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by Anthony Woollard
from Signs of the Times, No. 36 - Jan 2010
The first part of this issue is devoted to the memory of Simon Tebbutt, a longstanding member of MCU and of its Council who died in the autumn. As a relative newcomer, I never knew Simon well myself; but the testimonies that follow show him as a fine example of the combination of generosity and rigour which characterises the Union at its best. As father of our Vice-Chair, Rosalind Lund, he can even claim to have started an MCU dynasty. We owe it to the memory of such as Simon to carry on our work in the spirit he demonstrated, and to draw new and not least younger people into our endeavours.
There has certainly been no let-up in the work that needs to be done. Debate on the Anglican Covenant continues. We have seen the Revision Committee on the legislation for women bishops reverting at one stage to proposals, rejected by General Synod, which would seem to condemn any future women bishops (and their "tainted" male episcopal supporters) to permanent second-class status - and though, in the end, they withdrew that recommendation, we can be sure that there will be resumed pressure to give "real" (ie untainted male) bishops what amounts to a privileged position. For those Anglicans for whom even these generous gestures towards conservatism are insufficient, the Pope offers what amounts more or less to a Uniate Anglican Church. There is no shortage of liberal protest, but any sampling of media reaction to these developments makes it pretty clear how the Church of England is now regarded in parts of the nation at large: a body which manages to be woolly and fundamentalist at the same time, and on both counts is unworthy of the attention of thinking people.
The old points of debate between liberals and conservatives, such as evolution, have not gone away - indeed they have come back with a vengeance in some quarters. But most of the conservatives who are making so much noise at present are probably not creationists. They do however need to look to their principles of Biblical hermeneutic. Take the member of a traditionalist Anglo-Catholic church who is reported as saying: "You can't change the word of God - Jesus chose twelve male apostles". Even leaving aside the awkwardness that the Twelve were apparently also all Jews, what questions that raises about the interpretation and use of Scripture, and about the levels of teaching of both our laity and our ordinands!
The MCU website (see later in this issue) includes a paper by our General Secretary responding to the current state of this debate, with particular reference to the Revision Committee's proposals on women bishops, and another responding to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Durham on the idea of "twin-track Anglicanism". We recognise that there is a continuing need for theological debate to get to the root of our divisions - a debate in which we are uniquely placed to provide intellectual leadership to the liberal cause, alongside the more activist contributions of bodies such as Inclusive Church.
Sadly, our opponents, where they join in rigorous debate at all, argue from such different premises that it is unclear how progress can be made. Yet we should remember that (as Jonathan points out in his paper on the Revision Committee) churches do change. It was the struggle of our ancestors in the MCU which made possible that notably inclusive report in the 1930s, Doctrine in the Church of England, which set the tone of our Church and our Communion for a generation. And Diarmaid McCulloch's magisterial History of Christianity, recently published, paints a notably upbeat picture of the way the Churches have evolved and coped with their deep-rooted divisions and conflicts, and the hope for a more liberal future.
Perhaps an Anglican Covenant really may be the only way forward - but not a covenant as now envisaged, binding members to a level of agreement which in the Christian world portrayed by McCulloch is simply unobtainable. Might not something more like the Anglican-Methodist Covenant be a better way? That Covenant does not force Methodists to accept episcopacy (or a leadership structure biased towards the male gender) nor yet a particular attitude to homosexuality; nor does it force Anglicans to accept the theological emphases of John Wesley or any other visions which may grow within Methodism. It speaks of growing together in fellowship and co-operation (and intercommunion) whilst the integrity of each party is maintained.
We need that approach. If biodiversity is a good thing ecologically, perhaps (to coin a word) pneumatodiversity - diversity in the Spirit - has an equal place, and that lesson is surely reinforced by McCulloch's book. Paul Bagshaw's article below illustrates the paradox that the Anglican Church of North America, a creation of the conservative backlash, may be developing a sounder local ecclesiology that that of traditional Anglicanism, from which we could learn. In sacramental theology, also, we may deplore (as Jonathan does in one of his papers) the almost voodoo-like approach of some conservatives, whilst acknowledging some value in their witness that the "givenness" of the Sacraments matters to the Gospel.
It is less easy - far less easy - to see what function the prevailing attitudes amongst conservatives to women and gays (let alone transgendered people, on which see Mark Dalby's book review below) can play in the Divine ecology. Perhaps the best we can do is to take them as a harsh reminder that most societies and cultures remain deeply muddled about matters of gender and sexuality, in one direction or another, and hence a challenge to us to sharpen our theological thinking about them. We may be pretty sure that the conservatives are getting it wrong, but can we be equally sure that the liberals, religious or secular, are in every respect getting it right? For that reason, as a member of the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Sexuality, I have no hesitation in commending the conference on "Sexuality and Human Flourishing" in Birmingham on 6 February, for which a flyer is enclosed.
Compared to all the above, debates about the MCU's constitution and its future name may seem to smack of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. But if, as I firmly believe, the Titanic can be saved provided that we can find the right structures to put in place, then such discussions are a little more important than that. The report of the last MCU Council meeting which follows may help to set them in context.
Last but not least in this busy theological and administrative whirl may I draw your attention to John Saxbee's new book (flyer enclosed). We should never take for granted in MCU the fact that we have a President who is prepared to speak out and argue in the highest councils of the Church but can also communicate with, inform, entertain and inspire the rest of us. This is no small gift that we have been given in these challenging times.
Anthony Woollard is editor of Signs of the Times. He taught Theology at William Temple College before entering the Civil Service where he spent most of his career in the the Department of Education.