Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Cuckoo Theology

I am not a fanatical birder, but have spent most of my life watching birds, enjoying them, and learning their habits. The other evening as cliques of swallows swooped and dived over me as I took our dog on his evening walk around the neighboring field, I realized that they will soon be gathering on the power lines and beginning their journey southward to warmer climes. Thoughts of their migration got me thinking about the Cuckoo, a bird that is almost a national institution in Britain, the first of which will already have started for the warmer south.

The Cuckoo is Britain's only parasitic bird. It arrives in April from its wintering grounds in North Africa, and it is the male bird's cry of "cuckoo" that is so distinctive and is said to be the sign that spring has begun. Once a breeding pair have established a territory, the female will scout out the other species of bird that are nesting there and when there is a clutch of eggs in a nest she will come along, remove one of them, and replace it with one of her own that mimics in color and size the eggs that are already there. She will do this with as many as a
dozen nests in her territory.

Eventually, the young cuckoo hatches, usually a little ahead of the rest of the brood, turfs the natural youngsters out of the nest, and then is raised to adulthood by the sparrow, warbler, linnet, or whatever it is that is the host bird. Cuckoo fledglings are not small creatures and grow fast, so it is not unusual for the smaller host parents to be standing on the baby Cuckoo's back to stuff its mouth with worms, grubs, and whatever else they find to feed it.

The North American equivalents of Cuckoos are Cowbirds and Grackles, and there are more than seventy other species of parasitic birds around the world who get up to the same kind of tricks, with their own variants on the theme. It is an unfortunate bird, indeed, that ends up being the host to a Cuckoo, Cowbird, or Grackle, because that is the end of that breeding pair's ability to advance its own gene line that particular season, and their energies will go into nurturing this foster child that
is foisted upon them, and who has happily destroyed their own young.

It has seemed to me for a while now that as you look at the history of the church, and its efforts to make known the apostolic faith down through the centuries, there have been major episodes when what I will describe as a Cuckoo Theology has, somehow, landed in the nest and caused great difficulties. Gnosticism, Arianism, the aridity of Rationalism, and various other -isms, have played a significant role in elbowing their way to center stage and intimidating or even seeking to destroy the legitimate offspring.

I believe we live at just such a time today. The deconstructionist theologies that are now prevailing in so many Christian settings, and which are the source of fragmentation in the Episcopal Church, are, as far as I can see, Cuckoo Theologies. They have been laid in the nest of the churches, have grown fat and strong on the generosity that has been shown to them, and are now in the process of levering out the legitimate apostolically-driven offspring.

While the offending Cuckoo Theologies have various flavorings, at their heart seem to lie a surrender to the incipient relativism of the culture, and a determination to think of the church in terms of rights rather than grace. It is the cry about rights that seems to have been one of the most persistent in the thirty years that I have ministered in the Episcopal Church. We have been asked, or so it seems, to be sensitive to the rights of every group that perceives itself not to have been given a fair deal -- and sometimes this has been necessary and true. But ultimately this gets taken to unacceptable extremes.

Bishop Tom Wright comments when writing about Paul and rights in 1 Corinthians 8, "But, in any case, talking about 'rights' as a way of making the point has its own problems. It can be a way of standing up for the weak; but it can also be a way of asserting all kinds of other things about people being independent, being able to do what they like or want in every sphere of life... in fact, having the 'right' to be arrogant, selfish, greedy or whatever" (Tom Wright. Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians page 106). It seems to me that we have been seeing a lot of this, but in 1 Corinthians Paul is asking us to think seriously about sitting much looser to our so-called rights.

During the last three decades I have watched as groups claiming victimization have come cap in hand pleading for a place at the table. However, once at the table like the cuckoo and its fellow-nestlings, they have set about elbowing the rest of us out of the way. I remember how shaken I was when one particularly radical bishop made it very clear in something she wrote that if the likes of me did not like what was
going on in the church to which I belong then I should leave and go somewhere else.

Yet this particular bishop's pronouncement was only part of a continuum that I have observed or been on the receiving end of during the last three decades. At the very first clergy conference I attended in October 1976 I was rounded upon by a group of priests, none of whom I had ever met before, who told me to go back to where I came from -- not because of my nationality, but because they found my theology offensive. Similar kinds of slights have followed me through most of the rest of my ministry in the USA, and they usually come from those whose belief system has been somewhat eccentric when compared to apostolic Christianity as understood by the broad mainstream of world Anglicanism.

The question is how do faithful Anglicans counter this? If the recent General Convention is anything to go by, Cuckoo Theology now thinks it has cleared the nest of challenges to its predominance and is now ready to push its agenda to their logical conclusions. As tragic as such a mentality is, I find myself thinking in the long term and I also know that in order to survive Cuckoo Theologies need a host upon which they can foist themselves -- when that host is gone, then their very survival is at stake.

The English Cuckoo would have no future if there were not these other trusting nesting birds on whom they could palm off the tedious business of raising their offspring. The truth is that if mainstream Anglicans are thrust from ECUSA (or whatever we are now calling it), then so-called progressives, radicals, or whatever, are going to find that they have actually done damage to themselves that could well be terminal. I sense this will be discovered sooner rather than later.

The task, therefore, of faithful people is to be just that -- faithful. I suspect that reconfiguration is going to be a significant part of that, painful and difficult as it will be. Meanwhile, in ECUSA there will remain a small minority, a remnant, (probably much despised) and from that remnant new life is likely to spring. How that remnant works with those Anglicans in the USA who are now outside ECUSA, I do not know, but some kind of networked reality will emerge out of the trial
and error of the moment.

Meanwhile, we have a lot of hard theological work to do. Knee jerk reactions and heroic acts of defiance are hardly likely to bear the fruit that we expect them to. Yet, if church history is anything to go by, God stands by those who bear witness to apostolic truth. Athanasius is a prime example of just such an individual, and it is to this kind of witness that I cling at times like this.

I find myself thinking of those host pairs of birds who find themselves with a Cuckoo in the nest, for they don't give up. Instead, they are back again next year and this time are likely to rear a brood of babies that are very much part of their gene stream.


Alan said...

Fr Kew,

As always, there are many valid ways to describe a situation. This one really nails it.


Anonymous said...

I predict this idea of "cuckoo theology" will catch on. You ought to copyright it. It certainly helps me to understand the situation in the mainlines today.

Anonymous said...

This is very good. Have nothing much to critique, except where you postulate a remnant left in ECUSA that will re-light the fires of Orthodoxy. Any such remnant in my view would not be much to build on as it will be necessary for it to:

Worship a non-Christian deity.

Use a gender neutral liturgy and Prayer Book.

Accept a piece of bread and a sip of wine from a practicing homosexual cleric.

Be lead by an apostate, female PB of dubious qualifications, or a practicing homosexual PB of either "gender".

Become accustomed to "God the Mother", "Creator", etc. and any other pantheistic Pronoun or Myth that distances the Historic Church from God the Father, the Son and Holy Ghost.

No. I think that remnant will likely have lost its passion for the Faith once given and be swallowed up to disintegrate with the rest of the cuckoo heretics, or as time shows the complete loss of Christology in ECUSA, leave it to join the "reconfiguration" to save their souls. Sorry to say, the cuckoo has flown its nest and has lost its way forever.

So you know where I'm coming from, I should perhaps tell you that I'm one of a small remnant of Anglo-Catholics in a parish which 20 years ago was not ashamed to advertise itself in the local newspaper as an Anglo-Catholic parish but when the Network was established, opted not to join. The Diocese professes to be orthodox, nevertheless the Bp. doesn't want to take it in the direction of requesting alternative primatial oversight. So "Cuckoo Theology" was of particular interest to me.

Incidentally, I'm indebted to David Virtue's newsletter for bringing the Kew Connection to my attention.