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Policing the boundaries: what the clergy and laity need

02 November 2006


From Prebendary Horace F. Harper
Sir, — The Bishop of Worcester ( Comment, 23 July) rightly suggests that there is a need for some order-ing of the generous Anglican doctrinal space; but I voted against the Discipline (Doctrine) proposals because they failed adequately to define such boundaries, left intact many moribund 19th-century judgments (paragraph 60), and relied on the building up of fresh case law. they were offering a blank cheque-book to bigots.

We have a boundary now. It is mapped out by the Declaration of Assent, and (importantly) its little-heard Preface. The Church has the right to hear its ministers make this, and to mean what it says. It does not have the right to question us further. The Preface and Declaration define our liberties as much as our obligations.

What is now needed is to offer a new deal to the clergy (something akin to Measure for Measures) which gathers into one consideration everything that relates to our working conditions: canon law, the Declaration of Assent, guide to professional conduct, codes of practice, ministerial review, etc.

To gain our full respect, it must not assume that either bishops or other clergy are free from original sin, nor allow orthodox phrases to be given fresh and narrowed meanings; and must promote conditions under which the gifts of ordination may flourish.

3 Mahogany Drive, Stafford ST16 2TS

From Mr Walter James
Sir, — I should be grateful if you would allow a person who is neither a cleric nor a professor of theology to intrude some comment on the attitude of some of your correspondents to what you have described as the “heresy report”.

Mistakenly, I had assumed that since the publication of Honest to God no one would now be encouraging the clergy to be either pusillanimous and/or patronising. That awareness of evolutionary creation which led Charles Kingsley to agonise over whether to enlighten his congregation, and Tennyson to recommend, “disturb not thy sister when she prays,” is arguably excusable in the 19th century. “Not in front of the laity” is an attitude that needs to be consigned to history in the 21st.

Fortunately your own attitude is more enlightened than the Church’s. Your reviews ( Books, 23 July) drew to my attention a book that “offers the kind of information about the Bible that ministers meet in their training, but which they rarely feel able to share with their congregations”. On the same page, I encountered another review that informed me that “To be ‘god to us’ in Jewish thought is not to be ‘God in essence’,”; and that it is possible to move “too easily from dignity to divinity” in interpreting Pauline regard for Jesus.

If we are to put away childish things, we laity need more, not less, of this kind of exposure; and we need this teaching not only in your columns and the books you review, but also in the Church, if she is to be faithful to truth, and fit us for an honest pilgrimage to God. In your columns, I found a bishop admitting that “Tom Wright’s Jesus is not my Jesus.” I listen in vain for such openness and honesty from the pulpit.

Finally: if others could be as warm in their commendation of views with which they disagree as the Bishop of Lincoln was in concluding his review of the Gospel commentaries of the then soon-to-be-appointed Bishop of Durham, we might have enough people to establish a Court of Ecclesiastical Causes Reserved that could be trusted.

 Unfortunately, the appetite for the intransigence and intolerance identified by Dr Selby appears not to have been sated. Until it is, we will do well to be on guard against those who want to draw boundaries around how the Church talks of God to God’s unfrozen people.

25 Kepplestone, Staveley Road, Eastbourne BN20 7JZ

From the Revd Richard Wilkins
Sir, — Differences over the fate of the Clergy Discipline (Doctrine) report highlight a dilemma in the Church’s engagement with its own and other modern minds. Do we believe in freedom of reasonable inquiry or not?

A 20th-century spokesman for my own conservative Evangelical tradition wrote: “We believe our cause will come to rights only when youth refuses to go thoughtlessly with the anti-intellectual current of the age. . . The last thing we desire is to discourage originality or independence of mind” (J. Gresham Machen).

I listened once to a studious layman sharing excitedly with me his discoveries in textual and historical criticism. These, he said, rendered questionable our parish church’s unexamined certainties about traditional doctrines and biblical stories. I agreed, and said that, considering life, the universe and everything, the evidence that “God is love” is about as thin as it gets, and that only a sentimental fundamentalist in comfortable circumstances could believe anything so far-fetched.

Of course, if all evidence is fearlessly pursued from a background of Christian belief about Almighty God as the eternal and holy Creator of all except himself, then a quality like love, if God has it, can be ultimately important, even to the inhabitants of a doomed planet. But who can believe that? Either a wishful thinker in a sheltered intellectual environment; or people to whom God has communicated eternal truth.

Either way, a Church insufficiently convinced of anything to border its beliefs is a Church that ought, in all honesty, to dissolve.

27 Spring Gardens, Garston, Watford, Hertfordshire WD25 9JJ


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