Tuesday, March 11, 2008

GAFCON: living Postmodernism

What does theological postliberalism look like in practice? Go review Archbishop Williams' statements criticizing various aspects of political liberalism in the UK and TEC. What does postmodernism look like in practice? I'd concur with Michael Poon: GAFCON. He says,

GAFCON holds before the Communion a new and unfamiliar utopia that is post-modern to its core. Webmasters and web bloggers render synodical processes irrelevant. They preside over web blogs in the virtual worlds of their own fabrication. Its power in shaping public opinion on ecclesiastical authorities simply cannot be ignored. A communion that is no longer dependent on patient face-to-face encounters and governed by geographical proximity: it is a Gnostic gospel that renders the Cross in vain.

I. Argument...
That last clause sounds like hyperbole, but let's take it seriously for a moment. What's the argument? Maybe this:

(1) Communion requires face-to-face encounters.
(2) Face-to-face encounters require geographical proximity.
(3) GAFCON's utopia is incompatible with geographical proximity.
Thus, (4) GAFCON's utopia is incompatible with communion.
But, (5) The Gospel and Cross require communion.
Thus, (6) GAFCON's utopia is incompatible with the Gospel and Cross.

Well, Poon does have an argument here worth taking very seriously if you're a Separatist, and it has prima facie credibility. In particular, one could work up considerable support from Christian tradition for the crucial, contended premise (1). It seems to me (2) and (5) are beyond reasonable doubt, and I trust Poon as a reliable source for (3), as it seems to fit with much of what comes through larger media groups about GAFCON. In sum: I take (3) as true at least for the near future and (2) with (5) as true simpliciter. As (6) follows from (4) and (5), and (4) from (1)-(3), the whole argument rests on the truth or falsity of premise (1).

So what of it? Does communion require face-to-face encounters? That is the issue on which Poon's confrontation with postmodernism hinges. I take it we're not talking merely about Holy Communion or the Mass, as (1) would surely then be trivially true, but irrelevant to Poon's argument. GAFCON isn't envisioning a fully virtual Mass, complete with sacramental simulacra rendering Real Presence really problematic. I take it Poon's talking about communion in a wider sense, about something like communion-in-concrete-community where the relevant ecclesial units are marked by a community sharing a form of life in bodily proximity. Dioceses consisting of geographically discontinuous congregations in mostly virtual contact--cultivation of which GAFCON seems to be holding out as a constitutive, necessary step in its proper development--lacks a form of life in bodily proximity or what I've called concrete community.

The staunch postmodernist might well be unimpressed: virtual contact between congregations suffices for the kind of community called for by the Gospel and Cross: e-mails, webcam-speeches, blog posts, webcasts, etc, etc can really be strung together in some configuration constituting Gospel community between congregations. But is the postmodernist right? I don't think so; here, rather, Poon is right, so far as I can tell.

What a virtual cluster of congregations crucially lacks is (a) the relevant kind of connection between members of its disjoined congregations and (b) between members of its congrgations and the world in bodily proximity outside of thecongregations. For both (a) and (b), one should see that human life necessarily consists of bodily interactions in which the Gospel and one's response to the Cross is lived out. Not even the Resurrection seems to cancel that truth out about us. That is, we are just not the type of beings who could live apart from bodily connections--and it is just those connections which, minimally, are held out by the Gospel as the arena within which we make our response to the Gospel and the Cross. GAFCON's postmodernism seems to imply that exactly those connections can be surrendered in a faithful, orthodox Christian life in return for mostly virtual connections.

That is precisely the bite of Poon's point about GAFCON's gnosticism: the implicit picture of human beings as satsified in their response to the Gospel and the Cross by merely virtual community as the ground for real communion. That picture is analogous to Gnostic Platonism's picture of humans as spirit beings called to leave crude matter behind. The historical Gnostics cultivated an interior, immaterial spiritual self; the GAFCON-gnostics cultivate an interior, dematerialized virtual self. True, the virtual is not the spiritual, but Poon has hit upon a good analogy. Whether the self to be redeemed in communion is pictured as spriritual or virtual, what is denied in consequence is the gravity of the material human being and material human relationships. There is, then, something to be said for Poon's premise (1).

II. ...and consequences
You will have noticed that the apparent soundness of Poon's argument leaves us with the rather sharp claim of (6):

GAFCON's utopia is incompatible with the Gospel and the Cross.

Apparently, ecclesiology matters after all, and the order of the church, and in particular the polity of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, matters as well. For that polity is the order within which a common life in all of its gritty materiality, materiality identified by Poon as necessary to responding to the Gospel and the Cross, is carried on.

It is perhaps odd to think of treating that fragile common life, that embarassingly fragile common life, as something so grave that ostentatiously prima facie orthodox parallel groupings as GAFCON supports (think AMiA, CANA, etc) would in reality be so radically unorthodox.

At least one would suppose serious Anglo-catholics in Fort Worth and elsewhere--for whom ecclesiology is already important--would hesitate before following Schofield into a virtual community. It seems that is just what Poon is talking about: real community dissolving in the acids of virtual community, an unhappy real world traded for the shiny silver of the postmodern utopia.


At 9:07 PM, Blogger bls said...

I think this really does all stem from the necessity for face-to-face interaction that Eucharist requires, though.

That's the genius of the whole thing, in fact; here we all are, tempted to withdraw into the virtual world completely - to network according to our personal preferences and never really have to deal with anybody we don't like or don't agree with - but Eucharist forces us to be present physically. In am era of "bowling alone," the consecrated bread and wine are what's keeping all of us going out to meet one another in the real world. Imagine that.

I think this was part of the point, too. Granted, virtual reality is new, but withdrawal into one's own tiny world (i.e., family and friends) isn't.

We can't do it, though, if we desire to receive Communion; we have to go look one another in the eyes and shake their hands.

Good post, Scotist!

At 9:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like this line of argument, rooted as it is in our embodiment. (I'm writing a paper on the eschatological body in Irenaeus right now-- or procrastinating from it-- so the matter is much on my mind!)

My question would be, How far do we need to take it? Say you're the rector of an Episcopal church in North Carolina, which I'm told is a hotbed of the Anglican continuum. Your closest neighbor might be an "Anglican" parish not in communion with your own. To be sure, such parishes usually result from someone throwing off their bishop; but by the logic above, there should be something unsettling about being in communion with the bishop in Raleigh but not with the parish down the street.

++Rowan's correspondence with +Howe has infamously raised the question of the national church's logical priority to the diocese, or vice versa. Scotist's post makes me wonder about the opposite: For purposes of our embodiment, which is more normative, the diocese or the neighborhood?

At 10:35 AM, Blogger Christopher said...


I suggest you read here and here. It begins to flesh out in my opinion how much of this is actually beholden to a radical Anglo-catholicism looking to Rome. It seems really that much of this is about lining up with ARCIC. It's just until now no one has been so bold as to be so transparent about it.

At 6:15 PM, Blogger RFSJ said...


This is, as usual, cogent and direct. I appreciated yours/others' dissection of GAFCON as actually gnostic. The idea of virtuality not being enough resonates with me strongly; I do feel one has to physically come to the Table to be in communion. I have begun to tell my parish that walking away does no good; even in pain, come to the Table if you possibly can.



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