Thursday, June 05, 2008

Vox Populi Vox Dei?

Bonnie Anderson, president of the Episcopal Church's House of Deputies, is a bright, dedicated, articulate, and tenacious woman. She can be quite charming. I've had the occasion to meet her personally and speak with her on the phone, and I actually like her.

With a lead-in like that, you're probably thinking that I'm about to make some critical remarks, and ... well, you're right. My intent is to speak plainly and precisely, but not mean-spiritedly in any way.

Last week, Dr Anderson spoke to a conference of religion writers, and in the context of her comments she said this:

We believe that God speaks uniquely through laity, bishops, priests and deacons. This participatory structure in our church allows a fullness of revelation and insight that must not be lost in this important time of discernment.

The audacity of these claims cannot be overstated.

In this brief excerpt, she starts by using creedal language: "We believe...". She is purporting to speak veritably ex cathedra for the Episcopal Church here, as if what follows is a received article of faith. Then she goes on to name General Convention, in effect, as the vehicle through which such articles of faith are promulgated: "...God speaks...through laity, bishops, priests, and deacons."

But God doesn't just speak; God speaks "uniquely." The implication here is that every resolution that is eventually marked "concurred" in the General Convention journal is a divine oracle. This is the sort of language that both the Catholic and Reformed traditions have used of Holy Scripture itself. That it would be used of the synod of one small province of a communion of churches that ranks a distant third in size between the two big ones . . . boggles the imagination.

Dr Anderson continues with an assertion which employs phraseology that professional theologians tend to use only with great precision--namely, "fullness of revelation." This is language that the tradition of Christian theology is reticent to apply even to Scripture (!), preferring to restrict to the Incarnate Christ himself. Who knew that we could have the fullness of revelation just with a vote by orders?!

In the PHOD's defense, one could argue that she's a layperson, that she doesn't have a seminary degree, and that one should cut her some slack for using technical language imprecisely. But I don't buy it. If she's going to presume to discuss theology publicly (and rather complex theological issues at that), in her high-profile position, then she should be held to the same standard to which we would rightly hold an academic theologian or a bishop. And by that standard she has gotten in way over her head.

Do we really want to say that the Holy Spirit operates more reliably by majority vote in a democratically-elected and ordered synod than in any other manner? Are we in the Episcopal Church so full of hubris that we would claim Our Polity (all now genuflect) inherently superior to any other? Have a seat, Matthias, we're going to have a proper election before we recognize you as an Apostle; that casting lots business will never do. I would be, as they say, "shocked but not surprised" to find out that many Episcopalians, clergy and laity, would answer my rhetorical questions in the affirmative. It's rather an American thing. But it makes my blood run cold.

And I will suffer no tripe about it representing a legitimate point in the range of Anglican diversity.

Nonsense. It's faux-Anglicanism.

I note with some amused irony that, earlier in her published remarks, Dr Anderson takes on the Archbishop of Canterbury for suggesting that TEC bishops might start acting more like ... you know ... bishops. Complete with an authoritative teaching office informed by the faith of the Catholic Church and not the leave of General Convention. She writes,
I envision Archbishop Rowan pondering in, to use his word, "puzzlement" why these bishops of the Episcopal Church don't just stand up and exercise their authority as bishops like most of the rest of the bishops in the Communion do. Why would our bishops "bind themselves to future direction for the Convention?"
It looks to me like she is making His Grace's own point for him, even as she takes exception to it. By playing sandlot softball in a Major League ballpark, she encourages the notion of leaving such things to the pros. Let bishops be bishops. They're the ones we set aside to do public theology. Some (many? most?) of them don't do it all that well, but it's nonetheless their job, and we should give them the space in which to do it. Anybody for taking a vote?


Etienne Bonhomme said...

Unfortunately Bonnie Anderson's "Vox Populi Vox Dei" does accurately reflect the current default polity in the Episcopal Church. But I wonder how it got that way? When I first started to actively participate as an adult Episcopalian thirty years ago I don't recall the GC or my diocesan convention doing much more than pass noble sounding resolutions on social issues. The first bishop I had any close interaction with was Ted Eastman, who, though liberal, did preach in solid theological terms.

Now though, the situation has changed. Most TEC bishops preach in vague generalities and the GC seems now to be source of what passes for theological positions. All I have to go on is my own anecdotal experience but it would help if someone analyzed how the TEC's "Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity" have become so distorted. Better yet - what can be done about it?
Pax et Bonum

Geri said...

I don't think the voice of the people is the voice of God. If He could have depended on us, He wouldn't have needed to inspire the prophets, the psalmists, or the evangelists. He did inspire and use them; that is how He speaks to us. All the votes, C & C's, conventions, and conferences in the world are not going to change His word.

Ben said...

Dr. Anderson speaks from the "winner's circle". Therefore, of course she believes that God has spoken, uniquely, and perhaps especially through GC 2003. (It would be interesting to know whether she would have thought that way of the vote in HOD on BO33 in 2006. My instinct says, "no".) I take your word for it that she is intelligent. I read her entire comments and she strikes me as arrogant. How is it that God speaks uniquely through, or that a fullness of revelation is given to TEC and not the rest of the Anglican Communion? I agree she should be held to the same standard of theological competence as any seminary-trained cleric. On the other hand, we have a bright and intelligent PB who’s Christology is incomprehensible.

Martial Artist said...

Ms. Anderson has, by her quoted remarks, conclusively demonstrated that she deserves her honorary doctorate! Please note that, in asserting this, I am using the asymptotic* definition of a Ph.D.

Blessings and regards,
Keith Töpfer

*—Namely, it is "a person who studies more and more about less and less until, finally, they know everything there is to know about nothing."