Sunday, June 22, 2008

Complexities of ecclesial existence in multi-faith Britain

I have followed from a distance some of the recent speeches, motions, and responses from the Church of England concerning its place and role within the pluralist context of British society. While the current discussions are of a regional and denominational nature, they say a lot about the work of the Church in other contexts as well.

I’m torn about how to approach this. I was very pleased with Rowan Williams’ lecture of 7 February, Civil and Religious Law in England. While it faced much opposition in the press, its argument was abysmally looked over by sensational headlines that portrayed the Archbishop as being in favor of the most extreme and dehumanizing enforcement of Islamic legal traditions, when Williams said nothing of the sort, spoke in particular against it, and was rather nuanced in his constructive interaction with sharia law. For many of us, the most praiseworthy aspect of the lecture was its severe critique of “the universal vision of post-Enlightenment politics” rather than any particular gesture to Muslim, Jewish, or secular legal structures. As I read him, Williams was not offering an endorsement of other religions in a way that might compromise his own role within the Anglican Communion; rather he was joining hands in charity with another faith to address the abuses of a post-Enlightenment civil order.

Those who criticized Williams for his abandoning his faith or nation, for harboring religious violence through a defense of sharia law, etc. , were simply not listening to him. At the same time, I can appreciate the criticism coming from Christians and Muslims alike that address more specifically how his appropriation of Islamic law was unsuccessful. Such a pluralist argument against post-Enlightenment theo-political vision as Williams offered always treads dangerous ground. Khalid Mahmood, a Muslim Labour MP, insisted that one cannot pick and choose from the sharia tradition and that Williams has not understood the traditions he poses in opposition to the civil order. The bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, insisted upon the Christian roots of British law and the opposition of Islamic law to core values of this tradition. While the Christian roots of secular law are unquestionably present, what is less clear is whether that is what Williams is intending to dispute. Quite the contrary, he opposes the very secularization of law which has done violence to its Christian roots in the Western tradition. That he does this with other religions is a result of the pluralist context of post-secular society rather than any abandonment of the Christian religion. Whether he is successful is another matter, and here I do continue to listen to the critiques of Williams with an attentive ear.

More recently, the Church of England has dealt with controversy over Paul Eddy's motion for the General Synod, now delayed rather conveniently until after Lambeth, on The Uniqueness of Christ in Multi-faith Britain. Again, we find Bishop Nazir-Ali in support of the motion along with 123 other members of Synod. Where I can find room for ambiguity of interpretation in Williams' proposal for civil and religious law, Eddy's call for a statement on Christological uniqueness seems rather straightforward. One is reminded immediately of Dominus Iesus, which, while questionable for Protestants as to its statements about the Church, is also simply a straightforward confession of faith as to Christ himself, and one that should not be subject to murmurs of concern by clergymen too abashed to speak a clear word about the uniqueness of Christ. That Eddy's motion has been set aside seems to demonstrate a lack of consideration of what is most central to the faith.

Both of these recent controversies touch on similar matters... the life of the Church in a pluralist society, its relationship with other religions (Islam in particular), and matters of faith as they are related to matters of institutional order within which the faith of necessity operates. Williams and Eddy each offer perspectives that are controversial because of how they run against popular understanding of the life of the Church in the world. Where the structure of ecclesial life is an ambiguous matter I think it's worthwhile to leave criticisms open for consideration. In other cases, however, it seems that matters of faith are inappropriately interpreted as political statements rather than as acts of confession. This leaves me somewhere in between those who are appalled at the Archbishop of Canterbury's handling of his flock and those who are questioning the way and extent to which our flock should in fact identify itself, with its Lord and with its own role as confessor and proclaimer of that Lord to the peoples of the world who await the redeeming Gospel of Christ. On either side I believe that there is a crisis of inability to identify the distinction between political questions of the life of the Church in the world (particularities of which will allow answers to differ) and the firm articles at the core of our faith which must not be swept up by the identity crisis of unfamiliar times.


  1. Hah, I read the article!

    So I am really just posting to let you know that some one has found this article in the vast web, but not having anything really to say on the statements one way or the other (not having the fortitude to actually read the primary sources) I will just leave an innocuous comment on your post!

  2. On Eddy's motion I have one thought - it seems to be a two-part motion, one part of which goes a little further than the "straightforward confession of faith as to Christ himself" that you argue it is. This is the second clause of the motion, and it does indeed seem to be straightforward. But the first clause of the motion is not that simple because it does try to identify the uniqueness of Christ in British society. That's not to say the first clause is inaccurate - its simply a stickier issue and I think you don't really acknowledge that.

    The uniqueness of Christ in any society has no real bearing on the person of Christ. Modern British law could very well be based on Celtic goddess worship, and it wouldn't change the person of Christ - however it would change the uniqueness of Christ in British society.

    So is it a valid question to raise? Of course it is. Is it "straightforward"? Hardly - and maybe it does make sense to hold off on it until after Lambeth, I don't know.

    Btw - I was watching BBC this morning and they were talking about the bishops' meeting in Jerusalem. Any thoughts on that?

  3. Good thoughts on Eddy's motion... I think his intentions were specifically with regard to evangelism, where uniqueness is being put forward as a theological category, even within the context of a particular "society".

    I do have thoughts on GAFCON and actually sent an opinionated email to someone about it earlier this morning. I'm considering posting on it in the near future, so check back on that.