January 21, 2005

The Monotonist Liturgy

a satire

I would like to report on a liturgical discovery made quite by chance recently. In a dusty copy of an old liturgical book, I came across what appear to be fragments of an early liturgy from a little-known heretical movement, Monotonism. The heresy takes its name from its originator Monotonus of Crete, who, among other things, was intent on unifying the concepts of kairos and chronos, and proclaiming that the eschaton had both already happened and yet was to be postponed indefinitely by a two-thirds vote of the Synod, motion undebatable. He appears to have been unduly influenced by the thought of Zeno (or Xeno) of Elea.

It appears that Monotonus produced little else apart from this Liturgy, though there are scattered references in later sources to a very detailed Monotonus’ Rules of Order, now lost.

The concerns of this heretical group are reflected in the fragmentary liturgy, which survives only in this very damaged manuscript copy. It is very late, probably dating to the last half of the last century, as it is written in ball-point on the bottom halves of what appear to be leaves of a legal pad. I provide here a transcript in translation.

The Liturgy of SS. Stasis and Perpetua

The Deacon goes to the Royal Doors, the subdeacons all the while shaking their sistrums and looking at the Wonder-Working Icon of the Clock Made With No Hands. The Deacon prostrates, and asks

Deacon: Are you done in there yet?

Celebrant: Not yet. [Lit., "It is not yet the time."]

. . . . . . .

. . . as the Procession takes two steps forward in honor of the divine and human natures and one step backwards in honor of the unity of persons....

. . . . . . .

[Dea]con:Have you anything to add?

Celebrant:Yea, verily.

Deacon:Silence. The Divine speaks. Again.

. . . . . . .

[The] Gospel book is moved from the right hand of the altar to the left and then back again.

. . . . . . .

Deacon:Could you please repeat that.

Celebrant:God willing and the people consenting.

People:He is worthy to be heard!

Celebrant:You are too kind.

People:No, really. Please continue.

A period of silence follows....

[The ms. breaks off here.]

January 14, 2005

When a Church Has Cause to Repent

A few years ago a major church body publicly repented of its past actions and positions. It did so not only under the pressure of conscience and a growing inner awareness of the harm they had caused, nor merely because the world church fellowship to which they belonged had broken communion with them pending their repentance, but in actual acknowledgement that they had done wrong, and worse, had offered a theological defense for their sin. That is what repentance is about: not mere regret for harm done, but a full and complete admission of the sinfullness of the error, with the acknowledgement of the harm done, and if appropriate, reparation.

I am, of course, speaking of the eventual repentance of the Dutch Reformed Church for its support and theological defense of apartheid.

In the present situation in which we find ourselves, I do not believe the Episcopal Church to have erred or done anything worthy of repentance. The recent House of Bishops' expression of regret is fully appropriate, but at this point I think there are some regrets due from the “other side” of this issue. Surely the “reasserter” position has demonstrably caused, through the centuries, objectively more human misery and suffering than has the position advanced by the Episcopal Church in this present day and time. As with apartheid, it is, perhaps, the reasserters who need the metanoia they so loudly clamor for in others.

“A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

You can read about the call from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches here: An Address to the Synod and the action of the Dutch Reformed Church at Report on the Synod Action.

January 5, 2005

How, Not Why

In some discussion on the Titusonenine blog concerning my note on Bishop Howe’s proposal, it became clearer to me something of what separates the world view of this particular “reappraiser” from that of many of the “reasserters.” This is the larger question of what constitutes “authority.” I’ve seen this reflected in the reasserters’ blog postings in a concern for “credentials” and in the tendency to collate citations, or lists of critics who agree with ones position (ignoring all those that don’t) and then consider the matter closed. Neither of these actually go to prove or disprove a point, they merely add voices to the debate. As one who believes in objective truth, I would affirm that an idea is right and true (or wrong and false) not on the basis of who says it or who believes it, but on its own standard.

One of the reasserters challenged my citing Aquinas on this matter while not accepting his authority on sexual morality. This reflects a misunderstanding of my intent: when I cite someone like Aquinas or Hooker, it is not to “prove” a point on the basis of his “authority” - it is rather for one or both of two reasons:

1) to demonstrate (contrary to an allegation or assumption explicit or implicit in the discussion) that this particular point of view is articulated in the tradition (which is a matter of precedent, which is not binding, but may be persuasive), or

2) because it is said particularly well or clearly.

Neither of these bears authority to my mind. Many things have been said in the tradition that were later found to be mistaken, and the mere compilation of a list of statements agreeable to ones position proves nothing. It does go to show that you are not alone, but it does not prove you to be correct.

Finally, in case anyone is confused: I am not objecting to the substance of Bishop Howe’s proposal but its form: the House of Bishops has no authority to impose a “moratorium” but it does have the authority to ask its members to refrain from a given action. I admire Bishop Howe’s whole charitable and open approach, which I wish more would emulate.

Bishop Howe’s Proposal

Bishop John Howe of Central Florida has written to the House of Bishops suggesting that a clear response to the Windsor Report be taken up at their next meeting. This includes the recommendation that the bishops “agree to a moratorium on same sex-blessings and the consecration of non-celibate homosexual persons until or unless a ‘new consensus’ emerges in the Communion that such actions are seen as legitimate in the light of Scripture and Christian tradition.”
The House of Bishops’ adoption of such a moratorium raises several issues. Most seriously, it concerns the abrogation of a fundamental right of dioceses and provinces to elect, approve, and consecrate leaders of their own choosing, in accordance with our form of church government. Aquinas held the right of people “to choose their rulers” to be a matter of Divine Law, and it is certainly deeply embedded in the American psyche. (see note below)
Since potential abrogation of rights is concerned in this case, it must come under the rubric of “What touches all must be approved by all.” (see the note on this below) Therefore a mere majority of the House of Bishops, or even an overwhelming one, would be insufficient to impose such a moratorium in a strict form of binding mandate. Moreover, since in our polity the election and consecration of Bishops is not in the hand of the House of Bishops, but actually in the hands of the bishops with jurisdiction and the Standing Committees or House of Deputies such a matter would only finally be decided by the General Convention in session.
That is, if we are talking of a legally binding moratorium or stay. Because it is true that a majority of the bishops with jursidction, acting on their own, could by their refusal to consent to such elections exercise the equivalent effective result of such a moratorium. So too could the various Standing Committees of the dioceses. Clearly they are free so to do — but this is a matter of the exercise of their personal individual judgment, not of the assembly as a whole.
I would suggest that Bishop Howe consider wording his motion as a recommendation towards collegial restraint rather than as an authoritative mandate from above, in order to prevent what might well appear to be a constitutional crisis.

Aquinas writes in Summa Theologica I.II.Q105.1 concerning the form of governance of the People of God designated for Israel under the Old Testament, which he presents as an ideal:
I answer that... all should take some share in the government: for this form of constitution ensures peace among the people, commends itself to all, and is most enduring, as stated in Polit. ii, 6... Accordingly, the best form of government is in a state or kingdom, where one is given the power to preside over all; while under him are others having governing powers: and yet a government of this kind is shared by all, both because all are eligible to govern, and because the rulers are chosen by all. For this is the best form of polity, being partly kingdom, since there is one at the head of all; partly aristocracy, in so far as a number of persons are set in authority; partly democracy, i.e. government by the people, in so far as the rulers can be chosen from the people, and the people have the right to choose their rulers. Such was the form of government established by the Divine Law.

A further note on “What Touches All”

A full-fledged moratorium which would legally bind bishops not to approve of the consecration of Candidate Whoever requires a unanimous vote under the principle, “What touches all must be approved by all.” I’ve laid out the full legal background on the history of that law elsewhere in this blog. But “all” means “all” in this case, because a fundamental right (the voting franchise itself) is abrogated by an affirmative vote. It would be inappropriate for the House of Bishops, some of whom (as suffragans, for example) do not have the right or responsibility to consent to an episcopal election, to bind the bishops with jurisdiction to act in a way contrary to their informed judgement in some future case.
The original Justinian law had to do with water rights, which is a little obscure. Closer to home, imagine someone on the vestry proposes a resolution that says, “No one may vote Yes on any resolution to increase the Rector’s salary.” Such a resolution would have to be unanimous because it proactively takes the vote away from everyone concerned. It touches all because it affects a fundamental individual right possessed by all. If “all” agree, fine. But if only 9 out of 10 agree, they have effectively stolen someone’s vote. And what if it is only 6 out of 10? (This is not the same thing, by the way, as voting not to raise the Rector’s salary; that is, sadly, usually accomplished by a simple majority!)

January 3, 2005

A response to William Witt

Dr William Witt has written a long and thoughtful response to my short essay on the authority of the Church in relation to the Scripture. I will attempt to address some of the issues he raises.

His response reflects, I find, the major problem with the “reasserter” side of the debate: the tendency to reassert the premise rather than to argue in its support, to restate the premise in other forms, or assemble authorities who restate the premise. This is the logical fallacy of “begging the question.” The difficulty is that it is precisely the premise upon which we disagree: that, as Witt puts it, “sexual relations are restricted to the context intended by God when he created humanity in his image, as male and female.” The question is, is this assertion accurate?

Strangely enough, Witt appears to deny and then concede a basic premise upon which I work. In one paragraph he says, that I and some other “revisionists” insist “that the Church can still endorse something that violates the plain sense reading of Scripture, and in doing so can still somehow be faithful to the teaching of Scripture—a handy trick if one can pull it off,” and then two paragraphs later, concedes, that I “point out correctly that the Church has not considered itself to be bound by every prescription or proscription in Scripture. He recognizes that the Church has developed a hermeneutic by which it decides which passages of Scripture are considered normative for ethical guidance and which are not.”

However, Witt mis-summarizes the argument (as he did the argument of the paper to which I contributed a few years ago, “Let the Reader Understand”) as “The Church does not obey what the Bible says about X; therefore the Church does not have to obey what the Bible says about same-sex sexual relations.” A correct summary would be, “The Church has formally set aside the biblical requirement or prohibition concerning X, and the same principles on which it did so may be applied to the case of same-sex relationships.” Perhaps Witt does not see the difference between these two statements; if so, we may be at the nub of the disagreement. For I am not advocating an “anything goes” view, in which the church can set aside anything because it has set aside something, but one based on the consistent application of the principles actually at work in the church’s authoritative judgment as to what is right and wrong, moral or immoral. Consistency is the watchword, to which I will return below. For the moment, I note that Witt does not actually address the list of hermeneutical principles with which I closed my essay, and which I believe to be consistent with the principles actually used by the church in making its judgments concerning Scripture.

Witt then launches into an interesting, but I think off-the-point, analysis of church history. I am quite aware of the distinct meanings given to the word church in my essay, and since Witt correctly understands when I move from one to the other I fail to see why he finds this ambiguous. Where we differ is in his belief that my use of “the national church” is idiosyncratic. He asks, “In what sense can a small American denomination of less than 2 million members, and less than a million regular communicants, think of itself as the ‘church’?” I would respond, first of all, that it is the church to which I belong, the one in which I was baptized, and the one that ordained me a priest. More importantly, I would ask, How did the Church of England (admittedly more “national” in the sense of uniformity than is the Episcopal Church in the Americas, but still not unanimous in that there were many loyal Roman Catholics in England) at the time of the Reformation become so bold as not only to interpret and apply the Scripture to its liking, but to alter the canon of Scripture itself?

When Witt says, “In recognizing the canon of Scripture, the church ‘interprets’ Scripture by submitting to its authority. It does not ‘judge’ Scripture” he is not only reversing his position on whether the church can set aside portions of the Scripture or not (which is clearly what I mean by “judging” the Scripture) but leaves hanging the question of “Which canon of Scripture are you talking about?” — Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, or Protestant?

Witt ends the first section of his response by repeating the reasserters’ claim that the sexuality issue is one of doctrine, not discipline, and of such a nature that no local or national church dare change it; again begging the question that is at the heart of the debate. In an effort to establish a doctrinal basis for his claim, he therefore launches into an attempt to undermine my argument that the “moral law” cited by Hooker refers back to the Decalogue (following Jesus’ own example when confronting the lawyer) and offers that homosexuality is “covered” under the commandment against adultery.

First of all this can at most put the question into the realm of moral or pastoral theology. But secondly, the assertion that homosexuality is included under the rubric of adultery remains unproven. How do we distinguish which acts not explicitly enumerated come under the Decalogue and which don’t — for clearly we do make such decisions! That is the question that must be answered. The concluding principles at the end of my essay, the second of which acknowledges that many other matters come under the sway of the Decalogue or Christ's Summary, are an effort at such an answer, but Witt fails to address them.

So we then come to a favorite tool of the reasserters: a collection of reassertions. But it is not enough simply to show that Augustine or Aquinas or Hooker thought so-and-so, or even Saint Paul. The assembly of a florilegium tells us no more than that the preponderance of the Christian tradition thought homosexuality was wrong. We know that. The question is, were they correct in this?

The “classical” argument, as Witt summarizes it (citing Augustine), is that “Same-sex sexual activity would always be condemned by divine law because it conflicts with the nature of humanity as created by God, destroying the bond of love that should exist between God and humanity by violating the human nature of which God is the Creator (Confessions 3.8.15).” There are a number of problems with this argument, not least that we are now more aware of the fact (and I am bold enough to call it a fact) that same-sex sexuality is neither “against nature” nor “contrary to nature” but is rather part of the created order, which admittedly we do not fully understand. This does not, mind you, make it morally good (or bad), but it does necessitate a shift in the argument from one based on “natural law” — especially one that takes the Genesis creation accounts as if they were historical records of the actual origins of the created universe (which reason should have prevented in any case, since the two accounts are not congruent in significant details concerning the very matter before us!)

To date, the primary argument of the reasserters, including Witt, is the restatement of the premise that sexual dimorphism somehow reveals a “natural complementarity” that limits the moral range of sexual behavior. He argues (following Barth) that the appropriate “other” in human relationships must be a member of the opposite sex. This is a weak point in Barth, bordering on heresy, since if, as Barth puts it, man can be man only in relation to woman, what of Jesus Christ as the complete and true man, whose relations to women were not of a sexual sort? (Indeed, to be fair, late in life Barth appears to have realized he went too far in this assertion, but was too busy to rewrite the relevant portions of Book III of his Dogmatics.) More importantly, this notion of a sexual basis for human society is contrary to Jesus’ teaching that “those worthy of the resurrection do not marry...” If there can be no society in the life of the resurrection (since the reasserters hold marriage to be the basis of human society), then what is the risen life about?

Finally, to return to the note of “consistency” I mentioned at the outset, as the ultimate “authority,” some reasserters (although not Witt himself in this particular essay) bring forward Jesus’ own statement concerning the creation accounts. Surely his words on the subject should hold a central place if we are to understand God’s “intent for humanity” — that from the beginning God made them male and female, and for this reason a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife and they become one flesh. (Matt 19:5, citing Genesis 1 and 2). The reasserters take this as a prohibition of homosexual activity, generally completely ignoring that Jesus intended it as a prohibition of divorce. When I begin to hear the reasserters state that divorce is contrary to the natural law, and God’s positive law and “intent for humanity,” and call for the resignation of all divorced and remarried clergy (including some of their most vocal leadership) and the prohibition of the ordination of such people, and the threat of dissolution of communion should all these demands not be met, it will then and only then be time to take up the secondary question and see if this citation from the Gospel has anything to do with same-sex relationships. They should take Jesus at his word before applying his words by conjecture to another question entirely.

William Witt responds to Tobias Haller