Without a doubt.

I have always felt Rowan Williams, as Archbishop of Canterbury, was in a difficult place, and it made me feel more sympathetic to him as a result. I often find his language impenetrable upon first reading, but in most cases, it is worth the effort. Sometimes, he aims to write with a clarity that hopes to make his point clear. What he has written on the recent Episcopal Church General Convention is a fine example of Williams’s attempt to be balanced. However, as with his last statement, and given the response American Episcopalians have given to initial comments Williams made on General Convention D025, I anticipate that he will receive both polite critique and the usual cries of “spinelessness” and, as I fully expect this time, a full-blown attempt to break ties with Canterbury over his perceived “intransigence.”

I believe that those who are criticizing him are right to do so; after all, when it is clear that one disagrees with you, it is natural to be unhappy, at least at first. However, I would not welcome any attempts to suggest that his theological position on the subject of homosexuality should have been the basis of his work as Archbishop of Canterbury. As Archbishop, his role is, as Ormonde Plater suggested in his Many Servants of the episcopate in general, to be a circle, a “fence,” setting limits on what the Church as Church can or cannot do. (A similar analogy can be made of the role of the presbytery or classis in the Reformed tradition.) Indeed, I believe that much of the “activism” of which bishops, whether Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, can be accused of, can only be justified if they are doing so in the best interests of defining the bounds within which the Church believes, acts, and worships. For instance, if a bishop criticizes violence or outright discrimination against persons on the basis of their sexual orientation, as Williams indeed does, it is because he is setting the bounds of the Church’s ethical grounding–that all persons receive their dignity by being made in God’s image and likeness.

Indeed, what Williams discusses in his letter is that there are really bounds to what any church can do. It is the reality of communion, and the limit set by the Church’s fidelity to Scripture and its key role in forming, interpreting, and living it, that governs how churches ought to behave. It is also the willingness of the Church (or lack thereof) to conform with social norms and patterns, something that historically has been difficult for the Church to do in different times and places. 

(Here it is instructive to note that the power of authoritarian vs. democratic politics in a particular culture is both defined or is defined by the manifestations of Christianity therein. I needn’t cite that both the dominant expression of the Christian faith in my country and the most influential alternative configurations thereof have, in their internal processes, variant but consistently authoritarian ways of proceeding. I do not say that this is inevitable, but I would propose that a truly counter-cultural Christianity has to stand against such tendencies.)

Given that, I think Williams does not raise questions for the American church alone, though the other practice mentioned of communicating the unbaptized is distinctly American in its origins. It is clear that he has his doubts about Sydney’s advocacy of lay presidency of the Eucharist as well. He does acknowledge that there is strong approval in some places for both practices, but I think what he has to say about these applies indeed to local practices that may raise concern elsewhere in the wider Church as departing from a general consensus.

My only critique of his letter, however, is that he may have offered fuel for the fire of those who are crying for the heads of the other. Even if his words were somewhat reassuring in the end, the “less than ideal” possibility he posited in some detail will be seized upon, rightly or otherwise, by all the factions in the current conflict, to justify whatever moves they may make. On the other hand, I understand that he is expressing a reality on the ground, that no matter how small one or the other faction is, the divisions over women and ministry, sexuality, and the Church’s relationship to secular society are too wide for any attempt at keeping together.

What lessons does it hold for other Churches? I think it is a question of re-examining how we as Churches relate to each other and to the world at large. Within ourselves, we must ask whether we are truly living in communion, as we are meant to be, or are we too lazy to make the effort. For I believe, without a doubt, that being in communion is the hardest thing to comprehend and to achieve, but is the greatest ideal to which we can strive.

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Doing it in lower case

My first user name on the Ship of Fools discussion boards was Post-Denominational Catholic. It was a silly idea on my part, really. I wanted to make a pun on both postmodernism and non-denominational Christian communities (which, I must say, is my favorite paradox in contemporary ecclesiastical discourse). The Catholic part would be obvious to a number of readers.

Of course, this proved to be too long and too clunky even for me (I got known as PDC sometimes) that it was changed to something closer to my real name.

The point of this anecdote is to suggest that when it comes to defining what one does (in this case, the kind of “thinking about God” that is commonly called theology) it is always good to come up with a convenient and handy way of describing it. And then one has to worry, later on, how to define oneself in relation to how other people do it.

This enterprise is indeed made more interesting when we consider that some of these labels often gain a more profound and universal significance, or a significance closer to what it says, when we change the case. Let me give two examples:

1. “Evangelical” with a big “E” has gained a good deal of baggage because of its associations with the kind of Christianity that is connected, for better or for worse, with a high view of Scripture and a low view of Church and the political complications thereof, notwithstanding Jim Wallis and Brian McLaren. (I will not of course go into detail into the complicated way it wove through Pentecostalism, and the resultant “worship wars.”) However, turn the capital letter into a small one and you get something pretty different. As Bishop Mark Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America said, being evangelical is being “of the gospel.” It does clarify things somewhat, and it rids the term of some of its unfortunate connotations, at least in the North American and Philippine setting.

2. The same could be said for the word “Catholic” and the diminutive thereof. “Catholic,” in my country, is often used in a binary opposition with “Christian.” This is tragic because, historically, the terms go together. Even many of the churches of the Reformation use creedal statements that speak of the catholic, or universal, nature of the church. (Here, already, we see the diminutive, the lower case, being used to give a proper understanding of the term.) I would suggest that using the diminutive in this case would diminish its use as a polemical opposition, but on using Catholic with a big “C” I think it does have a particular significance in the light of a properly (Roman) Catholic theology that does exist and has a long pedigree. (At the same time, to overcome the binary, I would suggest that Roman Catholics in this country claim and celebrate the term “Christian” whenever they could, with a tacit understanding of its ecumenical implications. That’s another essay entirely.)

Now where is this all leading to? If I would identify my theological position, I would agree that it would have to be founded on the Gospel (making it evangelical) and it is grounded in the faith of the church universal (making it catholic), which has passed it on in different ways over the centuries, not merely in propositional truths which we must accept (a deeply modern construct), but also in the life of a community of believers that ultimately culminates, and starts from, the celebration of the Eucharist.

But of course, that is open to judgment and revision. Part of this project is to see, perhaps, how this has changed in the light of what I am learning. And I offer these in the hope that I can figure things out, with God’s grace and “with a little help from my friends.”

Starting anew

I have stopped blogging for about a year now because I sometimes got into trouble with what I had to say. These days, I am sure that this is par for the course.

I am starting anew because there are thoughts from life and everything else that I would like to share again. I won’t promise much, or won’t post as often as the old days, and perhaps I will take more time to work on what I have to say. But as with my first blog, and perhaps more consciously, themes such as religion, politics, and philosophy will be prominent, and perhaps the occasional foray into other things.

This comes of course with an awareness that after all I have to say, what is important remains unsaid.