By Lyndon Shakespeare
The cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz once remarked that you can learn as much about things by looking obliquely at their edges — where they come together with other things — as you can from looking at them directly, straight on. This is true whether the thing in question is an entire culture or the workings of a particular group or stratum of a community.
The recent episode surrounding the election of the Rev. Canon Mary D. Glasspool as bishop suffragan of Los Angeles, the press release from the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the chorus of critics who sang out in support of Canon Glasspool and against Rowan Williams provides an opportunity for the kind of “edge work” that Geertz recommends. To look at the edges of this episode is to pay attention to how critique is being practiced, how identity is functioning within the imagination of those who support the election, and how the place of power is recognized and unmasked through the words and deeds of the critics. In the process, our reflection on this moment may capture something of the character of critique, identity, and power within the Anglican Communion.
First, what are we to make of the place of critique — when one action corresponds to a specific response, followed by a cacophony of counter-responses?
Critique, political theorist Wendy Brown reminds us, is a term derived from the Greek, krisis. In ancient Athens, krisis was a term identified with the art of making distinctions: between true and false, genuine and spurious, right and wrong. It involved evaluating and eventually judging evidence, reasons and reasoning. As a legal term, krisis called for knowledge, deliberation and judgment in order to avoid error. In the day-to-day, critique may be deployed in deliberations on the political, social and religious landscape of our communities. Critique can be the breaking of silence in pursuit of freedom from tyranny. To be critical of an authority that demands illegitimate obedience remains an essential task for the oppressed and those who stand with them in solidarity. On the other hand, critique can also become a fetish where the mode of critique leads to its own kind of subjugation. In making distinctions — in offering judgment — the practice of critique can become a way of magnifying the unacknowledged power of the critic in service of the establishment of regulatory norms and symbolic power that become another tactic for suppressing alternative judgments.
This raises a quandary: what right or truth is being sought when the critique serves not just to embolden the critic and the critic’s position, but to secure a position that, when unacknowledged by others, breeds a collective suspicion of any person, group or community that would challenge the critique?
One more thing needs to be added to this account before providing further analysis. Is there an added value to critique when the party or community offering the critique shares a collective sense of being wounded? Allow me to explain. For the supporters of Canon Glasspool’s election, one common expression when referring to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s response was that of disappointment and anger. According to a popular petition on the social networking site, Facebook, Rowan Williams “failed to exercise moral leadership to protect gays & lesbians in Uganda and has instead exercised political pressure to attack a bishop-elect in Los Angeles because she is a lesbian.” The eventual denouncement of the proposed anti-gay legislation of Uganda by Williams notwithstanding, the message of disappointment and anger was supported by close to 4600 people within a week of the election. This disappointment is of course not new for supporters of full inclusion of gays and lesbians within every level of church life and leadership. The appeal from Williams for “gracious restraint” regarding episcopal elections is just one echo from the period following the election of The Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson in 2003. It is not an exaggeration to argue that a stratum of the Episcopal Church has been carrying the wounds of Williams’s invitation for such restraint for some time now.
This woundedness is a peculiar matter with regards to the dynamic of critique. Wendy Brown has analyzed the sense of woundedness within the American political imagination following the attacks on September 11. Brown notes that the call for unwavering patriotism in the aftermath of 9/11’s horrors bred appeals to the moral goodness and victimhood of America. When citizens voiced dissent to such patriotism or questioned the role of America in international affairs, the citizen or group was deemed un-American and this led to the simple declaration, “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.” America was wounded but America was good. Critique that sought to deliberate on this dual nature encountered the injury of dismissal. The wounded goodness of America was meant to generate sympathy. According to Brown, those who would offer critique of this status were faced with political aggression, thoughtlessness and public disdain. Consequently, critique generated suspicion within the public imagination the more America was identified with victimized innocence.
I would propose a parallel between the wounded goodness of America post-9/11 and the wounded state of supporters of Canon Glasspool. When considered against the chorus of critique against Williams, the woundedness of supporters in favor of further inclusion of gays and lesbians into every level of leadership with the Episcopal Church bred the kind of victimized innocence that, when faced with an invitation for restraint from the Archbishop of Canterbury, responded with what could be seen as political aggression. Questioning the authority of Williams and all future challenges to the freedom of dioceses to elect whomever they choose, the critics adopted rhetoric that communicated the place of a diocese to act and be itself, without remainder. For Williams not to acknowledge the power of the supporters of Canon Glasspool’s election was for Williams to be disaffected by the wounded goodness of these supporters. In this instance, the place of critique became the honored institution of one group and one group only. All other critique was a futile attack on the common identity and self-understanding of self-appointed deans of the true, the genuine and the right.
The difficultly with this stance is that it ignores how, while searching for equality and freedom, the critics who spoke against Williams adopted the kind of imperial conceit practiced by the federal government after 9/11. By attaching themselves to a discourse (i.e. a particular mode of speech and its related practices) that makes their social authority appear self-evident and beyond reproach, the supporters of Glasspool inoculated themselves from criticism either from within ECUSA or outside. This is a troubling place to find the manner of critique when the future shape of the Anglican Communion is at stake.
The focus of this brief analysis has been with the edges of one episode, not the larger arc of history. The critiques that were focused around Canon Glasspool’s election and Williams’s response have their own extended background and history. Additional analysis would certainly find the mode of wounded goodness functioning also within the ranks of critics opposed to Canon Glasspool and the general movement within the Episcopal Church since 2003. The benefit, however, of paying specific attention to one act within the greater drama is to bring from the edges a few interrelated segments of our common life in order to encourage a more open and honest engagement across the boundaries established by groups and coalitions within our corner of the body of Christ. Whether or not Canon Glasspool receives the necessary support from American bishops and standing committees is still to be determined. What is already apparent is that without some gracious restraint in the manner of totalizing critique, the long standing krisis within the Episcopal Church will not merely concern American bishops but our ability to seek knowledge, deliberation and judgment as members of Christ.Share on Facebook