Tuesday, June 24, 2014

How about a 'Three Streams' ecclesiology?

Ecclesiology has to do with the theological self-understanding of the church. One popular concept among some Anglicans today is the “three streams, one river” approach. In his article on the subject, the Rev’d Leslie Fairfield explains: “The genius of Anglicanism is that for five hundred years it has held in creative tension three different strands of Biblical Christianity. Those three streams are the Protestant, the Pentecostal/Holiness and the Anglo-Catholic movements.” 

There is so much that is problematic about this, it is hard to know where to begin. The Pentecostal (or Charismatic) Movement only began in 1900, and the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s. But the Catholic faith has been practiced in Britain since at least the third century, if not the first. But the main difficulty is that the metaphor tries to identify the river (the Catholic faith) with a party (Anglo-Catholicism). It’s a category mistake which leaves the whole concept incoherent. You should have one river of pure water—the undiluted Catholic faith. Beyond Pentecostalism and Protestantism, other movements in church history have had streams pouring into the river—Gnosticism, Arianism, Pelagianism, Iconoclasticism, etc.

Streams will pour into the river as a simple fact of life. But those streams have both the elements of pure water as well as pollutants. People come into the church and they often bring outside ideas, misconceptions, and outright theological errors with them. What we need are filtering mechanisms. They are things like the Bible, the catechism, preaching, and the ministry of bishops (who are called to guard the faith and drive out strange doctrine). A good church has these to purify the water from foreign elements which make their way into the river, keeping it clear instead of murky.

Instead, many in ACNA celebrate the streams and consider the Catholic faith to be but one of them. I find it remarkable that some who would not think of tolerating theological diversity as the Episcopal Church does today don’t hesitate to do the same thing under the name “three streams.”

The formation of the Anglican Church in North America comes with its own set of challenges, the primary one being to herd several constituencies together into one group. So it's no surprise that talk of  'Three Streams' or something like it would emerge. Basically, it is a political statement. But the problem is that it can't help but be a theological statement.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Straight talk about Rick Perry and John Paulk

Today I read a story of an "ex-gay" named John Paulk who recently divorced and is back to being just plain "gay." What prompted my interest is his misunderstanding of Rick Perry's recent comments comparing alcoholism and homosexuality, and the further questions he raises.

Asked about reparative therapy for homosexuality, Perry said, "Whether or not you feel compelled to follow a particular lifestyle or not, you have the ability to decide not to do that . . . I may have the genetic coding that I'm inclined to be an alcoholic, but I have the desire not to do that, and I look at the homosexual issue the same way." He since apologized and said he "stepped in it" by addressing that question, adding that we need to be a respectful and tolerant country where the public discourse is about jobs.

Paulk made the following observations in his article: "What worries me more is the ignorance betrayed by Perry’s comments—an ignorance that I believe is still widespread among conservatives in the straight world—about what being gay means. . . . As long as this widespread misunderstanding in the straight world about homosexuality persists, that it is a choice or a 'lifestyle,' as Perry put it, not only will we never be fully accepted by society, some of us will remain unable to accept ourselves. . . . I want to tell them—and Rick Perry: We are not broken, damaged, inferior or throwaways. We are created in the image of God—just like everyone else."

Paulk's own history is a painful journey through the "nurture" side back to the "nature" side in the "nature vs. nurture" argument over the origins of homosexuality, so it is understandable that this issue hits hard for him. What is strange is that Paulk and most everyone else seems to have missed the fact that Perry apparently agrees with him, siding with nature. Otherwise, there is no point to Perry's analogy with alcoholism.

Perry's point (it seems to me) is that while we have genetic predispositions to certain things, it is our free will manifested by our actions that is the moral crux of the matter. You may have a particularly strong temptation, but that is no sin. The sin comes in the decision to act--to get drunk or to be unchaste.

Genetic predisposition does not free us from moral culpability, except in the sense that repeatedly giving into temptation makes temptation more and more difficult to resist. In a sense, the will become less and less free as a matter of practice. Moral culpability is reduced, but does not go away. Otherwise, there would not be any such thing as moral culpability. By definition, a sin is a conscious and deliberate trespass of the revealed will of God.

Although the issue is undoubtedly complex, when it comes to homosexuality, Christian theology comes down on the nature side of the argument. It says that nature is fallen from its created intention. It says that we are all genetically predisposed to sin and even temptations which are particularly unique to individuals (see Hebrews 12:1), yet that does not free us from moral culpability. The Gospel requires that we recognize not only that we do sin, but that we have this disordered impulse toward sin from the beginning--that we cannot fix the fundamental problem, that we cannot save ourselves. Only God saves.

I had not heard of John Paulk before today (though I vaguely remember an apology a few years ago from Exodus International). But his story is the story of so many. And I see how a Christian ministry that becomes a psychological therapy program can be a problem. It's more than just the fact that any such program will work for some and not for others. It leads to a confusion between therapy and the Gospel itself. These should work side-by-side, but not be equated.

Therapy can help deal with temptations, with emotional struggles, and so on. The Gospel is about repentance, about turning to God for the things we cannot fix ourselves, about seeking forgiveness and welcoming grace, about pursuing the hard life of holiness and obedience. There is much overlap here, of course, but the focus is different. Therapy is not about the surrender to the grace, love, mercy, and will of God. The Gospel is not about facing our problems and overcoming them with conditioned alternatives. Sometimes God does the impossible and the miraculous. Sometimes he does not. Either way, all of us have the same vocation to holiness and in this case, the call is to chastity.

What concerns me the most in Paulk's frank story is the spiritual dimension that is left unsaid. Human beings are sexual; the prefix is not so important. Each of us faces the calling of chastity and the temptations to deviate from that. Paulk did not write the article for a secular magazine, so I don't expect him to answer the questions of a religious audience.

But the questions are there--how did he keep his faith in God if he rejected his vocation to marriage and the vows made to his wife and to God? How did his surrender to temptation affect his wife and sons' pursuit of holiness? What does not mean to say, "I'm no longer an ex-gay"? (And what does it really mean to be "ex-gay," for that matter?) It seems to imply that a gay man cannot be holy, be chaste. That's false. And it seems to imply that he is not simply treating his besetting temptation for what it is, but that he has given into it--that he chose to commit adultery (not as a momentary indiscretion, but as a--is there another word?--"lifestyle") and embraced it as an identity. Will this be the end of the story?

Perry and Paulk (and Matkin) are only a few among billions--the fallen. They are those for whom our Lord became human, suffered, bled, died, and rose again to redeem. He has redeemed us from the wages of our sins and given us the invitation: "Follow me."

Sunday, June 08, 2014

What is speaking in tongues?

The biblical charism of speaking in various unknown foreign languages (called glossolalia) fell upon the apostles on Pentecost. By praising God this way, the gospel was understood by outsiders and the Church grew. St. Paul records that the gift was still in use in the first century.

This gift was manifested a few times after that, such as in the preaching of St. Anthony of Padua, St. Paul of the Cross, and St. Dominic to audiences that included many foreigners. However, the “speaking in tongues” heard today is different.

The Charismatic/Pentecostal movement began in 1901 with a small group of Wesleyan Bible students in Topeka led by Charles Parham praying for the gift of tongues. One of the students, Agnes Ozman, began to speak and write what was believed to be Chinese. Her experience was soon shared by her teacher and fellow students, supposedly speaking in nearly a dozen languages. But they later found out these were not foreign languages at all.

Figuring this was a new Pentecost, Parham boasted, “The Lord will give us the power of speech to talk to the people of the various nations without having to study them in school.” He insisted that missionaries from his Bethel College demonstrate that. And those students were devastated to find that when they arrived in foreign lands, the natives simply could not understand them.

This, along with several other embarrassing incidents, dealt a severe blow to the early movement. Two of the things that helped it survive were moving beyond Parham’s leadership and reinterpreting the meaning of speaking in tongues. According to the modern view, the gift is not about speaking in a foreign earthly language (as in the book of Acts), but speaking a heavenly or spiritual language. It is sometimes described as a prayer language. And the practice is not confined to Pentecostal denominations or even to Protestantism. The charismatic phenomenon is found in almost all churches today.

St. Paul made it clear in 1 Corinthians 12 that not all believers have been given a gift of tongues. But those who have, must use it (like all spiritual gifts) to the glory of God and the building up of his Church.