HE RECENT TV SERIES, Jewish Law, concentrating on the Manchester Beth Din, was a fascinating insight into an Orthodox Judaism that for most people is a kind of parallel universe, in which all conduct is governed by rules and regulations. AA Gill, writing in the Sunday Times, described them as ‘closely resembling organized, collective compulsive-obsessive behaviour’. It was, he said, ‘touching’ but also ‘staring bonkers with ringlets on’.
Yet is has helped to preserve the Jewish identity over three millennia, with a mixture of custom and culture, family life, and the practice of religion, and among those who observed it with the greatest rigour there was humour and – especially at the festival of Purim – the mad relaxation of an extreme mardi gras.
It obviously enhanced their religion rather than obscuring it, but it might not have done. It recalled the warning Jesus gave to those who tithed ‘mint and cumin, and neglected the weightier matters of the law’ (Matthew 23.23). And it was broadcast as Bishop John Broadhurst’s cautionary admonition on the dangers of the Third Province, that it should not become a ghetto, appeared in the press.
That is a risk, and in more than one way. It brings to mind that terrible admission by Archbishop Runcie to his biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, when he quoted with approval how he had been influenced at Oxford by the modernist theologian, JS Bezzant, who showed him ‘that you could be unbelieving, incredulous, and still a good anglo-catholic’.
In reality, a ‘good anglo-catholic’ is neither one who knows the minutiae of whatever may have replaced Ritual Notes and Fortescue, nor one who has kept the outward signs of catholic worship while preferring secular values to the treasures of holy scripture. (Now did I even mention Affirming Catholicism?)
The Third Province must not become a ghetto for a narrow brand of Catholic flummery, nor simply a haven for those for whom the only issue is women in the priesthood or episcopate. But because it has come from a catholic stable, nor must it be of such a nature that it repels middle-of-the-road Anglicans and orthodox evangelicals.
I personally have no problem with the Hail Mary, but I did find it irritating – and even unnecessarily offensive – to hear it in the opening prayers at meetings of the FiF Council in the presence of sympathetic evangelical observers such as Roger Beckwith. A simple example, but a reminder that there are many Anglicans from other constituencies of the Church of England who are deeply uneasy at its growing attraction to the agenda of liberal secularism. The catholic movement will hinder God’s purpose if the Third Province is not a wider haven than its own.
It must face the divisive issues of the day, of which the most prominent at the moment is of course the gay debate, which has been clouded by the perception that there are only two possible views: on the one hand, that anything goes – gay sex of any kind, promiscuity, whatever – and, on the other, that anyone with a preference for the opposite sex is to be excluded from the church as someone bound for eternal damnation.
Neither is the way of Christ. Parents love their children regardless of what they are or what they do; but they do not have to condone everything that the children do. Could a God who is love do otherwise? But he has set clear boundaries to what sexual activity is acceptable, for gays as much as for straight men and women. The Third Province will need to show – and from the start – what these are.
In the same way, issues like that of remarriage after divorce must be resolved in a manner other than the General Synod’s cop-out, which in practical terms is a free-for-all. How can the Province balance more successfully the fundamental gospel principle that in Christ we are offered a fresh start, with past sins and mistakes wiped away by the cross, alongside the clear condemnation by Jesus that remarriage after divorce is to commit adultery?
At present the church appears obsessed with sex, principally because those issues are the ones on which liberals are concentrating their efforts before moving on to their other obsessions. If the Third Province finds a truly Christian way forward, the concentration can be on what really matters to the Church of God – mission and evangelism, at the heart of which is the parochial and pastoral ministry.
Read the pages of the Church Times that list clergy movements and it is quickly clear that the present emphasis is not on the appointment of parish priests but of sector ministers – advisors in this, secretaries of that, and of anything but parish priests. Perhaps we should expect no more from an episcopate that often has little idea from personal experience of the real ministry of the church.
We can welcome the resignation of the Archbishop of York from a post to which many of his colleagues now aspire in order to become a parish priest again as a vastly important boost to that ministry.
Evangelism too must be a major activity and catholics can learn from the evangelicals who will hopefully be a part of the new Province – indeed we need to learn from each other’s treasures.
The nineteenth-century century history of the church and the isolation and persecution that so many catholics suffered meant that their priests were appointed to work in the slums of England – in any city, look for an anglo-catholic parish and for that reason you will often find it in most deprived area. But it was in reality a great gift from God, for it fired the devotion of catholics to social change and a deeply loving care in the community. Such priests may not have been suitable in the eyes of the hierarchy for the more affluent middle-class parishes, but as a result they were able to bring bodily and spiritual hope to those in the direst of poverty.
There is some echo of this today, for orthodox catholics in so many dioceses have been marginalized or even persecuted in recent years, so that they have learnt from their own bitter experience that the service of the gospel requires a readiness to bear whips and scorns, as well as the willing acceptance that for such a priest there is no preferment – and that it simply does not matter in the Church of God.
I believe it for this that God called us in the first place, and that we can now see the light at the end of the tunnel.
George Austin is a writer, broadcaster and journalist.