Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Review of "Rescuing the Church from Consumerism" by the Rev'd. Dr. Mark F.M. Clavier

In his new book published by SPCK the Rev’d Dr. Mark F.M. Clavier addresses the problem of consumerism. This phenomenon is presented as not only the spirit of the age, but also as the religion of the age, complete with its own value system, sacraments, and rites of passage. In beautiful prose, Fr. Clavier laments the effects of consumerism on individuals, society, and the planet. Unfortunately, the one body that can offer a real, viable alternative to the religion of consumerism, namely the Church, has, according to Fr. Clavier, succumbed to consumerism by adopting practices and techniques that cater to consumeristic culture rather than correct it. But far from being merely descriptive, “Rescuing the Church from Consumerism” is also, as implied in the title, prescriptive. It not only diagnoses one of the main problems afflicting the Church and the world today, but also offers suggestions for the Church to free itself from the consumeristic spirit and reclaim its true identity so it, in turn, may be a viable prophetic witness to a world lost in the mire and hopelessness of consumerism. The solution, according to Clavier, is for the Church to reclaim its true identity as the “household of God.” The Church should strive to be a body where people immersed in the throw-away, narcissistic culture of consumerism can come and find a true home and identity that is rooted in the love of God. In the final chapter of his book Clavier gives some principles for Christian communities to develop into a truly “domestic” church. These include such things as being faithful to its own tradition and being a community that is truly rooted in worship and liturgy. All in all the main body of “Rescuing the Church from Consumerism” is interesting and thought-provoking.

The reader should be aware that the book assumes a familiarity with the concept of consumerism. This is evident by the fact that Fr. Clavier never really defines what consumerism is. Opening the book with at least a working definition of consumerism would have been very helpful to avoid ambiguity. The book is also more sociological than religious in content and outlook. Indeed the Bible is quoted hardly at all in the entire book. And rather than locating the problem of consumerism in, say, “greed” - one of the traditional ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ - or even in human sin in general he instead blames consumerism mostly on evil “corporations.” Though he does quote the occasional Church Father, Anglican Divine, and Medieval theologian here and there, one would think that a book written by a priest who did a doctorate in St. Augustine, and who is involved in clergy training and pastoral ministry would be more biblical and theological - religious - than sociological in outlook. Indeed one has to wonder exactly how a person who did a doctorate in an early Church Father from North Africa is even qualified to write a book that is essentially sociological in nature. So while it is a very interesting and even timely book, the reader should note that this is not a devotional work but more of a scholarly “religious sociology/social commentary” type of book.

Anglicans of the “continuing” tradition should also be aware at the outset that Fr. Clavier is very critical of us in his preface. This is perhaps the most perplexing part about the entire book. Even though it has little to nothing to do with his thesis Fr. Clavier decides to drag the church of his birth and ordination through the mud in his autobiographical preface. He states variously that continuing Anglicans are “backwater” cave-dwelling Anglicans who are not interested in evangelism, or contemporary trends in theology, and who are fundamentally misguided. Interestingly, however, he did not hesitate to promote his book to us so we could buy it and get our people to as well. His bizarre comments about how we have not taken seriously or been affected by the liturgical movement are easily proven wrong, as is his suggestion that continuing Anglicans do not read anyone writing after C.S. Lewis or Dorothy Sayers. While that may have been true of him, it is certainly not true of the rest of us. Case in point: he references the famous University of Pennsylvania philosopher, Philip Reiff’s seminal work The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Does Fr. Claver know that the Rev’d Dr. Clarence “Chip” Sills, Ph.D, a priest of our diocese, and former university level philosophy professor, is an expert on Reiff and was responsible for getting him to lecture at the U.S. Naval Academy a number of years back? Probably not. What is further very strange is how Dr. Clavier contrasts the current demoralized state of the Church of England with the excitement and exuberance of the church of his birth, and how he does not seem to connect the dots between the former’s wholesale embrace of modernity and its current state of deadness with the latter’s continuance of the classical Anglican tradition and its exuberance and excitement. And for all of the criticism that he dishes out for us reading “out of date” theologians and using older liturgical forms he does a great job of quoting those out-of-date writers and referencing the Prayer Book throughout the book. If they are out-of-date and part of “backwater Anglicanism” then why does he reference them throughout his book? Finally, the very type of solutions he proposes to turn back the tide of consumerism in the Church and the world seem to characterize what we in the continuing Church are are and try to inculcate: the household church; worship that is both accessible but also transcendent; fellowship; ministries; etc. So it seems to me that despite the bleak and horribly inaccurate picture he paints of continuing Anglicanism in his preface (which, by the way, may be read for free on that according to his own reasoning we are a Church that is getting things more right than wrong with regard to the problem of consumerism.

On a personal level, one can only feel hurt at having promoted in good faith a book on a timely subject by a former rector of the parish when asked by him so to do without any warning of the antagonistic content of the preface. Is he pleasing his overlords in the Church of England, or does Dr. Clavier merely have a bone to pick with the continuing Church, perhaps because of his father’s well-known dismissal from the ordained ministry years ago? I would tend to think that the latter is the case, and therefore that Dr. Clavier abides by the motto “Revenge is a dish best served cold.”

I remember when Fr. Clavier addressed diocesan synod years ago just before moving to England to begin his doctoral work. Choking up, he spoke of how wonderful the Church was and how it would always hold a special place in his heart. He was sent off with a standing ovation by everyone present. How very odd that now, years later, and from halfway around the world he decides to mount a mean-spirited and unwarranted attack that is full of inaccuracies and relates not one bit to the thesis of a book that he wrote to us to promote! How very odd indeed.

1 comment:

  1. Gordon,

    I just read your review of my book and felt I ought to contact you rather than let the hurt I apparently caused lie.

    First, I appreciate your review of the book proper. I deliberately took a sociological approach because those were the works that got me thinking about the subject, as well as Augustine whom I discuss in chapter 1. A great deal more discussion of theologians--Rowan WIlliams, Martyn Percy, etc--comes in the final section of the book as well as the Scriptural basis for my arguing that the Church needs to be the household of God. There was even more in my original draft, but the work had to be cut by a third to satisfy the publishers.

    But to the preface...I'm truly sorry it hurt you as it did, not least because it was intended partly to be a tribute. I hold no ill-'will or rancour towards the Continuing Movement, and my references to it being a 'backwater' were all intended to be read in light of my opening image of Columbanus: the Irish Church was a backwater Christendom despite it being the bright light of devotion and scholarship, too. And, yes, my referring to my missing out on all those changes and reforms was a reference to me....though I suspect were you to take up ministry in the Church of England, you'd feel like the Ghost of Christmas Past as well! There is a tremendous amount of nonsense that the CC has missed due to its insularity...again, not unlike early medieval Ireland. That is why, to use your image, the 'dots connect' absolutely in my mind between that reference and my use of those out-of-date theologians. Incidentally, I'm introducing my students to many of those out-of-date theologians!

    And your judgement at the end of your long paragraph is spot on, which again is why I conjured up Columbanus at the start.

    It's probably well to remember that the book was written, by necessity, especially for British consumption. In many ways, classical Anglicanism is an even fainter echo here than in the States. Moreover, no one much here has ever heard of the Continuing Movement, and most would find the idea of it many do any form of Anglicanism that's not Established or embedded in a culture.

    I've had very good feedback from people within the Continuing Church, especially to my preface (actually, almost all the feedback has been about the preface). I've even had one person previously unaware of the Continuing Church ask me about the movement because my preface piqued his curiosity.

    Be that as it may, I am very sorry that it caused you offense, not least because I consider you a friend. But I hope sincerely that the above explanation has gone some way towards helping you understand my intentions, however poorly they may have been conveyed.

    Your and St Alban's remain as ever in my prayers.