12 July 2006

Morality versus unity

In an article Sowing the seed of change Theo Hobson writes of the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams:
Williams is performing the ecclesiastical suspension of the ethical: renouncing the moral good for the sake of the unity of the Church.

Williams, says Hobson, has learned the hard way that Catholics cannot be liberals too. "A Catholic has very publicly sacrificed his or her belief in the moral rightness of ordaining homosexuals, for the sake of the church's unity."

The more I see of discussions like these, the more relieved I am that I am no longer Anglican. I no longer have to participate in them. The whole debate seems different from the outside, and Anglican unity seems more and more chimerical, because each party in the debate is being asked to sacrifice its view of moral rightness for the sake of this chimaera. Each side claims the moral high ground. The trouble is that the moral high ground they claim is not on two different sides of the same mountain, but on two different mountains, with an unbridgeable gulf between them. They are mutually exclusive moral systems.

Elizaphanian: Catholicism trumps liberalism beliieves that it is possible to achieve unity if three different strands of Anglicanism can be held together -- the Catholic, the Liberal and the Evangelical. But if the centrifugal forces overcome the centripetal ones they will become Ultramontanism, Atheism and Fundamentalism. But I think this too overlooks the incompatibility of the moral high grounds being claimed by the different parties.

Hobson regards liberalism in the Anglican Communion as being endangered, if not dead. But there is a far bigger threat to liberalism than that.

There is a wider tendency in the British media to speak of the moral high ground, which is much more ominous than the internal debates of the Church of England, or even the Anglican communion as a whole. This could be seen when Tony Blair was pushing for legislation to allow detention without trial, as B.J. Vorster did in South Africa in 1963. Tony Blair didn't get his way, but the British media described him has holding the moral high ground, and the Labour MPs who failed to support him of lacking moral fibre and being traitors. Anyone who supports detention without trial is no liberal, but a fascist. And that the British media are equating fascism with the high moral ground is very ominous indeed.

The Church of England did not have much to say about that: it is too obsessed with its own internal bickering. On the anniversary of the terrorist bombings on the London transport system, in which 35 people died, there was a two-minute silence and a lot of public commemoration -- something which had previously been reserved for remembering the victims of world wars that had lasted several years and which millions had been killed. Others have commented elsewhere that this grief lite is a disturbing feature of British society. One commentator writes of this
I find the ridiculous display of incontinent emoting shown this past week in the UK over the bombs last year both pathetic and disturbing. The apparent grief is, no doubt real in those who have lost people they knew, but in the vast mass of the population it is an indulgent and completely bogus display.

Encouraging such mass manufactured pseudo emotion is, of course, a useful political tool, most popular with totalitarian regimes. It encourages 'solidarity of the masses' and unites the plebs against an enemy so that more and more repressive measures can be taken against them in the name of the 'war'.
He goes on to quote passages about "Hate Weeks" from George Orwell's 1984.
Two days after this shedding of crocodile tears
bands of masked gunmen went on a rampage in a predominantly Sunni Baghdad neighborhood, killing at least 42 Sunni Arabs in a gruesome sectarian attack despite a massive security crackdown, witnesses said.

The apparent response to the attacks was swift, with at least 19 people killed and 59 wounded in two powerful car bombs next to a Shiite mosque in a mixed neighbourhood of the predominantly Sunni district of Adhamiyah on the capital's north side, an interior ministry official said.
Such things are almost a daily occurrence in Iraq. But, say the Bush/Blair apologists "They're better off than they were under Saddam Hussein".

Perhaps the Brits should observe 2 minutes silence every day that 35 or more people are killed in Iraq, and remember that they voted for Blair, they voted for that killing to start and continue (they altready knew that Blair was a warmonger before the invasion of Iraq, as he was an enthusiastic participant in the bombing of Yugoslavia).

If Blair and his government showed the slightest remorse over the thousands they have killed without compunction, one might feel inclined to sympathise with them for the 35. I have sympathy for the victims of the 7 July bombings on the London transport system and their friends and relatives, as I do for the 61 killed in Baghdad on 9 July 2006. But the official public mourning as a political tool, and Tony Blair's proposal for a "modernised" version of human rights is part of the real death of liberalism. In England, neither the Established Church nor the government nor the media seem to have a clue where the moral high ground lies. And if the church can't agree on where the moral high ground lies, it has nothing to say, and no witness to the rest of society.

Of course the Orthodox Church in Britain is not a paragon of unity at the moment either, and its divisions, like those among Anglicans, has dragged in the wider Church, involving the Pariarchates of Constantinople and Moscow. But there is a difference. The Orthodox disputes are not about faith and morals. They are about culture, language and mission strategy. The options are not mutually exclusive, and it is possible to compromise on these issues without compomising the Orthodox Christian Faith. Whether people have the will to compromise is another matter.

I am reminded of what G.K. Chesterton said nearly 100 years ago:
We have mixed up two different things, two opposite things. Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to suit the vision. Progress does mean (just now) that we are always changing the vision. It should mean that we are slow but sure in bringing justice and mercy among men: it does mean that we are very swift in doubting the desirability of justice and mercy: a wild page from any Prussian sophist makes men doubt it. Progress should mean that we are always walking towards the New Jerusalem. It does mean that the New Jerusalem is always walking away from us. We are not altering the real to suit the ideal. We are altering the ideal: it is easier.

Silly examples are always simpler; let us suppose a man wanted a particular kind of world; say, a blue world. He would have no cause to complain of the slightness or swiftness of his task; he might toil for a long time at the transformation; he could work away (in every sense) until all was blue. He could have heroic adventures; the putting of the last touches to a blue tiger. He could have fairy dreams; the dawn of a blue moon. But if he worked hard, that high-minded reformer would certainly (from his own point of view) leave the world better and bluer than he found it. If he altered a blade of grass to his favourite colour every day, he would get on slowly. But if he altered his favourite colour every day, he would not get on at all. If, after reading a fresh philosopher, he started to paint everything red or yellow, his work would be thrown away: there would be nothing to show except a few blue tigers walking about, specimens of his early bad manner. This is exactly the position of the average modern thinker. As long as the vision of heaven is always changing, the vision of earth will be exactly the same. No ideal will remain long enough to be realized, or even partly realized. The modern young man will never change his environment; for he will always change his mind.
And that is why I am glad that I am Orthodox and no longer Anglican. The Orthodox Church is divided over how to realise the ideal, how to attain the vision. The Anglican Church is divided over the vision itself, and seems to have so many competing visions that its unity is indeed chimerical.

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Tim Chesterton said...

Steve, I read your post with great interest. I have two comments.

First, I think that the many incompatible theologies you are reading into Anglicanism are examples of what happens when each of the three schools of thought Sam has identified isolate themselves from the others. In other words, they are already well on the way to Ultramontanism, Fundamentalism, and Atheism. Sam's whole point is that only by keeping all three in tension do we do justice to the comprehensive truths that our tradition stands for.

Second, you may well be right that in Anglicanism right now our unity is illusory because we are divided on so many seemingly essential things (again, I would argue that this is because of the trend Sam identifies - to go off to extremes instead of allowing each of our schools of thought to correct the others). However, my observation of the Orthodox Church is that it has the opposite problem - it is united on too many non-essential things. I don't like that approach any better.

(note that I've posted this comment over at Sam's place too).

Steve Hayes said...

When I was Anglican, I regarded myself as all three -- Catholic, Liberal and Evangelical. But liberal politically, not theologically. I believe (along with Chesterton, in the piece I quoted) that political liberalism srpings from theological conservatism and vice versa.

I was once part of someone's study project, and he asked questions about churchmanship, and I could not answer:

1. Anglo-Catholic
2. Prayerbook Catholic
3. Modern Churchman
4. Liberal Evangelical
5. Conservative Evangelical

I said he should put me down as 1 & 5, but that was not possible so he said he would put me down as "Prayerbook Catholic", because I was from South Africa, and he thought someone else he knew from South Africa fitted there.

One question is what one regards as essential. And if the essentials are mutually exclusive, then as Eliot said, the centre cannot hold. One could try to be neither fish nor fowl when some are insisting that one should be one, and others insist that one should be the other, but penguins eat fish.


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