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Generosity or humility?

09 August 2013

"GENEROUS" is a word that we hear much of in Anglican circles nowadays. Like most such fashions, this makes us wary. The fashionable use is not in the context of Christian giving and stewardship, but in association with words such as "orthodoxy" and "ecclesiology", as well as "spirit". On first appearance, it looks as if it is aimed at imparting a warm glow to chilly-sounding terms that turn people off because they are seen as bringing dogmatic baggage with them. Perhaps, like "affirming" 20 years ago, it is on the way to being the new synonym for "liberal". But this may be in intention what the late Alec Vidler, a disciple of F. D. Maurice, distinguished as "liberality" from "liberalism", if that distinction can still be understood.

The word also has a new significance after the failure of the women-bishops Measure last year, and the move in the General Synod to seek conscience provision for opponents which will lack the legislative force of the current provision. In this context, the "generosity" of the majority and of those who will be in the ascendant is being emphasised, and with it there is an implied expectation that those who are being provided for will have to be "generous" (or, presumably, find another Church). Here is plenty of potential for a respectable word to end up - as so many others, such as "open", "fresh", and "inclusive", have - looking like a battered piece of hardware on the battlefield of church politics. Maurice, after all, did warn against the contradictions of a "no-party party".

The word "generous" in the fashionable sense could be thought to be the one to use this week after the Archbishop of Canterbury's appointment of a new Bishop of Ebbsfleet, to bring the Provincial Episcopal Visitors up to full strength again; and his visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, in Norfolk. Both may be taken as encouragement for traditional Catholics in the Church of England. The tradition of Walsingham has not been the Archbishop's, of course; and the comments on his blog suggest something of an internal dialogue after visiting Hillsong, HTB Focus, and New Wine in the same week. But it is significant, perhaps, that he did not use the word "generous" in this context, but referred to the work of Christ: "When Christ is present, our differences break down." To talk about the C of E's "extremes" was to miss the point, he wrote.

God's generosity turns the world upside-down, and makes self-conscious human generosity look mere pretension. "Of your own do we give you," the offertory prayer says; and the confession: "We have not loved our neighbours as ourselves." Generosity is the Lady Bountiful thing until humility comes into play: the Lady whom Walsingham celebrates provides the better model. Humility is the safer prescription for the Church's current ills.

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