Anglican Donatism and the Intellectual Integrity of the Churh or Laudator Temporis Acti: Whitterings, April 2008

Horatius, Ars Poetica (Epistulae II.3), 173.

Those of you who regularly read this column will know that I consistently decry the Church’s continued, uncontrolled drift into the shadows of post-modernity. In many ways this puts me firmly in the camp with some of the people I most strongly disagree with theologically. I agree with many conservatives that the church often seems rudderless, lawless, and controlled by a secularist agenda (whether consciously or unconsciously). Scripture, tradition, theology and reason seem to be abandoned by the church for a sort of perverse and willing prostitution of herself to the world and her ways.

The use of a sports game metaphor may be helpful. The more conservative are usually playing on the right field, with the right equipment, and by the right rules. Many liberals, with whom I tend to agree a good bit more, and the most conservative have started playing their own individual games, with alien equipment, and by their own rules. One of the reasons that a seriously flawed conservative theology (Donatism) is gaining such strength in the church today is that too many of the grounded liberals have wandered off the field and abandoned the game. I may disagree with many conservatives but I agree with their struggle to wrestle with Scripture and Tradition in the search for truth. I accept the rules of the game. I may agree with many liberals but I usually strongly disagree with how they came to hold their position and it’s theological (if there is one) foundation.

Many church leaders today seem to feel little obligation to give account of their opinions and decisions in the light of Scripture, Tradition or Reason. They claim it ‘feels’ right. It is exactly the same sort of radical subjectivity that escapes the duty to be honest to the community as a born again Pentecostal who claims that they ‘know’ what is true simply because they have had a personal religious experience and are now ‘saved’. You can find no common ground on which to challenge them. They have escaped accountability to anyone. This is the antithesis of Catholicity in which the whole body is held accountable to one another (emphasis found in each of the Gospels and especially in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, the First Letter to the Corinthians and the Letter to the Colossians).

I can not be too strong in my condemnation of this avoidance of responsibility. It is actually heresy. The abandonment of mutual accountability severs us from the body and thereby from Christ Himself. I have mentioned before Elie Wiesel’s claim that if you must choose between Christ and the Truth you must always choose Truth because the Truth is Christ and to choose Christ over the Truth is to choose who you think He is, an idol of Him, and not who He really is.

C.S. Lewis claims that what he learned during his first meeting with his tutor William Kirkpatrick, and his further two years of Socratic dialogue with him, paved the way for his eventual conversion to Christianity.

“I said I was surprised at the ‘scenery’ of Surrey; it was much ‘wilder’ than I had expected. ‘Stop!’ shouted Kirk with a suddenness that made me jump. ‘What do you mean by wildness and what grounds had you for not expecting it?’ I replied I don’t know what, still ‘making conversation’. As answer after answer was torn to shreds it at last dawned upon me that he really wanted to know. He was not making conversation, not joking, not snubbing me; he wanted to know. I was stung into attempting a real answer. A few passes sufficed to show that I had no clear and distinct idea corresponding to the word “wildness’. And that, in so far as I had any idea at all, ‘wildness’ was a singularly inept word. ‘Do you not see then,’ concluded the Great Knock, ‘that your remark was meaningless?’” “On what had I based (but he pronounced it baized) my expectation about the Flora and Geology of Surrey? Was it maps, or photographs, or books? I could produce none. It had, heaven help me, never occurred to me that what I called thoughts needed to be ‘baized’ on anything.” He concluded: “Do you not see, then, that you had no right to have any opinion whatsoever on the subject?”
Surprised By Joy p. 156

Lewis said that this drove him to try and practice what his own beliefs dictated:
“For I had learned something from Kirk about the honour of the intellect and the shame of voluntary inconsistency.” Surprised By Joy p. 200

Oh, that we still had a church that felt these two things as sharply as She once did! I have already written about the chaos that has come upon us because the two ‘sides’ do not dialogue in order to both grow by a soteriological teleology but instead wage a war of attrition. What many do not realise is that the extreme conservatives that are seeking to break communion with their Bishops and the ‘enlightened’ liberals who casually discount Church tradition are both fundamentally making the same mistake. They have become anarchists. I can not tell you how many times I have tried discussing the pros and cons of a particular view with a liberal churchperson or arch conservative only to come quickly to that subjective wall that knows no breaching. It does not matter what the topic is, whether it be what the best age for Confirmation is in this society or what should be taught about Lent, there really is a better and a worse answer. Some things are simply a matter of taste, such as churchmanship, but these are surprisingly few when one looks at how theology integrates even the smallest details of our lives. I do not claim to know what that answers necessarily are but I do know that the struggle to reach it must, at a base minimum, contain a loyalty to Scripture, an acceptance of the claim that tradition has on us (the Councils of the Undivided Church, the Three Creeds, the Teachings of the Church Fathers and the Saints, Church History, as well as the heritage in Anglicanism of the Book of Common Prayer and our body of Canon Law) and a critical honest openness to truth. This critical thought process is open to objective analysis on the basis on rationality, logic, consistency and empirical evidence.

Often you get the “Well, I feel” that bla bla is the best or right way. When asked why they will often say what amounts to “I think this because I think this” or “I do this because this is what I do.” Why do we accept this nonsense? The way you feel about Confirmation is irrelevant in deciding how the application of the Sacrament is best adapted to modern circumstances. If the feeling has arisen as an intuitive by- product of a wrestle with the theological and liturgical work of the last thirty years in this area, and a reflection on adolescent psychological and sociological development, and a familiarisation with the statistical studies of different practices then it’s veracity should be accepted. It should not if it is just what it usually is – a cover for cowardice and sloth. The Cowardice is the fear of being the one to say to a community that things must change. For example teaching a community that expects its nine and ten years olds to be Confirmed why this should no longer be the practice and then having to manage the long period of conflict that results from the change. The sloth is found in not doing the research, the reading and the thinking that is expected of us in areas of important debate. Often the person simply has not done enough ‘work’ to, as the Great Knock would say, ‘have any right to have an opinion on the subject’.

If you think this too harsh I would be more than pleased to hear another interpretation. I, simply, can not see how else modern church people (including clergy) can so easily, and seemingly without guilt or shame, ignore and even contradict the basic theological foundations of the faith (and yes there is a some consensus as to what a bare minimum of this consists of!), liturgical principles laid out in the two Prayer Books, National Directives, and National, Provincial and Diocesan Canons and Policies, common sense, and sometimes even decency.

There are three prevalent responses to challenges to stated opinions and practices. Often the response is something along the lines of “well no one takes that seriously” or “I do not believe that”. They may well be right, but it is still up to them to show the community why. Funnily enough no one seems to use arbitrary spelling just because they ‘feel’ a word would be better spelled another way. Recently I had a disagreement with a churchwoman about the circumference of two pavement candles. I thought they were different and she that they were the same. When I took out a tape measure and showed her that one was two inches thicker then the other, she simply looked at me and said sullenly “well I feel they are the same size’. As Alice would say “Curiouser and Curiouser”.

The second response is a philosophical mistake that C.S. Lewis suffered from and is even more prevalent today: chronological snobbery. A good friend, he says, cured him.

“..he made short work of what I have called my ‘chronological snobbery’, the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find out why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realisation that our own age is also ‘a period’, and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”
Surprised By Joy p. 241

The third most common argument often used is that Christ has ‘freed’ us from ‘The Law’. This is simply not true. We are free from the cold, external observance of the Mosaic Law. We are, however, still called to the observance of the internal observance of the ‘Law of Love’. The ‘rules’ I refer to (traditions, canons, policies) are also not the same as the “Law” because these regulations are born from within the church as a way of maximising our potential for holiness and minimising our tendency towards corruption. They are as St Paul says a way for “Everything to be done decently and in good order.” The laws of the community and the radical search for freedom must be balanced. Aristotle reminds us that almost all of the problems that face us in life can be reduced to the question of getting the right balance. These rules are constantly to be tested as St Paul reminds us to ‘test everything’ and amended as the collective wisdom of the church sees fit. For as long as they stand, however, they still have authority for us. If you disagree with a structure or rule then you are, by the “Law of Love” as part of the body, fully expected to argue for its change or abolishment. You are not free just to ignore it because of your own conscience. This is to fall prey to the enemy who seeks to cut us off from one another.

“When Milton's Satan falls from heaven, he ends in hell. And what does he say to reassure himself? 'Here, at least, we shall be free.' And that, I think, is the fate of the old-fashioned liberal. He's going to be free, but he's going to find himself in hell.”
B. F. Skinner

This article is not a plea not for a privileged elitism. It is a plea for meritorious elitism (people should be classed by their merit). It is a plea not to persecute those who have special gifts just because they make us feel uncomfortable or insecure (the last thing we need is to have everyone brought down to the same level in mediocrity). It is mostly a plea for returning to the basis of Catholic Church – that we make ourselves accountable to one another. We are not all brilliant theologians, pastors, liturgists, administrators, and teachers. We are not meant to be. If we try to do everything this makes us feel weak and incompetent and it isolates us. This isolation, this consultation of only a few like minded people, is born of the enemy of faith – fear. If we acknowledge that each individual gift is a gift of the whole body then we compliment one another. If we take consul together and consult those who have strength and gifts in their particular fields we have a better chance of discerning the Will of God. This means we do not need to be afraid of having our weaknesses examined because we can use the strengths of others to strengthen ourselves.

The challenge of others actually helps us to grow “into the full stature of Christ”. The only way to do this is to accept the ‘rules’ which reflect the living discernment of the community as the starting point for our wrestle for the truth as a family. This belonging to a family is messy and it means being vulnerable to one another. This is why the current trend of using professional business models in the church are so horrific. It means that we tend to ‘handle’ people when there is conflict. To handle people means that we intentionally do not let ourselves be open to the challenge of painful disagreement with those who challenge us. We keep them at a ‘safe’ distance emotionally. We may be more successful in getting ‘personnel’ issues dealt with but we lose the intimacy and the suffering we are called to participate in by the following of Our Lord. You can not justify ‘handling’ people in a community that is to model the Christ of the Gospels. This is why the National Church has issued the guidelines ‘A Call to Human Dignity’ adopted by this Diocese several years ago. However it does not help that the document is seldom referred to and seldom utilised in out conflicts. It might as well not exist. It is a perfect example of my overall point.

I have written at length in previous articles about some of the reasons that I believe that this rampant subjectivity has arisen. I have also written about the insecurity and fear that makes us so defensive and insecure. I simply want to remind people: that God is actually real; that we, as Anglicans, worship and approach him as a community; that this makes us accountable to one another, and to the faith, traditions and discipline of the Church; and that any religion that is comprised of only what we already think or feel is falsehood – only a projection of ourselves onto God. The God we serve ‘passeth all understanding’ and leads us to become that which, today, we can not even imagine.

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura I, 101