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CONCERNING ANGLICAN FASCISM by the Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner


Dr. Ephraim Radner responds to Mark Harris's article Contending with Anglican Realignment

By Ephraim Radner

As Paul Zahl, the Dean of Advent Cathedral in Birmingham recently said, the accusation of “homophobia” when once leveled within our church at a Christian interlocutor, has the effect of stopping conversation cold and, with a little manipulation, tainting reputations and spoiling careers. It is also grossly unfair when used, in the present debate over the proper Christian teaching regarding sexual behavior, as a way to characterize most conservative parties to the discussion, whose theological concerns go far deeper then reactive emotions of insecurity.

For a long time something similar could have been said about the charge of “fascism”. Fortunately, times have changed, and the unstinting dispersal of absurd misapplications of this accusation has rendered it more a tool of simple rhetorical gesticulation than a serious description of anybody’s real convictions. The same evolution, we may hope, will unfold – at least in the context of illuminating argument -- with respect to the epithet of “homophobe”.

As an example of “fascism’s” devolving powers of vilifying explication, consider “Contending with Anglican Alignment” by Mark Harris (and published recently by The Witness magazine), a highly confused and inaccurate attack upon, among others, those associated with the emerging Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes. While happily demonstrating how otiose the charge of “fascism” has become, the article also serves a clarifying function in contrasting the worldviews of one sector of the Episcopal Church that supports recent decisions at General Convention with those, like the Network, that oppose them.

In brief, Harris’ essay argues that the Network is informed by a “pre-modern”, “un-useful”, and “appalling” vision, whose commitment to the “bundling of Faith and Order into a unified whole” – the use of the term “bundling” is a nice subliminal reference to Mussolini’s aspirations -- is in fact “fascist” in its attempt to “force” some kind of uniform belief upon unwilling “free-thinkers”(like Harris) through a “take-over” of the Episcopal Church. Over against this is the purportedly more rational and acceptable world-view of the author (and General Convention), that is attuned to and accepting of the “complexity” of the new “plurality of Anglican cultures and Anglican churches”, within a plural world, and is willing (and presumably courageous enough) to be “discomfited” by the reality that empires and despotisms no longer control our lives, in church or elsewhere. This last, we are told, is an appropriately “post-modern” view – appropriate, that is, to the “times” that have now left behind the old world-view of the “complainers”. It is a view that is leading to some as yet unknown destination, but that is at least engaged with the “faithful pilgrimage in Jesus Christ” whose “telling” is multiple and diverse.

On its face, this is the standard contrast between an out-dated vision of religious and political establishment on the one hand, and a robust pluralism on the other. Still, as two views supposedly held within a (once) common religious framework, the contrast needs some further explicating. Initially, it would seem that Harris is accepting the modern liberal redefinition of “church” as a kind of “voluntary religious organization” within a society that has many such organizations. Thus, no citizen has the right to “enforce” their religious viewpoint upon another; they have, rather, the duty to choose to associate with like-minded religious persons, and leave others alone. The Network doesn’t want to do this. Rather, it appears to want to erect “structures of control” and return to an era when consciences are “constrained” coercively.

The problem with this initial interpretation of the contrast is that it is egregiously incongruent with the actual situation the author is trying to address: that is, the Episcopal Church is itself a “voluntary religious organization”, one among many in the nation. Therefore it is not really possible to import into its structures the moral dynamics of politically enforced establishment or pluralistic diversity. It is precisely because individual religious organizations within a pluralist society exist through and indeed because of their self-defined character that they can maintain their particular and civically regulated places within an ordered and non-tyrannical commonwealth as a whole. In what possible way could voluntary organizations be “fascistic” in the proper sense of the term, simply by having members work for a common vision? The internal struggles for a unified identity within voluntary organizations is, in fact, often a necessary aspect of their continued vitality as participating elements within a specifically pluralist landscape.

Thus, members of organizations like the Boy Scouts, or the YMCA or the Elks Club and so on will often engage in debates, disputes, and sometimes acrimonious struggles to maintain or change the self-articulated statements of mission or of policy that define these groups. Boards will be formed, will be challenged, will be re-invented in these struggles; votes will be taken and reversed; directorships will be promoted that redirect or retain strategies and commitments. As with publicly and privately held companies, revolts and “coups” take place among stock-holders. Sometimes these struggles spill over into the civil (and occasionally even criminal) courts. However, the struggles themselves constitute the necessary means by which voluntary groups represent the aspirations and visions of their members through resolving or refashioning cohesive group identities. Which, of course, stand side by side a host of alternative identities embodied in a multiplicity of co-existing groups.

A truly post-modern pluralistic attitude would see this process – in churches as much as any other voluntary social group – as simply part of the reality of a robustly diverse society. And indeed the body politic has no interest in intervening in this process; quite the opposite. Applying qualities like “pre-modern” and “unhistorical” and “controlling” in a moral way to individual groups simply makes no sense in a pluralistic context: as part of the bustling supermarket of shifting small-scale social arrangements that create the vigorous pluralist society, Mormonism and Santeria, Alien-seekers and Episcopalians, do not each (nor should they) represent microcosms of some larger democratic pluralism, but individually they are separately interesting and sometimes arresting possibilities of the always surprising diversity of the human spirit, whose juggling of the set as a whole mimics social health. This, at least, is an aspect of post-modernism’s celebration of pluralism.

But Harris seems to want the players to represent the whole play, and so Anglicanism and Episcopalianism stand for all of society, in a funny and universalized manner. It is an ethically strange, culturally hegemonic (because it wants the internal dynamics of the Episcopal Church itself to reflect the shape of Harris’ post-modern democratic theory and society as a whole) and ultimately anti-pluralistic exercise. Applied to the inner-workings of a single church, the vision is some kind of odd amalgam of Enlightenment civil-Christian establishmentarianism: the Episcopal Church should function like an appointed civic review panel that has representatives of every perspective. Church and society are to be mirror images of each other. Thus, all the fussy anxieties over the Network’s purported conspiring machinations to overthrow the “structures” of the Episcopal Church secretly and nefariously, worries which consistently sound more like the paranoia of an absolutist continental royal court, than the open relativism of the true religious pluralist. A liberal pluralist body politic has no interest in whether the Chassidim are in turmoil over a rabbinic succession or whether Episcopalians are grappling in the mud over gay bishops; the more they do it within their own courtyards, the less they will disturb the public square.

This is where the accusations of “fascism” leveled at the Network appear so silly. Fascists are interested in controlling – among other things – the inner workings of voluntary organizations from the outside, so as to make them conform to a standard of “usefulness” to be applied to society as a whole: i.e. individual churches, in a fascist state, must cohere to the outlooks and policies of the state and its interests as a whole. The last thing fascists want is for individual voluntary organizations to engage in internal struggles over their particular group identities, in ways unrelated or even contrary to defined larger social goals. It doesn’t take much scrutiny to realize that what Harris calls the Network’s “fascism” is in fact what makes it part of a truly liberal pluralistic religious “post-modern” society, and that the basis upon which he castigates the internal struggle in which the Network is engaged is something that is aligned itself with a certain kind of distaste for religiously plural groups flourishing within a religiously indifferent society.

Of course, there is a certain amount of understandable and acceptable posturing in all this. Harris himself is engaged in just the sort of internal struggle voluntary religious organizations are meant to have (in a pluralist society). The charges and counter-charges of things like “fascism”, “precisely” because they are so flatulent, are part of the rhetorical jouissance of the exercise. We can note the playful irony of the fact that, in an article that is extravagantly scornful of the Network’s impudent assertion to be representative of the Anglican Communion in some fashion – “by whose authority, or by what measure?” Harris wonders (although little imagination is required to realize that the assertion is a hope, a commitment, and a calculated prediction based on rapidly gathering facts) is itself published by an organization that calls itself “The Episcopal Church Publishing Company”, although it has nothing officially to do with the Episcopal Church. The inflated “nomenclature” is hardly disturbing in this kind of dispute. It goes with the territory. And in any case, from the perspective of The Witness, calling people “fascists” represents the expected kind of political sloganeering that has long characterized its theological twelve-tone system by which it has hoped to charm the sensibilities of its readers. “Fascism” in its negative reference has become a musical style, attractive to a particular taste.

No, there is something else at work in Harris’ superficially pluralist, but more fundamentally intransigent insistence on ruling the Network’s religious struggle for the Episcopal Church’s identity out of order. And that something seems to be religion itself. For clearly, from the Network’s side, the issue is not the integrity of the dynamics of voluntary religious organizations within a pluralist society (however mixed up about this The Witness may be). Nor is it about modern, pre-modern, or post-modern world-views. The issue for the Network is the religious character of the Episcopal Church as a faithful Christian body fulfilling its divine vocation. Harris notes that the Network’s “Theological Charter” refers extensively and almost exclusively to Scripture. His own article, however, refers to nary a verse. Indeed, it is scrupulously a-theological (perhaps even anti-theological) in its content and argument. There is one mention of the “faithful pilgrimage in Jesus Christ”, to be sure, but that is the extent of the matter, literally. As a whole, the essay ranges over matters of social evolution, generalizations about social-political attitudes, historical glances upon cultural variations in something called “Anglicanism”, and finally flirtations with misty legal details. There is nothing, however, about the Church of Jesus Christ, expressed in the language of Scripture, prayer, and theological tradition (or even anti-tradition).

This is all fine, as a piece of personal testimony. But let’s be clear that it does not really gel with the general sense that I would think most reflective Episcopalians have that a struggle for their church’s identity ought at least to engage some kind of explicit and even explicitly Christian dimension. The image offered instead by Harris – again, in stark contrast to the Network’s own “un-useful” vision – is one of a radical secularism, in the technical sense: a cognitive attitude wherein the intellectual scaffolding of the present age, devoid of religious claims, provides the truest representation of reality by which to organize one’s life. Secularism, in its modern forms, has no interest in any particular epistemological framework, as long as it excludes essential religious elements. Hence, secularism can take its forms from Revolutionary France to National Socialism or Communism to American liberalism. Secularism is in fact indifferent to fascism as a moral (or immoral) absolute. And hence, in secularist discourse, the charge of “fascism” has become increasingly weak and beside the point.

It is the anti-religious character of secularism that gives it its impetus. Some of secularism’s original drive comes from the realization that religious commitment, when imposed upon a social whole, has proven socially divisive and even destructive, as Harris rightly observes. But just as secularism itself is a clothing adapted to many a political form, so too religion is by no means necessarily a stick of social dynamite. That has been the political insight of the American constitutional system: religious organizations are free to define themselves religiously as long as they do not disturb the larger commonwealth; and the vital religious character of these definitions actually adds to the vigor of the Republic. The “bundling together of Faith and Order into a unified whole” is exactly what religious groups do. What is odd in Harris’ argument is the way that he inserts a secularist set of values into a particular church’s proposed self-definition so that “faith” itself – that is, religious content – is effectively banished. This move is politically unnecessary and, from within the life of a given church, logically contradictory.

To define as religiously “un-useful” (useless?) and “fascistic” those whose sense of divine vocation leads them to engage and submit to the vision of “one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all” (Eph. 4:4-6); to define as “fascistic” those who struggle, according to their lights, to maintain their church “upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph. 2:20); to define as “fascistic” those whose sense of moral obligation presses them to action, within a church that has always accepted these and other irreducibly theologically specific articulations as parameters of its self-definition; to define as “fascistic” those who (with all uncertainty and difficulty) attempt to order this struggle according to outlooks shared with a host of other “Anglicans” around the world in a bond generally recognized as substantive by most American Episcopalians until recently (because shaped “precisely” by a shared reception and common commitment to the religiously particularized demands of Scriptural revelation among other things)… to define all this as religiously “un-useful” and “fascistic” sounds like Humpty-Dumpty inventing his own meanings and references and scattering them about the nave, more than anything else (“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean”). However varied Anglicanism may be culturally, we all know that in the present dispute the vying commitments are rather narrowly defined among two or three groups at best, and that the vast majority of those who call themselves “Anglicans” actually do agree on what they believe about sexuality and are clear on the Scriptural, semantic, and historical basis of their agreement. If history is “passing” anybody by in this discussion it is those who cannot hear the concordance of voices speaking at this particular time.

It is perhaps this false presupposition of moral cacophony that leads Harris to assume that a mention of the Barmen Declaration in the Network’s Theological Charter “really” means that Network theologians think ECUSA Conventioneers are Nazis, something that might rightly “offend” him were it true. (Although, since the charge is no more than a dramatic turn of phrase, so too is probably the sense of affront.) In a world (and thereby church, since church is meant to reflect the world in this secularist perspective) that is intrinsically diverse and “complexly” textured in its moral compass, anybody who affirms clear and possibly harmonious ideas as informative of a historical vocation must harbor a well-refined hatred towards others – and “Nazis” represent the purest contemporary object of such hatred. Thereby, of course, they must want to kill everybody else who disagrees with them as well. Which would imply that those who hate Nazis are really Nazis themselves (eviscerated invective is logically confused).

But all this, it must be noted, is purely an intuition on Harris’ part, since the Charter says nothing of the sort. His is an intuition perhaps understandable in one who appears habituated in the practice of charging others with “fascistic” tendencies. The intuition, however, misleads. The Charter refers, in passing, to the Barmen Declaration’s opening paragraph only to emphasize, with the Declaration’s famous clarity, the coherent, well-known, and limited authorities by which the Church discerns God’s will and lives, primarily the authority of Scripture. (“In this way the authorities, which the church needs for her mission, are defined and limited” is the quote.) If such a citation is “really” about calling everybody else Nazis, and if this occult and mysteriously discerned (and unspoken) charge against ECUSA is itself a pose masking its own fascistic intent, it is better to avoid citing theological heroes at all: the one who quotes Augustine will be mistaken as accusing others of Manichaeism and Donatism, the one who quotes Luther will be seen as eyeing neighbors as corrupt papists or raving charismatic anarchists, and so on. Although, come to think of it, the dangers of “acquiescing to the prevailing culture” that Harris thinks is being targeted by this quote are certainly worth exposing.

In fact, however, it was none other than that well-known fascist Rowan Williams who suggested that those within ECUSA who would organize a resistance to General Convention’s decisions, including the leaders of what became the “Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes”, take as their model the Confessing Church of Barth and Bonhoeffer. I suppose he was offering an overly grandiose examplar, morally speaking, to this rag-tag group of American grousers; but his hope, I think, was that a “principled” and structured form of protest, bound by a theologically articulate and centered purpose and founded on commitments to communal formation would provide an appropriate and authentic framework within which to be faithful to conscience, to an apprehended and specific Gospel, and finally to some sort of ecclesial order.

There have, of course, been “Anglican” fascists of a sort once defined a little more strictly. Some belonged to Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the 1930’s; several were affiliated with Frank Buchman’s so-called Oxford Group; not a few were confused enough by their desire to avoid war and oppose communism to support Hitler (bishops among them, no less). But this has not been the general orientation of this conglomeration of churches, unless Archbishop Laud is viewed as somehow both a retrojection of National Socialism and a font of developing totalitarian history as it has swept through Prayer Book congregations. The Network’s existence, in the context of American separation of Church and State and of a topsy-turvy fashioning of an international Anglicanism even as we speak, would appear, in any case, to be located in another sphere altogether.

Not that it matters: we are in an ecclesiastical theater. Though there is, to be sure, the point of view that asserts that when moral distinctions fade in favor of rhetorical gesture, moral conscience itself is progressively blunted.

Meanwhile as we ponder this possibility, we should not flinch from responding to questions of the moment: Is it morally legitimate and historically relevant to struggle for the soul of one’s church, and even for the direction of its teaching as we have received it in Christ Jesus? Is it politically sensitive to have religious commitments? Is it intellectually honest to claim Scriptural adherence, to seek ethical faithfulness according to purportedly “revealed” standards, and to mold a vocational identity within this outlook? To all of these questions I would respond, freely and without coercion, “Yes!”.

The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner is Rector Church of the Ascension, Pueblo, Colorado. He holds a Ph.D. in theology from Yale University and is an accomplished violinist and scholar.

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