Behind the times — memoirs of a has been
It’s amazing how quickly things you say can come back to bite you. It’s less than half an hour since I was a bit sarky, in the previous post, about the Mail & Guardian being a bit behind the times in referring to “Verwoerdburg” on its Amatomu blog aggregator site, when I discover that the Episcopal Church in the USA has repudiated a doctrine I’d never even heard of before.
Actually this is not the first time this kind of thing has happened to me — hearing of people repudiating doctrines that I’d never heard had been adopted. I remember listening to a radio broadcast of Herbert W. Armstrong strongly repudiating the doctrine of “rapture”, which I had not heard of before. And it was only about 10 years later that I discovered that “rapture” was part of a larger theological system called “dispensationalism”.
I’ve likewise heard people attacking “kingdom theology”, which sounded like something that I believed in then, except that what they said about it sounded like nothing I believed in, and so I resigned myself to not knowing what they were talking about. And in order to understand what they are attacking, you need to know where they themselves are coming from, and they rarely see any need to explain that. If you ask them, they will scornfully say that their position is “the biblical position, of course”, and dismiss anyone who doesn’t know what they mean by “kingdom theology” or “dominion theology” or whatever it is they are attacking as a probable heretic.
But in this case, it was coming from the Episcopal Church of the USA, which was, until recently (and may still be, for all I know) a part of the Anglican Communion. I myself was a member of the Anglican Communion for 25 years, and studied for two years in an Anglican theological college, but I never heard of the “doctrine of discovery” mentioned in the following article. Things really are moving too fast for me, when I discover (am I allowed to say that?) that a doctrine has been repudiated before I even knew it had been adopted.
ANAHEIM, Calif. – In a first-of-its-kind action in the Christian world, the national Episcopal Church has passed a landmark resolution repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery and urging the U.S. government to endorse the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Organizers of the bill hope it will lead to the overturning of a 19th century U.S. Supreme Court ruling and Congress’ assumption of plenary power over Indian nations they say are illegitimate and immoral, and continue to strip American Indian nations of their inherent sovereignty.
Being puzzled by Herbert W. Armstrong’s attacks on the “rapture” doctrine that I heard on the radio was one thing. I knew neither where he was coming from nor which group he was attacking. But if a “doctrine of discovery” was part of Anglican theology, that is surely something I ought to have known, yet I didn’t.
Perhaps it was adopted and repudiated in the 25 years since I left, so I’ve not been an Anglican for almost as long as I was one, and I’ve been out of the loop and missed such things. Someone told me a story of Bishop Kallistos Ware, who was asked by someone, during the height of the liturgical reforming frenzy in the Western Church, whether the Liturgical Movement (as it was called in the 1960s) was having any effect on the Orthodox Church, and was it causing them to revise their liturgical texts. And he is said to have replied “Oh yes, in the thirteenth century we introduced a new form of service for the expulsion of rats from wells.”
I read further in the article, however, and changed my mind. I hadn’t missed a thing.
The article goies on to say
The Doctrine of Discovery was a principle of international law developed in a series of 15th century papal bulls and 16th century charters by European monarchs. It was essentially a racist philosophy that gave white Christian Europeans the green light to go forth and claim the lands and resources of non-Christian peoples and kill or enslave them – if other Christian Europeans had not already done so.
Ah, so what they are actually talking about was imperialism and colonialism — why couldn’t they say so?
Yes, indeed, most students of missiology will be aware that the Roman Pope Alexander VI gave his blessing to Spanish and Portuguese conquest in most of the world, provided they made a few token efforts at evangelisation. He drew a line down the Atlantic Ocean, and saying that Spain could go to the west and Portuguese to the east of the line. Part of South America that sticks out into the Atlantic was to the east of the line, which is why Brazil is Portugese-speaking to this day. And in case you didn’t know what Alexander VI was like, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church gives a succinct summary of his career:
His own election having been secured largely through bribery, the course of his pontificate was determined almost solely by political and family considerations, esp. his favouritism of his son, Caesar. Among the most notable acts of his pontificate were the series dividing the New World between Spain and Portugal (1493-4), his prosecution and execution of G. Savonarola, the Jubilee which he organized in 1500, and his crusade against the Moors (1499-1500). A man of immoral life, he was an astute politicans and generous patron of artists…
And the Episcopalians have only now realised that this was a bad thing? Perhaps I’m not so behind the times after all!
Last week a researcher into the African Orthodox Church gave me a copy of a rare book called Archbishop Daniel William Alexander and the African Orthodox Church by Morris Johnson. I was very glad to see it because Johnson is one of the very few researchers to have had access to source materials on both sides of the Atlantic. At one point, however, in referring to the Native Affairs Commission report into African Independent Churches (1925) he says
The report’s position was that the “old” clergy was more progressive than the “new” clergy. The former was said to be more sensitive to the needs of Africans, but that position must be rejected. The economic exploitation and spiritual bondage of the African produced separatist sentiments that aided in the rise of the independent black church movement (Johnson 1999:28).
Unfortunately Johnson does not tell us why he thinks that the Commission’s report must be rejected. It is actually a very interesting point.
The “old” imperialism blessed by Alexander VI was superseded in the late 19th century by the “new” imperialism, which led, among other things, to the “scramble for Africa”. And in that period European imperialism developed a very nasty racist and white supremacist face. The “new” clergy, raised in the ideals of the new imperialism, were indeed far less sympathetic to the needs of Africans. And it was not only Europeans. Americans were just as bad, and just how bad has been documented in books like Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.
So I’m surprised that the Episcopalians are apparently only discovering it now.
The arrogant self-importance of Victorian imperialists has been a joke for so long that it has long worn thin, like the Victorians’ idea that David Livingstone “discovered” the waterfall he named “Victoria Falls”. It was known to the locals all along, and to them he was simply a passing tourist, and his “discovery” was nothing more than the discovery of a new tourist destination for the Victorian travelling classes.
So I’d like to know which Ecumenical Council (if any) established this “Doctrine of Discovery”? Did Alexander VI proclaim it ex cathedra? It isn’t mentioned in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church — well, perhaps that doesn’t mean much, since it doesn’t mention “rapture” and “dispensationalism” either.