None of us has a stranglehold on Christian truth
The terms ‘liberal’ and ‘liberalism’ have been bandied about a good deal lately. The pages of Anglican Taonga have been no exception and in the Spring 2007 issue, Bryden Black declared that ‘Liberalism within Anglicanism needs to die!’
It would be a serious loss if liberalism did so at this or any juncture in the history of Anglicanism. Equally serious would be the eclipse of the notion of Anglican comprehensiveness. Why do I say this?
My reasons are partly autobiographical so, at the risk of boring readers with the reminiscences of an ageing liberal experiencing intimations of mortality, let me explain why. Accepted as an ordinand for the Diocese of Auckland in 1946 I was sent to College House in Christchurch for university studies at Canterbury College (now the University of Canterbury) for four singularly enriching years.
The Diocese of Auckland was, at the time, a largely monochrome, mildly Anglo-Catholic affair. The Diocese of Christchurch was very different: there was a strong Evangelical presence, some lively Anglo-Catholic parishes, several notable liberal clergy and many who did not identify with any specific section of Anglican opinion.
There was plenty of argument, sometimes partisan conflict but a real degree of mutual respect. Thus Canon Orange, a noted Evangelical, preached at St Michael’s when Fr Muschamp was vicar. I’m sure Fr M didn’t bother to ask if his friend Willie Orange was ‘sound’ – to use a catchword favoured by some Evangelicals.
I came away from those four years in Christchurch with a wider vision of what Anglican comprehensiveness could mean and a respect for Evangelicals and Evangelicalism in particular. How did it look when I returned in 1966, initially to be vice-principal at College House when it was still a theological college as well as a university hall of residence?
At this point let me insert a note on what happened between 1948 and 1966 in my understanding of Anglicanism. During 1962-64, while on the staff of St John’s College, Auckland, I had study leave and spent the first academic year at the [Episcopalian] General Theological Seminary, New York.
One of my best teachers was the fervently Anglo-Catholic Robert Bosher who taught a course on the Oxford Movement and tended to convey the impression that, during the 19th century, single-handedly, it saved Anglicanism from a fate worse than death. I learnt much from the course but my suspicions were aroused.
When, during 1963-64, I had a second year of study, at Union Theological Seminary, New York, I decided to look more carefully at other expressions of Anglicanism in the 19th century. I researched the origins and early years of Evangelicalism, the achievement of the relatively liberal biblical scholars Westcott, Hort and Lightfoot, some of F.D. Maurice’s writings and selected aspects of diocesan and parish life.
These studies showed me that the Church of England was reformed and invigorated in the 19th century by a variety of interacting influences and provided historical argument for Anglican comprehensiveness. Sometimes the interaction generated more heat than light; sometimes, as with the Oxford Movement’s eventual influence on public worship generally, this was not necessarily the case.
My two years of study in New York had another consequence. The theological education which I and others had received at St John’s College had some real merits but was seriously deficient in the areas of systematic theology and philosophy of religion. Moreover, the teaching of church history, once the first 500 years had been covered, focussed very much on institutional developments; there was little attention to intellectual currents certainly outside Anglicanism.
One result of these deficiencies was that when radicalising tendencies in theology (John Robinson, Bonhoeffer, Tillich, Bultmann etc) exploded like a bomb in the Anglican theological playground in the 1960s, many locally-trained clergy had little equipment to deal with this state of affairs. My contemporaries and I reacted in various ways: some left the ordained ministry, some swerved to the ‘right’, others dumped the tough theological questions in the too-hard basket and focussed on the practical aspects of ministry, and some – like me – opted for a liberalised theology.
In 1966 I returned like a homing pigeon to Christchurch. In terms of church life it was gratifying to find that the variety and liveliness which I had first experienced in 1947-50 still obtained. This seemed to me all to the good and while I often found myself at odds with Evangelical opinion its representatives held my respect and – I trust – vice versa.
What does all this add up to in terms of reflections on comprehensiveness and liberalism?
My own experience of Anglicanism has been singularly enriched by the comprehensiveness of Anglicanism on both the personal and intellectual level. There is, however, one pre-requisite required for the maintenance of such comprehensiveness. In the last resort those involved have to accept the fact that they – and their ecclesiastical party – do not and cannot have a stranglehold on Christian truth.
Michael Ramsey says somewhere something like this: “Comprehensiveness does not mean several different religions crowding uncomfortably under one umbrella. Comprehensiveness is justified because the unsearchable riches of Christ so easily evade the grasp of any one individual, group or party.”
What about liberalism and what is meant by the term anyway? It is difficult to deal with this question in terms of content – what has been believed – since liberal opinions have varied both across the centuries and in any particular historical period.
One way of developing a working definition of Anglican liberalism is to set out the ‘family resemblances’ of those movements commonly labelled as liberal. These include the Cambridge Platonists and the Latitudinarians in the 17th century, the Broad Churchmen in the 19th century, the Modernists during the first half of the 20th century, the theological ‘radicalism’ (a partial misnomer) of the 1960s and contemporary expressions of liberal theology which find institutional expression in the Modern Churchpeople’s Union.
The ‘family resemblances’ between these movements includes an emphasis on reason (variously understood), but not its self-sufficiency, and its role in the interpretation of Scripture, tradition and experience. Other typical concerns include: openness to the contemporary cultural context and to all dimensions of human experience, personal and community ethics, reforming measures in church and society, an ecumenical outlook towards fellow-Christians and, more recently, towards other religious traditions also.
From the 19th century onwards, Anglican liberals have taken on board the application of textual, literary and historical criticism of the Bible and the Christian tradition generally.
These characteristics are not, of course, monopolised by liberalism nor have all liberals exemplified them in equal measure nor reached identical conclusions on all matters. In certain instances some liberals have been too accommodating towards their surrounding culture and context and minimised the darker recesses of human nature and experience. Sometimes, too, they have been caricatured and criticised unfairly by their opponents – and replied to them in similar vein.
If one adds to the movements listed above those who have stood somewhat apart from them but adopted relatively liberal views in particular contexts – as the ‘Cambridge Trio’ of Lightfoot, Westcott and Hort in the 19th century did – then it is all the more clear that liberalism has been an important and influential strand in Anglicanism. What services, then, has such theological liberalism offered – and continues to offer – to Anglicanism and to individual Anglicans?
On the personal and pastoral level it happens to be the place where, over several centuries, some Anglicans have found intellectual sustenance for Christian faith and life. Speaking personally, I seriously doubt if I would have maintained Christian faith and practice in the years since the 1960s without being able to turn to writers like Maurice Wiles, Keith Ward and John Hick who ‘spoke to my condition’. Nor am I alone in this experience.
More generally, liberal-minded scholars have often opened up issues for discussion sometimes with trumpet blasts considered off-key by critics. A group of Broad Churchmen published Essays and Reviews in 1860 which helped open up debate in the Church of England about biblical criticism. John Robinson’s Honest to God (1963) helped end the partial isolation of Anglican theology and unleashed a flood of debate; some well-informed, some not.
In addition, however, liberal scholars have often gone on to contribute substantially to the theological debates which they helped originate. In the wake of Essays and Reviews the relatively liberal scholarship of the ‘Cambridge Trio’ helped domesticate biblical criticism in Anglican circles and interacted with both Anglo-Catholicism and, later, Evangelicalism to help generate liberal versions of both. Robinson went on to write an important study in Christology (The Human Face of God, 1973).
In the concluding paragraph of his article Bryden Black calls for ‘a due process of careful discernment which might appraise the riches (and lacks) of the church’s tradition, both Catholic and Reformed, over many centuries and across a number of cultures to better find “the mind of Christ”.’
This ‘process of careful discernment’ is necessarily an ongoing task as cultural contexts change, and it is one to which liberal theologians have contributed substantially. The demise of liberalism would diminish the resources available for this task, limit the intellectual options available for Anglicans, and narrow the comprehensiveness of the Anglican tradition.
Colin Brown taught at St John’s College, College House, the College House Institute of Theology and - for 25 years - in Religious Studies at the University of Canterbury. His first task in retirement was to write a study-book for the course on Anglican Studies offered by the Ecumenical Institute of Distance Theological Studies.
Bryden Black responds:
Some kind of response to Colin Brown’s expansive two-paged article in the Advent 2007 Taonga might not go amiss. Not least, as my much briefer piece, which seemed to act as Colin’s catalyst, was itself in response to another longer article by Lynda Patterson, which had a quite specific focus, and to which Colin does not refer at all. In other words, if we are to range right across the centuries of “Anglican scholarship” generally, and “liberal scholarship” in particular, and one’s own intellectual pilgrimage, then clearly another kind of approach may be necessary!
Actually, I will not try to meet fire with fire, or blow for blow; that is not in the first instance an authentic Christian response. Rather, I shall focus now only on one key matter that has contemporary and crucial relevance. It takes up too one feature of my own initial interaction with Lynda. It has to do with “comprehensiveness”.
I begin by allowing myself as well a small piece of biography, which involves Michael Ramsey, whose quote by Colin is exactly the issue that is before us today. When the Archbishop retired he soon took himself off to Cuddesdon, a Church of England college outside Oxford. Leslie Houlden was the principal at the time, and at one of his lectures Ramsey was at the back. When the floor was opened up for questions, after a while the retired Archbishop, whose scholarship was pretty substantial, raised a basic point: perhaps when one actually compared the ideas propounded by Houlden with the extant patristic texts to which reference had been made, the apparent parallels, which he was claiming were there, were more constructions of his own, trying to validate his very contemporary and fashionable thesis. There was an embarrassed silence ... Ramsey never went to another of Houlden’s lectures. Soon afterwards, the retired Archbishop was the guest preacher at the annual service of combined Oxford theological colleges. I still recall much of that sermon, of which the essence was the critical need, in Ramsey’s eyes, for the ordinand to be able to distinguish between what was truly lasting in theological education and what was merely trendy. And the sooner we were aware of the question and were on our way to addressing it the better!
Fast forward to the present day. Anyone who has been trying to follow the events of the Anglican Communion over the past five years has probably encountered TEC’s document from last year entitled, Communion Matters, part two of which speaks of “Our special Charism as Anglican Christians”, namely, “the via media, the middle way between polarities, as a faithful theological method”. Like Houlden earlier, the document tries to base their idea in history, referencing - of course! - the likes of Richard Hooker (intriguingly citing only TEC’s own collect for his feast day, which is itself already their own constructed interpretation!). Yet how does TEC actually use the notion of a via media? And what resemblance does their use have to the original concept?
The answer to that question was behind much of my earlier piece in response to Lynda. I repeat something of what I wrote there, but elaborate and extrapolate using another source, our local Anglican All blog site, as I respond directly to TEC’s Communion Matters:
From all the references throughout the document as a whole to diversity and difference, the tag “Via Media” has taken up a life of its own in the hands of TEC, way beyond that of 16th or 17th C England. Historically, in the hands of a Richard Hooker, the Middle Way of the Church of England was that between Rome and Geneva. In the summary of Bp Thomas Ken: “I die in the Holy, Catholic and Apostolick Faith, professed by the whole Church before disunion of East and West. More particularly I dye in the Communion of the Church of England as it stands distinguished from all Papall and Puritan Innovations, and as it adheres to the doctrine of the Cross.” Nice use of the word “innovations”, note, given our present ‘dilemmas’!
In other words, what constitutes the Anglican Charism is NOT some speculative ‘middle path’ between a host of “polarities”, between Lenin and the Tsar, between Mao and Chiang Kai-shek (and I deliberately start with the political spectrum), nor between J-J Rousseau and E Burke, nor between Hindu monism and European Deism, nor between Zen atheism and Christian Trinitarianism, nor between even J Gresham Machen and Walter Rauschenbusch (to land now on American soil specially). While there may be a case for trying to walk between the likes of Jim Packer and James Barr [both contemporary Anglicans] on the nature of Revelation and the significance of Scripture in relation to revelation, what becomes most problematic is when our hermeneutical paradigms for ‘reading’ Scripture become simply incommensurate. One is driven by what I will term a “critically realist” view of reality (cf. the work of Tom Wright & Alister McGrath at this point) and the other driven by a form of cultural experience that is radically self-expressionist, even solipsistic. In the words of Karl Barth (once more), we are confronted with a form of so-called ‘theology’ which “thinks it can say ‘God’ by saying ‘man’ [sic] in the loudest and most forceful tones” (cf. CD II.1, pp. 269-70). We are all the way back to Feuerbach’s thesis [briefly flagged with Lynda] that actually religion is only an anthropological projection: so that all that the Bible contains are human experiences of ‘religious’ phenomena - which in the final analysis do not land objectively anywhere; they are not paradigmatically revelatory - even as they “accommodate” the divine to the human sphere (so Calvin)! - so that there is no concrete specification of the Creator of the world nor definitive communication from this Creator to humanity. It’s all the case that we are confronted by ‘Holy Mystery’, and everything consists of our ‘symbols’ of this apparent ‘encounter’.
One questions profoundly whether the notion of Via Media can perform what it was intended to do in the 16/17th C now in our 21st C world of ribald pluralism ...
In other words, one simply may not use nowadays, as does TEC, and now Colin, in trying to summarise our supposed Anglican ethos, such words as “comprehensiveness” without careful and discerning analysis - and notably via “the areas of systematic theology and philosophy of religion” - of the historical context of both the origins of such notions and the nature of what we are seeking to apply it to today. Frankly, it smacks only of ideological one-upmanship, of some seeking to lay claim to the Anglican franchise at others’ expense, by manipulating the core ideas of historical Anglicanism in favour of a VERY DIFFERENT RELIGION.
This last assessment takes us back to Michael Ramsey’s quote from “somewhere”. Such has been the legacy of the Enlightenment’s autonomous human reason and now our “secular age” (cf. notably Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, Harvard 2007) that we today are quite simply dealing with a VERY DIFFERENT ANIMAL to Hooker’s or Bp Ken’s ‘religion’. “The shift in background”, resulting in the “conditions of belief and unbelief” in our day (indeed, in such a smorgasbord of sundry beliefs altogether) which are just so radically “novel” historically (NO society’s ‘plausibility structures’ have ever functioned this way before), means we need VERY DIFFERENT language and tools of analysis to appraise “the fruit of new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices”. We are just unable to claim catch-phrases of old as if that ‘sorted’ the ‘problem’, providing for “le sens du sens” (Luc Ferry in Taylor: the meaning of meaning - the ultimate significance)! Today’s so-called “comprehensiveness” has little or nothing to do with Hooker or Ken and everything to do with contemporary secularism’s “available believable” (Ricoeur), the root paradigm of pluralism.
This was why I claimed previously that the old form of liberalism needed to die: its trajectory has simply reached a dead-end (unlike the subeditor’s falsely cited footer). And where it has sought to reinvent itself, predominantly in the last forty years and predominantly in North America, it has done so, not only by total accommodation to the prevailing cultural ethos and world-view, but in so doing by establishing another form of ‘religion’ altogether. This is why the likes of Maurice Wiles, whom I myself have sat under and whom Colin also tables, are actually sufficiently different to the majority of TEC’s current elite. For them the propagation of their religion is paramount, and by all means at their disposal. It is a glorious demonstration of Nietzsche’s “will to power”, also predominant in our contemporary culture! Not so with the previous Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, whose sheer graciousness always won one over to the man even if one disagreed with his ideas, and the formulation of his questions.
I conclude with some specific indications of what all this might look like on the ground, of how the differences work out in practice. We may take our first example from Jesus’ own disciples. In the first place, Jesus called both Matthew and Simon the Zealot to be among his own band of close followers. The former was a quisling, a collaborator of the Roman occupying power, while the latter was variously termed a guerilla, a terrorist or a freedom-fighter, depending upon your point of view. The crucial thing to note is that Jesus received both of these people, as they were. Yet, having so called them together, thereafter he showed each of them, and indeed all his disciples together, that there was a quite specific Way which transcended each and all of their previous stances and claims. Jesus’ Way was out to transform each and all of his disciples into a radically new kind of human life. Just so, as Mark heads up his message (1:15):
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near!
Repent and believe in the Gospel, this Good News!
After Jesus’ ascension and Pentecost and the birth of the Church, we get progressively this new form of humanity being played out among the NT people of God. Acts gives us a picture of how this collective journey transpired, from a Jewish start, via Samaria, and beyond into Jewish and Gentile communities all mixed together, concluding with Paul at the centre of the then known world, Rome. Paul too deals with how his own apostolic communities, in Galatia and Corinth, in Ephesus and even Rome, were to embody this new human vision:
Gal 3:26 - For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
1 Cor 12:12 - For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body - Jews or Greeks, slaves or free - and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Eph 2:14 - For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
Practical procedures along the Way are evidenced by the likes of Acts 15, 1 Cor 8 and Rom 14. But there are also some very clear boundaries to be drawn, as in Gal 5-6 and 1 Cor 6. And so we have a vision of a new humanity called from among all types of folk (Rev 7:9), with a clear acceptance of who and what they are in the first place in God’s grace (“to the Jew first and also to the Greek”, Rom 1:16) but also an equally clear goal of what they are to become in the Holy Spirit of Jesus (Rom 5-8). NOT ALL lifestyles and mind-sets are compatible with the rule that is Christ’s and God’s Way: just so, Rom 12:1-2, Eph 4:17-24.
There is however literally a world of difference between this vision of what Jesus came to establish and the ‘religion’ we now see propagated from much of North America, what is termed “the inclusive gospel”. Here we have the logical conclusion of “a secular age”, of a “ribald pluralism”, which simply sees not only an initial acceptance of all types of people (supposedly due to God’s grace and unconditional love) but also a total acceptance of ALL kinds of lifestyle thereafter. There is quite simply no means of adjudicating from among all the belief options available; indeed, even the very thought of such a judgmental possibility is supposedly excluded. There is properly no “repentance” required here at all! This is a new form of comprehensiveness altogether! It is precisely at this juncture that we western Christians are “most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:19). There has been a cultural tsunami over the past decades which has elided the one form of quite legitimate historical comprehensiveness to which Ramsey referred in the latter part of Colin’s quote into the former new, all embracing “umbrella”.
The problem with our contemporary form of liberalism is quite simply therefore this. On what basis are Christians not to surrender to this “spirit of the age”? Assuming they actually want to do such a thing! Certainly the cry of “comprehensiveness” itself is null and void in this context. If they have by and large already surrendered to the likes of Feuerbach’s assessment of religion as a human projection, denying any possibility to objective revelation from a transcendent source, then indeed we may infinitely defer our textual interpretations of Scripture and the Tradition, and so construct as many different meanings (“les sens”) as we may will, only to swim in a global “sea of faith” (Don Cupitt).
However, if our ecclesial Christian confession is truly to go forward into this global century, then the depth of our collective metanoia (multiple meanings and echoes fully intended) shall need to be far greater and infinitely more subtle than that which Colin Brown and his ilk advocate.
Archbishop David Moxon's last sermon in Taranaki coincides with a poignant ceremony involving...
Ever tried herding cats? Spanky Moore has – and he reports considerable success. Here's his ac...
The office of Archbishop of Canterbury is conferred on the Most Rev Justin Welby under the dom...
The Gospels are not obsessed with sexual relations, says Bishop Victoria Matthews in a pa...
Bishop Brian Carrell explores the inside story of the globally acclaimed A New Zealand...
In an exclusive interview, the retiring Archbishop of Canterbury tells how he weathered the st...
ANGLICAN TAONGA is the communications arm of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia / Te Haahi Mihanare ki Niu Tireni, ki Nga Moutere o Te Moana Nui a Kiwa. TAONGA magazine is published three times a year and distributed to all Anglican ministry units and agencies. TAONGA also publishes occasional booklets on church, ministry and sacraments. The General Editor of TAONGA is accountable to the Communications Commission of General Synod / te Hinota Whanui, 200 St Johns Road, Meadowbank, Auckland 1742.