Monday, October 01, 2007

Looking in on the Anglican neighbors.

To comment about the internal strife within the Anglican church almost seems to be intruding on the squabbles of the family next door. If you aren’t a member of the family it might be seen as intruding.

Well, not only am I not an Anglican. I’m not even a distant cousin. I possess not one whiff of what purports itself as “spirituality” and tend to place theology into the same camp as phrenology, astrology, divination, spell casting and other imaginary theories for discerning reality.

At its best theological constructs are quant attempts to find meaning without actually doing the hard work of thinking. The old saying, “God said it, that settles it,” is quite indicative of the theological mind. It asserts conclusions while simultaneously arguing that there is no need for evidence or logic. Since the conclusion is the revelation of a supernatural being the rest of us are supposed to shut up and obey. Certainly in olden days, and many Third World religious havens today, those who don’t shut up find themselves permanently silenced in one way or another.

Whatever claims to moral superiority that religion may make for itself the realities of the past often indicate a highly immoral system of persecution, intolerance and coercion. Of course, in a competition between two divine revelations, each in conflict with the other, the only recourse to solve the conflict is an appeal to superior force. And that is how it has been throughout history: the followers of one deity slaughtering the followers of another deity. In Europe sufficient numbers of “pagans” were tortured, put to the rack, set alight, or dealt with in sufficiently painful ways as to pretty much eliminate any competition.

And so it went for centuries. Now and then some poor heretic was publicly exterminated as an example and a certain unity of faith was obtained. Through this same process unity was maintained for some centuries. The problem then arose that European political structure was broken into thousands of small city-states or tiny principalities. The large nation-state of today didn’t exist -- which was a good thing for European development. This division of political power made it possible for individuals to entertain competition revelations from the same deity who apparently was whispering different ideas into the heads of different divines.

With political power diffused the ability to wipe out this competition became more and more difficult. The result was a massive increase in bloodletting. And for some centuries Christians were putting one another to the sword with such relish that the Muslims could only watch with amazement. It seemed to them that Christians were doing Allah’s work for them.

Eventually this lead to such bloodshed that the people started to weary of it. A few centuries of constant warfare begins to lose the thrill after some time, no matter how sure one is of the righteousness of one’s cause. And some thinkers started toying with the idea of toleration. A goodly number of them suffered for such evil ideas but eventually this “sinful” concept spread about. And it didn’t hurt that by now the “one true faith”, of the many one true faiths, had splintered into so many diverse sects and creeds that it was becoming increasingly more difficult for one of them to dominate the others.

Out of this mixture eventually arose the Anglicans, founded by a King intent on remarrying in violation of the Catholic Church’s teaching on such things. When Rome refused to bow to the King he simply grabbed control of church property and started his own sect. Anglicanism thus originated primarily as a vehicle for one King to do that which the church deemed improper. There was no great theological divide in reality.

Of course after Anglicanism separated from Catholicism it began to work on its own theology. Over the next couple of hundred years there did develop, within Anglicanism, a view of the world with much in common with the Enlightenment values that were starting to flourish in Europe and which caused Europe to flourish

Eventually the politicians and public ignored the constant splintering of the faith. And as the one true faith became segmented in thousands of sects, the idea of putting one another to death had pretty much been abandoned. And necessarily so: with so many segments of the church competing any battle to solve the questions of the divine would result in a sea of blood.

The conflict in competing revelations eventually came down to issues of more mundane matters. People were less willing to kill over the Trinity but more willing to kill over whether or not people were acting in a proper way. And the major conflict of the 19th century was over the concept of slavery. Here, much of Anglicanism sided with the angels -- in that they had eventually become opponents of slavery. But certainly not all of them, by any means. And even this shift took centuries to accomplish.

For most of recorded history the Christian Church accepted the practice of slavery and Christians were prominent practitioners of the institution. John Newton is often seen as a prominent figure in the abolitionist movement and in the Reader’s Digest version of his life he became a Christian, an Anglican cleric in fact, and opposed slavery. Well, not exactly.

He did have a religious conversion and was morally outraged at swearing, drinking and sins of the flesh. Slavery didn’t bother him. He continued on as slaver for several years after his conversion. And when he did retire from the slave trade in 1754 it was not related to his disgust over the practice but because of his desire to become a minister. His first discourse against slavery only came 33 years after he left the slave trade.

But Newton did eventually become an anti-slaver. Other prominent “evangelicals” like George Whitefield, the orator who was credited with the “Great Awakening” in the United States, that sowed the seeds for fundamentalist Christianity there, were avid advocates of slavery. Whitefield is the one most credited with legalizing slavery in Georgia and thanks to his efforts some 1 million people had gone through slavery in that state alone.

Eventually the anti-slave theologians dominated in England and, with the rise of classical liberalism and liberal values, slavery was eventually abolished. Anglicans by the time of the American Civil War were more likely to be opponents of slavery. But American Christianity divided over the issue of enslaving human beings. Various “Southern” break off denominations were formed in defense of the morality of enslaving human beings. The Southern Baptists are the largest denomination in the United States today and they were formed over a defense of slavery. Ditto for groups like the Southern Methodist and the Southern Presbyterians.

And that brings me to today. What is the issue that is splintering the Anglican Church? Whether or not they should treat homosexuals really badly or only slightly badly. A few even seem to be more tolerant and want them treated with equality.

And right-wing Anglican churches in the United States are sending berobed bishops and archbishops to Uganda, Nigeria and Kenya, of all places, to be blessed by authoritarian Anglican bishops there. One of them, Archbishop Peter Akinola, finds contempt for homosexuals to be one of the key doctrines of his Christian faith. And antigay American Anglicans see him as the great Black Hope of antigay theology. Akinola is one strange bird. He says silly things like: “Many people say I embarrass them with my humility.” Okay!

Archbishop Akinola is so antigay that he wants the laws changed. Under Nigerian legislation he endorsed it would be illegal for gay people to meet one another or to petition government to change antigay laws. The law would make it illegal to announce meetings for gay people and would ban other churches from providing any blessing of sanction on gay relationships. This sort of Brown-shirt mentality has American Right-wing Anglicans flocking to Africa to get blessed and will splinter the Anglican church.

I guess I think of all this because I was outside Canterbury Cathedral today, the church home of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Anglican faith. And his conundrum is that Anglicanism is relatively stagnant with few members in the developed world. Where people are largely uneducated, such as central Africa, the faith is large. So the African Anglicans have the numbers. But the Western Anglicans have the money.

The Western Anglicans want the numbers and the African Anglicans want the money. The African Anglican church has been subsisting off funds from the West for decades. But it feels that with the numbers it should call the shots. And when it comes to shots they want to target homosexuals. Western Anglicans tend to be educated and tend to be socially liberal. They don’t find this raw sort of hatred very appealing. And now the church is splintering. The African Anglicans have ordained 17 archbishops for antigay Anglican churches in the West and are gunning for a showdown.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, would prefer the whole thing just go away. But how can it? Most Western Anglicans are children of the Enlightenment, whether they know it or not. Most African Anglicans have no idea what that means. They are authoritarians who put faith above reason and obedience above liberty. The gulf between them can not be surmounted. But Williams has attempted to hold these two contradictory views of the world together. And all that does is make the eventual divorce even more explosive.

I would acknowledge that the Anglican Church has the right to any theology it wishes to invent. They even have the right to be antigay, just as they had the right to support slavery for so many years. Any sect has the right to belief anything they can concoct. Unfortunately, when people adopt such beliefs for themselves, and convince themselves they speak for the deity of the universe, the temptation to impose such values on others, through coercive means, is difficult to shun. Most succumb to this totalitarian temptation and look across the kingdoms of this world and dream of dominating them -- for the greater good, of course. Archbishop Akinola is one such man. He stopped playing theology and went to politics much as the Religious Right in the United States has done (the religious Left has done so as well but they hide it better).

There is little doubt that the Akinolas of the world are sincere believers in their antigay theology. But sincerity is a much overrated virtue and perhaps one of the more dangerous ones. Certainly one need only look back 150 to 200 years ago to see that theologians defending slavery were terribly sincere. Churches splintered over slavery. People killed over it. Laws were put into place to defend that institution. Thousands and thousands of people died in a great war, fought in part, over the cultural conflict between Northern abolitionists and Southern slavers.

If you think the cultural conflict that divides America today is new you are sadly mistaken. You need only go back to the 1850s to see competing cultural values tearing the nation apart quite literally. I happen to oppose “Southern” values in both cases, and for the same reasons. The American South was defending slavery while the North was hiding slaves from their owners. The South was whining that the North was imposing impious values on their Christian culture --- George Bush is their revenge for that.

Of course, after more than a century, only the most rabid Southern fundamentalist defends slavery as a Godly institution today. Most have accepted the cultural liberal values that saw each human being as an end in himself and not the property of others. The consensus is that the “Biblical” teaching of slavery was actually not the Biblical teaching and the secularists and abolitionists and liberals were right -- slavery was, and is, immoral.

The massive role of the church in promoting and expanding slavery is now ignored and they prefer to focus any attention on that issue to those individual believers who eventually became abolitionists. To paraphrase Nixon: we’re all abolitionists today.

So I have little doubt that in 100 years the church, as it will exist then, will look on the church of today, with a similar sort of embarrassment. That one of the old, traditional faiths of the West could splinter down the middle over gay people will, I suspect, be a point of shame for the Christians of the future. And Archbishop Akinola will be seen in the same moral light as the men of faith who so adamantly defended the enslavement of individuals, some of whom, no doubt were relatives of the Archbishop.

Archbishop Akinola will be forgotten. He will join the long line of the theologians who preached inhumanity and the faith will move forward -- just a century or two behind the general culture. But in the end the dominant culture will lead and the church will follow. And eventually the church will claim that the culture of today, which so many of them oppose, was actually the culture of faith that they propose. The more tolerant world of liberalism truly has many fathers while the intolerance of the past is an orphan.

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