Sunday, October 15, 2006

It's All About Ecclesiology, Stupid

I’m not actually trying to insult anyone with that title. Just trying to get some mileage from the mantra that some say got Bill Clinton elected president in 1992.

(Note to non-Anglicans: There’s going to be some inside jargon in this post. My apologies. Please deal with it as best you can. If you’re insanely curious, contact me privately and I’ll ‘splain things to you. Or you can just take a pass until I next step into my media critic persona.)

Some of my best friends are Evangelicals. (I use the upper-case ‘E’ to denote both the amorphous genre of what might also be called “orthodox Protestants” and also the more definable “party” within the Anglican stream, and to distinguish both from “evangelicals” in the pure semantic sense—i.e. anyone who proclaims good news.) I was raised in that subculture (just a few miles from Wheaton, Illinois, which used to be the center of the Evangelical universe before it moved to Colorado Springs some years ago). Purebred Anglican Evangelicals have been a bit of a rare species in United States for about the last 150 years, but I do know a few, including one presbyteral colleague here in my diocese (San Joaquin) who hails from New Zealand, and with whom—amid our good-natured sparring over theological and liturgical minutia—I have a relationship of great affection and esteem. We’re together on the core issues of Christian faith and discipleship.

It’s no secret that if Evangelicalism—either the generic variety or the Anglican party—has a theological Achilles heel, it’s in the area of ecclesiology. It’s not so much that Evangelicals have no theology of the Church as that they have a underdeveloped theology of the Church, one lacking in the sophistication and nuance that characterizes, say, their soteriology (how does Jesus save us?).

Consequently, Evangelical theology turns out to be somewhat of a blunt instrument when dealing with the questions that are on the Anglican table at present—questions that focus on the visible superstructure and institutional infrastructure of the Body of Christ, and how relationships within those structures ought to be carried on. So when we find that there are church members and church leaders who are, for whatever reason, unable or reluctant to use certain language to talk about, say, the uniqueness of Christ as the bearer and agent of human salvation, or who studiously avoid the classical Trinitarian language of “Father” and “Son,” a crisis ensues, not merely a dispute, but a crisis of communion, of ability to co-exist in the same community of faith.

This is not difficult to understand if one sees the Church as a voluntary society of like-minded believers who come together for common worship and mutual support rooted in a shared experience of faith or perception of certain cardinal realities. If it turns out that there is, in fact, no shared experience or perception, no like-mindedness, there is no energy to hold such a society together. Maybe there once was an authentic commonality, which creates a certain degree of inertial momentum that can sustain institutional unity for a time. But, eventually, that momentum spends itself, and there is an inevitable atomization, and possibly a reconfiguration of the constituent parts.

In short, from an Evangelical perspective, there is no reason to keep company with unbelievers as though they were believers. It is dishonest to all concerned, and dishonors that very gospel that it is the vocation of Christians to proclaim. Hence, we hear clarion calls from Evangelical Anglicans to “come out from among them” and “be not unequally yoked,” etc. etc. There are “two religions” within the one institution of the Episcopal Church, and what should one, after all, have to do with the other? Would it not be better to make a clean, honest break, and have everyone get on happily with their lives?

Like I said, some of my best friends are Evangelicals. But I’m a Catholic. We may have our weak points, us Catholics, but ecclesiology isn’t one of them. Ecclesiology is our thing. The Catholic vision of the Church is richer, more refined, more resilient, and more versatile than that of “some of my best friends.” For a Catholic, the Church is less of a voluntary society of the like-minded and more of an organic family of the like-born—or reborn, to be precise. The Prayer Book states that “the bond that God establishes in baptism is indissoluble”—admittedly, a very Catholic notion. In the organic family of the Catholic Church, we don’t get to choose our relatives. When some of them misbehave and embarrass us to tears, we can avoid them and hang out with those we get along with, but we cannot, in the end, deny them. No one will be fooled; the family resemblance is too striking. When they say foolish things at family gatherings, we can get angry, but they’re still family. When they act in ways that are contrary to the traditions of the family, we can roll our eyes, but they’re still family. Even when they betray the vital interests of the family, we can see that they are subject to discipline, but they’re still family.

In short, from a Catholic perspective, schism and excommunication are, like divorce, always signs of failure, never of success. Is it not striking that, among those sectors of Christianity that have an organic ecclesiology, there is a high degree of sacramental fellowship and institutional unity, even in the midst of wildly diverse spirituality and culture, while among those sectors that have a voluntary association ecclesiology, there is atomization to an exponential degree? Theological integrity, yes. But an astonishing amount of division.

It was an e-mail from an old friend, a priest in another (very mainstream) diocese, that got me thinking along these lines. So I will conclude by quoting from his very insightful reflections:

The longer I serve as a priest, the deeper (I think) I am understanding the meaning of obedience. Over the years, I've read a fair amount regarding Benedictine matters, and find that this practice challenges my selfish and anxiety-borne tendency to panic or seek quick, satisfying solutions to challenges in discipleship. … [A]n authentic witness in our setting requires us to embrace obedience to our vows much in the same way as Christ embraced the Cross in obedience to His work of reconciliation, rather than pushing the schism button before the Mind of Christ is laid out by the Instruments in a clearer, more truly Catholic sense.


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