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.