BEING ORTHODOX WITH 'ORTHODOX'
Andrew Burnham replies to Kevin O'Donnell
REPLY TO Kevin ODonnells gentle and eirenic piece should be itself no less gentle and eirenic in tone. There can be no doubt that labels have their limitations. People can and do believe in the doctrine of the Trinity and yet doubt whether the bread and wine of the Eucharist become the body and blood of Christ. People can and do believe that Christ was both fully human and fully divine and yet doubt the traditional - theres a label for you! - teaching of the Church about human sexuality. Nor can there be any doubt that some of our labels - convenient though they are - are slogans, indeed bits of mud to sling at those whom we love but passionately disagree with.
ODonnell says that if it is being prepared to see issues through..... admitting it when we havent got the answer he is happy to be called a liberal and he duly speaks up for evolution and development of doctrine. He reminds us of the dangers of seeing the first century AD as an age blessed with a divinely sanctioned socioeconomic order. We have to discern the mind of Christ for today, he says, and guides us through the homosexual debate and the new thinking on the place of women. He warns us against extremists - Jerry Falwell and naked circle dancing, and Don Cupitt and unbelieving humanism - but speaks up for Richard Holloways Dancing on the Edge and David Jenkins theological writing. He commends Jenkins reverent agnosticism about a literal virgin birth and physical resurrection and suggests that such matters are not essential tenets of the Gospel.
I wonder why ODonnell does not simply come clean and admit what helpful labels liberal and orthodox are. His position as he describes it (and it is a very honourable position, held by many of the worlds leading theologians) is indeed the liberal position. It is even, in one sense, an inevitable position. Who now believes that Moses is the author of the first five books of the bible (including the account of his death)? Who now doubts the worth of various things anathematized by the popes at various times (including such things as trains and democracy)? Who now believes in the Divine Right of Kings? In one sense all of us are liberals nowadays. Indeed we are liberal in the way we think things through even if our thinking leads us to orthodox conclusions.
The orthodox label however remains a very handy one. Orthodox means right praise or right belief. lt describes a number of positions which are different from Kevin ODonnells. Some people - and I include myself among them - would include amongst orthodox beliefs a belief in gracious patriarchy: God reveals himself as Father and Son; this revelation is symbolised for catholics in the maleness of the ministerial priesthood and for evangelicals in the scriptural notion of headship. What I have called gracious patriarchy needs to be sharply distinguished from fallen patriarchy, in which women are oppressed. As a recent study, much reported in the church press, has indicated, fallen patriarchy is rife in the Church, not least among men who theoretically are in favour of women priests. Those of us who are orthodox in the sense of believing in gracious patriarchy have an urgent task to demonstrate that an all-male priesthood should not oppress women, nor should it exclude them from taking a full part in the life of the Church, not excluding new patterns of ministry and employment.
Another instance of how helpful the orthodox label can be is in what Kevin ODonnell calls the evolution and development of doctrine. He himself refers to the riches of Tradition and Scripture as his guide. The difference is that whereas, for Kevin, these things guide me - that is, him as he himself thinks through what he calls grey areas - for the orthodox what counts is what the Church teaches or what the bible teaches. What Church or bible teach is a matter of authority - which is why we orthodox say that Anglicans have got themselves into a mess about authority. Like ODonnell they have looked to Tradition and Scripture for guidance, but neither has been in the end authoritative: too many grey areas.
What do Anglicans do about authority? It is because of a general agreement that authority is a problem that the Church of England General Synod passed overwhelmingly an Act of Synod, allowing priests of different integrities to work alongside each other in the Church of England until the matter of the ordination of women to the priesthood is settled by the Church as a whole. A period of reception is crucial to the whole debate, as far as the Church of England is concerned. Whereas some Anglican bishops elsewhere, we hear, have bullied and cajoled traditionalists in order to implement synodical decisions, Church of England bishops usually have not. By and large they realise that, short of an ex cathedra ruling by the pope and the agreement of the Holy Orthodox, the matter cannot be settled. In short, we are in a period of reception, which may last a century or two.
Orthodox is useful as a label not only in describing the position of those who maintain the ecumenical and historic consensus on the gender of the priesthood but in other matters too. Kevin ODonnell is surely right in denying that the first century AD should be described as an age blessed with a divinely sanctioned socioeconomic order but we must remember that it was the age which the New Testament describes as the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4, Ephesians 1: 10). Orthodox believers therefore steer very clear of the if Jesus lived in Birmingham...argument that recurs in liberal circles. Such an argument is useful in finding alternatives to biblical teaching in matters of gender and morality and it gets us off the hook in other ways too. Finding coins in fishes mouths, walking on water, cursing fig trees, leaving the Gentiles out, misquoting Old Testament passages - all these can be explained away by the if Jesus lived in Birmingham, he would be an unemployed, Asian, female, cannabis-smoking, vegetarian, wheel-chair user argument.
Orthodox believers prefer the fifth century catchphrase of St. Vincent of Lerins to this notion - Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus (what has been believed everywhere, always and by everyone) - provides a surer footing for the Christian believer and, as St Vincent explained, does not rule out further growth in understanding and explication. The best argument available to Kevin ODonnell, in fact, would have been to explore such understanding and explication, perhaps seeing, with Vatican II, that doctrines may be described as belonging to the original revelation of the mystery of Christ, even when they are stated in terms that were never explicit in the apostolic age.
Instead ODonnell raises specifically David Jenkins theological writing. He commends, as we have said already, Jenkins reverent agnosticism about a literal virgin birth and physical resurrection and he suggests that these are not essential tenets of the Gospel. It is undeniable that the views associated with David Jerkins have been commonplace in academic theological circles. There is no need to be ashamed about believing that it is for theological rather than historical reasons that Matthew and Luke locate the birth of the prophet from Nazareth (Galilee), in Bethlehem (Judaea). Nor is it less than respectable to believe that, perhaps, Jesus was the child of normal human sexual intercourse. It may even help in an unbelieving age to say that the story of the empty tomb was invented to give a feeling of objectivity to psychological convictions about - or even shared visions of - the Risen Christ. These are well-supported views, with a good academic pedigree, but they are not what would be called orthodox.
Orthodoxy however is not the same as literalism and orthodox Christology would not necessarily be under strain if, say, the birth of Jesus actually took place in Egypt or if Jesus dead body had been laid in the earth rather than in a stone tomb. What matters is that he was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, as the Nicene Creed puts it, and that he died, and bodily rose again. The question is, when does the liberal peeling of the onion or, to change the metaphor, the erosion of a sure historical footing - result in doctrinal change and when does it not? Too often we find with liberal thinking that credal positions - such as the divinity of the divine Word before all worlds have been dumped and the bible has been reframed as a work of human invention.
Again we are reminded how useful the label orthodox is. It is a very convenient label for those who do not accept the findings of liberal scholarship. It is orthodox to believe and confess Marys perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man (Catechism of the Catholic Church 499). It is orthodox to believe that Christs Resurrection cannot be interpreted as something outside the physical order (ibid 643). It is orthodox to believe that the bible is the inspired Word of God.
If we have said enough about what distinguishes orthodox from liberal and why what Fr. ODonnell says amounts to what liberals say and is different from what, say, orthodox readers of New Directions believe, it might be appropriate to move to discussing briefly why orthodox (right believing, right praising) is preferable as a label to either traditionalist or catholic. The answer is surely that orthodox does duty for both catholic and evangelical in describing those who believe the faith once delivered to the saints. There will be some evangelicals who would maintain orthodoxy but object to the words traditionalist and catholic. Traditionalist' might indicate someone who prizes tradition' over scripture. Catholic might mean someone who believes that scripture can only be rightly interpreted within a tradition of interpretation. Catholic indeed might be someone - like the present writer - who believes that the promise of the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth (John 16:13) is a promise to the Church and not to the individual believer. Orthodox by contrast is a word that unites Catholics and evangelicals who believe in a revealed religion.
Finally, then, it would be inappropriate to deny Kevin ODonnell the description of catholic. Indeed he should be proud to be what Roman Catholics would call a liberal catholic. He has indicated that he believes that scripture can only be rightly interpreted within a tradition of interpretation and, even though he looks for personal guidance in the grey areas, he probably believes that the promise of the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth (John 16:13) is ultimately a promise to the Church and not to the individual believer. Furthermore, I am sure that he celebrates his faith within the catholic sacramental framework. Once again we are reminded just how useful the word orthodox is. It indicates, as we have seen, something slightly different. If orthodoxy in the sense of right belief does not unite us, then we must fall back on the slightly more literal translation of orthodoxy, right praise. It is surely in right praise that we discover - and recover - unity in the Body of Christ.
Andrew Burnham is Vice-Principal of St Stephen's House, Oxford.
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