Thursday, July 03, 2008

Why Jerusalem 2008 is not Philadelphia 1776: Tradition isn't What it Used to Be

When our first patriots declared independence in Philadelphia, they represented a minority among thirteen mostly loyal colonies. Today's Episcopal Church of America broke away from the Anglican Church at the same Revolutionary period. Now, some weeks ahead of the Anglican Communion's decennial Lambeth Conference, renegade "conservative" bishops have convened in Jerusalem . They called their meeting a Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), as if they intend to take the reins from the established Church of England and Episcopal Church of America. They claim 2/3 of Episcopalians are with them. They probably identify with the patriots of 1776. If so, they are mistaken, both about themselves, and about those patriots.

This much is similar: the American patriots also believed that they were acting in defense of traditional values. To write the Declaration, Jefferson took century-old ideas and phrases that John Locke coined to justify the overthrow of James II. Locke cited documents from the previous generation's case against Charles I. That generation cited recent precedents under Elizabeth. They also cast much further back to Magna Carta.

But "traditional values" are never what they used to be. Magna Carta, hailed now as the bedrock of our freedom from arbitrary government, was originally written by barons, of barons, for barons, to protect rights they'd had as peers of the king, back when the king was just one landlord among many. King John signed it under duress in 1215, and, within a year, he was resurgent, and he disavowed the agreement. It was forgotten and superseded by new agreements that made their jagged way towards something like a constitutional monarchy. In the 1600s, the lower house of Parliament had to argue principles found between the lines of the original document in order to make it apply to mere commoners like them.

In the same way, the meaning of the Declaration's phrase "all men are created equal" has expanded far beyond what most of its signers had in mind. In the two centuries since 1776, we've seen the phrase expand to include spokesmen of the minority party, men who didn't own property, men of African descent, Catholics and Jews, and women. Of course, four score and seven years after it was written, Lincoln made it the centerpiece of his war to put down the Southern secessionists (even while they cited the same document as the model for their declarations of independence from the Union). Since we crossed the Atlantic in 1917 to "make the world safe for democracy," we've invested blood and treasure in expanding the phrase to include others in the world.

While our American sense of what's fair and right has expanded over the centuries, the same thing has been happening in England, even while we were declaring independence. Yes, King George III and his followers in Parliament were foolishly abusing their authority, but there were eloquent spokesmen on behalf of the Americans in the opposing party and in the English press. I think particularly of my favorite conservative, Edmund Burke. The Patriots represented nothing but good old English values, with a little fire added by businessmen inhibited by British mercantile policy. It was the establishment, meaning the King and his partisans , who were stepping outside of tradition. The Loyalists, a group that included Ben Franklin and George Washington right up to the beginning of hostilities, were willing to wait on the natural processes that would bring the government back in line with the tradition -- the evolving tradition of the rule of law.

Traditions in the Church of England developed in parallel to this redefinition of the King's authority. Before Martin Luther was born, the English church already "protested" the Pope's authority. Within the English church was a proto-Protestant movement to translate the Bible into English, suppressed by conservative authorities the old-fashioned way, burning the translator alive.

Two generations later, when King Henry declared independence for the Church of England from Rome, Church leaders (not counting Rome's agents) were ready to reform, because, under the surface, the fissures had already opened. Henry's daughter Mary was unable to restore the Roman connection, despite violence to enforce "tradition":the Church of England had moved on. In her day, just a century after burning a man alive for translating the Bible into English, priests in the Church of England went to the stake for promulgating the English translation!

A few decades later, during the troubled reign of Charles I, it was Puritans who led the charge against him for reasons religious as well as political. According to them, Charles had led the Church of England away from true religion, and, incidentally, Presbyterians' religion wasn't true enough for the Puritans, either. The Puritans' efforts resulted in civil war, the king's decapitation, slaughter of Irish Catholics, and a dead end: the Puritan regime did not outlive its "Lord Protector" Oliver Cromwell. During the same period, Puritans settled in America to show the Church of England their idea of real Christianity -- only to suffer immediate and continuous conflict with factions who thought they were purer than the Puritans.

So it is with good reason that Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori calls this latest event with GAFCON merely "another chapter in a centuries-old struggle for dominance by those who consider themselves the only true believers" (Jefferts Schori, statement of June 30).

Do these "conservatives" hark back to an earlier, more faithful church? They claim to do so. Their pretext is the gay bishop in New Hampshire, but the context is their fear of giving up a literal reading of Scripture. But it's that literal reading that's new, developing in the late 19th century as a fearful reaction to Science, social change, and textual criticism (with parallel development of fundamentalism within Islam and Hinduism -- see works by venerable scholar of American Protestantism Martin Marty). Before that, faithful people took Scripture as nothing more than a starting place. During the Middle Ages, there was a tendency to interpret not only Scripture as allegory, but human experience as allegory, too. Paul himself is highly selective and idiosyncratic when he pulls Scriptures out of context to buttress his arguments. The Episcopal church learned with the rest of humankind to value more critical thinking, more respect for experience (i.e., experimental data), more openness to change. It also learned, maybe late, to despise slavery, where once Scripture was said to support it. Ditto, racial segregation. Ditto, shunning of divorcees.

And, certainly from its earliest days, the Church of England has had a tradition of dialogue, moderation and patience regarding internal conflict. They have put confidence in Scripture, but also, and equally, in tradition (as an evolving thing) and reason. The upcoming Lambeth conference has been structured in a new way so that, in Schori's words, there won't be winners and losers. Her companion at a news conference, a Professor of Church History named Douglass, took issue with a reporter's characterization of the Lambeth conference's structure -- which emphasizes small group discussion and study, and avoids issuing definitive documents -- as avoiding hitting the Church's conflicts head on. Douglass preferred to think of it as meeting the conflicts "face to face." This is easily skewered as mealy mouthed, but, sorry, it's also sensible and respectful.

It's the "conservatives" who are bucking tradition. Those of us who are Episcopalian believe that something we call the Holy Spirit has been at work from the time of Jesus' death. How did the early church decide how to choose gospels and letters from others circulating in the first centuries? They reached a consensus, literally a "feeling together" of what the Holy Spirit really meant, and they tossed out the ersatz-scriptures that didn't fit with the tradition as it had already evolved. Today, we believe that spirit has nudged us into outgrowing old fears, away from idolizing Scripture -- as if words written by men with the first century's outlook on the world weren't also limited in some ways by their time. We believe that the evolving tradition is a visible evidence of the spirit's nudging us along as we were ready for growth.

If the Church, reading Scripture with reason and with benefit of cumulative experience that we call tradition, is gradually moved to speak clearly on one issue, or to withhold judgment on another -- then it's time for those breakaway "traditionalists" to listen to the church.

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