Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Anglicanisms across the Atlantic

The last week’s developments in Anglicanism on both sides of the Atlantic have led to fears that after months and years of posturing, things may now be unravelling more rapidly, whether by accident or design. The Melbourne Age ran a story on December 19th referring to ‘severe shocks’ and which quoted me a couple of times (as a ‘leading Liberal’!), perhaps without shedding too much light on the subject or on my own views. I am breaking my general blog silence about Anglican Communion affairs (there’s far too much already being said out there, and far more heat then light generated) to offer a little more to the curious. My intention here is not to address the issues of theology or ethics that are so difficult for many, across various divides; it is more to muse on how existing structures and emerging tendencies seem to be working in the two settings of the USA and the UK.

The first key development of the last week was the release in the UK of a document called ‘A Covenant for the Church of England’, issued by leaders of a collection of evangelical groups. The other was a set of votes from parishes in the Diocese of Virginia to leave the Episcopal Church and affiliate themselves to CANA, once billed as the ‘Convocation of Anglican Nigerians in America’ but now by sleight of hand simply the ‘Convocation of Anglicans in North America’.

What is most striking about these developments is not really that they signal any uniform crisis in global Anglicanism, but rather just how differently they show things are playing out in the UK and USA.

The purported ‘Covenant’ sponsored by key figures in English groups including Reform, the Church Society and the presumptuously-named Anglican Mainstream is a highly tendentious document which has been savaged by moderate evangelicals, notably the Bishop of Durham (N. T. Wright) and another UK evangelical group, Fulcrum. Most of what needs to be said has been said in their commentaries, which are available on line. The document is a rather clumsy attempt to use the language of ‘Covenant’ to promote a particular agenda, not for the Church of England at all but for elements of it whose conservatism makes it hard for them to live and work directly within the existing structures. This ‘Covenant’ is not a means for Anglicans to agree together, but an extended shibboleth, designed to identify, separate and galvanize those of a very particular mind.

Tom Wright’s reaction strikes me as both necessary and at certain points very apt, but the very fact of it, from whom it came and where it was addressed, is arguably the most revealing thing. In the UK the fringe conservative elements are misreading the global and local situations, and marginalizing themselves over and against those who, like Wright, are of the ‘Windsor’ line – unhappy with the American Episcopalians, and/or conservative on various issues of gender and sexuality, but loyal Anglicans who want their own Church and Communion to have a future. Of course the very name ‘Anglican Mainstream’ reveals a group determined to believe its own publicity, however implausible. The actual mainstream in the UK may not be particularly liberal, but it has a strong and ecclesiologically-serious (if I can put it this way) centre. Those who believe in the Church will continue to reject the actions of any who regard their own agendas as necessitating separatist action, whether progressive or conservative.

The situation in Virginia and in the USA generally is harder to interpret. While it is immensely serious, and taken in conjunction with the recent actions in the Diocese of San Joaquin might signal an acceleration of fragmentation, it remains true that the individuals and communities which have left or are threatening to do so are incoherent, not a split so much as splinters.

Over recent years a series of people have left the Episcopal Church for odd trans-national relationships, sometimes looking to connect with Singapore or Rwanda (as in 2000), or now to join the quasi-Nigerian off-shoot. This latter has somewhat disingenuously morphed, to the dismay of at least some Nigerian Anglicans who initially supported it, from a pastoral network of expatriate Africans into a power-base in the US for Archbishop Peter Akinola’s attempts at establishing himself as a sort of alternative to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Still other American conservatives remain uncomfortably within the Episcopal Church, often putting a degree of trust in over-simplified pictures of the rest of that Anglican world which they think may rescue them. In particular they continue to look to the Church of England, not having abandoned hope in its obstinate moderation. The rhetoric of this conservatism often suggests an attempt to align with English moderates, rather than with the likes of Reform (whom they would find somewhat bizarre, like their cousins in Sydney). By labelling themselves as ‘Anglican’ rather than ‘Episcopal’, or by wrapping themselves in the rhetoric of ‘Communion’, these straitened Episcopalians think to connect with those such as Wright who clearly sympathize with them on some key issues.

At the Falls Church in Virginia, which just voted to leave the Episcopal Church, they are clearly N. T. Wright fans – he’s regularly cited as an authoritative commentator in sermons on their web site. Oddly, Virginia Bishop Peter Lee from whom they have just separated, is not so unlike Tom Wright, at least ecclesiologically. In their own settings they are both centrists, and they both have significant respect from those who hold a variety of opinions about (e.g.) human sexuality. Lee has a good relationship with George Carey, whom he previously invited to minister to congregations such as the Falls Church. While the people leading the charge away from the Episcopal Church at Falls Church probably wouldn’t see Peter Lee as their worst enemy, I am not at all sure they are aware of the irony that they are fleeing communion with – among others – the same kind of people close at hand, whose communion they crave when it is on the other side of the world.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

“Is the Bible Enough?”

Sermon for the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul at the Chapel of St Paul’s College, University of Sydney, June 29th 2006.

Ss Peter and Paul, apostles and martyrs, are odd companions, crowded into a single commemoration today despite the fact that they seem to have disagreed often and deeply; what brings them together in the memory of the Church is the tradition that both were martyred under the Emperor Nero in the 60s of the first century, not any indication that they reached a particular level of consensus.

Those who have been following recent events in the Anglican Communion will note that, if Peter and Paul had been Anglicans today they would have been facing claims of irrevocable splits, and would have been mooted as having to accept status as “apostles in association” rather than as full constituents of new international apostolic bodies! So of course the fact that the Church managed to keep them on the same day, and on the same page or pages of scripture, gives the lie to claims that doctrinal differences constitute some kind of split.

Amid those current Anglican dramas, the Archbishop of Sydney yesterday stated that “this whole controversy is, at a fundamental level, about the authority of the Bible, and the way in which we learn and follow God’s will in fellowship with each other”. He may be right about both these things, but not I suspect for the right reasons. In any case, these questions of the authority of the Bible and the character of our fellowship are certainly worth asking.

Before we had the Bible we had scriptures - “Bible” itself means “books”, not “a book”. And before they could be cheaply printed in a single volume and generally read, at least by educated westerners, the writings contained in the Bible were an eclectic collection of inspired writings which, however authoritative, belonged to a specific community, defined not by literacy but by faith and practice.

The Bible, as we have come to call it, is a modern invention, a compressed and homogenized version of that diverse ancient library. The idea of the Bible as a single entity is far more dependent on the technology of the printing press and the mass literacy of the industrialized world which between them have created the notion of a single book, than upon the actual content of these diverse experiences and thoughts of first century apostolic heroes that are reflected in its pages.

This modern Bible is of course a remarkable gift, in its capacity to be read and used by so many. At key points in history, especially the Reformations of the 16th century and the rise of critical scholarship in the 20th, the Bible has emerged as a renewed source of challenge and hope to us who are its custodians, as the Word it contains speaks loudly and clearly, challenging the complacency of religious institutions and the cynicism of individuals.

But there are times when the cost of that compression and homogenization implied by the form of a single book, with the resultant emphasis on words and texts and ideas, must give pause for thought. Printing and literacy might well be celebrated, whether the Bible is their object or not – but they are not determining factors for the meaning or interpretation of scripture. It is contrary to the heart of Christian identity to claim as some Christians and even remarkably some Anglicans now do on the basis of this unbiblical (!) notion of “Bible”, not only that scripture has priority in matters of doctrine, but even that it can provide a complete blueprint for the whole of Christian life, even when read outside the historic life of the Church.

At such points that Bible seems to have become as rigid and as dated as its worst interpreters. Perhaps the crisis of the Bible today is most powerfully reflected in the matter of the da Vinci Code. While the success of this mediocre piece of pulp fiction certainly gives pause for thought in itself, it is to me more worrisome to consider the way certain parts of the Church have reacted against it. The appearance of this other book, with its own claims to presenting “facts”, has been seized upon as creating a contest of book against book, and thus reducing God’s kingdom to being a better or truer version of pulp fiction than Dan Brown’s. This is somewhat like claiming the Bible has a higher moral sense than “Big Brother”.

We often find this problematic approach to scripture couched in terms of statements what “the Bible says”, objectifying this rich and complex library, or by calling content of the Bible “God’s word”. To call scripture “God’s word” is, I think, a good and certainly a very traditional thing, so long as we understand that God’s Word is more than scripture. The Word of God is not a book but the whole of God’s activity in the world; John’s Gospel calls Jesus himself God’s eternal Word, and according to the anonymous Letter to the Hebrews, “the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword…” It is common, however, to hear the identification made quite differently, implying an exclusive and fixed identity of written text and divine Word. To do this, rather than to seek the Word in the text and beyond, steps far beyond anything recognizable as historic Christianity.

Read this way, objectified, “it” condones slavery, if certain passages are read in certain ways; “it” condemns homosexuality, if certain passages are read in certain ways. In fact there is no “it” – there are “they”, the authors whose experience of God we must grapple with to hear what we still affirm as God’s Word, even in the midst of claims, understandings and events which are now to be viewed critically. Our attitude to these texts was never meant always to be one of immediate submission – sometimes they must be struggled with, at other times joined with in dialogue, at other times contemplated with awe. So, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for instance, the lived experience of the Church meant that the Bible was read by William Wilberforce and others in such a way that the central Gospel message of freedom and love and fullness of life that comes with Jesus Christ shone forth. In doing thus they contributed to the abolition of slavery, and rid pro-slavery passages of their power. So too now, the lived experience of the Church must enable us to deal with misogynist and homophobic tendencies that would use the Bible as a tool of oppression, and we must thus oppose the exclusion and marginalization of women, and of gay and lesbian people.


Concern about fundamentalism is hardly new, but it has usually been couched in terms of how we read the text, whether we interpret the Bible in literal or more subtle terms. I want to suggest something here about the conditions necessary to reading the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments adequately, which is not quite a matter of interpretive subtlety or competition between literal and other readings. I want us to ask whether the Bible is by itself enough to define and constitute Christian faith and life, whether we read it in a sophisticated or other way.

Peter and Paul may assist us to reflect on this. Between them, Peter and Paul account for over half the New Testament, either as subjects of narratives or as authors, real or supposed, of the documents themselves. Yet their earliest admirers did not have the advantage of knowing them through the New Testament, because there was of course no such thing as a New Testament in earliest Christianity. Stories of Peter and Letters of Paul came to be revered, not because the content of the texts conformed to some external standard of doctrine, but because of the reputations of the heroic authors. Had content been the sole criterion for ascribing inspiration, Paul’s letters in particular might not have made it. They were worrisome for many – the author of the Second Letter of Peter, probably not Peter himself, damns them with faint praise, saying of the other apostle’s writings that “There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures”.

This is one of the earliest indications we have – from within the emerging pieces of what was to become New Testament itself – that even when it did come to exist, a Bible would not itself be enough to guarantee its own adequate understanding, let alone enough to determine the whole of Christian practice. And as 2 Peter reflects, it was already becoming clear that texts were malleable things, capable of serving different interests, and yielding different meanings. No early Christian author, however much they regarded new apostolic writings as inspired and authoritative, dreamt that this emerging group of texts concerning God’s new covenant or New Testament described or provided everything essential to their own reading of them, let alone everything essential to the being of the community that preceded them, and had gathered them.

So even before the canon of scripture was defined, even in the second century, Christian thinkers from across the Mediterranean world, Irenaeus in Gaul, Clement in Egypt, Tertullian in Carthage, followed on the concerns of the author of 2 Peter and addressed the tendency to imagine that inspired scripture made its own authority. Scripture was not enough; it had to be read in the context of the one and only historic community, amidst whose faith and practice it was formed.

This principle for interpreting the Bible in the Church, developed by these so-called Church Fathers even before the scriptural canon itself was fully-formed, was known as the “rule of faith” or “rule of truth”. The Rule amounts to a set of theological affirmations, ethical precepts and liturgical practices which, while in harmony with these writings were not entirely dependent on them, and in fact were often older. The Church which had the right to read and use scripture was the Church that bore witness to the triune God, that baptized in that name, that centred its life on the Eucharistic meal celebrated in Jesus’ memory and in which they experienced his real presence, that served the poor, the widow and the orphan. It had done these things before there were proof texts to support them. A purported Church that wrapped itself in the Bible but ignored these things which emerged alongside it and guided its compilation would for these have been no Church at all. These Church Fathers, as they have come to be known, were clear that one need not even debate scripture with those who did not accept the “rule of faith”, a set of practices as well as of beliefs, as the condition for picking up and reading scripture. The message is clear; without the Church, the historic and spirit-filled community within which it was formed, the authority of scripture is lost.

Of course a Bible without a Church is nevertheless attractive; like the religionless Jesus who is the other great myth of fundamentalist Christianity, the Bible can be idealized in as many different ways as there are readers. It is far easier to deal with books than with real people. And given that the Bible contains a complexity and diversity far greater than any professional student of literature or history could ever really master, it is quite possible to get lost in it; then, in the midst, to find it in what one wants and to ignore the difficult and inconvenient.

The crisis of interpretation today seems to me less one of sophistication or subtlety than of context and community. Fundamentalism is entirely capable of enormous sophistication, and co-option of such elements of the most rigorous studies as suit it. The problem is the premise, namely that the authority of the Bible is always presented as entirely independent of the historically-formed community which gave it being, to which it belongs and which belongs to it. This can also be true almost as much of the more liberal and critical scholarship to which the likes of me mostly subscribe, when we imagine similarly that the Bible should be read only in terms that lie within the text, but not in terms of the community which gathered up these fragments of apostolic witness and saw fit to preserve them for its own use.

What then of biblical authority and the nature of our fellowship? While some are quite happy to declare the Anglican Communion split over biblical authority, the reality is that real biblical authority is compromised by attempts to define the Anglican Communion or the Church generally as a community of the like-minded. The unity that Christians and Anglicans in particular seek is not to be found in doctrinal conformity. Peter and Paul did not embody it, the Bible does not contain it. What they did embody, what the Bible does contain, is a unity in diversity that is infinitely more powerful than mere agreement. Across these two martyrs’ lives, and within this strange and powerful spirit-filled book’s pages, are irresolvable differences, humanly speaking, just as there are across our broken and divided world; but the mystery of unity given by the grace of God is not the same as conformity or homogeneity. The unity we seek is reflected in the common witness, even to death, of two men who disagreed, but who both witnessed to Jesus Christ, and in the life of a communion of Churches that disagrees. Such unity as we celebrate for Peter and Paul comes from the cross of Jesus Christ, to which scripture attests and by which scripture must be judged. The Word of God is there – and hope for the world.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Christianity in a Postmodern Empire: Rival, Ally or Coping Mechanism?

This is a draft of my initial contribution to a dialogue between N. T. Wright and myself held in Melbourne on March 24th. The full event was recorded for ABC radio’s Encounter. The Bishop spoke first; +Tom’s own thoughts may of course be a part an eventual radio presentation, but for the meantime interested readers will find some similar points in a talk given last year and transcribed here.[Update 21 June 2007: ABC Radio National will broadcast an edited version this coming Sunday. See this link].

Putting Tom Wright and Andrew McGowan together may well seem the ultimate in postmodern relativism, but it is good to be here. I found much to agree with in Bishop Tom’s comments, but perhaps in looking for a few things to disagree about I may invoke that principle, that to be really orthodox it is necessary to preach one heresy one week and the opposite one the next.

In this spirit I would like to say one or two things in apparent, if not profound, disagreement with Bishop Tom, about the relationship between Christianity and postmodernism the movement or tendency, and postmodernity the broader social and economic and intellectual reality. To the extent that postmodernity seems to involve a mere collapse into relativism, I of course would agree with Bishop Tom that a cacophony of conflicting voices and agendas does further the agenda of the global "empire" – when truth may seem unobtainable, people may shrug and move along, rather than work to find and do the truth – and the Church must speak differently.

Yet if that sort of relativism is common in our postmodern world, or in the West, that is not really postmodern-ism. And whether the different way the Church must speak is ‘rivalry’ however, I doubt; and I will return to this. And while I think one could make an intelligent case for any of the three alternatives (rival, ally, coping mechanism) that today’s topic offers for constructing the relationship between Christianity and postmodernity, I want to focus on the notion of postmodern and the Christian as allies, both for good and ill.

I actually take the central themes of postmodernism, while notoriously elusive, to include suspicion of absolute truth claims, and the consequent suggestion that the meaning of speech, language, discourse, or a story, is not separable from the speaker and the hearer and their interaction. Meaning is thus not completely stable; it depends on context. We don’t just learn new things about Paul's letters from N. T. Wright, New Testament scholar, because he a better scholar than Calvin or Aquinas or Augustine; the circumstances are different and we see different things in the encounter with the text. But this is not the same as relativism, in which any one voice or opinion or reading is as good as another. Rather, postmodernism tends to ask who is speaking, who has power in a given situation, and what interests are being served by what is said.

Although Christians will continue to narrate a story that claims to explain all other stories, the suspicion that postmodernism displays towards all attempts to create a grand theory is arguably a useful ally. For one thing there is a certain affinity between the postmodern suspicion of absolute truth claims and the many and varied ways in which Christian theology insists on the provisional character of truth claims, from the polemic against idolatry to the theology of the cross – not least as presented in the stark and confronting terms of Mark’s Gospel which those of us who use the discipline of the Lectionary are reading this year. Systems and structures that claim completeness, order and comprehensiveness, including and perhaps especially ecclesiastical ones, are to be viewed with suspicion. Although we may ask how effective such an incoherent set of suspicions may be in our circumstances, I think we cannot dismiss them. This is just one way in which postmodernism may inform and challenge and refine a Christian theology that takes its origins in the cross seriously, as Bishop Tom seeks to do, and confronts the "empire", not merely as a competing ideology, a rival, but as something perhaps altogether different.

But I do not think that the Church has quite earned the right to play the prophet to a postmodern empire, even if it has an inescapable responsibility to do so. Here I am not referring merely to the paradoxical need to say that the Church, like its members, is simultaneously sinner and sanctified; I mean specifically that the discourses and practices of power that characterize contemporary Christianity might be said to pay little more than lip service to any alternative configuration of power presented in the cross.

So I think we must take both what you yourself say Tom, and what postmodernism suggests, seriously enough to apply a hermeneutic of suspicion to the Church and its practices relative to that empire, both in its subtle cultural manifestations and in its more blunt political forms. We can’t simply say that the claim of the Church to have a story that explains and relativizes all others makes us exempt from a searching examination of our uses of power.

In suggesting such a critique I am not speaking primarily of the Christianity of cathedrals and choirs, which, with all due respect to its practitioners and advocates (of whom I am one at least part of the time), is rapidly passing into the place of interesting cultural undercurrent or quirky counter-cultural nostalgia.

The Christianity or Christianities which are emerging in the postmodern reality are often very true to the nature of the empire, however much it suits them to denounce some aspects of it. (I leave, reluctantly, to one side the indications of the emergence of a real and powerful religious right in Australia which are now, I think, unmistakeable.) Postmodernity – meaning here the set of social and political realities of our time rather than the self-conscious intellectual movements or tendencies of postmodernism - is market-driven and consumer-oriented, more so than previous versions of capitalism; and we are seeing, almost inevitably, Christianities that provide for the pre-existing and preconceived demands of prospective consumers, rather than seeking to form members in a common set of practices as the ancient Church did.

The very diversity of these Christianities may in some ways be their saving grace, for they are so different that they cannot all be making the same mistakes. So “fresh expressions of Church” as they are being called, are characteristically post-modern; and while they are producing creative and authentic worship and service and witness, they are also producing self-serving and crass forms of life, of necessity: for the existing needs of the spiritual consumer are paramount here.

It is interesting to note that in Australian Anglicanism this very fluid and consumer-focussed approach is often linked to a strident dogmatic Calvinism that maintains very “modern” sensibilities about truth; the Bible is absolute, although of course interpreted in a very specific and sometimes quite idiosyncratic way, and this defensive Biblicism is linked to a startling indifference to the concrete elements of ritual and other practice – apart from a form of conservative morality – that characterize the historic Christian community. One might even claim that the most dynamic and successful Churches are often taking the cross – and even Tom Wright’s powerful paradoxical articulation of the cross – and then turning it into the ideological content of a quest for power.

Rivalry? What I fear is that the most stridently dogmatic forms of Christianity are saying exactly what the Empire needs them to say – and by their claims to a certainty that wraps moral conservatism in the arms of personal fulfilment provides exactly the ideology – or an ideology – the Empire needs or wants. They are not, in fact, nearly rival enough, but exactly the coping mechanism that suits the Empire. But whether “rivalry” is what we need instead of this sort of unholy alliance I am not sure – the Christian answer may actually lie in a refusal to compete. For surely the power of the cross is emptied in quests for power.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Getting Apostolic

Sermon for the Feast of St Matthias

(Acts 1:14-17, 20-26; Ps 84; Phil 3:13-21; Jn 15:9-17)

We have heard today that “the lot fell on Matthias”, but we don’t know much about him after he picked it and himself up. Even by the standards of those entries in Books of Saints which most of us have looked up from time to time when called upon to speak or simply to think about one of the apostolic heroes of the earliest Church, to the effect that “little is known of the later life of Saint so-and-so”, Matthias seems to drop out of sight with particular speed.

He is, admittedly, the joint hero of the apocryphal Acts of Andrew and Matthias in the City of the Cannibals, an exciting but not very edifying work which seems to have been some third century Christian author’s attempt to interest his teenage children in Church history or ancient geography by having the apostles go to exotic places and take part in ripping yarns. In fact such apocryphal travelogues are evidence for the confusion and embarrassment of the ancient Christians about the disappearance from the map of figures like Matthias. A glance through the pages of the NT reveals that the twelve have little significance beyond this point of the narrative, even in what we have come to call the Acts of the Apostles. What then does it mean to remember the apostle Matthias, or to profess belief in the apostolicity of the Church, as the creed has us do?

The shadowy figure of the apostle Matthias is illumined somewhat, if in silhouette or negative, by the contrast inevitably drawn with the figure of Judas, his much more colourful predecessor. The comparisons of the first reading are unmistakable, although the lectionary attempted to restrain the text of Acts by leaving out the verses depicting the graphic fate of Judas, complete with the description of him “burst open in the middle and his bowels gushed out.”

What is good about being the apostle Matthias depends somehow on the dangers of being the not-quite apostle Judas. Matthias is chosen because like Judas he was one “who had accompanied [them] during all the time that Jesus went in and out among [them], beginning from the baptism of John”, as Peter had put it when drawing up this job description for the vacancy in the apostolic circle. Even beyond this criterion of continuity, Judas more than Matthias was one of that inner group having the benefit of that intimacy that comes to mind when we hear Jesus talk of “abiding”, of being one of those whom Jesus now calls friends rather than servants because we know our master is doing, part of that community whose founding members they were remembered as.

Yet for all his apparent apostolic advantages, Judas’ choice is separation. For the likes of Dante, speculating about the future of Judas was to describe the nadir of eternal desolation and suffering. This also has a sort of geographical or architectural aspect in Dante, who depicts the Inferno as a vast complex of alienation, a sort of anti-city where there are many people but no community, and with Judas, along with others who have betrayed bonds of love and trust, in its ninth and deepest circle. There are those who from time to time have wondered aloud about whether the grace of God could not extend even to Judas, and imagine his ultimate restoration to the community. But even this serves to underline what the difference is; it is not fame or talent that makes an apostle, or even a personal intimacy with Jesus (which Judas had), but belonging, “abiding”, committing oneself to the faithful community. The deepest and worst of sin is alienation – from God and one another. The height and the best of salvation is love – God’s love for us and ours for each other in God.

If the Gospel has a future it is in “abiding”, in the circle, Church. By “Church” I do not mean the idea of a cluster of Christians earnestly abiding with the like-minded or the close at hand. By Church I mean that whole messy inconsistent community of pilgrims through history, that traces its faith not merely to a good idea once read in a book but to the living stones who were built, course after course, row after row, some famously and some anonymously, into the great, rambling, difficult edifice of the City of God. We cannot start again.

For the truth is that it is quite another city than that of the ‘cannibals’ that grants Matthias his real significance:

It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites; on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. (Rev 21)

We do not yet experience that city in its totality; but as we journey toward it we are, paradoxically, within as its builders, adding rows and courses on what went before. Even though we face enormous challenges in making that city habitable for new generations; even though some of its inhabitants imagine that they have created ‘mission-shaped’ gated communities that will appeal more to today’s spiritual house-hunters; despite all this, we are really just one city, one body, one living tradition inhabited by the Holy Spirit in mysterious and messy ways, founded on the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus the cornerstone.

Any Gospel that pretends to emerge and flourish otherwise is not that apostolic one, however well it reads the market. Any Gospel that offers individuals salvation apart from the challenge and promise of Church is not the apostolic one, however much more attractive it seems for its isolation of faith from history. To study theology is to study the architecture of this living city, past and present; to immerse ourselves lovingly and critically in its living past, and to commit ourselves to its future which is yet to be seen. I celebrate with you, as we begin another academic year, our membership of this school of craft, this guild of builders, this small corner of the one apostolic foundation.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Diakonia: Phoebe, Ancient Greek Cups of Tea, and the Gospel

Sermon given at the Ordination of Deacons, St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne, February 4th 2006

Twenty years ago less five days, on February 9th 1986, eight deacons were made here in this Cathedral. Many of the ingredients were the same: candidates, families, friends, bishops, clergy - although this time we hope there won’t be a bomb scare. They were, of course, the first women duly ordained as deacons in the Anglican Church of Australia. Some are no longer with us, having gone on to higher things (one has gone to Perth, which is not quite as good); I salute them all.

Some of those being made deacon today are too young to remember those events; but they are far from being a matter of archival interest. For the Church into whose sacred ministry these ten men and women are about to be ordained is still engaged in an unfinished process of reflection and action about the participation of women and men in the ministry of the Church, including the respective roles of deacons, presbyters and bishops. The character of that reflection is relevant not only to what we do here today, but what we will be doing in two weeks time as we come together as a Diocesan community to reflect on the nature of the ministry of bishop, and the discernment of just who God may be calling to be the next Archbishop of Melbourne.

It is impossible to ignore the contrast between the diversity of this group of five men and five women, representative, not only in gender but in training, experience, and gifts, of the richness of this Diocesan community, and on the other hand the limited scope given to those who have been entrusted with bringing a list of candidates for Archbishop. I think those who celebrated new ministries here in 1986 might have been surprised – not to say appalled - to think we would still, twenty years later, not be giving ourselves the opportunity even to consider duly qualified women for election as bishop.

When those eight women were made deacon here in 1986 we were at a relatively early stage in rediscovering the distinct functions and purposes of deacons in general, as well as the unmistakeable participation of women in the diaconate and other ministries in ancient times. We read and re-read scripture, and suddenly noticed women as well as men in the New Testament performing functions described by the Greek word diakonia, a term used in the New Testament to refer to aspects of the work of Christ himself and of the apostles and others. Some of these are given the title “diakonos” – from which we get “deacon” – for instance Phoebe, who was lurking the whole time in Romans 16:1, called the diakonos of the Church of Cenchreae near Corinth, and also described a patron or benefactor of Paul’s, commended by him to the Church at Rome in his letter to them.

Twenty years ago most of what we said theologically about deacons was to do with service, and to some extent we imagined Phoebe in these terms too. We had been taught that diakonia took its meaning from sayings and stories like that of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. For some, that supposed fundamental symbolism of the diaconate as menial service meshed with admission of women to the diaconate, and that order only, as reinforcing a view of subordination. In the historical imagination Phoebe was being allowed to make cups of ancient Greek tea – a good thing, by the way – but little more.

More recent examination of the language of the New Testament suggests that diakonia is to be understood not as service in the menial sense, drudgery divine as it were, but as authoritative service, such as that of an ambassador or delegate: powerful, representative, facilitating action on behalf of another – typically, of God. So when Jesus speaks about the service of the Son of Man who came “not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many”, he is presenting himself not as our servant (this time at least) but as God’s diakonos, the revealer of God’s mysterious power, and his saving work as the task that he enacts. Jesus’ service, in this instance at least, consists of radical yet powerful obedience to the will of God.

What then of deacons? Deacons – supervisors of these ordinands take particular note - are not there to do the ministerial tasks no-one else wants. While they may often have a special role binding up the broken hearted and healing the sick, they do so not because this is their sole prerogative, but because they are to exercise various ministries on God’s behalf, and of behalf of the bishop and the Church too – in liturgy, in preaching the Gospel, and in caring for God’s people. Their title does not indicate subservience; it indicates a delegation of full authority to do all these things. As we look at the ancient Church, deacons sometimes exercised greater authority than presbyters, nd often became bishops – I have warned these ordinands not to get any ideas about the upcoming Episcopal election, as I’m sure the list is more or less settled…

So the first-century Christian Phoebe, who twenty years ago was a model for us of the possibility of women’s participation in the diaconate, her sandaled foot barely stuck in the door of ordained ministry, now looks rather different. It is actually not clear that she held a permanent, ordained office, or indeed whether anyone did at this very early stage. But she was representative, ambassador, of the Church of Cenchreae to the Church at Rome – and not under anyone else’s authority. She was, from what we can tell, likely that Church’s most prominent leader. Twenty years after we made her a model woman deacon, it turns out Phoebe was also actually a pretty good model for a first-century woman bishop.

Well, it might be preferable to some if we forgot this stuff and got on with the point of preaching the Gospel. But in fact this is the point – who will preach the Gospel? Who will, under the Spirit’s guidance, exercise the gift and burden of proclaiming the Gospel inside and outside the Church? I am delighted to be among those bringing these ten, ready to be bold and fully-authorized ambassadors for Christ, proclaiming his reconciling ministry, his death and resurrection and the hope of the Church for our future life in him to our broken and divided world; but as we pray the gifts of the Spirit on them, let us also pray that across the brokenness of the Church, all those whom the Spirit is calling to preach the Gospel with boldness may be nurtured for their diverse ministries, lay and ordained, men and women, so that world may indeed believe in the one who sent Jesus Christ.

Let us in doing so give thanks that these men and women have responded to this call, and pray that they and others whom we call to various ministries, including that of bishop, will not impede the Spirit’s call to men and women to proclaim, teach, pastor and exercise authority at all levels in the diverse and dynamic Church we are called to be.

[Note: My debt to the scholarly work of John N. Collins will be apparent to some. See Diakonia: Reinterpreting the Ancient Sources (Oxford, 1990)].