Fitting Christian radicalism to political realities
From the Revd Professor David Martin
Sir, — In the disagreement between Canon Angela Tilby (Comment, 12 May) and the Revd Jonathan Clatworthy (Letters, 19 May) about Christianity and political choice, I am strongly of the view that Canon Tilby is right in supposing that politics as the art of the possible can achieve nothing beyond contingent measures for probable amelioration, and it is all too clear that ambitions beyond that for wholesale reversals have a record of appalling oppression.
Even an unequivocally good radical cause such as the campaign against apartheid can end up with the monstrous corruptions of Zuma, not to mention the minatory fate of Marxism as a movement for liberation. What Christians may offer is not specifically Christian, but shared with people of good will, even if these people happen to be unconscious beneficiaries of Christian attitudes embedded in culture.
In the first place, Mr Clatworthy’s key contrast between oppressive polytheism and liberating monotheism is dubious: the Egyptologist Jan Assman, for example, accuses monotheism of oppressive aggression. In the second place, while it is perfectly possible to draw Christian “red lines” based on the Gospels, for example, regarding genocide and crimes against humanity and gross accumulations of irresponsible power, the broad implications of Christianity for political choice in diffusely democratic societies are capable of very varied political interpretations, not even excluding the free-market economics to which Mr Clatworthy is so vehemently opposed.
The very idea that the Church as embodied in its hierarchy can draw on a deposit of special wisdom as a basis for political counsel reflects a time when it was incorporated in the secular power structure and had a right, in particular, to control personal morality in terms of its teachings. It is precisely the historical exercise of this supposed “right” that fuels general resistance to ecclesiastical “interference in politics”, especially when the Church lamely hobbles behind secular opinion: who now proposes forbidding divorce?
The problem is that Christianity is politically much more radical than either Judaism or classical civilisation. Indeed, Judaism can be read as supporting prosperity theology. A characteristic text is found in Christ’s demand that the rich young ruler give all his goods to the poor. But this demand cannot and has not been treated as a general principle, because it would simply reproduce a different hierarchy of wealth, and is only remotely possible for those without family responsibilities.
Radical Christianity challenges two universal features of developed societies: negative reciprocity (or tit for tat), most obviously in foreign policy, and the corrupt accumulation of mutually supporting hierarchies of wealth and power. That means that Christianity can seek to modify these universal features, but only within the limits imposed by the “art of the possible”.
To set such strict restrictions on military action that they can never be met, in the style of Jeremy Corbyn, is to reject politics as such, and, given that he signally fails to follow that logic, he is reduced, like other utopians, to incoherence and hypocrisy.
Mr Corbyn is not a Christian, but he exemplifies the irresolvable dilemma of a certain kind of utopian Christianity in a form entirely absent from either Judaism or Islam, faiths for which neither wealth nor negative reciprocity are problematic.
174 St John’s Road
Woking GU21 7PQ
Assembly agenda for the European Churches
From the Revd Donald Reeves
Sir, — The Conference of European Churches at Novi Sad in 2017 is a significant moment for the European Churches’ General Assembly, including the Roman Catholic Church, which is not an official member of the Conference (Comment, 26 May). Perhaps it should be.
The Conference should let the spotlight fall on the Balkans, often forgotten in the debates about the future of Europe. The Serbian Orthodox Church, which is traditionally wary of ecumenism, could encourage the great Orthodox monasteries of Pec, Decani, and Gracanica in Kosovo to be places of pilgrimages for us all in Europe; the Conference could highlight the situation in parts of Bosnia, where the Catholic Church has been decimated, but also of the modest interfaith efforts — and that is just Bosnia and Kosovo.
There are other stories to be told from Macedonia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Albania.
Then the Conference should draw attention to the state of religious literacy in Europe, among the European Commission and officials in many international organisations. In a nutshell, Europeans need to know that religion in many parts of Europe is not just a matter of what a person believes or does, but a reflection of who he or she is — of identity. This makes interfaith dialogue difficult, and necessarily strays into cultural and political areas. Religion is not just a matter of choice.
Lastly, the agenda will need to be sharpened up when it comes to considering “hospitality”. What is required is establishing across Europe in the Churches, and also in the Muslim and Jewish communities, a network of those who are actively resisting the Far Right, and who are suffering for it — a confessing interfaith movement.
If the Conference could encourage and provide the resources for this network to be set up, then it would touch a nerve across Europe, and certainly, as Jacques Delors would have said, help Europe discover its soul.
Director the Soul of Europe,
The Coach House, Church Street
Crediton EX17 2AQ
The Pastons’ letter: responses to a church-planting story from Norwich
From Mr Mike Lawlor
Sir, — Judith and David Paston’s letter (26 May) makes concerning reading, and seems to me to be the result of a serious lack of communication somewhere along the line.
We the congregation of St Augustine’s, Queens Gate (also known as HTB Queen’s Gate), in London, have a far different story to tell. After a parochial reorganisation, we were assumed into the parish of Holy Trinity, Brompton.
We were a liberal Catholic bells-and-smells congregation with a strong but small worshipping core, plus frequent visitors, because of our geographical location and a professional choir in a beautiful Butterfield church.
Six years later, we are a liberal Catholic congregation with bells and smells and the same professional choir, and our worshipping numbers have greatly increased, with a much wider age demographic and another well-attended earlier service at 9 a.m., too.
We have found the Vicar and clergy of HTB to be loving, supportive, and an ongoing blessing to us in every way. We see ourselves as an integral part of the parish of HTB, and the success of our parochial merger provides a beacon to prove that there is actually no need whatsoever for either schism or rift anywhere in the Anglican Communion.
The words of the hymn “Bind us together, Lord” are particularly apt, and should be the bedrock and framework for all forms of church renewal in our times.
London EC1M 6AN
From Kathleen Robertson
Sir, — Concerning the letter on church-plants (26 May), I must write to say that this mirrors exactly what happened in the church I attended. I, and others, have become the unchurched elderly, to our distress.
I fear that the Pastons’ hope that this will not happen to other churches has already come too late for many, and will continue with the next generation of clergy brainwashed by HTB.
19 McNish Court
Eaton Socon, St Neots
Cambs PE19 8PE
From Miss P. Peacock
Sir, — Commiserations to the Pastons. What they describe concerning St Thomas’s, Heigham, appears to be an accurate account of how perfectly normal churches become “gellied”. It is thoroughly reprehensible, particularly when spiritual arrogance is involved. If or when changes are made to the status quo, they should be engendered by humility, a willingness to consult at all levels, and not to impose any specific theological viewpoint on anyone.
There are situations in which, for varied reasons, changes are bound to occur, but they should follow a period of consultation and majority agreements. There are plenty of opportunities for urban churches to work in their own environment, and there is no necessity for their members to go out busybodying elsewhere without a specific request.
The justifiable distress of the Pastons should initially be laid at the door of the diocesan appointment committee or patrons.
4 Crescent Rise, Truro
Cornwall TR 1 3ER
From Mr Alan Stanley
Sir, — What a shatteringly ungracious tale of church-planting by stealth is told by Judith and David Paston. No matter what justifications are put up by those involved, there will have been a genuine sense of bereavement.
Perhaps the zealous missionaries to Heigham should have taken note of these words from Max Warren (the Church Missionary Society’s General Secretary, 1942-62): “Our first task in approaching another person, another people, another culture, another faith, is to take off our shoes; for the place we are approaching is holy. Else we may find ourselves treading on another’s dream. More serious still, we may forget that God was there before our arrival” (quoted in Nick Helm’s Soul Spark: A short course exploring prayer and spiritual growth (Grove Books, 2006).
Assbridge Lodge, Cattle Lane
Aberford, Leeds LS25 3BN
South African schism
From Mr Robert Ian Williams
Sir, — The Revd Dr John Bunyan is mistaken in his perception of REACH-SA (formerly the Church of England in South Africa, CESA) (Letters, 26 May). That denomination descends primarily from Anglican parishes at the Cape who refused to join the Church of the Province of South Africa (CPSA), when it was constituted by Bishop Robert Gray. They feared that its constitution denied appeal to the Privy Council, and would become Tractarian in theology.
You cannot be accused of being a schism or breakaway if you have never belonged to the Church of the Province of South Africa.
Three Cape Town parishes stood outside of the CPSA, and recognised only the Bishop or Archbishop of Cape Town as a bishop of the Church of England, by virtue of his consecration in England. By the 1930s, this was not possible, as all Archbishops of Cape Town were consecrated in Southern Africa. One parish made a settlement with the CPSA, and the others were sustained by Sydney, who drew up a constitution.
In the 1950s, they received an episcopal succession by Bishop Morris, who had been a Church of England bishop in North Africa. The then Archbishop of Canterbury threatened to excommunicate Bishop Morris, but had to step down from that position.
Owing to the re-ordination of CESA clergy by the CPSA Archbishop Joost de Blank, the matter was settled with the recognition of CESA’s Anglican orders by the Anglican Consultative Council in 1966. Furthermore, in 1984, a CPSA bishop participated in a CESA consecration. This was an attempt to reconcile the two bodies, but unfortunately the theological liberalism of the CPSA put an end to this.
Thus the CESA’s roots go back to the earliest days of British settlement at the Cape, and her Anglican orders are regarded as being valid by the Anglican Communion. The Natal schism was about theological liberalism, but that in the Cape was about Protestant churchmanship.
ROBERT IAN WILLIAMS
Y Garreg Lwyd
Bangor Is Y Coed LL13 0BB