The Way We Live Now

kairos, koinonia and adiaphora


The Greeks undoubtedly had a word for it, and, over the last thirty years or so, the theological liberals have not been slow to take advantage of the fact. Every novelty has its own neologism. Take three examples: kairos, koinonia and adiaphora. They have all played their part in the on-going campaign to get women consecrated and gays wed.

Kairos first.

‘Kairos’, we ignorant traditionalists were sententiously told, is quite different from chronos. The latter is time as she is measured; the former denotes a particular time, a significant moment. Chronos is the interminable sequence of ‘begats’, lined up like trolleys in a supermarket; Kairos is the one-off, earth shattering event, when the penny drops and all is made plain.

In the matter of women’s ordination, of course, we are said to have reached a kairos. What was not clear to previous generations is now (or should be!) self-evident to all. Women’s ordination is an idea whose time has come.

Bishop Richard Holloway expressed the notion in characteristically gung-ho fashion in a personal letter to me in June 1989, at a time when things were not looking particularly rosy for the innovators:

‘The opponents may constantly win the argument and for the foreseeable future impede the progress of the idea, but history will show that they have been throwing sand against the wind... I am happy to let history decide the matter and I have no doubt at all that you and those who think like you will one day be shown to have been trying to sweep back the tide of God.’

Sweeping back the tide of God! Strong language which betrays the internal weakness of the kairos notion. There are two salient problems.

The first is that ‘a kairos’, in this sense, can only be identified retrospectively. It logically awaits the judgement of history. A good deal of chronos needs to have passed before a kairos can be declared! Prospectively, as used by Holloway, the notion is merely a sophistical sort of insult: the brutal assertion that one’s opponent is less percipient than oneself.

The second problem, for those who, like Holloway, argue for women’s ordination, gay marriages, and the rest simply as matters of justice, is an element of ethical incoherence. The post-Christian theologian Daphne Hampson puts the problem succinctly:

‘It is being suggested, is it, that God saw nothing wrong with the past situation in which only men could be ordained? That God has perhaps changed His mind? The kairos approach makes God both immoral (if God saw nothing wrong with the previous sexism of the church’s stance) and fickle. ..[it] can only be morally credible if one fails to see in sexism the evil which it is.’ [Theology and Feminism, pp23-24.

Then there is koinonia.

The Greek term (which implies a degree of intimacy - one of its primary meanings is sexual union) has paradoxically been employed to replace ‘communion’ at a time when the latter term had been successively devalued. Before the ordination of women as priests and bishops (in such phrases as ‘in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury’) there was no doubt what the term meant. It asserted a full recognition of orders and interchangeabilty of ministry - in ecumenical terms ‘a reconciled common ministry’ [viz GS1202, pp14-15]. Now that such a state of affairs no longer subsists among Anglicans obfuscation has become necessary. And koinonia has been made to fit the bill.

Two contradictory elements have been fused: an increasing stress on the sufficiency of the baptismal covenant, and an emphasis on relations within the Holy Trinity itself.

‘If you will not ordain us, do not baptise us’ goes the feminist slogan. But there are obvious problems when the bishop as agent and focus of unity and assurance of orthodoxy is displaced by an undue emphasis on baptism. And those problems have surfaced in the Windsor Report. The Report claims to be dealing with ‘the unity of the Church, the communion of all its members with one another and the radical holiness to which God’s people are called…’ (Sect. A para 3). But it rapidly descends into loose talk about ‘bonds of affection’:

‘The communion we enjoy as Anglicans involves a sharing in double ‘bonds of affection’: those that flow from our shared status as children of God in Christ, and those that arise from our shared and inherited identity, which is the particular history of the churches to which we belong. …All those called by the gospel of Jesus Christ and set apart by God’s gift of baptism are incorporated into the communion of the Body of Christ. This communion is primarily a relationship with God, who is himself a communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and it binds every member of Christ into the whole body.’ [Sect B, para 45]

By a curious alchemy what was objective (the bishop as focus of unity, and the expression of that unity by the interchangeability of ministry in his college of priests) has become subjective (bonds of ‘convenantal affection’ based on a ‘shared and inherited identity’). The subjective, moreover, in all its vagueness and contingency, has been elevated (by analogy with the communion of the persons of the Sacred Trinity) to a level both divine and ineffable. In short, by a spell of the Magician’s Apprentice, less has become more!

Finally, there is adiaphora.

The word means ‘indifferent’, in the sense of inessential – or, in the words of the bishops in a recent American heresy trial, ‘not core doctrine’.

The Windsor Report links subsidiarity with adiaphora. ‘The more something is regarded as "indifferent", the more locally the decision can be made,’ the Commission cheerfully concludes. ‘It does not take an Ecumenical Council to decide what colour flowers may be displayed in church; nor does a local congregation presume to add or subtract clauses from the Nicene Creed.’ [Sect A para 38]

How simple it all seems! But again there is a problem. The Report, after all, cites the ordination of women as priests and bishops as an exemplum for handling forthcoming disputes in the Communion. Yet, in that very case, what had been previously defended by Anglicans as essential (the Apostolic Ministry as received from the Apostle’s time) was, for reasons of political convenience, summarily redefined as adiaphora. Provinces which could not receive the ministry of priests or bishops from other provinces were encouraged, nevertheless, to remain in ‘the highest possible degree of communion’. And a decision which the Pope declared to be beyond the capacity [facultatem] of the Catholic Church is required to be settled, individually, by every PCC in England.

With such a mindset, who can doubt that it is only a matter of ‘chronos’ before an Archbishop’s Commission recognises the ‘kairos’ which has rendered the Catholic Creeds and the Canon of Scripture to be ‘adiaphora’? the interests, naturally, of a deeper and wider ‘koinonia’.


Geoffrey Kirk is the Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark

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