Saturday, March 20, 2010

Bishops, Ecumenism and Interfaith Conversation

March 14, 2010

Christ and Culture is the name of a new book (Canterbury, 2010) edited by Martyn Percy and Mark Chapman from England and Ian Markham and Barney Hawkins, both of the Virginia Seminary and representing this side of the Atlantic. It is far from having the kind of weight of its famous Niebuhrian predecessor and is essentially a series of papers by Bishops reflecting on aspects of their role and work. There is a fair amount of referencing and exegeting official reports and documents of one sort or another.

Where the effort had some ‘bite’ for me was in consideration of ecumenical and interfaith concerns. Most of the contributions dealing with ecumenism pointed toward doctrinal conversations with various official bodies and bemoaned the difficulty of having a particular group who could ‘speak with authority’ for Anglicans without the fear or likelihood of being contradicted by the actions of any province acting somewhat independently. (Guess who they mean.) I have some sympathy for the problem and think that conversations with the Inter-Anglican Doctrine Commission are a decent place to start. What no one seems interested in acknowledging in this book is that ‘gracious restraint’ and the like in regard to actions consequent to belief about the proper place and status of gay and lesbian Christians is not simply an intellectual exercise that can be put on hold, but one that has real effects in the lives of real people.

A similarly conservative tenor is found in the essays on interfaith conversation in which it is argued in one way or another that diversity of belief and practice amounts to ‘disunity’ and is a scandal or stumbling-block in presenting the faith to representatives of other faiths. I would rather that a compelling case be made for a communion of churches who live by grace before law. I would also like some acknowledgement that faiths other than Christianity also display a remarkable diversity of expression. Neither ecumenical nor interfaith conversation can be effective if they are really about control, however frustrated our representatives to such conversations become.

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