Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A Mess of History

Part II of a Series

Today, I attended two lecture/discussion sessions at Epiphany West 2007: Re-visioning Anglicanism. The first was offered by The Rev. Dr. Rebecca Lyman, whose area of scholarship, historical study, and writing is in the traditions of the early church, and whose lectures are just plain fun while at the same time incredibly illuminating.

We began by articulating the enormous complexity of forces driving the current debates in the Anglican Communion, ranging from power issues to questions of biblical authority, to cross-cultural struggles, to long-standing theological tensions, to the legacy of colonialism, new anthropological understandings, the rise of modernism and post-modernism as both thought processes and realpolitik, to the priority of "orthodoxy" in relation to "mission," and. . .well, the list is practically endless.

Then we turned to consider early Christianity and its growth around small house churches, with a faith largely built around the primacy of ecstatic experience, a strong sense of apocalyptic imminence (exacerbated by persecutions), the virtues of martyrdom, and a remarkable bringing together of diverse groups crossing gender, class, and racial boundaries. Since these local communities eventually sought to find some commonalities with neighboring Christian groups for solidarity and growth, leading eventually to discussions about unification and expansion of the role of and authority of bishops, we also compared and contrasted the (sometimes bloody) controversies and outcomes that led ultimately to the early church councils, particularly Nicaea and Chalcedon.

Orthodoxy, Catholicity, and Tradition

A close study of these councils is illuminating, in that they demonstrate our heritage is not a single thread of "orthodoxy" stretching from the apostles to the present day, but a much more ambiguous sea of disputes, political influences, theological compromises, and clashes between local traditions. We could even posit (and I do) that diversity is the modus operandi from the beginning of our shared story as a Christian people: 12 apostles, 4 canonical gospels (and many more than that before the New Testament canon was established), various letters between communities, multiple "schools" of theological thought, a variety of church "fathers" in unique cultural locations, etc., and the result: differing practices and beliefs of the early Christian communities in various places.

Dr. Lyman argues, and I tend to agree with her, that "orthodoxy" is a most unhelpful term, not only in the present debate, but in our reading of history. It generally implies, as she put it today, that there is "one right answer that is noble for me, and I am going to impress it upon you."

This notion immediately sets up an interpersonal and even inter-communal power differential and creates an offensive/defensive situation. In the worst case, it leads to forms of emotional, spiritual, and even physical violence in the name of faith, if not God in Christ.

The words "catholic" and "tradition" probably are more helpful, as the former implies a desire for some sense of unity beyond the local and the latter expresses what is true for a given person or group who have a shared heritage and spiritual/cultural/religious or even familial ancestry. Both seem valid articulations of identity and desire, and, when not held too tightly, leave the table open for discussion, finding common ground, and even, when necessary, forging compromise as a way forward together.

"Catholicity" and "tradition" seem to be the drivers of the best we can draw from conciliar movements in our common history, and if "orthodoxy" must be used, it was often broader and more succinct (e.g. the Nicene Creed) than narrowly definitive (e.g. longer confessional statements, Medieval canon law, or the tomes of systematic theology or biblical exegesis).

External Power

It is important to note in looking at the Councils of Nicaea from 325-381 that this critical juncture in the history of catholic Christianity was largely forced by external pressures exerted by political and economic powers. (Bearing in mind, however, that the relationship between religious and political powers was much more entangled in the fourth century Roman Empire than it is in many secular states today).

I was struck at the reminder that Theodosius had to compel the bishops to forge a consensus in 381, long after Arius and Athanasius were no longer on the scene. It took 50 years of meetings, haggling, and debating and the intervention of the imperial powers to complete the Creed. Chalcedon was not so successful, as political forces were deeply entangled in the dispute between Nestorius and Cyril, and by the simple but profound fact that by the fifth century, bishops had learned better how to manipulate the imperial power brokers to their own ends and vice versa.

This raises a fundamental question in our contemporary conflict. Who has some degree of external power over our global Anglican context? We consciously did away with the curia/magisterium model of Roman Catholicism through the English Reformation.

For a time, it was replaced by the crown. Elizabeth I forged the Settlement that bears her name, and, following the Glorious Revolution, Parliament later acted as final arbiter over disputes in the Church of England. (This raises an interesting question about whether or not the current efforts at forging a covenant in the C of E will be successful - Parliament probably would need to approve!)

But today, most of our provinces reflect a wide array of polity -- most of them exclusively internal -- some of our provinces rely on fairly well-empowered archbishops while others depend on conciliar bodies of bishops, other clergy, and laity. Most of us live now in at least nominally secular states in a world that generally honors national autonomy. And even the Church of England, while still technically established, operates for the most part under its own head of steam.

Where is our Theodosius or Elizabeth to help us settle the dispute we're in?

This helps explain the pressure brought on the Archbishop of Canterbury from all sides. We have a strong urge, even in the democratically empowered Episcopal Church to appeal to a pater familias to mediate our disagreements. And Rowan Williams, while issuing tentative suggestions such as the Windsor Report, tends to resist falling into a parental role.

And not without reason. . .

Understanding Akinola

This afternoon, I attended another presentation by the Graduate Theological Union doctoral student and my colleague and friend, The Rev. Nak-Hyon Joo of the Anglican Church of Korea. He led a small group in lecture and discussion around the legacy of Anglican mission and colonialism.

Of note is the increasing evidence that, to some extent, our present situation is an extension of disputes between the British missionary organizations. This is a point that relates to a perspective articulated by Mark Harris over at Preludium. And it is one that can be extended readily into the 19th-century colonial mission fields of Africa.

Also helpful is a linkage Fr. Joo made between colonialism and imperialism. Colonialism implies the movement of a population from one country to another with a view for creating permanent new settlements or "colonies." Imperialism means the exercise of power of one country over another and the extension of national sovereignty into another state.

That the two are often linked in history is demonstrated by Fr. Joo's use of the phrase "Colonialist Imperialism," which may better describe the political drives of the British Empire, but also reveals that the two phenomenon can be separated to some extent in practice. This we may be seeing in American actions of late, or in describing the economic hegemony of the West.

That said, Fr. Joo invited us to engage in small groups with a number of questions. . .one of which involved imagining ourselves in the "shoes" of post-colonial African Anglicans.

In light of the discussion, it seems to me in the present dispute in Anglicanism we are looking deeply into the heart of "colonialist imperialism's" legacy. And this is a point I believe I cannot overstate. Here are a few observations I'm willing to offer right now, considering the Church of Nigeria as a primary example:

1) Nigeria was a British colony that now has secured political independence. This leaves Anglicans there in a difficult situation in relationship with their local context. Is the Church of Nigeria an African Christian tradition, or is it the vestige of an old, hated colonial regime? Rhetorical appeals to tribal culture and identity become, in this tension, very attractive, whether we are talking about church autonomy or human sexuality.

2) What ++Peter Akinola says and does in relationship with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primates, and the Lambeth Conference is critical in how it depicts ++Akinola as either a pawn of the old empire or a newly liberated leader of an independent Christian body.

3) How the Archbishop of Canterbury responds could either perpetuate the colonial legacy/struggle for independence so roundly articulated at Lambeth in the 1990's or demonstrate honor and empowerment for the new autonomy of former colonial churches.

4) The United States now has a strong economic influence in Nigeria through revenues from extracting oil along the delta regions of the country and elsewhere. Part of ++Akinola's Christian witness is to stand in opposition to Western hegemony that is propping up corruption and, at times, abusing the land and poorest people of Nigeria. When the Episcopal Church conscientiously acts to follow the call of of the Gospel in our own context, but breaks the faith as Nigerian Anglicans have received and transmitted it, there is not only a question of theological truth at stake, but further reason to be suspicious of a church enmeshed in a (perceived?) de facto imperialist economic power.

5) Approximately 50% of Nigeria's people are Muslim, and The United States and England are at the forefront of a most unpopular military operation in Iraq -- unpopular in the West even now, and deplored by much of the Islamic world. While some pundits are dismissive of the connection between Akinola's stands and inter-religious violence in Nigeria, I think it would be hubris to deny a very deep and complex relationship between American foreign policy, the reactions of Islamic extremists in Nigeria, their violence towards Christian communities, and the connections the Church of Nigeria has with the Anglican Communion. Akinola's relationship with us may have, indirectly, very real life and death consequences for those under his charge. Lest we forget, Christian martyrdom is a reality in Nigeria, and some Muslim-on-Christian violence is motivated in part by reactions to the political actions and cultural values of the West. This puts Akinola in, at best, a dicey situation. Surely he would argue, and perhaps he already has, that he should not be expected to put his people's lives on the line for a biblical interpretation or theological understanding they don't agree with. That is not to say the oppression of homosexuals in Nigeria isn't also a very salient issue. . .a humanitarian and Gospel question that cannot or should not be set aside. In the era of global communications and the continued suffering around violent religious extremism, herein lies a thorny set of potentially conflicting justice issues that do not yield easily to responses from either side of the present Anglican impasse.

Through this post- and neo-colonial lens, I begin to understand why Archbishop Akinola behaves as he does towards The Episcopal Church and the Archbishop of Canterbury. This is not to say that I at all agree with his theological stands or approach to discourse, as I have posted elsewhere, but I at least begin to glimpse some of the realities on the ground that may motivate his recent words and actions around the current mess. And I have no business arguing he is any more or less caught up in his cultural location and the demands of his faith and the people he serves than any other Primate is.

This further could explain ++Rowan Williams' hesitancy to be the "strong man" or parental figure of the Anglican Communion. He must evaluate carefully how his articulation of power and authority risk pushing away the churches still recovering from colonialist imperialism. Likewise, as we have already seen, even hints of meddling in The Episcopal Church can provoke deeply-seated cultural reactions that probably have some roots in our country's origins as colonies of the British Empire.

To sum up, this is a situation of no one group's or person's making, but rather, put simply, a mess of history, both political and ecclesiastical.

I do not envy Williams' or Akinola's tricky position in a dance that they inherited from the legacy of colonialist imperialism.

Going back to the discussion with Dr. Lyman, the way forward for the Anglican Communion may have something to do with how we disentangle our Christian traditions from our colonial ones. And it is possible that common ground may be sought with even the most strident voices in the current debate if we as Anglicans take a serious look at the neo-colonial and imperial forces still very much operative in our common life in the present.

But, again, that will take a serious commitment to discussion and perhaps some give-and-take from all sides. At very least, it will mean an unconditional dedication to rebuilding trust, heartfelt listening, and a deep pursuit of understanding.

I pray that the Primates' meeting in February will help start us moving more in that direction. With or without their leadership, we too are called to take up this task locally, diocese to diocese, church to church, and Christian to Christian.

". . .may we not seek to be consoled, but to console, nor look to understanding hearts, but look for hearts to understand."


June Butler said...

Richard, I wish that this post could be required reading for all members of the Anglican Communion.

I have asked in the comments at Fr. Jake's more than once, "Which is the Golden Age of orthodoxy that we should return to?"

I'm with Dr. Lyman. The use of the term "orthodoxy" is unhelpful. "Catholic" and "tradition" are much more useful.

Thanks for your reporting.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interesting informatin, Father Richard. I found your blogged link through Fr. Jake's (to which my bishop has accused me of making him an addict).

You're bookmarked now, and I'll be thinking about the colonialist context from which some of the current "mess" might be better understood.

Alachua, FL

Leonardo Ricardo said...

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

So why doesn't the Episcopal Church, through General Convention, decide to support the Nigerian Church (unilaterally if need be, funneling resources through Canterbury or whatever channel it takes) to assist its horrible struggles with Islam, corrupt politics, economic and environmental collapse at the hands of Western oil companies, while engaging in whatever conversation might be possible on LGBT issues?

If Akinola's point is "We are Christians, we are Nigerians, we are independent, we are homophobic like all African tribal Christians," then why not say yes to the first three while we protect Davis Mac-Iyalla and Changing Attitudes Nigeria?

Why not double our commitment to the Millennium Development Goals concentrating specifically on Nigeria, precisely because of its position as an oil-rich country exploited by the West, with Islamic-Christian tensions and violence and a history of colonialism?

Why not demonstrate Christianity on the ground?

Akinola has often said he refuses American money and help, but that may not be the last word if there's a way to structure "assistance" so that the Nigerian Church and Nigerian people directly benefit -- say, by TEC's shareholder and political pressure on Exxon Mobil and the U.S. government?

Why not embrace Akinola and love him to death? Who is in a better position than we are?

We're rich, theologically aware, politically active, prayerful people. Nigeria is a country being raped every day; the environmental destruction is incalculable. 17 million people are crowded into the most ghastly slums in Lagos, without clean water or sanitation, while the desert expands from the Muslim north toward the Christian south. A hundred thousand people die of malaria every year. We can do something about this!

The most Christian response to Akinola's hatred of TEC is to love him ten times harder. Let's make one simple request/demand/suggestion: Leave Davis and CAN alone for three years, till the next General Convention can take up the issue of doubling our commitment again.

-- Josh Thomas

Fr. John said...


Thanks for reporting on the conference; it sounds like rich fare indeed. Your brief on the legacy of colonial imperialism is very helpful, I think. We would be naive, at the very least, to believe that our Communion's politics are not deeply affected by the aggressive "messianic imperialism" of the Bush administration. The irony is that many of the conservatives in C.A.N.A. support the kind of hegemonic U.S. foriegn policy that Archbishop Akinola rightly deplores! How often have we heard TEC's actions equated with those of the Bush Administration as an example of arrogant unilateralism? An odd analogy for U.S. conservatives to make. Schism makes strange bedfellows.

janinsanfran said...

The most helpful piece of writing about our troubles that I know of addressing the imperial and racial issues implicit in our struggles is Ethan Vesely-Flad's For the Soul of the Church. FWIW.

Anonymous said...

Dear Richard,

What a wonderful summary and deepest refletion through the Epiphay West. And thanks a lot for your post about my presentation under titlted "Understanding Akinola." You know, I am not all with ++ Peter, but we need to think about ongoing "bitterness" - bitterness of exploitation, racism, sexism, poverty, and warfare, etc -products of colonialist imperialism, which is getting worse in the name of globalization, especially led by American Empire, as Fr. John mentioned above. Beyond simply "putting their shoes," I hope we "Church" need to be more engaged in the issue of justice wherever we are, act, do ministry.

Now, I am expecting your reflections about today's presentation by Drs. Radner and Te Paa for many other people.

Thanks again and see you tomorrow morning.

R said...


Thank you for your loving attention and friendship and, above all, your witness in our midst!