Saturday, August 9, 2008

Ecclesiastical politics

(Published Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, August 6.)

Squabbles in the Churches can be both entertaining and disappointing – entertaining because of their sheer bitchiness and disappointing because one assumes, perhaps unrealistically, that people of God are above this sort of thing.

Recent schisms within the Anglican and Catholic Churches in Britain serve as a reminder that while Churches owe their allegiance to God, they are human institutions subject to the same flaws as any other – ambition, rivalry, pettiness, vanity, hubris and resentment. (Politics, in other words.)

An outsider may wonder why they just can’t live with their differences and get on with it. The explanation, I suspect, is that it’s all about the exercise of power and control. (Politics, in other words.)

In both Churches, the recent clashes – well, they’re ongoing really – are classic conflicts between liberal and conservative. In the C of E, the defining issues that separate the two camps are women bishops and gay ordinations.

It may strike New Zealanders as odd that the notion of female bishops is still seen as controversial, given that Penny Jamieson, the world’s first female Anglican bishop, was consecrated in Dunedin in 1990. But in Britain, traditionalist Anglican clergy are threatening to defect to Rome if women are allowed to invade what has always been – in that part of the world anyway – an all-male domain.

The issue of gay clergy is even more divisive. Officially, ordination of homosexuals was forbidden by the Lambeth conference of bishops 10 years ago, but the edict was considered bound to fail because the horse had well and truly bolted. A significant proportion of the Anglican clergy in Britain is homosexual, and predictably the Lambeth conference – which included representatives from more conservative parts of the Anglican world, including Africa – has been widely and wilfully defied.

The issue was brought to a head in 2003 by the ordination of the American bishop Gene Robinson, a formerly married man who rejoices in his homosexuality and has been accused of using gay rights to build a whole new “quasi-Christian” sect. Prohibitions imposed on Robinson by the Archbishop of Canterbury have played into Robinson’s hands, enabling him to promote himself as a sort of martyr-cum-celebrity while also cleverly playing on the Christian tradition of sympathy for victims and underdogs.

Anglican gay activists recently upped the ante even further, provocatively staging an elaborate gay wedding service between a New Zealand priest and an English hospital chaplain in an historic 12th century church. One gets the impression the gay rights faction within the Church is more intent on baiting its conservative opponents than seeking dialogue and reconciliation.

The issue dogging the Catholic Church in Britain has attracted less attention but similarly highlights tensions between liberals and conservatives. Under Pope Benedict, the ancient Latin rite known as the Tridentine Mass – officially discouraged, if not banned outright, since the Vatican Council of the 1960s – has been reinstated.

The British Catholic hierarchy, whose attitudes were largely formed in the post-Vatican Council era, don’t like this one bit and expressed their disapproval by pointedly staying away from a Latin Mass celebrated at Westminster Cathedral by a high-ranking cardinal from Rome. The “liberals” (a bit of a misnomer, since liberal implies tolerance) prefer the modern, egalitarian, vernacular form of the Mass, with its hideously banal “folk” music in place of old-style hymns, to the more mystical Latin rite.

Again, an outsider has to wonder: what’s all the fuss about? Isn't it all a bit - well, petty? The Latin Mass was the approved form of Catholic worship for centuries. Why it should suddenly have been virtually forbidden in the 1960s, and why those who preferred it should have been made to feel like sinners and fugitives, is a bit of a mystery.

Clerical resistance to the papal edict allowing the Latin rite to be reinstated is equally puzzling. No one is being forced to attend Latin Masses, after all; it’s entirely a matter of choice. In any case, aren’t they simply different ways of worshipping the same God? So where’s the problem?

You have to conclude it’s all about power and control – about dictating how the faithful may worship. It also shows a strange preoccupation with form (the “how” of worshipping) over function (the “why”).

It’s interesting that the Churches that seem prone to these disputes are the hierarchical ones where power and authority are concentrated at the top. Hierarchies inevitably feel threatened by dissent.

On the other hand the increasingly popular evangelical Churches, which have virtually no hierarchical structures, don’t seem too bothered by theological differences and don’t engage in embarrassingly un-Christian ecclesiastical politics. They just get on with praising God. Perhaps there’s a lesson there somewhere.

It’s worth noting too that the Catholic and Anglican Churches are the ones that place most emphasis on pomp and ceremony, with all the attendant vestments, staves, mitres, incense, choirs and solemn ritual. The supposed purpose is to honour and glorify God, but is it possible that all these ceremonial trappings also encourage the all-too-human failings of ego and vanity? (It’s a mischievous thought, but perhaps they are also what attract so many gay men to the Church. Not that I wish to indulge in stereotyping, mind you.)

Incidentally, these clashes in the Anglican and Catholic Churches occurred at the same time as controversy erupted over a proposal to remove the original wooden pews from the gracious old St Mary’s Anglican Church in Karori, Wellington. The plan was to replace them with plastic chairs that could be arranged in a more informal and “contemporary” style that would encourage more young people to attend services.

You’ve got to laugh. Mainstream Churches have been trying for decades to attract more young people by re-arranging the seating, dumbing down the liturgy and substituting trite guitar music for supposedly stuffy traditional hymns. Ironically the result, all too often, is that they have alienated some of their staunchest worshippers.

No comments: