Friday, March 09, 2007

O'Donovan on moral agreement in the church

Communion is both a moral practice and the idioma* of the third person of the Trinity. It would be hard to image a morally pluralist Christianity that had not lopped off the Third Article of the Creed - which would mean lopping off the church, lopping off the common life in the harmony of God's will which is better than toleration. Civil societies are necessarily tolerant to a degree and intolerant to a degree; they punish what they cannot afford to tolerat, tolerate what they cannot afford to punish. But the communion of the Spirit is harmony; and a church that understands its identity embraces the gift and task of moral agreement from the start.

- Oliver O'Donovan, Ethics and Agreement: Sermons on the Subjects of the Day (3), paragraph 2.

I am really enjoying reading these lectures that O'Donovan wrote for the Fulcrum website in response to the recent crisis in the Anglican communion. He has a way of laying out and navigating the divisive issues that is both clear and uncompromising, yet which avoids unnecessary extra conflict. I find particularly helpful his analysis of how Rowan Williams turned a polarity (revisionist vs anti-revisionist) into a quadrant (with conciliar vs non-conciliar members of both camps).
*idioma = specific property or task


Anonymous said...

As it happens, it's partly our shared interest in the work of O'Donovan which attracted me to Erro's Bible-Study group.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Does this mean we have to agree on EVERYTHING? That seems extreme. I think the church can and must live with a "soft pluralism," which recognizes all disagreements as potentially solvable and tries to craft biblical methods for such truthtelling and conflict resolution--while recognizing that full agreement won't be reached this side of the Fullness of the Rule of God.
Pluralism as a principle, along with hard relativism, however, must be rejected as incompatible with the gospel.
But if O'Donovan is arguing for complete uniformity on all moral questions NOW, I think that both unrealistic and potentially as unchristian as what he's arguing against. It's my Anabaptist heritage that acts up here: My spiritual ancestors were drowned and burned in the name of theological and moral unity. And given O'Donovan's other Constantinian proclivities (including his justification of warfare and Christian participation in the same), I can't help but think he believes in FORCED unity. Do I smell smoke?

byron smith said...

Michael: with respect, I think your nostril hairs are singed. :-)
If you read the rest of the essay, I think you'll find your fears unfounded. O'Donovan is no straightforward advocate of Constantinianism. Here are a few further quotes:
• [the aim of this essay is] "some further clarity on the underlying issues: the relation of ethics to doctrine and the kinds of difference that can be sustained within an underlying agreement."
• "'Ethical disagreement', then, does not mean the same as 'sin'."

Especially if you read the second essay in the series, you'll find that O'Donovan is no fan of forced unity. The entire series is an attempt to "sketch in outline the content of a consultative endeavour still very difficult to conceive in detail" - that is, a conciliar way forward in the present Anglican crisis over the actions of ECUSA and the reactions of many Southern bishops.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Well, I cannot and should not have any comments on intra-Anglican disputes. I thought O'Donovan was speaking of disagreement between Christian groups. I think he is right to want us to work on agreement, though.