A few days ago I purchased two books I’ve been waiting to read for a while.Â They are quite different works of history and/or cultural critique, yet they are both contributing to some thoughts I’ve been trying to flesh out for a while.
The first of these is Alister McGrath’s Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, which is primarily a history of protestant support for individual interpretation of the Bible and, by way of illustrating the former, a history of the emergence and evolution of Protestantism.Â I’ve only skimmed sections of it so far, and read the introduction, but I believe this text would be important for those attempting to come to terms with the divergence of protestantism–especially those who’s denominations are in periods of conflict.Â In particular, McGrath makes the following observation in the introduction in regards to the current struggles within the Anglican Communion:
The idea that lay at the heart of the sixteenth-century Reformation, which brought Anglicanism and the other Protestant churches into being, was that the Bible is capable of being understood by all Christian believers–and that they all have the right to interpret it and to insist upon their perspectives being taken seriously,Â Yet this powerful affirmation of spiritual democracy ended up unleashing forces that threatened to destabilize the church, eventually leading to fissure and the formation of breakaway groups.Â Anglicanism may yet follow the pattern of other Protestant groups and become a “family” of denominations, each with its own way of reading and applying the Bible.
The dangerous new idea, firmly embodied at the heart of the Protestant revolution, was that all Christians have the right to interpret the Bible for themselves.Â However, it ultimately proved uncontrollable, spawning developments that few at the time could have envisaged or predicted.Â The great convulsions of the early sixteenth century that historians now call “the Reformation” introduced into the history of Christianity a dangerous new idea that gave rise to an unparalleled degree of creativity and growth, on the one hand, while on the other causing new tensions and debates that, by their very nature, probably lie beyond resolution.Â The development of Protestantism as a major religious force in the world has been shaped decisively by the creative tensions emerging from this principle.
The second book is Amy Laura Hall’s new book entitled Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction.Â I was interested in this book because of the reading I’ve done in regard to the amount of support eugenics and now abortion, stem cell research etc… have garnered from Christians, especially from protestants.Â This history of the intertwining of nationalism, ethnocentrism, eugenics and protestantism is firghtful and deserves a great deal of repentance on our parts.Â It is especially important in our day and age to look into the dark corners of our past so that we do not repeat the same mistakes, or worse.Â As Hall puts it at the end of her introduction:
I hope to prompt a different sort of vision, encouraging my own mainline Protestant tradition to rearticulate the grace that should have recognized other people’s children as blood kin and as of incalculable worth.Â The same Protestant tradition that socilogist Max Weber read as leading to a thoroughly mercantilist vision of humanity must now articulate that no life may be simultaneously loved and critically assessed.Â If mainline Protestants in North America have to a large extent lived Weber’s prediction, so may mainline Protestants now challenge the dominant paradigm by choosing life.
I share in Hall’s hope even as her writings–along with McGrath and others–raise the question in my mind of whether or not Protestantism can ever be anything other than liberal and fragmentary.Â Anglicanism itself has resisted much of the pressure to fragment until now, but the identity of protestantism as in some ways inherently individualistic means that we now see the same issues raising their head in the Anglican Communion.Â For hundreds of years Anglicans have been the brunt of jokes because of their tendency to be less precise than other Christian communities, and yet it may be precisely this–for lack of a better term–theology and ecclesiology of humility, that has been able to keep Anglicanism alone of the major protestant traditions together for so long.Â To this extent then, it is precisely the conservatism of Anglicanism in refusing to go the whole way with Protestantism and instead maintaining some important links with the Church prior to the reformation that is in evidence.Â Couple that with the Anglican experience during and after the English Civil War and you find yourself with the perceptive comments of jeremy Taylor where he says that he is “very much displeased that so many opinions and new doctrines are commenced among us, but more troubled that every man that hath an opinion thinks his own and the other men’s salvation is concerned in its maintenence; but most of all, that men should be persecuited and afflicted for disagreeing in such opinions–for none of them is infallible.Â Why should I hate such persons whom God loves and who love God? (Avis, 114)
It is precisly this conservatism, most fully emboddied, I believe in the Anglican affirmation of Concilarism–that provide a means of subverting the negative aspects of protestantisms liberalizing and overly individualistic tendencies–tendencies very much in evidence among both the liberals in the Episcopal Church and some of those conservative evangelicals who have departed and look toward GAFCON rather than Lambeth for the future of the Communion.Â I have said before that I sense the same disease at play among both parties, exhibiting itself as different symptoms.Â The most apparent symptom is an attachment to opinion and a willingness to divide the Church in favor of it.Â I of course, place the greater culpability among the radical liberals in TEC–as does the Communion as a whole–but one parties guilt does not absolve another.Â If the center of Anglican Conciliarism is not able to hold, strengthen and evolve–no matter who “wins” whether they be conservatives or liberals, Anglicanism will become a fragmented family of churches rather than a global communion.Â And that, in my opinion, will have made this whole conflict a pointless, sad and sinful affair.
[Note: I am not saying that this liberalism is always a bad thing.Â There are obvious positives, many of which are outlined in McGrath’s book.Â I also believe that Roman Catholicism is not an alternative because it is simply the biggest of a group of denominations to come out of the Reformation period, and is in some ways even more radical.Â There’s no way for Christians to avoid dealing with the authority of the individual believer, and I believe Anglicanism at it’s best finds the right balance–one that recognizes that the priesthood of all believers is sacerdotal and not doctrinal as we share in Christ’s High Priesthood, while doctrine is based upon Holy Scripture and discerned and corrected through the whole body of believers.Â We should not trade the Pope in Rome for a situation in which every individual is their own (while paying lip service to the Bible]