Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Belated inflammatory thoughts on women bishops

So, I'm pretty late with this, but here are a few thoughts, kicking up the barely settled dust.  Obviously, I'm looking in from the outside on this whole debate, and much like Carl Trueman would be fairly indifferent if the CofE decided "to make Justin Bieber Archbishop of Canterbury... or to bless the matrimonial union of divorced goldfish".  I wouldn't put either course of action beyond them.  Anyway, my thoughts...

1.  I don't think there ought to be any bishops, of any gender whatsoever, unless we are talking about the sort of bishops they have in the Bible, i.e. elders in a local church.  The reasons for this are manifold, and I've touched on them at many times and in various ways.  The current Anglican crisis puts me in mind of a couple of others.  One is that the episcopal tradition really demands a Pope.  It makes no sense to have an episcopate which can be held to ransom by the laity, and it makes no sense to pretend that there is some process of development in the church's doctrine unless you have a Pope, or at least an authoritative magisterium.  Get a Pope, or get rid of the bishops.  Another reason is that this crisis highlights how complicated it becomes when a congregation is subjected to the authority of someone other than Christ, over whose appointment they have no say.  It is bizarre.

2.  I don't understand how my 'egalitarian' friends arrive at their conclusions from Scripture.  (Scare quotes to highlight that, of course, the 'complementarians' think that they are also egalitarian; they just think it means something different).  It seems to me that Scripture does contain an anthropology, which we ignore at our peril since it flows from the gospel, and that anthropology does describe men and women as different, and does envisage them having different roles.  I am not keen on most stuff that comes out of the complementarian stable, because to my mind it moves much too fast from this basis to prescribing exactly what those roles ought to be in contemporary society.  I'd like a bit more reflection, and an acknowledgement that although there is continuity there is also change in the way masculinity and femininity is expressed within the Bible, as one might expect within a library of books written over thousands of years.  Nevertheless, I do think the complementarians are basically right, and I can't help feeling that the 'egalitarians' - many of whom are people I respect deeply - have got off on the wrong foot (see 3 below).

3.  I have seen a lot of argument from culture, progress, and relevance in this debate.  Even where it was not on the surface, I can't help suspecting that for a lot of egalitarians (okay, I'll drop the scare quotes now, if you insist) there is significant 'bleed through' from contemporary western culture into their biblical interpretation and theology.  Sorry to say it, folks, but that's how it seems to me.  Now, I am going to say something huge, and I want to qualify it before I say it: I know that many egalitarians are genuinely convinced that they are serving Scripture, and submitting to Christ in their interpretation.  I genuinely respect that, even if I can't see it myself.  But for those who were talking about relevance and progress (and especially a rather crass parliamentarian, who came up with the insight that "If the Church of England wants to be a national church, then it has to reflect the values of the nation") - you seriously scare me.  A church that reflects the culture - a church that must reflect national values in order to be a national church - is exactly the sort of church which caused one of my great theological heroes to have to remind a whole continent that "Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death."

4.  Conservative Evangelical Anglicans fight the oddest battles.  The fact that, from their perspective, most of the bishops are heretics doesn't seem to bother them, but they can't tolerate the thought of having women.  Similarly for the Anglo-Catholics - once you're in communion with people who have women priests, it seems to me that the game is up (from your bizarre sacramentalist point of view, anyway).  There are alternative options open to both sorts of people - Independency and Rome - which are viable and would surely be more agreeable.  It is particularly frustrating that once again Evangelical Anglicans give the world the impression that all Evos are basically anti-woman and anti-gay, because those are the only issues they seem to be prepared to fight on.

5.  It makes me sad that good, godly people love the CofE.  I've heard two main reasons for loving it expressed.  Amongst more conservative evangelicals, the main reason seems to be a highly fictionalised account of the history of the CofE, which gives the impression that it has always historically been a thoroughly evangelical institution which has just recently been hijacked by liberals and Anglo-catholics.  To this I can only say that it is, indeed, fiction.  The other reason given is the apparently great virtue in being associated with liberals and Anglo-catholics, I suppose as a model of ecumenism.  I feel that I can hear the Apostle muttering darkly about his desire for heretics to emasculate themselves, and I wonder how he would fit into this view of things.  Don't get me wrong, there is stuff to love there.  (See my last post for an example).  But honestly, most of it could be salvaged without accepting the half-reformed, never-really-evangelical, semi-biblical fudge that Anglicanism involves you in.  Come out, come out!  I trust that once disestablishment occurs, many will see no reason to compromise further, and will leave.  It is fine out here, I promise you.  You'll like it.

6.  Yes, I know, I've been harsh.  But this is important stuff.  It affects the witness of all of us.  Why not think about it?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Of liturgy and lectionary

This week is the last before advent.  This means that I have a decision to make: will I be buying a copy of the lectionary for the next year, which begins this coming Sunday?

This year has been something of an experiment.  Since the end of last November I have been using Morning Prayer, and most days Evening Prayer, as my main devotional time, praying through the liturgy from Common Worship and following the readings from the lectionary.  Recently I have been reflecting on the good and bad points, the helpful and the less helpful, that have come out of the experiment.  Here are a few of them.

Good points:
1.  Lots of Bible.  I have never read so much in the Psalms as I have done over the last year, and I am sure that has been good for my view of God and my praying in general.  Also, having an OT and an NT reading every day has meant a good balance.  In the past, when I have sometimes read devotionally through a single book of Scripture quite slowly and in some detail, I have noticed the danger of getting a one-sided view of things (and, the summer I read through Jeremiah, sometimes a fairly miserable view), which this helpfully avoids.

2  Puts the Bible in the context of the gospel.  Because the seasons of the liturgical year are based on and shaped by the events of the gospel (although I will qualify this a little below), Scripture reading is placed in the context of the life and work of Christ.  This discourages a moralistic reading, or a quick jump to 'application', and encourages the reading of Scripture as fundamentally witness to him.

3  Good for mornings.  I am not really a morning person, and getting going can be difficult.  Launching straight into prayer is hard.  But when you're weary - and as any parent will tell you, that basically means 'when you're awake' - it is helpful to have some structure that is well thought through and well written to get you started.  By the time I get to the allotted part of the service for personal prayer, I am usually more awake and more 'in the mood' than when I started.

4.  Good for catholicity.  I have enjoyed the fact that evening though I have been using the liturgy solo - which is of course not its design - I have felt connected to something bigger, being aware that there are many people focussing on just these readings and praying just these prayers today.

And some bad things:
1.  Danger of ritualism.  I definitely feel the temptation to rely on the forms to get me into the presence of God.  There is a danger that, rather than being an introduction and warm-up for personal prayer, the set prayers become the be-all and end-all of my praying.

2.  Annoyance of the semi-reformation.  Anglicanism is characterised by nothing more, in my mind, than it's half-reformed nature, and that shows in some of the festivals that one is encouraged to keep.  Since the lectionary readings go with the festivals, it's been hard to dodge all of them (although I have ignored the various saints days).  I have no strong objection to commemorating the apostles, but some of the festivals are just a bit odd - what in the world is Holy Cross Day?  The calendar could do with some reforming.

3.  Holes in the lectionary.  I suppose because it is designed for public reading, the lectionary skips over some of the hard bits of Scripture.  That's a shame, but it has been easy enough for me to just fill in the gaps.  I do wonder - and I'm sure someone must know - whether I would ever get through the whole of Scripture following this arrangement, and if so how long it would take.

All in all, I lean towards continuing, or perhaps adapting slightly more to 'Protestantise' the praying.  Any thoughts?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Christ-less Grace

I've been mulling over Romans 2 and 3 today, after a Peter Comont preach at MRC last night.  The main drift of the chapters is pretty clear.  Having dished out some fairly heavy condemnation of humanity - and I think in particular Gentile society - in Romans 1, Paul goes on to hit the moralist in chapter 2.  The temptation for the moralist - and he slides over the course of the verses to be talking particularly about the Jewish moralist - is to assume that they are better.  This is the sort of person who can nod along with Paul's condemnation, confident that it does not apply to them.  Paul's reply to the moralist is that they do just the same things.  Not, perhaps, the identical crimes, but the same sorts of things, and moreover they do them without any sense of needing God's mercy.  They sin with a high hand, and can expect judgement, with as little mercy as they are prepared to show to others.

The second part of chapter 2 has always seemed to me in the past to be Paul simply labouring his point, and in particular hammering it home to his former co-religionists.  There is a bit of that.  But what has struck me this time around is that Paul's imagined opponent relies on two main things - having the law, and having circumcision.  Paul's point is that neither of these things are sufficient for justification.  But I wonder whether I have always misunderstood his opponent's position.  Having the law and being circumcised - that is to say, being a Jew.  And that is grace.  The person who relies on having the law and on being circumcised does not rely on themselves (this is particularly clear with regard to the latter) so much as on God's gift.

And so I think the beginning of Romans 3 is a dialogue that goes something like this:

"What is the use then, Paul, of being a Jew?  What good is circumcision?"
(Note that Paul could say 'nothing', and indeed when the question is directly 'what good is it for justification?', he will indeed say 'nothing at all'.  But at this point that is not what he says).
"It is an enormous privilege in every way!  For starters, you have the Scriptures entrusted to you".
(This doesn't really get unpacked; I think Paul imagines himself being interrupted).
"Of course, but that is hardly the point of our discussion.  You seem to be saying, Paul, that the unfaithfulness of some - perhaps even a majority - in Israel has completely undone the faithfulness of God; you seem to be saying that God's covenant faithfulness to Israel was always dependent on Israel's goodness".
(If Paul were saying this, he would of course be flying in the face of the prophets, and of Moses.  The OT is full of the glorious truth that unfaithful Israel is chosen and upheld despite their unfaithfulness by God's faithfulness to them.  But notice the plea that is being made here; it is an appeal to grace).
"Certainly not!  God is faithful even if no-one else is.  But his faithfulness may mean judgement as well as mercy".
(The latter is implied by the OT quotation.  For more of God's ongoing faithfulness to Israel, we could jump to Romans 9-11).
The dialogue goes on, with Paul's opponent getting rather desperate and hard up for good arguments, as is often the fate of imaginary interlocutors.

To see that Paul is countering an appeal to grace (and there can be no doubt that he agrees with his opponent that law and circumcision, as the marks of Israel's election, represent grace) makes me think that the main point of these chapters, building up to the righteousness apart from the law which has now been revealed, are not so much about works versus grace, or works versus faith.  They are about anything at all versus Christ.  Even God's past grace, if it distracts from or detracts from Christ, is an unrighteousness, a filthy rag.

Faith alone is only true and important if it is faith in Christ alone.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Baptism, Independency, and the Church

The interweb is riven with controversy once again.  On the one hand, Paul Levy at Ref 21, asks why the FIEC is almost entirely made up of baptists; on the other hand, John Stevens, the venerable Chief of the FIEC, challenges those who are committed paedobaptists and independents to get involved.  Of course, there are no paedobaptists who are committed to independency as far as I know, so perhaps that deals with the issue.  Levy has replied to John Stevens, quoting Ben Williamson, with whom I am acquainted of old.  Ben argues that Baptists ought to be Independents, and paedobaptists ought to be Presbyterians.  I think he is absolutely right on that, but I think the reasons he gives are wrong, and dismiss rather too easily the Baptist position.  Since it is clearly intolerable that anyone should be wrong on the internet and not be contradicted, let me add some thoughts.

Ben thinks that Presbys put more emphasis on the corporate aspect of church, while Baptists emphasise the individual and his faith.  There is something in that, if we're just looking at what actually happens.  But if we dig and try to do some actual theology from the Baptist side, I think we ought to find something like this: Baptists ought absolutely to emphasise the corporate nature of the church, but they ought to downplay the institutional structures of the church.  For both Baptists and Presbyterians, the church exists because of calling.  But this calling is understood very differently.  The Presby, interpreting the NT in the light of the OT (a perverse procedure in my not-so-humble opinion), sees the calling of the church as being much like the calling of Israel.  So, in history a group of people is called, and their calling endures through time and is passed on generationally.  Baptism is rightly administered to children in recognition of this, and the church itself must have an enduring institutional structure to enable it to endure.  It must exist above and beyond the individual congregation, and must have priority over the individual.

I submit the Baptist ought to argue that the calling of Israel is in fact a parable of the real calling of (Christ, and in him) the church.  Therefore, the former is to be interpreted by the latter and not vice versa.  The Baptist ought to maintain a much more dynamic understanding of calling.  Church means gathering.  It means the calling of people together, but in a very real sense this calling is never 'done'.  Every Sunday is a fresh calling together of God's people.  The calling of Christ - indeed, Christ's activity and rule in his church in general - is regarded as that much more immediate.  So, yes, the calling of the individual has priority, but only because the calling of the individual is always into the body, and it is the calling of individuals that constitutes the church.  This view of Christ's dynamic involvement with the church ought to lead to flexibility about institutions and even about individual congregations.  It will also involve a recognition that church exists only as people are actually called by Christ into fellowship with him and one another in actual church life; therefore, to Independency.  The Baptist understands Catholicity to mean that Christ is calling different people into different fellowships, and trusts that we are nonetheless called to and by the same Christ.

So Baptism/Independency is not more focussed on the individual than the community; it simply understand the community and its existence differently.  This does have an impact on how we see children of believers - I think there is a category for those associated with the community but not yet called into it, a la 1 Cor 7, but this comes a long way short of the OT-ised view of the church held in confessional Presbyterianism.  For which I am glad.