Friday, September 08, 2006

Authority of Experience (Coats)

What Do We Mean by the Authority of Experience?
The Rev. William R. Coats

A generation ago, the word "experience" began to be used by a few Anglican theologians in their construction and consideration of theological and ethical matters. Some of them simply included experience under the heading of Reason, which – along with Scripture and Tradition – constituted the three-legged stool of Anglican authority for generations. Others, however, used human experience as an outright source of authority. This prompted a number of Anglican critics to call this not merely a "softening" of the theological enterprise, but as a dangerous departure from the traditional scheme of authority as Anglicans had known it. Critics warned that using experience as an authority would result in vagueness and subjectivity, and complained that such use would lead to a "feel good" theology in which "anything goes."

What do we mean by experience? And how does it function theologically?

Experience in its loosest construction may refer simply to human life in its quotidian variety and to the way the common and ordinary are apprehended. At this level, experience can be mundane and subjective. Indeed, our reactions to experience at this level may not rise much above a narrow range of approval and disapproval. Still, many events we experience leave a deep impression upon us – sometimes causing us to think or act in accordance with our sometimes raw reactions.

In a more profound sense, however, experience does not speak for itself. It is always apprehended through a filter of interpreted concepts. Our experience of the world is informed by a variety of what we loosely call secular means: reason, logic, and empirical testing. It is in this sense that experience has become an authority for many outside the Church.

Until roughly the 16th century, authority – in the Church and in most of the Christian West – was to be found in Tradition. Authority was to be found in the Scriptures or in the writings of the ancient Church Fathers. Over the centuries, this knowledge was mediated through theologians, philosophers, and ecclesiastical jurists. It was knowledge from the past, which was seen as a reliable guide through time, even for contemporary matters.

Beginning with the Renaissance and its rediscovery of the Greek and Roman past and with the stirring of modern empirical science, the West experienced its first break from the absolute reliance on Christian sources for authority. The experience of the world was increasingly understood independent of the authority of the Church. It was within this context that Galileo sought to establish early laws of astronomy not on the basis not of the Scripture, but on the basis of independent scientific observation.

By the 17th century, philosophers began to challenge religion on the basis of reason -- that is, on the basis of what the mind can establish in autonomous thought, often in reliance on logic and empirical discovery. By the 18th century, science had established itself as a separate discipline, while secular thinkers began to posit the nature of civil society along naturalistic lines.

The mushrooming of what we now call secular or scientific knowledge was at first welcomed by many church people. Many Scottish theologians, for example, during the so-called Scottish Enlightenment, enthusiastically employed such knowledge. Then this knowledge was turned to critique the origin and content of Scripture and the validity and of doctrinal assertions in the 18th and 19th centuries. At that point, many in the Church became guarded, if not suspicious, of secular or scientific knowledge. Many remain so today.

It has long been the contention of Anglicanism that it serves as a bridge or a via media between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. I would argue that, at least since World War II, the Episcopal Church would better be defined not in the older, historic terms -- that is, in its ecclesiastical positioning of the past-- but rather in terms of the modern world. Today, we remain a via media, but now between a way of thinking based almost solely on the sources of the past - Scripture and Tradition - and a way of thinking based on modern secular and scientific sources of knowledge. Much of today's division within the Churches falls along the fault line established by the division between secular and sacred sources of knowledge and how these divisions are to be negotiated. While most church people accept a great deal of the claims of secular knowledge, there is a resistance when it comes to matters of moral behavior.

Anglicanism has long alluded to the three-pronged system of authority as elaborated by Richard Hooker: Scripture, Tradition and Reason. This system, however, is often misunderstood. It is not a system of triangulation in which one alludes (in a theological dispute) to unanimity or a majority of the three sources of authority. They are not three coequal forms of authority to be juggled. In Hooker’s view, Holy Scripture was always primary. Tradition continued the teaching of Scripture forward to other times. Reason was not the autonomous faculty we understand it to be. For Hooker, reason meant the laws and rules of nature. These laws resonate with, or are compatible with and reveal the words and actions of Scripture and tradition. Hooker bequeathed two things to future Anglicans: an interpretation of Scripture, which allowed for later modification, and the view that some worldly referent was necessary for theology to be complete. I argue that Experience comes within this latter frame of reference.

The question for contemporary Anglicans is: In what sense can experience -- either as commonplace apprehension or as the secular traditions of knowledge, based on reason, logic and empirical observation -- have authority in the way we do theology?

I want to answer this by using six case studies in which I believe the Church altered a traditional position on the basis of experience as I have defined it.

I would argue that the Church has always used experience as a form of authority, though it never phrased it this way. In the fourth century dispute over the status of Jesus -- the enfleshed Logos -- Athanasius (Bishop of Alexandria) claimed that for Jesus truly to be the divine savior he would have to be divine in the same way the Father was. Why would Athanasius conclude this? Because the experience of Jesus as the savior demanded the highest possible status for him. Anything less, and the salvation through the Son would be uncertain in the experience of Christian life. Arius, a priest in the Alexandrine diocese, accused Athanasius of "innovation." In a sense, he was correct. Arius was a strict traditionalist, and he argued that much of what Athanasius proposed was not strictly biblical. Athanasius -- for his part -- and armed with a contemporary vocabulary, saw in a variety of traditional texts and Scripture material to bolster his view of the co-eternity of the Son with the Father. Jesus' ultimate status as divine (and thus savior) was thus established.

Athanasius carried the day. I would argue, though, it was experience - in this case, experience within the Church - that propelled Athanasius and eventually the 4th century Church Fathers to a more explicit Trinitarian Formula.

In the same manner I would claim the argument over images (icons), which extended over centuries, arose out of the experience in the Church of persons whose devotional life counted such iconic presences as crucial. It is hard to see in the earliest Church such a central or authorized role for these images, as those opposed to the use of images correctly argued. Nonetheless -- and here the Seventh Ecumenical Council is crucial – such use was authorized and said to be biblically sanctioned. Again it was experience within the Church which led to this outcome – an outcome which might otherwise be called an innovation.

Even if my argument is granted in these two cases, the major complaint now is that the "experience" that theologians now use comes from outside the Church, from secular and scientific sources. As a result, many argue experience should not be allowed to have authority in theological or ethical reflection. This is a powerful argument and reflects that division within the Church over the standing of "sources of knowledge" that are not (strictly speaking) biblical or traditional sources (based on natural law). I turn now to my six examples.

1) Usury
Lending at interest - usury - was universally condemned by the Early Fathers, who often adverted to Psalm 15, Deuteronomy 23:19 and Ezekiel 18:8ff. It was believed that to charge interest on a loan to one in temporarily stricken financial straits was to take advantage of that person. The canon laws of the Church into the Middle Ages forbade it. The practice, however, continued to occur in the Middle Ages (particularly in a legal form called "merchant usury" and in trade with Islam) with a number of theological subterfuges used to cover the reality (especially in the writing of St. Thomas Aquinas). Oddly, John Calvin openly allowed loans with interest. Finally, in the early 19 th century, the Roman Church allowed it.

Why this rather abrupt change? Because it was soon seen that in a money economy (as opposed to subsistence or barter economies) the economic system could not advance without loans at interest. Thus the experience (and reality) of economic development simply reshaped Christian thinking and behavior on the matter. In this instance there was little further reference either to Scripture or Tradition. Economics was simply understood in a more dynamic way, one which, it was suggested, the Church could support. It was purely a change based on the different needs of a different cultural time.

2) Democratic Republicanism

In mid-18th century America, Anglicans would have expressed their politics as monarchical and their social practice as hierarchical. Both positions would have received ample warrant from Scripture (Romans 13) and would have solid testimony in the tradition of the Church. However, a generation later, most lay Anglicans (though not the high clergy) had become republicans in their politics and more egalitarian in their social practices. (After the American Revolution, the new Episcopal Church gave to lay delegates at General Convention a larger role than that to be found anywhere else in Anglicanism.)

What caused this dramatic shift? A small part would have been played by the naturally shifting political and social environment in America. Conditions lent themselves to a naturally formed egalitarianism.

More important would have been the role of political thought, beginning with John Locke and continuing with Francis Hutchenson. Locke’s view of natural rights and Hutcheson’s notion of an innate "moral sense" led to the development of more democratic and egalitarian political views. These views had no direct sanction in Scripture or tradition; as a result, many dissenting Anglicans left for England before and after the American Revolution.

However, as views like Locke's and Hutcheson's gained traction, more people took a closer look at their inherited views. On this "second look," a great many people found support for the newer views about human nature and government. They perceived the democratic elements in Paul’s inner-church egalitarianism and in Jesus’ openness to persons of all stations. They took to heart the anti-monarchical tracts such as 1 Samuel 8:22. And they perceived the tradition's suggestion that salvation was open to all. Clearly, a certain contextualism was at play here.

"Biblical observations on life are made in a living relation to living history." [See Note 1] The same is true about observations drawn from tradition. History has been granted freedom by God. Each age configures itself anew. Each age may be a mixture of vice and virtue, but the mixture is not the same in each age and cannot be determined by a simple allusion to the vices and virtues of a past time. It may be as many conservative commentators point out, that the notion of "rights" is not scriptural (and on that basis they would draw the line as to who is entitled to what in the Church) but -- if that is so -- how can one be a supporter of rights in the political sphere but deny them in the ecclesiastical sphere. Is God schizophrenic?

3) Human Slavery

Human slavery may have come into existence with the historical shift from a hunting and gathering society to an agricultural one. At any rate, slavery certainly predated the first systemized codes regulating the practice by the late 1600s B.C.E.

Slavery is acknowledged in Scripture. Until the later 4th century a number of Church Fathers opposed slavery as incompatible with humans being created in the image of God. Soon after, however, the Church shifted to full support of the institution. Thomas Aquinas viewed it as simply a rational part of the divinely given social order. A special racially based slavery became predominant by the 18th century with the emergence of vast labor needs in the new capitalist world economy.

Leviticus 25:39ff had been used since ancient times to legitimize slavery as such., But the newer form of racial slavery was soon given biblical sanction when Genesis 9: 8-27 was interpreted to mean that a divine curse had been placed on Ham, and Ham was equated with Africans.

However, England abolished the slave trade in 1807. That act was due in large measure to the influence of the great English Evangelical William Wilberforce. In 1833, England abolished slavery itself.

On what basis did England do so? Wilberforce argued first from the inhumane treatment of slaves (that is, from elemental experience), and he argued that ending slavery was a matter of simple "philanthropy." He maintained that "sympathy is the great source of humanity." [See Note 2.]

Wilberforce was heeding what had by then become a largely secular tradition of our common humanity, one in large part resting on political and social notions of equality. These were not understood as specifically Christian values.

Nonetheless, this secular tradition in turn caused Wilberforce to see in the traditions of the Church and Scripture a humane dimension that demanded certain political action of him. This political action implied an alteration in practices that had long been sanctioned by the Church.

What induced Americans to abolish slavery? Certainly it was, in part, disgust at the treatment of the slaves. It was also the recognition that (from a political perspective) slavery contradicted American values of freedom. This contradiction then forced American Christians to look again at their own sacred sources. So prompted, the freedom by which Christ had set us free was then seen to involve more than simply a spiritual matter, but involved human relations as well.

Indeed, the same dynamic has been at play in the ongoing struggle against racism. Neither natural rights nor societal equality can be found either in Scripture or tradition, but both can be inferred from Jesus’ actions and from the benefits of his atoning death. In that way our tradition, informed and prompted by secular sources, changed.

4) Divorce and Remarriage

Most of the Christian West has (until recently) held marriage to be an indissoluble bond. It was believed to be underwritten by God in Scripture and held by Jesus to be an unbreakable union (Mark 10). Some of the Orthodox Churches of the East had long allowed for divorce for actions the effect of which were "regarded as similar to natural death or adultery." This doctrine of what was often called "moral death," however, was never adopted in the West.

Beginning at least with John Milton, who favored divorce, many Western Protestant Churches have allowed divorce. In 1973 The Episcopal Church changed its canons to allow for divorce and remarriage. There were two reasons for The Episcopal Church's action.

The experience of marriage could be comforting, exalted and fulfilling; or it could be abusive and death-dealing. Many marriages hovered in the middle range of these possibilities. The spectacle of continuing marriages in harrowing circumstances was a major factor in our reexamination of the question of divorce.

The second feature was the increasing indefensibility of the doctrine of nullity which our Church had, in effect, practiced up until 1973. Under this practice, marriages could be dissolved only if it could be shown that some condition existed prior to the marriage which rendered the marriage invalid. Thus, we had persons married for 40 years (with children and even grandchildren) being granted annulments on the fictitious ground that -- before the marriage -- some invalidating condition existed that rendered the marriage null, virtually nonexistent.

Eventually our Church perceived this as a form of dishonesty to be rejected. Moreover, the Church asked why marriage would be the one situation in which persons could fail and be allowed to repent and begin again. The theological grounds by which marriage is exempt from the normal pattern of Christian life - sin and forgiveness - seemed arbitrary. As a result, the Church looked again to Jesus in the hope that in this case forgiveness and a new start-- that which was available even to murderers-- could be applied to divorce and remarriage.

The Church acknowledged that Jesus had proposed marriage as a lifelong union (in a day and time when marriages lasted about seven years, due to death rates) But the Church also recognized that he had spoken of forgiving seventy times seven.

5) The Ordination of Women

In 1979 The Episcopal Church voted (in General Convention) to allow for the ordination of women. This pivotal action had been preceded by a number of ecclesiastical changes in which women were gradually permitted access to all other aspects of church life and governance. There is no doubt that much of the impetus for this action came from women and the experience of women’s competence, although justification for this action once again was in terms of "rights."

Once again, the opposition laid claim to biblical arguments. They could and did claim not only that Jesus and the biblical leadership were male, but also that Paul had argued for women’s subordination - both in marriage and church affairs They could and did argue that the Church through the centuries has always had a male leadership. They noted that Thomas Aquinas had suggested that, ontologically, women were subordinate and that their status had been underwritten by nature. Finally, they argued that the notion of "rights" cannot be found in Scripture.

The long American tradition of "rights" rested on a notion of equality for all before the law and in societal life. If this had been accepted in the political realm, why could it not be accepted in social and ecclesiastical matters? This tradition of rights, which is virtually in the American bloodstream, did not in itself become the determining factor. Rather, because of it we were prompted to look again at Scripture.

In Scripture we found a counter-movement in the Yahwist tradition to the prevailing patriarchy of the day, extraordinary feats of women in the Bible and a decidedly feminist slant in the Matthean genealogy. [There was also Karl Barth’s astonishing reading of the virginal conception in which he claimed that the only way there could be a new history with Jesus is if he were born without a male parent - male history being one of power, violence and war.] Most importantly, there was Jesus’ own acceptance of and learning from women.

Finally, The Episcopal Church recognized that the essential action of the priesthood - which is derived from the priest’s role at the altar - is grounded in the resurrection. And the resurrected Christ is neither male nor female, having transcended gender. The Church would not have found this rationale had not experience prompted us to reexamine our own sources of authority.

6) Homosexuality

We come now to the question of homosexuality. Clearly, both the Hebrew Scriptures and Paul in the Christian Scriptures oppose homosexuality. The tradition of the Church has -- from the beginning -- likewise opposed and condemned it. I believe there is little merit to the suggestions that the Scripture opposes homosexual abuse or aggression and not homosexuality itself. Defenders of this tradition offer more than biblical injunctions. First, they point to what is called the "Order of Creation." We find in Genesis 1 the creation of male and female, a complementary pair, but ones who are at the same time quite different (though in Genesis this difference is never really spelled out). On the basis of this scriptural distinction there is a whole body of traditional literature, which has spelled out the difference between men and women. It is a formidable body of material, and not to be set aside lightly.

Here is Thomas Aquinas:

"Accordingly, since it is not possible in the female sex to signify eminence of degree, for a woman is in the state of subjection, it follows that she cannot receive the sacrament of Order."
"If it were not for some [divine] power that wanted the feminine sex to exist, the birth of a woman would be just another accident, such as that of other monsters... the image of God is found in man, and not in woman: for man is the beginning and end of woman; as God is the beginning and end of every creature." (3)
And we hear this from the Canon Theologian of the Diocese of Fort Worth:
"Just as the biological differences between men and women express themselves in the physiological and spiritual, so the anthropological differences express themselves in economics and politics. Be they single or married, women get together and talk mostly about clothes and shopping; men talk about sports or ways we should resolve the war in Iraq; Women are the economists and men the politicians. By nature women are practical, men are idealists." [See Note 4]
What has been maintained by the tradition is an idea of men and women’s utter biological and characterological distinctiveness. It is perceived to be a fixed difference -- by divine decree -- understood as ineradicably ontological.

Scripture does indeed bless marriage between a man and a woman, seemingly "opposites." And it can be held that marriage is thus for procreative purposes (Genesis 1:28), which, of course, then eliminates homosexuals unless they can transform themselves into heterosexuals.

But is this strict binary rendition of gender truly the case? Is it so that men and women exhibit at all levels such a strict differentiation? And when it comes to sexual affect, is it so that male and female are who they are only in strict attraction to their opposite? It would not appear to be so if one heeded empirical secular traditions.

We find, instead, a much more complex situation. In the first place, personality and character are not so rigidly defined as male/aggressive and female/passive, much less in terms of interests or capacities. Apart from clear physiological differences, and allowing for cultural imprints, male and female exhibit very few radical differences.

Similarly, the spectrum of sexual affect is quite broad and people are found all along it. While the scientific evidence is not yet absolutely certain, few now contest the notion that sexual affect is an inborn characteristic -- perhaps genetic, perhaps hormonal. As a result we have a situation about which the scriptural writers and the Church fathers could not possibly have known. Indeed the possibility of a homosexual orientation was not really established until the 19th century.

There is every reason to believe that Paul in Romans 2 was condemning acts by heterosexual men on heterosexual men. He could not possibly have conceived of a homosexual condition, affect or orientation. Further, Paul’s condemnation is aimed at upholding marriage and, thus, the divinely given roles of male and female. But if we now know that homosexuality is an innate condition, then such men and women can be no threat to heterosexual marriage, since they will not be engaged in the traditional male-female coupling. Thus, Paul’s stricture fails not only because he could not have known what a later generation did, but also because it is directed to a situation that by nature does not exist.

At one time Karl Barth did theology on the basis of "Orders of Creation." This meant commenting on early biblical material (usually found in Genesis) that covered a number of human institutions and actions as if these were given by the Creator as a form of law. He later abandoned this approach on the grounds that the created order should first be understood not as God-given law, but that which is under the imprint of the Trinitarian God. Thus creation would be seen through the prism of the Trinity, which itself has come to be because of the exalted status and work of Jesus Christ. From this perspective the matter of male and female take on a different slant. The Trinitarian God is first and foremost the God of intimacy and interrelatedness, exhibited in the perennial love of the Father for the Son in the Spirit. It is God’s work to enclose all human life into this circle of self-giving love. That is why the Son died: not just to remedy sin, but to instate intimacy and self-giving love both for God and humans and humans for other humans.

Such an enclosure includes marriage, but in that case marriage cannot be known solely for its procreative possibilities. And indeed the unitive or inter-relational aspects of marriage are to be found in Genesis when God creates Eve as a helpmeet to Adam Genesis 2:20-25. This enclosure serves as an invitation for all persons to experience this intimacy. It cannot then be limited to heterosexual marriage.

Along these lines it is interesting to note that much of early Christian history did not hold sexually active marriage as the highest ideal. Celibacy was held as a greater good -- both within and without marriage. Furthermore, the tradition is dotted with expositions on the glory of marriage as friendship. In this sense, while marriage was meant for procreation, other dimensions of marital union - particularly those modeling the Trinitarian economy of self-giving love-- were held up.

Many of us have been prompted by our everyday experience, in which we find holiness and virtue among unpartnered and partnered gays and lesbians, to re-examine our traditional views. We affirm the knowledge we have gleaned from secular traditions, as we have returned to our sacred sources for another look. Can the radical inclusion practiced by Jesus be overlooked? Can it be that a certain group of people would be denied the Trinitarian gift of intimacy which is creation’s goal? We do not think so.

I have tried to outline a particular dynamic which I claim has been present in the Church from the beginning. That dynamic, in which the traditional sources of the Church are open to human experience or to other sources of knowledge, has become problematic in our day because of the power and comprehensiveness of these parallel sources. Many of these sources are hostile to Christianity. Nonetheless, we should not be unwilling to engage in a conversation with experience both at the day-to-day level and with those interpretive schools of knowledge that have developed over the centuries.

It is not experience – either in the form of common observation or in the variety of secular traditions – which in itself constitutes a coequal authority with Scripture or Tradition. The authority of experience is a kind of transferred one. It exists as a prompt. Our Church now finds itself in conversation with the modern world - that is, with common experience and with secular traditions. It need not always find in this exchange a warrant to look again at our sources of authority; but sometimes it does. I maintain that many of the changes this Church has made recently have come as a result of this "second look" which has been prompted by experience. God speaks through the Holy Spirit in the world. This word of God, then, prompts us to see in our own tradition if we might find a new way to understand God, a way which has in fact been there all along, but is only now rediscovered.

There are surely risks in such a conversation. Could not the assumptions of these parallel traditions undermine the faith? This is always possible, but the case studies I have presented should allay many fears. For almost 300 years in the West some of these parallel traditions have tried to undermine our Scripture by claiming they are composites of contradictory sources; tried to debunk our miracles as contrary to the laws of nature; challenged our creeds as ancient and unworkable. In each case the Church has provided a plausible defense, ones to which I concur. Thus I did not set these matters forth as problematic or in need of any radical alteration.

This should not mean, however, that social or political views of the Church are forever cast in stone. I believe many of these can be open to a conversation with parallel traditions and that such a conversation in no way should be seen as a threat to the core beliefs of this Church. Indeed, danger arises when certain social alterations are weighted in such a way as to make them equivalent to changes of dogma. That is the predicament we are suffering now.


(1) Reinhold Neibhur, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Charles Scribner, New York, 1949, pg. 271.
2) House of Commons Home Page Houses of Parliament- The House of Commons Commission The Administration, its governance and the services which it ...Speech to the house of Commons, Wednesday, May 13, 1789.
3) De Veritate 5, 9, d. 9. Thomas de Aquino, Quaestiones disputatae de veritate, q. 15-17 - [55108] De veritate, q. 15 pr. 1 Primo utrum intellectus et ratio sint diversae ... [55155] De veritate, q. 15 a. 1 ad 13 Et per hoc patet solutio ad
4) Anglican Scotist Blog, August 28, 2006


Blogger hrsn said...

Sensitively argued and thought provoking. Yet the post seems to ignore the reams of philosophy written concerning the "untrustworthiness" of experience. Experience can lead to incorrect conlcusions that are difficut to dislodge (How can you argue against someone's "experience"?)Reason, on the other hand, can be shown (i.e., demonstrated apodictically) to be faulty or invalid; and Tradition is something that, while capable of corruption, cannot be "wrong" (in which case it would not be a tradition but a complete corruption.)

So, experience ends up for being the weakest foundation as it is the easiest to be wrong about the most difficult to correct.

9/08/2006 8:38 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

If we were talking about one person's experience -- or several people's experience -- I would be inclined to agree with you, HRSN. I'd be right there with you!

But when something like 70% of The Episcopal Church weighs their experience in balance with Scripture, Reason, and Tradition ... and comes to such an overwhelming consensus ... I am inclined to listen to them. As Bill Coats argues here.

9/08/2006 8:46 PM  
Blogger BubbaHoTep said...

Lisa, what about the experience of the millions and millions of Anglicans in Africa (versus thousands in America)?

Surely, their experience has value too. What is the value you place on their experience?

9/09/2006 11:39 AM  
Anonymous Prior Aelred said...

This is reasonable enough, but, historically, "experience" was added to "the three ply cord" by John Wesley & referred specifically to the warming experience of the heart that signified personal conversion & the presence of the Holy Spirit.

OTOH, the notion that our experiences & our reasoned reflection upon them does not change us is silly -- challenge & response is how we learn & grow.

9/09/2006 6:49 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

BubbaHoTep, I take very seriously the ways in which their experience leads them to read Scripture and interpret the tradition.

In the U.S., most dioceses won't even allow priests to substitute rice wafers for wheat-based ones, and a great many refuse to use anything but alcoholic wine. Because those bishops believe that "bread" must be bread and "wine" must be wine. But when I worshipped with the Africans, they used a hibiscus tea and something like animal crackers for the elements. Did I excoriate them as revisionists? Heck, no! I recognized the real, economic, and social reasons they used the elements they did. [Incidentally, they could have procured wine; but there's so much problem with alcoholism that they opt for the tea instead. I say that is a sensitive response to the Gospel.]

Similarly, I understand that some of the African churches came to Lambeth [in '78?] asking the rest of the Communion to be patient as they charted a pastoral response to the polygamy among their people (lay and ordained), and that the Western/Northern churches said "of course." We trusted their sincere love of God, Christ, and the Scriptures -- and their resting in the Spirit -- to let them find a pastoral approach.

I flat know there are African churches where ordained people still practice polygamy. Do I believe we should break communion with them over this practice -- as abhorrent as it is to our American sensibilities? I most certainly do not!

In these and other cases, The Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion, and I are unanimous in listening to the experience of these others to discern their path forward in faith.

In the U.S., we have experienced the faithful Christian witness of gay/lesbian people in a way that leads us to want some latitude also -- not enforcing it on other members of the Communion -- but as a pastoral and sensitive response. I wish the rest of the Communion were willing to extend to us the same generosity of Spirit that has been -- and still is -- extended to them.

9/09/2006 8:08 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Prior Aelred, I personally do not see "experience" as a 4th leg of the "stool." Rather, I see it as a reasonable element of the "reason" leg. As you said, many factors inform our "reason." Thanks for the points you made.

9/09/2006 8:09 PM  
Anonymous Prior Aelred said...

Lisa --

Thank you for your long post -- your observations on Africa are most interesting. I know that the Copts use unfermented grape juice (probably as a result of their proplonged oppression by the anti-alcohol Muslim majority) & that the Christians of South India long used water that had had raisins soaking in it (because they didn't have grapes to make wine), but animal crackers & hibiscus tea is too much for me. If I were the sort to judge & excommunicate, I would point out that this is clearly a violation of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral: (from the Lambeth wording): (c) The two Sacraments ordained by Christ Himself -- Baptism and the Supper of the Lord -- ministered with unfailing use of Christ's words of Institution, and of the elements ordained by Him.

9/10/2006 10:01 AM  
Anonymous KJ said...

Bubbahotep -- Let's not confuse opinion with experience, a differentiation Coats attempts to make in the article. Due to political and ecclesiastical oppression, there are many GLBT Africans within the church who are not free to live authentically and stereotypes of the community prevail. As the currently invisible GLBT community is not going to go away and, as in elsewhere in the world, makes itself known allowing fellow believers to learn that the community includes their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren, then experience will dramatically impact reason, and grace will continue its never-ending expansion.

9/10/2006 10:56 AM  
Blogger Phil S. said...

A couple comments.

First, I'm puzzled by Coat's reading of Athanasius because the last time I read Athanasius, he based his arguments on Scripture, especially in pointing out the importance of Jesus in salvation. In that sense, it was not merely Athanasius' experience of Jesus as savior, but rather Scripture and tradition which butressed Athanasius' claim.

Further, I would take issue with Arius as a traditionalist, although I know that this position isn't unique to Coats. Arius was arguably an Origenist, whose position in the Christian tradition was a little dodgy in his day and got increasingly dodgy. He doesn't not fit in well with the early Church Fathers beacuse they were pretty firm on the need for Jesus to be both human and divine. Arius had a problem with Jesus as human which explains much of his problems.

My second point is rather more germane to the argument. I'm not sure we can describe 'the secular tradtions of knowledge, based on reason, logic and observation' as experience. I grant that these 'scientific' virtues have an element of experience in that they are the embodiment of the 'scientific' method' and look for experiential data. Yet, reason, logic and observation are really means by which experience is mediated and interpreted. This suggests that what Rev. Coats is proposing as authority isn't so much experience as experience, but rather a particular framework of interpreting experience. That isn't necessarily bad in itself, but really this is simply a rehashing of the argument that our logic, reason and powers of observation operate somehow independently and, in a sense, in a vacuum. I don't think that actually happens in the sense that these particular attributes really are mere tools by which we interpret within a tradition. In this case, the unexpressed tradition is this largely secular tradtion of knowledge identified with philosophical liberalism. That's fine, but the assumptions of this tradition make no sense to what could be called the 'orthodox' Christian tradition based on the authority of Scripture.

What I'm saying is that it seems that the Rev. Coats is actually arguing a rather different point from what he says he's making. Perhaps this is what needs clarifying.


9/10/2006 9:27 PM  
Blogger Phil S. said...

Just a quick comment on lisa's comment that "when something like 70% of The Episcopal Church weighs their experience in balance with Scripture, Reason, and Tradition ... and comes to such an overwhelming consensus ...".

Church history is, unfortunately, littered with examples when the majority position has proven to be disasterously wrong. For instance, well over 70% of the Lutheran Church in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s agreed with the 'Aryan' theology during the Nazi regime. I'm not equating the two, merely pointing out that it is perfectly possible for a large consensus of Christians to be dead wrong.

I would also add to the experience of African Christians (whom, as lisa points out, are not without problems in their Christian walk), but also the experience of Christians through the ages who seems to support tradtionalist views. They are dead, I grant you, but, if their witness and experience was worth something, it begs the question of how great a majority do we need now to override their experience?


9/10/2006 9:34 PM  
Blogger Marshall Montgomery said...

Check out my response at

9/13/2006 8:44 AM  

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