Thursday 10 July 2008

Divided by untruth: why we are where we are today

How did we get to be the Church of England we are today — a Church where the Synod just voted to marginalise its Conservative and Traditionalist wings, whilst throwing the door open to Liberal and Revisionist movements?

The answer, I am persuaded, is a lack of theological coherence and integrity, despite having Scripture, Creeds, Articles and Prayer Book. We are like Israel before Josiah’s reforms. The book of the Law is there, but it is gathering dust. We pay lip service to our history, and to historical formularies, but in practice they mean nothing.

You can say one thing and believe and do another as much as you like (provided, now, you accept the ordination and consecration of women) and there is no theoretical limit to the responsibilities you might be given or the promotion you might receive.

Occasionally I have a look to see how traffic has come to my blog, and if the source looks interesting I’ll nip over there and see what is going on. Thus earlier today I found myself on Bishop Alan’s Blog, run by Alan Wilson, the Area Bishop of Buckingham.

There I found a thread headed ‘A Church of Navel Gazers?’, which quoted approvingly an article from the Daily Mail which accused the Church of England of neglecting its real mission for all this stuff about women and gays. Why, the writer asked, couldn’t the Church just accept both and get on with the job? And Bishop Alan entirely agreed.

The problem is, though, it surely depends on your understanding of Church, and therefore on your understanding of controversies within the Church. If the Church is a ‘rainbow coalition’ of theologies where we focus on tackling social issues, then I can see the point of the Mail article. But if the Church is ‘the pillar and bulwark of the truth’ (and according to my computer Bible, the word ‘truth’ occurs in 237 verses in the NIV translation, beating the word ‘poor’ by 60), then the issues which divide us are ‘mission issues’ (including on mission to the poor).

With this in mind, I posted a comment on the Bishop’s Blog thus:

Here’s a question. What doctrinal standards are set by the church’s selection and appointments process, and what doctrinal checks are made by bishops when they carry out their episcopal reviews of clergy?

I know of clergy who don’t believe in the virgin birth, and/or the physical resurrection for starters.

Does a bishop ever ask his clergy, “What is your gospel? What is your understanding of Christ’s nature? What will happen to the world at its end?”

I have never been asked a doctrinal question by a bishop by way of inquiry into my doctrine or manner of life. Ever.

If such questions were asked, then some of these other problems might not be so urgent, for unity is found finally in truth, as the Bible says and the Prayer Book has us pray: “We humbly beseech thee most mercifully ... to receive these our prayers ... beseeching thee to inspire continually the Universal Church with the spirit of truth, unity, and concord: And grant, that all they who do confess thy holy Name may agree in the truth of thy holy Word, and live in unity, and godly love.”

Where there is no agreement on the truth, there can be no unity. A divided Church needs to look to its doctrine, not to its divisions.

And here is Bishop Alan’s reply:

John, thanks for a sgnificant [sic] question that deserves an answer, though I’m not sure it will meet your particular requirements.

There are clergy, as you know, who are not Conservative Evangelicals, and since the 1860’s Clerical Subscription Acts there has been a formal degree of lattude [sic] to allow for honest divergence about epistemology and the meanngs [sic] of words. You may say Elizabeth I’s comment about “windowes into men's soules” has always, to a certain extent, applied. However, all clergy subscribe on every appointment and at ordination. Before ordination they are certified from their course or college in the form given in the ordination service. Before selection in this diocese we enquire as to their willingness to live according to Issues in Human Sexuality, and written assurance is sought and given in every sponsorship for which I am responsible. There is an issue about people’s integrity, of course, and we do not have an efficient thought police. You can challenge their integrity and they can challenge yours.

I am anxious that people who are appointed are people of faith. I don’t care whether they are high or low or Catholic or Evangelical, but I would be looking for people who bring faith to their work. My custom at interview is to give them a bible and five mnutes [sic] and tell them to get on with it. Usually appointment boards discover in this way what kind of a gospel people preach, and that is a significant question, surely, for any parsh ministry appointment.

Practce [sic] in different diocese may vary greatly, no doubt.

Finally I know what you mean about truth and unity, and on a human pelagian level, of course that will do. I need to say, however, that this is not a gnostic cult founded on propositonal [sic] truth. Unity is a gift of Christ arising uniquely from his blood shedding on the cross, not something you or I can create by signing up to checkboxes. I’m sure you didn't mean to imply otherwise.

Now I really can’t be bothered to unpick this, except to note that in our diocese there are clergy in active same-sex relationships who are deemed by our bishops to be adhering to Issues in Human Sexuality. It is so far from an adequate response, that it is simply not worth the effort. In any case, I think it is deeply patronising with its references to ‘thought police’ and pelagianism.

But it does confirm what I suspect — that our problem is not just of process but of principle. We are supposed to have standards. There ought to be some sense in which when you meet a member of the English clergy you can predict that he or she believes the Creeds in a way that corresponds more or less to their intention, and that they are not in significant conflict with the things they affirmed as bearing witness to the faith when they made their Declaration of Assent.

The trouble is, we know it isn’t true. Worst still, the bishops know it isn’t true. And worst of all, those they ordain and oversee know the bishops know it isn’t true. And so we collude in untruth.

Oddly enough, we are then divided.

John Richardson
10 July 2008

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  1. I dealt with this in an earlier post about the interpretation of articles of faith and you could not find a reply. I am delighted to find I have more in common with the bishop than with your view. You are simply not representative of anglican theology. It simply won't do for you to accuse those who believe differently from you of being either faithless, or dishonest, or not accepting the faith of the C of E.

  2. But madeline: John's point is that there ISN'T an operative Anglican theology to be representative of, except a vague 'faith'...

    It is theologically and morally bankrupt, because it means anything but what it says.

  3. Madeline

    Interpretation is so important. That is why I can understand your comment as agreeing with me.

  4. You REALLY don't like hearing the other point of view, do you? It's one thing to move within a closed-circuit of like-minded parishes, conferences and events. But when you put yourself out here you have to expect that those of us who don't move in that world will read and comment. There is another point of view, and it's been the majority C of E one for a long time. When you hear it put, you'll have to do better than a smart-arse comment about interpretation.

  5. Quiet, it is nice to see Madeline agreeing with traditionalists so fully.

    The other irony in Bishop Alan's response was that unity is by Christ's blood, not box ticking... except the box ticked for agreement with ordination/consecration of women.

    Of course to reply to Alan and Madeline, John etc. is more consistent with Anglican theology globally and historically. That's why synodical votes will look so sad from eternity.

    Darren Moore

  6. How sly of you to take a swipe at me, then not put on my post replying, but put on one from someone else disagreeing with my first point. The honest way to run a debate?

  7. B-W, Germany

    Yes, I think whoever is posting under the name Madeline has a very provincial view of anglicanism. Anyone who looks at the Anglican Communion worldwide can tell that it is basically theologically orthodox and protestant. There is a (diminishing) liberal constituency in North America and Europe of course, who unfortunately still have grasp of the instruments of power.

  8. Madeline,

    I'm tired of it. I'm not posting any more of your comments. It is better for you and for me.


  9. Madeline

    Just to explain a little further, as you are aware, all comments on this blog are moderated. This is time consuming for me, but it does mean I can eliminate anything which is potentially libelous. (At one stage, I did have to terminate one person's contributions as I was doubtful about their legality.)

    The way it is supposed to work is that I get an e-mail notifying me of a post. I check the post and then click a link to allow it to be published.

    Occasionally, though, it doesn't work and a comment is held in the queue without my knowing. That is what happened to the post of yours that I missed.

    Now, I have posted all your contributions so far, despite the fact that they are almost invariably negative, sometimes personally towards me, and despite the fact that you have never complied with a posting policy that only reflects what would be the case with letters to the press - a not-unreasonable requirement in my view.

    Unfortunately, one of your posts had this problem of notification-failure. You will see I have now posted it.

    The problem is, you were swift to accuse me of underhandedness, rather than simply asking 'Where is my post?' This put you in the wrong, by attributing false motives to me when you could have asked for clarification.

    I don't think your contributing to this blog is doing you any good. Nor do I have a moral obligation to publish every comment. On the contrary, in my job I have an obligation to try to keep people from doing what is not good for them.

    Consequently, I'm putting your contributions on 'hold'. I suspect this may confirm in your eyes what an awful person I am, but that is part of the trouble. By all means, therefore, continue to read this blog if you wish, but you will not be able to post in future. Probably, though, it would be better if you read something else.

    I can't think of any better way of putting this, and please believe I have no wish to cause you further upset.


  10. Hi John, I'm glad you visited Bishop Alan after I brought his letter to your attention - your thoughts have made for interesting reading. It's a shame about you and Madeline though - perhaps you can be reconciled at some point in the belief that iron sharpens iron and it is healthy for us to challenge each other.

    How do you feel about the latest proposed defection to Rome - Bishop Burnham? Will trad cons evangelicals really have more in common with Rome than the CofE?

    God Bless

  11. Dear John,

    Where on earth did you get the idea that I "entirely agree" with Stephen Glover? All I said is that he expresses a point of view that is hard to find in the church press, but I find very often among Conservatively minded people, ncluding regular churchgoers. I posted it to see what people made of it. I do, I think, understand where his basic priorities and feel emotional sympathy with it. I don't think his pragmatsm is adequate to solve everything. Answers to some of the issues he seems to dismiss entirely are part of supporting family life, for example.

  12. Bishop Alan

    I got the idea you agreed with Stephen Glover from your blog - though more from reading your responses to comments than the original post. "The source of this insight sticks a bit in my craw too, but it resonates deeply with what many of the people I serve have been saying to me recently. These incude many people who go to Church a lot more often than Stephen says he does; churchwardens and others of a basically traditional rather than traditionalist outlook who measure faith by the fruit of the Spirit. The whole liberal/traditionalist war strikes them as essentially futile. They don't welcome blatant change or trendy relativism, but they find what they call Fundamentalism ridiculous and Pharisaic. As I go around preaching the gospel and matters arising, I find great resonance with them."

    Perhaps the word 'entirely' was inaccurate. I did, though, feel there was an empathy with his views on 'the things tearing us apart', and I didn't feel your response to my questions dispelled this 'illusion'.

    So - doesn't episcopacy involve more vigilance about specific beliefs?

  13. John - I'm curious how much overlap there is between the conservative/traditionalists and GAFCON. Is it not fair to say that there are some in GAFCON who do not share the conservative/traditionalist concerns?

    Joe, Coventry

  14. Hi John - I greatly regret that you say of +Alan's post "It is so far from an adequate response, that it is simply not worth the effort."

    If +Alan is representative of the mainstream of the CofE (which I think he is, even if it isn't the mainstream of "the Anglican Communion", the truth of which is a separate debate) AND the truth is what sets us free, the Spirit leads us into all truth etc - then surely it's worth pursuing the truth for a little longer?

    BTW I remain troubled by the way that you identify all those who disagree with you as liberals. I don't think that's either accurate or fair (tho' obviously much depends on definition).

  15. Sam

    Not everyone who disagrees with me is a Liberal (a loose term in any case). There are, for example, the Charismatics. But the Liberals and I do disagree, that is clear - they with me as much as I with them.

    As to Bishop Alan's post, there are simply too many points to tackle, from the rhetorically unhelpful to the ecclesiologically eccentric and theologically dubious, and at the end I wouldn't persuade him or those who agree with him.

    I just do not find his view of ministry matches what I see in the Prayer Book ordinal - either the ministry of a priest or that of a bishop.

    As the Bishop pointed out, since the Tractarian controversies the Church of England, rightly or wrongly, has muddled along since allowing a divergence of opinion in matters of faith and practice.

    In 1993 we even decided that was possible over women priests.

    However, in 2008 the General Synod (not) the Church, voted through a policy, against the evident wishes and advice of its most senior bishops, to narrow the theological field at precisely this point (for, of course, the voted policy will also change the policy on women priests).

    That is an extraordinary move which might just have been acceptable if the Church had simultaneously resolved to return to some kind of effective doctrinal standards across the board, but it has not.

    The overall effect, therefore, will be to make the Church less Conservative and Traditionalist in flavour and therefore to strengthen the opposite influences (which I would indeed call Liberal).