Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Light not Salt: Michael Nazir-Ali at Durham

The inaugural lecture of the Hensley Henson Lecture on The Church in Politics: Past, Present and Future took place on October 19 in Durham Cathedral and was addressed by Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, retired diocesan of Rochester, whose interventions on marriage and the family, Christian-Muslim dialogue, homosexuality and multiculturalism have made him as controversial a figure as was Henson in his own day.

Bishop Michael opened with an account of how - while organizing meetings for Christians to raise issues of concern with parliamentary candidates during the 2010 election - he was informed by several clergy of his acquaintance that this was not an activity that they felt called by God to undertake. Such "pietistic fideism" however, Bishop Michael insisted, is simply not an option for Christians, nor can it be right simply to accept separation of the private and "sacred" from the  public and "secular." Coupled as these notions are with a post-Enlightment celebration of the individual - in the West at least - they run counter to the concept of covenant that underpins a Christian understanding of the moral (if not the civil and ceremonial) law, and it is from the moral law alone that it is possible to discern the common good.

The enduring significance of Matthew 22, vv.15-22, with its implicit separation of secular from sacred, must not be understood as a blanket injunction to deference to civil authority. The Reformation, even as it promoted a degree of distance between church and state, in no sense purported to silence the latter in the public arena. Moreover, there is a clear separation between, as Bishop Michael put it, between the "godly magistrate" of Romans 13 and the "beast" of Revelation 13.  The state necessarily forfeits its authority when forbidding what God commands, or, more concretely, commanding what God forbids (Henson, it might be noted, was an admirer of the Confessing Church under National Socialism).

The default position of the Church of England, Bishop Michael argued, has been to conform to the divine injunction to be "salt of the earth," a pastoral presence "working invisibly" through society. Yet this injunction is coupled with another urging Christians to be "lights of the world." If in the Middle East - and perhaps Africa and Asia also - there is a need for an emphasis on the dignity of the individual as against communal and social mores, in the West it is the bonds of family and community that stand most in need of renewal. Such renewal depends upon a commitment to be a light in the darkness that not only draws others to itself but also casts a light - not always welcome - upon policies, customs and behaviours that detract from the health of the community. Such a critique will - if correctly pursued - be holistic in character, free from political partisanship and conscious of the inevitable shortcomings of all human solutions to social disfunction. As Bishop Michael noted, invoking Richard Niebuhr, Christ is ultimately "above culture," since no temporal culture can exhaust the riches of the Gospel.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Royal Historical Society

On Friday I was elected a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, "the foremost society in the UK working with professional historians and advancing the scholarly study of the past." Fellowships are awarded to those who have made “an original contribution to historical scholarship,”and are subject to peer review. In a year that had its share of disappointments, including failing to find a permanent academic position at Durham, I am obviously pleased at this professional recognition.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

"Being the Church is Difficult"

Looking outside of oneself. Serving someone beyond the self. Putting aside personal comfort and coming often to the cross. This is what being the church means.

It means worshipping all together without segregating by age or interest (e.g. “contemporary” or “traditional”). It means preaching the whole counsel of God, even the unpopular bits. It means fighting against homogeneity and cultivating diversity as much as possible, even if this makes people uncomfortable. It means prioritizing the values of church membership and tithing, even if it turns people off. It means being OK with the music that is played even if it’s not your favorite style. It means sticking around even when the church goes through hard times. It means building a tight-knit community but not an insular one, engaging the community and sending out members when mission calls them away. It means bearing with one another in love on matters of debate and yet not shying away from discipline. It means preaching truth and love in tension, even when the culture calls it bigotry. It means focusing on long-term healing rather than symptom-fixing medication.

None of this is easy, and none of it is comfortable. But by the grace of God and with the Holy Spirit’s help, uncomfortable church can become something we treasure.

Read it all at Brett McCracken's blog.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

And in South Carolina . . .

Word is just in of Judge Goodstein's decision in The Protestant Episcopal Church in The Diocese of South Carolina et al vs. The Episcopal Church. As in Quincy, so now in South Carolina, the ability of individual dioceses to disassociate from TEC is sustained in a weighty 45-page opinion that has been anxiously awaited for more than six months. The opinion makes much of the lack of indicia of hierarchy within TEC's constitutional structure and the precedent already set in the All Saints, Waccamaw case. "South Carolina," declares the judge, "has made its choice." She also references the earlier Quincy decision: "The sole issue with respect to the Diocese is corporate control.If the Diocese legally withdrew from TEC, then those currently in union with it and its leadership control it." (26) As an unincorporated association operating under the common law, the Diocese of South Carolina was free to withdraw from the national church at any time. Interestingly the suspenseful exchange between Alan Runyan and Bishop Clifton Daniel of East Carolina in which the latter was obliged to concede the lack of a prohibition in the TEC Constitution on diocesan withdrawal appears as a lengthy footnote. (31) The judge also appears to have been struck by the fact that the Dennis Canon was never proposed as an amendment to the TEC Constitution. (35)

Now that the Diocese is confirmed in its legal right to its real, personal and intellectual property, I sincerely hope that the diocesan leadership will think long and hard about a division of assets that reflects the moral claim to a proportion of the endowment by those parishes who elected not to withdraw. A good model might be the process by which assets were distributed between the Diocese of South Carolina and the Diocese of Upper South Carolina in 1922. While the present division is not a territorial one, Episcopalians also helped build the endowment. Whether they would have offered their opponents a share had they triumphed is not the issue in my opinion. It would be better by far to ameliorate the bitterness by behaving magnanimously.