Friday, November 23, 2012

"Get With the Programme" and be more theological... Coakley on the Church of England Vote

I started writing this as a comment for the F&T post about Sarah Coakley's article, "Has the Church of England Finally Lost Its Reason?", but for reasons of length I decided to post it here.


I found myself liking a lot about this piece, and wanting to like more of it, but not being able to because of a bit of confusion and also some basic disagreement. Coakley has helpfully focused on a central theological problem inherent in these disputes. I am not sure if she makes an adequate argument against the ecclesiastical bickering present, though.

It seemed to me that Coakley identified two main problems with the current debate (or whatever you want to call it): first, what she calls "the main theological scandal" - that a large set of priests are barred from episcopal authority, creating a second class within the hierarchy and damaging the vocation of unity that is central to the ecclesial office. Second, the "almost farcical set of pragmatic and political attempts at compromise" that have kept us from seeing the first problem, which is really the "most dangerous element" here. It is understandable why the vote is in the main distressing for Coakley, because it perpetuates the second-class priesthood that is a scandal to unity. At the same time, though, this vote seems to have served a subordinate purpose of rejecting what she sees as the farcical politics clouding the issue. This could at least be acknowledged, but there seems instead to be some ambiguity about how real the ecclesiastical problem of compromise is for her as a result of her insistence upon the theological problem as primary.

 If one were to focus on the ecclesiastical context of the decision, some more awkward questions would come up. Coakley does identify a real “scandal of unity” within the Church of England, but does not address the implications of this problem for other “scandals of unity” within and without the Anglican Communion that are, quite frankly, bigger. Roman Catholic and Orthodox orders don’t suffer from the second-class priesthood problem identified by Coakley (they may, admittedly, suffer from a more basic problem of second-class citizenship!), and there would have been some clear ecumenical fallout from a decision in favor of women bishops for the Church of England. This ecumenical cost may very well have been worth paying to end the second-class status of women called to the priesthood, but because Coakley has structured her theological argument around the “scandal of unity”, her avoidance of the ecumenical issue ends up becoming a gaping hole in her argument. As a question of justice or equality in Christ, a recognition of the vocations of women is defensible within the theological and provincial scope that Coakley covers... but when the problem is posed as a scandal of unity? There immediately arise many more problems to address than Coakley has covered in her piece. I have no doubt that she could have successfully responded to these concerns, but by avoiding them she doesn’t come close to making a full case on the basis of the episcopal vocation of ecclesial unity.

The criticism of bureaucracy and political compromise seems off to me as well. As a journalistic pronouncement it has some appeal, but what does Coakley want instead? Well, apparently a Doctrinal Commission, which will surely avoid bureaucracy, as commissions always do... right? I sympathize with the general frustration about ecclesiastical process, but I’m having a difficult time understanding what viable alternative is being proposed, or what in particular is wrong about the political structures present in the current vote. Is the desire for broad consensus achieved in supermajorities of multiple houses a misguided one? Or should we blame the laity for voicing their opinion or for gerrymandering a bloc of “conservative, elderly or bureaucratically-inclined church people”? Well, okay, but what is the viable alternative? Decisions by episcopal decree? Or a better monitored sensus fidelium?

 In short, while I want to appreciate the championing of theology that is being done by Coakley (she has already raised similar concerns about the Anglican Covenant), I’m not sure how, especially when she wants to talk about the episcopal locus of unity, she intends to separate the theological from the ecclesiastical; I don’t think that they can be separated. And make no mistake, when Coakley refers to “bureaucratic” or “political” problems, these are really “ecclesiastical” problems. And what she is saying, in response, seems to pretty much be: “get with the programme” and be more theological! This sort of argument, while seemingly forceful, strikes me as actually demonstrating (to borrow Coakley’s words about the Covenant) a “disturbing theological vacuity”. What worries me is that this seems to be pretty much the only sentiment that theologians - even the very best theologians working today - appear to be able to offer in criticism or counsel to the wider work of the churches.

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