Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Radner Redux

Radner Redux: A Fatal Misunderstanding of Anglicanism


Ephraim Radner is perhaps the chief theologian for the "orthodox" in and leaving the Episcopal Church (TEC). The Archbishop of Canterbury believes him to be one of the bright lights of Anglicanism in America. However, as Arthur Sargent shows, Radner’s understanding of the Anglican Communion is based on a dangerous minsunderstanding.

It is crucial that we counter this misunderstanding, as Dr. Radner is a key figure on the right. The Archbishop of Canterbury has appointed him to the Covenant Design Group, charged to draft the proposed Anglican Covenant (Their first draft is here.) In the midst of that process, Dr. Radner accepted membership on the Board of Directors of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, an organization that is well known for its ongoing efforts to undermine and subvert the United Methodist, Episcopal, and Presbyterian churches. This is not a time for overlooking a vision which would undermine our church.

Same Old Song, Second Verse
by Arthur L. Sargent

The author served as a university chaplain in the "troubled" sixties and early seventies. Experiencing massive burnout, he and his family tried the life of expatriates in Canada. He subsequently returned to this country and pursued a 25-year career in community service planning, development, and evaluation in Dallas, Baltimore, Chattanooga, and Oklahoma City. He is now retired, living in his own corner of paradise outside of Taos, New Mexico.

Ephraim Radner has once more delivered himself of wave upon wave of words in his essay, “Vocation Deferred: The Necessary Challenge of Communion.” In over 7,800 words Dr. Radner sets himself the task of reflecting on:
  • "the difficulty we [the Anglican Communion] have had in facing up to the challenge of Christian communion,"
  • "the consequences of this avoidance," and finally
  • "a possible way of understanding communion and Anglicanism in terms of a particular vocation or mission . . . . "
The first task is disposed of in a mere 2,100 or so words, if the reader is willing to accept his assertion that the Anglican Communion is split between two differing ways of being the church – "localist" and "confessionalist" – and the absence of a definition of what “the challenge of Christian communion” may be. In this context read TEC for “localist.” “Confessionalist” refers to some, but not all, conservatives. In any event, neither way of being the church is valid in Radner’s opinion.

Unlike the first, the second task is disposed of quite succinctly (if prematurely), since it is accomplished in the introduction to the discussion of the first task. But let us be thankful for the brevity and not quibble. The consequence is " . . . a turning away from communion . . . [that] . . . will most certainly destroy the practical realities of the Anglican Communion itself."

The third task consumes the remaining 5,000 words or so of the essay. However, for those whose time is short, go straight to the last sentence of the 35th paragraph: "living in Christian communion is a service that is properly fulfilled only as it is subject to the needs and counsels of the Church as a whole." [Emphasis added.] The highlighted phrase foretells where it all will end.

Now fast forward another 1,359 words to the next to last paragraph:

This is why, in my opinion, the proposed Covenant is so important . . . . Anglicanism now needs . . . a "rule" . . . [a reference to an earlier discussion of the Benedictine Rule with special attention to obedience to the Rule as interpreted by a discerning Abbot, whose interpretation is subject to intervention if he errs.] [T]he Covenant needs to be revised in a way that better expresses . . . the formational means by which obedience [emphasis added] can mold the virtues of this missionary life.
The only thing new is Radner’s admission the Covenant needs revision.

It is not self-evident to me what revision(s) Radner believes are needed. However, based on his lengthy paean to the Benedictine way of life, I suspect he desires the incorporation of a Rule in the Covenant to which all provinces would pledge unquestioning obedience. The content of such a Rule is not defined. I also suspect Radner equates a primate to a Benedictine abbot. Thus, primates (like abbots) would be responsible to a higher authority for administering the Rule. In the draft Covenant, the Primates' Meeting would be such a higher authority.

I am not the first to note that subjection to any authority is antithetical to the ethos of TEC as initially defined in the Preface to the first American Prayer Book. It is also a radical departure from what the Anglican Communion has been from its inception, for to this day the “Anglican Communion lacks any central body which has legal jurisdiction over the whole” and there is no “canon law globally applicable to and binding upon member churches of the Communion,” nor is there “any institution . . . with competence to create such a body of laws.” (See section 2.1 of John Rees' “Some Legal and Constitutional Considerations,” in the “Supporting Documentation” section of the Windsor Report.)

Radner saves the real surprise for the last paragraph. After thousands of words presumably demonstrating the necessity of a vocation to communion through obedience to a Rule, Radner writes: “There are no doubt other ways to approach the vocation of communion, if it is a vocation at all.” [Emphasis added.] My reaction to this surprising and quite unexpected questioning whether there is a vocation to communion was to wonder if the essay is no more than the ecclesiastical equivalent of a shaggy dog story (i.e., an extremely long-winded tale featuring extensive narration of typically irrelevant incidents, usually resulting in a pointless or absurd punch line). Upon reflection, however, I am more inclined to see this paragraph as a crie de cour provoked by the realization that – despite his torrent of words – his vision is not going to carry the day. Thus the descent to an apocalyptic vision: "But perhaps the fire is already set, and another prayer of our Lord is wending its way to fulfillment (Luke 12:49)." [The biblical reference is: "I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!"]

To make a long story short: Dr. Radner yearns for a curial authority in the Anglican Communion. There is nothing new there, except for his use of the image of a Benedictine Abbot as a surrogate in this essay. Having dismissed the "localist" and "confessionalist" models of being the church, Radner gives us a hierarchical and authoritarian model. For me there is nothing in the three models resembling the Anglicanism of the Episcopal Church that won my heart’s affection over fifty years ago and which has held it to this day.

Tom Woodward Responds to Arthur Sargent’s Analysis

I am grateful to Arthur Sargent for guiding us through this long and difficult piece. I have no disagreements with his analysis or conclusions. I merely want to focus on what Arthur has identified as the critical deficiency in Radner’s analysis.

I believe Ephraim Radner is mistaken on several issues right from the start in this and other pieces he has written. He revels in academic theology or what could be called abstract theology – and so he misses out on making the connections with the Christian faith as it is lived out. While theologians must possess the analytical tools necessary to their trade, they must also show some evidence of human engagement over the issues with which they struggle; otherwise, their theology ends up being vapid and their conclusions divorced from the incarnational roots of our Christian faith.

When Dr. Radner reflects on vocation, he sees only the big picture, whereas vocation is a matter that should be taken seriously on all levels of the church. My vocation as a priest and someone else’s have many things in common, but over the years we have most likely been called to express our vocations in significantly different ways -- just as St. Paul noted would happen in his various celebrations of diversity in the Christian community. (See Romans 12:3-8, I Corinthians 12:4-31, and Galatians 5:22-23]. The same is true within each Episcopal congregation: our parish vocation may be spelled out in a mission statement, but it is also expressed in the interaction and fruit from the various vocations within the congregation.

In a healthy parish, various vocations to service, prophetic utterance, and the like are honored, while the vestry is guided by its mission statement. That statement is not intended to filter out the spiritual gifts of members of the congregation. No congregation of more than three people has a simple vocation.

The same is true of a diocese. In my diocese there are congregations that are called to ministry to the poor, others called to ministry to the surrounding culture, others to the work of prayer and intercession, etc. We, as a diocese, are not monochrome, nor are we committed to a single vocation.

Isn't this also true of our various provinces? Why does the vocation of the Episcopal Church have to be the same as that of Rwanda? Consultation is one thing among the provinces – which, of course, is different from consultation between primates; giving veto power over the vocation of another province is quite another. We live in a church based on the incarnation. Truth, for us, is not abstract, but incarnational and sacramental. God is incarnate, present sacramentally in different parts of the world and in different cultures. Woe to abstractionists like Radner, who would recast the Christian Church into something quite, quite different.

Radner misunderstands the vocation of Christians on the local level, on the diocesan level, on the level of our national churches and provinces and Communion – and even on the broadest possible level, the worldwide church of God, expressed in the work of the multitude of the various denominations as the full Body of Christ! Our vocation as Anglicans worldwide is not the same as the vocation of the Friends (Quakers), the American Baptists, the Greek Orthodox, or the Moravians. God allots the spiritual gifts as necessary for the entire vocation of the fullness of the church. [See again the Scriptures cited above.] Radner’s view of the church seems the equivalent of going to the circus to watch two and a half hours of elephant acts. A decent circus has elephant acts, but it also has trapeze artists, clowns, performing seals, balancing acts, horseback riders, jugglers, and people selling popcorn. That is the way St. Paul saw the church, and that is the way Jesus chose his apostles.

It is ironic that those dioceses in the Episcopal Church that insist on their right (or their perceived vocation) to have a male-only priesthood are those who are most insistent that the Episcopal Church not be permitted to assert its vocation to have a fully inclusive priesthood. Thus, bishops like Jack Iker, John-David Schofield, and Keith Ackerman can demand respect for their fairly peculiar position on the priesthood and episcopate while demanding – in the ironic next breath – that TEC be punished for its position which is supported by a large majority of Episcopalians around the country.

What Radner does not "get" is that the vocation of TEC is probably always going to be different from that of the Anglican provinces in Brazil or Nigeria or Rwanda or Malaysia. Even the Roman Catholic Church recognizes that in its own life – with quite different expressions of the church in Italy, Scandinavia, the United States, and Central America! Ephraim Radner seems to want to outdo the Curia in enforcing a common vocation for our various provinces. Where is St. Paul when we need him?? St. Paul would have been appalled at such a rigid, authoritarian, and homogeneous view of the church. So much for the “faith once delivered to the saints.”

I believe and our General Convention believes that it is the vocation of the Episcopal Church to be fully inclusive. That belief is founded upon decades of Bible study and theological reflection and the desire to follow where the large majority of our church believes God is calling us. That has integrity. Ephraim Radner and the bulk of Episcopalian theologians differ regarding that decision, but Episcopalians have always had those differences. That diversity and comprehensiveness used to be our glory. I believe it still is and always should be our glory. Radner seems to stand over against that glorious vision and practice – both in his words and, unfortunately, in his affiliations.

A world of diversity, complexity, and variation of vocation throughout the world? Yes. A world of Curial-enforced conformity? No.


Anonymous Prior Aelred said...

Both very fine reflections on Radner's work, I'm sure (but I speak from faith since I find myself unable to plow through his writing -- the tone of agrieved anxiety is just too much for me) but I might add something from the perspective of a Benedictine monk, Radner's use of the Rule of Benedict and the role of the abbot seems entirely theoretical. As someone who had the job of revising our monastery constitution, I can assure you that our Holy Father Benedict's counsels on the abbot, while spiritually valuable, are completely useless from a canonical point of view. Canon Law has had to put quite definite limits on abbatial authority. In addition, Pope Leo XIII wanted to centralize the Benedictine order, but the abbots resisted and each congregation remains completely independent, with the abbots meeting every three years for consultation. It sounds very Anglican, doesn't it?

5/15/2007 10:26 AM  
Anonymous Michael Merriman said...

A very good new source of thought, counter-Radner's crowd, can be found in the recent response to the propose Anglican Covenant produced by the Council of Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission. Their Website is down right now but you can find it at Deacon Ormonde Platers webpage,

5/15/2007 3:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

An excellent counter to Radner can be found in the recent response to the proposed Anglican Covenant by the Council of Associated Parishes. You can find the response on the webpage of Deacon Ormonde Plater.

Michael Merriman

5/15/2007 3:21 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Thanks for this tip, Michael. I've now posted a link on our "front page."

5/15/2007 9:47 PM  

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