As the Anglican Curmudgeon, it behooves me now and then to comment upon matters Anglican. And just now, there is a tempest in the Anglican teapot which I have refrained from noticing, because after all, it is still a small storm in a very small teapot.
And indeed, it is a “storm” only if you take its measure by the winds from the West – or (which comes to the same thing, direction-wise) from the left. By all other measures, including one which takes note of the fact that the winds are blowing only from the West, something must be going well in Anglican Land.
For the Archbishop of Canterbury has seen fit to share with Anglicans in the West his insights gained from a visit with Anglicans to the South. And from the reactions in the West, it would appear that neither group can even begin to comprehend why the other proceeds as it does. Even worse, it would appear that each group would prefer that the other did not call itself “Anglican.”
Now, the adjective “Anglican” makes sense from a religious point of view only if one allows it to modify a noun, such as “Communion.” As many from both sides will explain to you at the drop of a name, it makes no sense to call yourself “Anglican” if you are not part of the “Anglican Communion.” (There are other nouns it can modify, but for those who are in it they do not reach the same level as “Communion”.)
So what does it mean for two different groups in the Anglican Communion to treat each other as though they were not really Anglican?
The Archbishop of Canterbury is the quintessential Anglican, so he cannot side with the one group against the other. All he can do in the circumstances is urge upon each group mutual respect for the other’s views.
But the Archbishop thereby gives away both the game, and his role as a neutral arbiter – because the opposing views can by no objective means be called equally worthy of respect, at least within the context of the Christian religion, and the particular branch of it of which he is the nominal head.
Here is the problem in a nutshell: the West claims the authority to recognize same-sex relationships based upon its recent experiences with them as coming within the traditional understanding of what is “Anglican.” The South, based upon its traditional reading of Scripture, rejects that authority outright.
What is worse, the South’s “experience” of same-sex unions is exactly the opposite of the West’s: in the South, even a perceived support of them leads to violence and death. Most often recently, such murder comes from the hands of Islamic terrorists bent on exterminating a Christianity that could conceivably espouse (even if in the South, it doesn’t) what has always been regarded as an abomination among the people of the Book. The West, on the other hand, regards the Islamic terrorists as a local problem of the South – a problem that is traceable largely to tribalism, fear and ignorance.
So the South cries “Help! Stop adding fuel to the fires of our foes!” – while the West largely says “They are your problem, not ours.” (Though that stance does not stop the West from actively intervening to ostracize Southern attempts to legislate on homosexuality, which intervention only exacerbates the tensions between Muslims and Christians in the South.)
This divide, which the Archbishop of Canterbury thought he could bridge by being sensitive to the concerns of both sides, unfortunately has nothing to do with the Anglican Communion in particular. Instead, it has to do with all humankind – and goes to the very essence of being human.
The West argues that Scripture must be interpreted first and foremost in the light of ongoing experience, then by reason, and last by tradition – except when the latter two conflict with experience.
The South argues that Scripture is capable of interpretation only by reason, as guided by tradition (by which it means reason as our forebears expressed it), and that man’s experience is an especially fallible, and at best only local and limited, guide to what Scripture means.
These positions are rooted in a far deeper and older dispute. They relate to who is in charge: man, or someone beyond or outside of man.
The view that man is in charge is reflected in the Bible passages that deal with Adam’s fall, with the Tower of Babel, with the Golden Calf, and numerous later apostasies by the nation of Israel. (Notice that none of those stories turned out well for man.)
The view that someone outside of man is in charge is older than the Bible, and permeates it: before Scripture was ever written, God was in charge. And God remains in charge, no matter what man may think, because God is infinitely greater than man, and indeed, created man in His image – so that man might appreciate, worship, and glorify Him.
The Archbishop’s mistake, or naiveté, was to treat these opposing views as standing upon equal ground.
They do not. The West’s view is (to quote one especially obnoxious proponent of it): “We [i.e., man] wrote the Bible, and we can change it.” The South’s view is: God breathed His Word into Scripture, and God’s message does not change – with time, with experience, with man, or with whatever is currently the fashion.
Experience is grounded in emotion and feelings, i.e., how one interprets experience. And by definition, therefore, one’s experience changes with, and is defined by, the time in which one lives.
In the traditional view, God gave us reason to temper our emotions and feelings – throughout all time. Otherwise, there would be little to distinguish man from the animals.
Thus reason is grounded in God’s image in man; emotions and feelings, however, are grounded in fallen man alone, i.e., in the heritage that he shares with all animals. To quote Blaise Pascal:
Man’s greatness is so obvious that it can even be deduced from his wretchedness, for what is nature in animals we call wretchedness in man, thus recognizing that, if his nature is today like that of the animals, he must have fallen from some better state which was once his own.
The difference between the West and the South, therefore, is not just particular to the Anglican Communion, but is as old as man himself. The West is currently in the thrall of man (which can for the nonce be exhilarating, but which in the end is always disastrous). The South remains, as best as it is able, obedient to God and His will as expressed through Scripture.
The terrorists who slaughter Southern Christians for (supposedly) tolerating what is an abomination to their religion of Islam are equally in the thrall of Islam – which is to say, a different man’s version of God.
Thus for Western Christians in the thrall of man to call African Islamists “backward, fearful and ignorant” is for the pot to call the kettle black. They may differ in appearance, but they share the same color – i.e., they both despise those who would follow God as he has always spoken through Scripture, rather than God as he “speaks” currently through man.
What does this mean for the Anglican Communion? It means that part of it follows man (or God as seen with man’s experience as paramount), while the other part is trying to follow God (as heard and understood through His timeless Word).
There is no compromise between these views, because man is not God.
There is no bridging the gap when man willfully sets himself apart from God.
The gap can be eliminated only when men agree to let God’s Word be unchanging, and to follow it as best as they can, given their fallenness. He made it unchanging, so that they could never lose their way through anything He said or did, but would always have a straight path to which they could return. Think about that for a moment.
Disputes arise through man’s own fallenness, and not because God wills them to exist. Disputes about God’s word are from Man, not God. Man may not always get it right, but he should never be certain that he is right just because he is man. (See this earlier post on how man can best tell when he is being true to God’s Word.)
Thus the Archbishop should not be surprised that his observations of the reality that divides the West from the South bestirred such a reaction from the West. Far from shrinking from such observations in the face of Western criticism, he should redouble them, and keep on pressing home the message: the South asks only that we return to the path God made for us, while the West insists on charting its own course. It is for the West to change its tack, and not for the South.
I do not envy whoever occupies the see of Canterbury. He can succeed, perhaps, but only with God’s help. Please pray for the Archbishop of Canterbury.