Comment: July 1998

BRASH INFIDELITY is the trade-mark of some. David Jenkins and Jack Spong have between them courted the limelight for two decades. But most liberal churchmen prefer a lower profile. It is not the bold statement, but the passing gentle word - unobtrusive, but none the less dismissive of Christian truth - which is their stock in trade. Consider two cases in point.

Speaking of authority, a commodity in which the Anglican Communion is these days generally agreed to be lacking, the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission, made the following statement:

 

‘In some cases it may be possible and necessary for the universal church to say with firmness that a particular local practice or theory is incompatible with Christian faith.’

It is not necessary, in order to grasp the reality of that statement, to ask what theory or practice the Commission might have had in mind - bestiality, perhaps, or baptism in the name of Beelzebub? Reflect rather on the words themselves.

The demand for ‘firmness’ at first looks hopeful. But ‘firmness’, one must ask, on the part of whom? The ACC? The Primates’ Meeting? The Lambeth Conference? It can be none of these, for none has the clout for ‘firmness’.

Instead ‘firmness’ is portrayed as the attribute of a distant and elegant abstraction: ‘the universal church’ - to the overwhelming majorities of which, as a matter of plain fact, half the provinces of the Anglican Communion have already indicated that they have no intention whatever to defer.

Then notice the deft way in which the ‘possible’ precedes the ‘necessary’. And also note the submissive ‘may’ (which limply qualifies both the ‘necessary’ and the ‘possible’), neatly removing, before ever the reader has reached it, any residual rigidity which ‘firmness’ might have retained.

Speaking of the significance of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lambeth '98 paper ‘Called to Full Humanity’ states:

 

‘As Christians, full humanity is expressed in Jesus Christ’ (see Christopher Green on pp 5-7 of this edition of New Directions).

It is the defining phrase of the whole endeavour. In two words the absoluteness of the Incarnation is effortlessly relativised. ‘As Christians’, it appears, we might perceive one truth; as Muslims another; as cultured secularists, a third. 'It all depends where you are coming from'.

In two slight words a Church which has given up on the task of world-making, and no longer has the tenacity to be world-denying (a Church which has not experienced martyrdom, and frankly has no taste for it) submits itself supinely to the tyranny of the current consensus. ‘As Christians...’ The phrase betrays the whole agenda: which is not to convert humanity, but to baptise mankind's own high opinion of itself.

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IN THIS EDITION of New Directions we return (pp. 16 and 30) to the vexed subject of church statistics. And we do so in no carping manner. Truths, if they are truths, have to be faced; and interpreted, if we have the wit or the grace to do so.

It will be said that all churches in the Western democracies are in serious decline, and some more so than the Church of England. That is hardly the point. The point is that every novelty in the Church’s life - from schemes of reunion, through liturgical renewal to women’s ordination - has been sold with the bold claim that it was a sovereign antidote to numerical depletion, both of clergy and of layfolk. And yet the depletion has continued to accelerate.

Things may, after all, prove better than they have been painted. Relative statistics of decline (for example by comparison with the Methodist and Roman Catholic Churches) are of course interesting. But far more interesting, for Anglicans, must surely be the psychopathology of an institution which has so enthusiastically misled itself for so long.

Could it be that the Church of England has been unnecessarily neurotic? Why, for example, did a Church on whose electoral rolls women hugely predominate, worry that it was alienating women? Why, at the height of the craze for Professor Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (a self-consciously arcane recreation of mythology from the Dark Ages) did it suppose that only ‘modern’ liturgical language would attract and retain the young? And why, at a time when the most resilient signs of growth were in the independent house churches, did it stake its future on institutional ecumenism?

As Gerry O’Brien finds in this edition (p.16), it may be difficult to identify and isolate the real factors contributing to numerical decline; but a consideration of the available statistics is bound to place a large question mark beside the uncritical neophilia of the last three decades.

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THE AGE OF homosexual consent is being lowered by Parliament to 16. Let us be clear about one thing. In spite of all the bleating about justice and equality of rights (and the need to come into line with Europe) this is not a vote for liberty for young people - it is a charter for predatory sex.

It is a clear statement by this government, and a small number of equally foolish libertarian conservatives, of the moral equivalence of homosexual and heterosexual relations and of their real views on marriage, family life and the protection of children.

The Archbishop of Canterbury and some of his bishops issued a last minute statement objecting to this change in the law because they were "concerned that the proposal may give wrong messages both to young people and our society as a whole".

No-one who knows anything about George Carey can be in any doubt about where he stands on this matter and he has our support in this. However, certain things need to be said.

1. The homosexual lobby has been working a sympathetic parliament since the General Election. The church, by leaving its intervention to the last minute, emphasises its inability to respond to, never mind lead, the national moral consciousness, and, sadly, its apparent impotence when it tries.

2. Traditionalist Christians who have been consistent in their opposition to the lobbying of homosexual rights groups have been treated like pariahs by most of the bishops who are, apparently, party to the Archbishops statement.

3. It is clear from the public and private statements of some bishops that, while a majority may have supported the Archbishop in this one particular aspect, many do not. Nor should this surprise anyone: the number of Episcopal appointments sympathetic to the liberalising agenda has continued as rapidly under George Carey as under Robert Runcie.

It is not only parliament that is sending wrong signals to the nation, the church itself has been doing that in its polity and practice for many, many years.

 

 

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