Saturday, January 27, 2007

Beyond Modern Anglicanism

Part V, concluding a series of posts based on Epiphany West 2007: Re-visioning Anglicanism, at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, California.

On Saturday, the Conference concluded with a paper, From Modernity to Post-Modernity: Rethinking the Myth of Anglican Communion by Carlos Eduardo Calvani, Director of the Anglican Center of Studies in the Anglican Episcopal Church of Brazil, Porto Alegre.

As Calvani was sadly unable to attend the meeting in person due to difficulties obtaining a visa, The Rev. Francisco de Assis da Silva, the Provincial Secretary General of the Igreja Episcopal Anglicana do Brasil, presented the paper in Calvani's stead, offering his own responses to questions and occasionally inserting anecdotes where he most resonated with Calvani's words.

Fr. da Silva shared, along with Calvani's paper, a common experience around the time of +Gene Robinson's consecration: the remarkably generous reaction of their parishioners, seeing the controversy over sexuality as not particularly relevant to their faithful walk, and trusting the Spirit in the people of New Hampshire and The Episcopal Church in the election and call of a new bishop.

There was a strong appeal here for those of us who are ordained to listen hard to the laity, and it reminds me of a question Fr. Jake posed a few weeks ago on his blog regarding the departure of churches in Viriginia: Is the Current Unpleasantness Clergy Driven?

The Failure of Modern Anglicanism

Calvani covered much of the history of our tradition that John Kater explored, emphasizing again that Anglicanism is an often re-visioned Christian tradition. Calvani, however, looks at another level, in which Anglicanism as a historical faith is very much embedded in the Enlightenment thinking that gave rise to modernity.

Most notably, Enlightenment and modern thinking assume that the world is ultimately knowable and empirically measurable. That this has set up many of the contemporary Christian and even more broadly religious conflicts both within and beyond Anglicanism is a particularly important insight for exploration. We must remember that the rise of fundamentalism, for example, in the late 19th- and early 20th-century was a thoroughly modern "measurable" faith over and against the surprising discoveries of Darwin, later evolutionary thought, and the challenges to historic beliefs posed by scientific inquiry on the one hand, and the rise of critical scholarship, particularly of biblical texts, on the other.

Today, even in the West, we still struggle with enculturated modernity. . .even living as we are in the new millennium, where quantum mechanics with its inherent uncertainty resides at the heart of our computerized world and a dynamic, evolving universe has become as ubiquitous in our conversation as the rapidly changing world is in our experience. We continue to measure each other, and, if we are not careful, we continue to argue faith out of quantifiable justifications and premises. I wonder if we argue all the more vociferously, if only to persuade ourselves, because we are slowly being infused with an increasing amount of uncertainty as the world has crossed into the new landscape of the post-modern era.

Measurable, quantifiable faith and the sense that God is ultimately knowable and that the Christian experience of conversion and transformation can be monitored through unchanging doctrinal and behavioral ethics. . . All of this is quintessentially modern in its construction. Contemporary notions of "orthodoxy" fall squarely into this paradigm, in my view.

The great irony is that the Anglican Communion itself as institution, Calvani argues, may be one of the last great products of modernism. My understanding of this suggestion is that the Communion was established and maintained in its most recent decades through a particular set of institutional bodies (Instruments of Unity) and conferences that were meant, amongst other things, to solve particular problems and resolve differences. That they have now, to a greater or lesser degree, failed, is not so much an indictment, but a symptom of a deeper, global challenge:

Modern institutional structures are no longer fully functional in their original forms.

Calvani sees modernism as a veritable metropolis of towers, a panoply of institutions whose builders are suddenly confounded when they encounter the growing diversity around them. Post-modernism is the abandonment of these structures for new, more organic forms of community. In this, Calvani alluded to the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) as a biblical parallel. The tower of the ancient story is not destroyed, but the recognition of diversity confounds the hubris of the people building the city and tower. They abandon their project.

Anglicanism will fail in as much as it appeals to institutional structures for its salvation. Instead, Calvani argued rightly, I believe, that we must recover the theological roots of Communion and dispense with the appeals to power for rectifying our conflicts. In this I also hear a recognition that we are suffering from the legacy of old(!), modern colonial structures that favored authority for a few, and distorted the diversity of our common life in ways that were, at best, limiting God's grace, and at worst, violent and oppressive.

In tangible terms, appeals in the present debate for interventionist authority from the Instruments of Unity are not only unhelpful, but completely counter to the new direction we need to take. Calvani posits that we need leadership now, not institutional management. Whether this was intended as an indictment against anyone in particular, such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, I am unsure, but it speaks volumes to me even as a parish priest. My primary ordained priestly vocation in the post-modern era is not to preserve an institution, or even some concrete notion of "a faith," but rather lead with and for a people, a community, into deeper relationship with God.

Calvani sees post-modernism not as pessimistic, but rather as conscientious in its relinquishment of naivety, and its refusal to believe in the dreams of arrogance and power. This attitude is sensitive to the affects of accident, randomness, and contradiction. He cites, as a primary biblical example of this attitude, Abraham and Sarah's departure from a youth of security into an adulthood of venturing, led by God, into the unknown.

The Dance of the Trinity

Calvani begins to cut through modernity with a recovery of Trinitarian understanding that has been articulated with increasing frequency of late. I was immediately reminded, for example, of the address Bishop Marc Andrus gave this past autumn at the Convention of the Diocese of California. The theological demands of a diverse Communion require a dynamic rather than a static faith. A vision of the Trinity dancing rather than set in avowedly modern concrete structures of fixed meaning implies for our Communion a new, life-giving, dynamic relationship. With the language of perichoresis, Calvani joins Moltmann and other theologians in seeing the dynamic of mutual interdependence and dance in the Holy Trinity as the theological underpinnings of our common life in Christ.

Calvani was most critical of The Virginia Report for neglecting perichoresis, most particularly in its articulations around the Trinity. Orthodoxy, he argues, is implacably rigid and heavy, like those who hear the sound of the flute but refuse to dance. Orthodoxy, as alluded to in an earlier post, has become part of a modernist constellation of theological positions that are constructed around a game that creates winners and losers. Post-modernism, on the other hand, gives us an opportunity to not only question these theologies, but even the rules of the games themselves: that we can abandon the structures that set up winning and losing, insiders and outsiders.

Nothing could be more suggestive, it seems to me, than perichoresis as a renewed paradigm for the Anglican Communion. It calls for koinonia that is supple, organic, and interdependent, reflecting a much-needed understanding of human-divine relationship, and an incarnational identity that binds us not only to God in Christ, but to each other, and to the earth of which we are a part. It heals modernism's damaging objectification that fragments rather than unifies, and it calls for an end to the structures of hubris and violence that reduce life, strangers, and even our companion Christians to lesser beings rather than reflections of the divine, imago dei, in our midst.

And lest this seem a primarily Western or Northern point-of-view, take a look at this letter from Bishop Mdimi Mhogolo of the Diocese of Tanganika, Tanzania, just posted today (Mark Harris offers his take at Preludium). There are signs of hope: signs of the nascent interdependent coalitions in the Communion against oppression and suffering -- coalitions that Dr. Te Paa appealed for in her paper presented on Friday.

Biblical Truth

Calvani opened one section of his paper on Scripture with a scathing indictment:

Generally, discussions defending theological unity in the Anglican Communion and in other churches are based on an erroneous and superficial reading of the Bible, which does not delve into historical issues due to either fear or incompetence.
At first, I heard this (in typical modern fashion!) as a hit against one "side" in the present dispute. But Calvani's call to us is much deeper and profound: all sides must now learn to mine the Scriptural witness of our spiritual ancestors with great care and generosity.

Our propensity as of late has been a sea of proof-texting. We have failed on all sides to take into consideration the cultural privileging of our readings. The current mess has often been framed in terms of an elitist North American/Northern European reading vs. an indigenous cultural reading of the Bible (or worse, an academic reading vs. a "plain sense" reading). Neither approach, while here caricatured to a certain degree, is helpful.

Instead, Calvani seems to be arguing we must enter periods of self-reflection within our communities to identity the cultural and historical legacy we bring to the texts. Then, we must explore the cultural and historical legacy of the texts themselves. The Bible comprises numerous sources that were composed not in a vacuum, but in particular places and locations by peoples who, however inspired by the Spirit, were wrestling with distinctive and sometimes unique situations.

Calvani suggests that part of our re-visioning of Anglican identity around our most hallowed treasures of Scripture must begin with a parting of the ways from a set of monolithic gender, class, and culturally privileged interpretations that distort the texts (not to mention human beings made in the image of God) and limit what Christ could be saying to us through them.

We must remember that the biblical canon itself was established by the Church in a particular time and cultural location in the fourth century. During this period, as during many centuries of Christian history, authority was perceived as inexorably bound up with divinity. The privilege of setting the canon was embedded in even more privilege that set theological, conciliar, and ecclesiastical, not to mention political, agendas. Before this, the ancient Church had been a much more dynamic and diverse group of Christian communities, not bound as we became later with imposed and established interpretations that could impose violence on local communities and believers. Doctrinal unity simply was unknown in the early church, particularly in the New Testament.

Calvani goes one step further to argue that we must move from a modern to post-modern hermeneutic: one in which we suspend "one interpretation for the entire Church" and, to use a term I coined in an earlier post, re-indigenize our readings both for ourselves, and to illuminate the biblical texts in their own particularity. That this is hard work, very much bound up in a self- and mutually discerning encounter in community, sets aside all the easy ways we use the texts of Scripture against each other.

In this way, Calvani recovers the diversity of the first Christian communities as found in the New Testament. It is more than just saying there are four canonical gospels or various schools: Johannine, Pauline, etc. It is to say that the story of the early Church within Luke-Acts, for example, showed remarkable breadth of doctrinal and ethical distinctiveness, as embodied in, say, the controversies over Jewish traditions as applied to Gentile Christian contexts.

Moreover, the Gospel of John, while often used in the current controversy as proof-text for "heresy," is itself a rich text of paradox, contradiction, and particularity -- a possible biblical example of an ancient "post-modern" text! Calvani notes the ending of John to illustrate:

"But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written." John 21:25 NRSV

The implication is that even a text as sacred as one of the four gospels is not complete in its revelation, but demands the fullness of being engaged with other sacred texts in an incarnate, human, Christian community with all of its own contradictions, cross-currents, and disagreements held even while gathered around the primary unity of God in Christ Jesus. John's contextual themes of early Christians seeking new ways of being in community when uprooted from their early Jewish connections is inherently applicable to our age of high mobility, rapid communication across cultural, geopolitical, and ecclesiastical boundaries, and the need to learn to live not only alongside, but in communion with the radically other.

Contradiction itself invites modernism to seek solution and resolution. On the other hand, post-modernity, and even the biblical texts themselves in their juxtaposition, posit contradiction as a rich context in which new truths may be discovered. This may seem to point to Hegelian approaches, but I believe it is more rich than the intellectual reductions of arguments to thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Instead, we are seeing the richness of diverse contexts in interplay -- a dance, as Calvani suggests, that reflects the Trinity at work amongst us.

"Truth" itself must be recovered as a viable term for a post-modern era. It strikes me that post-modernism is sometimes perceived as most threatening because it implies relativism, leading to the dangerous slippery slope of anarchy. But this fails to see the deeper reality that Calvani raised up for me in his paper: modernism sees "truth" as essentially exclusive. For truth to exist, there must be some kind of opposite. Orthodoxy demands the existence of heterodoxy. Religiosity demands the existence of apostasy. Faith demands the existence of infidelity.

All of these categories assume, in a very modern way, measurable quantifications of "truth." In the post-modern era, and indeed, in the hoped for future of Anglicanism, we recover the notion of "truth" as mystery: while not utterly hidden, not utterly knowable to us either, but glimpsed in the organic communion we call The Body of Christ, whose boundaries are beyond the span of a single Christian, Church, or even the world or time. This means our understandings of truth must always be held provisionally and with humility. Such an understanding subverts the terribly violent ways we have used "truth" to attack those who disagree with us.

That is not to say that truth cannot or should not be defended, particularly in the face of human suffering and against all kinds of oppression, but it must be seen as contextualized in an organic way, not held out as an abstraction or universal for all time. Nor can it be inflicted, but truth can only be embraced through the inspiration of the Spirit.

Koinonia forms the theological foundation of our Communion, says Calvani. Koinonia means Christian companionship in the hoped-for Anglican Communion just as it does in the New Testament: through inspired experience of an encounter with God in relationship that makes truth imminent, transformational, and incarnational. This, to me, is a far greater understanding of Jesus' words in John's Gospel, "I am the way, the truth, and the life," than any abstraction of this statement through proof-texting as we have seen it recently, particularly as a criticism of our new Presiding Bishop.

Truths that we hold will only be as viable as they are simple, and only as applicable as they speak to the very real contexts of our lives in divinely inspired, life-giving, and loving ways. They cannot be defined in abstraction, but must live in our fleshy hearts, to allude, at least in principle, to Jeremiah 31:33.

In the West, we are called to set aside the over-privileging of academe, textual analysis, and historical investigation as the only way to divine knowledge. In the "Global South," we are called to examine and possibly reject our inheritance of a thoroughly modern construct of biblical interpretations for all time. Indeed, I posit that this may be yet another vestige of imperialist colonialism cloaked in the enormous honor we afford our sacred texts. Instead, we must all learn as Anglicans to live into the gracious and sometimes contradictory contexts of biblical interpretation, recognizing that we, like the early church, can wrestle with disagreement in faithful communion, koinonia with each other, and in devoted discipleship to Jesus Christ.

Calvani's paper was a breathtaking journey through so much of what had been said the previous four days and a magnificent conclusion to the Conference. I have barely begun to do him or any of the other presenters justice here. I will provide links to the original texts of their papers as soon as they are available.

Ways Forward in Communion

What I have so far gleaned from reflecting on the Conference speakers and discussions is that:
  • The Anglican Communion of the future grow by God's grace primarily around our shared following after Christ as exemplified in our baptism and eucharistic companionship: koinonia. . . and our love of God and one another as primary vocation. This growth cannot be institutional as much as organic, embedded in the communities of God's people in direct engagement and communion with each other. As Jenny Plane Te Paa put it, faith and relationship supersede the desire to guard historic institutions.
  • Monolithic notions of biblical interpretation, "orthodoxy" and other modern understandings of "truths for all time", if they cannot be dispensed with, be lightly held and sufficiently broad to encompass the wide variety of Christian witness and conscientious, faithful living in various locations. This means in our shared discourse and vocation as Christians, we need to agree to let go of the ancient oppressive words of imperial Christianity, including all language that dehumanizes and demeans. Theological language and biblical interpretation that builds up our koinonia will be both felt and articulated in ways that lead us into the dance of perichoresis, the holy dance of the Trinity.
  • Ecclesiastical policies, structures, and doctrinal matters can only be agreed to by local churches in clear conscience, they can never be forced upon them.
  • Accountability be understood as a mutual process of trust-building and loving witness in the context of our baptismal covenant at the individual, local church, and worldwide Communion levels.
  • New structures that complicate questions of authority be avoided. While not necessarily excluding it, this raises serious questions for the Anglican Covenant process under way.
  • The Communion be organic and interdependent at every level: personal, between local churches, and between provinces. We cannot rely on our Primates, Lambeth Conferences, or the other Instruments of Unity to hold the Communion together. Rather, our leadership and the Instruments of Unity are present only to facilitate the incarnational, tangible relationships in which we share common mission and that hold us together as a the Body of Christ, healing a world of need. Francisco de Assis da Silva articulates that our Communion relationships must be nothing less than "heart to heart, mind to mind, dream to dream."
  • Anglican identity in the 21st Century must be sought through and with the witness of women and indigenous, LGBT, and other marginalized peoples. They have much to teach the Communion about faithful Christian witness in the face of oppression and how the loving arms of Christ reach out to draw in the stranger, the meek, the forgotten, and even the oppressor into transformational communion. I cannot stress this enough: this is the only way of living into Christ that we will overcome our oppressive tendencies and shake off the shackles of imperialist (neo-)colonialism that still bind all of us from experiencing true freedom in God.
  • Diversity be recovered from our historic tradition as a creative challenge to all of our universalizing ideologies. We must re-learn the witness of the early Christians who demonstrated fidelity to Christ and discipleship even in the midst of strong theological and ethical disagreements.
  • We weigh all of our decisions against the central tenant of Christian ethics as found in Jesus' example, the Summary of the Law, and the witness of Christian non-violence across the ages.
  • Our disagreements be subjugated to what we share in common: following after Jesus and a commitment to mission in healing a broken world. In the 21st-Century, a major part of this task will be dismantling the legacies of warfare, structures of societal oppression, and all that destroys and demeans the planet and the people and creatures of God.
  • We provide each other with generous, patient space and a loving generosity as we move together through this re-visioning. Schismatic actions, oppressive acts, dishonesty, or subterfuge in our common life must be met with clear, but loving accountability. Wherever we hurt each other, we must call each other to account and engage in mutual processes of reconciliation.
So, onwards ho! Thank you much for your generous comments and taking the time to read these reflections. I hope, in some small way, they may join the great discussion currently under way. Prayers be with our Primates as they prepare to meet in Tanzania next month, and prayers be with all who suffer at the present time because of our divisions.

Padre Mickey, great to sit with you at Epiphany West and chortle together!

God's peace.

Part I: Anglican Romanticism
Part II: A Mess of History
Part III: Claiming the Re-visionist Label
Part IV: Head, Heart, and Hope


Melissa Campbell-Langdell said...

Dear Richard,
Thank you so much for your extensive comments on E.W., I have found them to be a fascinating lens through which to also filter my own experience of the conference.
Melissa Langdell
(1st yr M.Div. at CDSP from Dio. Los Angeles)

Anonymous said...

Just a note of great thanks to you for your commentary on the Epiphany West conference. I came upon it through the Bishops/Deputies listserve. Wonderful stuff. Thanks.
Peter Keese

Anonymous said...

I want to second Peter Keese, and say THANK YOU, Richard! :-)

Of all the things you discussed above, this one haunts me:

In this I also hear a recognition that we are suffering from the legacy of old(!), modern colonial structures that favored authority for a few, and distorted the diversity of our common life in ways that were, at best, limiting God's grace, and at worst, violent and oppressive.

Many of us suspect that the Current Unpleasantness focused on homosexuality, is merely a *cover* for the above.

Perhaps the AC could have a South African-style "Truth & Reconciliation" conference (or better yet, process: waaaaaay better than the so-called "Windsor Process"), to get at the BOTTOM of this, instead of the "No Gays!" froth on top???

Luiz Coelho said...

Fr. Calvani is a leading Anglican scholar here in Brazil.

It's so sad he couldn't attend, but Canon Francisco de Assis, I guess, was able to leave a message that not only in the global "north" there are people who value inclusiveness and a church that can still speak to modern society.

Blessings in Christ!