November 04, 2006

Anglican Anachronism

Far be it for me to contradict Professor Martin Percy, an academic Anglican, when he writes in the Guardian today but Professor Percy makes errors which are illustrative of problems that we all face in looking to the past. Professor Percy wants to cast the debate over the election of Bishop Gene Robinson in the United States as a debate between on the one side those who beleive in Church democracy ie the election of Bishop Robinson by the synod and those who beleive rather in royalism. He further ties this to an imagined history of the church which stretches back to its beginings. He is wrong- the Anglican Church has been split about many things but democracy has never been a crucial one.

A Blog doesn't give the space to rehearse many of the neccessary arguments to show that the statements above are true. A cursory thought about splits within the Church will have to do- to take the era from which Percy dates his split: the English Civil War saw a battle within Anglicanism- as far as we know both Charles I and Oliver Cromwell were baptised Anglicans. This battle was about many things: amongst them the governance of the Church. Charles beleived that the Church owed him obedience as the successor to the Roman Emperors, Cromwell beleived that the duty of the magistrate was to protect the Church as an association of those united in Christ, warding off atheists and heretics. Any argument about governance saw Charles pit central episcopacy against Cromwellian church autonomy- within the bounds of traditional Christian values.

Other eras in history also had concerns about the governance of the Church. If we turn to Agnes Grey, a novel by Anne Bronte that partly deals with the Church. We find two clergymen- one who is too tied to contemporary fashion and upper class society- Mr Hatfield and another Mr Weston who takes his faith seriously and remains immune to the blandishments of 'modernity'. Mr Hatfield stands upon ceremony, dressing in fine vestments. Mr Weston's faith springs from the heart. The contrast is obvious but its not about democracy but about the faith of the heart versus the formality of the church.

Professor Percy thus has projected his own concerns back onto the past- we must be wary of that. When we read Cromwell ask the Scottish clergy for toleration, or see Bronte attack rich parishioners, we must neither see a liberal nor a Marxist. These people had their own views of the world- they may be wrong but they should be respected and not reinterpreted to fit our teleologies. Professor Percy has got it wrong and his error should be our lesson- to hear the voices of the past as far as possible pronounced in the accents of their times and not to transalate them into supports for our preoccupations.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Reminds of me Heidegger and Popper.

Gracchi said...

Cheers thanks for the compliment- glad you enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

Gracchi: I have a rudimentary blog now.

Gracchi said...

Right you just got a link

edmund4 said...

good post- It just touches on some of the reasons why the article is pathetic

Besides anything else he doens't touch on the differnece between a compulsory organisation and a voluntary orgnaisation (as the Anglican church is now everywhere) -that is the state, and a should an anti-facist group have to let nazis join them ,he appears to assume they're are no membership requirments for a chuch or denoniminatio-an eccentric view to put it mildly

And the democratic point just doesn't hold- the Southern Baptists are about the most democratic US major denomination- every congrgation gets votes according to its numbers in thier rulling convention, and they are very anti practising homosexual ministers ect

Gracchi said...

Right Edmund, thanks for agreeing with me on this.

On your two points-

I agree with you on point one though a church is a membership organisation and hence you would expect to evolve alongside its membership- in many ways what happens in a voluntary organisation is a conversation between the members and the preexisting principles- not sure if I've quite got that but that's the best I can do at the moment.

To your second point, yes I agree being in favour of democracy isn't neccessarily the same as getting the outcome you prefer- as I said above I think the good Prof was arguing for democracy and a strange one at that in return for getting what he wanted- twas a rhetorical thing not a reasoned one.

edmund said...

sounds good