Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Asking the Important Questions of Pastoral Visitors

So, there's been a visit to the House of Bishops of the Anglican Church of Canada by two Pastoral Visitors from the Archbishop of Canterbury.  They have, we are told, prepared a report for Archbishop Williams.  However, we haven't seen the report.  So far, all we've seen is a news article in the Anglican Journal that quotes from the report.

Like all other such events in the Anglican world, this has occasioned great discussion.  It's been reported at Episcopal CafĂ©.  It's been the topic for long discourse at Thinking Anglicans.  Mark Harris has raised his own questions.  The Pluralist has speculated about what might have been said in the report (to, I will say, great effect). But, all of this has been based on the one Anglican Journal article.  Again, we haven't seen the report.

My own reflections are based on the article as well, but specifically on passages in the article that are cited as quotations from the report itself.  I have raised these questions elsewhere, but I think they're perhaps the most important.

First, let me look at the comments about us Episcopalians.

The visitors said they were also reminded frequently by bishops that "Canada is not the USA." While the United States is seen as a melting pot culture where religious and ethnic groups are synthesized into "Americans," Canadians "genuinely value and seek to live with diversity."  Differences between the Anglican Church of Canada and The Episcopal Church were underscored, including the area of Christology. "We sensed that in Canada there was a general consensus on the nature of orthodoxy, with fewer extreme views of the kind that have led to some of the aberrations south of the border," the report said. "Even the bishops who were strongly progressive in the matter of same-sex blessings insisted that they stood firmly within the creedal mainstream." This, the report said, is "an encouraging sign that it allows for a more obviously Christ-centered approach to issues that currently divide the Communion, to say nothing of the wider church."

I want to hear, whether from Canadian bishops, Canadian theologians, or the Pastoral Visitors, just how the Episcopal bishops and the ACoC bishops differ on Christology.  We've been arguing for along time that the issues that divide us are largely matters of discipline, and not matters of Creedal theology.  Even the Canadian report on these issues has spoken of them as "matters of doctrine, but not of core doctrine."  It seems to me that Christology is a matter of first-order, and suggestions that Christology differs between two national churches within the Communion are a serious concern.

By the same token, we have argued that not only are our bishops "within the creedal mainstream," but that our "aberrations" are specifically and deliberately "Christ-centered."  Our reference to the Baptismal Covenant should speak to that, even in churches within the Communion that don't use it (and, by the way, the Church of England does use it, if within more limited contexts than the Episcopal Church).

So, allegations that we differ on Christology, and that we aren't centered on the Creeds, call for a more specific description.  Simply thrown out off hand in the inferences of these Pastoral Visitors, they are scurrilous, and as scandalous as the "extreme views" that Visitors apparently deplore.  True, these are allegations that we have heard before; but those who have made them have failed to actually point out how our actions alter the Church's understanding of the person and work of Christ, or how they alter understanding of the Creeds.  Pastoral Visitors from Canterbury ought to meet a higher standard.

By the same token, I wonder how Canadian bishops respond to this point, much less Archbishop Hiltz and include this in describing the Report as "good" and "accurate:"

[The report] Reiterated an earlier observation made by the visitors that the meeting of bishops was "relaxed and relational," and that while this has merits, "one casualty of this user-friendly meeting was perhaps a certain lack of theological depth." It noted that "very few of the items discussed were approached via theological first principles, the stress being much more on pragmatic outcomes."  While this may be "unduly critical," the visitors said, "we do not believe that the House is not without its theological heavyweights." Rather, they simply question "whether their expertise is made as widely available as it might be…"

This seems to me to be a classic example of damning by faint praise.  Are they suggesting that there is no "theological depth" behind the "stress… on pragmatic outcomes?"  True, they acknowledge (albeit grudgingly) that there are "theological heavyweights" in the Canadian house; but the clear implication is that the House as a whole, and most bishops within it, aren't doing their theology.

This suggests narrowness in the perspective of the Pastoral Visitors.  The first is that the format of a "relaxed and relational" gathering is unfamiliar to the Visitors.  Perhaps they expected more of a formal theological lecture, followed by intellectual discourse on "first principles."  Certainly, that's one way of approaching things.  Perhaps, too, the Visitors continue the neo-Platonic tradition within the Church that we deduce actions from principles, instead of inferring principles from observation (as I think the Romans do).  However, one would expect the Visitors to be able to discern other ways of functioning, and to ask intelligent questions when they don't understand.  Again, Pastoral Visitors for Canterbury should meet a higher standard.  (I think it also speaks to ecclesial issues,  expectations that bishops rather than General Synod should direct the Church, a criticism we've certainly heard here; but that's not as clear.)

So, what are we to do with this partial report on the report, lacking context?  Many are expressing outrage at another slap at the Episcopal Church, and at what they see as an effort to divide Anglicans in the Episcopal Church and Anglicans in Canada.  Perhaps those things are true, but I'm still more worried about the questions I see as more critical.  How are we differing on Christology, and on interpretation of the Creeds?  How are their approaches Christ-centered when ours are not?  How are the deliberations of the Canadian House of Bishops somehow not theologically grounded, or not "theological enough?"  The report of the Pastoral Visitors should be explicit on matters so important.  If it's not, neither Canterbury or the rest of us in the Communion are well served.  They're simply unfounded, unexplored allegations, of the sort we've heard for years.  Yes, others have said such things; but Pastoral Visitors for Canterbury should meet a higher standard.

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