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Needed: a generous orthodoxy

by
17 June 2022

Graham Tomlin makes a plea for an enlargement of heart

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An iconographic representation of the Nicene Creed at the First Council of Nicaea, AD 325

An iconographic representation of the Nicene Creed at the First Council of Nicaea, AD 325

OVER the coming years, the Church of England faces some well-known challenges. There is the threat of division over issues such as the future of the parish, strategies for growth, or human sexuality. There are the familiar statistics of decline. At the same time, while the Church can get headlines for criticising the government of the day, it struggles to get a hearing in public for the heart of its gospel. Underneath these issues lies a deeper one: a crisis of confidence in the Church’s own story.

Back in 1987, the American theologian Hans Frei wrote: “My own vision of what might be propitious for our day — split as we are, not so much into denominations as into schools of thought — is that we need a kind of generous orthodoxy.” Although perhaps a throwaway line, the phrase has stuck, and may offer a lifeline for a Church that struggles with its identity, its unity, and its voice. We need to recover confidence in the heart of our story — a story that underlies all our traditions and expressions of faith. We need to rediscover a generous orthodoxy.

When speaking of this, I have found some people attracted to the “generous” aspect, but a little nervous about the “orthodoxy”. Orthodoxy is often perceived — perhaps with some justification — as being a harsh and restrictive form of faith; the qualifying “generous” seems to soften a rather hard-edged moral and dogmatic outlook.

Others are keen on the “orthodoxy”, but less sure about the “generosity”, which seems to stretch the boundaries of orthodoxy too wide, and threatens to betray the essentials of the faith. Some of this suspicion emerges from the use of the phrase in Brian McLaren’s 2004 book A Generous Orthodoxy, where he showed a great interest in the different forms of Christian faith which he had discovered beyond his own, narrow, theological origins (the “generosity”), but comparatively little interest in the depths and riches of orthodoxy itself.

The suspicion on both sides is that you can be “generous” or “orthodox”, but not both.

Yet perhaps we should challenge the idea that “generosity” and “orthodoxy” are somehow opposed to, or even in tension with, one another. Perhaps orthodoxy is, in its very nature, generous — in many senses of that word — but also all about forming people in generosity, and that is, therefore, the right and appropriate way in which orthodoxy is to be held and celebrated.

 

IT HAS often been said that, if we were to try to construct a statement of faith which all Christians could believe in, we would probably end up with something so bland that it would hardly be worth believing at all. Yet we actually have such a statement. Far from being bland, the Nicene Creed — the one creed accepted and used across all Christian Churches — offers an extraordinarily rich and deep vision of God, life, and humanity: a vision that can truly be described as a generous orthodoxy.

Nicene orthodoxy gives us a bigger, more expansive and more interesting picture of the world than secular visions: one that leads us to a way of life which is healthier and, in its own way, more generous and generative. It is a vision that requires an expanded imagination, which has in the past inspired some of the greatest works of art and architecture in human history.,

For example, the Creed speaks about God as the Creator of “all that is, seen and unseen”. This includes what most people in the world intuitively know: that there are all kinds of unseen realities. What can be seen, touched, and measured is not the whole story. A purely materialist world is really a very small one. It can give little account of notions such as grace, holiness, the existence of angels, or the possibility of the miraculous. Of course, we have to beware of credulity and fanciful claims, but look closely at the detailed architecture of a medieval cathedral and you will see this expanded world simply assumed in a way that modern, closed-minded materialists find hard to imagine.

 

THIS is a vision of the world which is just too big to fit into modern, secular ways of thinking. It can be done, of course, but that is to reduce Christian faith to something much less interesting. It is, perhaps, what the Church itself has so often done — which is why Christian faith seems so dull and unappealing to so many. We have so often tried to reinterpret Christian faith within what Charles Taylor called the “immanent frame” of modernity rather than start with the expansive, rich vision of reality at the heart of Christian orthodoxy.

The God whose story the Creed tells is a God of generosity and grace. He gives the gift of creation; into that created world, he gives his Son for its redemption, and he gives the Spirit, who is the great Giver of Life. Grace and generosity lie at the heart of this story, and therefore to believe it — and to allow it to shape your inner and outer life — is to be caught up in that spirit of generosity.

Generosity of heart and life is sorely missing in this acquisitive and anxious world. It is also scarce in an anxious Church, in which we tear strips off one another in our panic about survival rather than breathe the generosity of spirit which looks for the presence of Christ and the work of the Spirit in one another.

A rediscovery of the extraordinarily powerful and generative story that, underneath our divisions, we have in common might make us more generous to one another and more confident in what we have to offer a struggling and mystified world.

 

Dr Graham Tomlin is the Bishop of Kensington until August, when he will step down to lead full-time the Centre for Cultural Witness, based at Lambeth Palace. He is the author of Navigating a World of Grace: The promise of generous orthodoxy, published by SPCK at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.70); 978-0-28108-285-8.

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