Keisaku or Article II of III on the Present Ecclesiological Culture of the Anglican Church: Whitterings, April 2006

Article II of III on the Present Ecclesiological Culture of the Anglican Church

I wish to elaborate further on the topic of the teaching vocation of the church. The teaching vocation of the church has many facets. The Anglican Church teaches through its liturgy. One of the theological points that came out of the blessing of same sax couples in New Westminster was the explicit recognition that liturgy is the outward working of official theological teaching. We teach through example to the world by how we govern our personal lives. We teach through our social witness and ministry to the weak and vulnerable. Priests have a special vocation as teachers. We teach through our preaching, leading parish bible studies and other adult education classes, and we teach the faith to a new generation in our Confirmation classes.

The prayer book lays out the teaching ministry of the Priest in the Priestly Exhortation and the questions asked by the Bishop as follows:

“And now again we exhort you, in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you have in remembrance, into how high a dignity, and to how weighty an Office and Charge ye are called: that is to say, to be messengers, watchmen, and stewards of the Lord; to teach and to premonish, to feed and provide for the Lord’s family; to seek for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for his children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever. Will you then give your faithful diligence always so to minister the doctrine and sacraments, and the discipline of Christ, as the Lord hath commanded, and as this Church hath received the same, according to the commandments of God; so that you may teach the people committed to your cure and charge with all diligence to keep and observe the same? Will you be ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God’s word; and to use both public and private monitions and exhortations, as well to the sick as to the whole, within your cures, as need shall require, and occasion shall be given? Will you be diligent in prayers, and in reading of the Holy Scriptures, and in such studies as help to the knowledge of the same, laying aside the study of the world and the flesh?”

The BAS Ordination Rite has a very limited emphasis on the teaching ministry of the priesthood. It is mentioned in the examination once but is not elaborated on in any other part of the service. Perhaps this lack of emphasis is partially to blame for the current educational culture within the church.

Good priestly teaching is seldom comfortable. We do not teach is order to pass on information rather we teach in a purely teleological (functional) way. We seek to illuminate the Gospel and make it applicable in people’s lives. This often involves the challenging of some of the most basic presuppositions that people have about the meaning of life and the purpose of discipline. More and more the church has to teach values that run contrary to the strong currents of postmodernism implicit in today’s culture. We stand with Christ against individualism, consumerism, moral relativism, existentialism, and other isms I have elaborated on before. Archbishop Desmond Tutu is his book God Has a Dream says:

“We are the ultimate paradox, the finite made for the infinite. Anything less than God cannot satisfy our hunger for the divine. Not even success. That is why everything else, if we give it our ultimate loyalty – money, fame, drugs, sex, whatever – turns into ashes in our mouths.”

It is not an easy task. We are called to be fishers of people. If we have no incentive for people to bite the hook we will get nowhere. If we scare people off by placing pharisaical burdens on them or even the burden of discipleship too early (as St Paul talks about at length) then we also get nowhere. However, if we never enter into a disciplined, mature, teaching relationship we also get nowhere. There comes a time in Christian spiritual maturity when the teaching authority of the church is freely accepted by individuals within a relationship of trust. It is then that the true Gospel work of the conversion of lives begins.

The Japanese have a word for this kind of teaching – Keisaku. It means stick of compassion and it refers to the bamboo rod used to occasionally hit practitioners of Zazen (the Zen art of meditation) to keep them mindful of the goal of their meditation, the goal of their life. The Japanese understand that often the best teachers are the ones that have high standards that make you nervous and unsure of yourself. They are the ones that push you to your limit so you can surpass yourself. The best teachers are seldom the ones that are friendly and you are relaxed with. Zen masters are respected because they push unrelentingly against the egos of their students. They are often feared, but almost always loved because the students know that the master pushes out of compassion. They trust that he knows the territory they wish to traverse and that he will lead them across it safely. They are disciplined and committed to a greater goal. The master acts in every respect like a shepherd.

I have sought for such a teacher ever since I left my doctoral research at the University of Cambridge. I find it difficult to stay focussed in my studies without a respected teacher to consistently challenge my presupposition and tear my work apart so that it can be rebuilt in a stronger way. There is often minor criticism of ideas I put forward but seldom with the goal of discovering a deeper truth or structure to them. So I long for strong teaching from the church. Not teachings that rely solely on church structures and authority to be received (as this is a sure sign of theological weakness) but rather teaching that enter into the debates and become strong through the wrestling for truth. I long for teaching that have been refined in the fires of debate and reflection. This however takes time that few seem willing to take. The philosopher Habermass said that the pursuit of truth must not have a time limit set on it. Once the pursuit has begun it must continue until it is at last resolved. This may mean taking several generations to get to the end. This is what a real commitment to the pursuit of truth means.

The thing I have found most difficult in acclimatising to the Canadian Church is the way many people discuss ideas, or do not discuss them! My educational formation, and to some extent my adult cultural formation, has been within a British educational milieu. Within this culture ideas are expected to be constantly challenged. People argue about them all the time. You have only to take a taxi ride in London, which is hardly in an educational milieu, to have a stimulating debate with the driver about modern culture. Everyone has an opinion. Yet the constant debates are not personal. You can have a heated debate about the nature of politics or religion in a pub and when the time comes for another round the debate promptly ceases the orders given and then the debate begins again in earnest. The point is that debate over ideas is for deeper knowledge for both parties. Both participants are seeking to reach a goal beyond themselves, the continuing illumination of truth – The Epiphany. The debate serves the purpose of strengthening both parties. That is the difference between arguing to ‘win’ an argument and a heated discussion to refine both people’s thoughts, like the prophet Malachi teaches about. When one person puts forward a strong idea immediately another person will begin testing it to find its weaknesses.

However in the Canadian Church when a strong idea is put forward almost nobody say a thing. So instead of having the thought process refined it is left imbalanced and the discussion is perceived as threatening. In such cases, the opening gambit is to put forward a strong idea and then wait for an equally strong idea to block it. Then the wrestling is expected to begin. It seldom does. Canadian Anglicans seem to respond to questioning of their ideas and presuppositions as personal attacks and often respond emotively, if at all. I need not point out the awkwardness of having to learn this cultural tendency the hard way! However, the point still stands. How are we to become stronger in a climate in which conflict and deep, disciplined debate is avoided or limited? How are we to become stronger without trusted teachers who challenge us to surpass the limitations that we imagine for ourselves? How are we to witness to the modern world without prolonged, professional debate and clear theological understanding?