A Note for Revd Sir John Alleyne’s Modern Church Discussion Group.

Though it isn’t the church’s official New Year, which is the beginning of Advent, nevertheless this is the time of New Year resolutions and tours d’horizon. I thought that perhaps we could do the same sort of thing here as a trigger for discussion and debate.

Challenges within the Church of England include a Primates’ meeting coming up, at which the Archbishop of Canterbury will try to square the circle between different parts of the Anglican communion who can be broadly categorised depending on their attitude to homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Those attitudes reflect the sources of authority recognised by the different parts of the church.

The other ‘topical’ challenge is the bums-on-seats issue: possibly slightly linked to the Primates’ debate: the actual C of E is declining gently in numbers in England and Wales, whereas there is growth in Africa, China and South America, broadly the GAFCON area; it makes Christianity worldwide the fastest-growing religion.

In relation to both the Primates’ meeting (the Jensenite/GAFCON faction), and the issue of church growth, two possible questions, I would suggest, could be, ‘Are they Christians?’ and ‘Why are they Christians (if they are)?’
These two questions could be a prism through which we could look at the church at other times in the last 2,000 years, and compare how our current circumstances are.

From the starting point of Jesus’ Great Commission, Matt.28:19-20, ‘Go ye therefore, and teach all nations..’, I would identify some pivotal times in the history of Christianity.

First, the effect of the Emperor Constantine adopting Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire after the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312AD; then the humanism of Erasmus followed by the Reformation; then (at least here in the UK, apart perhaps from in Scotland) the evangelical revival in the 18th century and the Anglo-Catholic revival of J. H. Newman and the Tractarians, the Oxford Movement centred on Oriel College; then Honest to God.
At each stage it is instructive to ask, ‘Were they Christians?’ and, if they were, why.

Constantine was arguably not a Christian at all. He is said to have had a dream which led him to think that, if he painted the sign of the cross on his soldiers’ shields, he would win the battle. He did, and he did win. That is why he was a Christian – if he was. Perhaps the mere fact that his edict making Christianity the official religion of the Empire was the biggest cause of Christianity becoming a world religion, would itself entitle him to call himself a Christian. But perhaps he went on to accept the gospel message, and to believe.

Erasmus and the Reformers were clearly Christians. Perhaps the more apt follow-up question to ask in their case isn’t why they were Christians, but why they acted as they did. The humanist impulse was to make the gospel intelligible to all; the Reformers again wanted to remove perceived obstacles between God and his people, so they could read the Bible in their own language, and so they could encounter the divine without needing to go through a priest. Whether in fact it brought more people in as believers, I do not know. There was a ‘revival’ of faith, but not necessarily an increase in numbers.

It was more a question how ‘the ploughman learnt his Pater Noster’. The ploughman had had a lively faith all along: but he did not understand the words. They were all ‘hocus pocus’ to him. ‘Hocus pocus’ is a corruption of ‘Hoc est corpus meum’, the Latin for ‘this is my body’, which was at the heart of the Mass – and which the priest said for them.

Why was he a Christian? I suspect that at least up to the time of the 18th and 19th century revivals, people believed at least partly through fear: fear that God would visit harm on them, as he had done to the Israelites when they disbelieved, and partly through a belief in eudaimonism, the idea that, if something bad happened, as for example if you fell ill, it was because you had sinned, and you were being punished. There is a chilling and sustained example of this theology in the ‘Order for the Visitation of the Sick’ in the BCP. (‘Wherefore, whatsoever your sickness is, know you certainly, that it is God’s visitation.’) There was a lively fear of a final judgment, of hell fire and damnation. Although people spoke of Jesus as their saviour, they did not believe that this had let them off the hook. God was to be feared.

Then came pietism and the Methodist revival. John Wesley was impressed by the faith of the Moravians, praying but unafraid in an Atlantic storm on the way back from America: his heart was ‘strangely warmed’ as he walked along Aldersgate Street in the City of London, on his way to a Bible class. His brother Charles wrote 3,000 distilled pieces of theology, in hymns, many of which we still love today. John went round on horseback, preaching, preaching to people who wouldn’t normally feel posh enough to be seen in the parish church – the new urban poor, caught up in the beginnings of the industrial revolution. Bible study and self-help, together with signing the Pledge against alcohol, brought many Methodists out of the slums.

John Wesley was a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford. Just across the High Street, in Oriel, were John Henry Newman and his friends Froude, Keble, Pusey, the Tractarians, following the Noetics – it was said that the Senior Common Room of Oriel was the intellectual power-house of England in the early years of the 19th century. The Tractarians and the Methodists both brought revival: the church had become moribund in many places. Incumbents collected ‘livings’ – but didn’t live there. Many churches were run by put-upon, under-resourced curates, while their vicars spent their time in metropolitan, leisured pursuits.

There weren’t enough places of worship for the growing urban working classes. To some extent Methodism grew into those gaps, although following the Anglo-Catholic revival, with government help, many new churches were built in the cities. Both these ends of the revival movement – or both movements, if you like – resulted in greater commitment to mission in the church. The Anglo-Catholics expressed their calling in the great inner-city missions, in the East End of London and in the provincial cities. The non-conformists were similarly engaged in social concerns, as I mentioned earlier that the Methodists were, through promoting temperance and self-improvement.

Again I point our spotlight at these expressions of Christianity. Were the Tractarians and the Methodists Christians? Clearly, no-one could doubt it. Why? I think in both cases, revival came from a perception that their response to God’s calling, to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, was not worthy, was not adequate. The slothfulness of much of the Church of England brought out the Wesleys on horseback, preaching in places where the pillars of society never went, where there were no churches, or where the parish church was not genuinely open to all. The state’s attempt to reorganise the church in Ireland by reducing the number of bishops so affronted the Tractarians by its apparent ignorance of the historic episcopal succession in the church, that they challenged the status quo and called for a return to the values of the early church Fathers.

I think that it is worth emphasising, when we look at the 18th and 19th century revivals, that a major focus was on social action as a result of faith. The revivalists were not only concerned with the fate of their own souls, but rather their love of their neighbours was equally important. As well as the inner-city missions, another example was the Clapham Sect, who campaigned for the abolition of slavery, were mostly Anglicans, all at some time either ministering or worshipping at Holy Trinity, Clapham Common.

My next focus is on post-Enlightenment Christianity, following the challenges of Darwinism and the First World War. Although Darwin apparently never completely lost his Christian faith, many people felt that his work on evolution in his ‘The Origin of Species’ had made less space for God. If God was a God of mystery, an unmoved mover who had done miracles to prove that He existed and was present in his Son, himself miraculously born, then the more that mankind found out about how things actually worked, so less of that old God remained. Perhaps this challenge to belief in God was particularly effective among educated people, who began to feel that human knowledge was beginning to push out God.

Then the ghastly realities of 20th century warfare, following the invention of the machine gun, first shown in the Boer War – where concentration camps were first used, by the British Army – and in the trenches in Flanders, caused many ordinary, not necessarily highly educated, people to doubt the existence of God. The German soldiers were praying to the same God as the Tommies, for the same thing. Did God really want such terrible slaughter and brutality to take place?

Ludwig Wittgenstein, who fought in WW1, and Bertrand Russell, the first a Christian and the second an atheist, started to describe reality in a starkly mathematical, logical way. Logical positivism, the name by which Wittgenstein’s philosophy was called, held that whatever propositions could not be contradicted, must be meaningless. He said, about metaphysical propositions – what it is to be good, for example – ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’. Sir Alfred Ayer popularised logical positivism in his great ‘Language, Truth and Logic’ (1936). Until the 1960s, many, if not most, Oxford undergraduates studying philosophy were logical positivists, and often therefore, atheists. More recently, of course, it has proved unattractive to have a world view in which metaphysical ideas such as truth, beauty, the good and so on are held to be meaningless, and so logical positivism has waned in influence.

In the blessed 60s came Anglicanism’s reflection of the modern German theologians such as Bonhoeffer, Bultmann and Tillich, Bishop John A. T. Robinson’s ‘Honest to God’. God was not a man with a flowing beard living above the clouds in heaven: God was not ‘out there’ at all, but rather is at the ‘ground of our being’. Tillich was also willing to put forward the idea that the historicity of Jesus was not important, and a fortiori that the various miracles such as the Virgin Birth were not necessary to ground our understanding, and worship, of God.

About ‘Honest to God’, Prof. Peter Gomes of Harvard has written, ‘For a book to do well with a British public, it was once considered an infallible rule that it must involve religion, royalty and sex; and a teaser for such a book might be this: “Take your hand off my knee,” said the duchess to the bishop.” Two out of three is not bad, and John A T Robinson, without the assistance of royalty, sold over 1 million copies of his little book that was translated into 17 languages.’

The attraction of ‘Honest to God’ was – and is – that it makes sense, to an ordinary person. The ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’ will understand it, will ‘get it’, even today. Robinson makes a simple case for being a Christian which does not require one to believe in things which a modern man, dependent on technology and believing in science, might find unlikely or just plain unbelievable.

Of course Don Cupitt has taken ‘non-realism’ even further, following his BBC TV Series ‘The Sea of Faith’ in 1984 and its accompanying book. His conclusion still has resonance. He wrote, ‘When we have …. freed ourselves from nostalgia for a cosmic Father Christmas, then our faith can at last become fully human, existential, voluntary, pure, and free from superstition. To reach this goal is Christianity’s destiny, now approaching. What could be simpler? Why did I not say all this at the outset? Because after all it is not simple ….’

I think that Honest to God was a very good thing for the church. It did bring people back, or into being Christians – and I think it may still have traction (although that is for another time!)

Now Christians inhabit a wide spectrum of belief, at the ultra-liberal end of which is Don Cupitt, and at the other, the Jensenite GAFCON literalists. The Church of England is now led by two conservative evangelical archbishops – which perhaps indicates that the centre of gravity, if the ballast in the ship of faith still consists in Scripture, Reason, and Tradition, is currently heavier in Scripture than Reason.

Today the 39 Anglican Primates – bishops, not gorillas – are meeting in Canterbury to discuss whether the Anglican Communion can continue. The Jensenites believe that homosexuality and gay marriage are sins, and they cite the Book of Leviticus (selectively), and some of St Paul’s less enlightened work in support. They support a ‘traditional Christian’ view which has caused great hurt to many LGBTI people, and they at least assent to, if not actively support, laws in such countries as Uganda, which criminalise homosexuals.

The liberals neither condemn homosexuals nor see why Christianity would rule out gay marriage. Liberals recognise a nuanced description of any person’s sexuality, so that it is not necessarily contradictory for marriage to be at the same time between ‘a man and a woman’ where that ‘man’ and that ‘woman’ are of the same biological sex. Also, a fortiori the Episcopal Church in the USA was not wrong to ordain a practising homosexual as bishop.

Are these positions Christian? Of course the proponents of each criticise each other precisely on the grounds that their opponents are not, not Christian. If one looks back at Christian history, I suppose that the current debate – and possible schism – does not resemble the pivotal moments I have mentioned (except for Constantine), precisely because at all these earlier moments of revival the innovators were never not Christian. The question was rather, were they better Christian than those against whom they reacted.

One thing one can say, is that it seems out of kilter with the previous revivals in that one effect of one view, the ‘traditional Christian’ position, is that, rather than building up the church, it actually hurts some people. Granted that this position is held by churches whose numbers are growing, nevertheless I cannot think that the negativity towards LGBTI people does anything positive to spread the Gospel of Jesus.

We are rather looking at something which perhaps resembles one of the early debates about alleged heresies; Arius or Pelagius, perhaps. Whether there was such a thing as original sin, or whether Jesus was actually God or was himself a created being.

Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, chaplain to the Queen and to the Speaker of the House of Commons, said on the BBC’s ‘The Big Questions’ (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06wrb9r) yesterday that the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matt. 13:24-30) might offer a good model for the Anglican Communion.

“Well then,” they said, “shall we go and gather the darnel?” “No”, he answered; “in gathering it you might pull up the wheat at the same time. Let them both grow together till harvest, and at the harvest time I will tell the reapers, gather the darnel first and tie it in bundles for burning; then collect the wheat into my barn.”[Quoted from the New English Bible, the 60s’ favourite]

Her wise words echo that wonderfully Anglican theological idea of ‘holding in tension’ different, potentially contradictory, ideas.

How will the Primates’ discussions affect bums on seats? Let us now discuss it!
11th January 2016