Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Dating Christmas

The lack of specific information about the timing of Jesus' birth has not kept the enthusiastic and the ingenious from speculating about the exact date of the first Christmas. The silence of the Gospels on this does reveal one thing fairly clearly, however: the earliest Christians were not much interested in the issue.

Christmas as such was probably not celebrated in the first couple of centuries after Jesus' birth at all. Far more interesting to the first Christians was Easter, their version of Passover, which commemorated the last climactic events of Jesus' ministry rather than the poignant stories of his beginning. Since Jesus' last great conflict with the Roman authorities and their collaborators had taken place at Passover, his death was interpreted along lines suggested by the great Jewish festival, and his resurrection celebrated in conjunction with it.

The observance of Christmas as a major feast appears only rather later, in the fourth century or at the end of the third. By this time Christians were placing greater emphasis on God's personal presence in a human being throughout Jesus' life - the "incarnation" or enfleshment of God, as teachers such as Irenaeus of Lyons and Athanasius of Alexandria put it. Jesus' own conception and birth thus became matters of greater concern and curiosity in popular belief and ritual as well. Christians had also come gradually to observe a greater variety of holidays, such as those commemorating the deaths of martyrs; these anniversaries of heroes who died for their faith were known as "birthdays," the occasion of a new birth to life in God's presence. The celebration of Jesus’ literal birthday was not such a huge leap.

Yet the appearance of a specific date for Christmas is somewhat mysterious. In fact there were originally two, December 25th and January 6th (now known as the Feast of the Epiphany), which came to be observed in the West and East of the Roman Empire respectively. Both these dates were close to the winter solstice - December 21st in our modified Gregorian calendar. Mid-winter festivals had already been common - the Romans had their Saturnalia, and other peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times.

Ancient authors had already noticed the connection, but nineteenth-century scholars, spurred on by the emergent study of comparative religion, seized upon this coincidence with something approaching fervor. Since these dates could not really be linked to the birth date of the historical Jesus, were they not just thinly-veiled pagan festivals, appropriated and Christianized only superficially? It was no secret that Christian leaders such as Pope Gregory the Great had encouraged the "baptism" of pagan religious observances for evangelistic purposes, and this connection could not have been ignored or avoided in the expansion of Christmas feast.

Such views have become dogma in many popular discussions, but the truth seems likely to be more complex. There are two key problems with to the "solstice" theory. The first is that the oldest evidence for Christmas festivals is just slightly too early to make sense as a Christianized Saturnalia, since it comes from the time when Christians were still a persecuted group distinguished by refusal to adopt obvious pagan customs, rather than by readiness to adapt. The second is that while feasts of the incarnation were indeed late in achieving recognition and widespread liturgical celebration, these actual dates – or one of them at least - had been identified much earlier. Clement of Alexandria, who wrote around 200 CE, was already aware of the January 6th date given for Jesus' birth.

The key to understanding the emergence of both January 6th and December 25th as dates for Jesus’ birth festival lies – strange as it may seem - in the dating of Passover and of Jesus’ death, which were known to have coincided. Christians in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire took the fourteenth day of the first Spring month (‘Artemisios’) in the local calendar - April 6th to us – as their equivalent for the date of Passover, Nisan 14th. In the West however, speculation about the date of Jesus’ death had landed on a different date, March 25th, by about the year 200.

These two Paschal dates are of course nine months before the eastern and western feasts of the incarnation, January 6th and December 25th. So some Second-century Christians had apparently calculated the birth of Jesus on the basis that his death and conception took place on the same day – and come up with two close, but different, results.

Aside from the complicated calculations, the connection between Jesus' conception and death seems odd. Yet Jewish writings of the same period reflect a similar belief that the great events had taken place on the same dates: the Talmud records the view that the world was created, the Patriarchs born, and the world would be redeemed, all in the month of Nisan. Thus the dates of Christmas and Epiphany may well have begun not with opportunistic borrowings of pagan observances, but from Christian theological reflection on history; Jesus would have been conceived – become incarnate – at the same time he was to die, and born nine months later.

The commonly-drawn connection with the winter solstice is not irrelevant. Clearly this coincidence made the expansion of the feast of the nativity more strategically important, and Christians were not backward in appropriating some of the symbols already known to pagans. Yet the origin of the date of Christmas is probably owed more directly to Judaism than to paganism, and the growth in the importance of the feast is more directly connected with deepening reflection by Christians of the early centuries on the significance of the event it commemorated.

Based on some work of mine that appeared in Bible Review some years ago. The original scholarship however comes from Louis Duchesne and Thomas Talley, whose work I gratefully acknowledge.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Communion of Saints

For Christians in the Middle Ages when these feasts emerged and were at their height, the successive days for All Saints and All Souls covered off two kinds of relationships within that great Communion.

On All Saints Day, Christians celebrated those who were in heaven, enjoying the blessed vision of God's presence; and they also sought their support through prayer, believing it was legitimate to hope for the prayers of these departed but blessed ones, just as it was to seek the prayerful support of their friends living on earth.

On All Souls Day, the relationships of dependence and advocacy were reversed; on this day the Church on earth remembered the much larger number of the departed who were being prepared for the blessed state of the saints, but who were in need of our prayers while they waited for purgation, recipients rather than donors in this spiritual economy.

Although today we live in an age which professes itself sceptical about matters religious, there is still widespread belief in some form of afterlife or persistence of the identity of the soul. In fact the National Church Life Survey reports that quite a few more Australians believe in their own afterlife than believe in a personal God to give it to them.

This oddity may serve to remind us of the difference between the specifically Christian idea of the communion of saints and the general notion of life after death. To believe that we drift on somehow after we die is not really a sign of religious faith, but of wishful thinking. It seems many of us can conceive of a world without God, but not a world without ourselves.

The men and women who first heard the Church’s news about Jesus two millenia ago were not sceptics in the modern sense; their world was full of mystery and miracle, and the reality of gods and spirits and of eternity was widely accepted. Yet the message of the Gospel presented a challenge to them; not about the mere possibility of eternal life or about the reality of God, which were widely assumed, but about the form eternal life took, and the nature of the God of Jesus Christ.

The heart of this Christian message, and ultimately of the communion of saints, is the resurrection. Christianity does not teach first and foremost the immortality of the soul, but the dependence of our fragile and very mortal reality upon God. The God who raised Jesus from the dead, confounding rather than reinforcing common sense, loves us beyond the extent of our own hope, and offers us life beyond the extent of our own capacity.

The protestant reformers dispensed with these days in their original form and particularly with the observance of All Souls, concerned that our dependence on the grace of God was lost in this complexity of transactions between living and departed Christians. The reformers thus succeeded in reasserting one element of what it is to believe in the communion of saints, arguably the most important; that our hope for ourselves and those whom we love is grounded in God’s grace rather than in anything we ourselves do, or simply in vague expectations of eternal existence.

A second element of the communion of saints however was perhaps not as well served by the Reformation; for Christianity has since been more prone to the idea that individual salvation, mediated by the subjectivity of faith as much as by grace, is the heart of the Gospel.

The communion of saints, however, is just not about me, or even me and God; it is about me in relation to the company of all those servants and friends of God whose work and witness has contributed to my being here, and will contribute to my future, just as my own life contributes, however imperfectly and falteringly, to those of others. The communion of saints binds us across time and space with many whom we like and agree with and many more whom we might not, if we knew them well enough.

The Church as we know it is a sort of trial run, whose best features may be a foretaste of heaven and whose worst features are indeed purgatorial. This is why we call the unlikely collection of Anglicans around the world and through time a “communion” and why it is such a travesty to divide and manipulate it on the basis of whether we agree with some others. To substitute a sort of "Fellowship" for this is a mistake; for "fellowship" may be a means to achieve various things, perhaps good things, but is not communion.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Power and Presiding: The Reality of "Lay Administration"

The Diocese of Sydney's reaffirmation, at its recent Synod, of lay presidency (or as many of its leaders prefer, "lay administration") at the Holy Communion has had Anglicans around the world again wondering what we are putting in the (increasingly scarce!) water down here.

Sydney's motives are quite unlike the occasional stirrings in this direction voiced on the liberal edge of US or British churches. The original theological engine driving this is the theology of Church and sacraments taught by former Moore College principal Broughton Knox, and now pursued by his students including key figures in the Sydney episcopal leadership and the present staff of Moore. Some of these, like their "Reform" counterparts in the UK, see the Reformation as an incomplete work and the Elizabethan settlement as a bit of a Laodicean compromise. The real interest in "lay administration" lies, for them, in carrying through a principled protestant disposal of catholic accretions upon a supposed New Testament model of ministry and worship.

The question of “licensing lay persons for the ministry of Word and Sacrament” was formally raised in Sydney as long ago as 1977, and in 1983 the Sydney Diocesan Doctrine Commission issued a report highly favourable toward lay presidency. Drawing on discussion papers by P. T. O’Brien and P. W. Barnett, it concludes that lay persons could and should be authorized to preside at the Eucharist, primarily because New Testament Church presbyters or elders “usually presided at Church meetings”, and that a “rector in the Anglican polity” is actually “the senior PRESBYTER among the permanent local PRESBYTERS” in a congregation. This is a familiar enough claim in a long debate, where Anglicans have actually been characterized by a quite different position.

In a paper on “Lay Administration of Holy Communion” offered to the provincial bishops of New South Wales a few years ago, Archbishop Peter Jensen (Knox's successor as Principal at Moore) argues for a reading of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer’s own ordering of priests as granting “recognition and authority…to exercise a pastoral – as opposed to a sacerdotal – ministry of word and sacrament in a community setting. That is to say, [it is] the role of incumbent…” That office of Rector, rather than the identity of priest – a political rather than vocational identity – is given an inherent significance here, although the historic three orders of ministry, bishop, priest and deacon, are not.

Another leading intellectual of the Sydney Diocese, R. C. Doyle, put it more starkly, saying that the generation of Sydney clergy trained by Knox at Moore – and presumably also those trained under his successors, Knox's students – “do not regard themselves as ‘clerical’ in any sense of the word, but as lay people who have the enormous privilege of being paid so that they may teach the Bible full-time”. Yet that same 1983 Sydney Doctrine commission paper had referred to would-be lay ministers of the Eucharist in a congregation as “permanent local presbyters”, which suggests that such local elders are just as much ordained as are the bishops, priests and deacons of the Book of Common Prayer.

So it is something of a red herring to call this a debate about "lay presidency" or "administration". Proponents already regard the priests of the Book of Common Prayer as lay people, and some lay people as local presbyters. The differences between various ministries in this view are functional, but above all political. Ministry is about power.

A key emphasis among these arguments is a competition between Word and Sacrament in ministry and liturgy. In a 1994 report prepared at the request of the Standing Committee of the Sydney Diocesan Synod, J. W. Woodhouse (current Principal of Moore) and B. C. Newman argue that the growth of leadership by lay persons in preaching, public prayer and other elements of the ministry of the Word, without such a development of equivalent sacramental ministries regarding the Eucharist, is an anomaly that suggests both “a division between Word and Sacrament” and that “the Sacrament can appear to be more important than the Word”. These authors speak rather of “the necessary dependence of the ministry of the Sacrament on the ministry of the Word.” Woodhouse and Newman also describe the notion that “the Lord’s Supper is the essential expression of the community’s life” as a “fiction” and a “novel invention”.

Archbishop Jensen has also argued for “lay administration” in terms of the same unequal parallelism of word and sacrament. In the 2003 paper to the New South Wales bishops he is critical of “the reservation of administering the sacrament to priests”, arguing that it “suggests very powerfully that the sacrament is prior to the word”. For him “the doctrine of the Church of England…gives priority to the word…rather than parity”. For him “the sacrament is dependent on the word and is an exemplification of that word”.

Ironically then, the push for "lay administration" is actually an effort to establish a particular reformed view of a single ordained ministry of the word – what becomes “incumbency”, or the (exclusively male) office of Rector, in the Sydney view. "Lay administration" is being pursued not because it does matter, but because it doesn't - relative to preaching at least.

This is really a development of medieval Catholicism’s tendency to focus solely on the order of priest, rather than on the diversity of various orders and their distinct ministries and charisms. This is actually clericalism in a new form, not lay empowerment. The massing priest now becomes the preaching presbyter, as a sacramentally-based system becomes a propositionally-based one. Catholic order is being sacrificed on this altar in Sydney, not one of democracy or lay empowerment.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

St Matthew's Day

From a sermon given at St Stephen's, Richmond.

The Collect for today in A Prayer Book for Australia offers a fairly unsubtle interpretation of Matthew’s call by Jesus. While the old Book of Common Prayer (1549 onwards) version of the prayer for the day said that God called Matthew “from the receipt of custom” – referring simply to the way tax collectors of that era collected tolls at bridges and city gates, like modern customs officers - this modern version translates the old words by laying it on thick: Matthew was called supposedly “from the selfish pursuit of gain”. [The old book also had us praying for grace to forsake “all covetous desires, and inordinate love of riches”, where now Australian Anglicans find ourselves more ambitiously praying to be free from "all greed and love of riches" !]

If you go back and check the Gospel story, we don’t actually know anything about Matthew’s character or his motives for being a tax collector. We do know that this occupation was despised by religious and other worthy people in first-century Palestine, and that part of this negative attitude was a justified reputation for greed and violence. Taxes are rarely popular, but the ancient tax collector was not merely a bureaucrat; he (sic) was a sort of stand-over merchant, often extracting more than the notionally-legal amount.

A pause for thought should remind us that people who are the front line of systems of oppression, corruption and violence are often victims themselves. Bouncers, prostitutes and drug pushers have rarely indulged in a distasteful career choice solely for “selfish greed of gain”. They have often been victims of violence and abuse themselves, and are often in the service of others, more respectable people with far greater resources, who benefit from dubious enterprise without suffering the stigma or risk connected with its public practice.

Matthew was no Mr Big. At his table or booth out in the sticks in Galilee, he is small fry at best, as likely driven by necessity as by greed. If we were looking for a player driven by “selfish pursuit of gain” in the Gospels we might consider Zacchaeus, described as a “chief tax collector” in Jericho. People like Zacchaeus employed people like Matthew actually to sit at the toll booths and do the dirty work.

Jesus is not condemned for eating with former tax collectors. His approach was to associate with such people – the Matthews and the Zacchaeuses alike - rather than moralize about them or condemn them. He associates with wealthy and poor, respectable and outrageous, pious and problematic. All are called to change, but this is the result of following not its precondition.

The Gospel illustrates for us the scope of God’s grace. But the Gospel does not intend us just to marvel at how Jesus somehow deigns to associate with people unlike us. Rather it seeks to reveal to us that he deals with people just like us – as well as others quite unlike us – and that we ourselves have remarkably, graciously, been called to follow him too.

[US Readers won't have used this Collect, but a new one written by Massey Shepherd for the 1979 Book]

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Doing the Truth

This is an extract from my article Truth and Reconciliation in the Church, published in the most recent number of St Mark's Review (205), 125-36 which contains essays from the Doctrine Commission of the Australian Anglican Church on Sexual Abuse and the Church. The article involves reflections on 'restorative justice' as evidenced in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and on the notion of truth as it is presented in the Gospel of John.

The Word (John 1), who dwells among us and is seen “full of grace and truth” is not only a revelation of God’s truth but God’s effective re-narration of the story of human origin and destiny. As Irenaeus puts it, this is a new version of that ancient history, not only a narrative but a re-enactment: “God recapitulated in himself the ancient formation of humanity, that he might kill sin, deprive death of its power, and vivify humankind” (Adv. Haer. 3.18.7). The nexus between truth and reconciliation lies both in the recognition of original relationship and the overcoming of ignorance, but also in the new creation of a relationship that fulfils and goes beyond what was past.

The truth of the Gospel reveals and effects this change, but not as an immediate or instant process, historically speaking. The work of the “Spirit of Truth” is the continued performance of the truth announced and embodied by Jesus, made known particularly in the Church, the community of those being reconciled by the truth to their own truth.

A Christian understanding of truth – the Truth underlying other forms and performances of truth – is central for the ways in which the Church is to “do the truth”, and may also have some significance for processes beyond the practice of the Church such as those of restorative justice.

The telling of truth, in the senses presented by restorative justice, may not be a substitute for the broader reality of “doing the truth”, as John’s Gospel puts it, or the wider ethical imperative that comes from deciding to seek and live truth. Truth may be found when cases of abuse and violence are uncovered, but its pursuit is not merely a fact-finding matter – it must be sought, as a matter of choice and not only of external act.

For the Church, acknowledging that God’s performance of the truth continues through the Spirit of Truth is crucial, both as an affirmation of hope but also as a theologically-informed guard against unrealistic or misplaced expectations for immediate resolution of broken relationship. Contemporary examples of restorative justice and the theology of truth in John’s Gospel both suggest that the doing of truth is a profound and at times painful thing, which cannot be equated with mere statements of fact, or with easy answers to difficult questions.

The revealing of hidden (if at times horrific) truths, kept secret because of oppressive or abusive systems or of the vested interests of perpetrators, has been a prominent feature in instances of restorative justice. Oppression, it has been argued, depends on forgetfulness or on the suppression of truth. Telling the truth in these cases means establishing knowledge where there had been ignorance (enforced, accidental or wilful), and the learning that comes from these revelations may bring with itself an opportunity for re-establishing relationships or at least moving past old hurts.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Word of God (and GAFCON)

From a sermon given at the Church of the Transfiguration, New York, July 13 2008

...the deepest and most extraordinary meaning Christians give to the idea of God’s Word and its economy is our identification of it with Christ himself. The Gospel of John begins with that great Hymn to the divine Word, who was “in the beginning with God” and “through [whom] all things were made.” The evangelist is harking back to the Genesis story, and showing us that God’s creative speech is not merely external action but arises from God’s own being. Then John tells that this Word who was God became flesh, and dwelt among us full of grace and truth.

The ancient Christian theologians we know as the Church Fathers referred to God’s plan enacted in the speaking of the divine Word and his incarnation as the “economy of salvation.” They meant not only that God arranged the resources of the world and human history in a distinct way, but that this economy of abundance reflected the character of God’s own being – the generation of the Son who is the eternal Word and the sending of the Life-giving Spirit were an “economy,” the gracious reality of the Trinity, itself the model of abundant love which is the hallmark of the cosmos and of human life lived to their fullest.

It is one of the tragedies of the current Anglicanism that an odd, un-Anglican and even unbiblical doctrine of the divine Word and divine economy is being taught by those who lay the most strident claims to orthodoxy. For you know, I am sure, of people for whom “Word of God” is just a sort of jargon for “the Bible.”

In scripture itself, “Word of God” does not mean “Bible,” since the scriptures do not thus speak of themselves but of God’s whole self-communication, from creation to redemption and beyond. Saint Paul – a biblical theologian indeed - says that the “Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” Of course the Bible is a key part of this; and Anglicans, who are of course a biblical people as well as a catholic one, have acknowledged the authority of the Holy Scriptures by referring to them as “God’s word written,” for instance. This careful phrase ascribes singular authority to the Bible, yet implies that there is more to God’s abundant Word than any written text.

However the background paper written for the recent conservative gathering in Jerusalem known as GAFCON speaks in terms that seem not only to equate the Bible (rather than Christ) and the Word of God, but to divinize the Scriptures themselves. It states that “the core issues [confronting the Anglican Communion] are about whether or not there is one Word, accessible to all, and whether or not there is one Christ, accessible to all.” Context makes it clear that they are presenting the Bible (as “Word”) and then Christ separately, as twin articles of faith. We must remind our biblicist brothers and sisters that it is the one Christ himself who is the one Word accessible to all.

Monday, June 30, 2008

On this rock... (St Peter's Day)

Based on a sermon given at St Peter's Church, Melbourne (Eastern Hill), June 29 2008

During the mid-twentieth century, excavations underneath the High Altar at St Peter’s Basilica in
Rome uncovered a series of ancient tombs, some pre-Christian and others connected with earlier Churches built on that site.

In the early Christian centuries, places of worship were very often built over the tombs of martyrs. In contrast to some other ancient religious traditions including Judaism, which kept mortal remains at a respectful distance, the bodies of the faithful departed and especially the martyrs were focal points that attracted Christian worship and devotion, their relics witnesses to the faith built on their example.

The Church in Rome has from a very early date commemorated the martyrdom there of Peter, and of Paul, and celebrated their life and witness as heroes of local Christian history. The archaeologists working under St Peter’s Basilica found evidence that might confirm this particular connection; across one red-plastered wall containing a burial niche is a piece of graffiti that seems to say, in Greek, “Peter is within”. The ancient and then more recent Basilicas on that site were, then, literal expressions of the idea of building the Church on Peter.

Knowledge of the fact of Peter’s martyrdom, if not the place, was fundamental to his authority in the ancient Church. Although his imprisonment and death are not recorded in the New Testament, they inform the poignant farewell scene at the end of John’s Gospel, where Jesus predicts Peter’s being bound and led where he does not want to go, and the accounts of the story that Jesus said he would build his Church on the ‘rock’ that was Peter. For ancient as for more recent hearers, these would have evoked his faithful witness and the community born from it.

Later however the Church was to read Peter’s status in a somewhat different and more institutional way – not just in the literal building of Churches on his bones, but particularly by thinking of his leadership not as that of an itinerant apostolic martyr who was in Rome when he died, but as a sort of primordial ecclesiastical bureaucrat who had set up shop there. Yes, we made Peter a bishop.

The question of whether Peter was ever bishop in Rome is less a difficult one, than just the wrong one. In the first few decades of the Church’s life there was a mixture of local and apostolic leaders, whose action and interaction was initially more dynamic than institutional. Some of the local leaders were called “bishops”; but it was the fact that Peter died in Rome, not any local leadership role there, that underlay the association between this first among apostles and the city and Church that have been preeminent in western Christian life.

Yet just as the literal fact of St Peter’s Basilica represents and reminds us of his witness, so too episcopacy, not just in Rome but in the universal Church, has always been related to the same apostolic foundation. This is not just the fact of it or its institutional continuity, but the connection with courageous witness is also supposed to tell us something about what leadership in the Church is to be like.

You have probably noticed that the Anglican world is currently full of meetings, especially of bishops. In just over two weeks the Lambeth Conference will take place, with a large majority but not all of the Anglican bishops in attendance. In Jerusalem last week a coalition of conservative Anglicans, led by prominent prelates, made their own claims about the future of the Church.

A great fourth-century bishop and theologian, Gregory of Nazianzus, is said to have written affectingly about such meetings: “I avoid”, he said, “all gatherings of bishops. One finds there love of money and love of power that beggar description”.

This somewhat jaded ancient perspective and our perhaps confused or discouraged modern ones alike tell us that struggles over preeminence in the Church are not new, and that despite sure foundations of apostolic witness, the edifices of the Church structure may sometimes seem less than edifying. Yet it is not primarily institutional structures by which the Church will be judged, even though they are important, but the authenticity of our witness.

We exist in a fragmented Church – by which I mean not merely the well-publicized rifts within Anglicanism, but the divisions of Christianity as a whole. These are the great scandal and difficulty, not internal Anglican ructions. We Anglicans have had a rather unique calling amid the competing and clashing claims of rival groups, namely a claim to inclusion or comprehensiveness; may it continue to be so. It is understandable then if we are discouraged by the current events, whatever our opinions are about the matters at issue.

Yet it is the authentic and costly lived witness of the Church, not its institutional unity, that is the foundation of its claim to real authority. The rock on which Christ built his Church was a real person whose tradition was bequeathed to real places – but it was his martyrdom, not his management, which underlies the great tradition of the Church that was to emerge after him.

The connection of his example with later bishops, in Rome and elsewhere, is not about so much episcopacy per se as about faithful and courageous witness in such leadership. We do have such genuinely Petrine bishops working among us and for us, close by and far away. They include Geoffrey Robinson, a Roman Catholic bishop risking disapproval for his courageous witness concerning abuse in the Church, and now two new women, Barbara and Kay, who are bishops in our own national Church, and who share in this calling. These and many others are inheritors and stewards of that truly Petrine ministry.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Mitre (Still) Fits Just Fine

Cross-posted (and slightly updated) from my Royal Parade Diary blog, where it seems to have gathered a bit of attention...

In the last two weeks I attended historic services in Perth and Melbourne where Australia's first two female Anglican bishops were consecrated. These were moving and joyful occasions, reflections of Anglican diversity as well as celebrations of the full inclusion of women and men in the three historic orders of Christian ministry.

In Perth, Trinity College alumna Archdeacon Kay Goldsworthy became the first Australian woman to join the episcopate when Archbishop Roger Herft and an impressive array of bishops clad in cope and mitre gathered around her in St George's Cathedral, as the congregation sang the ancient hymn Veni Creator Spiritus. Among the bishops was another pioneer, Victoria Matthews, former Bishop of Edmonton in Canada and now elected Bishop of Christchurch, New Zealand. Laying hands on Kay, Bishop Victoria actually became the first woman to exercise a uniquely episcopal ministry in Australia, just ahead of the new colleague over whom she was praying. Speaking to the congregation, Bishop Victoria reminded us that we were not creating some new species called "woman bishop" but rather calling this woman, and others in future alongside men, to the apostolic ministry.

In Melbourne just over a week later, Canon Barbara Darling was made bishop by another crowd of episcopal colleagues, again including one woman - this time Bishop Kay Goldsworthy herself. This time the group was arrayed in the more sombre black, red and white convocation robes that are the traditional dress of Anglican bishops at Morning or Evening Prayer, but used on this occasion in deference to a "low-Church" sensibility still imposed on St Paul's Cathedral by local ecclesiastical politics. Bishop Barbara was handed a cope and mitre - but the liturgy did not provide her the chance to put them on.

The semiotics of liturgical garb are uniquely complex in Anglicanism, and arguments about them can seem twee or just absurd. However these details are reflections of the more explicit battles being waged in the wider Anglican Communion. While acceptance and inclusion of gay and lesbian members and ministers is the most prominent, the place of women in leadership remains one of them.

The robes worn in Melbourne, or rather the perceived necessity of not wearing cope and mitre, can be taken into two ways. First and positively, they represent the support for women's ministry by low-Church or evangelical Anglicans who often prefer that dress, as well as by the more high-Church or catholic wing arrayed around Bishop Kay in Perth. Bishop Barbara Darling is herself an evangelical, a former student and staff member of Ridley College, but has support and respect across the theological spectrum.

Negatively however, the exclusion or marginalization of "catholic" liturgical dress such as cope and mitre at St Paul's Cathedral, even at a time where more evangelical congregations and ministers in Melbourne are ignoring the minimal dress requirements for all Anglican clergy at public worship (i.e. the "surplice"), is startling. It reminds us that there is a less eirenic agenda, harking back to the Puritan strand of earlier Anglican history, that seeks to exclude aspects of ritual and theology that belong to Anglicanism's more catholic side, as well as women's leadership.

The tension is reflected in major upcoming meetings across the Anglican Communion. Bishops Barbara, Kay and Victoria will all attend the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops in July. Some Australian and other conservative bishops have refused to attend Lambeth, and will only go to the "Global Anglican Futures Conference", where conservatives are seeking to articulate and build their alternative Anglican future. Although there will be more women at GAFCON than at Lambeth, there is a sort of give-away line in one authoritative apologia for the new meeting:

"Bishops and their wives, and clergy and laity, including the next generation of young leaders, will attend GAFCON"[1]

"Bishops and their wives" - the wives presumably also being among the laity (and perhaps even clergy?) - betrays not simply a male but a patriarchal mind-set, which must seem highly dubious to many evangelical as well as to liberal and catholic Anglicans.

I should add that whilen I am not sympathetic to the theological vision of GAFCON, I believe Anglicans of other cast should be willing to learn from the initiative it represents, and be open to such learning and cooperation as its actual results allow or demand.

Yet while the mainstream of Anglicanism lacks vision in many places in the West particularly, I believe history will show that the inclusion of women and men in ministry is a crucial area where we got it right. When women were first ordained deacon in 1986 and priest in 1992 there was enormous tension - even a bomb scare. By contrast, the events of the last few weeks in Perth and Melbourne have seemed the natural extension of an experience now widely-shared among Australian Anglicans, of productive and faithful leadership in ministry by women, alongside men.

The onus now lies on opponents of women's participation, very many participants in GAFCON included, to justify their own positions. Their arguments continue to exist, and their consciences must still be respected - but their capacity to dictate terms of exclusion has waned. We should be wary of attempts to distract or divide the Anglican Communion by those whose opposition to the proven and indeed compelling case for full inclusion of women is being obscured by the more contentious matter of including gays and lesbians.

Barbara Harris, the first woman made bishop in the Anglican Communion, said to those gathered at her conscration "The Mitre fits just fine!" It was a statement about more than vesture. I have already seen that Bishop Kay's mitre fits - and look forward to seeing the newer Bishop Barbara's mitre on as well.

[1] Canon Chris Sugden, in the Church Times of January 11 2008.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Three ways of being Church

Another extract from the 2008 Morpeth Lecture...

I suggest there are now three paradigms of Church distinctly at work in the Anglican Communion, locally and globally. By ‘paradigms’ I mean ways of thinking and acting which, whether or not systematically articulated, have real significance in informing the practice and belief of Anglicans about what ‘Church’ is. And in this instance my interest lies in identifying how these paradigms understand the actual structures of Anglicanism, and are now helping generate behaviour within them.

First there is a ‘Confessional’ paradigm, more or less familiar from protestant ecclesiology, which views the Church as an invisible fellowship of believers. In contemporary Anglicanism, the advocates of a Confessional view tend to see the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion as doctrinally constitutive, an Anglican equivalent to the Westminster or Augsburg Confessions. While grounded in the protestant Reformation and always a thread within Anglicanism, this view has emerged with a new and problematic force through some who now sense the possibility of an Anglicanism defined by, rather than just accepting of, what it presumes to call “biblical Christianity”. Although still a small minority in global Anglicanism, this ecclesiological Confessionalism will find a new vehicle in the so-called Global Anglican Future Conference and related networks.

The second Anglican ecclesiological paradigm I will call ‘Institutional’. The proponents or inhabitants of the Institutional paradigm see the visible unity of the Anglican Communion in the same terms otherwise applicable to the universal Church. The ideas of unity, mission, ministry, and whatever else must be characteristic of the Church as a whole, are thus applied directly to the structures of the Anglican Communion itself. This Institutional paradigm is reflected in recent international developments such as the Windsor Report and the resultant proposal for an Anglican Covenant.

The thematic index of the Windsor Report, the 2004 document summarizing the work of the Commission established by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the previous year, includes listings for Authority, Bishops, Canon Law, Homosexuality, Scripture and Theological Development among others, but none for “Church”.[1] This omission is revealing; and what it reveals is a sort of elision or confusion of an understanding of the Anglican Communion itself, and a doctrine of the Church. The reader will find that the term “Communion in Christ” is used to articulate a doctrine of the Church in the Windsor Report, and that this is done in significant and interesting enough terms. Yet the choice of the term “Communion”, however theologically powerful, becomes a device for the Report to slide from a discussion of what Communion in Christ is—what being Church or being Christian is, one would have assumed—to what the Anglican Communion is. There is no account of how that provisional and partial ecclesial reality which Anglicanism would have to be, from either classical protestant or Catholic points of view, relates to the universal Church. The assumption of the Windsor Report seems to be merely that if ‘Communion in Christ’ means certain things, then ‘Anglican Communion’ does too. A similar argument could be made for the way in which the biblical language of 'Covenant' has been applied in that process emerging from the Windsor Report to the institutional challenges of contemporary Anglicanism, without an altogether convincing transition.

I do not mean to suggest that this ecclesiological weakness invalidates efforts in global Anglicanism intended to foster understanding or unity. But I do mean to suggest that the basis for these may not be as theologically strong as their proponents assume, and that more and different thinking is necessary.

The third paradigm I wish to propose is more elusive, so I will start not with a label but a description. I believe that there are many professedly evangelical as well as catholic Anglicans for whom ‘Anglicanism’ describes a large network of Christians who, within the universal Church constituted by baptism into a common faith, share above all a particular history. This history has various versions, with narrative threads which all lead back to the Church of England, directly or otherwise. That history has various markers: liturgical, architectural, theological, and more. Few Anglican groups in the global diaspora have identical approaches to all these things, but there are few or no Anglicans who share none of them. Their sense of the Church as a whole is defined not by this history alone, but above all by baptism into a common faith.

The first or Confessional paradigm views the set of structures and communities that constitutes Anglicanism is only partly an adequate manifestation of Church, even in the provisional and visible sense. The second or Institutional tends to identify Anglicanism and Church, at least functionally. This third or ‘Historical’ paradigm resembles the second in viewing the structures of the Church as inherently significant, and is hence essentially catholic in mode rather than protestant, but shares with the Confessional paradigm a sense of Anglicanism as a partial and provisional manifestation of something larger, to which it must always be related.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Pentecost: "Spiritual but not Religious"

From a sermon preached at St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne, on Pentecost 2008

There is a growing literature about “the spiritual”, appealing not only to the conventionally religious, but to a wider audience perhaps unconvinced about religion, but convinced that there is something more to their existence than the purely material. There are corporate gurus now interested in “spiritual capital”, placed alongside the obvious material sort, and other kinds like “social capital”, as a means of developing more capable and reflective employees and organizations. There is now talk among educators of “spiritual intelligence” as a distinct form of knowing alongside the traditional IQ and other recent ideas like “emotional intelligence”.

The real competition for the Churches and for religion generally may not be atheism so much as that quite different possibility, of being “spiritual but not religious” – an intriguing and increasingly common self-description. Presumably God would say as much – although this need not mean it can apply equally to others! Perhaps despite the scepticism of our time we, the religious and irreligious alike, still tend to agree that there an inescapably spiritual dimension to life, something within and around us that is greater than ourselves and which demands attention and response.

The Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit – of the presence of God through all of creation and life itself – may be a point of engagement for the Church with the sensibilities of our contemporaries. Christians, too, believe that there is a universal spiritual presence, which is far more than the distant creator over whom we can allow Dawkins to argue with fundamentalists. The Christian God is not merely a hypothesis invoked to explain the ultimate origins of the Universe, but also and far more so, the reality we experience as the present meaning and purpose of our lives.

This possibility of Christians thinking about the “spiritual” as a universal present reality depends on our remembering or learning that the Holy Spirit is not a sort of ecclesiastical peculiarity. There is a temptation for us to think that the gifts of the Spirit we recognize in ministry and sacraments are the main focus of the Holy Spirit’s reality, or that Pentecost is the first appearance of the Holy Spirit in history.

In fact the story in which the Spirit first appears comes rather earlier in scripture:

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters” (Gen 1).

The same Hebrew words can be translated “Spirit of God” or “mighty wind”, and we have no means – or need – to resolve that ambiguity. It would certainly be wrong to exclude the sense that these opening words of the Bible refer to the gift of the Spirit as given with and to creation itself. The great fourth-century theologian St Basil of Caesarea refers approvingly to a traditional understanding that in creation the Spirit “cherished the nature of the waters as one sees a bird cover the eggs with her body and impart to them a force of life from her own warmth…that is, prepared the nature of [the deep] to produce living beings” (Hexameron, 2.6).

The Psalms likewise acknowledge this divine creative presence in all life:

[all creatures] look to you
to give them their food in due season…
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the earth (Ps 104).

The biblical picture is that the Spirit is God’s active engagement with creation, continually moulding, enervating, loving, spurring it and us to our ultimate form. And this says something about creation too quite different from mechanistic creationism – that God’s work in it and us is not complete, but continual.

So if the Spirit is always active in creation, at all times, what is the Church saying about Pentecost and its own history when we celebrate the story retold today from the Acts of the Apostles? What the Spirit does in the Church is what the Spirit has always done in creation – making and remaking, giving life and giving new life. So the Spirit is not new or confined to the Church; the Church is new, and a sort of sacrament of the Spirit in the world. The Church exists to be a sign of God’s transforming creative love and power, but does not contain or exhaust that love and power.

We must admit that this witness by the Church over its history has been mixed at best; in particular we have fallen into the trap of treating the Spirit of God as justification for static institutional entrenchment, rather than as the source of creative power and new life. Our failures as Church, more than any inherent scientific implausibility about faith, are the greatest challenge to Christian credibility.

But that same Spirit has wrestled us into whatever creativity and community we have and we are as Church. The Spirit acts on our formlessness and inertia, like that of the primeval chaos, infusing us with life, love and creativity. In us the Spirit has acted for justice and compassion; by means of us the story of Jesus has been told and retold to many eager listeners; through us the Spirit has caused these stones to spring to life in the imposing statement of this very building.

And there is something in this call to be Church, to be people of the Spirit, which goes far beyond what being “spiritual but not religious” assumes or asserts. The Spirit works in the Church as a human community, just as in creation – not coercively, and not without ambiguity, but cherishing, imparting the force of life. It is not at our disposal – it changes us.

For there is no “spiritual capital” without justice, and no “spiritual intelligence” without love. Faith in the Holy Spirit is a willingness to discern and to cooperate with the Spirit’s work in Church and world, to put ourselves in creative relationship with the God who has made and is making the world, brooding over us, giving us life. The existence of the Church is a sign that the ultimate reality to which God calls us is not determined by us as purely autonomous individuals, harnessing ‘spirituality’ into the service of whatever goals we have set for ourselves independently of the Spirit’s creative, generative influence.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Quadrilateral

An extract from the 2008 Morpeth Lecture.

While the first Lambeth Conference was taking place and William Tyrrell was working to establish and expand his flock in Newcastle, American Episcopal priest William Reed Huntington was writing a book.

Huntington’s career was spent in parish ministry largely divided between two cures, at All Saints’ in Worcester, Massachusetts and Grace Church in the city of New York. His accomplishments were many: he was the leading member of the House of Clergy in the General Convention of the Episcopal Church for decades, and a significant innovator in areas including liturgy, mission and, at a strikingly early date, women’s ministry. [Pardon me if I pause here to note and celebrate the recent election of my classmate at Trinity College, Kay Goldsworthy, as the first bishop in the Australian Anglican Church].

Huntington’s most enduring theological contribution however is well known, but not so well-known as his. It was made in a book germinating during the 1867 Lambeth Conference, published in 1870, and called The Church-Idea: An Essay Toward Unity.[3] There he proposed a ‘Quadrilateral’ or four-sided figure, four elements fundamental to the Christian Church—the Scriptures, Creeds, the two Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist and the Episcopate— as both the essence of a genuinely Anglican position, and a basis for efforts towards Christian unity.

Huntington was a broad churchman committed to Christian unity in and for mission, and had a vision of a truly national Church in the United States, that would reflect the ethos of Anglicanism not by confessional or liturgical specifics inherited from the Church of England, but in a reformed Catholicism that could encompass the Christian population of a nation.

Huntington was seeking to identify the universal and fundamental characteristics of a unified catholic Christianity as manifested in the ancient Church of the early centuries. Huntington was not merely being romantic in invoking the vision of the ancient Church; he knew that any golden age of unity, peace and freedom for the early Church was largely mythical, a few years between Constantine’s conversion and his interventions in theological and ecclesiastical politics.[4] The Church however had had episcopal governance from a very early stage, and had performed the two sacraments of baptism and eucharist even since before its emergence from Judaism as a distinct religious movement, and hence before the canon of scripture itself, or the creeds. These elements were inextricably linked as characteristic of what has subsequently been seen as Christianity.

Of course Huntington’s particular dream of a unified American Christianity was not to be, but the bold vision had its impact on American and on global Christianity. The confident but broad assertions of Huntington’s Quadrilateral gave Anglicans conceptual tools for ecumenical engagement as never before, not only with other episcopally-governed Churches but also with protestant Churches with whom they could dialogue with greater openness, having established grounds of difference as well as commonality. There are clear lines of influence extending from Huntington’s work to the World Conference on Faith and Order, precursor of the World Council of Churches, in 1927.[5]

The House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church as a whole had endorsed the Quadrilateral in 1886, and the Lambeth Conference of 1888 did the same, putting its own stamp on it in the mind of most Anglicans outside the USA. These endorsements, like the original proposal, were intended to describe the basic characteristics of the universal Church with mission and ecumenism in mind, not to analyse the underlying characteristics of Anglicanism. Yet the result has usually been less expansive - Anglicans think of the ‘Lambeth Quadrilateral’ as a sort of denominational descriptor in four bullet points.

My purpose in recounting this narrative involves three things. First I do intend this story specifically to enjoin the Quadrilateral as a sufficient basis for Christian and by implication Anglican unity today, over against current attempts to recycle the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion as a sort of Anglican ‘confession’ comparable to those of the continental protestant Churches. But the second and more fundamental point I wish to make would apply to the Articles as well.

No really significant movement for renewal within Anglicanism has begun, or is likely to begin, with attempts to define Anglicanism itself. The key moments and movement for various Anglicans, ‘high’, ‘low’ and other, all stemmed from attempts to identify and enact what was adequately and necessarily Christian. The Articles of Religion and the Quadrilateral, and for that matter the Reformation and the Oxford Movement themselves, all have this in common – that they were not attempts to establish distinctly Anglican groups or practices, let alone protestant or Anglo-Catholic ones, but to assert the fundamental and universal meaning and demands of Christian faith.

My third reason for invoking the Quadrilateral then is this. I do not believe that core practices or beliefs held for the sake of Anglicanism, rather than for the sake of the Gospel itself, are likely to inspire the necessary confidence or commitment that will provide a future vision for Anglicanism. The Quadrilateral will not serve Anglicans simply as a way of passively marking boundaries which the willing or the curious may cross if they choose. If its elements are worthy of defence they are worthy of advocacy as well. The paradox it offers and demands is that Anglicanism must look beyond itself to renew itself, and therefore be open to a diverse future or futures.

[1] Robert Prichard, A History of the Episcopal Church (Harrisburg: Morehouse, 1991), 187-90.

[2] Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), 10.

[3] First published in New York, by E. P. Dutton and Company, 1870.

[4] John Woolverton, "Huntington's Quadrilateral: A Critical Study", Church History, 39 (1970), 207.

[5] Notably through the work of Charles Brent, Episcopal missionary bishop in the Philippines and later Bishop of Western New York; see A. C. Zabriskie, Bishop Brent: Crusader for Christian Unity (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1948).

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Naked Truth: Holy Week 2008

Based on a sermon given on Palm Sunday 2008 in the Chapel of Trinity College.

The work of funeral directors and of those concerned with the running of cemeteries and crematoria has never appealed to me greatly, with my apologies to fans of the morbid glamour of Six Feet Under. My gratitude however for the fact that there are people who do concern themselves with these indispensable functions has only grown with the news of a novel occupational hazard in crematoria, the exploding mobile phone.

Phone batteries can explode when overheated, and apparently these cases stem from mourners slipping the deceased’s ‘cell’ into clothing or coffin prior to funeral and cremation, and disaster ensuing when the contents are committed to the flames of the furnace.

This phenomenon of the mortuary mobile could reflect a sort of ultimate funeral insurance for the deceased – if you weren’t really dead, perhaps you could call or at least text for help. There is an urban legend drawing on older technology, about the founder of the Christian Science movement, Mary Baker Eddy, whose tomb in Boston was alleged to have had a telephone installed, just in case!

But I suspect the case of the fatal phone in the furnace is about something else, and that it reflects the tendency for funerals and burials to be increasingly laden, not just with objects but with words and symbols too, in ways that suggest something of a contemporary crisis about death.

Inside coffins, it’s not just phones that are turning up, but all sorts of objects associated with status, or work, or recreation – whatever defines the deceased in the eyes of the their loved ones. Evidence suggests more and more objects are being placed with corpses – golf putters, gadgets, toys, a sports season ticket, guns, cigarettes, have all featured in recent times. We are beginning to resemble the ancient Egyptians in apparent desire to equip ourselves for the afterlife – but there lies the great irony. It seems there is an inverse relationship between what we actually believe about death and what follows it, and the amount of stuff we want to heap on and around the dead.

Those of us who officiate at funerals can tell you that even if we don’t see what is inside the coffin, there is a sort of verbal proliferation outside it that has become normative for many. Eulogies were once rare, and accorded to persons of particular distinction. Now many seem to think a funeral is incomplete without a handful of them – although the idea of a sermon may seem genuinely puzzling.

Both the verbal and the material forms of funereal accumulation or adornment are problematic, because they are attempts to shield or wrap ourselves in assurances about who they were and who we are that avoid the simple stark reality of death.

One of the reasons crucifixion was a demeaning and shameful end, even by comparison to other forms of execution, was that it amounted to an extended exhibition or humiliation of the sufferer. A victim was stripped not only of safety and health but of garments. Even the loincloth of iconographical tradition adorning the crucified Jesus protects our sensibilities rather than his dignity - it is unlikely to have existed. The crucified were held up naked for ridicule, as well as agony - a ridicule that consisted in taking away in death everything that might have covered or adorned the victim in life. Jesus’ burial also has no trappings associated with it – a niche hewn from rock, borrowed for a time – and no cell phone.

Jesus’ death and burial, an end which involves stripping, shedding or giving up all that has been grasped or given before, contrasts markedly with our accumulative approaches to death and what lies beyond it. And yet because of that he does speak to us beyond death. Jesus’ death itself asks us whether the measure of a life really lies in what we insist on wrapping it with, now or retrospectively – wealth or possessions, status or qualifications, or whatever we risk using to avoid our mortality. Can we face the possibility of our own death without the cell phone or the high-sounding words assuring us that we really were that great? Perhaps the measure of our life is really more what we gave up or let go of, in order to be really, truly human.

For on the cross, this is what Jesus exhibits, freely and without artifice. He takes to the cross and grave nothing more than our common humanity, a life lived for other’s sake and for love’s sake. And in this death bare of artifice Christians find a life worth remembering, worth following; and more than that, hope of life beyond death itself.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Rowan Williams' Penance: Britain and the Sharia

This piece was commissioned by the ABC for their 'Unleashed' opinion pages; it can also be found here, along with a flurry of commentary that seems more or less to underscore my point (mostly unwittingly). More to the point, given my concerns, you can find the original lecture here.

Last Thursday, the day after the Christian penitential season of Lent began, Rowan Williams took up his cross in a new and unforeseen way. Just when many thought his greatest challenge and burden in the first part of 2008 was the fragmentation besetting the world-wide Anglican Communion, a firestorm has erupted in Britain itself over the Archbishop of Canterbury’s comments in a lecture at the Royal Courts of Justice and a related BBC interview concerning possible application of Sharia, the Muslim legal tradition. The reactions of the British press and public to his reflections have pushed gay American bishops and strident African fundamentalists well onto the backburner.

The most interesting and worrisome thing about this new controversy is not the content of Dr Williams’ lecture, or even the broader issue of Islamic law in Britain, but the violence of the reaction. Outpourings of horror and derision have come from thousands of people who have no idea what he actually suggested, and hundreds who think they do, but have responded to his assumed views without meaningful reference to his actual words. The Archbishop hit a nerve that has sent a whole section of British society into paroxysms not so much about what he said, as about what they fear.

The proposals the Dr Williams made were actually quite unremarkable, consisting of some gentle, and fairly incidental, glances at the emerging but far from complete accommodation in Britain of aspects of Sharia related to issues such as marriage. His real concern in the lecture was to ask more fundamental questions about the relationship between the practices and identities of faith communities – including the Christian Church - and the fundamentals of civil law in a pluralistic society.

The Archbishop’s thoughts were as much a description of existing and emerging legal practice as a call for change. There are many examples in the UK, and for that matter here in Australia, where forms of consultation rooted in particular traditions and communities are treated as viable and valuable supplements to conventional legal proceedings and practices. In the UK, a Beit Din or Jewish Court has long been able to exercise jurisdiction for certain cases between Orthodox Jews, often to do with marriage and divorce. In Australia, the closest analogy might be the uses of traditional law in certain Aboriginal communities. There are less charged examples, such as agreed conciliation processes, or local experiments with community conferences for young offenders. All these cases presume a particular set of understandings shared by participants, and all have their relationship to the law as a whole defined.

We might be properly concerned about how such sub-systems dove-tail with the wider application of civil law, and about maintaining the values or opportunities that have to prevail in a free society. Dr Williams himself was more than clear, stating adamantly that no Islamic (or other) system working as an adjunct to the civil law could be allowed to disadvantage women, for instance, on the basis of custom or culture: “no 'supplementary' jurisdiction could have the power to deny access to the rights granted to other citizens or to punish its members for claiming those rights”.

Yet the public commentary since last Thursday has assumed or asserted that the Archbishop said or implied something quite different: some speak as though he called for a whole code of Islamic law to be implemented, including the worst excesses of the Taliban; others, that he envisaged British Courts themselves administering Sharia instead of British law. These and various other accusations since levelled at him are quite untrue.

Why, when all this is so important for Britain, does a serious and nuanced voice raised in the debate find itself caricatured and howled down? The deep-seated fear of Islam in many parts of the UK seems to have become debilitating to public discourse. Now the capacity of leading figures in British society to engage critically and seriously with the challenge is in question.

Dr Williams has set an example as important as it is forlorn. Few in Britain seem to have felt any desire, let alone responsibility, for directing the public to the issues which affect marginal Muslim and fearful secularist or Christian alike, or even to the real words of Rowan Williams. Politicians have dived for cover. Journalistic commentators have mouthed pompously about him as “bonkers” or “reckless”, wondering loudly about the Archbishop’s judgement and common sense in sparking such a fire, all the while fanning it vigorously themselves.

Of course legal or quasi-legal processes linked to religious and/or ethnic communities are particularly sensitive – but this is why they have to be discussed openly by community leaders. Muffling the debate under hoots and howls is a recipe for disaster. The fear and ignorance abroad about Islam in particular simply cannot be presented as part of a political or social landscape that a canny ecclesiastical bureaucrat will avoid. It must be named and faced, and changed.

If there is hope to be gleaned from this sorry state of affairs, it will be through some few who persist in telling the truth. Dr Williams was right to raise the issue, whether he is right about the particulars of accommodating Sharia in Britain or not. Such a debate as he foreshadowed, but which has been shouted down for the moment, is necessary not only for a serious engagement with Islam and its adherents in Western societies, but for West’s creative response to the subtler question of how our secularism and our religious traditions can coexist.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Days of the Triffids

Long ago I played a very minor role in the pre-history of the Triffids, an Australian band which has continued to gain critical acclaim long after its end in the early 90s and the death of singer-songwriter David McComb in 1999. Last year SBS TV featured their Born Sandy Devotional album in a series on Great Australian Albums. A re-formed version of the band is about to play a series of gigs at the Sydney Festival this week. Meanwhile their albums are being re-released on Domino Records.

I am currently writing a chapter for a book of essays about McComb and the Triffids, focussing on religion. This is a precis.

Many comments about the Triffids’ music and its appeal have focussed on its peculiarly Australian character. The specifics of David McComb’s imagery and the very fact of his attention to religious questions and symbols sit awkwardly with that assessment. Rather than showing a more typically Australian secular apathy or animus to Christian faith, he employs its trappings powerfully, if piecemeal, in his construction of a world of yearning, distance and hope. And the specific forms that faith takes in his songs are not immediately derived from the religious practices of his own Australian upbringing, but are the product both of the US-dominated popular culture of his childhood and youth, and of the reflections on faith and religion found in a literary canon of European and American, as well as Australian, authors.

The religion of David’s songs is not exactly the “semi-Pelagianism” that some have said is more or less inevitable in the kind of Anglican boys’ school we went to. It is, however, unmistakeably Christian, and far more resonant of edgier forms both of Protestant and of Catholic piety or faith. While it may have been influenced by some childhood familial experience of a Presbyterian Church in suburban Perth, as well as informed by religious education at Christ Church Grammar School, the details of its imagery were really those of his own voracious teenage and adult absorption of an unlikely and wide-ranging canon of music and literature.

Although the set of religious symbols that appears in his songs does not map clearly onto any one form of historic Christianity, it has some affinity with a trajectory of introspective and somewhat pessimistic thought that can be traced from Paul of Tarsus to Augustine of Hippo, and then through the Reformation to Kierkegaard. This is a Christianity of grace, not works, which may or may not include the trappings of symbol and ritual, but always centres on the need of a broken person for redemption.

This dynamic, so often present in his songs even where religious language is not, defies assimilation to the glib “spiritual but not religious” tag that might otherwise suggest itself for McComb’s ambivalent stance. There is no trace here of the banal “spirituality” of contemporary popular thought, the benign and domesticable reality that makes all quasi-divine; David’s divinity is gut-wrenching, all-absorbing, fearsome, and largely absent.

It is not much like Nick Cave’s well-known love of the Old Testament. It meets the eye and ear as a pastiche of elements from the film, popular music and other media of the mid-twentieth century, but there is also an enormously sophisticated layer beneath, created from his formal and informal forays into literature like Rainer Maria Rilke and Flannery O’Connor—David’s music would make an eerily apt soundtrack for any re-make of Wise Blood.

While eclectic, the recurrence of American mythology in this imagery is striking. The songs, religious in symbolism or not, manage the creation of a mythic American-tinged world that perhaps was only imaginable from Perth, or at least from Australia. In it, wild preachers in dustbowl towns are neighbours to tortured souls behind convent walls as well as salt-of-the-earth rural Chapel-goers, all serving a deity mysterious, dangerous, deeply loved and often denied. Into this landscape the narrators or subjects of McComb’s imagination come driving or stumbling, spires as well as saloons in the background, bringing the sensibilities of their less exotic background and marvelling in a world writ large, more colourful than their own.

Perhaps, however, the eclectic or imported character of these religious elements does actually not make them less Australian. Debates about Australian values and virtues are a reminder of how banal it is to characterize Australia and its culture solely in terms of what is exclusively or iconically Australian in the view of a few, rather than in terms of the mixture of experiences and influences that actually constitute the eclectic reality of Australian cultural practice. Although David McComb’s religious world seems rather American, it is a sort of America assembled in a psyche formed in suburban Perth, Melbourne pubs and London garrets, and steeped in Rainer Maria Rilke and Thomas Mann, as well as in Flannery O’Connor and John Steinbeck. And given the experiences of the people who followed the Triffids or who have found some significance in their music—the intellectuals, expats, artists and travellers—we might have to admit that this America of the mind is a very Australian sort of reality.

David’s songs are arguably a darker and more pessimistic contribution to a chorus of younger Australian artists and intellectuals who surprisingly, given our secular self-image, find in Christianity rather more than delusion or boredom. Nick Cave, Tim Winton and Nikki Gemmell herself are among the others who have publicly been connected with Christianity in ways somewhat oblique both to the traditional or institutional Church and to mega-Church fundamentalism. These are serious questioners, like David McComb, and with him they are in good company. They remind us that religion, whether or not we profess it, is not merely propositions or institutions but something existential, a quest that recognizes the perplexity of life and seeks symbols and examples that make sense of suffering, loss and love.