The Wright stuff: Anglican issues worth arguing about

GetReligion.org readers need to know that Douglas LeBlanc has this thing against putting references to his own journalistic endeavors on this blog, especially when that work appears in the pages or cyber-spaces of that great evangelical fortress called Christianity Today. I have tried to play along with this LeBlancophobia, but I am going to make an exception today. Any journalist who is interested in the current media sexuality wars the Anglican Communion and the Windsor Report needs to read LeBlanc's interview with the Rt. Rev. N.T. Wright, author of a host of books -- popular and academic -- including "The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God)." Informed reporters need to do so for precisely the reasons that Doug cites.

N.T. Wright is the rare sort of theologian who attracts respect from both conservatives and liberals. He became Bishop of Durham in 2003, and for the past year has served on the Archbishop of Canterbury's Lambeth Commission on Communion.

Many Anglican conservatives are in full meltdown mode at the moment and Wright is not one of them. For starters, he does not automatically assume that the central issue in this ecclesiastical civil war is homosexuality. Some very low-church Protestant people are firing away at Anglican traditions on another sacramental issue, arguing that lay people can lead celebrations of Holy Communion. That's hard to put in a sexy headline in the New York Times, but it is an explosive issue nonetheless. And then there is the postmodern challenge to moral theology itself -- pick a doctrine, any doctrine. Wright notes:

What we all have to do is to say about any issue -- whether it's lay celebration [of Communion], whether it's episcopal intervention, whether it's homosexual practice -- How do we know, and who says which differences make a difference and which differences don't make a difference? [Presiding Bishop] Frank Griswold and his colleagues make a great song and dance about difference and about accepting difference and respecting difference. That's almost the only moral category that is left within postmodernity, welcoming the other, which is actually a very difficult moral standard to implement right across the board.

Near the end, Wright steers the interview off in an interesting -- and I believe highly newsworthy -- direction. What if the current media storms centered on some other issue? What might a truly Communion-shattering theological dispute look like? Here's Wright again:

The critical thing is there are some differences which would divide the church. For instance, if somebody decided to propose that instead of reading the Bible in church, we should read the Bhagavad-Gita or the Qur'an, most Christians would say this is no longer a church and that's a difference that we simply cannot live with. But if somebody says I really think we should never put flowers on the altar and somebody else says I think we should always have a bowl of flowers on the altar, most people would say that's an issue which we must not divide the church about. It's a local issue, which each church will have to decide for itself. And there's no point in getting in a lather about it.

Now the question is, all these different issues that we face, which of those two categories do they come into? How do you know? And who says? Until we have prepared to address the question in those terms, the thing will just remain as a shouting match.

And all the people said, "Amen." Wright knows that he is touching on an issue that burns quietly behind the scenes. Anglicans in the Third World are upset about the fading of traditional Christian sexual norms in the post-Christian West. But bishops from Africa and Asia would be just as upset, if not more so, if they knew about the emerging world of syncretistic prayers and rituals that have influenced the Episcopal Church and other oldline church groups. As a reporter, I have been following this trend for more than a decade.

Wright is right. Sex is not the only Anglican issue out there. But it's the only issue in the headlines.

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