Tuesday, September 02, 2008

From Monty Python to Mother Theresa ...

I enjoyed the spin which Ben Myers put on Rowan Williams' performance as Archbishop of Canterbury. The Anglican communion has had a few internal conflicts lately, in case anyone hasn't been tracking the news. I'm not sure of Ben's sense of humor but I expect that Ben didn't mean this piece as satire. But all the while reading it, the pro-Williams passages struck me as very much what the opponents of the Archbishop would say, but with a tone of dry irony in their voices. Here's an example:
Williams’ role as Archbishop of Canterbury in recent years illustrates precisely this dialectic of kenosis and apocalypse. As a churchman, he combines an uncompromisingly rigorous commitment to the truth of doctrinal orthodoxy with an absolute refusal to grasp the truth as a possession or to wield it as an instrument of power. Indeed, the most striking thing about Williams’ conduct as Archbishop of Canterbury is his willingness to fail, his refusal to pursue any ideal of ecclesial ‘success’ in abstraction from the church’s spiritual identity as a community defined by weakness, fragility and self-dispossession.

This rejection of the idolatrous notion of a ‘successful’ church, this willingness to fail, is at the same time a profoundly apocalyptic gesture ...

I could nearly hear Monty Python whispering in my ear as I read. What Ben says is only an inch or two away from what some of Williams' opponents say: that he has the truth but refuses to do anything with it, that the church could hardly be more fragile if he were pursuing fragility as a conscious goal, and that the result has been a broad failure which bothers the Archbishop not at all, though it may have apocalpytic results, at least for the future of that communion.

So perhaps the two sides of the Anglican communion aren't as far apart as they appear at first glance. Ben Myers nearly persuades me that the Anglican communion has an essentially unified vision of their leadership; they merely diverge in their assessments of that vision.

I have to say I speak as an outsider: the only knowledge I have of the internal conflicts of the Anglican communion are those by partisans on either side of the current debates. So my thoughts here cannot be about Williams himself so much as the Williams I see reflected from others' portrayals. In Ben Myers' portrayal of Williams, I see a church leader who does in fact have a view of a "successful" church: it is a church that is fragile, and this is the ideal of success that is pursued.

Which just puts me in modern parable mode: Two men each had a sack lunch. They both decided to deny themselves (starting with their lunches), take up their crosses, and follow Jesus. One threw his lunch in the trash. The other gave his lunch to a homeless fellow. They both succeeded in denying themselves; they both succeeded in having no lunch. One measured success by the failure to have lunch; the other measured success by blessing someone else along the way. Which was more Christlike?

All that is just a way of asking: is the church's spiritual identity really a community defined by weakness, fragility, and self-dispossession, or is it defined by following Christ? If we desire weakness, fragility, and self-dispossession, even these ascetic-nouveau achievements are useless to us without Christ. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you."

Which is to say, I have no problem with a church being willing to fail if they have a concrete plan of blessing someone else, if sacrifice is the way to achieve that blessing as an act of love. I have no problem with a church "failing" through persecution if she holds her eyes on Jesus and is killed by the hateful. However, being willing to fail because failure is seen as a higher sort of success does not seem an improvement over -- or even a removal from -- the idolatry of "successful church". Instead, it redefines success by the simple expedient of setting different goals. Wasn't it Mother Theresa who said that we're not called to be successful, but we're called to be faithful? We are called to take up our cross following Jesus; but lots of people took up crosses without following Jesus, and gained nothing by their weakness, fragility, and self-dispossesion. If we're not following Christ, then lack of success is no more sign of faithfulness than success. Regardless of whether Williams is rightly seen as failing at success or succeeding at failure, it remains for the Anglican communion to figure out where Christ is in their view of things and how to follow him faithfully.

All my best to Ben Myers, Rowan Williams, and the Anglican communion.


Tony-Allen said...

When you said Monty Python I thought you were going to start making Life of Brian references.

JTKlopcic said...

Follow the Holy Gourd!

Weekend Fisher said...

You a Life of Brian fan? I liked Holy Grail better. ("African, or European?")