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by Stephen Parsons
from Signs of the Times, No. 46 - Jul 2012
In the aftermath of the defeat of the Covenant proposals by the Church of England, one is tempted to misquote a statement about the British electorate made immediately after the last General Election. 'The Church of England has spoken but it is not clear what it has said.' Certainly it is hard to see a way forward for the Church when the message of the vote by dioceses contains so many implicit negatives about the church today. We can read the vote as a protest against a creeping authoritarianism in the church or an instinctive distaste for a right wing flavoured homophobia from other parts of the church both here and abroad. There is also a sense that the Covenant itself might create a schism within Anglicanism far more profound than the one we are supposedly being protected from by the approval of the Covenant document.
It is, I believe, still possible to interpret the rejection of the Covenant proposals in a positive light. Perhaps instinctively those voting against the proposals are struggling to articulate a traditional yet at the same time a 21st century way of being Anglican. Recent debates have of course re-emphasised the ways in which there are divisions in many key areas of Church life. But we must not forget how Anglicanism at its best has always sought to present itself as a via media, a mean between extremes. It is also a church that has sought historically from the days of Elizabeth 1 to live with and indeed positively embrace difference in theology and practice. It has always tried to promote respect for opposing points of view, recognising that no one individual or school can contain the entire body of truth.
Looking back over my own personal journey within the Anglican Church, I can recognise many influences that have allowed me to hold on to the via media ideal, one which seems little articulated today. During the time of my formation as a priest in the 60s, students were encouraged to immerse themselves in other manifestations of Christianity as a way of learning about their own place within the whole. In short they were encouraged to embrace what is different. For myself I had the privilege to learn at some depth about the Orthodox tradition. Later I was also exposed to the Charismatic style of spiritual expression. Neither tradition is very visible in me at present but both flow as an undercurrent within the whole that is my personal Christian identity of today. Paradoxically both traditions meet in their reluctance to tie Christian experience down to verbal formulae. Such a statement might seem strange to many currently within these traditions. But Orthodoxy and the Charismatic movement in the 60s and 70s had then a more gentle feel about them. Orthodoxy in particular was able to appeal to many Anglicans of my generation in the way that it spoke of mystery and the notion of apophatic theology. This was a way of speaking about God that emphasised the limitation of language in talking theology. In the same way the Charismatic experience at its best led one into experiences of God where words seemed of little importance.
Many Anglicans look back with nostalgia for the days of Archbishop Michael Ramsey and the way that in spite of, or perhaps because of, his unworldliness he spoke to many of God. His writings show a profound grasp of biblical insights as well as the writings of the Christian Fathers who predate the schism between East and West. The crises at that time facing the Anglican Church were less seismic than those faced by his present successor but one could say that during Ramsey's tenure of office the Anglican Church maintained a closer relationship to the via media ideal than we see today. Anglican conversations with Methodists, Reformed, Catholics and Orthodox were all well sustained because each of these groups was able to see within Anglicanism aspects of theology which reflected their own theological searching for truth. There were real hopes up to the mid-80s that theological convergence and ecumenical union could be a concrete reality. This high tide of ecumenical optimism and hope has in recent years collapsed so that the ecumenical enthusiasms of an earlier generation have largely disappeared into a memory. One factor to account for this collapse may be the widespread acceptance of a popular understanding of post-modern ideas. This would indicate that there is no purpose in transcending or reconciling different theological perspectives because it is felt important that different truths must each be given their own space. Dialogue becomes less important in this atmosphere and we easily descend into an acceptance of theological divergence and consequent competition.
The traditional Anglican way of doing theology was a gentle humble one and it has proved no match for the powerful, even strident, methods in theological debate that have entered the churches in the past thirty years. In particular we have the influence of a confident but inflexible American conservative Protestant theology, one which seeks to be the dominant Christian voice in the world. In simple terms this conservative gospel of American Christianity has been presented and often well received in many countries of the world, including our own. Its influence is particularly strong in Africa and journalists who have studied the ultra-conservative statements emanating from Anglican African bishops have been able to trace the flow of money from American right-wing political foundations to these same prelates. Many would-be African Christian leaders have benefitted from generous scholarships to conservative Bible schools in the States. Such institutions present little in the way of Anglican moderation and the ability to affirm the 'dignity of difference'. The conservative American gospel proclaims a dependency on the Bible but the political issues that are raised in the biblical expositions make it clear that the Bible is being read to suit a pre-existing political agenda particularly on sexual issues. It is ironic that among the honourable exceptions to this somewhat bleak picture of conservative Christian dominance in the States is the Anglican church, ECUSA. This small Anglican body presents a moderate liberal inclusive voice in many places but it has become the target of a great deal of vitriol, even hatred from fellow Anglicans in other parts of the Communion.
The claims of the GAFCON leaders meeting in April 2012 to represent true Anglicanism has little basis in reality. The one-sided use of Biblical texts against women and same-sex relationships flies right at the heart of Anglican method and practice. The via-media ideal of Anglicanism can never tolerate a setting where only one point of view is heard. Excluding not only the arguments of those who do not agree with their ideas but also their physical presence means that a recognisable Anglican spirit is completely absent at GAFCON meetings. In passing one notes that the energy of the meeting comes largely from the vehemence of the opposition to absent enemies, the liberals, the gays and the feminists. The same energy was galvanised in previous generations of conservative Christian groups in their opposition to Communists, New Age practitioners and pagans.
Anglicanism at its heart is a way of doing theology and practising Christianity that is tolerant, open, inclusive and enquiring. Theologically this style of being Christian roots itself in an awareness that Anglicanism only ever claimed to be part of the Catholic church and that the Church Catholic was far bigger than this one manifestation. In essence the Anglican position was to say that their church represented a 'work in progress' rather than a complete manifestation of a 'true' church. Traditional Anglican theologians from Hooker to Ramsey have felt free to draw on the full range of Christian writings from the Bible to the Fathers in formulating their understanding of what it means to be an Anglican Christian. This sense of provisionality could be seen to be as a weakness to those who want Christian doctrine to be defined and fixed. But for others it represents a joyous freedom to be discovering and rediscovering the meaning of God across a range of cultures and languages. Creativity within theology is part of the glorious legacy of Anglican writing. It is open to writers who want to focus on scripture and scripture alone but equally it gives honour to writers such as our own Archbishop Rowan who find solace and inspiration in the writing of the Russian Sergius Bulgakov.
The vote against the Covenant can perhaps be interpreted as a gut reaction away from the attempt to define Anglicanism in formulae involving the potential exclusion of other Anglicans. It can also be interpreted as a reaching back to a time when Anglicanism was a more generous open way of doing Christianity. If we are to go forward from this point, perhaps then we need to encourage individuals within our church to articulate once again the meaning of this style, this spirit of doing Christianity. If there is any message for a new Archbishop of Canterbury in this article, perhaps it would be a plea that he could encourage in a more open way these essential Anglican values. The difficult task might be finding a way to stand up against the pressures that inevitably crowd up against and fight these values of openness, creativity and provisionality. We need a prophetic leader who can encapsulate in themselves this spirit of true Anglicanism and trust that the followers will recognise this as what they understand as their faith and want to follow it.
Stephen Parsons is a retired priest living in Northumberland.