Conference papers

and Martyn Percy on Bishop Gene Robinson

Editorial by Paul Badham

from Modern Believing, Vol 49:4 - Oct 2008

At the heart of this issue of Modern Believing is three long papers given at the MCU Conference on Saving the Soul of Anglicanism. This took place a week before the Lambeth conference. The Conference attracted a very high level of support and was sold out months in advance. Further papers from this conference will be published in future issues since there was such a feast of historical information about Anglicanism given at that conference.

The true soul of Anglicanism

Barry Morgan, Archbishop of Wales, was a brilliant conference Chair. His introductions to the speakers and the light touch whereby he guided the question and answer sessions contributed enormously to the success of the conference. The theme of his own paper: 'The Poetry of R.S. Thomas' when first seen on the conference programme or in the table of contents of this journal might seem at first somewhat tangential to the problematic issues confronting the Anglican Communion at the present time. Yet as he spoke and as one reads and re-reads his paper one realises that it is precisely the 'Soul of Anglicanism' with which the Archbishop is concerned. In discussing the thought of one of the greatest religious poets of the 20th century he recalls us to the reality of the divine-human encounter which lies at the heart of all religion and which has been especially dear to the mystical tradition within both the Welsh and English religious traditions.

At a time when some of our fellow Anglicans talk as if they know only too clearly how God thinks, what God thinks and how we should conform to His will, the poetry of R.S. Thomas reminds us of the elusive character of God's presence and how we find God not in our confident assertions but in the silence of wrestling with God in prayer. As such Thomas has much to teach us about the reality of the religious life today in which we live with uncertainties because we cannot pin God down. Christian theology at its best has always realised that we can describe what God is not rather than what He is. Anglicanism has historically been prepared to live with theological untidiness and diversity seeking to balance the insights of scripture, tradition and reason. It has been prepared to live with a spectrum of views without seeking to define things too narrowly or precisely. The poetry of R.S. Thomas had much to teach Anglicans and the Anglican Communion at the present time, torn apart as it appears to be, partly because it wants definitive answers and is not prepared to live with the questions and uncertainties which are an inescapable part of the human condition.

The Archbishop stressed how God cannot be limited by either the Church or the Bible. He endorsed Thomas's view that

History showed us
He was too big to be nailed to the wall
Of a stone chapel, yet still we crammed him
Between the boards of a black book.

God cannot be limited in this way and if we are to save the Soul of Anglicanism it is by attending to the experience of waiting upon God and recognising how he transcends all that we can say of Him.

That the present Archbishop of Wales began this MCU conference with a meditation on religious poetry was indicative of the approach of his predecessor as Welsh Archbishop, Rowan Williams at the subsequent Lambeth in organising a religious retreat to pave the way for the conference discussions.

Why the proposed Covenant is 'a very bad idea'

The second paper in this issue presents a brilliant analysis and critique of the documents which have been produced in response to the sex and gender crisis within the Anglican Communion. Canon Marilyn McCord Adams, Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University dissects The Windsor Report, the Nassau Draft Covenant, the St Andrew's Draft , and the GAFCON Report. She argues that the St Andrew's Draft Covenant is 'not fit for purpose' and argues persuasively that 'the idea of a 'pan-Anglican Covenant is a very bad idea'. It tramples on the Anglican tradition of autonomous national churches and the importance of the liberal tradition within Anglicanism. At the same time the GAFCON Report shows that despite its stress on biblical authority, no covenant would be conservative enough to satisfy the demands of the GAFCON group whose fundamentalist demands for 'Plain Sense Infallibility and Scriptural Submission' require a return to a 16th century understanding of the nature of the Bible's authority. We are grateful to Professor McCord Adams for enclosing key extracts from the various documents in an Appendix to her paper.

What we can learn from the Church of Ireland

The third paper in this issue in by Michael Jackson, Bishop of Clogher. He gives a succinct account of the distinctive history of the Anglican Church in Ireland and its distinctiveness from the Church of England. Drawing upon the experience of the Irish church he stresses the vital importance within Anglicanism of allowing diversity and giving permission to experiment. He believes that diversity is inevitable if one takes seriously all three strands of the Anglican theological method together and in creative and progressive tension: scripture, tradition and reason. He cogently argues that the proposed Covenant is extremely problematic. It seeks to steer a course between federalism and curialism, but Bishop Jackson is unconvinced that it avoids the latter. He believes that the draft documents lack pastoral sensitivity and feels that it if a Covenant is to happen at all it would be much more useful and helpful were it to take as its template something like the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1888, rather than by the more prolix alternatives currently on offer.

One very interesting feature of Bishop Jackson's paper is what he has learned from interfaith and intercommunion fellowship, particularly the latter and especially dialogue with the European churches in the Nordic-Baltic countries leading up to the Porvoo agreement. These discussions seek a genuinely fresh expression of church which takes seriously historic and personal episcopacy. It is a contemporary response, focused on the future, to the current untidiness of national churches founded and functioning differently from one another but all having emerged from the Protestant Reformation and having sought to maintain an episcopal polity. He believes that these discussions can contribute to the debate in the Anglican Communion today as this explores how different national churches with common traditions can work together in diversity and unity.

A response to 'The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion' and to Gene Robinson

The final article in this quarter's edition is a response by our former editor Professor Martyn Percy to the fascinating article on 'The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion' by Barney Hawkins and Ian Markham which we published in the July edition. He sensitively explores how history and culture share the different theological approaches and how such factors contribute to the current debate. What is particularly of interest in this article is Martyn Percy's reflections on Gene Robinson's book In the eye of the storm. He describes this as temperate, measured lucid and composed - a rather touching eirenic memoir, in fact, from a man who despite being at the centre of such controversy, and held responsible by many for the potential dismemberment of the Anglican Communion, is nonetheless keeping his cool. Indeed, Robinson's book should be understood as a kind of quintessentially Anglican polemic: the very embodiment of fervent detachment.

This seems to me a brilliant evaluation of Gene Robinson's contribution both in his book and in his person. His attendance throughout the MCU Conference was a great gift to that conference in that we could see him as an individual rather than as a symbol.

How different history might have been

In Martyn Percy's article he describes Gene Robinson as the first openly gay man to be called by an Anglican diocese to such a position. Reflecting on Marilyn Adams' paper we also note that TEC, in electing Gene Robinson to New Hampshire is held to have precipitated the crisis facing the Anglican Church at the present time. It is worth recalling that it is not strictly the case. Gene Robinson was not the first 'openly gay man' to be called to episcopal office within a diocese, though he was the first to be consecrated to such a position. It is worthwhile 'googling' Jeffrey John and reading through the BBC news reports for May and June 2003. These remind us that the Church of England had appointed Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading on 20 May despite the fact that he was known to have been in a gay relationship for the previous 27 years and that he saw it as a life-time commitment. Jeffrey John did not withdraw his acceptance of the bishopric of Reading until 6 July. What this means is that when the electors in New Hampshire chose an openly gay bishop on 7 June they were following the example of the 'mother church' of the Anglican Communion. The appointment of Jeffrey John had been suggested by the Archbishop of Canterbury's Appointments Secretary, Tony Sadler.[1] It was supported by his own diocesan at Southwark. The Bishop of Oxford reported his choice to Dr Rowan Williams who had no objection to it and passed the recommendation on to the Crown. A week after the appointment had been made the Archbishop was reported as affirming that faithful gay partnerships could be accepted within the Church and it was reported that he was determined to proceed with the consecration.[2] Hence at the time the electors of New Hampshire chose Gene Robinson, there was a legally appointed and openly gay bishop in England awaiting consecration. It is of course true that Jeffrey John's partnership which began in 1976 had ceased 'to find sexual expression in the 1990s'[3] and to that extent it differed from the partnership of Gene Robinson, but though this was seen as significant by the Bishop of Oxford, it was not a difference perceived by most churchpeople as being of any real importance.

It was also widely publicised at the time that it was an 'open secret' among senior clergythat two bishops appointed in the 1990s were privately gay.[4] To this extent the initial nomination of Jeffrey John and the actual consecration of Gene Robinson were giving official recognition to what was 'secretly' happening elsewhere. It is interesting to speculate how different the situation might have been for the Anglican communion today if Dr Williams had held to his initial decision to consecrate Dr John and not have allowed himself to be pressurised into persuading him to withdraw from an officially and properly constituted episcopal appointment within the Church of England.

An innovation within the GAFCON statement

It is part of the GAFCON case that they wish to be wholly loyal to the Anglican heritage as that was defined in the 39 Articles and they strongly oppose any interpretation of the bible or the Christian tradition which they regard as doctrinal innovations. However in the discussion of their draft Jerusalem statement it was decided at the last minute to include reference to judgement and hell. The doctrine of hell has of course long been a lamentable part of what many Christians have believed and in that sense it is not a new concept. However if one is defining what constitutes the deposit of faith required of Anglicans, hell is an innovation. Belief in hell was included in one of the draft 42 articles of religion but was one of three dropped when only 39 Articles of Religion were affirmed. For this reason the legal right of Anglican clergy not to believe in hell was upheld by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in 1864. Subsequently hell was finally repudiated by the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England as incompatible with belief in the love of God in their report on The Mystery of Salvation in 1995.[5]

A clarification concerning my article on the Craig-Flew Debate in the July edition

In his classic discussion of the arguments for the existence of God St Thomas precedes his well-known 'five ways' with two arguments against belief. The first was that since the concept of God implies 'limitless goodness', evil should not exist at all. 'But evil is encountered in the world, therefore God does not exist'. His second argument was that everything we observe within the world can be fully accounted by natural causes 'therefore there is no need to suppose that God exists'.[6] Nothing that Aquinas subsequently wrote takes away the reality of these two observations. Christians have always had to live with the 'problem of evil' and with the fact that belief in God is not a replacement of the search for natural explanations for what we encounter within the world.

In his discussion of the fine-tuning of the universe Craig uses the fact that there is 'no physical reason why these constants and quantities possess the values they do'[7] as his clinching argument for the existence of God. I should have made it clear that I do not follow him on this point. I believe that physicists should continue to do all in their power to continue to search for the unifying physical principle which draws all these constants of nature together. Nietzsche was rightly critical of those who place 'into every hole in our knowledge, their stop-gap, their illusion they call "God"'[8]. Belief in God is not a replacement for detailed scientific explanation, it goes alongside it. Our wonder at the 'fine-tuning' of the universe should only be enhanced when we eventually discover 'how God did it'. As a matter of history the belief in a Creator God in medieval Europe was the trigger for the development of modern science here. The founders of the Royal Society wanted to think God's thought after him, and I support Hawking's belief that if and when we discover a unifying principle then we will know more of the 'mind of God'[9].

The next edition of Modern Believing

When the Standing Committee of the Modern Churchpeople's Union met with Archbishop Rowan Williams two years ago he urged us to include more discussion of contemporary continental theology. In accordance with this suggestion the January edition will be edited by a colleague of mine from Tubingen, Dr Johannes Hof and will include some specially commissioned articles representative of modern German theology.

Further articles from the conference on the Soul of Anglicanism will be included in later editions.

Notes

  1. BBC News, 22 June 2003 [back]
  2. BBC News, 27 May 2003 [back]
  3. The Guardian, 20 June 2003 [back]
  4. BBC News, 22 June 2003 [back]
  5. Doctrine Commission, The Mystery of Salvation (London: Church House Publishing, 1995), p199. [back]
  6. St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologia 1a, 2, 3. [back]
  7. Stan Wallace, Does God Exist: the Craig-Flew Debate (London: Ashgate, 2003), p2. [back]
  8. F. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961), p116. [back]
  9. Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (London: Bantam, 1988), final sentence. [back]

Revd Prof Paul Badham is Emeritus Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David (Lampeter Campus) and a Modern Church Vice-president.