Sunday, February 27, 2005


A good deal of the unrest in Christian denominations today relates to the complexity of translating dead languages into today's terms and visions. On Friday, while driving to the USC Mexican American Alumni Association Scholarship dinner, I listened to a guy who explained the real problems facing those who want to make biblical stories more living for today.

Separating the eternal from the temporal is not an easy task. Most of us grew up with a version of the bible that was translated about the time of Shakespeare. The King James Version (KJV) had a profound effect on English literature and language. But like the modern version that was just released, it was the result of a series of linguistic compromises made by a committee of scholars trying to think about what words meant. The most interesting thing to me about this is that a lot of the debate about the substance in the bible is among people who have not read the original texts and who do not have the ability to read those texts. The New Version International Translation seems to have brought the arguments about translations back to the fore - yet, it seems to have been done by a careful group of scholars who struggled over the meaning and nuance of the old texts. If you do a search on the net for things about biblical translations you get a raft of references and highly emotionally charged debates.

The issue is further complicated by those in denominations who want to advance their personal or political agendas through reinterpretation of language that ultimately becomes doctrine. My impression is that is exactly what is going on among Episcopalians at the present time. Part of the American church wanted to make a political statement. A good part of the rest of the communion did not believe those changes were appropriate or in keeping with God's word. But the American part of the church went ahead anyway. Ultimately, last week the Anglicans began what looks like a split where the Americans and the Canadians were asked not to come to one of the deliberative bodies of the church until 2008 - when the next Lambeth council is convened. For American Episcopalians who disagree with the changes in doctrine - there is little to give them comfort. Their American leadership seems intent on moving forward, regardless of the positions of others in the communion.

Last fall the Archbishop of Canterbury convened a group to look at the split - they issued a report with very carefully crafted language. The issues they argued included adeaphora - those things of practice or doctrine which might vary among the faithful without causing a split (for example, in one of the churches I grew up in there was a practice of using incense - but in all that I have gone to since that is not used) and subsidiarity - the Oxford English Dictionary defines subsidiarity as the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level. Subsidiarity is a concept that is essential to both Catholics and Episcopalians. It was also fundamental in forming our own Constitutional system. So the tension between moving decisions down to the level where they are most appropriate and yet keeping the substantive doctrine close enough to have some common thought is constant.
What was most important to me about the report was its constant reference to charity - of treating the discussions and the people engaged in them with the respect and dignity they deserve.

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