June 20, 2007

Of Doubts and Discipline

Many of you will no doubt have heard of the Episcopal priest who is attempting a personal reconciliation between Islam and Christianity, balancing the evidentially contradictory creedal claims (that Jesus is -- or isn't -- the Son of God) in a precarious syncretism.

When I saw this story I gave a sigh of sympathetic frustration. I can understand how people have doubts, and go through periods of further exploration in their religious development. None of us is, I dare say, full-formed in faith until we reach the point at which we know as we are known. But the church rightly expects conformity to its doctrine on the part of those ordained to ministry; one signs a statement to that effect at ordination -- but this oath need not mean a perfect acceptance or understanding of all of which that doctrine consists, but at least a willingness not to teach anything to the contrary. I take that to be the meaning that lies behind conformity.

Still, crises of faith are bound to arise. Our church might do well to have a process similar to that of religious orders for folks who are going through such crises of faith and/or vocation -- a kind of temporary withdrawal without the punitive note of "suspension" but with the same effect -- at the end of which they could either re-commit to or renounce (or be deposed from) their orders. I'm not sure what this kind of intentionally temporary renunciation would be called. What do the canonists out there think? Or do we need this kind of pastoral measure?

Tobias Haller BSG


Anonymous said...

Glad to see you consider those claims contradictory. I've often wondered how anyone can hold both of those in their head - which one gives way?

What I'm increasingly finding interesting is what happened in AD30-50ish. I'm reading a book (`The Five Gospels') which seeks to weigh-up which statements that can be attributed to Jesus or not with varying degrees of certainty. This book tells me that Jesus didn't live from one OT prophecy to the next, but rather that each such occasion (especially in Matthew) is the gospel author actively seeking such predictions. Nor does this book think that Jesus called himself "Son of God" in any way similar to what we understand by that term - again, any such instances are backwards plants - redaction in action.

This makes the split at least 3-way: what is historical, what did Christianity do between AD30-50ish that has become theology multiplied with complex interest, and then what does Islam say as well?

If you use this (and/or other books) to dismiss the idea of Jesus as Son of God, have you not just squeezed Christianity out, in toto?

Incognito said...

I can guarantee you that she will eventually leave Christianity behind. Not because of pressure from Christian theologians, but because of Islam's hatred and intolerance of all things non-Muslim. She will never be able to reconcile the two.

I can understand embracing Buddhism, but to convert to Islam, the antithesis of what Christianity teaches is beyond me.

Very sad. And frightening, that an obviously intelligent, religious woman would be so swayed.

R said...


I'm fascinated by the juxtaposition of your two final questions:

What do the canonists out there think? Or do we need this kind of pastoral measure?

The first implies a canonical response. The second a pastoral one. The two are not necessarily complementary.

It seems to me that this is a matter very much pastoral -- that is, in the hands of the ecclesiastical authority to whom the priest(s) in question are most directly accountable: namely a bishop. Which means providing for this canonically would probably not be very helpful, unless a broad procedure could be developed that would embrace most circumstances.

I realize as I write this I am responding with a typical Anglican answer to a difficult question: when in doubt, defer such matters to the local authority.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

for what it's worth, my view is that Jesus quite consciously saw himself as acting in the prophetic tradition --- particularly Zechariah and Isaiah. That's not to say the evangelists might not have tightened things up and woven in more connections (certainly true of Matthew, who seems to need to find an antecedent for everything). I would agree that he probably did not think of himself as Son of God in the way that later theologians would define that language; but I think his use of that phrase is authentic.

I'm reluctant to classify all of Islam under one of its manifestations -- there are many sects and subdivisions just as there are in Christianity and Judaism. Some are indeed militantly intolerant ( and I'd suggest the same goes for some strains of Christianity, too). At the same time I do believe that the creedal center of Islam and the creedal center of Christianity are fundamentally distinct and contradictory. That doesn't mean one can't appreciate the wisdom of Islamic religious thinkers, but when it comes to faith statements I don't see reconciliation of these contradictions as a possibility.

Well, you know, I'm a rules kind of guy! That's why I mention the analogy to religious orders, which have provision for this kind of pastoral response written into their rules or constitutions. It seems to me that a similar pastoral reality could be reflected in our canon law in order to give a bishop, for example, an appropriate way to act that did not seem to be disciplinary or punitive. At present, there would be nothing to prevent a friend, Bishop or not, approaching this priest and suggesting voluntary submission to discipline or suspension; but that language sounds harsh to me and I wish there were another option. The proposed language of the revised Title IV ("impairment") is hardly better, though the idea begins to emerge -- that something is making it difficult for the person to minister.

Thanks to all for the feedback.

Anonymous said...


I'm with you. If you accept the benefice, you must also accept the burdens.

Anonymous said...

The Community of Christ (former RLDS) has a status called silence. A clergy member on silence is not (yet) suspended, but agrees to not exercise public ministry while their circumstances are being addressed (pastorally, administratively, etc). Asking someone if they are willing to accept a time of silence seems less harsh than some other terms.

R said...


Thanks for the clarification. It that case, I am very much in agreement. Impairment of deposition seem to be the more draconian paths.

I like the word "discernment" -- that is, a period of time away from public ministry agreed to for the priest to discern a future path. It strikes me that many priests have done exactly this during sabbaticals. Perhaps a new canonical provision would open up the possibility in a more deliberate and mutually accountable way.

Anonymous said...

i think the reason that the disciplinary rules seem out-of-place is because they are imposed, and this is for something which would be voluntary.

now in the instant case, the cleric does not see a conflict here. so there are two possibilities, are there not?

either she thinks that everything is fine, and should continue as before, and her bishop disagrees, in which case no voluntary measure would help.

or she and her bishop agree that some "time off" is right, in which case a special canonical status might help, but it isn't really necessary.

Anonymous said...

In the 1980's, I was interim in a conflicted parish with a
number of clergy. After some months, one of the clerics
told me that he was not comfortable attending Eucharist
and wished to explore some other expressions of Christianity.
I proposed to him, and to the Bishop, that he take an informal
leave of absence for six months, provided that me meet with
me for breakfast on a weekly basis.

Some such pastoral arrangement could, I suggest, be worked
out with goodwill on everyone’s part.

Young fogey emeritus said...

To sum up: we agree that, putting it very charitably, Dr Redding and her bishop are wrong.

Very sensible post and comments. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Why not see it as an experiment and allow it, and see where it goes? After all she has to justify this to two communities. So does David Ananda Hart with his Hinduism and Christianity. Both of them explore, and see where it goes. I suspect Ann Holmes Redding will have the more difficult job, because she has to reconcile Islam's literalism about the Qur'an and its view that God dictated the Book to Isa (Jesus) and it was corrupted in the gospels. Whatever may or may not be the accuracies of the gospels. Jesus received no Book. The matter of Jesus as prophet and God as pure transcendence with many names is less of a problem. David Hart, however, regards all religion as cultural constructs with a non-realist (not subjectivist) view and thus can move between them. In any case, it is possible to critically see the value in different faiths - he in India wanted to practice and lead local faith, and thus he does as he does when in the UK. Hinduism is highly colourful, full of stories, and moves from the most rational to the most superstitious. I'd be more inclined to lay off and listen to both of them as they continue their ministries.

Anonymous said...

First of all, Tobias, you really NEED to have the link to the original article here (I looked through all 3 of your links at the bottom, and had to take a 4th link in order find it! :-/)


Without the original story, I was just left going "Huh???" (like I was hearing one-half---or maybe less!---of a conversation).

What to say?

First of all, I DON'T JUDGE Rev. Redding: this is one of those "If you haven't walked in her shoes---or prayed under her hijab!---you don't know the Real Deal".

Frankly, I find it patently offensive when people make those "Oh, but she's ORDAINED!!!" distinctions (whether it's being a Christian-Muslim, or being in a same-sex couple). If a behaviour is *patently* wrong---and lest we forget, w/ a "Mozel Tov!" God, relatively FEW things are---then it's wrong for either lay or ordained. This is ***NOT*** one of those few patently wrong situations.

Do I find her . . . um, "solution" personally satisfying? No, I don't---I'm not convinced she's thought enough of this through (Fall of '05, to Shahada, pledge, in March of '06? WTF???)...

...and at the same time, beyond my "Don't judge" principal (courtesy Jesus), there are a number of things I find commendable about her journey:

1) "obvious contradictions", like other "plain readings" (i.e., of Scripture) are childishly naive, and not worthy of MATURE persons of faith (any faith!). The idea that because HUMANS frame things in terms of "x/Not x", that therefore God is similarly limited? Please.

2) "She believes the Trinity is an idea about God and cannot be taken literally."

The way the Seattle Times frames this, is this supposed to be controversial? Duh, the Trinity is "an idea about God"! If we limited humans were to conceive of God AS GOD IS, without *some* kind of conceptual abstraction---or incarnation!---to make it digestible, our heads would freakin' explode! As for now, it's "through a glass darkly."

Karen Armstrong, and many other comparative religious scholars (not to mention contemplatives and mystics!) speak of "the God beyond God" all the time. That, IN NO WAY, should lessen one's adherence . . . faith . . . trust in God, known particularly, in a particular faith community.

Rev. Redding claims to be able to do this through two communities---two ways of knowing. I don't know that she can do this...

...but I don't know that she can't, either. As wise Rabbi Gamaliel would say, let her be: "If it's of God, then..."

[As far as what kind of ministry is appropriate for her at this time, I trust her bishop, and the other LOCAL involved parties (Standing Committee, et al)]

NB: there's a whole *other* issue here, about African-Americans in TEC, but that's for another time!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I didn't provide a link for two reasons: 1) I did think enough coverage had already been given to the story elsewhere, and 2) more importantly I was not so much interested in this particular situation as in the general issue of how the church deals with such situations. You will note that what I suggest at the end is a pastoral response that gives honor both to the personal quest and the responsibilities accepted at ordination.

Sadly, our canon law does not provide for the Gamaliel approach in a case like this, if the requisite number of complaints are filed; the Bishop then has no choice but to proceed with "discipline" -- and could do so on his or her own.

My suggestion is that we begin to explore the possibility of finding a canonical equivalent to the religious orders' "leave of absence" for situations in which a person is torn between inner conscience and outward duty.

Anonymous said...

"Frankly, I find it patently offensive when people make those "Oh, but she's ORDAINED!!!" distinctions"

I don't know why. People change religions all the time. But clergy have committed to teach and confess the faith of the communion that calls and ordains them. If they can no longer do so, God bless 'em, they should follow their conscience. But surely not while still purporting to minister in the context of an abandoned faith.

Jon said...

Looking over Title IV it looks like suspension (IV.12.1.c) probably best describes the sort of adjustments that need to be made in day to day operations to let a priest wrestle with the questions without dragging the entire parish through the doubts as well, although it does seem a little odd to me to employ disciplinary measures in a case in which it isn't entirely clear that the person has done anything wrong (note the charges would probably have to be under IV.1.1.c and if the priest is wrestling with the question it strikes me as odd to say that they are holding and teaching anything contrary to the doctrine of this church). The only change I could see making is calling it a Leave of Absence or something like that when it the priest voluntarily goes along with the suspension.


Anonymous said...

But clergy have committed to teach and confess the faith of the communion that calls and ordains them.

Well, Rick, inasmuch that I don't believe Anglicanism IS a "confessional" faith, then I find the phrase "confess the faith" (beyond professing the Creed) problematic to say the least. And "teach", just as much, if by "teach" you merely mean "confess, but from a podium to the little people below."

If they can no longer do so, God bless 'em, they should follow their conscience. But surely not while still purporting to minister in the context of an abandoned faith.

Minister? All Christians are ministers, Rick. So again, I don't get a lay/ordained distinction (and if you've read the article, you know that Rev. Redding does NOT consider that she has abandoned her Christian faith).

It's interesting to see how this story is being USED, in the Anglican (?) blogosphere. What is, at most, a pastoral situation (and an intellectual oddity) has been *vigorously adopted* by reasserters, as a TEST CASE! :-0

I *reject* the notion that orthodoxy is DEFINED by "who will you excommunicate."

Why are reasserters so fearful? A same-sex couple doesn't threaten anyone else's marriage, and Rev. Redding's spiritual quest SHOULDN'T threaten anyone else's Christian faith!