaries. The report notes that,

The clergy must be ready to think theologically for themselves, and not only say just what their congregations (of bishops!) are expecting. All of them have to be able to go on thinking and preaching faithfully to the Gospel, for perhaps forty years after they leave college. Some of them will have to take the lead in criticizing and interpreting movements of thought that have not yet even come on the horizon. And they have to be able to resource the theological needs of tomorrow’s church. (Emphasis in the original)

The discussion of where and when catechetical processes take place is also interesting. Notwithstanding the brief reference to the sacraments in the section on Content, this section emphasizes heavily the role of worship in catechesis. There is encouragement to celebration of feast days to help “churches to recover a historical understanding of their faith.” There is discussion of the use of the Lectionary for teaching, and of the possibility of sequential and thematic sermons for their educational value. This is somewhat confused by suggestion that a “parallel calendar” with an “optional parallel Lectionary” to support that purpose; but that may speak to provinces that have not moved from a one-year to a three-year Lectionary cycle and/or provinces with no equivalent to the Episcopal Church’s Lesser Feasts and Fasts.

Even with the sections on infrastructures and settings for catechesis, the Key Recommendations section of this report is only eleven pages, and well worth reading and study. As I said, I expected to be unhappy with this framework for catechesis, only to be pleasantly surprised when I was able to read it. I certainly agree that education in the Christian faith and life is a critical responsibility in the Church, and one recognized all too often in the breach rather than in the observance. This Anglican Catechism in Outline is worth time and study. I think it can be a worthwhile contribution to education planning throughout the Church; and perhaps if we on the “Global North” side of the current difficulties can appreciate its intent and value, this contribution from the “Global South” can be a point of connection and shared mission in a time when disconnection and division seem unchallenged.


Anonymous said...

I apologize for using the comment box for an off-topic inquiry I'd normally do through email, but I didn't see an email address for you and I'm curious to hear your response to a Hollywood depiction of chaplain interacting with a terminal patient that is being touted as "typical" of "liberal" chaplains by a certain self-proclaimed "orthodox Anglican" website.

If you find it beneath commment, I certainly understand, but I thought someone who has actually has some expertise in this area (and is not merely trying to erect a straw man to score political points) might offer some useful insight.

Link to Annoyingly Tendentious Website

Marshall Scott said...

I don't find the clip beneath comment, but I think the comment will be worthy of a post in its own right.

Now, many of the comments I do find beneath comment.

Give me a couple of days.

Malcolm+ said...

Interesting that the "conservatives" consider this an indictment of "progressive religion."

With few exceptions, the entertainment industry's treatment of clerics in the last 20 - 30 years has depicted us as either hateful or feckless. Sometimes hateful AND feckless.

I don't know how the episode resolves itself, but I rather suspect that religion doesn't come out very well at the end whatever the plot. The chaplain character may get some credit for good intentions but that will be all.

And yes, her script did remind me of the worst parts of CPE.

It all leaves me wondering what I would have done. Strikes me that I would have eventually told him that I was absolutely certain that God offers forgiveness to all those who truly repent. He forgave the thief who was crucified with him. He forgave Paul who was an accessory to murder. He has forgiven far worse people than you. He can forgive you too. If you want it.

And then, I'd have offered him the sacrament of reconciliation.

But I have never thought of myself as particularly gifted at hospital ministry. Who knows.