Monday, June 30, 2008

On this rock... (St Peter's Day)

Based on a sermon given at St Peter's Church, Melbourne (Eastern Hill), June 29 2008

During the mid-twentieth century, excavations underneath the High Altar at St Peter’s Basilica in
Rome uncovered a series of ancient tombs, some pre-Christian and others connected with earlier Churches built on that site.

In the early Christian centuries, places of worship were very often built over the tombs of martyrs. In contrast to some other ancient religious traditions including Judaism, which kept mortal remains at a respectful distance, the bodies of the faithful departed and especially the martyrs were focal points that attracted Christian worship and devotion, their relics witnesses to the faith built on their example.

The Church in Rome has from a very early date commemorated the martyrdom there of Peter, and of Paul, and celebrated their life and witness as heroes of local Christian history. The archaeologists working under St Peter’s Basilica found evidence that might confirm this particular connection; across one red-plastered wall containing a burial niche is a piece of graffiti that seems to say, in Greek, “Peter is within”. The ancient and then more recent Basilicas on that site were, then, literal expressions of the idea of building the Church on Peter.

Knowledge of the fact of Peter’s martyrdom, if not the place, was fundamental to his authority in the ancient Church. Although his imprisonment and death are not recorded in the New Testament, they inform the poignant farewell scene at the end of John’s Gospel, where Jesus predicts Peter’s being bound and led where he does not want to go, and the accounts of the story that Jesus said he would build his Church on the ‘rock’ that was Peter. For ancient as for more recent hearers, these would have evoked his faithful witness and the community born from it.

Later however the Church was to read Peter’s status in a somewhat different and more institutional way – not just in the literal building of Churches on his bones, but particularly by thinking of his leadership not as that of an itinerant apostolic martyr who was in Rome when he died, but as a sort of primordial ecclesiastical bureaucrat who had set up shop there. Yes, we made Peter a bishop.

The question of whether Peter was ever bishop in Rome is less a difficult one, than just the wrong one. In the first few decades of the Church’s life there was a mixture of local and apostolic leaders, whose action and interaction was initially more dynamic than institutional. Some of the local leaders were called “bishops”; but it was the fact that Peter died in Rome, not any local leadership role there, that underlay the association between this first among apostles and the city and Church that have been preeminent in western Christian life.

Yet just as the literal fact of St Peter’s Basilica represents and reminds us of his witness, so too episcopacy, not just in Rome but in the universal Church, has always been related to the same apostolic foundation. This is not just the fact of it or its institutional continuity, but the connection with courageous witness is also supposed to tell us something about what leadership in the Church is to be like.

You have probably noticed that the Anglican world is currently full of meetings, especially of bishops. In just over two weeks the Lambeth Conference will take place, with a large majority but not all of the Anglican bishops in attendance. In Jerusalem last week a coalition of conservative Anglicans, led by prominent prelates, made their own claims about the future of the Church.

A great fourth-century bishop and theologian, Gregory of Nazianzus, is said to have written affectingly about such meetings: “I avoid”, he said, “all gatherings of bishops. One finds there love of money and love of power that beggar description”.

This somewhat jaded ancient perspective and our perhaps confused or discouraged modern ones alike tell us that struggles over preeminence in the Church are not new, and that despite sure foundations of apostolic witness, the edifices of the Church structure may sometimes seem less than edifying. Yet it is not primarily institutional structures by which the Church will be judged, even though they are important, but the authenticity of our witness.

We exist in a fragmented Church – by which I mean not merely the well-publicized rifts within Anglicanism, but the divisions of Christianity as a whole. These are the great scandal and difficulty, not internal Anglican ructions. We Anglicans have had a rather unique calling amid the competing and clashing claims of rival groups, namely a claim to inclusion or comprehensiveness; may it continue to be so. It is understandable then if we are discouraged by the current events, whatever our opinions are about the matters at issue.

Yet it is the authentic and costly lived witness of the Church, not its institutional unity, that is the foundation of its claim to real authority. The rock on which Christ built his Church was a real person whose tradition was bequeathed to real places – but it was his martyrdom, not his management, which underlies the great tradition of the Church that was to emerge after him.

The connection of his example with later bishops, in Rome and elsewhere, is not about so much episcopacy per se as about faithful and courageous witness in such leadership. We do have such genuinely Petrine bishops working among us and for us, close by and far away. They include Geoffrey Robinson, a Roman Catholic bishop risking disapproval for his courageous witness concerning abuse in the Church, and now two new women, Barbara and Kay, who are bishops in our own national Church, and who share in this calling. These and many others are inheritors and stewards of that truly Petrine ministry.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Mitre (Still) Fits Just Fine

Cross-posted (and slightly updated) from my Royal Parade Diary blog, where it seems to have gathered a bit of attention...

In the last two weeks I attended historic services in Perth and Melbourne where Australia's first two female Anglican bishops were consecrated. These were moving and joyful occasions, reflections of Anglican diversity as well as celebrations of the full inclusion of women and men in the three historic orders of Christian ministry.

In Perth, Trinity College alumna Archdeacon Kay Goldsworthy became the first Australian woman to join the episcopate when Archbishop Roger Herft and an impressive array of bishops clad in cope and mitre gathered around her in St George's Cathedral, as the congregation sang the ancient hymn Veni Creator Spiritus. Among the bishops was another pioneer, Victoria Matthews, former Bishop of Edmonton in Canada and now elected Bishop of Christchurch, New Zealand. Laying hands on Kay, Bishop Victoria actually became the first woman to exercise a uniquely episcopal ministry in Australia, just ahead of the new colleague over whom she was praying. Speaking to the congregation, Bishop Victoria reminded us that we were not creating some new species called "woman bishop" but rather calling this woman, and others in future alongside men, to the apostolic ministry.

In Melbourne just over a week later, Canon Barbara Darling was made bishop by another crowd of episcopal colleagues, again including one woman - this time Bishop Kay Goldsworthy herself. This time the group was arrayed in the more sombre black, red and white convocation robes that are the traditional dress of Anglican bishops at Morning or Evening Prayer, but used on this occasion in deference to a "low-Church" sensibility still imposed on St Paul's Cathedral by local ecclesiastical politics. Bishop Barbara was handed a cope and mitre - but the liturgy did not provide her the chance to put them on.

The semiotics of liturgical garb are uniquely complex in Anglicanism, and arguments about them can seem twee or just absurd. However these details are reflections of the more explicit battles being waged in the wider Anglican Communion. While acceptance and inclusion of gay and lesbian members and ministers is the most prominent, the place of women in leadership remains one of them.

The robes worn in Melbourne, or rather the perceived necessity of not wearing cope and mitre, can be taken into two ways. First and positively, they represent the support for women's ministry by low-Church or evangelical Anglicans who often prefer that dress, as well as by the more high-Church or catholic wing arrayed around Bishop Kay in Perth. Bishop Barbara Darling is herself an evangelical, a former student and staff member of Ridley College, but has support and respect across the theological spectrum.

Negatively however, the exclusion or marginalization of "catholic" liturgical dress such as cope and mitre at St Paul's Cathedral, even at a time where more evangelical congregations and ministers in Melbourne are ignoring the minimal dress requirements for all Anglican clergy at public worship (i.e. the "surplice"), is startling. It reminds us that there is a less eirenic agenda, harking back to the Puritan strand of earlier Anglican history, that seeks to exclude aspects of ritual and theology that belong to Anglicanism's more catholic side, as well as women's leadership.

The tension is reflected in major upcoming meetings across the Anglican Communion. Bishops Barbara, Kay and Victoria will all attend the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops in July. Some Australian and other conservative bishops have refused to attend Lambeth, and will only go to the "Global Anglican Futures Conference", where conservatives are seeking to articulate and build their alternative Anglican future. Although there will be more women at GAFCON than at Lambeth, there is a sort of give-away line in one authoritative apologia for the new meeting:

"Bishops and their wives, and clergy and laity, including the next generation of young leaders, will attend GAFCON"[1]

"Bishops and their wives" - the wives presumably also being among the laity (and perhaps even clergy?) - betrays not simply a male but a patriarchal mind-set, which must seem highly dubious to many evangelical as well as to liberal and catholic Anglicans.

I should add that whilen I am not sympathetic to the theological vision of GAFCON, I believe Anglicans of other cast should be willing to learn from the initiative it represents, and be open to such learning and cooperation as its actual results allow or demand.

Yet while the mainstream of Anglicanism lacks vision in many places in the West particularly, I believe history will show that the inclusion of women and men in ministry is a crucial area where we got it right. When women were first ordained deacon in 1986 and priest in 1992 there was enormous tension - even a bomb scare. By contrast, the events of the last few weeks in Perth and Melbourne have seemed the natural extension of an experience now widely-shared among Australian Anglicans, of productive and faithful leadership in ministry by women, alongside men.

The onus now lies on opponents of women's participation, very many participants in GAFCON included, to justify their own positions. Their arguments continue to exist, and their consciences must still be respected - but their capacity to dictate terms of exclusion has waned. We should be wary of attempts to distract or divide the Anglican Communion by those whose opposition to the proven and indeed compelling case for full inclusion of women is being obscured by the more contentious matter of including gays and lesbians.

Barbara Harris, the first woman made bishop in the Anglican Communion, said to those gathered at her conscration "The Mitre fits just fine!" It was a statement about more than vesture. I have already seen that Bishop Kay's mitre fits - and look forward to seeing the newer Bishop Barbara's mitre on as well.

[1] Canon Chris Sugden, in the Church Times of January 11 2008.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Three ways of being Church

Another extract from the 2008 Morpeth Lecture...

I suggest there are now three paradigms of Church distinctly at work in the Anglican Communion, locally and globally. By ‘paradigms’ I mean ways of thinking and acting which, whether or not systematically articulated, have real significance in informing the practice and belief of Anglicans about what ‘Church’ is. And in this instance my interest lies in identifying how these paradigms understand the actual structures of Anglicanism, and are now helping generate behaviour within them.

First there is a ‘Confessional’ paradigm, more or less familiar from protestant ecclesiology, which views the Church as an invisible fellowship of believers. In contemporary Anglicanism, the advocates of a Confessional view tend to see the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion as doctrinally constitutive, an Anglican equivalent to the Westminster or Augsburg Confessions. While grounded in the protestant Reformation and always a thread within Anglicanism, this view has emerged with a new and problematic force through some who now sense the possibility of an Anglicanism defined by, rather than just accepting of, what it presumes to call “biblical Christianity”. Although still a small minority in global Anglicanism, this ecclesiological Confessionalism will find a new vehicle in the so-called Global Anglican Future Conference and related networks.

The second Anglican ecclesiological paradigm I will call ‘Institutional’. The proponents or inhabitants of the Institutional paradigm see the visible unity of the Anglican Communion in the same terms otherwise applicable to the universal Church. The ideas of unity, mission, ministry, and whatever else must be characteristic of the Church as a whole, are thus applied directly to the structures of the Anglican Communion itself. This Institutional paradigm is reflected in recent international developments such as the Windsor Report and the resultant proposal for an Anglican Covenant.

The thematic index of the Windsor Report, the 2004 document summarizing the work of the Commission established by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the previous year, includes listings for Authority, Bishops, Canon Law, Homosexuality, Scripture and Theological Development among others, but none for “Church”.[1] This omission is revealing; and what it reveals is a sort of elision or confusion of an understanding of the Anglican Communion itself, and a doctrine of the Church. The reader will find that the term “Communion in Christ” is used to articulate a doctrine of the Church in the Windsor Report, and that this is done in significant and interesting enough terms. Yet the choice of the term “Communion”, however theologically powerful, becomes a device for the Report to slide from a discussion of what Communion in Christ is—what being Church or being Christian is, one would have assumed—to what the Anglican Communion is. There is no account of how that provisional and partial ecclesial reality which Anglicanism would have to be, from either classical protestant or Catholic points of view, relates to the universal Church. The assumption of the Windsor Report seems to be merely that if ‘Communion in Christ’ means certain things, then ‘Anglican Communion’ does too. A similar argument could be made for the way in which the biblical language of 'Covenant' has been applied in that process emerging from the Windsor Report to the institutional challenges of contemporary Anglicanism, without an altogether convincing transition.

I do not mean to suggest that this ecclesiological weakness invalidates efforts in global Anglicanism intended to foster understanding or unity. But I do mean to suggest that the basis for these may not be as theologically strong as their proponents assume, and that more and different thinking is necessary.

The third paradigm I wish to propose is more elusive, so I will start not with a label but a description. I believe that there are many professedly evangelical as well as catholic Anglicans for whom ‘Anglicanism’ describes a large network of Christians who, within the universal Church constituted by baptism into a common faith, share above all a particular history. This history has various versions, with narrative threads which all lead back to the Church of England, directly or otherwise. That history has various markers: liturgical, architectural, theological, and more. Few Anglican groups in the global diaspora have identical approaches to all these things, but there are few or no Anglicans who share none of them. Their sense of the Church as a whole is defined not by this history alone, but above all by baptism into a common faith.

The first or Confessional paradigm views the set of structures and communities that constitutes Anglicanism is only partly an adequate manifestation of Church, even in the provisional and visible sense. The second or Institutional tends to identify Anglicanism and Church, at least functionally. This third or ‘Historical’ paradigm resembles the second in viewing the structures of the Church as inherently significant, and is hence essentially catholic in mode rather than protestant, but shares with the Confessional paradigm a sense of Anglicanism as a partial and provisional manifestation of something larger, to which it must always be related.