I suppose that is a provocative title, but still it is nothing close to the provocative times we live in. Context is everything. Words take their meanings from the times. When certain things are done in a certain way, and at a certain time, there is no way to alter their impact or meaning by “retreating to the dictionary.”
If N.T. Wright were simply a scholar, writer, and conference speaker, then he would not be arousing such passionate responses. But he is not. He is the Bishop of Durham, the third highest see in the Anglican communion. In that position, he has to vote, discipline, decide, go left or right. And this is the context in which his broader positions must be articulated, and in which they will be understood.
I have written before on how much I have gained from Wright, and how much I appreciate many of his contributions. In terms of insight and scholarship (on some points), I still do. But this puts me in a really odd position. Picture Wright as a very capable poet, master of the Italian sonnet. Picture him also as the captain of the Titanic in the moments after the collision with the iceberg. As much as we might appreciate his poetry, that moment would not be the time to lock oneself in the radio shack in order to start sending out Morse code sonnets over the North Atlantic.
So I really like some of his “poems,” but we really need to address some other things first. The Anglican communion is in crisis. If it were not such a joke, it would be a tragedy, and if it were not such a tragedy, it would be a joke. I just got the most recent copy of World magazine, the cover story of which discusses the election of Katharine Schori as the new honcho for the liberal American Episcopoids. Turning to page 15, I saw a full page picture of Schori in bisho-regalia, and the first thought that sprang to mind was, “Mawage. Mawage is what bwings us togevver today. Wuv. Twue wuv . . . Do you have a wing?”
Marriage is what brings us together, and for secularists hiding in Christian clothing, marriage is what they are using to blow apart the Church.
One of the points that Wright capably makes in Jesus and the Victory of God (and I believe he makes it also in The New Testament and the People of God), is that a worldview does not just consist of propositions. This is exactly correct — a biblical view of the world, according to Wright (and I tag along here, me-too-ing), consists of 1. propositions, 2. symbols/liturgy, 3. lifestyle, and 4. narrative. Take that thought and hold it for a moment.
Now the CoE has been ordaining women as priests for some time now, a practice that Wright approves of. This sets up the inevitable question of women serving as bishops, a move that Wright also supports. There was recently a little dust-up over whether Wright was backing away from his support of this, which he denied in a letter to the editor. Here is that letter, emphasis mine.
From the Bishop of Durham
Sir, Anthony Howard (T2, July 12; see also report, same day) describes my action in signing, with 16 other bishops, an open letter pleading for fuller debate on women bishops as a “defection”. This is a complete misunderstanding. I have for some years argued strongly in favour of women bishops, in public and private, in person and in print. I have not changed my mind.
The motion before us at the General Synod was not whether we were in favour of women bishops, but whether we favoured a particular way of proceeding towards that goal. I want the train to get to that destination not only as soon as it can, but with as many passengers as possible still on board. I therefore agreed with the other signatories not that we should have further delay for its own sake, but that we should have what synod had specifically asked for when commissioning the Rochester report on the subject, namely proper theological discussion before taking steps which presupposed such discussion.
The Church now copies the world in treating all issues in monochrome, with goodies, baddies and “defectors”. Like an examination candidate on a bad day, synod was determined to discuss the question it wanted to discuss rather than the question on the paper. I could not vote for the actual motion, but could not vote against the perceived one, and I therefore abstained.
That was not a “defection”. It was a silent vote for that reasoned discourse which, in company with the Archbishop of Canterbury, I still believe is the best hope as we move forward into uncharted territory.
Auckland Castle, Co Durham
This said, here are some scattered reasons why, taken all together, I believe that Tom Wright’s project will end in disaster, and why I believe that he (not some cranky conservatives) is hazarding his genuine contributions.
1. God created us male and female. In the “image of God created he them.” Sexual distinctions are not irrelevant little “add-ons.” We are not generic human beings, who then subsequently “happen to be” men, or, as the case may be, women. Our identity as men, or as women, goes all the way down, and together in harmony we bear the image of God. That relationship in harmony is defined by apostolic authority, and not by the tenets of egalitarianism.
2. The push for women being ordained as priests (or pastors, or bishops, whatever) is not coming from a Church crowned with glory after several centuries of faithfulness, martyrdom, and exuberant evangelism and discipleship. It is coming from a Church addled with various and rampant sexual confusions. In other words, the ordination of women and the ordination of homosexuals are not two separate issues, but rather two manifestations of one issue. What is that issue? We do not want God to define who we are. Because these are not two separate issues, an evangelical support for women’s ordination is actually an ignorant support of homosexual ordination. This is true theologically, but it is also true practically. If this were not practically the case, we could just as easily be hearing calls for all practicing homosexual priests to be defrocked, and then after that, we could move on to the pressing business of ordaining women. Think that will happen soon? Don’t hold your breath.
3. It seems to me in the highest degree likely that Wright will become the Archbishop of Canterbury at some point. He has declared above where he wants the train to go, and he has also declared his intention to drive at a slower speed (he is not a fire-eater) in order to keep as many passengers on board as possible. Who might those passengers be? This is a declaration of intent with regard to evangelicals in the CoE. They are the ones who might depart over this sort of thing. And one could make an argument that it would be the evangelicals who are actually propping this monstrosity up — they are the only ones who tithe, after all. So the goal appears to be achieving this “progressive” goal without forfeiting the willingness of “conservatives” to pay for it.
I am a Presbyterian American, and so it is not really my place to give unsolicited advice to my friends who really like the prayer book. But if they asked, and if I thought I could give input without giving offense, I would encourage them to get their white little Anglican rear-ends into submission to an orthodox African bishop somewhere.
4. Having said all this, I also believe that at a number of significant points, Wright has been misrepresented by some of his conservative adversaries. Straw man argumentation in such a circumstance is often good for a few cheap points, but conservatives need to bear some responsibility for how they have chased bright young minds away from the orthodox position. An important part of this whole equation is to give Wright credit where it is due.
5. This means that I see Wright (in the words of a poem my father used to recite) as being like that girl with a curl, right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was very, very good, and when she was bad, she was horrid.
In conclusion, sex and gender issues are central in the modern Church, and unless Wright gets straight on this, I believe his project will end in disaster — as in, moon-sized crater, with little pieces of Anglicanism all over. And if he is the Archbishop of Canterbury when this happens, it will be an even bigger disaster.
Return to the four elements of a biblical worldview as outlined by Wright. It is not enough for us to discuss whether women’s ordination is consistent with the Pauline propositional requirements (which it obviously is not). That is one-fourth of the debate, and even though it is easy to win the debate there, conservatives should not be content with that. How do women bishops function symbolically or liturgically? See C.S. Lewis’s fine treatment of this in God in the Dock. And what about the lifestyle of those pressing for these changes? This is a relevant part of a worldview, and not ad hominem attack. Character matters, and character is part of the worldview equation. Again, this is one issue together with all the other sex and gender issues. Learning to insist on holiness of lifestyle with regard to sexual behavior is a foundational aspect to all of this. And last, narrative is an essential part of a biblical worldview. And if we take this as one chapter in the long history of the Church, which narrative is the question of women bishops easier to fit into? Is this a sunny progressive chapter, one that ends in a group hug, or is it the chapter where everything falls apart and the protagonist realizes that nothing is what he thought it was? My money is on the latter.