Bishop John Chane and Imperial Pluralism

Bishop John Chane and Imperial Pluralism


The Rev. Leander S. Harding, Ph.D.

“I think it’s really very dangerous when someone stands up and says: ‘I have the way and I have the truth and I know how to interpret holy scripture and you are following what is the right way,'” he said “It’s really very, very dangerous and I think it’s demonic.” Bishop of Washington, John Chane as quoted in the English newspaper The Guardian.

This is from an interview in which the bishop of Washington was commenting on the crisis in the Anglican Communion and the charge by Anglican traditionalists that many bishops in The Episcopal Church have simply departed from the Apostolic faith.

John Chane charges the traditionalists with the crime of certainty. This is a commonplace. It is a corollary of the reigning intellectual culture among the intellectual elites of the West. It is a consequence of the dogmas of post-modernism. It is based on the conviction that there is very little that can be known with certainty, perhaps just a very few “facts” of science, perhaps not even them. The dogma at work here is the ironic post-modern dogma of the certainty of uncertainty. Consequently according to this post-modern dogma, to claim certainty in the area of beliefs and values is immoral and especially so given the huge variety of religious and philosophical options. The high dudgeon of the well educated university grad schooled in the dogmas of post-modernism is reserved for anyone who has the audacity to claim certainty in the area of religion, morals and beliefs. This is seen by people such as John Chane as an example of immorality and trying to force your beliefs on others. People who are morally and religiously certain create alarm. They are in Bishop Chane’s words, dangerous.

This protest against certainty claims the moral high ground and sounds on the surface as though it is based on a generous tolerance. This supposed moral protest in the name of tolerance needs to be unmasked as exactly the opposite, the dismissive and marginalizing rhetoric of the powerful who seek to protect their own agenda from critique on the grounds of any transcendent authority. It is precisely an attempt to force your beliefs on others before any argument is engaged by virtue of the way in which the rules of discussion are established. It is saying, in effect, ” before we talk you must agree that your beliefs and values are the sort of thing that I say they are and I say they can never be more than one opinion among others. If we are to talk, you must give up all your truth claims before you come to the table. With regard to the rules of the table, I will be the final referee.”

Lesslie Newbigin has brought forward a devastating critique of this pretended stance of tolerance. Newbigin identifies one of the foundational myths of contemporary pluralism in the parable of the blind men and the elephant. A group of blind men so the story goes are exploring an elephant by touch. One feels the tail and says the elephant is like a rope and one feels the leg and says the elephant is like a tree and one feels the ear and says the elephant is like a large leaf. Each has a piece of the truth. No one of them has it all. To apply the parable to our current controversy, many in The Episcopal Church see the protest of traditionalist Anglicans as an attempt by one of the blind men to make his perspective the one authoritative perspective and thus a power play and an immoral case of over-reaching. Lesslie Newbigin points out that there is a problem with this parable. The parable is told from the point of view of the King and his courtiers who take in the whole scene. The parable is told from the point of view of a supposedly neutral observer who is able to see the partial and limited nature of all other perspectives from the vantage point of the one perspective which is not subject to any critique. The parable is told from the imperial point of view. The teller of the parable adopts the pose of tolerance but this is surface camouflage behind which the King asserts the right to relativize and marginalize all other claims to truth but his own. Of this Newbigin says, “In a pluralist society such as ours. . .any claim to announce the truth about God and his purpose for the world, is liable to be dismissed as ignorant, arrogant, dogmatic. We have no reason to be frightened of this accusation. It itself rests on assumptions which are open to radical criticisms, but which are not criticized because they are part of the reigning plausibility structure.” (Gospel in a Pluralist Society, page 10.)

Bishop Chane’s protest sounds high minded and tolerant but it is in reality the rhetoric of the despot who is beyond rebuke. I do not ascribe a calculating mentality to the bishop in this but the words quoted in the Guardian are nonetheless words which express an imperial pluralism. Having once dismissed his opponents, Bishop Chane will immediately turn and announce his agenda for revision of the inherited moral teaching of the church as a “Gospel imperative.”

Now the question is this: to whom shall we turn when issues are disputed; to the whole Christian dogmatic and moral tradition of the last 2000 years or to the dogmas of skepticism and nihilism of the current Western intellectual elites?

13 thoughts on “Bishop John Chane and Imperial Pluralism

  1. Dr. Harding clearly and brilliantly identifies two things: the supposed crime of certainty and the “rhetoric of a despot who is beyond rebuke “. Leaving the latter as a matter of personal character, I want to add a question to the former.Years ago The Rev’d Rodgers Wood, formerly rector of St. Philip’s in Moon Township, PA and Christ Church, North  Hills, PA wrote in “the Living Church” that all was mystery and that we could not know God exhaustively. I responded by asking whether there was a distinction between knowing God truly and knowing God exhuastively. He replied that nothing could be known truly or exhausitvely. I was saddened by his epistemological despair and how little it had to do with the relgion of Old & New Testament. I think Fr. Wood was joining with Bp. Chane at this point.

    And I wonder if I trust my brakes in my car this afternoon whether or not I am guilty of the crime of certainty. Perhaps? But there are times when one needs more than mystery as an answer

  2. As a Presbyterian who is a spectator to the discussion, I could not help but reflect on our Confession of 1967, in which this concept is slipped in sideways. The wording is: “God’s sovereign love is a mystery beyond the reach of man’s mind.” In words that follow, the document goes on to describe various aspects of that love, referring to the Suffering servant, the wisdom of God in the folly of the cross, and so forth. The idea is that it can be described in various ways, but that it is really beyond us. Or course it is–but Scripture is clear in many places that God has revealed it to us in a form that we can grasp, and that is part of what is known as “grace.”
    Laurie is right to trust his brakes (you did check the fluid, didn’t you?) and we are right to want certainty in answers (such as the amount in one’s bank account, the exact readings of your blood pressure, and the specific rules that you are expected to observe while driving that car). Thus we discover that we really have no problem with certainty–as long as it serves us! But, of course, we all know that the only absolute truth these days is that there is no absolute truth . . .

  3. How on earth Dr. Harding manages so artfully to turn facts upside down and inside out is a mystery to me. That he can do it with a straight face while holding forth on morality is simply stunning. Harding asserts that Bishop Chane is an absolutist when in fact Chane is quite the opposite. The absolutists in the situation are the African bishops who refuse to sit at table with those whom they proclaim to be heretical, who refuse to receive Holy Communion with those on whom they pass judgment, and who insist that the game be played by their rules or not at all. These bishops, with Archbishop Akinola at the helm, are the ones whose arrogance is despotic, whose behavior appears to be mindless, and whose allegiance to their vows of ordination is highly suspect. Harding may have a Ph.D., but if he really thinks Bishop Chane is an “imperial pluralist” quite evidently he has trouble reading, appropriating and analyzing English.

  4. yes, raphael everyone who despises heresy are blind power mad or just plain stupid. thanks for making that clear to the rest of us. so glad we have your intellectual superiority to rely upon.

  5. I believe (if you’ll pardon the expression) Raphael Harris is assuming that there can be absolutism on only one side of this debate. Dr. Harding is not saying this. He’s simply pointing out that everyone who believes anything–including believing that you can’t really believe anything–has some rock on which s/he stands. As Tillich reminded us years ago, we each have an “ultimate concern.” Thus everybody is religious. Everybody is dogmatic about something.

    Dr. Harding is seeking to discover +Chane’s dogma–to peel away the mask of tolerance. Because +Chane most certainly does not tolerate everything and everyone. In that respect, if in that respect only, he and ++Akinola are alike.

    As I read +Chane’s comments and Dr. Harding’s reaction, two things occur to me:

    1) We need to use the word “enough” more often. As in, we may not know everything, but in enough of life we can be certain enough. Thus we can recognize right and wrong, true and false, good and evil, beautiful and ugly as valid enough categories. We can be certain enough to suspect that others are wrong sometimes.

    2) I’m also reminded that arguments have terms and conclusions. I’m hearing a lot of terms in our Anglican debates–a lot of biblical presuppositions–which argue well for humility. But to argue tolerance and excessive pluralism from these same terms is to overreach. If the Bible matters and isn’t merely a Rorschach test, it doesn’t advocate tolerance at all; that’s too low a standard. It advocates love and humility, both of which are described clearly enough, both of which have ethical and social outcomes which are stated clearly enough a lot of the time, and both of which are more challenging. They most certainly are.

  6. With regard to the word enough, Lesslie Newbigin uses the helpful phrase, “Proper Confidence.” For a review of all the epistemological issues in this post see Alister McGrath, “The Science of God.”

  7. Paul’s assertion that I think there can only be one absolute point of view is interesting but mistaken. The points are these. Bishop Chane has never suggested that Archbishop Akinola is “apostate”, although Akinola has said that of Chane. (Well, okay, Akinola in all probability permitted Martyn Minns put that word in Akinola’s mouth.) Bishop Chane has never refused to meet with and discuss issues with Archbishop Akinola, although Akinola has so done to Chane. In fact, it was not that many years ago that Archbishop Akinola was welcomed to the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul and seated in the cathedra there. Bishop Chane has never refused to receive Holy Communion with Archbishop Akinola, although the archbishop has done just that to the bishop of Washington. Bishop Chane has not absented himself from Lambeth, but rather has joined the fellowship and discussion which is part and parcel of Anglicanism and its history. I do not see any reports of Archbishop Akinola in attendance at Lambeth. There is more than enough arrogance in Episcopal ranks to go around the table multiple times — it must come with the territory. However, Anglicanism from its very beginning in the middle of the 16th century has been a coalition of unlike minds agreeing to honor one another, to respect one another and perhaps most importantly to worship with one another. I simply do not think that asking for all to be seated at the table is any kind of “imperial pluralism”. That was my original point.

  8. Raphael, Akinola’s position is that the position of the Episcopal Church is very wrong in a number of important ways. Chane’s position is that he is not wrong in these ways and that Akinola is wrong and “demonic.” This is a metaphor from a realm beyond the imperial. When one is very, very wrong – and teaching wrong doctrine – the Bible also has guidelines, which I believe Akinola is applying here, about conducting one’s self when another is engaging in patently false teaching. His position would be that the Episcopal Church has been this wrong. This has a very long history, Raphael, dating back to the sixties. There had been hope that the tide could turn and the Episcopal Church become again a faithful church, 2003 was for many an indication that this would not happen without the rest of the communion taking action. The problem is just the general teaching of the church in many geographical areas – most areas. Back in 1979, a survey found that less than 60% of Episcopals believed in the divinity of Christ. Poor teaching was already prevalent then. Teaching on sexuality is also important, but not nearly as important as the core teachings of the gospel, and these often weren’t taught in Episcopal churches, or even denied. The Episcopal Church has rested on uneasy footing with its communion partners for some time. In a way it’s a great tragedy that this issue has so come to the fore in the Episcopal Church and not another church for the LGBT community, since it means that the LGBT community suffers indirectly from a lot of the other problems the Episcopal Church is having.
    There’s a moment when eventually even dialog ends. The Episcopal Church has been asked three times by the primates meetings to do something and each time has said it would, but then didn’t.
    This was about all seated at the table, at which Akinola has sat. Now – it would help if the Episcopal Church would do as it’s been asked.
    The quote here isn’t about who’s seated and not or who’s talking to who, it’s about Biblical interpretation. I think that in hindsight even Bishop Chane would admit that this was a rather unfortunate quote, it rather blunts the issues, and in fact sounds a bit imperial in its bluntness.
    As in all interpretation, there are interpretations acknowledged to be better interpretations, and worse interpretations – you can read up on the art of hermeneutics. I think people sometimes expect Scripture to read something like the Kabala or some of the more abstruse mystic literature. If you read the passages that these deal with, Raphael, I think you’d understand why one can argue quite forcefully that Chane’s interpretation here is considered as not acceptable. Chane’s interpretation can be argued, but you have to go through a lot of hoops to get there, and a lot of those hoops have been quite roundly discredited by Dr. Robert Gagnon. A good deal of the time these “interpretations” are no longer really interpretations, but rather denials that the texts in question actually are God’s word, and are rather fanciful imaginations or other fabrications. Bishop Chane does have his reasons, though, for holding to this interpretation, even though it’s a pretty contorted kind of interpretation. Akinola doesn’t hold Chane’s beliefs on that matter so he doesn’t have the same reasons to deviate from the standard interpretation, and considers the standard interpretation very important.
    As to your original point, yes, I do see how Akinola’s refusal to see Chane does seem not to be tolerating him and in that way perhaps a bit “imperial”. The point here though is the “when” – some think it’s still good to continue dialog with the American church, some think that time’s past.
    Anglican Scotist’s argument here is interesting. Argument at one point is – suppose God wills the church to believe one thing has a certain meaning, for a given time – it also means that God can will the church, at a later time, for it to mean something else – and since God is omnipotent, God now wills the church to understand it in this other way. Perhaps this is what the Episcopal church believes. Look at the passages discussed and you’ll see why it’s so hard to see them the way Chane et al want them to be read. Though logically this is possible. Chane et al believe that God has powerfully shown them something new and that this is what they should believe. Akinola believes this not to be the case.
    If you’re LGBT, I’m very sorry that your community has had to this extra confusion and has been standing in the firing line between the two sides. Because it was the Episcopal church that brought this in front of the media, the LGBT community has also indirectly been affected by the other differences between people within the Episcopal Church, and also between the Episcopal Church and other churches.

  9. Stanley Fish has written much the same thing, identifying +Chane’s “imperialism” as a key element of liberalism — the old con that liberals prescribe no substantive ideology but only procedures through which *all* ideologies may flourish (if they consent to be exercised only privately and individually — i.e. agree to be of no social consequence whatsoever). All who agree to liberalism may be tolerated. All illiberals must be at least excluded from the conversation if not positively suppressed.

    It is also especially rich to see authorities undermining the very notion of authority. Why again should anyone pay any attention to +Chane? Because he wears a mitre well?

  10. Leander. A fine clear piece. In reading this I remembered that I’d written something on this elephant thing some years back. Wonder of wonders, I actually found it! For what it’s worth:

    Have you ever known someone who lost his or her job? Maybe you asked, “Did you get fired?”. “No way!”, they say. “He tried, but I got there first. He didn’t fire me: I quit!” The boss has a different opinion. So, what’s the truth? Was he fired or did he quit? Sometimes it depends on who you ask.
    That is how it is with Jesus, too. The world says, “we’re taking your life from you”. From the world’s perspective, that is exactly what happened. Jesus, however, speaks from another point of view. He speaks from the Father’s perspective when he says, “No. I willingly lay down my life.” So, with Pilot, we might say, “well, what is truth?” Isn’t all truth relative? After all, it depends… there are many opinions, many perspectives. My experience is not the same as yours. Pilot says, “I took it from you!” Jesus says, “I gave it for you!” You say “took it”, I say “gave it”. “Took it-gave it, from you-for you”, let’s call the whole thing off. After all, it’s just semantics, isn’t it. Or is it?
    Can any of us claim to have a hold on absolute truth? Aren’t we like blind men who have various holds on an elephant? One has a hand-hold on the tail, another has his face pressed up against a huge leg with his arms stretched around it as far as they can go. Can you imagine the contradictory pronouncements that would be made about the nature of the elephant called “truth”?
    “Truth is a skinny little thing, fixed on one end with a tuft of hair on the other.”
    “You’ve got to be kidding! Truth is huge! Can’t tell whether it’s flat or round or what, but it seems to go on for ever. You can’t get a hand hold on truth! Just press in and hope it doesn’t move!”
    “Oh it moves alright, but it can’t go far unless you let go of it. Did that once myself and it whacked me right in the kisser.”
    “No way! If truth ever whacked you in the kisser your kissing days would be over! Truth moved on me one time: flung me off and left me in the dust and it took me a week to find it again.”
    So what is truth? Is one of these opinions about truth any more valid than the other? No. If we are blind, one opinion is pretty much the same as the other and truth remains an elusive mystery, if it exists at all. But we need notice one thing. We didn’t say that “truth” was the sensual experience of the blind men, or the conclusions they drew from their very real physical contact. Truth is the elephant.
    If I claim that there is no absolute truth, I am saying is that there is no elephant. Or, to put it another way, I might be saying that every person has his or her own elephant and no two have a hold on the same thing. Of course the claim that there is no absolute truth is a logical silliness not worth the time I’m giving it here, the statement itself being a contradiction of it’s own premise.
    Rather than deny the existence of “capital ‘T’ Truth”, I may simply believe that, while there is an elephant, all men are blind and/or the elephant cannot or will not speak in a way comprehensible to all humans in the same way. He speaks to some in terms of a graspable tufted tail and to others in the language of a huge mystery whose surface can be felt, but whose nature remains unknown. Or truth never bothers to say anything to anybody. Or truth is impersonal and communicates nothing intentionally.

    In terms of the present state of the Church: one false teaching in the Episcopal Church is that every religion is like a different part of the elephant and we’re all taking hold of the same thing and it matters not which part we cling to. Hold on, it’s all going to end up in the same place.
    Scripture is not without these elements in its witness to Truth. We do know only in part [1 Cor. 13:12]. We have grasped at him and projected human ideas onto God and experienced many things. But the deeper truth is that God has taken hold of us. Our faith rests on this: the elephant exists, wants to be known in the truth of who he is, wants humans to know the truth of who they are and has spoken all that truth about himself and about us to every human being in all the whole world through the prophets, in the flesh of his Son, and by his Spirit. Truth is a person who has made us, loves us and come to us in order that we may know him and worship him in spirit and truth. He has opened our eyes and those who were blind can see. The mystery hidden through all ages, who is the destination of all human yearning, has been revealed: Christ in us, the hope of glory [Col. 1:26f]!
    Here’s the scandal of the Gospel: Jesus Christ is the absolute truth for all humanity. If I say that Jesus, my Truth, is The Truth, you may say that I am excluding everyone that believes in another “truth”. You can say that. You can say anything. But that doesn’t make it true. The scandal of faith says that Jesus is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And when I say that only he is the absolute truth and that he can truly be known, I embrace you in the deepest possible way that you can be embraced. The scandalous gospel is God’s embrace of love and truth because Jesus is not just my truth: he is your truth too.
    The gospel truth is that when Jesus opens our eyes we see the dead and deadly thing we’ve had a hold on and who has a grip on us. If we turn to Jesus we hear the protests of our old boss, “If you leave me, a fire will consume you. Leave me and you’re dead.” Satan will do his best to trample us with fear. But the truth is that, though Satan tried to fire us with the fire of his death, we have, by the power of the Living God, quit his kingdom and entered into the light of God’s life. Darkness will put it’s spin on events, but we will witness to the Truth: “I was blind but now I see. I was lost but now I’m found. I was dead but am alive again.”

  11. jmc writes: “Back in 1979, a survey found that less than 60% of Episcopals believed in the divinity of Christ. Poor teaching was already prevalent then.”

    Hum, first things first, the plural noun would be, “Episcopalians”.

    Beyond that, I would find it helpful if statistics like this were cited. Who did the survey? What were the actual questions? There are a lot of allegations floating around about the Episcopal Church which simply are not true. Sometimes it is important to consider the source before believing what one reads. The points you make about biblical interpretation are interesting but finally not persuasive because Anglicans have never agreed on such things. In the middle of the sixteenth century under the urging (to put it mildly) of Elizabeth, Anglicans were permitted to hold varying views on issues as long as they worshiped together. Since that time until very recently, the ability of Anglicans from various points of view to worship at the same altar has not been compromised, at least not publicly on the world stage. If Akinola wishes to be a force within Anglicanism, he will need to understand this unique part of Anglican history and come to understand that it is possible for people to worship together even though they think and believe differently.

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