Friday, September 02, 2011

What Would Jesus Move? Doing Anglican Theology in Public


The appearance of Muriel Porter's new book Sydney Anglicans and the Threat to World Anglicanism has unsurprisingly - and properly, I suppose - led to some strong responses from the Diocese of Sydney, which is its subject. After a digest of it appeared on the ABC Religion website, Mark Thompson, who lectures at Moore College and who like me is a member of the Doctrine Commission of the national Anglican Church, has now appeared on the same site with a feisty rejoinder.

One curious feature of Mark's response is a reference to a fairly obscure event during the meeting of the Anglican Church's General Synod in Canberra in 2007 that will leave most readers bemused. He writes:

'No mention is made of the way on successive occasions the Diocese of Sydney has been openly and vehemently attacked on the floor of the General Synod. Unsurprisingly, there is no mention of the move in 2007 to avoid voting on a motion thanking God for his provision of free salvation in Christ by "moving the previous question."'
    He goes on to say "Many newcomers to General Synod were distressed by this inability to unite around central gospel truths." Mark neither describes the motion fully nor, just as importantly, does he state the outcome.

    The motion in question (more information is available at the General Synod website) was this:
    • Synod humbly acknowledges that in the determined love of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, died for our sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, bearing our guilt in our place, enabling our redemption from the slavery and curse of sin, our total forgiveness, no debt owing, freely given but obtained at great cost, a righteousness from God, not our own, peace with God, reconciled to him, no longer his enemies, our adoption as his children, and our salvation from the coming wrath on the Day of the Lord acknowledging that no one metaphor, model or analogy exhausts or fully contains the mystery of God’s action in Christ and gives heartfelt thanks to Almighty God, our Heavenly Father, for his overwhelming grace, love and mercy.
    This was and is a piece of presumably heartfelt theological reflection, with a sort of passing charm for some, perhaps. Personally I think it's a bit of a mess, drawing together some good and some very bad theology. It might go down in some fundamentalist circles as a appropriate sort of ex tempore prayer or exhortation - a Sunday School opening bid from the 1950s, perhaps. Such things don't have to be perfect. It is not, however, a piece of public theology for the ages, such as the Synod of a national Church should pass, whether you agree with it or not. This doesn't make it worthless or meaningless or bad, even though I obviously don't like it. It means that it was a quite inappropriate piece for a Synod to pass as a statement of doctrine.

    The acknowledgement in the motion that metaphors are limited doesn't solve the problem either. Even if better worded, this is like saying "Here is my quite specific and not universally-held position, agree with it. Of course people have all kinds of different positions...so now you can agree with it."

    Before I say more, let me come clean: I moved that procedural motion in 2007 "that the previous question be put" which was the "move in 2007 to avoid etc". And my motion passed, which Mark passes over in silence. I did stand up to say some of what I wrote above and write below, and some other things, although I don't believe I mentioned the Diocese of Sydney. More importantly, the Synod as a whole, representing Australian Anglicanism in general, emphatically agreed with me and decided it did not want to vote on the matter. They give a better indication than either Mark or Muriel could of where Australian Anglicans actually do stand.

    That procedural motion was specifically intended to allow Anglican leaders - who knew perfectly well that, however worthy its sentiments or good its intentions, this was not a piece of theological language that should be used to represent the mind of the Australian Anglican Church - not to vote against its good intentions. That they agreed with me overwhelmingly does not make me or them right, but it does say something about the character of Anglicanism, both in its style and its substance. This was not some sort of fringe-liberal conspiracy aimed at Sydney - it was the Anglican mainstream on public display, remembering it has theological and literary standards. And it did so not by negating the intention of the Sydney-based mover, but by deciding it was the wrong question to ask. It was, frankly, a generous response to an ill-considered proposal.

    How do Synods speak then?

    The most famous Synod in Christian history was probably that held at Nicea in 325. It passed the first version of what has become the copy-book expression of Christian faith. It goes:
    • We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.
    • And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God], Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth]; Who for us human beings, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made human; He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; From thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead. 
    • And in the Holy Ghost.
    Quite different examples could come from the thoughtful decrees of the Roman Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council, which in much more discursive terms than those of the Creed present the wider Church, even beyond that Communion, with thoughtful and challenging reflections.

    Synods talk about God and faith not on the basis of one particular kind of spirituality, nor by suggesting that personal religious experience of a particular kind reflects the common commitments of a diverse Church. Synods must offer substantial, sometimes difficult, but carefully considered language that can stand the test of time.

    When Synods speak, they address and speak on behalf of their members - in this case the literally millions of Australian Anglicans - and to the wider Church, in the Anglican Communion and beyond. They have to do so with care and forethought.

    To inform how it might do so, our national Anglican Church has a Doctrine Commission - of which Mark Thompson like me is a member. At present the work of that Commission is limited by the real diversity of its membership, and our respective constituencies. Despite Mark's attempted deflection, the Diocese of Sydney's position on issues as fundamental as the Trinity and the Eucharist are often idiosyncratic, relative to wider Anglicanism and Christian tradition generally. And yes, the positions that others of us hold about gender and sexuality and how we address them in the contemporary Church are not those of the past either.

    Hence our work, which is cordial and mutually enriching, is not readily translated to agreed doctrinal statements beyond those which are already foundational for all Anglicans - like the Nicene Creed, or the liturgical texts of the Book of Common Prayer. Rather, we tend to work by contributing our diverse thoughts into collections of essays in which we engage in respectful dialogue, not presuming to speak for one another or to question the integrity of one another's positions. We don't agree about the import of phrases cobbled together into the motion in question like "bearing our guilt in our place" or "the coming wrath on the Day of the Lord". We could hardly then be content with attempts at Synod to brush past these difficulties with formulations more heartfelt than thoughtful.

    The most fundamental problem however is that the motion depicts salvation as achieved not by God but by God's Son, who had to placate or pay off or satisfy (implicitly) some sort of cosmic dictator. It's not genuinely trinitarian theology, which says "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself", but rather depicts a God who relates problematically to another, subordinate, and hence only quasi-divine being. This problem is deeply linked to the penal substitution concept whose centrality distorts fundamentalist theology, and its appearance here merely underlines the charge Kevin Giles has made (and which, contra Mark, has not been widely discredited, except for those predisposed to reject it), that trinitarian theology is not universal in Sydney Anglicanism.

    Last but not least, the motion was quite gratuitous. We don't need to pass motions "thanking God for his provision of free salvation in Christ" (the mind boggles - is God eager for the minutes?), or saying that we are Anglicans, or extolling motherhood. I don't move that we re-endorse the Nicene Creed or the General Thanksgiving (see below) each time Synod meets - they are foundational for us. When we pray together at Synod - and not all want to do that, interestingly - we use these, and other nobler and more inspiring and appropriate words than those of the motion, in contexts where they belong.

    So - here's how Anglicans go about thanking God for his provision of free salvation in Christ:

    ALMIGHTY God, Father of all mercies, we thine unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us, and to all men; We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all, for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful, and that we shew forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives; by giving up ourselves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer, 1662)

    And we don't need to put that to any vote.