Fiddling while Canterbury burns

John Hunwicke on the inscrutability of Anglican doctrines

It is good to know that ARCIC is still in existence; it would be even better to know that its products were being shoved through our synodical processes. In 1999 its proposal in The Gift of Authority that Anglicans should receive a papal primacy emerged; even before it was published the 1998 Lambeth Conference had called for it to be discussed. It appears still to be gathering dust, while the Anglican/Methodist ‘Covenant’, which emerged during the summer holidays, apparently needs to be rubber-stamped by early next year…

ARCIC is currently engaged on a study of our Blessed Lady. Few Catholics will consider this inappropriate. I welcome anything which redounds to our Lady's honour and, for example, sets Marian dogmas (her Perpetual Virginity, Immaculate Conception, and Bodily Assumption) in contexts where they will be accessible to wider acceptance. But I do wonder if it is not ever so slightly a matter of fiddling while Canterbury burns. Let me explain why.

ARCIC has been here before: in 1981 ARCIC revealed that, with regard to the Immaculate Conception and the Bodily Assumption there are some Anglicans ‘who do not consider that the precise definitions given by these dogmas are sufficiently supported by Scripture’. Really? Is this not a distinctly slippery admission? Here are some questions which will make clear what I mean.

(1) If St Luke, in his first chapter, had happened to make Gabriel say ‘You have found favour with God, favour which is his own purely unmerited gift to you in as far as he preserved you from every taint of Adam's Sin…’; and if St Paul, in 1 Corinthians, had written ‘Christ the first fruits, then his own Immaculate Mother…’, presumably Reform and all 'traditional' Christians would accept these two dogmas with rejoicing. But what about Liberals and all manner of Modern Church people? Let me make my point the other way round:

(2) Suppose the Pope, ex cathedra and 'infallibly', were to proclaim ‘By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ and of the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by Our Own, We proclaim, declare and define it to be a dogma revealed by almighty God that Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man's nature; wherewith he ascended into Heaven and there sitteth, until he return to judge all Men at the last day’, would the Selbies and the Saxbees blow the dust of their Bibles, check quickly through, and then pronounce that this dogma was sufficiently supported by scripture and would henceforth be part of their faith?

Astonishing women

It is a matter of fact that the Bible does not function in the Church of England as a quasi-legal document whereby doctrine can be checked and established. It may for honourable men like Reform, but for 32% of male clergy and an astonishing 47% of women clergy, the Lord's bodily resurrection, despite the clarity of its expression in Scripture, is a object of disbelief. So it is pathetically silly to suggest that the problem with the Immaculate Conception and the Bodily Assumption is whether they are found clearly enough in scripture. Indeed, any 'problem' about those dogmas, which are by any account low in the hierarchy of beliefs, is minute compared with the problem that the Lord's resurrection, which is not only noisily proclaimed throughout the canonical documents but is the credal hub around which the whole structure of Christian belief is built, is denied by so many of those who collect their pay from the Church of England. Our problem is the unprincipled rejection of the entire body of saving truth. ARCIC might be better employed considering this situation.

Past its use-by?

ARCIC's methodology has passed its sell-by date. It was elaborated at a time when it appeared – how blind we were! – that our two faith-communities were on a course of convergence. There were held to be ‘common ancient traditions’ which could be taken as being beyond dispute; on the basis of those, we would build consensus by sorting out differences which had emerged since our separation. This would be done by creating documents to which every member of ARCIC was able to assent, which would then, after consideration, be accepted formally by the authorities on each side.

We were blind. The two communions were in fact diverging. Mysteriously, ARCIC never discussed the new schism-forming clouds which were growing on the horizon. It never discussed the sacerdotal ordination of women; it never discussed the Porvoo innovations. Frankly, it is now too late. If the authorities on each side had any sense, they would find a new profitable role for ARCIC in the realities of the present situation. I would suggest the production of analyses, not of the new cracks which have opened up between us (this would just lead to the parading of all the old arguments yet again), but of the underlying issues which have created those cracks.

We could do with examinations, as scholarly and dispassionate as can be managed, of what the tectonic plates are doing. And there is very little point in continuing to pretend that, since we are moving towards each other, it is useful to produce agreed statements which each body, after consideration, will assent to. We need minority reports; we need documented accounts of dialogue among the different groupings which exist m both of our traditions; we need to know what clever men who differ profoundly say when they argue with each other. This sort of ecumenism might take a lot longer than the process we thought we were engaged in a generation ago, but it would have the advantage of realism. It could be called the ‘Ecumenism of Divergence’.

Not that this has to be the only sort of ecumenical theological dialogue that goes on. There are places where convergence is still going on. The women bishops controversy has thrown up the FiF working group which has benefited from illuminating ecumenical input. Could our constituency develop tills and take the present ARCIC accords further? Could Son of ARCIC be the basis for eventual ecclesial reconciliations between ourselves and the Great Churches?

John Hunwicke says his rosary – all twenty decades – in Devon.

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