Thursday, October 22, 2009

Mixed Blessings on Anglican Road to Rome


[This appears also as the lead article in Eureka Street for October 23 '09]

There has been a wide range of responses so far, many of them understandably emotional, to the announcement that structures for Anglicans who wish full communion with the Roman Catholic Church are being prepared. In Britain the stakes are particularly high, since the timing of the move will affect current conversations within the Church of England about women bishops and how to accommodate dissenters.

Most of the focus has been on Anglicans, and particularly the conservative Anglo-Catholics who are likely to seek such unity. These have grown into a distinct strand of Anglicanism since the 19th century Oxford Movement, which sought first a revival of Catholic piety and theology drawing on both medieval English and later Roman sources, and ultimately led to the appearance of a movement focussing on liturgy and spirituality of great aesthetic and theological depth. That movement however became deeply divided over women’s ordination (and now also sexuality, despite the undoubted presence of many gay men among them).

Conservatives today view the more liberal wing of Anglo-Catholicism, embodied by the current Archbishop of Canterbury, with deep suspicion. Many of these are understandably relieved to have the prospect of recognition and stability of their liturgical practice, within the fulfilment of a long-held hope for visible unity with Rome.

Other Anglicans however are hurt and bemused, especially those who have committed themselves to ecumenical endeavour while expecting the integrity of existing Anglican structures to be respected.

And last but not least there will be an odd and brief consensus among both more liberal and more evangelical Anglicans, who will share relief at the prospect of a ‘rump’ moving along and leaving the main game in the current inner-Anglican struggle to them. This is likely to be the Australian experience, where most of those lining up to embrace the new structures either joined Anglican separatist groups long ago, or now huddle in a few embattled parishes.

But Roman Catholics will have their own mixed feelings too, sooner or later. One Roman Catholic colleague apologized to me at a meeting yesterday, obviously embarrassed by a gesture seen by many in both communions as undiplomatic at best. Many other loyal Catholics will share unease at this step away from a long and costly process towards greater mutual understanding and cooperation within the existing forms of Church we know. Christians in both Churches and others will wonder how to calculate the cost of unity-by-disunity.

Liberal Roman Catholics have particular reason to be perturbed at the influx of a group of ex-Anglicans who have self-selected, not so much by ecumenical zeal or real engagement with the life and faith of the Catholic Church, but dogged adherence to certain positions on gender roles and human sexuality which tend to bespeak a broader conservatism.

Of course others, especially conservatives, are rejoicing. The conservative Catholic blogosphere, where the enthusiasm of the convert is often very much in evidence, is hailing the move. They too, however, may have cause for circumspection when the new ‘ordinariate’ becomes reality. The prospect that these quondam-Anglicans can not only have married clergy but train new married seminarians, and maintain a liturgy related to the Book of Common Prayer, may be a mechanism in which some detect a ticking sound.

Unlike the Uniate groups like Eastern Catholics of various kinds, the Anglican ordinariate will breathe the same cultural and social air as standard Western-rite Catholicism, and the boundaries will be highly porous.

Will there not be Roman Catholic aspirants to ordination who find life in the Anglican ordinariate a more attractive prospect than clerical celibacy? Will there not be aspects of the Anglican Prayer Book tradition whose lex orandi continues to lead such Anglican-rite Catholics to different understandings of Church, ministry and sacraments than their Roman Catholic brethren (let alone the resurgent ‘extraordinary use’ sub-group)?

One of my late Jesuit teachers, Noel Ryan, told his classes that he believed the conversion of John Henry Newman—leader of the Oxford Movement which had such an impact on Anglicanism, before his change of allegiance—had a significant effect on the history of Roman Catholicism, including and especially on the spirit of Vatican II. Roman Catholicism will itself be affected by these moves; perhaps for better, perhaps for worse, but most likely both.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Lord's Supper in Uncertain Hands


Is the Eucharist (or Lord's Supper or Holy Communion or Mass...) a necessary or characteristic practice of the Christian Church, or of Anglicanism in particular? Until very recently there could have been no doubt about the answer to the question. Like other Christians, Anglicans regard the sacramental meal as a distinctively Christian action, commanded by Jesus, observed in universal tradition, and enshrined in Anglican formularies, from the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion to the Lambeth Quadrilateral.

Not necessarily in Sydney, however. While many Anglicans are aware of the somewhat idiosyncratic position held in Sydney on the subject of presidency or leadership at the Eucharist, fewer seem to have realized that this debate is the tip of a much bigger sacramental iceberg.

Lay presidency reared its head again last October when two organisations strongly associated with the leadership of the Diocese of Sydney published The Lord's Supper in Human Hands, an oddly-named (weren't Jesus' hands human?) apologia for lay presidency. It takes the form of essays that seek to explain and argue for the position in Sydney's terms. Despite some unevenness, it probably does that about as well as it could; perhaps those who share the sort of biblical minimalism that characterizes some Sydney Anglican theology might find themselves won over. Others will be somewhat helped in understanding that position, at the same time as better understanding how odd it is in Anglican terms.

Yet the apologetic character of the book means that it does not reveal everything about where the issue stands, even in Sydney itself. For despite the appearance often given of a monolithic party-line approach to this issue, there are differences underlying it that are more startling than the public dispute between Sydney and others about liturgical leadership.

Last night's showing of "Anglicans: Sydney Style" by Compass on ABC television included a brief but telling reference to the celebration of the Holy Communion at Northmead Anglican Church; apparently they don't. Or rather, they believe that fellowship meals rather than the sacrament of the Holy Communion are an expression of following Jesus: "We wouldn't have the Lord's Supper in a formal ritualized sense because that's not how people do meals in our community".

Northmead's weekly bulletin is peppered with references to prayer breakfasts and seniors' lunches (and an advertisement inviting you to 'come and meat the community' at the butcher's shop!), but there is no mention of the Lord's Supper. Northmead may or may not be exceptional in Sydney, I can't tell; but they are not alone.

Sydney support for lay presidency began with a strongly principled "reformed" position about the relationship between Word and Sacrament. Proponents of change seem to have felt that the opening-up of lay participation and leadership in ministries of the Word in recent decades revealed or reinforced a sort of sacerdotalism, insofar as such openness did not extend to sacramental leadership. This is clearly the position Archbishop Peter Jensen himself holds, along with a continued valuing of, and reverence for, the Lord's Supper.

Yet for some other Sydney Anglicans, the Word/Sacrament contest is more like a fight to the death than a jostling for precedence. At Moore College itself there is some sympathy for the view that Jesus did not institute an ongoing sacramental practice at all. In two editions of Matthias Media's The Briefing in 1993 (124) and 94 (128), John Woodhouse - now Principal of Moore College - argued precisely that. Surveying the NT evidence, Dr Woodhouse argues that it does not lead to the conclusion Jesus instituted a sacramental meal. Responding to some letters arising, in the second Briefing he reasserts that the Lord's Supper is not a clear command of Jesus, and that the 'traditions of men' are not to be imposed on Christians [I add that I can't be sure of whether Dr Woodhouse still holds these positions].

Northmead shows the results. Being an historian of eucharistic origins myself, I acknowledge the complexity of determining the relationship between Jesus, meal traditions and the sacramental practice of the Church, and the need to explore the issues without fear or favour. I also believe strongly in the necessity of revealing the character of the Holy Communion as meal in its use of liturgical symbolism, and in the importance for the Church of sharing food in other ways, not least with the hungry.

Yet I have no doubt what the conclusions of Christian orthodoxy about the practice of the Holy Communion are, as one of the two sacraments connected with Jesus himself, and constitutive from the earliest times of the Christian Church. And like many others I am wondering how the language of "orthodoxy" in the Anglican Communion can be claimed at all, let alone exclusively, by or for those who are so far from the universal tradition of the Church.

The Lord's Supper in Human Hands (eds. Peter Bolt, Mark Thompson & Robert Tong; Camperdown, NSW: Australian Church Record/Australian Church League, 2008).

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Rights and Wrongs: Religious Freedom and Equal Opportunity in Australia

The Government of Victoria, Australia, recently pre-empted a Parliamentary review of Equal Opportunity legislation by announcing that Churches and religious groups would be exempt from the provisions of laws preventing discrimination on the grounds of sex, sexual orientation, marital status and parental status.

Strictly speaking, what these exemptions offer is not discrimination as such, but an opportunity for the Church to make choices about discrimination which others will be denied. If it is possible to view this positively, it means the Churches can do freely in their own terms what the rest of society must.

There have of course been significant criticisms of the move, largely from those outside the Church concerned with legal reform and human rights, but in at least one articulate case from an Anglican bishop, John McIntyre of Gippsland. His response in the Melbourne Age encouragingly raised questions of justice, not merely of defence of privilege.

Beyond McIntyre’s voice however there is little sign that Victorian Christians will see the new situation as an opportunity to do more, rather than an excuse to do less.

At its recent Synod, the Melbourne Anglican Diocese passed a resolution expressing support for the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, and recalling with pride its own support in 1971 of decriminalization of homosexuality. This was encouraging, except that the motion was amended to remove reference to support for legal recognition of same-sex unions.

The debate on that amendment suggested a failure, not only to look beyond the fence created around the Churches by the equal opportunity exemptions, but to respect and support civil rights outside the Church. A number of speakers for instance referenced comments by the Archbishop of Canterbury about blessing gay and lesbian unions in Churches, as though these were prescriptive for determining Christian responses to rights in civil society.

Rejection of legal recognition in civil society for same-sex couples on the basis that their lifestyle is incompatible with Christianity (as was claimed in the debate, and effectively endorsed in the result) is not only a deeply questionable outcome in terms of justice but a colossal confusion of Church tradition with civil rights.

Were this logic applied elsewhere when the Church considers human rights issues, we would ask whether, for instance, an Indian student beaten up by thugs in the outer suburbs of Melbourne were a Muslim or Hindu before deciding whether they were entitled to the same legal protections as others.

Refusing to distinguish between the freedom bestowed on the Church in its internal dealings, and the necessary responsibility proper to society as a whole, undermines any claim the Churches (or at least their conservative members) might make for seeking respect for specific religious positions while affirming justice. In reality, the same logic drives exclusion in the Church and failure to support rights and freedoms outside it.

Melbourne Anglicans have half-stumbled at one hurdle; there will be many more in the future. Most obviously, Anglicans here now need to grasp the odd freedom they have been given to act unjustly in a clear and forthright way - by refusing to exercise it.