Monday, November 22, 2010

Robert Benchley: Ecumenist

The brilliant Robert Benchley once said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don't. (This remark, in various forms, is also attributed to Karl Barth, who was not perhaps as brilliant as Robert Benchley, but also clever in his own way. If any readers were to direct us to an actual source, we would be very grateful.)

We thought of Benchley when Our Beloved Godfather directed our attention to this address by Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, who directs external relations for the Moscow Patriarchate. In September, Hilarion spoke to the Nicean Club; the event was at Lambeth Palace, but we prefer to imagine them in a real cub, sitting in leather chairs sipping something potent. This, of course, is the sort of environment in which Benchley shone, and we can't help wishing he had been there.

Hilarion expressed grave fears for the future of Orthodox-Anglican relations. (It's all about the women and the gays, natch.) He used what is, by the gentlemanly style of the ecumenical world, exceptionally strong language. It was a very impressive-sounding speech, but not one which we think bears up under serious analysis. The main problem is in these paragraphs:

All current versions of Christianity can be very conditionally divided into two major groups – traditional and liberal. The abyss that exists today divides not so much the Orthodox from the Catholics or the Catholics from the Protestants as it does the ‘traditionalists’ from the ‘liberals’. Some Christian leaders, for example, tell us that marriage between a man and a woman is no longer the only way of building a Christian family: there are other models and the Church should become appropriately ‘inclusive’ to recognize alternative behavioural standards and give them official blessing. Some try to persuade us that human life is no longer an absolute value; that it can be terminated in a mother’s womb or that one can terminate one’s life at will. Christian ‘traditionalists’ are being asked to reconsider their views under the slogan of keeping abreast with modernity.

Regrettably, it has to be admitted that the Orthodox Church and many in the Anglican Church have today found themselves on the opposite sides of the abyss that divides traditional Christians from Christians of liberal trend.

Ouch! It no doubt made the kindly old gents at the Nicean Club want to slip out of their wet clothes and into a dry martini. (Benchley said that, too.) In the language of theology, virtually nobody wants to be accused of innovation, or side with anything called "liberalism." That certainly includes the Egg's editorial staff. We hate that stuff.

But Benchley's Law applies at once. (Or Barth's Law; we don't really care.) The obvious problem here is that Hilarion has made division which, even "very conditionally," will not hold up. There are enough Christians in the world, after all, to have six or eight well-reasoned answers to any question. Delicate and difficult questions rarely admit only two answers. If they did, consider the question of divorce and remarriage, which Orthodoxy allows but Roman Catholicism does not. In fact, the moral reasoning is very parallel; only the juridical conclusion differs. And yet, using Hilarion's taxonomy, one would have to classify Orthodoxy as "liberal" in this matter.

One might just as easily divide the Christian world into those who identify apostolicity with episcopacy and those who do not; or -- closer to home for Hilarion -- those who recognize 2 Maccabees and Psalm 151 as authoritative and those who do not. Or those who consider KJV 1611 to be uniquely inspired and those who do not. And so forth. No, the conditional division is too easy, and fails from the outset.

But perhaps worse than this, Hilarion's speech also indulges in some outright ecumenical fear-mongering:

We have studied the preparatory documents for the decision on female episcopate and were struck by the conviction expressed in them that even if the female episcopate were introduced, ecumenical contacts with the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches would not come to an end. What made the authors of these documents so certain?

Nothing, of course. It's called bravado. The truth is that those relationships may end. And then what will happen? Hmm. Maybe the Pope will start a recruiting program for disaffected Anglicans. Oh, wait ... he's already done that.

Then it gets bad. In Benchley's words, "an ardent supporter of the hometown team should go to every game prepared to take offense," but when Hilarion introduces Lutheranism to the discussion, he makes it too easy:

The same document argued that despite a possible cooling down in relations with Catholics and Orthodox, the Church of England would strengthen and broaden its relations with the Methodist Church and the Lutheran Churches in Norway and Sweden. In other words, the introduction of the female episcopate ‘will bring both gains and losses’. The question arises: Is not the cost of these losses too high?

Um, is it? Let's see. Lutherans and Anglicans, on both sides of the Atlantic, have recognized in one another a common faith, and agreed to share sacraments and even exchange clergy when their mission demands it. Our full communion agreements, along with the others into which Lutherans have entered and alongside the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, are the most dramatic successes in the history of the ecumenical movement. Two centuries of Anglican-Orthodox talks have resulted in ... nothing. They can perform marriages and bury each other's dead, which were both agreed to long before the modern dialogue series opened in 1930. So if you are serious about church unity, who is the better partner?

The fact is that, as Lutherans discovered in the 16th century and have rediscovered recently, the Orthodox bring little to an ecumenical table. Okay, that's a cheap shot. They have exquisite liturgies, brilliant theologians, and a striking ascetical tradition. These are all things they can share, and from which Western churches have much to learn. What they signally lack is a commitment to establishing fully reciprocal relationships with non-Orthodox churches. Evidence: they've never done it.

When Hilarion starts threatening Anglicans with the end of their Orthodox dialogue, he is like Colin Powell at the UN, waving around packets of baking poweder when there were, demonstrably, no WMDs.

He goes on to make some trite distinctions between Orthodoxy and Protestantism -- one safeguards the deposit of faith, the other encourages critical thinking -- and to accuse the Anglicans of acting like Protestants. Apart from failing the Benchley's Law test, this is more fear-mongering, and of a very particular kind. First, you humor Anglicans by letting them believe that they are not "Protestant," an assertion that, whatever its actual meaning, is dear to many of them; then you tell them that they're acting as if they were. Oooooh, now they feel bad, and want to be just like you. But, rhetorically, this is a cheap trick; Anglicans are too blessed obvious about their class anxiety. As Benchley said, "Tell us your phobias, and we'll tell you what you're afraid of."

There is little in this rhetorical move to admire. Hilarion's "Protestantism" is a straw man, bearing only a notional relationship to historic Protestantism. Properly understood, the churches of the Reformation -- Lutheran, Anglican and Reformed -- have always attempted to embody the historic traditions of Christianity, as properly understood. Their common argument, from the beginning, was that they were indeed more Catholic than the Pope. Many of us still stand by that claim. Even if you think we are mistaken, you have a duty to acknowledge the claim.

For that matter, his "Orthodoxy" isn't especially credible, either. He makes it sound like the sort of stale, moralistic, anti-intellectual, institution that its worst enemies sometimes make it out to be. They are mistaken, and so is he.


mark said...

Maybe Sam Clemens? “There are two kinds of fools. One says, ‘This is old, therefore it is good.” The other says, ‘This is new, therefore it is better.’ Let us be thankful for the fools. But for them, the rest of us could not succeed.”

mark said...

Mark TWAIN. Anyone get it? David?

Father Anonymous said...

And in fact, Mark Twain loved this particular trope -- dividing the world into two varieties. Trying to source the "Law of Disitinctions," I found a list of thirty or so genuine (as in, with sources) Twain quotes. And yes, I saw the humor in his name.

BUT the line more or less as quoted, which is so good, is usually attributed to Benchley, with Twain and Barth as occasional alternatives. I still say it's Benchley, but I can;t prove it.

Anonymous said...

They must be Protestant; the Head of their church, the queen, swears to "uphold the Protestant, reformed religion" before she gets crowned.
Anglicanism as a non-protestant church, like "Evangelical Catholic" is basically a pre-Raphaelite affectation.
You can dress up and swing smoke and genuflect all you want, but you're still Unitarians in drag to the Orthodox and Catholics (and please, if it's Orthodox, why not just "Catholics"? YOUR anxieties are showing, "Father")