Friday, 13 July 2012

Erastian Decrees

William Oddie is on particularly robust form today.  Having read Dr Oddie's latest article, the words of the late Gerald Ellison, formerly Anglican Bishop of Chester and London, come back to haunt not just Anglo-Catholics still in the Church of England, but also any Anglican who believes that the Church of England should have ability to decide its own positions. 

Now, whatever one's views on the ordination of women or indeed on any other of the topics on which General Synod likes to spend its time, and whether a Catholic, an Anglican or anything else, does anyone really think it is desirable that a religious body should have these things decided for it by politicians?  Would the most ardent Anglican proponent of the legislation to introduce women bishops want the Church of England's 30+ years of deliberations on the matter to be decided upon by a committee of politicians with, let us be fair, perhaps not the greatest understanding of theology?  Surely there is a difference between accepting a Church by Law Established and having one's theology dictated by the latest crop of politicians?

Isn't this a modern day Gorham judgment in the making?  In the post Lines in the Sand, we explained how state interference prompted Cardinal Manning to leave the Church of England for the Catholic Church, and we hinted at modern day political manoeuvrings to make sure that the Church of England decided the way that politicians wished it to decide.

It is an extraordinary co-incidence that we are talking about this issue on the eve of the 179th anniversary of John Keble's Assize Sermon, in which he protested about the then government's interference in the question of Anglican bishoprics in Ireland.  That sermon is usually cited as the beginning of the Oxford Movement, the movement in the Church of England that eventually gave rise to what we have historically referred to Anglo-Catholicism, and to a revived sense of the importance of the church (the Church of England) having control over what it said it believed, rather than the state decreeing what it believed.

In the interesting set of comments provided on our post Missing the Point (for which, dear readers, many thanks), we answered a point by motuproprio agreeing that the Trojan Horse that has led to the current situation was the Worship and Doctrine Measure 1974, which in fact sought to keep the Church of England's decisions for the Church of England.  In 1972, when still Anglican Bishop of Chester, Gerald Ellison summed up the General Synod debate on that legislation with the following words :
I think it will be generally agreed that the least qualified body to decide the doctrine of the Church of England is Parliament.
In 1974, by which time he had been translated to become the Anglican Bishop of London, he said to the February session of General Synod :
Before granting this freedom, Parliament is entitled to guarantees that the Church of England will not depart from its traditional doctrine and position.
No comment, other than to say that it shows how far things have come in 40 years.  The Church of England had to promise not to change itself, but now risks being forced to change further than even it seems to be able to agree clearly and formally that it wants.

Gerald Ellison ended his 1974 speech with these words :
It is for many of us a matter of principle that the Church is the guardian of the purity of the faith and its voice through its synods should be decisive.
How unfortunate that legislation intended to replace parliamentary "interference" ended up, mixing metaphors here, opening a Pandora's Box that would lead back to the exact same starting point.  If Dr Oddie's report is correct, then Gerald Ellison's good intentions have been squashed.  The Church of England's voice, through its synods, will not be allowed to be decisive if it doesn't decide what politicians want it to decide.  The parliamentarians are not, as seemed to be the concern in 1972, upbraiding the Church of England for departing from its traditional doctrine and position, but for quite the opposite: for trying, in however limited a way and with however limited support, to take into account theological arguments, and for trying to maintain the broad church approach in which the Church of England could try, however unsuccessfully, to be all things to all men, simultaneously holding all manner of mutually incompatible theologies in order to attempt to keep together a national church.

There is no attempt in our blogpost to argue for or against what the General Synod is debating.  That is another story, although one could certainly argue that the mind of the Church of England does seem to be relatively clear, and probably not entirely out of line with what parliament might perhaps force upon it.  No, our point is, like Dr Oddie's, that when your church has its decisions made for it on rather important matters by the state, then you really are in an Erastian environment.

As Dr Oddie said : Erastian Church is ultimately a secular organisation, though one in which religion is permitted, so long as it doesn’t clash with the ethical principles which govern secular society.
How can one reconcile that with the Anglo-Catholic vision of old?  How can one reconcile that with the well-known and oft-repeated line of Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury shortly after the Second World war, that
The Church of England has no doctrine of its own, save that of the one Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church.
Celebrity cleric Giles Fraser has also been writing recently on this heated debate, but although his article contains one or two rather naughty throwaway lines that betray either ignorance or deliberate oversight,  what he says does seem to sum up relatively accurately what is perceived to be the mind of the Church of England, that women will be anglican bishops, end of story.  Like Dr Oddie, his conclusion is that those who do not like this must either adapt and accept, or leave.
But there is no way of unifying those who think women bishops are a theological impossibility and those who think they are a theological necessity. There is no bridge here to be built. In such cases the vast majority will has to prevail.
Dr Oddie says it like this:
Anglo-Catholics need to understand clearly that there is no longer a place for them in the Church of England; they are not wanted. They have, however, an alternative, in communion with the one true Church: the ordinariate has been erected precisely for them. If they will not become part of it, they will have simply to accept that they are members of a Church with women priests and women bishops and get used to it.
We referred above to the Church of England's old habit of attempting to hold everyone together, no matter the diversity and sometimes directly contradictory beliefs.  In this context, in a succinct and powerfully direct article in the London Evening Standard this week, Melanie McDonagh talked of the endless current CofE debate as follows:
The whole thing is preposterous, and not just for unbelievers who can’t quite get their heads around the notion that this is being debated at all. The point of the C of E is that it’s recklessly inclusive, a national church that seems incapable of turning anyone away. You can have ordained Anglican clergy who believe that God was made man and born of a virgin and those who can’t quite buy the Virgin Birth. You can have bishops who believe in the Resurrection and those who believe it is true in a very real sense, ie, not at all.

I would have said once that the only thing that actually unites the Anglican communion is a belief in God but that was before the Right Rev Richard Holloway came along, the former primus of the tiny Scottish Episcopal Church, who couldn’t make his mind up about it.

And with this extraordinary latitude on the things that actually count, the one thing they’re going to make a stand on is women bishops?
Well, preposterous it might be, but it is indeed the case that whereas the Church of England could for many years manage to hold utterly incompatible views on baptismal regeneration, and, as Melanie McDonagh says, on all manner of other pretty fundamental things, it seems that there will be a three-line whip imposed to ensure very clear acceptance of women bishops.  If the CofE itself fails to come to that conclusion, then it  appears that politicians (long known for their familiarity with scripture, tradition and, ahem, reason) will reach it for them.

As Dr Oddie rightly said:
The fact is that the Anglo-Catholics who are still determined to stay in the Church of England are in an impossible situation.
There are those among them who are attempting to call out to the old broad church nature of the Church of England.  The recent Better Together campaigns points to exactly that (although having the same name as the government's campaign against Scottish independence is unfortunate).  Well, if they really mean that, all well and good, but they should note that even those usually as poles apart as William Oddie and Giles Fraser agree that those staying will be better together in a Church of England that has willingly thrown off the understanding of Anglo-Catholicism that we at least have always held, and that sees the Gospel call to Unity as subservient not to theological understanding but to the rulings of politicians.

Dr Oddie says that they should no longer call themselves Anglo-Catholics.  Well, we take a very soft approach here on this blog, as you must all surely know, and we certainly accept that "Anglo-Catholic" has many different meanings.  We will not engage in that debate, much less will we cite Damian Thompson's very forthright and typically punchy summary of these matters towards the end of a recent blogpost covering a range of issues.

However, we would just mention to our former fellow Anglicans who wish to stay in the Church of England yet who are not in favour of the likely changes, that the Better Together campaign is producing some interesting reactions.  An admittedly non-scientific survey conducted by perusing Facebook comments indicates that at least some of those who might describe themselves as liberal Anglo-Catholics, perhaps members of Affirming Catholicism, view the Better Together campaign with confusion, or with suspicion, or with a perception (which may or may not be correct, we have no idea) that it is a form of olive branch, or said more cynically, a white flag.  For them, a movement which for so long proclaimed clearly its objectives and theology is now arguing a very different line.  What they perceive is that instead of seeking to tell the rest of the Church of England what it thinks is true, as it has long done, this movement now seeks a quiet corner in which to be one strand among the many.  You can understand why they are confused.

If Erastian practice is confirmed, then just how many such strands are allowed to exist will become a rather delicate point.

No comments:

Post a Comment