Thursday, August 6, 2009

Tim Chesterton on Williams and Wright

Tim Chesterton is Rector of St. Margaret's in Edmunton, Canada:

Unlike many of those who are commenting on recent statements about the future of the Anglican Communion by Rowan Williams and Tom Wright, I have no wish to enter into theological controversy with them. On the basic issue, I agree with them (well, with Wright, anyway; even now, I'm really not sure exactly what Williams' personal position is, because of his previously stated conviction that his role as Archbishop of Canterbury requires him to attempt to speak for the Anglican Communion as a whole, rather than giving his own personal views).

I will say, though, that I don't think Rowan Williams takes any personal joy in outlining this particular view of the Anglican future. I suspect that, in his heart of hearts, he is still enormously sympathetic to gay people and would prefer to preserve a big-tent Anglicanism in which a diversity of viewpoints on this issue is tolerated. But this is not the political reality of the Anglican Communion, and Rowan has to deal with the reality, not the ideal. The majority of Anglicans worldwide have said that a decision to continue down the road of same-sex blessings and gay ordinations is a decision to walk apart from the rest of the Communion. Whether he likes it or not, this is the political hand that Rowan has been dealt.

Tom Wright, however, disappoints me. I say this as a person who has great respect for his enormous scholarship. His books about Jesus and Paul (including The New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, What St. Paul Really Said, and so on) have had a huge impact on the way I read the Bible, and have really helped me understand the life and teaching of Jesus in its proper context in the first century world. Tom Wright as New Testament scholar is an inspiration to me, but Tom Wright as an international ecclesiastical politician repels me. This is because he really seems to relish the cut and thrust of the debate and the imagining of future ecclesiastical realities in which he is cut off from erstwhile friends and colleagues in a new two-track Anglican Communion, simply because they disagree with him over one issue. He sees the future in terms of new configurations and new excommunications and possible new instruments of unity between the two tracks. What is absent in what he has written is how he sees the future for gay and lesbian couples who love each other. He is dealing with an issue, not with individuals and couples.

I repeat, it pains me to have to be so critical of one from whom I've learned so much in my reading of the New Testament. But I must say that one of the strongest arguments against the Church of England's system of crown appointments is the appointment of Tom Wright as Bishop of Durham. He should have stayed in the world of biblical scholarship and resisted the temptation to become an ecclesiastical grandee. His growing image (justified or not) as a mouthpiece of the Anglican right wing is only going to hurt the image of his scholarship, and in my view this would be a tragedy.

I repeat, I do not disagree with his view of same-sex unions or gay ordinations. Nor do I doubt that he and his friend Rowan Williams have read the mind of the Anglican Communion correctly. What I miss in their writings, though, is a tone of regret that things should have come to this.

After all, is it not a shame that people with a professed high view of the authority of the Bible and the consensus of the early church should have chosen to take their stand on this particular issue, to have drawn this particular line in the sand?

They could have chosen a couple of other issues, on both of which the Bible is every bit as clear (more so in my view), and which are every bit as relevant to the struggles of people in the modern world.

The first is the issue of war and peace. It is acknowledged by most people that, for the first three centuries of Christianity, the infant church was overwhelmingly pacifist in its interpretation of the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. The early Christians believed and taught that followers of Jesus must not kill others, even as soldiers in war or as magistrates imposing legally-sanctioned capital punishment. This position began to soften later in the post-apostolic period, and when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire in the fourth century A.D., it was not long before a new position emerged, based on a marriage of pagan philosophy and Old Testament teaching: the so-called 'just war' view. But when it was first proposed this was a novelty, an innovation as startling to the early Church as acceptance of same-sex unions is to traditional Christians today.

So why not draw this line in the sand, if we're going to draw lines? After all, the biggest threat to Christian unity is not when Anglicans and Roman Catholics disagree about papal authority or who is or is not a real priest. The biggest threat to Christian unity is that, in many places in the world (recent tribal conflicts in Africa come to mind) it is considered quite acceptable for Christians to kill their fellow-Christians out of loyalty to their own ethnic group. Pacifist Christian groupings such as the Mennonites are sometimes classified as 'sects', but surely this is the ultimate sectarianism: the division of worldwide Christianity into national churches or ethnic churches which then legitimise the killing of fellow-Christians.

So if we're going to draw lines in the sand, why not this one? Early Christianity agreed that Christian faithfulness excluded violence and war. Those who are willing to go along with the early consensus of Christianity in its interpretation of the New Testament could be in track one of the Anglican Communion; those who accept the revisionist interpretation of the just-war position could be in track two.

Or if we want another issue, how about usury? Most Christians today don't even know what that word means! But the Bible is unanimous in disallowing the lending of money at interest; everywhere the practice is mentioned in the scriptures it is condemned. Furthermore, for the first fifteen centuries of Christian history, this was the view of the overwhelming majority of Christians, a view that was not challenged until the Protestant Reformation gave more of a green light to capitalism.

Now, granted, there was a certain amount of hypocrisy in the way that this view was applied in medieval Christendom (Christians weren't allowed to lend money at interest, but kings needed those loans anyway, so they made the Jews the investment bankers of the medieval world; it's unclear to me how Jewish people squared this with the Torah, which is where the strongest condemnations of usury are found). Granted, also, many modern scholars question whether the sort of money-lending which the Bible condemns (taking advantage of your neighbour's poverty by charging him interest on relief loans when he's down and out) is exactly the same as the provision of loans for homeowners and businesses today. But then, isn't this exactly the same sort of argument that gay and lesbian Christians make, when they say that biblical references to homosexuality do not refer to couples who want to live in lifelong monogamous faithful unions? So if we allow one 'revisionist reinterpretation' (the legitimising of usury), why not another (the legitimising of gay unions)?

So why isn't the Anglican Communion making this the line in the sand? Surely it's a huge issue today; it can be argued that usury has condemned millions of people in Africa to lifelong poverty with no hope of relief. Why isn't the Anglican Communion worldwide standing up and saying, 'Acceptance of usury is unfaithful to the teaching of the Bible and it perpetuates poverty and injustice in the world today, so those who accept it will from now on be relegated to track two of the Anglican Communion'?

I have a nasty suspicion about the reasons why the Communion is not going to take a stand on these two issues of war and usury. I suspect that the reason has a lot to do with the fact that taking this stand would have an enormous cost for huge numbers of us. Many Anglicans are in fact investment bankers, or stockbrokers, and many, many more take advantage of the modern capitalist system (which is based on usury through and through) to get loans to buy houses and cars and to start businesses and so on. Dissenting from this all-pervasive system would have enormous economic and social consequences for us. And in a similar way, we all depend (or at least, we think we do) on our armies to keep us safe from international rogue states and terrorists and so on. Making a decision to follow Jesus in loving our enemies and refusing to strike back against them would inevitably have deadly consequences: after all, it led Jesus to the Cross, and he assured us it would do the same for us ('take up your cross and follow me').

Sadly, for the vast majority of Anglicans the issue of homosexuality does not carry that personal price-tag. Most of us are straight; we aren't the ones who would be bearing the cross if the church as a whole agreed that same-sex unions are not a legitimate part of a life of following Jesus. Gays and lesbians are an easy target, because there aren't many of them (tho' more, perhaps, than some Christians would like to think).

Personally, I think it's a tragedy that we're drawing these lines in the sand at all. Historically, it's not been our way as Anglicans. On the (equally clear) biblical teachings about war and peace and about usury, we've allowed for a variety of biblical interpretation. Why is homosexuality so despicable that we don't make similar allowances?

For me, a two-track Anglican Communion would be a tragedy. As I've said, my own view on the subject is traditional, but there are many people with whom I disagree on this issue but agree on almost every other facet of the Christian faith. Contrariwise, there are people with whom I agree on this issue but strongly disagree on many other elements of Christian faith and practice.

So to go back to Rowan and Tom. I think it's a tragedy that Rowan's role as Archbishop of Canterbury requires him to play the role of an ecclesiastical politician in planning the future structures of a divided Anglican Communion, and I think it's sad that Tom seems to relish his role in these global machinations. Maybe they think that (in Luther's terms) 'Here I stand, I can do no other', but if that is the case, I wish they would reflect on why they think they can do no other; is it in the service of God, or is it in the service of the Anglican Communion? Because, of course, these are not necessarily the same thing.


  1. Sadly, I agree with his assessment of Wright, whose books have nourished me enormously. He is spot on regarding the Resurrection and spot off when it comes to homosexuality. I'm concerned that his ecclesiastical gallivanting will keep him from finishing the series of books of which Resurrection of the Son of God is the latest installment.

  2. Fr Jones

    Great post, as always. While I agree with Chesterton in nearly all respects, I wish to address critically a few of his observations beginning first with his closing observations/lamentations about Rowan and Tom:

    "I think it's a tragedy that Rowan's role as Archbishop of Canterbury requires him to play the role of an ecclesiastical politician in planning the future structures of a divided Anglican Communion, and I think it's sad that Tom seems to relish his role in these global machinations."

    Rowan is by hook or by crook certainly a servant of God but also a politician. Anyone who doubts that is neither honest with himself/herself nor fully grasps the systemic nature of the Communion’s administration and what is required for its polity. I wager that Chesterton has more than a healthy grasp of this reality, but it seems to have left him when he makes statements like that.

    While I would love to agree that Rowan and any other bishop is merely a well-vested apostolic instrument of God's peace (I certainly think they are), he/they are also consummate politicians charged with the very real responsibility of the governance of the Communion, diocese and local parish (in the case of a rector). Heck, we as parishioners are politicians in our own right, whether we realize it or not. To lament the fact that Rowan is merely engaged as an "ecclesiastical politician in planning the future of structures of a divided AC" is to miss the very important fact that a) he is indeed doing just that, and b) that is his job, like it or not. To lament Tom's "relish[ing] his role in these global machinations" is also to miss the very important place NT Wright carries within the Communion.

    While I certainly don't intend to devalue anyone, much less the fine folks within Wright's diocese of Durham, the primary things Durham has going for it are about 15 days of sunshine per year, one of the greatest cathedrals in the known world (completed in 1093, by the way; the burial place of the Venerable Bead and the first documented use of the ancient rite of sanctuary, all of which I find fascinating in their own right) and a beautiful river-side university (and a decent cricket ground up the road a bit). NT Wright’s appointment to his current post, I argue, was never about local Durham issues or solely that which would/should remain within that diocese. He, like Borg here stateside, is a consummate academic and scholar first and a churchman second whose opinion is widely regarded and much-needed beyond just his local charges. I agree with Chesterton and many others here that Wright seems to be coming from long mid-off (cricket reference) in some of his recent reasoning and statements.

    In discussing Wright, Chesterton states, “He sees the future in terms of new configurations and new excommunications and possible new instruments of unity between the two tracks. What is absent in what he has written is how he sees the future for gay and lesbian couples who love each other. He is dealing with an issue, not with individuals and couples.” Chesterton seems to forget that Wright is merely addressing the lay of the land as it has now been formed and, within his domain, issues are more important than individuals. For Chesterton to take exception that Wright is now acting for “possible new instruments of unity between two tracks” is incongruous. Like it or not, there are now at least two tracks. What else is Wright supposed to do? Chesterton should, rightly, take exception to what Wright is saying and not the fact that he is engaging in the debate or the now-concluded result of the debate. Instead, Chesterton seems to wish for a single, like-minded track without controversy or fissure. There has never been such a time in the Communion since its inception. Indeed, the very beginnings of the Communion were based upon dissolution, pillage and controversy.

    [continued on next post]

  3. [cont'd from last post]

    I fully realize that there is an immense history to which Rowan and Wright are now responding. To me, Chesterton has confused their response with an assumption that they are each preemptively attacking. Rowan and Wright are responding (perhaps not to our collective liking, mind you), not striking.

    Chesterton cannot blame others for dismantling the Communion when it is we who took a different tack which deviated from the norm.

    In light of what I feel are flaws in Chesterton’s statements, I submit that there are two rather difficult questions we must ask ourselves: First, do we as the Episcopal church in the US want to continue being associated (however tightly or loosely that ends up being) with others who distinctly and devoutly disagree with us (whether here or abroad)? Second, should we lament the resulting disunity that inevitably comes with any non-normative act (again, whether our own act or that of others with whom we disagree)? To me, we’re drunk on our own Kool-Aid if we do not acknowledge the damage (for better or for worse) that ensues anytime anyone or any institution breaks with the norm--whatever the issue and whatever the method.

    Our resolution acknowledging the disagreement by others with us in doing what we have done is a good place to start answering the above questions in the affirmative. However, we shouldn’t be gobsmacked whenever those in the Communion take exception to our break with the norm. This is a natural and obvious response. What is key for us as Christians first and parishioners/clergy second is to understand and realize that our means are at least of equal importance to (if not more important) than the end result.

    If the end result is destruction, then we have merely replaced one form of fundamentalism with our own. We must also be careful not to engage in destructive means in an attempt to arrive at a peaceful end as that is no real peace at all.

  4. N. T. Wright’s academic work has contributed greatly to my understanding of Christianity, but I am appalled by much that Wright has written about the current disputes over how the church should treat gays and lesbians. As for the Archbishop of Canterbury, I commented on his recent remarks in Whither Thou Goest on the “Old” Anglican Centrist and will say no more.

    What really got me thinking was Father Chesterton’s discussion of the changes in the church’s attitude toward usury. In the social and economic conditions of the ancient and medieval world, lending money at interest seemed to have little or no social benefits and was seen to lead to repellant conduct and injurious consequences. Today, lending money at interest results in increased prosperity and a higher standard of living for huge numbers of people -- if you own a home or a car, if you attended college, if you own or work for a small business, and so forth, it’s likely that money-lending by someone made it possible. Morality didn’t change, but the world did.

    (I don’t mean that lending can never be evil – obviously it sometimes is. I only mean that we don’t regard lending as being inherently evil.)

    The same may also be true of homosexuality. The “shameful lusts” and “indecent acts” of the idolaters that Paul described in Romans I would have been regarded by his readers as typical of idolators and repugnant. But that conduct has no real connection to the desire by partnered gays and lesbians today to have their unions acknowledged and blessed by their church (and legalized by their government).

    Of course, some people don’t see things the same way I do (believe me, this is not the first time this has happened). The question before the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion is whether we can worship together with people we disagree with. For myself, I can; if I couldn’t I’d be mighty lonely at the altar rail.

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