I listen to and enjoy a whole range of different types of music. But there are some that I really do not like at all. Most rap and it's Jamaican equivalent, modern dancehall. That heavy metal music where the vocalist just makes primal scream noises into the microphone. Sopranos warbling. My lack of appreciation for these popular art forms does not effect my happiness much. Okay, occasionally I'll be walking down the street and some boy racer will drive by with hip hop blasting out of his car speakers and sometimes I will switch off a classical music station I am listening to because they've decided to play something I find too screechy. But live and let live, people like different stuff and I can live with that. It's part and parcel of living in an enlightened society. The thing is that, unless I set up a cultic militia and hole up in a compound in Waco, nobody is going to force me to listen to music that I find unpleasant or offensive.
So, why can't it be the same with religion?
I intensely dislike most evangelical doctrine and practice. I believe evangelicals to be heretics and far, far, worse, lacking in anything you could call good taste. I avoid them. I do not go to evangelical churches, I don't read evangelical books and I don't watch evangelical television channels. As is the case with my distaste for rap music, not involving myself in anything evangelical does not affect my happiness in the slightest. I put up with the rare occasion that I am accidentally exposed to it because it is part of the enlightened society I live in. Of course, I would prefer it if there was no such thing as Bible based Christianity just as I would prefer it if there was no such thing as death metal. But as long as there are people who enjoy such things, and as long as their practice of it is not harming anyone else, then I will never campaign for its criminalisation or wiping off the face of the earth.
So, why can't evangelicals be more like me and my live and let live co-religionists? Why do they insist that the rest of us have to, by force if necessary, believe what they believe and do what they do? That's not enlightenment, its slavery.
But, I have to admit that my insistence on being allowed to get on with my religious life as I see fit (as long as it doesn't hurt other people) must cut both ways. If I don't want to be told what to think and do then I would be a hypocrite if I insisted on telling other religious people, whose views I strongly disagree with, what to think and do, no matter how much I believe that me doing so would be for their own good. I expect that most of us around here will agree with that statement. The problem is, because of the way everything that we do effects other people, concessions have to be made in a pragmatic way, just as I have to make concessions for tone deaf Norwegians.
But how would this allowing pragmatism work in practice? Specifically, how would it work within the Anglican Communion at this present time in such a way that the Communion would not be destined to self-destruction and eventual oblivion?
Firstly, there is absolutely no reason why people in the same organisation have to all think the same way about stuff. The experience of the Church of England since the days of Elizabeth I has shown that people of, what amounts to, different faiths can exist together in the same church. Of course, there will be squabbling. There is squabbling in the dog club I belong to but this doesn't mean its members don't all love dogs (we may hate each other at times but we never stop loving our canine companions and if that is not a perfect metaphor for the Anglican Communion I don't know what is) and the arguments rarely lead to people storming off in a huff to set up their own dog club somewhere else. Different dog clubs have different constitutions, different priorities, different ways of doing things. But this doesn't mean that we are not all united by our affiliation to the Kennel Club. It doesn't stop us all competing at the same dog shows run under the auspices of the Kennel Club. The same can be true for different congregations and provinces affiliated to the Anglican Communion. The same has been true for many years. There is no need to mend something that isn't broken, especially when such tinkering will lead to more damage not less.
But what about specific examples of disagreement such as the marrying of same sex couples in church? Well, in the Church of England it has been the case for some years now that previously divorced people can marry in one of our churches. There were rules and guidelines set up but in practice what we now have is a situation where each incumbent decides whether or not they will marry such people depending on their personal moral understanding of the remarriage of divorcees. This is not a perfect situation but it is a compromise that works in practice especially when those incumbents against the remarriage of divorcees in church are willing to point any couple they refuse to marry to the nearest parish priest who will do so. I would suggest that this is the way the marriage of same sex couples should be introduced into the practice of Anglican churches. Nobody would have to change their understanding of the Creeds of the Church in order for this to happen. So what's the problem? Live and let live.
I suggest that the same allowance should be made for congregations who do not want a woman priest presiding at the sacraments within their particular church building. It's annoying, it's offensive to women, it's immoral in my view, it would be illegal in England if the Church of England was a secular employer. But it works in practice and I think it is more Christlike for enlightened Anglicans to allow the continuation of this abhorrent situation than to enforce our enlightened understanding of the Gospel of Christ onto those weaker Christians who can't cope with it as yet. We can live together with such a compromise. It is obvious that we can't live together without such a compromise. We have to decide between pragmatism and idealism but we do have a compromising Messiah to help us with our decision. However, I would most emphatically insist that this compromise can only be allowed if it is permitted by the overwhelming majority of the women in the Church of England. It should not be something that is imposed on the Church by men. The ladies have had enough of that already.
Unfortunately, things are not so simple when we look at the issue of female bishops in the Church of England. The problem we have here is that the understanding that it is normative for a diocesan bishop to have authority over all the priests within their geographically local diocese is a primary component of Anglicanism. If we ditch our understanding of the role of the episcopate our church will become something substantially different. I do not think we can allow priests and congregations to opt out of being overseen by their geographical local bishop.
I fully understand how this would be one huge problem for those who do not think women should have any ecclesial authority over men although the views of such people disgust me. I would understand and respect those priests who would leave their parish to move to a diocese where there is a male bishop in charge or even leave the Church of England altogether. That is the sort of choice all employees in any job have at the end of the day. But I don't really see why, in the real world, it should necessarily mean that all misogynist priests should have to leave their parish. For goodness sake, most priests at some time put up with bishops whose theology they disagree with. Out of my last five bishops, two were evangelical, one a gay man who didn't think women should be ordained to the priesthood, one who was so liberal I doubted that he was a realist in any straightforward meaning of the word and one voted for Margaret Thatcher. If I can put up with a tory as my bishop then any priest can put up with a woman telling them what to do occasionally (especially the married men who really should be used to it). It's not like the vast majority of Church of England priests take the blind bit of notice of their bishops. Again, enlightened Anglicans would have to allow some compromises that would be uncomfortable for them such as allowing suffragan, assistant or visiting male bishops to preside at a certain number of confirmations within the diocese and it would regard a lot of inner strength and self confidence from any woman who became a diocesan bishop. But it is workable. However, I do not think we should go down the separate oversight path for the reasons I explained at the beginning of this section. The world changes around us and if we don't like the changes we are sometimes forced into making hard decisions such as shut up or get out.
Freedom of thought is what separates the Anglican Church from Roman Catholicism and the major Orthodox denominations. I think that it is our most important possession, the bit of the good news of Jesus Christ that we are specifically responsible for. We have been practicing and refining this gift of ours for over 400 years and although we haven't quite perfected our tolerance for differing ideas within our communion we are getting there step by step. We absolutely must not allow any power hungry episcopate's thought restricting covenant or the blackmailing of the Church by power hungry evangelicals to overturn and stop forever the great gains we have made as a communion in our quest to live as if we lived in the very kingdom of God. But to maintain our right to think for ourselves we will have to allow others to think for themselves even when their thoughts are contrary to everything enlightened Christians believe to be the thoughts of God.
A huge thank you to Tim Chesterton for helping
me get my thoughts together for this post.