This week I finished reading Christopher Hitchens’ influential book ‘God’ (excuse me, I mean ‘god’) is Not Great’. and his brother Peter’s counter argument ‘The Rage Against God’. I’m now about a third of the way into Richard Dawkins’ brilliantly argued and written ‘The God Delusion’.
Christopher Hitchens makes some good points, but he’s also an enfant terrible who loves to be provocative, and in his one chapter on the New Testament he makes numerous elementary factual errors and wilful misinterpretations (well documented by Mark Robarts here). Nonetheless, his subtitle ‘How Religion Poisons Everything‘, and his exhaustive list of the misdeeds of Christianity and other religions, should certainly make us pause for thought.
Dawkins is in a different category. He’s a real scientist at the top of his game, and his arguments seem to me to be formidable. I know that they have been countered by able Christians of equal scientific standing to him, but it is impossible even for a convinced Christian to read this book without feeling at least a twinge of doubt. The finest theological and philosophical minds in Christianity need to be addressing his arguments in a patient, clear, and rational manner, so that people who are attracted to atheism are given a compelling alternative.
Unfortunately, that’s not what the Anglican world is concerning itself with this week. Instead, the Anglican blogosphere is consumed by an apparent slight committed against the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (which, for those millions of people unaware of this since TEC unhelpfully changed its title, is based in the USA) by (we think) the Archbishop of Canterbury (it’s not clear to me whether it came from the Archbishop personally or from that faceless entity called ‘Lambeth Palace’). The Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori (who is apparently a fine scientist, by the way) was invited to preach and to preside at a service of Holy Communion at Southwark Cathedral in London. As she is a foreign priest, Church of England canon law requires that she get permission from the Archbishop of Canterbury and provide proof of ordination – a little bizarre, since she is one of the three or four most well-known Anglican clergy in the world right now, but there it is!
But the sub-text is that (a) she’s a woman, and the Church of England is currently trying to get legislation passed that will permit women to become bishops while at the same time continuing to make provision for those opposed to their ministry, and (b) she’s the primate of the province which is the lead advocate for gay rights in the Anglican world – and therefore a very controversial person in the eyes of many, perhaps the majority, in the Anglican Communion. It therefore transpires that she was required not to wear her mitre (to the uninitiated, that’s the absurd-looking ceremonial hat that many bishops wear) at the service at Southwark (there is no agreement on precisely what the symbolic meaning of this might be, but undoubtedly it’s not a particularly friendly act toward the Presiding Bishop). She complied with this, but appears to have carried it under her arm in procession, to make a point.
Now, predictably, the Anglican world is up in arms. A number of evangelical clergy in Southwark diocese have written to complain that she was even allowed in the place at all, given the fact that (in their view) the province under her leadership has thumbed its collective nose at the rest of the Anglican world. Conservative Episcopalians can’t resist saying ‘I told you so’, and liberal Episcopalians are predictably outraged at this snub and are demanding that the Archbishop of Canterbury apologise to their Presiding Bishop.
I’ve said a couple of times today that I don’t think Jesus is all that interested in the question of whether or not someone is allowed to wear a rather ridiculous ceremonial hat. In response, people have accused me of being simplistic and refusing to see that it’s about more than just the hat; it’s about hospitality and rudeness and sexism and power games etc. etc. etc.
Yes, yes, yes; of course it’s about those things. But that’s not how it’s going to get written up in Christopher Hitchens’ next book, folks! It’s going to be all about who gets to wear ridiculous looking hats! And that’s why I find this incredibly frustrating. Yes, it’s not a particularly Christlike act to tell the Presiding Bishop that she can’t wear her mitre, but is it a Christlike act to wear one in the first place? Is it Christlike to wear expensive ceremonial robes and to participate in processions where rank and precedence are clearly indicated? Is it Christlike to engage in turf wars and worry about who has jurisdiction over (rapidly shrinking and aging) groups of Anglicans? Seems to me that Jesus had some things to say about the attitudes behind that sort of thing (see, for example, Mark 10:32-45).
But the wars go on. Many Anglicans from Africa, Southeast Asia and other parts of the ‘global south’ are offended because they feel American Anglicans are ignoring the plain teaching of the Bible and refusing to listen to the counsel of their fellow Anglicans around the world. Many of them have sent bishops into the United States to provide pastoral care for Anglicans who feel they can’t go along with what they see as the liberalism of the Episcopal Church. To the Africans, this is responsible Christian pastoral care and a way of preserving the truth of the gospel. To the Americans, it’s unpardonable interference in the internal life of their province and a violation of the canons of the Council of Nicaea (bet you never heard of those before, eh?) to boot.
American Anglicans claim that the teaching of the Bible isn’t all that plain after all, and that they have an obligation to deal with the pastoral realities of living in a societywith much more liberal attitudes toward homosexuality. To them, the Africans are homophobic, misogynistic fundamentalists with an impossibly simplistic attitude toward the Bible and toward human sexuality (and in fact are barely Anglicans at all; they’re really more like Pentecostals or Baptists); quite simply, they need educating. To the Africans this attitude is insufferable arrogance; to the Americans, it’s just self-evident common sense. Both groups, of course, see it as self-evident that they are right and that their opponents are deluded, or evil, or both.
So, there’s a lot of bad history between these two groups. And every marriage counsellor knows that when there’s hurt going back a long way on both sides, every little disagreement gets blown out of all proportion, because it’s tapping into all the resentment and hurt that came before. And one of the things that marriage counsellors have to help couples see is that, yes, there is a lot of hurt that came before, and we need to address that hurt, but for the moment we need to keep it from inflaming what is, after all, a fairly small issue that’s before us right now.
So I repeat my statement: it’s just a hat, folks! Jesus apparently didn’t think it was important enough to mention it; what he did do was to warn us against wearing long robes and desiring places of authority and respectful greetings (Luke 20:46). He also told us to love our enemies, and he said that the world would know that we were his followers if it could see that we loved one another as he has loved us.
At the moment, the world is not seeing much love among us; in fact, it finds us largely irrelevant. The people of the world are fascinated by Hitchens and Dawkins, Dan Dennett and Sam Harris (so, at least, their book sales would lead us to believe), who are doing a pretty good job of convincing people that we are medieval ignoramuses, desperately clinging to the last vestiges of our long-lost power and influence in the face of mounting scientific evidence that our faith is a delusion. Of course, the spectacle of high priests in pre-medieval ceremonial robes waving incense around altars in huge ancient stone temples wasn’t exactly helping our case before – and the fact that now the international Anglican community seems to think it’s hugely significant in the eyes of God that one of the high priests wasn’t allowed to wear a part of her weird costume is just making it worse.
For the record, I think that ‘Lambeth Palace’ made a bad call on this one. But I think all sides of this disagreement need to take a deep breath and ask some serious questions to do with straining out gnats and swallowing camels. Meanwhile, I’m going back to Dawkins. He, at least, is talking about issues that are really important, and I need to focus on finding answers to his arguments so that I can help the people in my congregation who are afraid to even open his book.