A Crisis (29.11.09)
I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia, and to come back to you from Macedonia and have you send me on to Judea. Was I vacillating when I wanted to do this? Do I make my plans according to ordinary human standards, ready to say 'Yes, yes' and 'No, no' at the same time? As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been 'Yes and No.' For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not 'Yes and No'; but in him it is always 'Yes.' For in him every one of God's promises is a 'Yes.'
— 2 Corinthians 1.16-19
It is easier to say 'Yes' to people. But if you say 'Yes' to everyone, you end up contradicting yourself: saying 'Yes' to one thing logically means saying 'No' to something else.
— George Connor, retiring Bishop of Dunedin, 28 November 2009 (paraphrased)
crisis: c.1425, from Gk. krisis "turning point in a disease" (used as such by Hippocrates and Galen), lit. "judgment," from krinein "to separate, decide, judge."
— Online Etymology Dictionary
Labels: church, newzealand, religion, theology
I had seen her already, swinging a U-turn on a one-way street, parking in a 180 bay with only seconds left to catch the bus to Dunedin. As we take our seats I momentarily consider saying hello and introducing myself in the way that is entirely natural in a German film. But hers is an apparently trivial wrecklessness I have seen before and learned not to touch. I briefly eavesdrop on one half of her phone call, before donning my headphones and pressing play on Whirimako Black. Two seats apart on the back row of a half-empty bus: a proximity which invited a connection, but an emotional chasm that I am still not willing to cover.
The sun sank, bathing roadsigns in its deep golden glow. And the landscape seemed suddenly providential, receptive and feminine. She drew up her legs to her chest and turned sideways on the seat — a posture both available and defensive, both sexual and foetal. To think back a year is now to recognise that things are no longer the same. Aotearoa has made me an ocean-goer for the first time. But as well as excursion, a voyage sometimes gives us, in the most unexpected context, some old thing we thought lost forever. Going home on an untravelled road through unfamiliar towns revealed not violence but benevolence, love: a road laid for the stranger to travel, a house built that the wanderer might rest.
How tragic a thing that humans can feel nostalgia for pain. But in every novelty there is the trace of such a nostalgia. Last week, for the first time in years, I embraced an unrequited love. And for him a few tears rolled down my cheek on that bus last night.
Labels: love, newzealand, relationships
The Judgement of the Liberal (1.11.09)
Proclaiming the Gospel may have much to do with the struggle to make explicit what is at stake in particular human decisions or policies, individual and collective, and in this sense bring in the event of judgement, the revaluation of identities. [...] I am wholly in sympathy with [Lindbeck's] challenges to the "liberal" assumption that this [discernment] is to be achieved by adjusting theology to current fashion, and what I have already said accords in important respects with his call for discernment on the basis of criteria drawn from the specifically Christian narrative ("an intratextually derived eschatology").
But I want, in contrast, to argue that such discernment is not easily intelligible when divorced from the language of transformative judgement, enacted in particular events, that is the central theme of so many of our foundational texts. In short, I don't think that Christian and theological discernment can ever be wholly "contemplative" and "noninterventionist"; I believe it is more importantly exercised in the discernment of what contemporary conflicts are actually about and in the effort both to clarify this and to decide where the Christian should find his or her identity. The Christian is involved in seeking conversion — the bringing to judgement of contemporary struggles, and the appropriation of some new dimension of the transforming summons of Christ in his or her own life.
— Rowan Williams, "The Judgement of the World" in On Christian Theology (my bold)
The Anglican Communion is in one hell of a pickle. And in spite of his brilliant words (you can read the whole essay online), it is happening on Archbishop Rowan Williams' watch. Of course, the polarization of "liberal" and "evangelical" in Anglican churches was a process that occured over a period of decades, ably, if polemically, documented by Michael Hampson in his book Last Rites: The End of the Church of England. Williams cannot be held personally accountable for the fact that we are in our current situation. But both his sympathisers and critics believe he may well be responsible for perpetuating it by appeasing those that, according to the theology he expressed in the passage above, Christians should not be at all hesitant to pass judgement on.
In the light of all this, I suggest that the voices most often identified as "liberal" and "evangelical" have no claim to these names; and Williams knows it, because he, too, places "liberal" in inverted commas, uneasy with its connotations in ordinary language. In the contemporary church the word "liberal" has come to signify the maxim "be nice to everyone", while continuing with the most base of hypocrisies. The Church's theology, scripture, liturgy, religious belief, ethical reasoning, has been reduced by the "liberal" to this catastrophic, bastardised misreading of the gospel. By the same token, "evangelical" has sadly come to denote another bastardised misreading of the same gospel, this time based on a wantonly inadequate reading of the Bible undertaken to justify bigotry. Hampson writes of this situation:
The real tragedy [...] is the complete failure of integrity on the part of the liberals. On the single-question test of orthodoxy — "What is your attitude towards homosexuality?" — their silence and ambivalence show more sympathy for the dangerous cult of contemporary fundamentalism than concern for the truth or for the good of the world and its people. The truth, and the dignity of homosexual people everywhere, have been sacrificed "for the sake of unity" to the cult of fundamentalism. The latest sacrifice at the time of writing is the Anglican Communion, now officially a worldwide anti-homosexual organisation. It has carried out the first two expulsions in its history — the United States and Canada — for refusing to discriminate sufficiently against homosexuals [...] This is not a price worth paying "for the sake of unity": it is a betrayal of the very heart of the gospel.
My anger at this situation, which is never far from boiling over, was further heated by a conversation with someone from the Dunedin Diocesan Office at Selwyn's High Tea a few weeks ago. I had explained why I thought the "evangelical" position on homosexuality was morally bankrupt. The response of my interlocutor was: "But don't you think they believe it?" I was dumbfounded at the sheer spinelessness of this attitude — as if the legitimacy of bigotry should be assessed only by how sincerely it is held. But sadly, it is a spinelessness that has been led from the front. The evangelical wing of the Church must be held responsible for their (successful) attempts to blackmail the entire institution over the appointment of Jeffrey John. But Williams should be held responsible for giving in to these attempts by forcing him to step down. What Williams clearly believes in his own theology is that, in that situation, the gospel called for a moment of judgement. In his own words, "The Christian is involved in seeking conversion — the bringing to judgement of contemporary struggles, and the appropriation of some new dimension of the transforming summons of Christ in his or her own life." Where was that faithful act of judgement in the Jeffrey John saga?
Well, Dunedin has recently faced its own moment of judgement and the result is not particularly encouraging. Dunedin priest Juan Kinnear has given an interview this week quietly lamenting the rise of a "conservative" to the Otago & Southland bishopric. Kinnear's ordination took place a few years ago against the backdrop of similarly ugly scenes to those witnessed during the Jeffrey John saga. The word "conservative" introduces a new dimension to this debate. That any Christian could identify with the term "conservative" is a fact that I find risible. What does the gospel have to say about "conserving" anything? It is a message of generosity, openness, but also judgement. Conservatism, by contrast, is about keeping what you've got, sticking to your thoroughly parochial certainties, and condemning change on the basis of its sheer novelty. It assumes its own penchant for condemnation to be a legitimate expression of the gospel imperative to pass judgement.
Earlier in the same essay, Williams writes:
The Church may be committed to interpreting the world in terms of its own foundational narratives; but the very act of interpreting affects the narratives as well as the world, for good and ill, and it is not restricted to what we usually think of as the theological mainstream. Something happens to the Exodus story as it is absorbed into the black slave culture of America. Something still more unsettling happens to Abraham and Isaac when they have passed through Kierkegaards's hands — or the hands of the agnostic Wilfred Owen, writing in the First World War of how the old man refused to hear the angel "and slew his son, And half the seed of Europe, one by one". [...] Owen's savage transformation of Abraham's sacrifice points up what we might miss in Genesis: the final drawing back from slaughter is an act of obedience as great as or greater than the first decision to sacrifice Isaac. It also points up the impotence of the narrative in a world that has lost the means to forgo its pride. Not sacrificing Isaac is a necessary humiliation; the righteous old men of Europe in 1914 are strangers to such a possibility. This is indeed a discovery of scripture and world, and of the gulf between them; and it is now — or should be — part of what the Church reads in Genesis 22.
Scripture, the gospel itself, is changed by our collective cultural experiences of gay liberation. It is not an experience the gospel-writers could have known; so it is not good enough to fall back on old certainties with the pathetic pseudo-liberal justification, "But it's what they believe". Liberals must fight relentlessly for views from all perspectives to be voiced and heard; but this is not the same as making an apology for relativism. Rather, liberals must then fight equally relentlessly for the values a truly progressive and liberal theology stands for, and directly challenge those whose beliefs betray the gospel. If it cannot do this, it seriously begs the question if these so-called "liberals" stand for anything at all. The kind of "liberal" Hampson describes, the kind of "liberal" I conversed with at High Tea, is really an old-fashioned conservative in some fashionable clothes, more interested in the structural integrity of an antiquated institution than in discerning a truly Christian response. So I give the last word to Williams, in the hope that he might start to enact his own theology.
In judging the world, by its confrontation of the world with its own dramatic script, the Church also judges itself: in attempting to show the world a critical truth, it shows itself to itself as Church also.
Labels: christianity, church, dunedin, homosexuality, newzealand, religion, theology