24 June 2010

The mitre dust-up: some thoughts on what it means for us and for our home-grown raskolniks

The story itself is about two weeks old: as our church’s Presiding Bishop, the Rt Rev Katherine Jefferts Schori, delivered a thoughtful sermon at Southwark Cathedral on 13 June, it turned out she had been forbidden in a display of ‘theatrical discourtesy’ (as the Guardian blogger Andrew Brooks put it) from wearing the rightful symbols of her office – the mitre and the crozier – by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It produced the sadly inevitable flurry of media speculation and microanalysis, and (in my opinion) sent precisely the wrong message at the wrong time.

(As a brief aside, allow me to gripe about the use of the appalling descriptor ‘Mitregate’ for this event and the following disputes. This event has absolutely no analogical connexion with the Watergate break-ins – there is no scandal, no visible abuse of power as yet, only differing paradigms of theology and church polity. Despite the obvious rhyming similarities of the words ‘water’ and ‘mitre’, it’s simply a mark of how facile and shallow the corporate media treating this story are that they seem unable to forbear from attaching the old-meme ‘-gate’ suffix onto any kind of controversy, even if that controversy is wholly contrived, trivial or nonexistent – as it was in the completely fictional scandal over UEA’s climate research team after an e-mail archive theft in what came to be known as ‘Climategate’.)

All that aside, though, there have been several interpretations of the Rt Rev Rowan Williams’ action which (to my view) fall into two broad categories: that it is a snub of the ECUSA by the Mother Church on account of our political behaviour or that it is somehow connected with Bishop Schori’s gender and the Mother Church’s current internal discussion on whether or not women are fit to be consecrated as bishops. If the last, I’m afraid, it seems to be either a wholly political conciliatory measure or an attempt to appear even-handed to the traditionalists in the C of E: both the Rt Rev Rowan Williams and the Rt Rev John Sentamu have been active in the recent reform efforts in church polity which would allow for women to become bishops. I personally feel that it is more likely to be the former.

If it is a political snub against the ECUSA (as the decision to discontinue the memberships of five ECUSA members in certain ecumenical dialogues certainly was), it is probably nothing we don’t deserve, for all we’ve been behaving toward the Mother Church like spoiled children who always want their own way. Our disregard for the opinions of the other churches with which we are in Communion in light of our self-proclaimed ‘prophetic witness’ runs contrary to the catholic nature of our Church – even if (as I certainly believe) the left-leaning clerics of the ECUSA have the full right of the matter on the issues of the ordination of women and the inclusion of homosexuals in the life of the church, it still leaves us no excuse as Christians to simply write off those members of our Communion who are genuinely struggling with such issues. At the same time – to extend the prior metaphor – this is a family argument, to be kept within the family. The public nature of this affair does not reflect well on the Mother Church, nor on the traditionalists whom the discourtesy toward the Rt Rev Schori was probably meant to appease. It also sends entirely the wrong message, a message that risks accelerating and worsening the schism between the mainstream as represented by the Church of England and the ECUSA, and the новых расколников (new Raskolniks) of the type which make up ACNA.

I take it as given that we of the Episcopal Church, for all the current tension we have with the Church of England, do truly value our place in the Anglican Communion and will fight to keep it. We value the organic traditions that continue to tie us to the Church of England. I believe that, at our best, we value a concept of orthodoxy similar to that Fr Kenneth Leech began to articulate in his excellently-written series of essays, Subversive orthodoxy: an orthodoxy which maintains a healthy dialogue between the past and our present condition, between scripture and the traditions of our Church and the questions of our present day through the light of reason, and an orthodoxy which articulates a direction toward life in Christ (rather than a laundry list of ossified dogmas about Christ). We ought to be engaged in articulating and cultivating the former definition of orthodoxy, rather than encouraging those opposed to ordaining women to adopt their own heterodox self-definitions.

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