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On polity and politeness

15 November 2013

Paul Avis considers a vision of Anglicans seeking consensus

© robert greshoff/robert Greshoff & cathedral enterprises ltd

One baptism: dating from Archbishop Laud's era, Canterbury Cathedral font (1639), by the sculptor John Christmas, is here shown in one of Robert Greshoff's eye-catching new colour photos, his first in-depth exploration of a historic building, for Jonathan Foyle's book Architecture of Canterbury Cathedral (Scala, £25 (£22.50); 978-1-85759-701-1), with a chapter by Heather Newton, head of masonry and stone conservation, and a foreword by Rowan Williams. Foyle, chief executive of World Monuments Fund Britain, takes the reader through the cathedral's successive eras, and includes a chapter on the monuments. The 200 images also include documentary material and drawings. Another photo overleaf

One baptism: dating from Archbishop Laud's era, Canterbury Cathedral font (1639), by the sculptor John Christmas, is here shown in one of Robert Gre...

A Point of Balance: The weight and measure of Anglicanism
Martyn Percy and Robert Boak Slocum, editors
Canterbury Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30  (Use code CT734 )

Anglicanism: Confidence, commitment and communion
Martyn Percy
Ashgate £17.99
Church Times Bookshop £16.20  (Use code CT734 )

THESE two collections of essays - the first by various hands, the second by a single well-known author - address urgent questions about the integrity, unity, and destiny of the Anglican Communion, and the validity of Anglican theology, spirituality, and mission. Parts of both books are pure gold, containing distilled wisdom and insight.

The authors set out a pathway for Anglicanism which is one of virtuous disposition and behaviour. This is virtue ethics applied to ecclesiology. As Rowan Williams says in his foreword to A Point of Balance, Anglicanism at its best has tried to practise the Benedictine values of courtesy, hospitality, generosity, and a reflective, balanced, practical faith.

There are chapters in A Point of Balance by the Episcopalians Kathy Grieb on biblical interpretation, Robert Hughson on prophetic mission, and Robert Hughes III on koinonia ("it has always been a mess"). Mark Chapman's short study of the hysterical reaction to the notorious symposium Essays and Reviews (1860) teaches us that panic measures tend to look very foolish in retrospect: one of the contributors, Frederick Temple, went on to be Archbishop of Canterbury and the father of one of his successors (William). But I want to highlight three outstanding contributions.

Robert Boak Slocum points out that Anglican theology tends to be pragmatic and responsive rather than systematic and speculative, and that it is flexible, not rigorist, in its practical application, because it has been developed in relation to pastoral and social needs and challenges. It is incarnational in its approach, recognising that creation is still good, with sacramental potential, and that God chooses to work through people.

Because it is embodied in practice, especially prayer, the eucharist, and compassionate action, Anglicanism can live with certain loose ends and unresolved questions, respecting the conscience of those of other views. It is inimical to theories of infallibility, wherever located. It is resistant to party spirit and a sectarian mentality.

Philip Sheldrake provides an impressive concise systematic theology of reconciliation, showing how we tend to demonise the "other" in fear and anger, and how reconciliation involves the healing of memories, particularly of "belittlement, rejection, and denial". The process involves painful moments of "unknowing or dispossession", leading to the art of listening and holding back comment or judgement (the Rule of St Benedict again). Reconciliation leads through common prayer to its culmination in eucharistic communion. What inhibits it is an intolerant, dogmatic spirit that claims to see as God sees - and that is idolatry.

Gerard Mannion, a Roman Catholic lay theologian, indignantly attacks the idea of the Ordinariate for former Anglicans, and deconstructs the foundational document Anglicanorum Coetibus as damaging not only to Anglicans but also to Roman Catholics. Anglicans, he argues, have a valid form of the Church; they have no need to be conveyed to Rome: "No taxi required." But, Mannion points out, the arrangements also by-pass the proper authority of the local Roman Catholic Bishops' Conferences by locating the administration of the Ordinariates in the Vatican, in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is thus found to exceed its proper powers by an abuse of the magisterium.

Mannion could perhaps have made more than he has of the undermining effect of Anglicanorum Coetibus on the agreed path to full visible communion which has been persuasively set out by ARCIC and its more practical complement, IARCCUM, over the years.

Martyn Percy contributes a chapter and a postscript to A Point of Balance, and I take these alongside consideration of his Anglicanism: Confidence, commitment and communion, to which I now turn. There is more than a little overlap in these shrewd, witty, and always constructive occasional papers, but most of the material bears repeat-ing. Percy is striving for a way, a method, of holding things together which is not merely a collapse into some kind of spongy middle ground. The centre is not the same as the middle: it is a value-judgement. To hold the centre is now a radical stance, and where the cutting edge lies. It is where opposites meet and engage.

The Church must have the capacity to soak up angst while issues are thrashed out in dialogue over time. This is what the great councils of the Church achieved, and the history of Christianity can be described as an ongoing, tension-filled conversation about what Christians hold dear. Percy is influenced by Alasdair MacIntyre's view that a living tradition is an ongoing argument about the goods prized by the community. As Percy puts it, "Debates, dissension, and disagreement are never indicators of denominations in their early death-throes." So "the point of balance", of equipoise, "lies in the mutual and respectful comprehension of otherness". Poise is not a resting-place, but - as for a high-diver - a springboard for signal achievement. This is a helpful contribution to reflection on Anglican conciliarity - how we formulate policy, take decisions, and reflect on the outcome - all through the cultivation of consensus.

Percy excels at practical prescriptions for managing things better, based on perceptive diagnoses of the ills of culture and Church. He draws on sociology with an anthropological turn to identify the post-institutional and post-associational context of Christian mission today, and on applied theology to propose reasonable, do-able remedies, although not remedies that are without cost. He applies his trademark method to a range of issues in the Church: local (rural) and national mission, questions of establishment, the polity of the Anglican Communion, fresh expressions, training for ministry, and liturgical space.

To be a good Anglican, for Percy, is a skill and an art, and resonates with the flourishing (certainly in Britain and America) of Anglican poetry, hymnody, music, and spirituality. These arts and other more ethical and down-to-earth applications of the Christian life reveal the churches as "communities of practice", where the faith is instantiated in humble lives of service, lived in communion.

Percy reserves his fiercest criticism for the cruder forms of "fresh expressions" and the simplistic management jargon about "leadership" which often accompanies them. A Church that is "in thrall to the formulaic" has lost touch with the deep roots of theological reflection. So here is a priest who is both a proven leader and an accomplished manager, castigating the simplistic nostrums that abound in the Church these days about both these skills. Percy does not believe that post-institutional ecclesiologies hold any hope for the future for the Churches. He is interested in conserving and enlarging "spiritual capital", which can be achieved only by committed, sustained, and responsible involvement in the wider community.

Both volumes present a highly attractive version of Christianity, and of Anglicanism in particular - modest, reasonable, civilised, and courteous, it knows how to debate politely. "Anglicanism, at its best," Percy writes, "is a community of civilised disagreement." Of course, these authors know that this is an ideal model, and that history provides numerous examples of Anglicans' exhibiting the antithesis of these virtues, to fellow Anglicans and to other Christians.

There are parts of the Anglican Communion today - and indeed of the Church of England - where such values are little esteemed, and where party spirit and a sectarian mentality flourish. But, where that is the case, should we not be looking for the occasions of "belittlement, rejection, and denial" which may have triggered that retreat into fear and anger, with a view to trying to heal such wounds?

The Revd Dr Paul Avis is Canon Theologian of Exeter Cathedral, Honorary Professor of Theology in the University of Exeter, and editor-in-chief of Ecclesiology.

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