The Wright stuff: Anglican issues worth arguing about

Nt_wrightGetReligion.org readers need to know that Douglas LeBlanc has this thing against putting references to his own journalistic endeavors on this blog, especially when that work appears in the pages or cyber-spaces of that great evangelical fortress called Christianity Today.

I have tried to play along with this LeBlancophobia, but I am going to make an exception today. Any journalist who is interested in the current media sexuality wars the Anglican Communion and the Windsor Report needs to read LeBlanc’s interview with the Rt. Rev. N.T. Wright, author of a host of books — popular and academic — including “The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God).” Informed reporters need to do so for precisely the reasons that Doug cites.

N.T. Wright is the rare sort of theologian who attracts respect from both conservatives and liberals. He became Bishop of Durham in 2003, and for the past year has served on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lambeth Commission on Communion.

Many Anglican conservatives are in full meltdown mode at the moment and Wright is not one of them. For starters, he does not automatically assume that the central issue in this ecclesiastical civil war is homosexuality. Some very low-church Protestant people are firing away at Anglican traditions on another sacramental issue, arguing that lay people can lead celebrations of Holy Communion. That’s hard to put in a sexy headline in the New York Times, but it is an explosive issue nonetheless. And then there is the postmodern challenge to moral theology itself — pick a doctrine, any doctrine. Wright notes:

What we all have to do is to say about any issue — whether it’s lay celebration [of Communion], whether it’s episcopal intervention, whether it’s homosexual practice — How do we know, and who says which differences make a difference and which differences don’t make a difference? [Presiding Bishop] Frank Griswold and his colleagues make a great song and dance about difference and about accepting difference and respecting difference. That’s almost the only moral category that is left within postmodernity, welcoming the other, which is actually a very difficult moral standard to implement right across the board.

Near the end, Wright steers the interview off in an interesting — and I believe highly newsworthy — direction. What if the current media storms centered on some other issue? What might a truly Communion-shattering theological dispute look like? Here’s Wright again:

The critical thing is there are some differences which would divide the church. For instance, if somebody decided to propose that instead of reading the Bible in church, we should read the Bhagavad-Gita or the Qur’an, most Christians would say this is no longer a church and that’s a difference that we simply cannot live with. But if somebody says I really think we should never put flowers on the altar and somebody else says I think we should always have a bowl of flowers on the altar, most people would say that’s an issue which we must not divide the church about. It’s a local issue, which each church will have to decide for itself. And there’s no point in getting in a lather about it.

Now the question is, all these different issues that we face, which of those two categories do they come into? How do you know? And who says? Until we have prepared to address the question in those terms, the thing will just remain as a shouting match.

And all the people said, “Amen.” Wright knows that he is touching on an issue that burns quietly behind the scenes. Anglicans in the Third World are upset about the fading of traditional Christian sexual norms in the post-Christian West. But bishops from Africa and Asia would be just as upset, if not more so, if they knew about the emerging world of syncretistic prayers and rituals that have influenced the Episcopal Church and other oldline church groups. As a reporter, I have been following this trend for more than a decade.

Wright is right. Sex is not the only Anglican issue out there. But it’s the only issue in the headlines.

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.anotherthink.com Charlie

    Wright’s comment that “respecting difference … [is] almost the only moral category that is left within postmodernity” and your article on syncretism in the church point out a challenge to the entire church of Jesus Christ, not just the Anglican Communion. I see many “fundamentalist” congregations whose members are so woefully ignorant of the Scriptures that they uncritically absorb all sorts of heretical cultural attitudes and practices. The Catholic church’s wrangling with the idea that there should be some connection between receiving the sacraments and acceptance of Catholic teachings is yet another form of the same difficulty.

    We want faith choices, not dogma. Western culture is transforming the church, instead of the other way around. The yoke of Christ has always been a tough sell, but it looks especially uninviting beside the plush Cadillac Escalade of postmodernity.

  • Ken

    “And who says?”

    Well, yes, that is the problem, and it has been since Henry VIII. A lot of folks (and I confess to being one of them) hoped the Windsor Report would begin to answer that question. Maybe it did.

    Charlie, if we don’t have dogma, how do we know what the choices are?

  • http://molly.douthett.net Molly

    “This is the issue that is before us. We can only honor one God. In the end, we may have to decide between honoring the one Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or honoring the Episcopal Church.”

    from the Stampede

    I would substitute the word Presbyterian for Episcopal and say, “Amen”. Institutional churches are going the way of the dodo. New churches that blend traditions and liturgies are on the horizon. Bodies of believers that simultaneously challenge congregants to lives of meaningful discipleship and offer moments of grace to the skeptical, turned-off, and burned out. The Holy Spirit is doing a new thing! I hope we survive the sectarian wars and live to see it.

  • http://www.newpantagruel.com Fr. Gassalasca Jape, S.J.

    Let’s just cut to the chase. Wright’s comments were dismal, the words of a man who has that vaunted credibility on the left and the right by being a fence rider and circumlocutor. As a sincere protestant, he probably does believe that scripture really is the authority where these things have to be resolved, but he must know, as R. R. Reno makes very clear in The Ruins of the Church, that the liberal factions really don’t see things that way and there is a deeper division about scripture and the nature of authority in the “Anglican” church that goes back to the Reformation.

    Wright pretends to believe that we have to assume all bishops might be right or wrong in their reading of scripture, and he actually criticizes as naïve or reckless the people who think the Bible is clear. It is very clear on homosexuality and marriage. But Wright pretends it isn’t, which means he is lying about what he believes or else he has accepted notions about “historical change” that allow him to think “critically” about the issue from some non-exsitent external vantage point rather than as a history in which he is a participant.

    The modern presumption of “critical distance” as the primary basis for interpretation is reckless presumption; it is an attempt to make judgments by getting outside the text and outside the tradition to determine what the spirit is doing in the church and history rather than to see the spirit’s work as what happens when the church works with the messiness it has inherited.

    Wright may have a thoroughly rational and theoretically correct position of doubt, but in reality nobody is doubtful about gay marriage relative to orthodoxy except wishywashy folks who have their fingers in their air. They will go along with the biggest power pressing on them (and call it the Spirit)–or perhaps some will move in reaction against that pressure.

    In lived reality, deep disputes are not rational, and the people trying to be rational (and liberal minded) lose.

  • http://www.ntwrightpage.com kevin

    Bishop Wright has an article in The Guardian on the report:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1334137,00.html


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X