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A Response To Mark Harris - by Ernesto M. Obregon

A RESPONSE TO MARK HARRIS

By Ernesto M. Obregon

In his recent article to The Witness, Fr. Harris presents us a post-
modern justification for the actions of the General Convention of ECUSA
in 03. For despite his analysis of Anglican history, he shows himself
well aware of the possibility that the Global South primates
representing the majority of the Anglican Communion may well take some
type of action. This is why he makes interesting claims in his paper
that I doubt would stand up to profound analysis. Among them are
equating "unity of the faith" with fascism, and charging that wars are a
result of the desire for a "unified world view"?this despite the fact
that philosophers and scientists have been searching for a such unity
for centuries, whether one calls it metaphysical or cosmological unity,
without going to war. Moreover, in his historical analysis, he seems to
have often lost the forest for the trees, confusing diversity with "the
discomfort of a more fractured world and a shadow of a substance," and
unity with a forced "common ecclesial culture."

It may help the reader to understand Fr. Harris' article if it is
deconstructed using two key paragraphs of his monograph and some key
historical facts. The key historical facts are (of course): the
overwhelming vote at Lambeth 1998 where nearly 90% of the assembled
bishops voted for the approved sexuality statement, the Primates'
statement of 03, and the request of the Archbishop of Canterbury. These
are the statements with which Fr. Harris has to contend. First paragraph

The western world was brought kicking and screaming into modernity, and
parts of the church never got over it. To some extent the missionary
efforts of the western churches gave voice to faithful people who found
modernity difficult. In new places the old worldview could still be
voiced without the need to make science and religion mesh. And now, as
modernity is undergoing a transformation into we know not what that is,
as we enter the post-modern period the church is kicking and screaming
again. And now the discontented are both the holders of a classical or
pre-modern worldview and those who took on modernity in all its
complexity. Those opposed to what the Episcopal Church is doing
represent a cloud of witnesses from increasingly un-useful worldviews,
and it is no wonder these brothers and sisters are often at odds with
one another as well as with the actions of

General Convention.

Three charges are made in this paragraph. The first charge is that many,
if not most, of the missionaries who went out and evangelized large
parts of the Global South were non-adaptive personalities who were
incapable of integrating their lives to allow science and religion to
mesh. This is an incredible generalization that I doubt is backed up by
any scholarly studies. It rather reads more like some Hollywood mythos
or a progressive's wish-fulfillment than of solid fact, given the
charges that follow. The second charge is that the "discontented" hold a
"pre-modern" worldview, that is a primitive one. This connection between
missionaries and primitive worldviews makes it obvious that Fr. Harris
is charging that 90% of the Anglican bishops hold "un-useful"
worldviews, and, by implication, that most of those bishops are the ones
located in the old mission lands, which means Africa, Asia, Latin
America, and Oceania. There is a third charge that those bishops are
conflictive personalities who cannot even get along among themselves, a
most interesting charge given the unity of statement on these issues.

Who then is capable of a correct post-modern viewpoint? It is no
surprise that his conclusion is that, "what the Episcopal Church is
doing," is holding up the banner of post-modernity and correct thought.
However, to people of color, this does not sound like post- modernity
and not even like modernity, but like old-fashioned Victorian colonial
thinking. That a mostly white Eurocentric denomination considers most of
our viewpoints "un-useful" and "pre-modern" and that they do not need to
listen to us but us to them is of no surprise to us. We were told that
back in the 1800's heyday of British imperialism. This makes it the more
interesting that Fr. Harris mentions colonialism by the third paragraph,
contending that the plethora of Anglican cultures makes this impossible
now. It seems that it is not as impossible as Fr. Harris contends.

Additionally, Fr. Harris shows a high level of naivete about American
culture. He fails to consider the possibility that the actions of
General Convention do not show any principled stand but rather show only
typical American behavior. It is not that difficult to show that The
Episcopal Church's rejection of the resolutions the Lambeth Conference
and doing what it wishes is no different than President Bush's (and
Congress') relationship to the UN. That The Episcopal Church then fails
to carry out an agreement reached at the Primates' Meeting is no
different than the failure of President Clinton to present the Kyoto
treaty to the Senate. That The Episcopal Church is upset over the
possibility of repercussions and possible discipline, arguing that no
one can judge us, is a typical USA attitude towards the world. That many
in The Episcopal Church insist that any expressions of disagreement, or
demonstrations, or financial boycott show disloyalty is no different
than the way those who strongly opposed Iraq were charged with lack of
patriotism. It needs no appeal to the Holy Spirit to explain ECUSA's
actions, only a study of modern American culture and European attitudes
to its colonial holdings during the 1800's.

Harris: Second paragraph

. . . . We are in the church mess of our times because national
churches, denominations, and world church structures cannot stand solid
in a world where the notion of a single overarching narrative is no
longer considered either relevant or possible. While it is true that
post-modern scholars make the claim that an overarching narrative is not
possible, it is precisely the opposite claim that Christianity makes.
Apparently 90% of the bishops appear to think that such a narrative is
possible, which is why Fr. Harris found it necessary to dismiss their
viewpoints as "un-useful" and "pre-modern." They are certainly un-useful
to the cause he wishes to support.

The claim of classical Christianity is precisely that in Christ we have
our overarching narrative, that which unites heaven and earth and makes
sense of all of history. "He is before all things, and in him all things
hold together," (Col. 1:17, NRSV). The Christological principle is the
beginning point of our philosophy. Moreover, to classical Christianity,
it is not surprising that outside the Christological principle, it does
become impossible to reach a metaphysical overarching narrative.
Interestingly enough, science still searches for its Holy Grail of a
Grand Unified Theory, uniting electromagnetism, gravitation, the strong
nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force believing that an overarching
cosmological narrative is not only quite possible, but also attainable.
But I digress from Fr. Harris.

It is in the context of these two paragraphs that the rest of Fr.
Harris' monograph can be interpreted. In order to support his post-
modern claims, Fr. Harris does two things. One, he exaggerates
differences among Churches, as though any difference, cultural or
theological, is proof of a different fundamental narrative. That is, he
forgets the difference between adiophora and essencia. Two, he implies
that the "unity of the faith" always included an ecclesiastical unity of
culture, something which it actually never included. It is helpful at
this point to give an extremely brief summary of early Christian history
that will be helpful in answering the question of how to establish a
truth claim.

From the earliest days of the Church, we have a picture of both
diversity and unity that belies Fr. Harris' claims. The Pauline
arguments with Peter over whether it was necessary to establish an
ecclesiastical unity of culture are well documented. The decision of the
Church was that the unity of the faith did not demand a unity of
practice, as is documented in Acts, Galatians, Colossians, etc. Nor did
it require that all agree on all theological points, as the vigorous
discussions recorded in Scripture attest. In one of the books called by
Peter's name, it is even admitted that Paul's writings are sometimes
hard to interpret. Sub-apostolic and post-apostolic Church History
continue this pattern. The Ecumenical Councils consistently decided for
minimalist statements of faith, allowing wide-ranging theological
discussion to continue.

The well known schools of Biblical interpretation, the Antiochene, the
Alexandrian, etc. attest to this healthy and ongoing theological
dialogue. Neither was full unity of practice necessary. The various
liturgies of that time period attest to the variety allowed within the
Church. And yet those liturgies had a common skeleton which attested to
a received apostolic practice. While the Councils did bring
ecclesiastical order, varieties of expression, as diverse as the Eastern
monarchial bishop and the Celtic peripatetic bishop existed alongside
one another. Thus for Fr. Harris to argue that the developing variety in
the Communion somehow destroys the possibility of unity is to ignore
that very same development of the early Church. Variety of expression
and the unity of the faith go side by side with each other.

What the Church did insist was that on the things in which it had made a
decision, obedience was required. It also insisted that a truth claim
could not be decided by one culture alone. A Council of Jerusalem or a
later Ecumenical Council was a gathering of peoples from different
tribes, nations, peoples, and tongues. Local mono- cultural decisions
could be overturned by a multicultural Council. The Early Church was not
as "pre-modern" as Fr. Harris would have us believe. They realized that
truth claims require input from various worldviews and a healthy
presence of the Holy Spirit in order to test them. This is why the
Orthodox will not change doctrine or worship to this day. While we may
not agree with them, they are making a claim that they cannot change
their received truth without such a gathering in the presence of the
Holy Spirit. To put it in post-modern terms, the Early Church was making
the claim that in the meeting of the various local narratives, in the
presence of the Holy Spirit, Truth could be found, and that such Truth
could be enforced on the local narratives. But that Ecumenical Church
also recognized the integrity of the local narratives, allowing for much
variation, as is well documented.

That is, the post-modern claim that there are various narratives, none
of which is overarching, is contradicted by the Church, which claims
that Truth is possible and that a multicultural multiethnic gathering in
the presence of the Holy Spirit is one of the best way to ascertain that
Truth. As over against the fascism claim of Fr. Harris, the Church
Catholic does indeed claim that a local Church can be held to obedience
to Truth, and that such is not fascism. Moreover, there is an illogical
discrepancy in what Fr. Harris states. If it were fascism that the
Communion insist that ECUSA obey its resolutions, is it not also fascism
that Fr. Harris insists that the Communion must remain in relationship
with ECUSA?

If ECUSA is free to follow its local narrative, so is every Church in
the Communion, and thus ECUSA cannot insist on retaining unity lest it
also be guilty of that same fascism of which it accuses others. Once a
unity of narrative is discarded, no one local body can insist on the
compliance of another local body in another situational setting. This is
the illogicality of some of the post-modern arguments. Should ECUSA
appeal to previous Lambeth resolutions, Fr. Harris has already made the
case that such are not binding on ECUSA's narrative, thus they are not
binding on anybody else's narrative. All narratives are local, to a
post-modernist, there is no way to judge, in post-modernism. However,
Fr. Harris does not truly believe in post- modernism. As pointed out
above, Fr. Harris makes a universal truth claim of his own, that the
worldviews (narratives) held by the 90% are inadequate.

When Integrity established an Ugandan chapter, it was making the
argument that its narrative is indeed overarching and to be applied even
against the opposition of the local narrative. In fact, the use of
post-modernism by Fr. Harris is somewhat disingenuous since the
advocates of a change in the Communion's position argue in terms of
universal human freedom, and seek to base their arguments in Biblical
reflection in such a way that it is obvious that they do believe in an
overarching narrative of Truth.

Thus Fr. Harris is neither a skeptical or an affirming post-modernist.
He is simply a modernist who does believe in the ability to construct
universal Truth claims. His arguments are, at best, disingenuous. But
what troubles me is the eurocentrism of his claim to truth that allows
him to discard the call of 90% of the bishops of the Communion and the
call of the Primates. Fr. Harris has not answered the question of what
claim to knowledge allows a predominantly white, middle-class Church to
discard so easily the considered decisions of a multicultural
multiethnic assembly. Nor has he answered the question of why that
assembly may not choose to either discipline or withdraw membership to
such a Church, or to even recognize only a part of that Church.

The Rev. Ernesto Obregon is the Hispanic missioner for the Diocese of
Alabama. He was ordained in the Southern Cone and served as Archdeacon
of the southern region of Peru.

END

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