Tuesday, December 21, 2004

The Unity of the Church

I'm writing this "on the run," so I hope I can get the points to cohere. If not, blame pre-holiday work and personal pressures. (For heaven's sake don't blame the author for any lack of perception or insight.)

My Sister Dash, theological companion and fellow member of the Body of Christ at Mount Olive in Minneapolis (for which fact I give thanks every day) has undertaken a discussion kind of parallel to mine of homosesexuality and the Church on her blog, here, although her tack is decidedly different from mine. (Hers is actually a great "NO" to mine, to tell the truth. But she never has been able to resist putting me to the test, and I rise to the challenge every time -- whether I know what I'm talking about or not.) Her commentators (who are certainly welcome to comment here, too -- as, indeed, Jim has done) are supportive of her support for the Church's blessing of same-sex marriages and the ordination of non-celibate gay candidates for ministry. They rightly raise questions about my assumptions, and because I think that I have not carefully set out them out, let me say two brief things here -- with hopes that I can do some more thinking about this over my Christmas break.

The first -- and most direct -- challenge to my ruminations raised the need to take into account the long history of the Church's teachings and preachings on the matter of same-sex relationships. My chief concern in that is to uphold the unity of the Church -- at least, to the extent that the Church can today be said to be united at all. I acknowledge that this concern is fundamental to me. (If you'd like a quick-read call to re-unify the Church in structure as well as "spirit," which sets out the "arguments" for that call, I recommend In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity, which was published by Eerdmans on behalf of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology. That's a shameless plug, since I sit on the Board of the Center, but it is really a fascinating and probing call for the Church to come to grips with who she is. Camassia's [check her blog here] friend, Telford Work [whose site is here] , was one of the group of scholars from all corners of the Church who wrote that report of their discussions.)

The unity of the Church is fundamental to her identity as the Body of Christ, a name or characterization that I understand literally. A dismembered body is no body -- or at least it is radically less than was intended by the Creator. Remember Paul's analysis of the situation? (The hand does not say to the eye, "I don't need you.") For him, too, calling the Church the Body of Christ is more than a metaphor. The Church is the literal Body of Christ in the world: That is to say, just as the Christ once wandered around Galilea as Jesus of Nazareth, so now that same Christ (Jesus) is present to the world in a bodily way -- that is, with the ability to interact, to bump up against others, to suprise -- as the Church.

Now, that existence as the Body of Christ is complicated, eschatological. Each Christian as well as each congregation is a member of the Body of Christ; a congregation is the Church, even though it is not the fullest manifestation of the Church. The Church is -- to cite Lutheran usage from another context -- simul justus et peccator (at the same time saint and sinner -- or, wasn't it Saint Ambrose who referred to the Church as "chaste whore"). The Church is not all it is supposed to be, but at the same time, she is what God intends her to be (albeit sometimes against her very efforts to the contrary).

It is more than a wistful romanticism that desires the unity of the Church: It is our Lord's wish (and if that isn't good enough, well ...). As the Holy Father has noted in his encyclica Ut Unum Sint ("that they may be one," quoted in Latin from Jesus' High Priestly prayer), it is the mission of the Church to be one. It is a denial of the sacramental and ontological reality of the Church to content ourselves with the divisions that currently characterize "Christianity." (In a comment over at Dash's site, Jim claims I may be more appropriately a Roman Catholic than Lutheran -- and on this point, he may be correct. If to be Lutheran is to be content with the divisions of the Church and the infighting and "going our own way" that characterizes life in the Blob of Christ in the world, then I am most certainly not a Lutheran. However, I don't think that's what it means to be Lutheran at all. The Lutheran confessions make a strong point for the unity of the Church (something, unfortunately, they say all too little about because they took it for granted in all their diatribes!) -- they just argue about the signs and forms of that unity. The Reformers (if not their heirs) clearly saw themselves as a reforming movement within the Church Catholic, not as "separated brethren," not as a "new" or "different" Church. To that extent, I am where I belong right now -- in the Lutheran sphere, uncomfortable though that may make me.)

Much of this state of dividedness (and divisiveness) and much of our discussion of it have been fostered by the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment raised issues of authority, of knowing, of living which confound life for those of us who live in the world established by the great Enlightenment thinkers. The Enlightenment was hostile to any authority that was not the individual's own authority. Thus the elevation of the "individual" over the "community" was a core feature -- a way of thinking that would have made no sense to those who came before. That I can make my own decisions, based on my own reason and experience and feelings, is a core feature of life that follows from the Enlightenment. (On my antipathy to the Enlightenment -- which, Brother Daniel, I fully acknowledge produced some amazingly good things -- I refer you to Hauerwas and Willimon's Resident Aliens or to almost any book published in the past couple of years by Eerdmans.)

When the individual becomes the focus of concern and the locus of decisionmaking, something has shifted from the days when the Church undertook to make reasonable and faithful decisions about what is necessary and to call on all believers to "toe the line." There was a recognition that the oneness of the Body of Christ required faithfulness to what had been inherited from the past -- though not without critical awareness of how to relate that to the then-contemporary scene. But there was a sense that authority rested in some other spot than the mind, heart, conscience, or genitals of the individual making decisions. Yes, I know that that authority was often abused. Hence, reform movements -- almost from the beginning. (And I also acknowledge that the Church has never been monolithic, but I think that that's a separate issue.) But the sense that the Church as a whole has a mandate to represent God in the world (and, practically speaking, to speak with one voice lest the world be confused about who God is and what He says).

One of the "fruits" of the Enlightenment is a radically undercut consensus on morality. "Do your own thing" has become more than a slogan; it is a presupposition, a commandment. But it is not good moral guidance.

Brief excursus: Hauerwas powerfully makes this point. The Enlightenment has pronounced that there should be no authority but the individual. However, that decree is itself an authoritative statement that comes from outside the individual. What a delightful irony -- and what fun to try to explain that to "with-it" twenty-first centuryers.

Back to the argument: Once one begins to divorce moral decisionmaking from the contemplation of the whole Church -- the whole Church, not just the Pope, not just the clergy, of course -- then all hell can break loose (again, I am being literal). If the ELCA can go against two millenia of Tradition to "bless" same-sex unions, then the denomination or congregation which chooses to declare one or another presidential candidate "God's anointed" (that's a translation of "Messiah," you know and is clearly blasphemous to the majority of Christians) is "entitled" to do its own thing, too. This has become clear to my progressive eyes and ears with respect to the Church of Rome. Certain right-wing Roman Catholics seem to think it no contradition that they urge the faithful to be loyal to the Vicar of Christ (the Pope) when he propounds on matters of faith and life, but then willfully ignore or misinterpret when he pronounces something that is at odds with their political agenda. For example, I heard Richard Neuhaus (a former leading Lutheran pastor who followed his lights with respect to authority across the Tiber into the Roman Catholic priesthood) extol the importance of loyalty to the Holy Father and then follow up by saying that there is nothing in the U.S.'s actions toward Iraq that is in any way at odds with the Holy Father's teaching (whether formal or informal).

My poorly made point is little more than this: If we are "free" to make our own way regardless of the teaching and practice of the Church in our own time and throughout time (you see there the "synchronic" and "diachronic" aspects of the Church's existence, another difficult issue to grapple with), then we have denied the essential unity of the Church, we have given over to an ideology that is not the Gospel, we have drawn our instruction from the world (probably) and not from the Word of God. (I could spend countless paragraphs criticizing the Jesus Seminar on similar grounds -- specifically, that they break the connection between Scripture and Church, a connection that is absolutely critical. The Bible, the canon of Scripture, was never intended to be a book of general application to the world at large; it was and should be the Church's preaching source.) To do so is to be unfaithful to who we are and to what we are intended to be.

Protestants, especially (but not exclusively), have trouble taking the Church seriously. I think that is a problem that roots in the Enlightenment-influenced hermeutic of the traditional sources of faith. If we could become more aware of the filters through which we read our Tradition, we would be well on the way to the reform that the Reforms rightly desired (and that at least Rome admits was justified).

One final point: None of this addresses with any intentionality whether the ELCA (or the ECUSA or any other group) ought or ought not to bless same-sex unions or ordain non-celibate gay candidates. It posits the right way for making that decision. It has generally, I think (despite my almost complete lack of knowledge of Church history) been true that when the Church is true to her character and follows the right path to discernment, she does all right. When the process is flawed, the product is flawed, and trouble ensues. That's my concern. Lutherans, for example, among the great church families earlier than most decided that woman may, without question, be ordained to the Holy Ministry. The decision (still decried by many in all traditions -- though generally, to my mind, with very little substantial reason) was, I think, the right one and it was arrived at carefully and with due respect both for what the Great Tradition had said and to what the Holy Spirit might be prompting in its time. (It was also done with sensitivity to the effects the decision might have on "church relations.") For that reason, there is little systematic opposition within mainstream Lutheranism (sorry for the characterization, but I realize that I read Missouri and the smaller Synods out of the mainstream -- which they may like, anyway) to women serving in parishes, on boards, and as bishops. (Contrast that with the way the Episcopal Church moved toward female presbyters and gay clerics!)

I know that my comments make it sound as though I am insensitive to issues of "justice" and modern understandings. I do not think that I am so, but I have trouble expressing myself in ways that are irenic and "reasonable." But I cannot any longer operate with definitions of "justice" and "morality" and "right" and "acceptable" and "blessing" and others that are not drawn from the Christian Tradition. To adapt definitions drawn from other spheres -- e.g., the sphere of law (my own profession, right now) or social theory (I'm a socialist anarchist of sorts, and I find it very easy to turn against the Church on certain issues) or other world religions -- is not something I think the Church should do .

And that, beloved friends, is the beginning of a four-volume set of musings that, pray God, never sees the light of day.

Peace and joy to you. And I apologize for setting this out early, but I'll be away from the computer for a few days for the holiday so I won't be able to say it: All joy and jope be yours as we celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation and the Manifestation that the Word is True.


Anonymous said...

Thank you Dwight, this is instructive. I will have to read this through a few times before it all sinks in, and I'm looking forward to reading more from you on this after Christmas.

What I get from your post this time is more of an insistence that in order for us to change the church, we must do it patiently, properly, following the institution's processes (thereby ensuring unity). As an example of this being well-done, you point to the Lutheran church's decision to ordain women, 30-odd years ago. I was a kid at the time and I don't have any sense of whether that decision was processed "properly," so I have to trust your judgement on that (or wait for one of your commenters to contradict you)!

Perhaps I am impatient. Perhaps I am anxious because I am anticipating the failure of the national ELCA assembly in August to do the right thing. Perhaps I should compassionately wait for my opponents to come around. Perhaps I should wait for them to retire, or to move on to heaven where they will finally understand the truth (although once they're there, their vote at any future synod assembly won't be counted).

I'm currently re-reading Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and his essay, "Why We Can't Wait" but I haven't thought through it enough to compose a decent post (although when has that ever stopped me?) Once I mull it over, I believe my position will be along the lines of "How long do we keep asking our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to wait for justice?"

But we'll take that up after we "celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation and the Manifestation that the Word is True." (Nicely said!)

One more thing: I'd be in favor of your writing a scholarly something on this topic, be it book, essay, academic article for Pro Ecclesia, or 4-volume set of musings. You should be publishing--something. But maybe blogging about it will help you organize your thinking until you get to that point.

Blessings upon you, brother.
Sister Dash

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