October 10, 2009

Peter Feeds His Sheep

Bishop Peter Selby has presented a superb reality check — bracing as a brisk Beaufort five — in response to the Archbishop of Canterbury's post-General Convention reflection. (I have to admit that the publication of such essays as Selby’s delay my own response, as I find words and ideas preempted and stated better than I could hope.)

In any case, it seems to me that Bishop Peter expertly demythologizes three of the primary myths of the Rowanian Mythos (the Rowanogion?):

  • that merely deploring homophobia functions as a talisman or prophylactic against performing homophobia
  • that mutual recognition and consensus lie at the heart of communion, as opposed to communion being the safe context in which disagreement can exist because of mutual love and respect, and as a consequence of this supposedly necessary consensus
  • that it is necessary for the Anglican Communion to be able to speak with a single voice in its relations with other traditions, churches, and communions

Bishop Peter ably deconstructs these highly questionable propositions, and gently (in that British self-effacing way) reveals them for the half-truths they are. I will only at this point add to the undermining of the third by noting that The Episcopal Church has been quite capable of undertaking significant ecumenical dialogues apart from any supposed universal Anglican Teaching — with the Lutherans and the Moravians. (And does Rowan really believe that dialogue with Rome is anything other than what it has always been — and that whether Anglicans speak with one voice or not is immaterial, as the rock against which all such ventures run aground is the heir of that other Peter? Any or all Anglicans makes no difference, if they cannot submit to Petrine doctrinal and ecclesiastical supremacy. That is a defining teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, and she is not about to bend on such a fundamental doctrine crucial to her identity. The current incumbent of Peter's Chair has been very clear that doctrinal uniformity is central to the Roman notion of what it means to be a church. Anglicans adopting the same principle — contrary to our history and ecclesiology — will be of no avail to-Rome-wards if the doctrines themselves differ in detail.)

Meanwhile, some, perhaps correctly, see Bishop Peter's comments as aimed at the proposed Anglican Covenant. I see them more as addressing concern over "the Covenant via Rowan" — that is, not the Covenant as a text delivered as it were de novo but rather one that has emerged from a process so full of spin and intention, in particular from some of the authors of the earlier drafts, that it will never be free of spin and second guessing, under hermeneutics of deeply suspicious pedigree. However much persons such as I might want to see the Covenant as a way to hang together, and work through our differences, this may not be possible. The "our" is in my mind the set of those who can tolerate differences of opinion and continue to work together. Others (such as the ACI+Wright) want the consensus first, so that only those who already agree about everything important will be in this new and peaceable communion. This is where Selby's concerns about "two tracks" come in: for if consensus is to be the Shibboleth for admission to the Covenanted Communion, what really is the point? Likemindedness, mutual recognition, uniformity, univocality -- these are all very nice things, but as Iris Murdoch reminded us, there is a huge gap between the Nice and the Good.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


R said...


Bishop Selby's clear thinking has provided an oasis in what has felt like an Anglican desert of late: too much arid shifting sand of nicities and half-baked arguments.

Marshall Scott said...

I would agree that the Bishop's address is to this covenant and this archbishop. I do think, though, that he does highlight the question whether any covenant document is of even the bene esse, much less the esse of the Communion (and taking pleni esse off the table as well). No, he doesn't answer that question, or even address it directly; but I think he highlights it nonetheless.

(NB: My verification is "comas:" where many of us think drafts of an Anglican Covenant to this point are resting.)

Closed said...

I think you are correct both to note that Bp Selby is responding to Archbp Williams' interpretation and that at this point it may not be possible to separate the two. As a good portion of my dissertation hangs on the interpretive as much as the words on the page, I would say that we must pay attention to the hermeneutical portions that have shaped (in advance of possible passage) this Covenant not only in the words on the page but in how it is being understood and deployed (often as a weapon). Much of the interpretive framework via Archbp Williams, Bp Wright et al is deeply troubling and I might add comes across as partisan, particularly Roman-Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical in flavor in terms of ecclesiology in the former and doctrinal emphasis in the latter. Much of the complexity of history in particular Churches (Provinces) is given slight mention or outright smoothed over (e.g., the Episcopal Church of Scotland) and the Anglican ability to live with disagreement within a rather broad tent is practically dissed. On top of that, to deplore homophobia in words while performing homophobia in myriad ways is dehumanizing, period. I am reminded how colonial ways of thinking are still very much with us in Anglican Christianity, ways of thinking at odds with Archbp Williams' Welsh roots and Benedictine profession.

Jan said...

I appreciate reading this about the Bishop.

Paul said...

The Rowanogion! You gave me a good laugh there, Tobias, though it is years since I dipped into that part of literary history.

William F Hammond Sr said...

I rather like the 3 item distillation. For the 'safe context' of item 2, the (albeit not single) 'voice' of item 3, as well as our public image, there needs to be a concrete base.

The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral served this role for a while. It was neither confessional nor constitutional in nature but descriptive -- unlike the current official draft covenant.

I'm not sure if you have seen my sketch, which is the last link here.

Joe said...

For quite a while now, I've wondered about Rowan's 'I must decrease' understanding of his role as Archbishop. To separate person from task seems to sit uncomfortably with our belief in the Incarnation. If the particularity of Jesus and his context is a key part of allowing him to be truly human, then perhaps Rowan needs to risk being himself. I think he's right not to think that his well-informed opinions are not to be promulgated by virtue of his office, and he is right also to be cautious not to skew debate, but I do think he ought to be able to state that, while x is a majority opinion, it is nonetheless one with which he disagrees, or one that he genuinely thinks may be askew with where he thinks the Spirit is leading the Church, however slowly. If he is to be a focus or instrument of unity, it has to be more incarnate, more real, than it has recently appeared to be. If his take on things is in any way inspired by the Holy Spirit, then he needs to witness to it for all our sakes. And if he has changed his mind on a few contentious issues, then many of us wouldn't mind learning why -- again for all our sakes.


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, all, for the comments. You are bringing out some very important nuances of the present situation. It seems to me that much of our discussion these days, on a number of topics, has taken on an almost Talmudic quality, in which any given thesis is surrounded by a halo of commentary and commentary on commentary -- and out of this mix what are we to make of those who want a simple black-and-white up-or-down vote on the various underlying issues?