Monday, February 19, 2007

fission and reabsorption

Holy shit (no, literally!):

The latest Anglican-Catholic report could hardly come at a more sensitive time. It has been drawn up by the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission, which is chaired by the Right Rev David Beetge, an Anglican bishop from South Africa, and the Most Rev John Bathersby, the Catholic Archbishop of Brisbane, Australia.

The commission was set up in 2000 by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey of Clifton, and Cardinal Edward Cassidy, then head of the Vatican’s Council for Christian Unity. Its aim was to find a way of moving towards unity through “common life and mission”.

The document leaked to The Times is the commission’s first statement, Growing Together in Unity and Mission. The report acknowledges the “imperfect communion” between the two churches but says that there is enough common ground to make its “call for action” about the Pope and other issues.

In one significant passage the report notes: “The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the ministry of the Bishop of Rome [the Pope] as universal primate is in accordance with Christ’s will for the Church and an essential element of maintaining it in unity and truth.” Anglicans rejected the Bishop of Rome as universal primate in the 16th century. Today, however, some Anglicans are beginning to see the potential value of a ministry of universal primacy, which would be exercised by the Bishop of Rome, as a sign and focus of unity within a reunited Church”.

Organizations tend to behave like individual organisms. They are born, they grow, they feed, they multiply, they compete for resources, and they die.

Christianity, as an institution, is not exempt from this observation. Far from there being one "body of Christ," as Christians call it, there are many bodies, many Christianities, not all of which sit in perfect harmony with each other. Here in Seoul, the cutthroat nature of the competition between and among churches (especially Protestant churches) is evident the moment you step into a subway station. There, on the steps into and out of the station, you will often be confronted by Korean ajummas handing out all manner of marketing materials for their respective churches, the most common of which is plastic packets of tissue with the church's image, a map with directions to the church, and phone/email contact information. Believe!

What some thinkers term "the protestant impulse"-- i.e., fission-- has its opposite: reabsorption or, at the very least, doctrinal reconciliation of some sort. According to an article I saw today, this is apparently a question for the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches. The Anglican Church, which I respect as a source of much theological innovation, has long suffered blows to its membership in England, not to mention relentless mockery (see these hilarious YouTube clips of Eddie Izzard, here and here). The chasm between the theologically liberal and conservative elements in the Church yawns deep.

It appears that the situation is moving to the breaking point, with certain conservative Anglicans pushing for union with the Roman Catholic Church. I imagine this might be great news for Pope Benedict XVI, but if people in the Church of England feel that union with the Catholic Church is somehow going to pump new blood into their faltering institution, I disagree. In Europe, church attendance in general is on the wane, and the reasons for this are manifold. Even Catholicism is struggling there-- just as it is in America, where the problem is an increasingly liberal laity presided over by more and more straitlaced, conservative foreign priests who have been brought in to compensate for a shortage of home-grown priests.

The article speculates on what might happen if this union goes through, and offers what is, to me, the most likely outcome: a split along liberal/conservative lines, with willing conservative Anglicans absorbed into the Roman Church, and with the remaining Anglicans left to fend for themselves. This will be a legal nightmare, if nothing else, because different countries have different laws related to the disposition of church property.

The liberal/conservative split is relevant in other ways as well. As Islam continues to grow in prominence, we can expect an answering conservatism in Christendom. Boundary issues become important when religions encroach on each other's sacred territories. Both South Korea and Nigeria are examples of this, Nigeria perhaps more so than South Korea. In Nigeria, a rather pronounced Muslim/Christian conflict has made religious identity vitally important to the populace, and this awareness can be connected to an ongoing calcification of theological doctrine and religious practice. In South Korea, Christianity is still very much on the rise while Buddhism, which held sway on the peninsula for centuries, is now more of a "woman's religion," as academics like Robert Buswell have noted. Korean Buddhism remains strong, to be sure, but I see it as fighting a holding action as people continue to convert to Christianity (in many cases because conversion to Christianity allows for easier networking among businessmen).

It will be interesting to watch how the Anglican affair unfolds. The movement to unite with the Roman Church has only just begun; it is possible that it will die out long before it has the chance to bear fruit, in which case the Anglican Church will have to find other means to resolve its mounting internal tensions. What makes this fascinating for me is that reabsorption is not something we see every day. I will be following this story as I can.


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