IN A telling aside, halfway through this cogent and timely account of the part played by the parish church in our communities and in our nation, Tim Gibson describes strolling around the cloisters of Westminster Abbey, “discussing Hegelian dialectics with a minor canon”.
This is telling because Gibson clearly has a Hegelian bent himself. His plea for the parish proceeds through paradox, expressing a series of tensions and polarities, which he attempts to resolve by bringing to bear a uniquely Anglican theology of time and place. Wisely eschewing all the blunt and over-rehearsed analyses of decline, Gibson describes the Church’s role as “keeping and sharing”, always gesturing beyond itself. So, count the people, he says, and you count the wrong thing.
Particular and universal, fragmentary and whole, reformed and Catholic, local and universal, the Church of England, according to Gibson, is rooted in the past and the local, and yet always pointing towards the universal and a coming Kingdom. Central to Gibson’s argument, bending the polarities to form a circle, are the notions of belonging and neighbourhood, notions that, he believes, call us to dwell with difference and disagreement honourably and faithfully as signs of “our shared living of the kingdom”.
Arguments for Anglicanism’s enshrining the principle of “unity in diversity” are familiar enough, but here they are compellingly articulated with real penetration and honesty.
Gibson develops his argument by reference to individual parishes, some known to him intimately, others visited only briefly by him, and others fictional. He incorporates into his survey various ecclesial experiments and expressions, at one point helpfully distinguishing between “worship construed as subjects putting themselves in the way of God” and “worship as subjective experience the success of which can be measured by how we feel”.
Gibson argues forcefully for the former. And his essay stands as a defence of traditional Anglicanism, with which he calls us to keep faith, “even if we sometimes feel beleaguered, irrelevant, taken for granted or forgotten”. Pursuit of growth for growth’s sake, he urges, will lead us only “further from home than ever”. In Gibson, Anglicanism has found a thoughtful and acutely observant champion.
The Revd Dr Colin Heber-Percy is a Team Vicar in the Savernake Team Ministry.
He is the author of Tales of a Country Parish (Short Books, 2022).
Imagining the Church: Keeping faith in a fragmented world
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