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Christianity: An Email Dialogue Part Two

Yesterday we posted Part One of an email dialogue between Miranda Hassett and Philip Jenkins, authors respectively of Anglican Communion in Crisis (Princeton University Press) and God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis. Today they continue the conversation.

Email 3 and 4

Philip Jenkins with answers by Miranda Hassett.

Philip Jenkins: On your point about how I am read, I have remarked a few times in the past few years that I am a professor not a prophet! But, conservatives were dead right to take two things from my work, namely the demographic shift, and the tilt towards orthodoxy among many global South churches. If they found that message from me and credited me with that knowledge, well and good, and equally if they found hope and comfort. However, I would say again that the demographic shift is critical news (and definitely good news) for all shades of Christians, not just traditionalists.

One use of my book interested me: Israeli newspapers reviewed Next Christendom to make the point that gods-continent.jpgChristian numbers were surging so far ahead of Jews that it was time for Jews to begin proselytizing again! While that was not the point I was trying to make, I’m delighted to see that my work stimulated discussion, and got people thinking about these future developments.

Well, let me ask you a couple of questions, which you can address as briefly or as lengthily as you choose.

As you read our respective books, what do you think I got wrong, or perhaps emphasized wrongly? Had you been in my shoes writing Next Christendom, how might you have taken my argument, and presented it in what you would might think is a fairer or more balanced way?

I ask this because, as you are probably aware, the Chronicle of Higher Ed presented our books as very much in conflict, and quoted you as saying that adopting Jenkins’s view “casts the alliances between conservatives in this country and Global South Anglicans as … a massive historical trajectory that is inevitable and happening beyond any kind of individual agency or design.” I respect the comment, but I’m not sure that I really framed things this way.

Miranda Hassett
: The Next Christendom did something very important by bringing broad attention to an undeniable demographic trend, and one that churches, as well as politicians, need to reckon with. I appreciate the book, and learned a great deal from it. I think my approach to the same subject matter would have differed simply because I am a cultural anthropologist, and I share my discipline’s bias towards the particular. For example, I am never quite comfortable with using the words “conservative” or “traditional” to describe Christianity in the global South, and I tried to avoid doing so in my own work. I find the terms too easy for the reader to invest with his or her preconceptions. In my experience, the range of moral, doctrinal, social, and cultural positions shared by most Ugandan Anglicans do not map at all neatly onto American (or European?) conservative/liberal distinctions. Reading The Next Christendom, I longed for more specific pictures of what Southern conservatisms look like, in all their variety. I expect I will find that when I finally have time to read The New Faces of Christianity!

Philip Jenkins: On a related matter, you cite Ian Douglas’s suggestion that what we are really seeing is more of a global Pentecost than a clash of ecclesiastical civilizations (I do like that phrase, and I should patent it!). What do you think about his idea? What signs do you see of that coming out of the present Anglican crisis?

Miranda Hassett
: If I may, I’ll begin answering this with a bit of personal reflection. I would never have gone to 9780691125183.jpgUganda, and never spent time with Ugandan Anglicans, if research into these church conflicts hadn’t led me there. And I feel that I was deeply enriched by those experiences, conversations, and relationships. I’m wary of a lot of the pat language people use to talk about what they get out of relationships with Southern Christians, (as I discuss in chapter 6 of my book). It’s not that Ugandan Anglicans have a pure or simple faith, or a faith honed by poverty or suffering. It’s just that their lives and faith are so different from mine – and yet, in important and surprising ways, the same. Discovering those differences and similarities in conversation, in relationships, was a Pentecost experience for me, an experience of seeing that the Church is much bigger than my church.

Douglas’s “global Pentecost” image appeals to me as a way of voicing the hope that many others might have such experiences – and especially that we in the privileged Northern churches might open our eyes and broaden our worldview. And I do see some signs that this is happening. I remain concerned that some Northern liberal and moderate Episcopalians feel that the current crisis shows they have nothing in common with Anglicans in the global South. But others have been spurred to become more thoughtful about those relationships, to educate themselves about the wider Communion, and to re-invest in transnational relationships. So I think the greater global awareness that’s arisen in the past few years carries opportunities as well as challenges for Northern and Southern Anglicans of all stripes.

Philip Jenkins: As things look presently, do you believe the Anglican Communion can avert a global schism? If not, what effects would that split have?

Miranda Hassett: I find it very difficult to prognosticate! There are too many unknowns – it’s become quite a complex system. It will be very interesting to see which bishops decide put on their episcopal frocks and attend Lambeth 2008.

Email 5

Philip Jenkins

I like your comments about how you had a “Pentecost” experience by seeing other ways of living and believing. I’ve been delighted and moved to see US congregations in recent years try to form links with global South churches, as they have learned so much from these encounters.

There is a (rather) funny story about how I got interested in all of this. Like much else I write, I would blame it on an argument with the New York Times, and specifically to the article by Paul Lewis “As Nations Shed Roles, Is Medieval the Future?” NYT, January 2, 1999. Basically, this argued that the nation state was in decline, and we would have to get used to a “medieval” world in which some ideology yet to be defined would serve the same unifying transnational role that “Christendom” did in the Middle Ages. This being the ultra-secular NYT, the ideology he contemplated was “environmentalism with a New Age twist”. I looked at the figures, and suggested instead that the future Christendom might be, well, Christendom – hence the title of my book. Another big influence at the time was the collection of essays in Andrew Wingate, Kevin Ward, Carrie Pemberton, and Wilson Sitshebo, eds., Anglicanism: A Global Communion, (New York: Church Publishing 1998).

You should also know that I was blessed with a pre-1970 British secondary education in history, which still maintained a now unfashionable emphasis on matters imperial. Think what you like of the politics, but that gave me a solid background in African and Asian history that modern curricula do not include – VERY useful for the following study.

As to the future: the fundamental issue in Anglican debates remains homosexuality, not because of the intrinsic importance of that issue, but because of the broader questions raised about ecclesiastical authority, scriptural and traditional. Given that, I really do not see any obvious compromise to be found between ordaining and NOT ordaining openly gay clergy. Given that, I fail to see how the different sections of the Communion can remain together over the next few years, I suppose I see a schism as inevitable. One point that interests me now is how similar events might develop in other denominations. Just today, the NY Times (again!) published an interesting report by Neela Banerjee (“Lutherans Urge Restraint in Disciplining Gay Ministers” NY Times, August 17, 2007). Briefly, the gay issue may be set to surge again in the Lutheran church, and I know the Methodists are looking nervously at Episcopal precedents. So how far might this spread?

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