Faith of our fathers

Arthur Middleton on misconceived development


Opponents of feminizing holy order are not locked into antiquarianism. Their concern is not a mere return to the past or reverence for some ‘golden age.’ They are progressive with a deep respect for tradition and its correct reading. They are completely open to the modern world but are concerned to preserve a marked continuity with the past while avoiding silly idealistic compromises with the present.

Defending the once-for-allness of the faith does not imply a fossilized religion, the precluding of any development. The faith, set forth uniquely in the Scriptures and the Catholic Creeds, develops and grows under the guidance of the Holy Spirit within the Church.

Every age has to proclaim, re-present, apprehend, and appropriate the living revelation in all the changes and varieties of human cultures throughout history. Any development must be from the facts of revelation and not away from them. Otherwise we would not have the doctrines of the Incarnation and Trinity, which facts are part of the revelation.

The criteria for such development must be Scripture or tradition conformable to Scripture, otherwise we will end up with what Bishop Hanson described as a ‘virtual, uncontrolled doctrinal space-flight.’ This ensures the unchangeable Christian message but also that it is understood by those to whom it is sent by God as it answers new questions posed by new generations.

This saves it from the deadness of traditionalism, for its concern is to allow tradition to live as a living process of transmission that makes Scripture available and understandable to a changing and imperfect world.

Treating problems in isolation from tradition by simplistic references to Scripture may lead to error. ‘Neither may we in this case lightly esteem what hath been allowed as fit in the judgement of antiquity, and by the long continued practice of the whole Church; from which unnecessarily to swerve, experience hath never as yet found it safe’ [Hooker, 5.7.1].

Michael Ramsey said that the tests of true development are whether it bears witness to the Gospel, whether it expresses the general consciousness of Christians, and whether it serves the organic unity of the Church. These tests are summed up in the Scriptures, wherein the historical gospel, the development of the redeemed and the nature of the one Body are described. So the Scriptures have a special authority to control and check the whole field of development in life and doctrine. In the present debate the argument from Scripture and tradition has been so publicly abandoned.

When our Anglican heritage conflicts with the innovation to feminize the threefold order, and the mind of the wider Catholic Church whose catholicity we claim to share finds it totally unacceptable, it cannot be said that the debate is closed on the right of the General Synod to take such a decision. If university professors took such a line about a contested academic viewpoint, they would be accused of academic arrogance.

The Church of England represents 4 per cent of Catholic Christendom; a two-thirds majority vote in a bi-provincial Synod can hardly be reckoned as decisively leading the rest of Christendom into the vanguard of reform, on a matter on which only a General Council could speak with authority.

Our Anglican heritage tells us that we have replaced universal tradition with the opinions of a majority of a minority as a guide to the will of God. This places us outside the catholicity to which we have claimed to belong since the sixteenth century.

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