An issue! An issue! We all fall down

by
26 March 2008

Those who would divide the Communion lack an Anglican spirit, says Mark Oakley

A vision of a multifaceted Church? Noah’s Ark by Edward Hicks (1846)

A vision of a multifaceted Church? Noah’s Ark by Edward Hicks (1846)

THE Revd Rod Thomas wrote to this newspaper that “there are only really two sides to the current controversy over human sexuality . . . there is no room for middle ground” (Letters, 14 March). So far, media commentators have interpreted the division in the Anglican Communion in the same vein — as being between “conservatives” and “liberals”.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has been mocked as the compromised referee, who ends up managing the ecclesiastical equivalent of herding cats at the Lambeth Conference. The rest of the Church becomes anxious about which side is gaining the upper hand in Synods, councils, and on the bench of bishops. The result is that, as Churchill noted, keeping your ear to the ground means you can’t see very far from down there. To be focused more on our purity than our purpose leads to paralysis.

The division, however, is not really between conservatives and liberals at all. It is much more serious than that. It is a division between, first, those who are willing to say that other Christians, who have different views or lifestyles to themselves, are still, nevertheless, Christian, and have a Christian integrity that must be part of the Church; and, second, those who think that this simply cannot and must not be the case.

Following the first approach, and contrary to much reporting, there are Anglo-Catholics, Evangelicals, conservatives, liberals, radicals, and everything in between — all knowing where they stand, but, in generosity of spirit, acknowledging the different but faithful approaches to the Bible, tradition, and reasoning that there are legitimately other than their own.

These people believe that the Church is a Noah’s ark, where every animal has to budge over in the straw to let someone else nestle down. This is a Church where friendships count for more than sound-bites, and which understands that something of God is shadowed every time a believer forgets that Christian faith is an exercise in humility. This has been the Anglican spirit at its best — with a resistance to over-definition of doctrine, in preference to worshipping together in common prayer.

Advertisement

The second approach, however, challenges this spirit. It argues that there is only one way to interpret scripture or tradition on the issues that are presenting themselves, and that all other views are in error and should not be given any oxygen. Some bishops feel so strongly about this that they cannot even meet in conversation and prayer those fellow bishops with whom they so profoundly disagree. An irony emerges: those who argue so fiercely for family values do not set a good example of how to be a family. Communion needs communication.

I was ordained 15 years ago, and, over these few years, I have found myself increasingly worried about the climate change of the Church.

I was ordained next to remarkable people, with whom I disagreed theologically, but I felt then, as I do now, that by ordaining all of us — asking us the same questions of intent, requiring of us the same assent and declarations in a liturgy in which the Creed was jointly recited — the Church of England was both drawing life from its historical inheritance, and maintaining its passion for balance in proclaiming the gospel afresh. We shared communion together from the start; for, as the New Testament is keen to point out, fear of contagion is not a Christian fear.

Those who want a Church of strict uniformity will say that behind all the issues that currently divide us lies the primary topic of how the Bible is interpreted, and that what are often referred to as secondary issues are not.

Again, something of the traditional Anglican spirit is under attack here. The Anglican tradition has sought to be a scholarly, reflective, and intellectually honest one. It has therefore known that reading the Bible as a community and taking it seriously — honouring the many genuine historical and interpretative questions that are simply there — will inevitably lead to more than one conclusion.

It is not so much that the Bible neatly answers all our questions, as that it questions all our answers. Its treasures are not yielded up overnight, at whim, or as ammunition. The only ultimate uniformity on offer is the constant fidelity of God towards us all.

The boundaries of our theological thinking have been placed on the table for us long ago. Scripture is read, tradition received, sacramental worship offered, and apostolic ministry retained. To agree then that some of our dividing issues today are adiaphora, “things indifferent”, might be a provisional understanding, but I would argue that it is urgently necessary.

Advertisement

A little self-reflection might be important. I cannot be the only person who, since my confirmation at the age of 11, has found himself changing thoughts and opinions on almost everything as the years pass. In those years, though, the Church of England has been large enough to be my home — a spiritual compass, not a dictator telling me with whom I cannot meet or pray.

In 1930, the Lambeth Conference concluded that Anglicans stand for “an open Bible, a pastoral priesthood, a common worship, a standard of conduct consistent with that worship and a fearless love of truth”. My fear is that those who would now homogenise our Church place some of these at severe risk.

This is not about conservatives and liberals. It is about the survival of the Anglican soul. There is middle ground — and it is where we should all be at times, for the sake of one another and the message of reconciliation entrusted to us.

The Ven. Mark Oakley is Archdeacon of Germany and Northern Europe.

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read five articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)