The Communion, Freedom, and Sin

July 9, 2007

As I wrote a week or so ago (here and here), I am a huge fan of James Fowler.  In reading Faith Development and Pastoral Care, it occurred to me that many of his ideas can be applied to our current situation in the Anglican Communion.

I have always been interested in the concept of freedom, and the tension between free-will and predestination.  Does God have a plan for us?  If so, then do we really have any freedom?  If we have free-will, then what happens if we don’t choose to follow the plan?  Does that mean God’s plans don’t always get carried out?  Perhaps they are pointless questions, but I like the way Fowler presents some of the answers.  (I promise – I’ll get to the Communion in a minute.)

Destiny, he says, is the result of all of the events that have lead us to where we are, whether they are genetic, natural, environmental or otherwise; whether they are decisions we have made or others have made for us.  It is the total sum of everything that “impinges upon us as constraint and support, as limit and as resource” (p.43).

Freedom is the “power of the future.” It is always limited by destiny.  But it can also change destiny.  Past freedom has given us our destiny today, in other words.  Maybe that’s too abstract.  What’s really important is this:  freedom is the ability to be open to possibility, to see beyond what is in front of us, to be creative, to be co-creators with God.  In the Christian tradition there is a heavy tendancy to equate Logos– the Word of God- with Creation.

Sin, then is a certain kind of fatedness that precludes freedom.  It is an inability to be creative—a willingness to let things happen—or not to let things happen—because of a closed-mindedness.  Rather than leading towards God’s intended future, we get trapped into an alternate future, or stagnant in the current one.  “Fatedness represents side pockets of stagnation in creation” (p.43).

What happens when we get mired down in fatedness?  Well, you get the wrath of God.  I’ve always had a problem with the “wrath” of God.  Fowler helped me with this governing activity of God, though, by defining it as, interestingly enough, MLK’s quote: “The arc of history bends slowly, but it bends towards justice” (p.44)!  And that governing activity is not something that we see in our impatient, instant-gratification-oriented world.  No, the arc bends slowly- over tens of years or even hundreds of years.  Nor is it a governance, I might add, that comes with some sort of evil and cruel eternal damnation.  Whoever thought that one up had an evil and cruel imagination themselves- or maybe was just bound up in fatededness too much to see the overpowering grace of God which conquers all.

It’s easy to see thus far how all this has played out in the Anglican drama to date.  There has been, in the Communion, a general lack of freedom—a lack of openness and creativity, of the logos—when it has come to dealing with conflict.  Fatedness has seemed to rule the day—a closed-ness that closes discussion, that prevents primates and bishops from attending Eucharist with “the other,” that casts out instead of brings in, and that generally seems to be disruptive instead of reconciliatory.

No, fatedness seems to have chosen the path—for those opposing TEC, decisions seem to have been made long ago and far away.  The logos is not creating; the act of creation is finished—so finished that all that is left is for us to struggle to understand what was done long ago and far away.  There is no freedom, only stagnation.

But that’s not all.

There is another piece to this puzzle, one more important, I think, than fatedness.  What Fowler is most known for is his work in Developmental Faith Models.  Similar to (in fact, based on) psychological developmental models (in particular Erickson and Piaget), these models of Faith Development help us to understand how we grow in our faith understanding from infancy through late adulthood.  What is particularly interesting to me is that so many adults in the U.S. (and perhaps elsewhere) do not move developmentally into the later stages.  It is important to note that it is not necessarily “better” if one has moved into a later stage—but it is different, and that provides a different way of relating to faith.

I’ll start by describing Stage 3 (better known as the Synthetic Conventional Self), because I believe that is where the majority of the Anglican Communion’s antics are taking place.  Community is extremely important to Stage 3 folks.  Community takes on such a strong purpose for the Stage 3 person because it is through the “peer pressure” of the community that the identity is formed; by being a part of the community the person comes to know who he or she is.  Allegiances and promises are formed within the community which help to form the basic beliefs and values of the faith.  The community tends to have a “shared faith,”  with highly similar values, beliefs, and doctrines.  As a result, conflict is deeply problematic (maybe even destructive for the community) and conformity is valued.  Sharon Park’s has exemplified this stage with a name:  “the tyranny of the they” (p. 63) because the community has such power.  This stage starts in many people during adolescence—so it may be helpful to think of teenage years and the “peer pressure” of a typical teenage group as a relational marker when envisioning it.  There is a “yearning for inclusion” (p.63) because it is “deeply dependent on a culture of interpersonal mutuality” (p. 63), but not inclusion at the cost of conflict, which would be destructive to the group.  Inclusion in this case means conformity; I think of it as “the Borg” in the movie Star Trek- they want to assimilate you into “the hive.” (it’s probably not too helpful to put it in pejorative terms, but there you are).

Contrast that with the view of community found in a Stage 5 person (better known as Conjunctive Faith).  In stage 5 the community is important too, but for altogether different reasons.  In Stage 5 the community is important not because it is homogeneous, but because it is heterogeneous.  Difference is valued—while maintaining strongly held convictions, the Stage 5 person seeks out “the other” in order to learn and understand points of view which he or she know can only come from being in relationship with another.  By entering peaceful dialogue, “the other” provides a reference point which expands the self’s view in a way that would otherwise be impossible, since “the other” has a range of experience which is vastly different from the self.  This allows for an acceptance of diversity and different viewpoints which is not found in the Stage 3 self.  That includes acceptance of other stages of faith development.

(The move from Stage 3 to Stage 5 obviously covers a Stage 4, which I have not listed in order to highlight the differences in these two very dramatically different world views.  Stage 4, which is focused on creating an individual self separate from the “peer-based” self of the Stage 3 self, is frequently condemned by Stage 3-ers, who see such a movement as a betrayal of their “group-think” dynamic.  GLBT people are frequently castigated by Stage 3-persons for moving into this category, as we must cast aside the beliefs and values of the collective as we move into finding our own identity.)

But I think we can see a lot of similarities in the Communion in Stage 3, and a lot of similarities in TEC in Stage 5.  The Communion’s response (including the Archbishop of Canterbury) to much of the difference presenting itself today is conformance.  The Primates have over-asserted their power in response to conflict.  It is difficult to find anyplace in the Communion which has responded well to the conflict.

In keeping with that trend, it would be a stretch to say that TEC has responded completely well to the conflict in general, but I think the response to the Dar es Salaam Communiqué was particularly indicative of a Stage 5 world-view.  The House of Bishops valued the Communion and their membership in it, but also held firmly to their convictions.  TEC has called repeatedly for dialogue, something that a Stage 5 believer knows is the best answer for conflict.

Others in the Communion, have called for excommunication and doctrinal responses—clearly the signs of Stage 3 attempts to maintain conformity.

On a more positive note, much of the Lambeth conference next year is set more at a Stage 5 level:  geared less towards castigation/action and more towards listening and learning.

It will be interesting to see how we maintain a balance between those in the Communion who are so stuck in fatedness that they cannot see the way forward and those of us who are already moving forward.  I believe firmly that we cannot and must not wait just because some are stuck in fatedness.  If they believe they must kick us out of “the hive” then so be it.  But we must do our best to have it both/and—to learn what we can from them and their point of view and to stick to our firmly held convictions.

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One Response to “The Communion, Freedom, and Sin”


  1. […] existing solely to perpetuate community, exist in a very particular place on Fowler’s scale of faith development.  It strikes me that many in the Anglican Communion are in this place.  (I […]


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