COCKEYED OPTIMIST

Sunday, August 28th, 2011 | Uncategorized

For 500 years, the Anglican tradition has survived many calamities, argues Tom Wright.  It will survive the Current Unpleasantness:

Plus ça change. From today’s perspective, 1866 looks to be the Church’s high Victorian pomp; but the same voices are raised today, warning that the Church of England, never mind the wider Anglican Communion, is finished. The ship is going down, and it’s time for the lifeboats, whether those sent across the Tiber or the homemade ones which offer a ‘safe’ perch for ‘conservative evangelicals’

Not that Anglicans don’t have problems, mind you.  All Christians do.

I would be the last to say there are no causes for alarm. Every age has produced serious challenges to Christian faith and life, within the Church as well as outside. Ours is no exception. But it may be worth reminding ourselves what the Church is for, and what the Church of England in particular is known to be for up and down the land — except, of course, among the chatterati, who only see ‘gay vicars’ in one direction and ‘happy-clappies’ in the other.

Dr. Wright has what might be termed an Episcopalian outlook.  “The Episcopal Church is dying?!!” your Episcopal friend angrily exclaims.  “Balderdash!!  The Episcopal Church is not dying!!  My parish has never been healthier!!”

Snapshots from my time in Durham tell a true story of what the Church is there for. The foot-and-mouth crisis strikes the Dales, and the local vicar is the only person the desperate farmers know they can trust. A local authority begs the Church to take over a failing school, and within months, when I visit, a teenage boy tells me, ‘Well, sir, it’s amazing: the teachers come to lessons on time now.’ Miners’ leaders speak of the massive coal stocks still lying there unused, and we campaign, in the Lords and elsewhere, for the new technology that can release it. The new vicar at a city-centre church, dead on its feet a few years ago, apologises that the weekday service is a few minutes late in starting; he has been helping a young, frightened asylum-seeker whose case is coming up the next day. In one old mining community, so many shops had closed that the bank shut as well; the local churches have taken it over, and run it as a credit union, a literacy training centre and a day centre for the very old and the very young. In a world where ‘family’ means ‘the people in the neighbouring streets who are there for you when you need them’, I ask a young adult what’s different now she’s become a worshipping member of the Church, and she replies, ‘It’s like having a great big second family.’ The Church, said William Temple, is the only society in the world that exists for the benefit of its non-members. I have to report that this vision is alive and well, and that the Church of England, though not its only local expression, is in the middle of it.

And a lot of these people are Christians and stuff.

This is the real ‘Big Society’. It’s always been there; it hasn’t gone away. Check out the volunteers in the prison, in the hospice, in charity shops. It’s remarkable how many of them are practising Christians. They aren’t volunteering because the government has told them we can’t afford to pay for such work any more. They do it because of Jesus. Often they aren’t very articulate about this. They just find, in their bones, that they need and want to help, especially when things are really dire. But if you trace this awareness to its source, you’ll find, as often as not, that the lines lead back to a parish church or near equivalent, to the regular reading of the Bible, to the life of prayer and sacrament and fellowship. To the regular saying and singing of prayers and hymns that announce, however surprising or shocking it may be to our sceptical world, that God is God, that Jesus is Lord, that the Holy Spirit is alive and well and active in a community near you.

Which, apparently, can only be done inside the C of E.

Despite two centuries of being told the opposite, in fact, the Church can’t help itself. Secular modernism still likes to pretend that the world runs itself, and that ‘religion’ has to do with private spirituality and ­otherworldly hope. The Church — not least those who want to create a ‘pure’ type of Christianity, and look either to Rome or to a ‘biblical’ sect to provide it — has often colluded with this secularist shrinking of the task. But the genuinely biblical vision, rooted in the four gospels, is of God already being king of the world, through the victory of Jesus. ‘All authority in heaven and on earth,’ said Jesus, ‘has been given to me.’ And on earth. The Church exists to demonstrate what that means.

What does the Church of England have to do to regain its lost influence?  Pretty much what it has always done.

It exists, in other words, to do and be for the world what Jesus had been for his contemporaries: to bring healing and hope, to rescue people trapped in their own folly and sin, to straighten out the distorted pictures of reality that every age manages to produce, and to enable people to live by, and in, God’s true reality. It exists not to rescue people from the world but to rescue them for the world: to see lives transformed by the gospel so that people can discover a new depth and resonance of what it means to be human, precisely by looking beyond themselves to God, to the beauties and glories of his creation, and to their neighbours, particularly those in need. The Church does this through liturgy and laughter; through music and drug-rehabilitation programmes; through prayer and protest marches; through preaching and campaigning; through soaking itself in the Bible and immersing itself in the needs of the world. When God wants to change the world, he doesn’t send in the tanks (as many, including many critics, think he should). He sends in the meek; and by the time the world realises what’s going on, the meek have set up clinics and schools, taught people to read and to sing, and given them a hope, meaning and purpose which secular modernism (which gave us, after all, Passchendaele and Auschwitz as well as modern medicine and space travel) has failed to provide.

And it’s right here where Dr. Wright goes completely off the rails.

None of this, of course, provides the answer to the questions about women bishops, or gay clergy, or the Anglican Communion, or how to relate to our Muslim neighbours. But if you put the hard questions in the centre of the picture, everything else gets distorted. Let’s take a deep breath and remind ourselves of our real focus: the kingdom of God, the lordship of Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit. Then, as Jesus himself nearly said, everything else will fall into perspective. At its best — and there is a lot of the ‘best’ out there — this is what the Church of England is all about.

Normally, I don’t like it when any living person claims that this or that situation has never happened before; there is, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it, no new thing under the sun.  But I think the Current Unpleasantness is historically unique.  Contra Dr. Wright, the present controversy is unlike any that Anglicanism has ever experienced before.

The problem with the Church of England and the rest of the Anglican world is basic.  Forgetting this or that particular issue, all of which are merely symptoms, there are two factions in modern Anglicanism.  And these two factions have mutually-exclusive ideas about what “the kingdom of God, the lordship of Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit” actually means in practice.

The largest faction more or less believes that the Bible is the Word of the living God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that omnipotent deities don’t change their minds.  On the other hand, the deity of the smaller but much wealthier faction believes that we not only can but we must interpret Scripture not based on what the words actually say but on the “spirit” behind them.

Which interpretation is helpfully provided by “theologians” and always trends in a leftist direction.  Put simply, one faction believes the Word of God even when that Word gets in its way while the other is quite happy to “interpret” any and all obstacles out of its way.

Look.  I hope Dr. Wright’s assessment of the situation is entirely correct and I am completely wrong about all this.  At this point, only a direct, forceful and unapologetic Christianity can save Great Britain.

But when you have a considerable number of British Anglicans who use Christianity to slap on a coat of “spiritual” varnish on their entirely-secular agenda and who would, if they were legally able to do so, depose Rowan Williams and make Katharine Jefferts Schori the Archbishop of Canterbury, it is worse than delusional for Dr. Wright to talk about the Church of England regaining any meaningful influence on British society.

If the Anglicans can’t or won’t do it, can any Christian church help change British society?  If you read enough Damian Thompson, British Roman Catholics could once they figure out a way to get clear of their hierarchy which seems to regard the idea of making more British Catholics with suspicion if not outright hostility. 

For that matter, Protestant churches who are willing to confront secular culture rather than adapt themselves to it could as well.  But influencing a nation and its culture requires something that has been in awfully short supply in the Church of England and in much of the rest of the western Anglican world for a very long time.

Courage.

Thanks to the Prof for alerting me to this.

13 Comments to COCKEYED OPTIMIST

Katherine
August 28, 2011

You’ve put your finger on it, Chris. It needs to be “direct, forceful and unapologetic Christianity.” If it is, the gates of Hell will not prevail. If it’s not, all the social work in the world won’t really help.

Brize
August 28, 2011

“Put simply, one faction believes in the Word of God even when it gets in their way while the other is quite happy to “interpret” any and all obstacles out of their way” is about as good a nutshell analysis of the situation as I can imagine. Good writing, sir.

Sybil Marshall
August 28, 2011

I think he and many are just plain in denial. The split has already happened– some time ago– and it runs through nearly all of Christendom (with fracture lines crackling on out into cultures at large). Things are broken all the way down to and including at the level of epistemology, and more above-it-all tut-tutting and/or prissyfit open letters (whenever anyone does actually try to do something) from the likes of this fellow will not change that, other than to increase the ranks of those of us who have walked….and Chris, you are spot on; this (recent/current crap) *is* unprecedented, because in addition to the epistemology fork-off (fork…fork! LOL), or maybe more like deriving from it, what was once argument over how best to meet standards has now become argument over whether or not there should even be standards. Anyway that is how I see it and have directly experienced it (before we shook the dust off in July 2000)….

William Tighe
August 28, 2011

This is what the Church of England seems heading for:

http://www.albertmohler.com/2011/08/26/a-laboratory-for-christianitys-destruction/

and where, not only the Protestant Church of the Netherlands (a product of the merger some years ago of two once-Calvinist Dutch Reformed churches and the small Lutheran Church of the Netherlands) has arrived, but also such “churches” as TE”C” and SveK (Church of Sweden), with the Danish and Norwegian State Churches and the Kirk o’Scotland following closely after.

See this on the Danish Church, for example:

http://merecomments.typepad.com/merecomments/2011/08/church-of-denmark-to-offer-homosexual-marriages.html

http://pastoralmeanderings.blogspot.com/2011/08/danes-go-for-gay-marriage.html

Sinner
August 28, 2011

can any Christian church help change British society?

of course. The Catholics, and hard-line evangelicals, working together, have ensured the government is changing the law to restrict access to abortion – the first time ever in the UK’s history that such a change has been made!

Remember that Wright – in opposing GAFCON – has chosen to oppose God. He has not submitted himself or his ministry to the oversight of GAFCON: for heretic-enablers like Wright, just as for heretics like Shorti – we are commanded not even to pray!

Michael D
August 28, 2011

First, I suspect Wright is not saying everything. But we are playing our part correctly in criticizing him.

It sounds to me as if the Church of England is forfeiting the spritual and cultural treasure that it has been entrusted with, leaving a spiritual vacuum for Islam to fill. When Islam rules England, it will bring new and effective drug-rehabilitation programmes, at the cost of enslaving the souls of that once-great nation.

FW Ken
August 28, 2011

Bishop Wright puts a seriously wrong spin on that hymn: it’s not all we can do is hold out for ‘the consummation of peace for evermore. It’s Jesus Christ, who promised to be with His people. This misstep, I think, is a key to understanding the greater error.

First, until I read the whole thing, I was more or less positive about the bishop’s points. And I still am. However, just as he mis-spun the hymns, he mis-spins the positive social interventions of his church. They are certainly good things, and important elements of the church’s mission. Moreover, he rightly puts prayer and worship at the heart of things. Finally, I do agree with him that putting the hard questions at the center of everything distorts the overall picture.

BUT…

I think all of his correct statements add up to a sentimentality that eventually fails, if for no other reason than its the hard questions that are eating away at the Church of England. Does the progress of ordaining women to clerical office look that much different than the American experience? First presbyters, then bishops, first accomodations for conscience, now, not so much. TEC is, what?, maybe 15-20 years ahead of the CofE on same-sex issues? All of Bishop Wrights signs of the Kingdom have a pretty bleak future if there’s no one to do them.

Heresy is, by it’s nature, a malignancy. Either you cut it out, or it kills you. I’ve said before that the good, tolerant bishops of Fort Worth, Albany, Pittsburg, and so on, allowed packs of wolves to browse in the midst of their flocks. Arguably the Catholic bishops of England have been guilty of the same, unless, of course, they are the wolves, now herding the flock. Damian Thompson might have something to say on that score.

not that carl
August 29, 2011

The description Wright gives of the “Holy Spirit is alive and well and active in a community near you.”

The foot-and-mouth crisis strikes …

A local authority begs the Church to take over a failing school…

Miners’ leaders speak of the massive coal stocks still lying there unused…

…helping a young, frightened asylum-seeker whose case is coming up the next day.

… the local churches have taken it over, and run it as a credit union, a literacy training centre and a day centre for the very old and the very young.

‘It’s like having a great big second family.’

These are all temporal missions intended to address temporal needs. There is nothing singularly Christian about any of activities mentioned. It could be a list of the activities of any social service organization. It struck me as a deeply liberal vision of the church – non-threatening, non-doctrinal, devoid of exclusive truth claims, and silent about the relationship between man and God. It is the church as soup kitchen provider – which is the only fit task the modern secular world allocates to churches. What is not visible is any direct challenge to the modern secular world view. Nothing of the Gospel and lives redeemed.

The Church, said William Temple, is the only society in the world that exists for the benefit of its non-members. I have to report that this vision is alive and well, and that the Church of England, though not its only local expression, is in the middle of it.

Yes, but that benefit is supposed to be about more than employing miners in coal mines. It’s supposed to be about preaching Christ crucified to a world rushing into hell.

carl

Steve T.
August 29, 2011

Is it sinful for me to suspect that after the Islamic takeover of Britain, this guy will be one of the first to make his public Shahadah?

Mark
August 29, 2011

the church, said William Temple, is the only society in the world that exists for the benefit of its non-members

By the way am I alone in being thoroughly sick of this quote?

To me, it suggests that those of us in the church are doing just fine, we’ve got it made, and aren’t we wonderful for condescending to help the poor wretches on the outside.

Contrast it with the popular metaphor of the church as a “hospital for sinners”, which I greatly prefer. In this image we are all of us, inside and outside the church, desperately in need of help from the Lord Jesus Christ. Those of us on the inside are just those who have recognized the need and started acting on it.

Of course the church does and should help those outside. But that is neither a unique characteristic (volunteer fire department? soup kitchen…?) nor a central and defining characteristic.

If I’m wrong I’d love to be pointed at a scriptural or patristic source that supports the Temple quote.

Miss Sippi
August 29, 2011

Interesting to contrast this with our conversation in Coffee Hour yesterday. Among the Orthodox that I know, there seems to be an assumption that, first, we will not change our position and second, we will be persecuted. To borrow Katherine’s phrase, we’re about as unapologetic as it gets.
(Now if we would just get the heck out of the WCC!)

ann r
August 29, 2011

I found this phrase startling: “It exists not to rescue people from the world but to rescue them for the world:” And all this time I thought we were supposed to rescue them for something totally beyond this world, where the saints and martyrs dwell!

Sinner
August 29, 2011

Contrast it with the popular metaphor of the church as a “hospital for sinners”,

Or how about the metaphor actually Chosen by God — God who is Lord of the Sabaoth, the Lord of Hosts, and His people who are the Army of GOD

That’s really the metaphor that this late generation hate.
God is the commander-in-chief.
Christ is his general.

When he commands, we obey – or commit treason, heresy, and will surely die.

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