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A new ‘generous orthodoxy’

11 March 2016

Paul Wilkinson finds out if churchmanship is still a fault line in theological education

Anglo Catholic: ordinands worship at St Stephen’s House, Oxford

Anglo Catholic: ordinands worship at St Stephen’s House, Oxford

THE Church of England is invariably seen as a broad Church, encompassing many different traditions of worship and style, from incense and acolytes to vicars in jeans who say “Call me Dave.” People define themselves, or get pigeonholed, as Evangelicals, Anglo-Catholics, Liberals, Charismatics, or conservatives, and, at times, the divisions can be quite intense.

But, in many of the theological colleges where the guardians of the faith are formed — and which are historically regarded as storehouses of support for a particular type of churchmanship — there is a growing acceptance that each has a value that can be respected and embraced, especially if the Church is to flourish in the 21st century.

The phrase “generous orthodoxy” is often used to describe this approach of holding the traditions together. In a training context, this intent can be outworked in various ways, from the experience of worship in college to the church placements that the students are required to do.


RIPON COLLEGE, Cuddesdon — itself a merger, 40 years ago, of one college based on traditional Tractarian Catholicism, and another from a liberal scholarly Protestant ethos — deliberately places itself in a number of traditions simultaneously.

“We believe that it is absolutely possible to produce and develop people in a range of traditions in one community,” its Principal, the Rt Revd Humphrey Southern, said. “This serves a Church which has understood itself, at its best, to be a range of traditions in a single Church. We are a microcosm of the Church of England. We don’t teach down the middle of the road: we walk down the whole highway, from side to side, pavements and all.”

The aim, however, is not to collapse everything into an anodyne centre so that anyone can hold on to a bit of it. “It is about a Church which has the imagination, the confidence, and the grace to enable a whole range of different traditions to flourish alongside each other,” he said. “Without that ‘generous wholeness’, the Church becomes tribal — and, worse, a completely fractured Church. There is a danger that, with all the Church’s current introspection about its future, people might hunker down in their particular silo.”

The Principal of the Evangelical Trinity College, Bristol, the Revd Dr Emma Ineson, admits to liking the phrase “generous orthodoxy”. “At Trinity, there are some respects in which we are all-embracing,” she said. “We welcome people of all traditions here; we are a questioning, exploring college. But if you are talking in terms of doctrine, we do have some lines in the sand. We have a statement of faith which would be well recognised as Evangelical. I am very happy to own that as a label, but I am very well aware that, in the Church, at the moment, labels are very much under discussion.

“However, I am not sure that the answer to church growth lies solely in coming together. It’s certainly not going to do it any good if different bits are seen to be warring, but I think the impetus for mission, and the need to be creative in the way we reach out to a younger generation, will probably do more to grow the Church.”


RIDLEY HALL, Cambridge, describes itself as “open Evangelical”, which its Principal, Canon Andrew Norman, explains as “being open to God’s work in other Christian traditions, open to the world around us”.

The approach suggests a pragmatic response to the realities of today. “There is a mission imperative,” he said. “If you are going to be an incumbent in a multi-parish benefice, you may well have different traditions among the churches there; you need to be able to relate to those different traditions.

“It’s up to each college to decide what sort of ethos it wants for the future, but we want our ordinands to be deployable, able to serve in differing contexts across the country. However, we don’t want a generation who are merely pragmatic; we want those who are grounded in their tradition, in their biblical understanding and faith, but able to be imaginative, to see how to connect with a society that’s really lost a lot of its Christian memory.”

The Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham, one of the oldest theological colleges in England, has been practising diversity since 1970, when it became a partner with the Methodist Church. “In many ways, the whole generous-orthodoxy approach is a catching up with how we have been operating for decades,” the Co-director of the Ministerial Centre for Anglican Formation and tutor in liturgy and worship, the Revd Mark Earey, said.

He sees generous orthodoxy as “the new way of the Church thinking about ecumenism. It’s being applied within the Church to find ways for the different parties to live together. It’s about saying we can get on with mission together, accepting that we are different and not need to prove each other wrong.

“Queen’s has developed a pattern of ecumenical working which says you don’t have to come together with some sort of compromise which is half one and half the other. We tell our students: you bring who you are, you offer it generously rather than defensively, and you do it in a way which is hospitable to other perspectives. It’s a reflection of the world outside, a post-modern world where people don’t all have to have the same meta-narrative.”

Queen’s students, he suggests, are excited rather than frightened about discovering difference and learning by it. “We are getting more people who are looking for somewhere that will stretch them and take them out of their comfort zone, and I think other colleges are responding to that.”


ST MELLITUS College, London, is a newcomer on the scene. It was established in 2007 as a non-residential college pioneering mixed-mode training. It, too, adopts the generous-orthodoxy position, with a maxim of “Unity in Diversity”.

Its Dean, the Revd Dr Andrew Emerton, acknowledges that “generous orthodoxy” can mean different things to different people, “but, for us, we see the college as orthodox: totally committed to the Christian faith as it’s been received in the holy scriptures, handed down to the Early Church Fathers, the credal statements, the doctrines of the Church, and the ongoing communion of the faith.”

The “generous” part comes from an awareness of the breadth of different theological understandings and aspects of Christian faith and life. “The key challenge, or tension point, often comes down to worship styles rather than theology, because people are very steeped in their approach to worship,” he said. “We want people to inhabit their own preferred space within church traditions, but we also want students to engage with others and make friends with people that may worship or think in different ways.”

There is no search for a lowest common denominator, he says; instead, the strengths of different traditions are emphasised. Services in any particular tradition are conducted “full-on”; so an Evangelical Charismatic service could include a band and prayer ministry: an Anglo-Catholic service would include vestments and incense. “We get students and staff to lead those acts of worship, and that means people see excellence, and they learn from the best,” Dr Emerton said. “Worship, done well, can lift us across the traditions. Done badly, it can be awful.”

He believes that, today, most of the colleges are broader than the label they adhere to: “It is a recent development, and it has come from the ground up, from ordinands wanting to be more aware and work positively within the Church, which is a healthy thing to see. It is partly driven by the missional imperative. Dealing with the breadth of the Church emerged out of some of the values we started with — I don’t think we set out to do anything new; it was a reflection of the way things are going anyway.

“We believe that if we are going to turn this country around, in terms of the Church in its current state, we need all parts of it. We don’t think it is enough for the Evangelicals to be strong; we need the Anglo-Catholics and the Charismatics. That will come about if we are working together rather than pulling apart.”


BUT among some Anglo-Catholics, there is a feeling that accepting generous orthodoxy suggests that the alternative could be mean-minded, narrow, or ungenerous. The Principal of the firmly Catholic St Stephen’s House, Oxford, Canon Robin Ward, said: “I am unhappy about the phrase ‘generous orthodoxy’ if it is used to exclude rather than include the complete variety of approaches to theological training that exist in the Church of England. It must not be used as a label to declare that other people are ungenerous in their orthodoxy.

“Anyone who is engaged in theological education has to be very perceptive about the signs of the times; and that, in doing that, one can have confidence that the tradition from which one comes will be able to refresh and renew people’s encounter with the gospel. There is still a really important place for single-tradition colleges in the Church of England, because the holistic way in which they deal with teaching theology, pastoral practice, and worship is a very important contribution to the ecology of the Church of England as a whole.”


TIM FOX, aged 37, a Charismatic from Coventry in his second year at the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham, admitted to feeling, sometimes, like a fish out of water during his five-week placement with the High Church parish of St Oswald’s, Tile Hill, in Coventry.

Each Sunday, he would robe as a crucifix-bearer or acolyte, and he admitted that he did not always know what was going on. “To say it was not my experience is to put it mildly,” he said. “People were crossing themselves during the benediction, and facing east during the Creed. The way the eucharist was done, with bells and incense and ablutions, was very alien to me. My tradition de-emphasises that part of the service, and it was fascinating to see one where that was the focus of everything.

“I have never experienced worship done with such co-ordination. I walked the wrong way round the altar at one point. I had to check everything, even how to tie the cord round the alb. It was almost scary.”

But he was encouraged by the real sense of welcome that he felt, and the confidence he now has to engage with that tradition in the future. “It really does bring home the breadth of the Anglican Church, and the joy in that breadth. I delight in the fact that I now have experience and friends across that spectrum. Theologically, we were never going to meet up, but it was not something we had to resolve; we can value each other’s traditions without agreeing them.”


HANNAH CARTWRIGHT, aged 27, from High Wycombe, Bucks, is in her second year at Ripon College, Cuddesdon. She describes her churchmanship as “a little bit of a mix”. Originally from a conservative Evangelical church, she later experienced a liberal Anglo-Catholic parish, where her mother served her first curacy.

Of a placement in an Evangelical setting, she said, “I don’t think there was anything where I’ve been so shocked that I felt I couldn’t take part; but, at the same time, there have definitely been things which have really challenged me. I had developed a quite strong sacramental understanding, and so some of the way the eucharist was understood in the Evangelical church was foreign to me. The emphasis within their worship was more heavily on teaching and preaching, and the word, rather than a sacramental focus.

“It has been a really good opportunity to experience different traditions. All the experiences were beneficial, but that does not mean they weren’t hard. The most profound change has definitely been an opening up of my spirituality, and being able to draw on the richness of a number of different traditions and to not feel boxed in by a particular label.”


JO PURLE, from Canterbury, is in her second year at Trinity College, Bristol. Originally from a strong Evangelical Charismatic background, she has experienced Pentecostal worship while doing missionary work in Uganda, and at informal Vineyard churches. Despite living in Canterbury for 15 years, she had rarely been inside the cathedral. Consequently, her diocesan director of ordinands insisted she spent time in a high church as part of her discernment process.

“I didn’t enjoy it,” she admitted. “It was hard work, and I did wonder: is this where I am going to be heading?” Then, last summer, she had a four-week placement at St Alphege’s, in the centre of Whitstable, which she describes as a “slightly highish Anglican church on the liberal end”.

“It was one of the most pivotal parts of my training so far,” she said. “All of the practice was foreign to me. It was not strongly liberal, but it was still a big shift from where I had come from. I thought it going to be a bit of a slog, but it was a very humbling experience.

“The Vicar was absolutely delightful. She was very welcoming, supportive, respectful of my background, and honest. I asked a lot of questions about why they did certain things; it just opened my eyes. I felt I could have a genuine encounter with God with worship practices which are quite foreign to me.

“I liked the people I spent time with very much, and yet they enjoyed practices on a Sunday that I found quite strange and dated. It really made me wrestle and consider how important is this blessing of the Church of England.

“I have moved a long way since my discernment process, and I am still processing it. There is huge value in some of our orthodox practices and the richness of our tradition and heritage. I am probably talking as an evangelist at heart; so my framework is always: how is this reaching people today? But there absolutely is a place for that liturgical worship in a contemporary context.”

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