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Monday, October 26, 2009  

Angels, Englishmen, and Ross Douthat

Back in the days before the Reformation, England was a hotbed of theological experimentation and lay piety. At times this took the form of rendering parts of the Scriptures into English. The Roman hierarchy, naturally, took exception to this practice, with one polemicist even lamenting that these innovators had exchanged the language of angels (Latin, naturally) for that of Englishmen (this is a pun in Latin).

The English Reformation had much more at stake than the vernacular, but it's no accident that Anglican Christianity is deeply interwoven with the language of Englishmen. The Anglican prayer books set the gold standard for liturgy in English, far surpassing the bleached Latinisms of Roman Catholicism and lending the American Protestant traditions some of their best prayers. To oversimplify considerably, while Lutherans and Reformed Christians defined their movements by common confessions, Anglicans defined their movement more in terms of common worship.

Thus the significance of the Vatican's decision to invite catholic-minded Anglicans into communion with Rome while allowing some of their distinctive liturgical traditions to be preserved under a structure of "personal ordinariates"--basically, alternative ecclesial oversight. It will allow married Anglican clergy to be reordained as priests and seminarians to be experience Anglican "formation" as they study in Catholic seminaries. Reaction to this move within the bitterly fractured world of conservative Anglicanism has been varied, with some voices ready to sail the Tiber immediately and others spurning the offer out of hand. It strikes me as a pretty low offer from Rome; it does not sound like any new married priests will be ordained, for instance, in which case any converting clergy would be trading away the Christian freedom of the men they are helping to form in the faith. On the other hand, I can see how an arrangement like this might be the germ of future moves towards Christian unity. Some highly hypothetical Evangelical Rite, properly structured, is the kind of thing that could bring me back to Rome, anyway (or into communion with the Eastern churches). Though since I cannot imagine selling out female clergy, we're talking about something very hypothetical indeed.

Anyway, along comes Ross to break it down for us:

Along the way, [Benedict]’s courting both ends of the theological spectrum. In his encyclicals, Benedict has addressed a range of issues — social justice, environmental protection, even erotic love — that are close to the hearts of secular liberals and lukewarm, progressive-minded Christians. But instead of stopping at a place of broad agreement, he has pushed further, trying to persuade his more liberal readers that many of their beliefs actually depend on the West’s Catholic heritage, and make sense only when grounded in a serious religious faith.

This is a hobby-horse of mine, I know, but I loathe the language of "lukewarm, progressive-minded Christians." I know a lot of people who have served faithfully and made big sacrifices to serve God in the Church, people who are radically Christocentric in their theology and personal witness. Now we might not take our Christianity as seriously as a man who humiliates women in print for the sin of wanting, for whatever unsearchable reason, to have sex with him. We're no doubt less serious than a man who would defend a flagrantly abusive priest so long as his politics and theology are hard right. Our theology is considerably less passionate and sincere than people who think that Christ smiles on torture and aggressive warfare. We tend not define our faith based on whom it excludes and condemns. But this does not make us "lukewarm" or strictly the cat's paw of secular liberalism. If you want to see a preposterous instance of the religious tail confusing itself with the political dog, read First Things.

But I digress. The problem for many Anglicans, Ross says, is their psychological quirks:

Many Anglicans will never become Catholic; their theology is too evangelical, their suspicion of papal authority too ingrained, their objections to the veneration of the Virgin Mary too deeply felt.

That's right, Ross--we Protestants don't reject, on grounds of Scripture and ancient consensus, the papal claim to absolute rule in the church and infallibility in matters of doctrine; we rather are suspicious of it, like conspiracy nuts. We don't have profound theological arguments against the elevation of Mary to co-redemptrix and to her role as an intercessor ahead of Christ; we really just have deeply felt objections, no doubt reflecting some bias on our part.

Ross is probably right, however, that this is about more than expanding the big no-girls tent in Rome at the expense of other Christian denominations; it's also about Islam in Africa and Europe:

In a controversial 2006 address in Regensburg, Germany, [Benedict] explicitly challenged Islam’s compatibility with the Western way of reason — and sparked, as if in vindication of his point, a wave of Muslim riots around the world.

By contrast, the Church of England’s leadership has opted for conciliation (some would say appeasement), with the Archbishop of Canterbury going so far as to speculate about the inevitability of some kind of sharia law in Britain.

There are an awful lot of Anglicans, in England and Africa alike, who would prefer a leader who takes Benedict’s approach to the Islamic challenge. Now they can have one, if they want him.

This could be the real significance of last week’s invitation. What’s being interpreted, for now, as an intra-Christian skirmish may eventually be remembered as the first step toward a united Anglican-Catholic front — not against liberalism or atheism, but against Christianity’s most enduring and impressive foe.

So is Ross saying that this is about preserving "the Western way of reason," or about manning up for a tribal grudge match? To me these two imperatives sound hard to reconcile.

I would also, by way of conclusion, take issue with Ross's characterization of Islam as Christianity's "most enduring and impressive foe." It's true that Islam conquered a vast swathe of the Christian world over about a thousand years, but it reached its high water mark, vis-a-vis Christendom, back in 1574 or so. Where Christianity has been routed, thoroughly and humiliatingly, is in its own homeland, where capitalism and state power have almost completely supplanted it. We're left with these absurd gestures, as if keeping gay couples out of courthouses will protect a Christian culture that ceased to exist a long time ago.

If the point is a clash of civilizations, then, Christianity is a pretty poor weapon. Our salvation will lie not in some new alliance of the Roman angels with disaffected Englishmen, but with those other products of northern Europe: a market society and a radically rights-based worldview. All of that will rip the heart out of the Islamic world as surely as it has ours.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 10:49 AM
Am I the only one that things Ross has been writing nothing but drivel lately? I miss Ross the blogger.
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