Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Christian Condition (Tom Wright and Andrew McGowan 2.0)

This is basically a re-post of the entry entitled "Christianity and the Postmodern Empire", from an event on March 24th 2006 when N. T Wright and I spoke to an group in Melbourne. ABC Radio National have just broadcast an edited version, Sunday, June 24 2007.

The transcript, which includes N. T. Wright's presentation, parts of mine as actually given, and his and my conversation with each other and the participants, can be found here. You can also listen now or download for later (right-click on that link and choose "save target as" or "save link as".

Putting Tom Wright and Andrew McGowan together may well seem the ultimate in postmodern relativism, but it is good to be here. I found much to agree with in Bishop Tom’s comments, but perhaps in looking for a few things to disagree about I may invoke that principle, that to be really orthodox it is necessary to preach one heresy one week and the opposite one the next.

In this spirit I would like to say one or two things in apparent, if not profound, disagreement with Bishop Tom, about the relationship between Christianity and postmodernism the movement or tendency, and postmodernity the broader social and economic and intellectual reality. To the extent that postmodernity seems to involve a mere collapse into relativism, I of course would agree with Bishop Tom that a cacophony of conflicting voices and agendas does further the agenda of the global "empire" – when truth may seem unobtainable, people may shrug and move along, rather than work to find and do the truth – and the Church must speak differently.

Yet if that sort of relativism is common in our postmodern world, or in the West, that is not really postmodern-ism. And whether the different way the Church must speak is ‘rivalry’ however, I doubt; and I will return to this. And while I think one could make an intelligent case for any of the three alternatives (rival, ally, coping mechanism) that today’s topic offers for constructing the relationship between Christianity and postmodernity, I want to focus on the notion of postmodern and the Christian as allies, both for good and ill.

I actually take the central themes of postmodernism, while notoriously elusive, to include suspicion of absolute truth claims, and the consequent suggestion that the meaning of speech, language, discourse, or a story, is not separable from the speaker and the hearer and their interaction. Meaning is thus not completely stable; it depends on context. We don’t just learn new things about Paul's letters from N. T. Wright, New Testament scholar, because he a better scholar than Calvin or Aquinas or Augustine; the circumstances are different and we see different things in the encounter with the text. But this is not the same as relativism, in which any one voice or opinion or reading is as good as another. Rather, postmodernism tends to ask who is speaking, who has power in a given situation, and what interests are being served by what is said.

Although Christians will continue to narrate a story that claims to explain all other stories, the suspicion that postmodernism displays towards all attempts to create a grand theory is arguably a useful ally. For one thing there is a certain affinity between the postmodern suspicion of absolute truth claims and the many and varied ways in which Christian theology insists on the provisional character of truth claims, from the polemic against idolatry to the theology of the cross – not least as presented in the stark and confronting terms of Mark’s Gospel which those of us who use the discipline of the Lectionary are reading this year. Systems and structures that claim completeness, order and comprehensiveness, including and perhaps especially ecclesiastical ones, are to be viewed with suspicion. Although we may ask how effective such an incoherent set of suspicions may be in our circumstances, I think we cannot dismiss them. This is just one way in which postmodernism may inform and challenge and refine a Christian theology that takes its origins in the cross seriously, as Bishop Tom seeks to do, and confronts the "empire", not merely as a competing ideology, a rival, but as something perhaps altogether different.

But I do not think that the Church has quite earned the right to play the prophet to a postmodern empire, even if it has an inescapable responsibility to do so. Here I am not referring merely to the paradoxical need to say that the Church, like its members, is simultaneously sinner and sanctified; I mean specifically that the discourses and practices of power that characterize contemporary Christianity might be said to pay little more than lip service to any alternative configuration of power presented in the cross.

So I think we must take both what you yourself say Tom, and what postmodernism suggests, seriously enough to apply a hermeneutic of suspicion to the Church and its practices relative to that empire, both in its subtle cultural manifestations and in its more blunt political forms. We can’t simply say that the claim of the Church to have a story that explains and relativizes all others makes us exempt from a searching examination of our uses of power.

In suggesting such a critique I am not speaking primarily of the Christianity of cathedrals and choirs, which, with all due respect to its practitioners and advocates (of whom I am one at least part of the time), is rapidly passing into the place of interesting cultural undercurrent or quirky counter-cultural nostalgia.

The Christianity or Christianities which are emerging in the postmodern reality are often very true to the nature of the empire, however much it suits them to denounce some aspects of it. (I leave, reluctantly, to one side the indications of the emergence of a real and powerful religious right in Australia which are now, I think, unmistakeable.) Postmodernity – meaning here the set of social and political realities of our time rather than the self-conscious intellectual movements or tendencies of postmodernism - is market-driven and consumer-oriented, more so than previous versions of capitalism; and we are seeing, almost inevitably, Christianities that provide for the pre-existing and preconceived demands of prospective consumers, rather than seeking to form members in a common set of practices as the ancient Church did.

The very diversity of these Christianities may in some ways be their saving grace, for they are so different that they cannot all be making the same mistakes. So “fresh expressions of Church” as they are being called, are characteristically post-modern; and while they are producing creative and authentic worship and service and witness, they are also producing self-serving and crass forms of life, of necessity: for the existing needs of the spiritual consumer are paramount here.

It is interesting to note that in Australian Anglicanism this very fluid and consumer-focussed approach is often linked to a strident dogmatic Calvinism that maintains very “modern” sensibilities about truth; the Bible is absolute, although of course interpreted in a very specific and sometimes quite idiosyncratic way, and this defensive Biblicism is linked to a startling indifference to the concrete elements of ritual and other practice – apart from a form of conservative morality – that characterize the historic Christian community. One might even claim that the most dynamic and successful Churches are often taking the cross – and even Tom Wright’s powerful paradoxical articulation of the cross – and then turning it into the ideological content of a quest for power.

Rivalry? What I fear is that the most stridently dogmatic forms of Christianity are saying exactly what the Empire needs them to say – and by their claims to a certainty that wraps moral conservatism in the arms of personal fulfilment provides exactly the ideology – or an ideology – the Empire needs or wants. They are not, in fact, nearly rival enough, but exactly the coping mechanism that suits the Empire. But whether “rivalry” is what we need instead of this sort of unholy alliance I am not sure – the Christian answer may actually lie in a refusal to compete. For surely the power of the cross is emptied in quests for power.

Monday, June 04, 2007

On the election of Bishops

(for the Archbishop Appointment Process Review, Melbourne 2007)

For when all the brethren had assembled to select by vote him who should succeed to the episcopate of the church, several renowned and honourable men were in the minds of many, but Fabian, although present, was in the mind of none. But they relate that suddenly a dove flying down lighted on his head, resembling the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Saviour in the form of a dove. Thereupon all the people, as if moved by one Divine Spirit, with all eagerness and unanimity cried out that he was worthy, and without delay they took him and placed him upon the episcopal seat (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 6.29)

Doubtless there is some appeal in the story of Fabian, third-century bishop and martyr, who attained episcopal office at Rome by means of an open window and a bird’s landing on his head. Today the realities of ecclesial polity are more complex and elections necessarily more convoluted. Yet some elements of this story are still relevant, and it underscores the fact that the Church has experienced quite different processes to obtain its bishops from those now known.

In what follows I will seek to identify some key qualities for bishops, and for the episcopate itself. I believe it is difficult to reach very clear conclusions about the ideal process for episcopal election on the basis of our understanding of the office, but we must be able to reflect on how our existing processes reflect or embody our understandings of the office.

Here I use the four “marks” of the Church identified by the Creed as starting points for this reflection on the bishop as a leader and representative of that Church in one place. For reasons that may become apparent I work backwards, from apostolicity to unity.

Apostolicity – the Historic connection
The Church regards the bishops as “successors of the apostles”. We need not reduce this quality to literal continuity with a family tree of predecessors, whether to support or dismiss it. Historical continuity is important, not because it gives the Church all it needs, but because it connects us with the living tradition of the historic community that is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic”.

This quality may not have much impact on the actual form of election, but more on the criteria for election (is this person committed to that one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, or merely to an idea of Church that they will serve at the expense of the people of God?), and on the ritual of episcopal ordination.

Catholicity – the Universal connection
Bishops lead a “local” Church but are also the links between one Church and another, and need to recognize and actively to seek the bonds of communion with others (this imperative has an ecumenical dimension, and cannot be reduced to participation in Anglican structures).

In our current (Australian Anglican) election processes this quality is reflected largely passively, in consent by provincial bishops, and through the participation of a good number of bishops in the ritual itself . It might also be expressed through active consultation by electors with wider groups of bishops (and other Church leaders). This may often be done, but has perhaps been seen merely as a way to generate lists of names, rather than as a means to embody part of the character of the episcopate.

One of the failures of catholicity in our current situation is the general inability of the Australian Church to identify and form leaders in any intentional way. Our concerns about elections might be lessened if we had a clearer set of understandings and practices about continuing education as something the Church itself fosters and expects. Higher degrees in theology, and specialized professional development in various aspects of ministerial practice, ought to be more widely undertaken. Electors might feel less concerned about processes and alternative candidates, were their qualifications and expertise less in doubt.

Holiness – the Gifts of the Spirit
Perhaps the crucial dimension of election is actually discerning the personal qualities necessary in any bishop, and in the bishop currently being sought. Some of these are general, and expressed clearly in the ordinal (based on scriptural prescriptions – 1 Tim 3, Tit 1). Others must be specific to the realities of a particular Church and time. At present we know that the requirements of "Professional Standards", etc. must be met, not simply to meet “risk management” criteria, but because these are the current form of a concern the Church has always had.

Ensuring that these qualities can be identified and tested is a technical question more than a theological one, but any technically inadequate process is theologically inadequate too. I would venture that under current conditions, an election process – such as a synodical one - without prior diligence such as is only possible through a Board or Committee would be inadequate.

I would also suggest that any role a Synod has in an election process is very unlikely to add much to this fundamental aspect of discernment. It is simply unworkable for a large body to gain real knowledge of the character of an individual or of their working style. Individuals may have such knowledge and share it, more or less adequately – but if this might assist consideration of one candidate, it is a very poor basis for distinguishing between candidates.

Unity – the people of God
Anglicans in Australia are used to a variety of synodical processes for their ecclesiastical government. As St Fabian’s story reminds us, the participation of a wide group (at least representative of the whole Church, if it is no longer possible to gather it all in one place) is actually characteristic of Christian practice. In our context, like others of past and present, this dimension should have a recognizable place in the process.

As the variety of Australian diocesan processes reminds us however, the participation of the whole local Church has a great many expressions. A board or committee that reports to a synod may well exercise the responsibility of the synod, and represent the needs of the diocese, far more adequately than the larger group. As already stated, some more focussed process such as this is inevitable for current circumstances, whether or not in conjunction with a synod election.

Even where a committee undertakes the election, it is worth noting that this does not exhaust or preclude the involvement of the wider body of the local Church. In fact the episcopal ordination (or installation) itself is a very underestimated element of the 'election' (remembering that 'election' does not mean voting, but choosing). Despite the common assumption that a synod vote or a legal declaration finishes the process, it is only when the bishop is welcomed into the Cathedral Church and acknowledged by the assembled people that the election process is really complete.

I believe that our episcopal ordination rites are underestimated in this regard – in Melbourne, what some may be thinking can only happen at Dallas Brooks Hall really only happens at St Paul’s. There a larger form of the local Church can effectively add its voice to the real acceptance of one candidate, carefully chosen, far more than it could add to the actual discernment between the gifts of different candidates. Any synodical election process which insists on a very high level of consensus in distinguishing between candidates confuses the proper unified voice of the Church acclaiming one bishop, with the inevitable diversity of views within the Church about different candidates. The real consensus of the Church can only be expressed at the Eucharistic table, with the new bishop – unless perhaps there happens to be an open window, and a dove nearby.