Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Rev. Canon Ronald Osborne on Instruments of Unity

One of the fun aspects of blogging is that you get to strike up interesting conversations (both by email and by comments) with really interesting people all over the world. One such person I have been conversing with is Rev. Canon Ronald Osborne of the Diocese of Iowa. He is fairly well known on the web as the primary author of Twenty-four things (most) Episcopalians Believe (on good days).

He also has the following thoughts on the Draft Anglican Covenant that he has allowed me to guest post on my blog. He makes a good case that theological learning, diversity and inquiry is one of the important things that should unite us as Anglicans.

Some thoughts about "instrument of Unity?"

Some weeks ago I read carefully the Draft Anglican Covenant and sent my responses in, I presume, with many others to the Church Center in New York. I look forward to hearing what has been learned by this exercise.

In thinking about it further, and talking with colleagues, there is something which it seems to me is missing in the draft. In naming the "instruments of unity" not only are certain very recent innovations elevated to very high status, like the role of the primates. But something woven into the tradition is simply ignored.

For much of our history, if not for all of it, including the important parts of it which predate the Reformation, the tradition of learning has served us as a primary source of our self-understanding and identity. Attached for something like a thousand years to monastic institutions, later to the Universities, now more a diffused network, questions which might become divisive were resolved by sometimes very long and protracted conversations, sometimes crossing generations, by persons of learning.

It may be that those persons of learning at times mistook their own perceptions of truth for its absolute reality. Perhaps at other times they were simply arrogant. But over the years there has been a self-correcting quality about that tradition. Yesterdays certainties sometimes seem curious, even as the tradition reckons with those curiosities with respect and seeks to carry the conversation forward as it husbands the development of doctrine.

At times those conversations have been captured in the work of certain persons. The writings of Richard Hooker surely would be among them, also in the work of poets like Herbert and Donne, surely in those wonderful collections of essays, like Lux Mundi, Essays Catholic and Critical, and Tracts for the times, among others. Perhaps even more significantly is our common life nourished in the surviving texts of the great schoolmen, and of the church fathers and mothers of the undivided church. And even in these latter days we are not berift. Rowan Williams remains a gift to us as theologian, as do others. How indebted are we as an American church to persons like William Stringfellow, who not only thought and wrote but lived theologically.

Over the long haul, the tradition of learning has been, I think, our most effective and gracious instrument of unity. It is not easily institutionalized. Because of its self-correcting nature, over the long haul, it is not likely to cause mischief, as might assigning unusual authority to prelates.

My colleague, The Rev. Bill Moorhead, puts it this way:


If there is any serious rationale to the Anglican tradition of catholic Christianity, it has to include the freedom for theological exploration. Not that people don't wander off into various trackless wastes, but at some point this becomes obvious and is corrected. (We need to recall that the Council of Nicaea did not solve the problem of the Arian heresy -- the church continued to wrestle with that issue for over fifty years, and in fact longer than that.) (We also need to remember that the Council of Nicaea also enacted a whole bunch of stuff that we now wouldn't touch with a pole!)." He continues: "A good look at Anglican history makes clear that over the centuries we have wandered off in one direction or another, but have always come back with a renewed vision of the overall scriptural and patristic and catholic tradition." (Comments made in personal correspondence with me.)

Fr. Moorhead adds a helpful and learned) quote from The Rev. Ephraim Radner:

"Councils are not Scripture. Councils themselves are not the Holy Spirit. Councils guarantee nothing. Just because one has a council – local or wider – does not mean that what it decides has any authority in Christian terms. Rather, the basis for the authoritative nature of the Church’s conciliar vocation lies in the faithful perseverance of its members in common over time, that is, in their willingness to live the Christian life together “for the Lord” and “in the Lord”. Since the authority of councils derive from their place in a historical series, it is grasped only retrospectively, and it is possible to do this only because one has carried through with the conciliar life together long enough and through a perseverant life of faithfulness on such a path that the truth is apprehended together." (These comments are part of an extended essay available on line here).

It would seem to me that the tradition of learning is one major way we apprehend that truth together.

Can that tradition of learning serve a church which has become multi-cultural, multi-lingual, in places deprived of access to that learning, in other places finding ways to devalue its currency? Even the American church, which by the world's standards has abundant resources, seems content to see seminaries wither, to see learning as an unnecessary burden for those who seek ordination. Will we turn this instrument into a dead letter? What will we be like if we do not seek to see this instrument flower with something like hybrid vigor, a hybrid vigor brought by the cross-fertilizing dynamics of conversation between cultures and worlds? If in the end the only effective corrective to bad theology is good theology, (This aphorism has been attributed to Arthur Vogel) how can good theology matter if it is not itself taken seriously, if not nurtured, if it is as it were simply taken off the table?


Ann said...

Thanks for posting this - very thoughtful reflection - what if we looked less to structural identity (e.g. 4IU) and more to ethos - like literacy as a value, etc.

bls said...

I agree that this is a very nice post. I love the idea of "learning" as a foundation of Anglicanism; that's borne out, too, in Article 19: "As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred, so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith." Implying we don't ever quite arrive, and that we need always to keep an open mind and heart because we will err, too.

This gets said, too, in one of the most wonderful prayers we have, this one from the Rite of Baptism:

"Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy
Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the
forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of
grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them
an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to
persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy
and wonder in all your works. Amen.

Is there anything more wonderful than an "inquiring and discerning heart"? I can't think of anything.

Thanks also for the link to the "24 Things," BTW!