Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Holmes: What Is Anglicanism? (Ch.s 3, 4, & 7)

Whence authority in the church? How can one know the church's authority? Holmes in Ch. 2 refers to councils, to epistemological worries, to the need to cultivate what amounts to epistemic humlity, to the need for accepting vagueness as the price for avoiding tyranny. "Sure" you might say, "but it's all rather bloodless." Where is Christ in it, and the Cross?

the Incarnation, ch. 4

Holmes notes Tillich once called the doctrine of the Incarnation "the Anglican heresy," dramatizing Tillich's distance from what should be "a central doctrine to Anglicanism" (25), and--it seems to me--implying the innovations of Robinson, Borg, and Spong, et al. who in various ways deny or drastically reinterpret the doctrine of the Incarnation, are peripheral to the core of the Episcopal Church--pace its more strident critics.

Nevertheless, commitment to a high, Chalcedonian doctrine of the Incarnation would seem to give even strident critics rather significant common ground with the likes of Holmes and those high churchfolk who might be tolerant or supportive of GC2003 and who think roughly as Holmes does. It seems to me, for instance, that arguments about GC2003 generally have not been carried on from mutual acknowledgement of the Incarnation as even potentially decisive. There seems to be a presumption the doctrine is broadly irrelevant to the issues in play.

Even though "we will never plumb the depths of God's true purpose in becoming humanity," (27)Holmes says we can and should nevertheless accept the doctrine's implications. To begin with, Holmes writes as "God created everything that is," it follows "[t]he material world is good." That is not to say, and indeed rather rules out, that, as pantheism would have it, God is identified with nature; Holmes rightly sees the Incarnation within the doctrine of creation as incompatible with pantheism. Rather, God works out his purpose "in and through creation, and yet [that purpose is] incomplete in and not infrequently thwarted by nature." (27-8)

For Holmes, the "image of God in humankind is the presence there of the logos of God" namely "the ability to act in a self-conscious or reflective way," and the "principle" of this is Christ himself. (28) Though defaced by sin, "[w]e do not believe that this [the image of God] is ever totally destroyed in us." (28) That is quite significant, rendering "insignificant those who struggle against the great discoveries of science...." (28) We should not see human reason as so damaged by the Fall that its scientific exercise is somehow unreliable, and we should expect science and the faith to be, ideally, compatible; there need be no incompatibility between them.

Still, "[w]ith the ability to reason comes the ability to sin," in effect to refuse "to serve with God as co-creators, partners in bringing to fulfillment his vision for creation;" instead in sin "we impose upon each other and the world in general our personal preferences, with no concern for God." (29) God created us for partnership with him; this is "announced" (29) in the Incarnation. Indeed, even if we had not sinned, Holmes holds "God would have become flesh." (27) The material world, and God's partnership with humanity in the ongoing work of creation, are important enough to enjoy a kind of priority to sin and its effects.

Somewhat mysteriously, even tentatively, Holmes writes we should understand "the Incarnation embraces the totality of life," namely "the entire experience with all its conflict and ambiguity." (29) He means to speak of evil; God, Holmes seems to say, permits evil in the world in order to work good through evil. This was so even with Christ; "Christ's passage into the darkness we call Hell," Holmes notes, "was not an abstraction" or "playacting" but "a confrontation with the terror of nothingness both within and without;" Christ was "staring into the face of evil" and at Mark 15:34 made "an authentic cry of pain"--the fully divine being also fully human. (30) God knows the evil of the world, the evil from which we suffer, first hand, and nevertheless still creates, still works his purpose in the world; God does not sanitize the world or give it anesthesia to knock it out in the meantime, so to speak.

The only proper response to this, for Holmes, is "dread": "[t]he Incarnation teaches us to live into the fecundity of dread"--"the mystery of God's darkness." (30) The darkness "in us" is also "in God," Holmes says (30). That is not to say God sins, or is malicious or sadistic. Perhaps the point is that the futility, the waste, the pain of evil are part of our experience being human, part of what we must go through "armed with the cross of Christ" (31), and God in Christ has not insulated himself from this part of who we are, but has even gone so far as to take it into who he is.

Holmes writes we should not think of God in "sanitized" terms, so that "God becomes", for instance, "a southern gentleman"--a Compson man, perhaps. Actually, for what it's worth (and I apologize for any offense in advance), it is quite interesting to contemplate the Compsons of The Sound and the Fury and Absalom! Absalom! with Holmes' meditation on the problem of evil in mind. But that's work for another day.

A proper vision of God's darkness, Holmes hopes, preempts a "debased Anglicanism" that "confuses cultural ideals and values with the mind of God." (31) Rather, with the Incarnation in mind we should understand that "Christ transforms culture, he is not a projection of the culture"--indeed, a "radical incarnationalism" yields a religion that "keeps us on edge" returning continually to "the Cross of Christ," (31) a religion spreading an awareness that "never allows us to take our rest, but calls us to rise up and seek the promise." (32) Christ is, as it were, present on the outside among those who suffer, and in particular among those who suffer as he did at the hands of agents of an evil, sinful culture. Any church in solidarity with Christ is there with him, on the outside as he was, prepared to suffer as he did. For with Christ, as with the church, the evil in a culture is not there to be tolerated or forgotten, but transformed even at the cost of suffering, even great suffering.

the Bible, ch. 3

Holmes claims that for Anglicanism, "the authority of the Bible is without question" but "hearing what the Bible says is not a simple matter"--its "fresh and telling message" is "so difficult for us to hear." (23) Part of the problem is with a kind of resistance from the readers. To hear what the Bible says we have to be properly oriented to it. We should "understand ourselves" in the sense of being open to having the Bible examine and reprove us; we "have to be willing to let the text call us and our pet theories into question." (22) Being open to having the Bible criticize us implies "we have to risk our interpretation within the larger dialogue" rather than rest content with "private interpretation," even if that means we end with more questions. (22-3)

Moreover, and perhaps more subtly, we have to be careful to read the Bible "as whole" lest we "allow ourselves to cherish our favorite book" or verses, "dismissing those that do not appeal to us" and gerrymandering a reading of Scripture to fit comfortable prejudices, insulating ourselves. (21) Anglicans should have, and Holmes claims normally do have, a "discomfort with the use of 'proof texts'." (20) Our practice of reading Scripture according to a lectionary helps here, he notes--another reason for the Daily Office, if one is needed. (21)

Thus we might fail to hear the Bible, Holmes seems to say, on moral grounds by culpably presuming our way of life and our understanding is already sufficient. Failure to read the Bible whole--and to actually study the whole of it, and failure to leave our cherished ways and readings open to reproof are not merely intellectual errors. It follows we ought to be constantly ready for reproof from Scripture, and reading Scripture in general should not be a matter of coming to a final understanding, isolated from the need to revise and even begin anew.

But we may also fail to hear the Bible by failing to "probe its mysteries." (23) We should not only aim "to understand the words" and what they meant when they were written, but we also should aim "to understand the author" in terms of "what the author would be likely to think and do, given his culture and society," as with such an understanding we can see "how he builds his reality." (22) The aim is to avoid imputing meaning to the text that it could not have had, or would be unlikely to have had, given the concrete, historical reality of the words of the text and the text's author(s). Holmes notes "there is no perfect text of the Bible," and we should accept "the cultural conditioning of the books of he Bible as self-evident." (19) Thus, the "authors and editors of the Bible were historical human beings with the normal biases we would expect." (19) We are obligated to attend to historical criticism in reading the Bible--a reading neglecting the warts on the text and the authors is not just unreliable but irresponsible.

These conditions for reading Scripture well-- in his words probing its mysteries and letting ourselves be touched by it--are consistent with understanding the Bible as Holmes holds it should be, namley as inspired. That is not to say he advocates "verbal inspiration," as if "every word was dictated by God." (20) Rather, his phrase is "plenary inspiration" (20). That is, read whole, the Bible is inspired to convey a certain story, and in conveying the story it has its authority.

We are to see it telling "the story of a God who reveals himself in the history of Israel and finally in Jesus of Nazereth," which is also "the story of God's love for humankind," a story that "confronts us, convicts [us] of our sin and calls us to new life." (20) In the text, the text within the church telling this story, the church has "the record of God's personal self-disclosure of himself to us," a disclosure that "recounts a lover's longing for the beloved" and "if we are to move beyond the words to experience that love, it is the power of the story and the rhythym of the poem that will draw us there." (21) Grasped by the story this way, it "can be a means of God's saving grace changing the lives of those who read it." (19)

the episcopate, ch. 7

Holmes argues that bishops are necessary not for the being or even the well being of the church, but rather its full being; going without an episcopate does not make a community non-Christian, but instead merely impedes its relationship with Christ. (54) Though each of the four orders of the church--counting the laity--"represents the church to God," bishops priests and deacons "also represent God in Christ to the Church, " and the ministry of the priest and deacon "is an extension of the bishop's" (55), implying that the bishop has a special responsibility, greater than that even of the priest and deacon, to represent God in Christ to the church. Those "in Holy Orders" according to Holmes "do not merely perform the functions of the church" (55)--they "are the embodiment of a transcendent Word" (56): "high doctrine of the episcopacy" indeed.

Holmes seems to derive his understanding of the episcopate from that of Hobart, whom he celebrates not only for invigorating the once moribund practice of the episcopate in this country, but also for rendering it theologically defensible. For Hobart and Holmes, going "beyond simple biblical proof," the episcopacy is not a matter of "tactual succession" where apostolic power or authority, conceived in material, mechanical terms, flows through bishops as through a pipeline, pace the Tractarians. (53) Bishops embody the Word by their "profound symbolic power"; a bishop is "the real symbol, of the universality of the church" (53). The church, being "the primordial sacrament of Christ" is obligated to "transcend the immediate time and the particular place" so as to be "a historical incarnation of the eternal Lord in all times and all places." (53) Strong words: he seems to understand the church in these quotes to be the Body of Christ in a strong sense, not a merely metaphorical or figurative sense.

Holmes sees the episcopate as symbolizing the church's peculiar transcendence in which it "incarnates" the Lord always and everywhere. He seems to mean that without bishops, the church's effort of presenting God in Christ would remain abstract, and to that extent defective. That is--and here I'm piecing bits together on Holmes' behalf--whereas the bishop, being designated as an apostle, embodies or at least ought to embody a transhistorical praxis, a way of life going beyond "cultural expressions" and ""purely national interests." (53)

Laity, for instance, standing with the bishop, participate in that concrete, transhistorical praxis. Or, in other words: the church brings Christians into its transhistorical reality primarily through participation in the praxis of its bishops. And not just laity--"[p]riests and deacons cannot reproduce their own kind. Their ministry is an extension of the bishop's" (55). The serivice ministry peculiar to deacons is an extension of the bishop's ministry, and the parish priest "serves there as the bishop's representative." (54) It follows, Holmes notes, that bishops are especially responsible not merely for the discipline of the church required for retaining its continuity in catholicity, but especially its teaching and preaching, wherein the bishop "speaks out of the universal experience of the church" so that the church is enabled to "transcend the immediate situation" and hold onto "a catholic vision." (53)

On Holmes' model, "authority flows both from the church and from God and is rendered incarnate in the life and ministry of the bishop" (56); Holmes does not conceive episcopal authority apart from subordination to the church community as a whole. Still, with such a view it is not much of a surprise that he objects to the Episcopal Church's polity; he claims in TEC often "we expect our bishops, rather than calling us to a new awareness of what it means to be the people of God, to assure us that we are all good people." (56) This alleged tendency to the election of mediocre bishops is rooted, he claims, "in the American system of electing bishops," a system which reinforces a tendency "to look for someone who will please." (56)

Evidently Holmes would not be averse, ceteris paribus, to reforming our polity so that it would be less democratic and less responsive to the will of the laity, at least in choosing bishops. He writes "the constitution of the Episcopal Church as a result of the inordinate fear of prelacy so limited the bishops as we know them that they have relatively little real power." (52) Here I have to disagree, having some knowledge of Bishops Schofield, Duncan and Iker--and some would add PB Schori. The episcopate's powers can be circumscribed and checked without impairing their essential symbolic function.

I recall Holmes' earlier point (Ch. 2, 15) that authority in Anglicanism should be exercised through councils; accountability seems essential to the proper exercise of episcopal power. The issue might be the location of the council to which the individual bishop is accountable: the national province, or something larger? We have here at least the roots of an intuition contrary to Williams' seeming ecclesiology, which saw the bishop and diocese as fundamental to the church, separable from and prior to the province. If accountability points "upward", to the necessity of embedding the diocese in a larger structure if the bishop is to move the church toward its full being, subsidiarity would seem to point "downward", toward embedding the diocese in the lowest possible level of conciliar authority. The result, so far as I can see, would be to embed the diocese in a province wherever a province is available, rather than in some larger entity.

Putting all of this together

I think Holmes is pretty clear in pointing out that bishops and councils will not yield clear-cut, much less infallible, specific answers to problems and questions vexing the church or the world. In particular, he might say it is just wrong-headed to seriously expect Lambeth, or TEC's GC, to pronounce on the absolute truth about whether actively gay bishops may be ordained, or whether the church may perform blessings for SSUs. That is to wrongly conceive their authority.

For example, the bishop--charged with teaching the faith--who turns to the Bible in order to find the answer, God's truth, about whether an actively gay bishop may be ordained in a rule the way one would turn to the canons or better, the statutes of traffic or maritime law, has made a mistake about the authority of the Bible. Reading the Bible as it should be read is to take it as a narrative, and that places the Bible wholly in a genre rather different from that of traffic law.
However, the bishop who reads the Bible as delivering a narrative is positioned to ask about ordination or the blessing of SSUs; it seems hardly Holmes' intention to silence the Bible by insisting on its narrative character for the church. One would be asking, in effect, how are we being called to continue this story? Oddly enough, I think Holmes and NT Wright are "on the same page" with regard to hermeneutics, which is to say the strategy offered is potentially politically neutral.

Of more interest to me, at least, is Holmes' general picture. It seems he pictures the bishops of a province leading the church there in a "radical incarnationalism" that seeks to continue the biblical narrative by discerning where culture requires transformation and then actively confronting and convicting culture, taking up the Cross and accepting whatever pain and confusion results, all in an obedience to Christ that waits not for infallible deliverances about what is to be done, but takes stands in willingness to repent when needed. It goes without saying such a church would be politically active in its mission--and it seems to go without saying as well that Holmes would not recognize an episcopal office apart from prophetic duty.


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