Tuesday, December 08, 2009

An Opportunity

Last Wednesday evening I had the privilege to attend the book launch for Diarmaid MacCulloch's A History of Christianity. The presentation also had clips from the excellent TV series of the same name, currently being broadcast on BBC4 or on iPlayer (in the UK), if you can't get the digital channels. The launch was, appropriately enough, in the University Church here in Oxford where both Catholic and Protestant martyrs were taken before they were burned. The stone pulpit from which Cranmer recanted has, alas, been taken down and replaced with a bronze memorial. While church's sightlines are better, I miss it. I miss the resonances, which have grown fainter in its absence.

In any event, it was a splendid occasion. In addition to the clips, MacCulloch spoke, and Sarah Foot gave a live review. Afterwards there were canapés (tasty if cold, but then the church is cold) and very nice wine. Assembled theologians and book types circulated; I kept overhearing top scholars say that MacCulloch said things on TV they'd never heard of, but that he is an impeccable scholar. The book is huge but enormously readable, and will be out in the USA early in 2010. In the UK edition, so the editor at Penguin told us, the index had to be cut by 25% or else the book couldn't have been bound. (The full index can be found at the St Cross College website.)

This occasion sounds ordinary enough, but the combination of this book (one review begins with the word "WOW!") and the television series, which is going out to millions of people, has the potential to change the religious world and the way millions of people look at religious institutions, Christian institutions in particular.

MacCulloch is forthright in his challenge to the more dogmatic churches. He points out that the doctrine of apostolic succession was dreamed up by Damasus I in the 4th century, a time when a lot of mythmaking was going for the sake of holding the empire together; the creation of the creeds served a similar purpose (so why do we say them? They say too much in the first place). In exposing this myth and many others, MacCulloch offers an opportunity to Rome, Canterbury and other churches for backing themselves out of the corners they have painted themselves into, making truth-claims that are, in fact, untrue; myths at best, just plain lies at worst. They could say, for example, yes, these are myths, they perhaps were needed at the time but they have served their purpose, and now it's time to try to create a system and a religion that is more in touch with the gospels and real life. I spoke to MacCulloch about this notion, and he admitted that one of the main motivations in agreeing to the project was to offer just such a face-saving opportunity.

At what point in the life of an institution does the word myth become euphemism for a lie? Especially when truth claims and doctrines are based on known falsehoods, for example, the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary which was based on a forgery recognized as such as early as the 5th century? With more and more laypeople knowing more and more about early church history, in particular the fact that Jesus never intended to found a church in the first place, the cracks are far too wide for the wallpaper to cover any longer. Are the institutions going to take the initiative, or are they going to continue to think that the laity are too stupid to notice and wait until the pews are empty of all but those who wish to be fooled?

And why, aside from the need to keep some kind of conversation going, does the Anglican Communion continue the ARCIC conversations whose assumptions are based on the fairytale that Damasus I created? I spoke to one scholar who told me he had turned down a position on ARIC some years ago for precisely this reason.

Like a lot of people I have struggled with the contradictions (they are not paradoxes) between the facts of church history and the mythology (to use the polite term) enshrined in ecclesiology, liturgy and clericalism. The tension is reaching the breaking point, not because of gay and lesbian bishops, not because of women priests, not because of homosexual marriage, not even because African bishops like Sentamu are throwing their weight around like tribal chiefs, running roughshod over clergy and lay people alike; but because of the foundations of sand on which the entire institutional (as opposed to the body of the increasingly unchurched faithful) enterprise called "Christianity" rests.

There is much in Christianity that is worth saving; some of its mythology and liturgy speak truths that can be made evident in no other way. But what is good in Christianity is rapidly being submerged in the noisy struggle for self-perpetuation of a clerical system that is completely without justification, and a set of clerical attitudes that are destructive to the message of the gospels, not to mention the business model that is the subtext. There are still faithful ordained servants left, but they struggle against the overwhelming cynicism of their peers.

Witness a priest's lament: "For me the most telling part of our ordination process is that people get ordained who don't have a prayer life. Didn't anybody bother to ask them at some point along the way? We have a new diocesan resident—a young man right out of seminary who will be with us at least two years. When I asked him about his daily discipline of prayer, silence, or whatever, he looked at me like I was from Mars. My other colleague, a sixty-five year old woman, ordained for several years now, just doesn't get it when I talk about the centrality of contemplative prayer to the life of this community. Last Sunday we had our usual first Sunday of Advent contemplative Eucharists at all three morning services (lots of silence interspersed between readings and pieces of the liturgy. I could sense her disgust with the whole thing."


Blogger Bo said...

Hear hear. [Here, here?]

And for good measure, let's have that again:

Hear, hear!!!

8:54 pm, December 08, 2009  
Anonymous dFish said...

Sounds a very challenging book to read. This reminds me of Hans Kung thick book Christianity, and pertinent to your comment on doctrines and dogmas, curtly says in the book that Jesus' words were not "Say after me," but towards a more practical, contemplative discipleship: "Follow me."

2:35 am, December 09, 2009  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

@ dfish: actually its very readable, in fact, compulsively so. He is a fascinating writer!

9:30 am, December 10, 2009  
Anonymous Jane, Pretoria, SA said...

[MR writes: Jane in Pretoria, SA, sent a comment that included her email address. Since I wish to protect her privacy, I have copied the comment (tried to contact her but no reply)]

Dear Maggie Ross

I read your blog everyday and I hope others do too.

Your comments about clericalism and your October posting on your time spent in RC communities are all so sad - and so very true. I left formal church life (Anglican)many, many years ago after the wounding experience of being a theology graduate when the question of women's ordination was still being debated. The sheer unpleasantness and emotional havoc that this "debate" caused was unbelievable.

About 12 years ago, I, like many others, became interested in spirituality and for a short while was a participant in the centering prayer movement (which, as you know, was largely an RC initiative). Unfortunately, this turned out to be little more than a subtle (and not-so-subtle) way of "keeping an eye on the stupid laity". The woman who ran our group got her position as "group leader" simply because her wealthy husband gave large sums of money to the diocese and was a key figure on its main committee.

I wish this wasn't true, but it is.

Your post about the need for genuine contemplative life in the Anglican Church should be essential reading for all Anglicans!

Anyway, I have pursued a solitary path for some years now. It's not always easy, as you know, but at least it's authentic.

You may be interested to know that another book on the history of Christianity will be publisehd sometime in February, 2010. The author is Brian Mclaren, one of the leading figures in the emerging church movement.

Jane Smith (Pretoria, South Africa)

12:18 pm, December 15, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read your blog a couple of weeks ago and it's been with me ever since. I keep turning it over and over and referring back to it like I did just now.

I quit saying the Creeds seven years ago when a lot of the certainties of my faith fell away and my faith became a whole lot less certain. I've attended a new-to-me church for three years without officially becoming a member. It seems I cannot authentically recite membership vows. Ironically, the stumbling block is not the virginity of Mary although it's in there. You were the one who reminded me not to limit the word virgin to membrane intactness. So, I can do some mental gymnastics there and keep going. I won't tell you where it gets difficult for me because over the years, I've learned to keep that to myself. I can get about two-thirds of the way throughwhen I simply have to say, "I don't know" and I cannot confess that I do.

Now the priest at this church (whom I adore) keeps reassuring me that I am welcome even if I don't officially join. Even though I appreciate the intent, that comment always feels bad to me. Why can't I join this community with questions left unanswered? Why do I have a separate status of membership? The feeling is that of an outsider despite the weekly proclamation that 'all are welcome here'. I think one of your 'posters' called it a solitary path and surely it is.

What is a person of one to do? How can one person ask an institution as old as the Anglican church, or any church for that matter to change? I've considered asking if I could generate my own statement of membership. I really want to but over the years, I've been conditioned not to ask.

There is so much pressure to conform to statements and theology and I'm wondering why does this have to be so? Why can't we worship with questions?

I still go to that church I adore but I go less often. I still search for an ever-ellusive community where I can be a full participate.

There is freedom in living with questions to be sure. In the ideal world, I could do that authentically with others.

That said, I am grateful for the community here. Thanks for all you do.

4:23 am, December 16, 2009  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

@ Anonymous: Thank you for this post; it movingly states the dilemma that many of us are facing. All the problems with religion start with trying to formalize what is elusive; your sense of unknowing is far more important to your unfolding with God than formal membership in a community or saying the "proper" words.

Recently I've been re-reading Genesis and Exodus. Especially in the latter it's interesting how God is always on the margins: the tent of meeting is "outside the camp"; when the people turn to see the Cloud they face out into the wilderness (Ex. 16:10). I get the impression that God doesn't like being domesticated, locked in an ark and then in a temple built to glorify the ego of Solomon.

God is in the "desert" however that might manifest itself and it is in that desert we must go to meet the divine. The best a community can do in its liturgy is to gesture away from itself (every true sacred sign effaces itself) toward the ineffable. There is no geometry, no map, no up or down, but an infinite space of silence. To require a "confession" of faith is always a bad sign: of institutional interest in self-perpetuation, closing the ranks, etc.

Your longing for community is painful, and there is tremendous loneliness that accompanies your integrity, but I would urge you not to compromise (not that I think you could). The obscure vision you pursue will continue to recede; accept what community you can find but there is no need to feel guilty if you can't conform.

Mental gymnastics aren't required; plunging into unknowing and waiting in attentive receptivity is all that is necessary.

9:36 am, December 16, 2009  

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