Saturday, August 14, 1999

Glastonbury and The Gift of Authority

I originally posted this essay to the OrthodoxAnglican e-mail list. In the pre-blog era, this was where conservative Anglicans of various stripes, as well as their sympathizers in other communions, shared news and debated the issues of the day.

Thanks to Fr. Wilson for posting Fr. Houlding's Glastonbury sermon. It addresses a subject that has been on my mind for the past couple weeks, following my readings of two other pieces on the same topic. The first is, of course, the ARCIC document, The Gift of Authority, to which Fr. Houlding refers in his homily. The second was recently introduced on this list by Richard M.: "the famous text of Dom Lambert Beaduin's The Church of England United Not Absorbed, . . . a seminal document in Anglican-Roman Catholic relations, written in 1925."

Both of these documents, like Fr. Houlding, take the desirability – even the necessity – of union with Rome as a given. For those in the Ritualist/Romanist wing of Anglo-Catholicism, perhaps this seems so obvious that it needs no elaboration, explanation, or defense. But for most Anglicans – including most Anglo-Catholics, I daresay – it is not so obvious.

Without endorsing every twist and turn of Anglican history, most of us think that the separation of the Church of England from Rome was not an entirely bad thing. For nearly five centuries, the West had been drifting further and further from the teaching and practice of the Undivided Church. Those who inaugurated the C. of E. might not have articulated their rationale in a clear, unanimous, or consistent way, but their failure has been remedied by the best Anglican theologians from Hooker on. We have failed miserably to live up to this vision of Anglicanism as a restoration of the ancient, Undivided Church in England. There have always been differences on exactly what this vision entailed. And there have always been those who rejected this vision in favor of another, whether Protestant or (Roman) Catholic or Modern. But I think this vision is still the right one – the only one under which the existence of Anglicanism makes any sense, and therefore the only authentic one.

A Gift?

The Gift of Authority, the most recent product of ARCIC, embodies the usual flaw of post-Schism Western theology: It begins with a deficient understanding of Tradition, and then tries to fill the resulting vacuum with Authority. Clerical authority, to be more precise. And, ultimately, Papal authority.

Fr. Houlding says, "That universal stability, I believe, is only to be found ultimately in union with the See of Peter."

We often hear traditionalists of all stripes lamenting the "crisis of authority," which they blame for the instability of our church. I don't get it. When has authority ever been a source of stability? Authority is, rather, a force for innovation. Didn't Vatican I teach us that?

If you want to see what happens to a church without clerical authority, look at the Old Believers. Now that is stability.

Anglicans as Uniates?

Dom Lambert Beaduin's United Not Absorbed proposes that the Church of England should be restored to union with Rome on a basis similar to that of the Melkites – i.e., with internal autonomy under its Patriarch/Primate, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who receives his authority, in the form of the pallium, from the Pope. He lays out thoroughly the historical basis for such a relationship between Rome and Canterbury. He seems to pre-suppose a Church of England that is equivalent to the Melkites before their schism with Constantinople – an ancient, autocephalous church with its own rite, canons, traditions, and hierarchy. Apart from his acceptance of the necessity of reunion with Rome, his vision of the C. of E. is actually quite similar to mine.

Interestingly, the Melkites have recently expressed regrets about their acceptance of Papal supremacy ca. three centuries ago.

The Undivided Church

Some, doubtless, will recall my Eastern Orthodox sympathies, and will wonder whether I am not just slamming the idea of submission to Rome because I am holding out for submission to Constantinople, instead. But I do not think we should feel obligated to take the Byzantine tradition as normative, any more than we should have to take the Roman tradition as normative. If we would simply live up to what our own Anglican tradition tells us we are supposed to be – a restoration of the ancient undivided Church in England – we would not need to look to other churches for our norms at all. This was the central message of a recent address by the Most Rev'd Dr. Keith Rayner, Primate of Australia, "The Future of Catholic Anglicanism." Naturally, we should feel free to borrow from those traditions, and from others – but within the norms established by our own tradition. We should not try to imitate another church, whether that of Rome or that of Constantinople (or that of Geneva). We should simply be strive to live up to the vision our own best theologians have set for us over the centuries.

If I look to Orthodoxy as a model, it is only because I think that by being good Anglicans we would inevitably come to look like an Orthodox church – an autocephalous national church with a liturgically centered life rooted in a tradition defined by the Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils.

Friday, February 19, 1999

Borg and Wright

Last night I attended a lecture/debate at National Cathedral featuring Prof. Marcus J. Borg of the Jesus Seminar and the Rev. N.T. (Tom) Wright, Dean of Lichfield Cathedral. It was billed as "An Evening of Detente in the Jesus Wars." While the two men differ strongly on critical points regarding who Jesus was, they are longtime friends who studied at the same school under the same adviser, and they have written a new book together, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (which was for sale on site). The center section of the nave of the cathedral was nearly full.

Wright won the coin toss and opted to speak first. He tried to downplay the extent of his differences with Borg, saying it is not entirely correct to depict himself as a "traditionalist" and Borg as a "revisionist." In some ways they are both traditionalists (they are practicing Christians), while in others they are both revisionists (they are academic historians whose goal is to understand Jesus in the context of 1st century Judaism). This allowed them both to focus on the points where they actually disagree.

Wright understands Jesus in terms of contemporary Jewish apocalypticism. Many sects of that era expected God's direct intervention in history. For Wright, Jesus was not just a teacher of wisdom, but a prophet warning his hearers to prepare to meet God. He believes that Jesus consciously identified himself with the rampant messianic hopes of his era, while interpreting the role of messiah somewhat differently than popular expectation. And he believes in a literal resurrection of the body of Jesus. He does not believe in a simple "resuscitation of the corpse" (who does?); rather, he describes the resurrection as a transformation of Jesus' body into "a different mode of physicality."

Borg interprets Jesus as a Jewish mystic. By "mystic," he means a person with direct experience of God. He would also include the Buddha and a few others in this category on a basis equal to that of Jesus. He believes that Jesus was a healer, but he does not believe in other miracles, such as the feeding of the 5,000 or walking on water. He does not believe Jesus thought of himself as messiah or son of God, but believes, rather, that these identifications were made by the early Church after Jesus' death. And he understands the resurrection as a purely spiritual phenomenon, involving the union of Jesus' spirit with that of God, and the Church's real sense of Jesus' ongoing presence in the Christian community.

Each man spoke for about 20 minutes, and then they went back and forth, critiquing each other's ideas and responding to these critiques. Finally, people from the audience lined up to ask question, some more interesting than others. One complimented them for their criticism of the Enlightenment, and then asked if there was some other era in the Church's history when the Church, in its understanding of Jesus, "got it right." However, neither speaker claimed the objectivity to judge our own century, and both men's expertise is so focused on the 1st century that they did not feel qualified to pose as experts on the intervening 18 centuries. A couple of questions addressed to Borg challenged his unorthodox beliefs on the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, but he made a plausible case for his being a traditional Christian while holding to untraditional understandings of these doctrines. And Wright, while expressing belief in the Virgin Conception, said he could not consider this belief essential to understanding the doctrine of the Incarnation, since Matthew did not draw theological inferences from the fact of the Virgin Conception, and Luke barely did so.

The event ended about an hour and a half after it began. The authors were available afterwards to sign copies of their books, which were for sale at the cathedral.