Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Rowan Williams and kenotic ecclesiology

My paper in Rome today discusses Rowan Williams’ theological conception of Christian tradition. Here’s an excerpt:

“There is a profound apocalyptic dimension to Williams’ thought here. The meaning of doctrine is not latent within doctrinal history itself. The truth of doctrine is not immanent within the church’s own history and practices. Rather, the truth of doctrine comes to the church from beyond the church’s history. This means that an essential discipline of Christian theology is the practice of self-dispossession, of renouncing the claim to any final vision or any authoritative grasp of the truth.

“Following Donald MacKinnon, we might speak here of the ‘kenotic’ shape of doctrinal identity. Even where orthodoxy emerges as the historical winner from the struggle with heresy, that same orthodoxy must relinquish the right to claim a total vision or to interpret the direction of history. In relinquishing this right, orthodoxy preserves its own essential vulnerability vis-à-vis its founding event – and it confesses that the church can receive truth only from outside itself, as a gift that enters history from beyond history, tearing history open in the apocalyptic rupture of God’s advent.

“Williams’ role as Archbishop of Canterbury in recent years illustrates precisely this dialectic of kenosis and apocalypse. As a churchman, he combines an uncompromisingly rigorous commitment to the truth of doctrinal orthodoxy with an absolute refusal to grasp the truth as a possession or to wield it as an instrument of power. Indeed, the most striking thing about Williams’ conduct as Archbishop of Canterbury is his willingness to fail, his refusal to pursue any ideal of ecclesial ‘success’ in abstraction from the church’s spiritual identity as a community defined by weakness, fragility and self-dispossession.

“This rejection of the idolatrous notion of a ‘successful’ church, this willingness to fail, is at the same time a profoundly apocalyptic gesture: the church’s identity is not immanent within its own practices and institutions; its identity is that which exceeds it, that which comes to it as gift, that which fills its own emptiness and abasement. Williams’ approach here stands not only as a witness to the church’s proper identity, but also as a sharp critique of the tendency among some contemporary political theologies to hanker after the fleshpots of Christendom, or to envision the ecclesial polis as existing in any way other than that of discipleship and crucifixion. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer has observed, the church’s suffering is infinitely more dangerous to the world than any political power it may retain – the church’s only authentic power is its weakness.”

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