Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Revisionism or rediscovery?

There's been a lot of hot air circulating around the Church of England's General Synod discussions on women bishops. You can read about the debates and issues elsewhere, so I won't rehearse the well-worn paths here. The question I've been thinking about is change; specifically how under what circumstances might a community change its view on an important issue whilst doing justice to its source documents (in the church's case, the Bible) and its long-established traditions (which some will want to respect more than others).

So I'd like to take you to the world of late 60s / early 70 rock albums. [If you don't want to go there, skip to the conclusion] I have just got myself a copy of the 40th anniversary edition of In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson, originally released in 1969. Back then, recording a complex multi-tracked album was quite a challenge, as the tape recorders in the studio at that time could only record 8 tracks. If you required more than that, then you had to do a 'bounce', which was mix some of the tracks you had already recorded together and record that mix onto 1 (or sometimes 2 for stereo) tracks on another machine. You could then add some more recordings on the vacant tracks. In the Court... required more than one of these.

Teccies reading this will know the problems. A 'bounce' locks the mix - the relative volume levels of the instruments and voices on the separate tracks that are combined, and the sound quality degrades a little every time you make a tape to tape copy.

In 2009, all the original recordings tracks with the individual instruments and voices from different tape reels were transferred to digital, and synchronised. It was then possible to mix the album as if it had been recorded on modern multitrack equipment, with the producer able to control the individual levels of every recorded track. The result received a lot of critical acclaim, especially when compared to some other remaster/remix releases. The definition and clarity are much better, and you can hear things that were hard to make out on the vinyl (or even CD) of the originial.

The question is which is the real album? Is it the 2009 version, with all its improved sound quality, or is it the 1969 version, mixed at the time? Die-hard fans might say that it's OK to get rid of the pops, crackles and turntable noise of the vinyl and move to CD, but the remix is, in effect, a revision which makes it a new album. Others would say that the 2009 version has enabled them to hear things which were always there, but had been lost or downplayed in all the copying and bouncing in the orginal release. For them it's a clearer interpretation of what Robert Fripp, Greg Lake and co were trying to do in the studio.

[Non-teccies resume here] Here's the thought: what if we thought about the debates in the Church today in similar terms. Theological conservatives are like those who stick with the 1969 mix, preferably on vinyl, although eliminating pops and crackles via CD might be tolerated. It's what we always had, so it's correct. Others might say that revisiting the source material enables you to hear things that have been missed. Perhaps the emphases in the original obscured some things that were important. For example, slavery was seen as OK for centuries by Christians, but Wilberforce listened harder to the tradition and heard liberation. Words like 'liberal' and 'revisionist' are used a lot to accuse those who advocate change, but sometimes they might simply be rediscovering what was always there in the first place.

And we also need a bit of humility about the sources and traditions we have. Robert Fripp and his 2009 engineer had the original tapes; we don't have video or sound of Jesus, or of the earliest Christian worship and church life. In a sense the writing of Scripture, the forming of the Canon and the writings of the early church are all 'bounces' of an original set of sayings, incidents and events that we have no direct verbatim record of. Revisiting the tradition and asking "does it really mean that now?" might seem revisionist to some; to others it equates to asking the question "have we got the right?".


Fr Matthew McMurray said...

You and I both know that we will disagree on the question of women in the episcopate, so I feel it would be futile to engage specifically in a "Should they/shouldn't they" argument.

I liked the kind of thinking behind your analogy, but I don't see how it would convince somebody like me who is a traditionalist on this issue.

With the two recordings--(I would buy the new one incidentally if I knew who you were talking about! ;) --the essential content remains the same. Yes, we hear things more clearly but we are hearing the same thing. Nothing essentially has changed.

The consecration of women to the episcopate (and I suppose women's ordination in general) is a fundamental change in the nature of ordination that we have received.

There are some advocates--not all, I hasten to add--who don't care about the tradition. They would see the tradition as inherently patriarchal--thus wrong--and want to correct something that needs changing, reflecting the progress we have (largely) made in liberal Western society.

Others might argue that perhaps the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing and might quote part of Deutero-Isaiah to back up that idea. (Isaiah 43:18-19 'Forget the former things...See, I am doing a new thing.') forgetting that we are also told to "remember the former things" in 46:9.

Others might be more neutral but don't see any particular reason to oppose it.

Your analogy suggests (by extrapolation) that the ordination/consecration of women will give us a better quality version of the same ministry: suggesting that nothing essentially has changed.

I am not sure that that is an argument that can be made. Is it?

Fr Matthew McMurray said...

(not meant confrontationally)