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Dr Nazir-Ali: ‘Inculturation has limits’

26 June 2008

by Paul Handley in Jerusalem

"Liberal-sounding": Bishop Nazir-Ali at a press conference at GAFCON oin Tuesday JOY GWALTNEY

"Liberal-sounding": Bishop Nazir-Ali at a press conference at GAFCON oin Tuesday JOY GWALTNEY

THE most liberal-sounding speaker at GAFCON by the end of Tuesday was the Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali (pictured at a press conference held on Tuesday).

Dr Nazir-Ali surprised participants on Tuesday by speaking up for inculturation, change, and diversity. But each of these had its limits, he said. The gospel had to be adapted to different cultures, but “capitulation to culture” must be avoided; change and development must be principled; diversity had to be legitimate.

He made few explicit references to existing Anglican polity, beyond saying that the things that bound it together — the Lambeth Quadrilateral, the Instruments of Communion, and “English good manners” — had not proved strong enough to hold it together.

His desire was for a conciliar Church. “We have to have councils that are authoritative, that can make decisions that stick. In the last few years, I’ve been frustrated by decision after decision after decision that have not stuck, and we cannot have this in the future for a healthy Church.”

He also wanted the Church to be clear “that we are a confessing Church. Some people have the mistaken idea that Anglicans can believe anything.”

The task for the Church that remained constant in the face of change was, he said, “the passing on, the receiving, and the passing on again of apostolic teaching”. Faced with new knowledge, such as in the field of embryology: “We must have a healthy view of relating this apostolic teaching to change.”

He championed a detailed study of the Bible: “what lies behind the text, why was a particular text put together, what were the purposes of those who were writing it, what were the aural traditions. . . Then, what is in the text: a careful study of the grammar, of the literary values; and what is in front of the text, how we relate it to ourselves, our culture, our context. . .

“This process of inculturation must go on.” But, he said, there are limits to this process: whatever the process of inculturation does or does not do, it cannot compromise. It cannot compromise how God has revealed himself to the world, how Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, what he has done, who he is.

“Secondly, the process should not in any way impair the fellowship that there is between Christians. So that my inculturation cannot be such that you fail to recognise the authentic gospel in my Church, and vice versa.”

Dr Nazir-Ali took the same line on unity. “Unity is a very precious thing indeed. . . And we must seek to maintain unity, and that peace which builds unity. And there must be unity in diversity. We are not all the same . . . but it has to be legitimate diversity.”

Earlier, he spoke about different models of the Church: the church of the household, “for people who are in some way like one another”; the church of the city, “where people who are unlike one another come together”; the church of an area; and the worldwide Church of God.

“We are faced, in a changing situation, where people want to be Church with those who are like them. We find it in Africa, where people want to be Church in the context of their own tribe; we find it in Asia, and now we find it with the affinity Churches, the network Churches, and the virtual Churches in the North.”

He had once been hostile to this tendency, but his study of the household Churches, he said, had led him to modify his views a little, and he now thought it permissible.

“But there is one condition, and that is that this is not the only way to be Church. If you want to be Church with those who are like you, you also have to be Church with those who are unlike you.”

He ended by telling the GAFCON participants: “If you are anything, you are the beginnings — the miraculous beginnings, you could even say — of an ecclesial movement for the sake of the gospel and the renewal of Christ’s Church.”

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