Tuesday, September 14, 2010

On earthquakes and the Anglican Communion

There is always a danger in getting carried away with metaphors and making too much of points of analogy. Yet as I have reflected on the recent earthquake in our neighbouring region of Canterbury, there are a number of points at which the analogy of earthquakes is an especially appropriate one for the crisis within the Anglican Communion.

Amidst all the commentary and speculation regarding tensions and pressure points in the Anglican Communion over the past decade, there has been one curious—and rarely addressed—question: what does a crisis actually look like? When do we get to the moment when we say “this is it”?

There is no doubt that the enduring image associated with an earthquake is identified not with the quake itself, but with the destruction it causes. Fracture lines across landscapes, fences and rail tracks askew, and cracks through foundations of houses and streets.

It would be a mistake to look for the major impact on the Anglican Communion in the form of structures. Like the impact in Christchurch, structural damage has been erratic, and many of the major structures have proven to be amazingly resilient.

Yet an earthquake has struck the Anglican Communion, with its epicentre in a relative backwater region of New Hampshire in 2003. But the actual quake was much deeper, and the rolling series of aftershocks continue to be experienced. We are now well on the other side of the crisis event, but the enduring damage and realignment of the landscape is still with us.

And it is at this point that I think the earthquake metaphor is especially helpful. With all the scientific authority of a visitor to the Te Papa in Wellington last week (which has an excellent section explaining the dynamics of earthquakes, I might say), the forces generating earthquakes run in a variety of directions.

While the most dramatic is the collision of plates resulting in upward pressure, the reality is more complex. While at one (literal) level it is a question of which plate will prevail and be ascendant, the aftershocks are more by way of an increasing amount of detachment. The collateral damage leads to further fragmentation.

The most dramatic images of the impact of an earthquake are seen from above. Major fissures carving up the landscape, and in most cases the sobering truth is this: such fissures don’t come back together, but will only widen and deepen.

The new movement is to move further adrift (seen most dramatically in the breakup of Gondwanaland).  It seems to me the real impact on the Anglican Communion has been underestimated, with new tectonic directions and an increasing number of segments moving further adrift. On the surface, it is to be seen in the erosion of traditional Anglican adhesive ‘bonds of affection’, and the exhaustion of trust and respect.

But far from such damage essentially repairing itself over time, I suspect Anglicans will invest much time and hopes in building the proverbial bridges to nowhere, while the new drift at deeper levels will have a momentum of its own.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A more insidious risk: pathways to another gospel (2)

The mind tends to identify more obvious suspects as proponents of another gospel.  Almost invariably, they are quite some distance from ourselves, and to be honest, make much easier targets.  

In many cases, they look and sound the part, not as fiery protagonists (despite the distinctively Anglican penchant for the ‘gadfly’ persona), but more likely through a folksy, an assured ‘voice of reason’ type of charisma. Identification as those who specialise in saying what itching ears long to hear is all too easy.

As so often the case, the more insidious threat to spiritual health and gospel integrity is closer to hand. The capacity for self-deception is far stronger than we allow, especially when exercised on a ‘group-think’ scale.

As I suggested in my previous post, we find ourselves on this pathway when we take an otherwise worthy Gospel value and make it the bottom line. There are undoubtedly valid and important exhortations in regard to hospitality and inclusion. The welcome to all, irrespective of merit or worth based on spiritual attainment, is surely a gospel imperative.

The danger comes in making such admonitions the bottom line. It is all about the welcome, the acceptance, the loving embrace of God through the depth of God’s love and grace.

The danger is not so much in what we add to the Gospel (grace + works = ‘another gospel’, as many an exposition of Galatians has rightly affirmed) – the danger is even more sinister in what we leave out.

For all the clichéd disparagement over ‘another gospel’ diatribes, it seems to me the flaws and skewed proclamation of our age is in what we are choosing to leave out. It is the consumerist mindset in the realm of personal beliefs. We gravitate to (genuine) truths that sit more comfortably with us, that are more palatable to our own ears. It is an intuitive contextualising and accommodation to our cultural mindset—again, something that has significant apostolic precedent (1 Cor. 9:19-21; compare the latitude shown in cultural matters in Romans 14 & 15).

The ‘another gospel’ of our age is much closer to home than we care to admit, and it is the gospel of selective listening. And it is just as much a reality in evangelical churches as it is elsewhere.

Changing the bottom line: pathways to ‘another gospel’ (1)

An occasional thread on a topical question of enormous significance: how might we find ourselves proclaiming and living something the Lord’s apostles would consider ‘another gospel’?

There have always been some who set out to come up with ‘another gospel’. In more recent times, there have been books, lecture tours and intentionally provocative events declaring that the apostolic faith was fine for its own times, but should now be relegated to the rubbish bin of history. We can do better, so we are told, sometimes with the embarrassingly trite theological justification that ‘the church wrote the scriptures, so it can rewrite them’.

The scandal of our present age is not that such views can emerge within the establishment of the church (I use that term advisedly), but that such views are welcomed and promoted on the basis of ‘at least it gets people talking’ – I heard that rationale from an Archbishop in Australia (now retired) as justification for inviting a highly publicised heretic to preach from the Cathedral pulpit. Such a move was understandably perceived by the wider community as an endorsement for all the provocative contentions that constituted the message of this particular figure. 

The failure to name heresy for what it is reflects a spirit of cowardice amongst our present day bishops. We live within a church culture cowed into avoiding such terms altogether (‘heresy’ or ‘false teaching’), with a superior stance of disparagement of anyone who dares to suggest such a thing. [I note the charge given to bishops in the BCP Ordinal ‘Are you ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God’s Word; and both privately and openly to encourage others to do the same?’ has been dropped in the ACANZP Ordinal, replaced by a much tamer line].

I suggest that failures in this area are as much responsible for the current pale imitation of the ‘Church catholic’ that we currently manifest as anything else.

However, my interest lies in another direction. It is all too easy to point at others and identify serious shortcomings in the gospel being presented. What about the danger closer to home – the unintended drift in what we affirm, preach and live out that may end up at an equally serious position? Are we mindful of pathways to result in affirming ‘another gospel’?

There are group dynamics at work here. Historically, one function of communion or koinonia is to warn and rebuke one another in a spirit of mutual accountability. We are to keep one another honest to the gospel as received from the outset, affirmed by the apostles. The notion of such koinonia is a foil to individualism and the spirit of independence. We cannot say ‘our Father’ without having brothers and sisters, and we are indeed ‘our brother’s [and sister’s] keeper’.

Let me toss one thought on the table for discussion at this point, to be explored further in part 2.

One pathway to inadvertently arriving at ‘another gospel’ is when we change the bottom line. We take something that is laudable in itself, and make it the non-negotiable affirmation by which all other notions are considered. Take, for instance, the resolve that we want no-one to walk away from the table of fellowship and dialogue…

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

When aesthetics trumps morality

It was just a passing comment, but it encapsulated something deeply disturbing about contemporary outlooks. I was listening to a regular afternoon ‘panel’ segment on national radio, and the discussion was exploring concerns over the influence on young girls by perceived role models of the pop idol variety – barely out of their teens themselves.

One guest panellist recounted his discomfort when his 8 year old daughter asked him to explain the lyrics of a song she had been happily singing along to as they travelled in the car. The lyrics were of the more suggestive variety, and the father managed to fudge an answer to his daughter’s satisfaction.

All well and good, in that the panel was acknowledging concern such personalities and their media persona as role models. But it was the next throwaway line that really struck me.

The panellist hastily affirmed, to the ready agreement of the rest of the panel, that his concern had noting to do with morals or the like – his reaction was entirely a matter of ‘aesthetics’. In other words, it offended his sense of cultural taste.

Why the need to disown a concern for morals, especially when it comes to providing guidance for the young? The irony is that the continual libertarian mantra that we hear in public dialogue -a mantra that is especially strong in condemning any suggestion of censorship – is in itself stridently opposed to any expression of moral discourse in public debate.

At one level, there are all sorts of philosophical questions about where a sense of moral order may be derived, and on whose authority. Some argue that it is an inevitable consequence of post modernism, but I find the clichéd summaries of ‘post-modernism’ as if it is a monolithic or coherent perspective increasingly dissatisfying.

It is intriguing, however, to observe the increasingly vocal atheism campaigners argue that they can be just as ‘good’ as the rest. Whether they cross the libertarian cringe and start to talk openly in terms of standing for moral lifestyles remains to be seen.

But my real angst is for the young, many of whom have barely heard a word commending the importance of moral living. We might say that perhaps it is a matter of semantics, and the preferred terminology is ‘values’ – morals by another name.

But if that is so, why the need to decry any concern for ‘moral’ consideration, while ‘aesthetics’ is perceived as more acceptable?

I may be overstating the case, but I’m left with the sense that such a throwaway line is very revealing and a reflection of our community at large.