Comment

 

We make no apology that this edition of New Directions carries an article much longer than we are accustomed to publish. It is detailed and circumstantial; but it is not a difficult read. Rather, it gives a vivid and sharply focussed picture of what has happened over the past half century in a church not so very different from our own.

What has been the liberal agenda? How have accompanying secular expectations advanced that agenda? How has initial provision for conscientious objection been allowed to evaporate and then been forcibly removed? How has liberal tolerance degenerated into a creed of intolerance? What has happened to the orthodox opposition, and how has it declined from a clear majority to a beleaguered minority? And so on.

From this careful and informed account there are many lessons to learn. The sorry tale of the collapse of orthodox Christianity in the face of the late twentieth-century secular programme is one in which we ourselves are involved.

Post-Enlightenment secular liberalism is a Christian heresy, advanced within the Church by well-meaning quislings, who do the work of the secularizers for them. This especially the case in a national church, whose porosity to the mood and assumptions of the ambient society is necessarily greater than that of the ancient worldwide communions.

No-one will be surprised to find in this gripping account of the recent history of the Church of Sweden that sexuality has proved the area most fruitful for the secularist infiltrators. But though late twentieth-century assumptions about human sexuality have seemed irresistible to many, it is the attack on basic Christian doctrine – the incarnation, the atonement, judgement, hell, heaven – which has aided and abetted the change in public and private morality.

Our article is by an American professor of history who has gained something of a reputation over the years for his astute assessments of the process of secularization, especially in Scandinavia. But the same tale could be told from elsewhere, not least from within the Episcopal Church of the United States. Dr Tighe tells it straight. Our readers must find the moral in his narration; for it is certainly a cautionary tale for the orthodox within the Church of England.

* * *

It is not so very many years ago that Chrism Masses were a rare and charming eccentricity. They were celebrated by those bishops (and that portion of their clergy) who seemed to believe that the CofE was a little more Catholic than the average member comprehended or was comfortable with. In many other dioceses, cathedral services on Holy Thursday were so poorly attended that renewal of vows would have been an embarrassment. The presentation of oils for blessing, where it occurred, often comprised a shabby tea tray festooned with unsuitable chemist bottles ‘blessed’ on the credence table by a clearly unwilling and disinterested bishop.

For many bishops the highest ambition was to be the Lord High Almoner. Herein, since the sovereign had dispensed with the tiresome and servile task of footwashing, the episcopal bursar could fulfil the gospel mandate by assisting the monarch in dispensing pieces of toy money to suitably grateful fellow elderlies.

How things have changed since 1992. Orthodox priests and people have continued to gather round a bishop on this most sacred day. Because of impairment of communion this has, of necessity, been less and less possible with diocesan bishops. Some dioceses have been gracious and accommodating, allowing ‘flying bishops’ to celebrate the Chrism Mass in the cathedral. Others have been anything from difficult to impossible and a few diocesans have crowned the rejection by the hypocrisy of claiming that it is the orthodox who are being divisive!

One thing is certain. In dioceses of good practice and bad practice alike, the Chrism Mass has become a touchstone of collegiality and loyalty. Bishops who never showed the slightest interest in such ‘catholic peculiarities’ now celebrate them with vigour. Clergy are written to in language that is the ecclesiastical equivalent of a three-line whip. Underneath all the unctuous verbiage of 'solidarity' and 'collaborative ministry' is a thinly disguised order for a show of personal loyalty to the bishop. We are left in little doubt as to the hurt that would be inflicted on the bishop (and clerical careers) by absence.

How has all this come about? Has the Church of England suddenly become more Catholic? Judging by its increasingly moveable doctrinal and moral feast in the last decade this is scarcely a question that needs answering.

The orthodox gather around their bishops primarily because they believe the same Gospel, revere the same sacraments, recognize the same priesthood. They are there secondly because of their affection for him and one another and the pastoral care that flows therefrom. It is touching that others should pay us the compliment of urgent imitation but they should remember that it is about more than a service, however sacred; it is about an orthodox and Catholic way of life.

* * *

Around Easter the clergy received a glossy video package entitled Restoring Hope in our Church. Together with is revamped Springboard booklets Growing healthy Churches’ and Discerning Church Vocation, the enterprise is a welcome one. Though the Decade of Evangelism could hardly be assessed as anything other than an abject failure, nobody – especially David – has given up on Hope!

We will be doing a test run and offering a critique of the attempt to Restore Hope in a future edition of New Directions. At this stage however, a few preliminary remarks are possible.

Only recently did Springboard blow the gaff on the massaging of official statistics by admitting the seriousness of the position. What many (including this magazine) have been saying for a decade is now admitted by the leadership. Hope is in short supply, and in need of restoration. That is good news.

The bad news is the clichéd attitudes of those who suppose themselves to be in a position to restore it. Read the ‘Group Discussion Guide’ provided with this video and you will see what we mean. The questions posed are tired old warhorses of the seventies, expecting the same tired and worn-out responses:

Are we too inward looking? Are we engaging with Young People? (interpret the Capital Letters as you will!) Should we be more flexible? What about new ways of being Church? How willing are we to change? Where will the money come from? How do others see us?

And where does all this questioning lead? ‘We need a lot of patience with each other in the Church, we need a lot of permission being given for people to try out new things.’

Naturally…

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