Thursday, 2 April 2009

Response to David Willsher

By The Revd Barbara Messner

This article offers a critique from a philosophical and a psychological perspective of the Jerusalem Declaration statement, and of the conjectured motivations of those who espouse it. Challenging claims are made about the privileged position of a belief framed in the form “We believe that…” acting as a core belief within a structure of beliefs, and the escalating consequences of the “epistemic load” that such a belief carries, including defensiveness and protective behaviours. The author points rightly to the feedback loop between believing and behaving, in this case the behaviour of issuing the JD statement. There is certainly some truth in the author’s claim that resistance to change is related to anxiety and reflects a perceived threat. I believe that analysing the vocabulary of those pages of the GAFCON Statement which present the context and justification for the Conference would provide evidence of such factors at work, however I still feel uncomfortable with the author’s characterisation of a large group of people using sweeping psychological generalisations, and terms like ‘rigidity’ and ‘dogmatism’ with strongly negative connotations. I suspect that the psychological factors at work in supporters of the Jerusalem Declaration are complex and varied, as they are in any passionate believing and behaving, but also that due consideration ought to be given to cultural and historical factors influencing those of the Global South. Those of us who are descendants of those who colonized and imperialized have fragile edifices over our heads when it comes to throwing stones.

So although I agree with many points in Willsher’s article, I am uneasy with its point-scoring modus operandi, particularly as represented by the April Fools’ Day motif. While claiming ironically to be prepared to play the fool by challenging the numbers of bishops and others supporting the Statement on the Global Anglican Future, the writer sets out to equate those he challenges with those for whom April Fools’ Day was named, people who resisted the change of calendar under Gregory XIII, and who went on celebrating New Year’s day on the ‘wrong’ day. The writer sums up the parallel with a statement of a theme of the article: “This is how people often respond to things that threaten their system of beliefs.” This may have some psychological currency, but I am wary of making sweeping diagnoses of the mental states of a large body of other Anglicans! As in many matters of Anglican belief and behaviour, I suggest that there is probably a complex history of cultural, social and psychological experiences behind beliefs and behaviours imbued with passion and sincerity. That doesn’t make those beliefs and behaviours right, but neither does it entitle us to judge them as wrong or misguided. My over-riding concern is that we treat each other as we would like to be treated, and that we remain open to hearing the stories that predispose people to certain belief structures.

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