On monarchy

            Like most people who have spent their whole lives under her reign, I have been numbed by the death of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.  It is as if part of the sky has fallen in.  Somehow everything looks different now.  I did not ever meet her, and so I can only speak of her public persona, but I recognize much of what has been said about her over the last few days.  People have spoken a lot about her sense of duty, her faith, and her wry humour.  One of the themes I have missed – perhaps there’s too little sense now of common morality to encourage people to comment – is her apparently moral life.  When all’s said and done, making all allowances for the position into which she was born (one at once more privileged and more constrained than that of most of us), she seemed to live as much as she could the life to which she believed her faith called her.  She was buffeted over the years by family disappointment and tragedy, and few of us can really know what she felt about things, or even what she said in private, but still she carried on as if quietly determined to live in the full view of the public the Christian life.  So it seems to me, at any rate.

            That is somewhat in contrast to some of her more distant predecessors.  It’s easily forgotten – but not by historians – that the reputation of the monarchy was redeemed by Victoria, and above all by Albert, whose earnestness, political neutrality, and public service probably contributed more to the spirit of the modern British monarchy even than his wife did.  Since then, duty, public service, and personal restraint, these have been the marks of our constitutional monarchy.  To sustain this commitment over 70 years is an achievement all on its own, though.  Yet I’m not sure I have much to say about the late Queen personally.  Other people who did know her can say more, and it’s not really to my purpose to add to whatever they think and feel.  I’m wondering aloud here more about what the regnal shift might say to us about power, authority, and sovereignty. 

            There’s no getting away from the oddity of monarchy in a democratic state.  Because we see, inevitably, the current monarchy against the backdrop of the language and symbolism of early modern sovereignty, and the long, drawn-out process by which the absolutist claims made by James I and Charles I were whittled away by civil war and the evolution of cabinet government, we tend to assume a fundamental incompatibility here.  If we’re all equal, how come some seem more equal than others?  Yet it’s worth remembering that constitutional monarchy is not an example of arrogant British exceptionalism, but almost a European norm. Many west European states have constitutional monarchies.  Something works about it.  I for one can’t even begin to imagine where we would end up if we had an elected head of state, given the precarity of our party political system.  President Johnson?  President Cameron?  President Blair?  No thanks.

            But even thinking of it this way is to look at our national governance from a merely functional view.  I think there’s more at stake here.  And here I need to make a brief personal, political excursus.  I’m sometimes accused of being an out-and-out Liberal.  In religious matters anyway, I suppose I do endorse some positions that are allegedly ‘liberal’.  But basically liberalism as an ideological system has never really been part of my intellectual and political makeup.  Instead, two quite different systems have influenced me profoundly – the Christian socialist tradition, with its appeal to social justice as the outworking of the Gospel, and its sacramental socialism and egalitarianism, and the Burkean, organic tradition of conservatism, with its acceptance of the longue durée of change, the need for tradition and its engagement of affective, collective notions of belonging, and its suspicion of rational ‘programmes’ of social engineering.  I’m not suggesting, by the way, that I have a fully consistent, worked-out political philosophy combining these things: these are my primary inspirations, but they’re probably a somewhat unstable mix

For me, then, it’s not fundamentally a problem that the ancient institution of monarchy, with its pageantry, its archaic language (I can never help smiling when I hear the phrase ‘liege lord of life and limb’), its privilege, its titles and symbolism, co-exists with democracy and the pursuit of equal opportunities for all.  States which aspire to change, to reform and reinvigorate themselves constantly, need at the same time principles and institutions which help to guarantee longevity and stability, and which are not a product of rational engineering, but of the deep processes of time, of the loyalties of generations which transcend the particular preoccupations of any one age. 

The monarchy is not, to me, merely the residue of an archaic social system, but a vital element of a complex political and social system which has helped to deliver significant social stability in this country.  Her Late Majesty, I think, instinctively grasped that, or at least lived it, and I pray that her son will do the same – I have confidence he will.

Reflections on Lambeth 2022 – ‘Can it stretch, or will it break?’

Hans Frei’s words – or rather a paraphrase of them – have been at the back of my mind over the last two weeks, as I’ve been present at most of the plenary days of the Lambeth Conference.  Probably the first thing to strike me, when I arrived in the searing heat which has dried and bleached the grass around the University of Kent campus into straw, was the colour of the assembly – not just the purple shirts of every shade, nor the slick, colourful posters and the banners dotted around the site, but also the blaze of strong African colours, reds, blues, yellows, greens, of traditional dress, that above all else signals the changing centre of gravity of the Anglican Communion.  It is the case, of course, that the gathering of the bishops of a worldwide communion means that all corners of the earth descended on Canterbury, but not just Anglicans – also representatives of all the other great world traditions of Christianity, including Catholics, Orthodox, Pentecostals, Reformed, Lutherans, Methodists and Baptists.  They were the reason I was there, to help look after them.

              But however great and significant the gathering in itself, and however much it was a work of extraordinary complexity just to get all these people together (and not without the odd hiccup or three), there was a fundamental anxiety running through the early days, which Frei’s words capture.  Not until the ‘Call’ on Human Dignity had been presented and discussed would it be clear whether there was any future for the Lambeth Conference at all, or perhaps any future for the Anglican Communion as a federated body holding together wide variations in views and culture.  Would human sexuality turn out to be the breaking point for the Communion?  Practically everyone, on both sides, thought it would be, and for all we know that still may very well turn out to be the case.

              To me, it seemed the early auguries were not good.  Whether intentionally or not – probably not – the dispersal of events across a large campus meant that, in the heat, there was a great deal of walking between venues, which produced sometimes exhaustion or at least an air of enervation, making it hard to determine whether any kind of conference ‘ethos’ was emerging.  Moreover, at first at any rate, it almost seemed as if there were two conferences going on simultaneously.  One was a gathering of mostly white, Western bishops and their partners, who knew each other, talked to each other, shared more or less common values, language and culture, and socialized with ease in the bars in the evenings.  The other was a meeting of mostly black or minority ethnic bishops and their partners, most from the global south, who got up at sunrise and went to bed at sundown and did not go to the bars, and for many of whom English was as much a barrier as a common currency.  It seems to be little known outside the Conference itself that translation facilities were a necessity, in French, Portuguese, Spanish, Swahili, Xhosa, Japanese, amongst other languages.  I could see very easily how these vast cultural differences could facilitate the solidification of positions around contending principles.  The Conference is long and expensive, but not long enough for all these barriers of communication and culture to break down completely, even when British dioceses have twinned with others and hosted their bishops before the Conference itself.

              Also, you could not but be aware of the posturing and positioning going on around the Conference itself, on its fringes, in the wider Church, in campaigning groups, and in the media.  Expectations were clearly running high, whether for change or for resistance.  And again, the very organization of the Conference if anything, and probably necessarily, intensified the sense of something threatening, when security was quite tightly policed, and coloured lanyards and photo ID were essential to get into the venues.

              But, as it seemed to me, over the days I was there things were beginning to ease a little.  Conversations seemed a little less siloed.  Time takes its toll on mutual incomprehension when people spend time together, sitting in Bible study groups, and eating together.  Two other factors also seemed to me to chip away at the barriers.  One was a realization – partly prompted by the substance of some of the ‘Calls’ – that there is a broad common loyalty to the Anglican inheritance of faith, liturgy and order amongst the bishops (well, I know you’d hope that that would be the case, but still it’s good to see it emerge in discussion).   Central aspects of that are unquestionably contested.  Nonetheless discussion around the issue of Anglican identity in particular elicited a reaction from bishops across the commonly-assumed divide that probably helped to solidify a common sense of purpose on the Monday, the day before the discussion on Human Dignity.  I don’t know if that was a deliberate strategy on the part of the organizers, but if so, it was genius.  The other factor was simply the immense work the Archbishop and his wife, supported by the ‘team’, put into welcoming the bishops and their partners.  All of them were invited to receptions at the Old Palace on six almost consecutive nights.  The reception at Lambeth Palace – though this happened the day after the ‘Call’ on Human Dignity – was an enormous logistical feat, but carried through triumphantly.  Through the days of the Conference itself there really was, I think, an emergent recognition of the ‘bonds of affection’, as they used to be described in Anglican discourse.

None of this, of course, takes away from the fundamental division over issues – well, an issue, though it runs like a fissure through so many aspects of church life, including judgements about personal morality, Biblical interpretation, ecclesial discipline, and even questions of order.  And what you make of the importance of this issue for the Communion as a whole depends on what you think constitutes sufficient agreement to seal fellowship, koinonia, in the Gospel.  As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m not one who thinks there is a serious possibility of ‘agreeing to disagree’.  There are incommensurate, asymmetrical truth claims at issue, which can’t be resolved in the long run unless one side or the other concedes the ground.  And again, even to say this takes nothing away from the fact that for many people the acceptance of their sexuality is a matter of common humanity, its denial an assault on their well-being and integrity.

What changed, then, at Lambeth 2022?  Nothing, I think, fundamentally.  Peace hasn’t broken out in the Communion, contrary to what some commentators think.  Nothing has shifted one way or other to decide permanently the outcome of a long standoff.  However a kind of accommodation, a temporary ceasefire, not a peace, may have been reached.  What lies behind that – I’d liked to think – is a basic realism about the alignment of opinion in the Communion.  The Archbishop played a blinder, in my view, in presenting the assembled bishops with the simple fact of their division, and the depth of conviction and the complexities of context that underlie mutually opposing positions.  The Archbishop neither aligned himself with Lambeth 1.10, nor sided with its opponents (there was some particularly poor reporting on this, including from the Guardian).  Sometimes, in history, ecclesiastical councils and assemblies are best served not by the ‘victory’ of one theological or moral position, but by a pragmatic agreement to step back from the brink and continue to work on the issues.  Both sides can claim something from Lambeth 2022 – one side the recognition of the deep feelings of principle and justice which drive their views, and the message that they will not be driven out, the other side the recognition that Lambeth 1.10 continues to be the will of the clear majority of the Communion’s bishops, and that their views are driven by the urgent pressures of their own contexts. 

There may, in all this, also be a growing acceptance that the significance of the Lambeth Conference can be exaggerated.  It is indeed one of the instruments of communion.  It was called first in 1867 to give the Archbishop an opportunity to hear the views of bishops scattered across the world, and for them in turn to hear each others’ views.  It can be no surprise that for much of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with an episcopate drawn mostly from Britain, a considerable degree of common cultural identity underpinned the growing moral authority of Lambeth resolutions.  But that changed in the 1980s, as part of the delayed impact of decolonisation.  No one can assume – as I hope I’ve indicated above – that a common cultural identity underlies the Communion today.  And yet, once we pull back from the more exaggerated descriptions of the authority of the Lambeth Conferences, there remains the simple fact that the Conference is summoned by the Archbishop, and hosted by him (so far) personally, to inform him of the views of his fellow bishops and to inform each other of their views.  That is exactly what happened at Lambeth 2022.  And, for the time being, it did indeed stretch.

On not leaving the Church of England

            The goings on at Christ Church, Oxford over the last four years have been bewildering for all disinterested observers.  I’m in the position of knowing people on both ‘sides’.  I’ve known Martyn Percy for many years, and hold him in great esteem.  I don’t know if he’d count me as a friend, but I’m very grateful for the warmth and support he’s shown me over the years.  The conflict between him and the Studentship/Fellowship must have been incredibly painful.  Like Martyn, I’ve been a Head of House, and I’ve been in conflict with my own Fellowship.  I feel badly let down by many of them, and I’m as good as certain that some have been craven, and that some have kept quiet or perhaps even lied about what they knew or didn’t know.  Anyone who’s been caught up in the febrile atmosphere of ‘safeguarding’ complaints and counter-complaints in the university world will know that even when you think you have done your best in difficult circumstances, you will be found to have failed somewhere, somehow, and that you will not be forgiven for that failure.  It’s a hard time to carry significant responsibility in Higher Education.  And even in relation to the Church, I’ve had my share of bad experiences.  

            But these conflicts are never neatly categorised or described.  If you follow the website ‘Thinking Anglicans’, as I do, it’s sobering to see what people contributing to the ‘below the line’ comments seem to make of things.  Sometimes I think the website – an amazingly well-maintained and informative one – ought to be renamed ‘Shrieking Anglicans’.  There is the most grotesque parade of accusation, sweeping generalization, and sheer lack of Christian charity on display at times.  And all this, when it’s almost certain that many of those commenting do not actually know the people involved, or the situations in detail, on which they have such strong views.

            One of the problems – and I’ve seen this time and again – is that individuals who bring complaints against institutions are generally at liberty to say what they like on social media, and perhaps even in traditional print media.  But generally speaking the institutions concerned are not at liberty to respond in detail, because they’re bound by the responsibility of confidentiality and would be open to accusations of further abuse were they to try to respond.  But then again, an institution is only a collection of people, and people, as we know, vary enormously in their reliability, their integrity, their trustworthiness, their grasp of the issues with which they’re confronted, and so on.  Yes, sure, there are faulty processes, but in the end the responsibility for implementing, reforming, protecting processes is a personal one. 

            So sometimes we see institutions behaving appallingly, covering up abuse, protecting abusers, or letting them slip through the gaps in processes ill-suited to what they’re supposed to be dealing with.  Sometimes we see people in positions of responsibility juggling difficult, challenging problems on multiple fronts, and unsurprisingly getting things wrong.  Sometimes we see people who exercise a general responsibility for overseeing a department or an activity or a group of people unfairly targeted with a venom which – if appropriate at all (which, frankly, as a Christian I doubt) – ought to be reserved for the perpetrators of abuse (think, for example, of Sharon Shoesmith).  But it won’t do just to blame the institution en masse: matters have to be quarried down to the question of actual, personal responsibility.

            The Church of England is no different in all this from other churches, and from other charities and other institutions.  Is it better than than the Catholic Church, public schools, residential care homes, the police…?  Sadly, no.  But then, as a friend of mine says when she’s approached by would-be ordinands, ‘You do realize that the Church of England is an abusive institution? – not because it’s a Church, but because it’s an institution’.  This is the sad stuff of life.  And it’s not to say that there isn’t an urgent need to reform, to improve, to care for and protect the weak and vulnerable, for of course there is, and to the extent that we fail to do this, we’re culpable and ought to be held to account.

            But personally I don’t accept that ‘institutional’ failures – which, as I say, in the end are personal ones – cancel out the value or even necessity for ‘institutions’.  I can’t follow Martyn down the path of separation from my own Church.  For me, the Church is always at fault, always faltering, always problematic and riddled with failure.  People suffer at the hands of church leaders or church members, just as they do in any other association.  There are appalling cases of abuse and deliberate cover up, and yet there are also very mixed situations in which good intentions have got mangled, attempts to be even-handed have appeared to be callous, processes have been fitfully followed, and so on. 

            What did we expect?  Paradise on earth?  The kingdom of God is here, and yet it is always becoming.  I don’t believe the bishops are rotten to the core – far from it.  Yet they make mistakes, as everyone does, and sometimes those mistakes have serious consequences for people.  But I don’t believe the Church of England is rotten to the core.  When I think of its many failures, however, I find myself going back again and again to the words of Austin Farrer who, in a memorable sermon he preached first in 1960, and again near the end of his life in 1968, confronted the problem of being in an imperfect church.  The sermon was called, on publication, ‘On being an Anglican’, and it’s quite startling today for its sharp criticism of the doctrine of infallibility.  That apart, to me it’s a steadfast defence of staying in the Church of England, the Church of my own birth, baptism, upbringing, marriage and, I hope, death.  I’m quoting a few passages, of course, but to me Farrer’s words acho strongly (and the uninclusive language is of its age):

“[F]undamentally we are just Christian priests, priests in the Church of God.  Did not Christ establish sacraments, and an apostolic ministry, and a visible company of faithful men?  And have we not to make the best of it, by the grace of God?…Suppose the organization is antiquated, the leadership weak; we shall not help to modernize the former or invigorate the latter, by deserting our stations…

…The Church of England is not the Church; there is only one Church, as there is only one Christ.  The centre of the Church is neither Rome nor Canterbury; it is the heart of Heaven.  There is a company of saints who enjoy the society of Jesus Christ more intimately than his disciples ever did on earth.  We, who know him only by faith and touch him only in sacraments, are no more than outposts and colonies of his sacred empire…

…[W]e are Anglicans because we can obey Christ in this Church, by abiding in the stock and root of his planting, and in the sacramental life…The Church mediates Christ: her sacraments make Christ present, her creed presents the lineaments of his face, her fellowship incorporates us into his body.  To be a loyal churchman is hobbyism or prejudice, unless it is the way to be a loyal Christian.  Christ is our calling, Christ our life; he whom the cross could not daunt nor the grave retain will make our dry bones live, and restore to the universal Church that peace and unity that are agreeable to his will, that we may be one in him, as he with the Father and the Holy Ghost is one life, one love, one God.”

(from The End of Man, 1973, pp. 49-52)

Revisiting Anglican classics 5: John Keble’s Christian Year

            It’s something of a surprise to many people to learn that one of the best-selling poetry books of the nineteenth century was by an Anglican priest.  John Keble’s Christian Year was published in 1827.  Sub-titled Thoughts in Verse for the Sundays and Holydays throughout the Year, it sold in the hundreds of thousands throughout the nineteenth century, in several hundred editions across the world.  A few of the poems are still known by churchgoers in the form of hymns, the best known probably being ‘Bless’d are the pure in heart’, sung to a German melody adapted by William Havergal.

            Keble’s poetry raises interesting questions about the historical evaluation of aesthetic judgement.  Very few people rate its quality very highly today.  The decline in interest surely owes much to the progressive marginalization of religious sentiment in literary culture throughout the last century or so.  But it also must have something to do with the enormous literary and cultural change worked by modernism.  Keble leans very heavily on predictable metre and easy rhyme, and as a result his poetry can sometimes seem trite and cliched.  The arch-modernist poet T.S. Eliot had a fine sense of the distinction between light verse and poetry – though I can’t at the moment find the relevant passage in his critical writing – without any detriment to the former.  But somehow Keble’s sits between the two, certainly not ‘light’ in the sense of lacking seriousness intent, but also not quite ‘poetry’, or at least high poetry because (as it seems to me) his mode of expression was contained, dominated and driven an external notion of doctrinal purity.  Consequently his fusion of Romantic nature-worship (like many other High Church writers, he adored Wordsworth) with his conventional piety can be rather cloying.

            However, something else is missed if we simply compare Keble with, say, Tennyson or Arnold.  It’s that very fusion of nature, feeling and doctrine that is entirely characteristic of the sacramental revival in Anglicanism in the nineteenth century.  If we read Keble, not as at best a minor figure in the ‘canon’ of nineteenth-century English literature, but as a brilliant exponent of a new current in Anglican devotion, capturing in the seeming simplicity of verse what are actually in theological terms quite complex and even contested ideas, then an altogether different assessment is possible.  For Keble, it’s as if the continuity between the material things that become the ‘matter’ of sacraments – bread, wine, water – and the physical world from which they come draws the reader out of the church into the beauty of nature, and then back again.  He sees Christian truth in nature, but his perception is structured by the shape of his faith.  And so his awareness of the material world is entirely coloured by his moral and religious sensibility.  You could even argue that for Keble it is impossible really to appreciate the beauty of the natural world without a corresponding sense of religious awe.  That, incidentally, might make us think a bit of Hopkins.

            And what makes this characteristically Anglican is perhaps the one thing you simply cannot escape in reading The Christian Year.  It is a poetic commentary on the Sunday calendar and festivals of the Book of Common Prayer.  After poems for morning and evening prayer comes the sequence of the Christian year itself, beginning with Advent Sunday and going on to the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Trinity and then Sunday next before Advent; there follow poems for all the Prayer Book holy days, and finally for the sacraments of communion and baptism, other ‘pastoral offices’, and occasions such as the celebration of King Charles the Martyr and the Restoration of the Royal Family.  He is largely following the actual order of rites in the Prayer Book, as well as of the calendar or collects and readings.  Keble provides a sort of High Church, sacramental literary guide to the worship provided by the Prayer Book.  He is carrying the language, theology and devotion of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries into his own era through its expression in Romantic sensibility.  Here’s one example of the movement of his imagination.  The poem for the Third Sunday of Epiphany begins, as it seems, with straightforward description:

 I marked a rainbow in the north,
      What time the wild autumnal sun
   From his dark veil at noon looked forth,
      As glorying in his course half done,
   Flinging soft radiance far and wide
Over the dusky heaven and bleak hill-side.

He takes us then on a journey through consideration of the brilliance and light of the rainbow to the greater brilliance of love, before darkening the picture again with the foreshadowing of Jesus’s crucifixion, only to end once more with a vision of glory:

Worthless and lost our offerings seem,
      Drops in the ocean of His praise;
   But Mercy with her genial beam
      Is ripening them to pearly blaze,
   To sparkle in His crown above,
Who welcomes here a child’s as there an angel’s love.

            There’s been a minor revival of interest in Keble’s poetry.  The late Geoffrey Rowell, former bishop of Europe, was probably the most outstanding and sensitive reader of Keble’s religion, and there’s a brilliant set of essays edited by Kirstie Blair called John Keble in Context (2004).  But I think he is still significantly underrated as an Anglican theologian, most of his writing long out of print, and his worth as a religious writer poorly represented by a few hymns.

Revisiting Anglican Classics 4: Hannah More’s Practical Piety

            There can’t be many readers of this post who have heard of, let alone read, Hannah More’s Practical Piety (1811).    It’s not a work of great literary merit, nor is it particularly original theologically.  It is not available today in a modern critical edition.  Although it was reprinted many times in the nineteenth century, it probably passed out of wide usage sometime around the middle of the century.  Today, apart from a few, mostly quite expensive, antique copies, it can be bought relatively cheaply only because of the wonders of photo-printed ‘on demand’ editions.  And the quality of those is very variable.  My own copy is a print-on demand version read by a machine, full of mis-transcriptions and lacking any useful points to page numbers – hence the absence of them in my quotations below.

            So it’s not possible to argue that Hannah More’s book has had much long-term effect on the Church of England’s modern theology and life.  But it is possible to argue, I think, that like a number of other publications of the Evangelical revival, such as William Wilberforce’s Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System (on which I’ll write in the future), it has the merit of typicality, and helps to understand just how complicated and nuanced was the current of Evangelical Anglicanism which swept up Hannah More and others like her in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  In her day she was an immensely influential writer, and this was one of her most successful religious books. 

            More was born in Bristol in 1745, to a High Church family in which, unusually for the time, she and her four sisters were highly educated by their father so that they could be financially independent and run their own school.  She was precocious as a child, and matured into an astute critic and writer of verse and plays.  She became part of the circle of Samuel Johnson, and was a member of the group of women writers and intellectuals who formed the original ‘bluestockings’.  But although always loyal to the Church of England, her faith was increasingly influenced by Evangelicals such as the former slaver John Newton, who also influenced Wilberforce.  Practical Piety was written towards the end of her life (she died in 1833), during the Napoleonic wars, when she had wholeheartedly committed herself to the inculcation of religious faith as a means of buttressing the established order of society against the Revolutionary ideals emanating from France.

            Practical Piety was, in its day, something of a bestseller.  Like most of More’s religious writing, it was aimed mainly at the middle and upper classes.  She aimed to reform the faith and piety of the elite, on the assumption that the influence of true religion would percolate down to the lower orders of society.  It’s not that she disparaged or despised educational work with the poor – on the contrary.  But writing for the educated was, as she saw it, her special vocation.  So there is something paradoxical about More – a woman who pioneered women’s education and was herself a strong and lively character, and yet who affirmed conventional views of women’s duties as lying in the ‘domestic sphere’; and a laywoman who commended the hierarchy of the Church of England.  Her political values were deeply conservative.  But it would be a mistake to assume simply that she was conservative through and through, just as it would be a mistake to make the same assumption about other Evangelicals of her time.  Inasmuch as there was a hierarchy of value for her, Christian faith was at the summit; from it radiated other values.  And faith for her was genuinely transformative.  Her vision of society was not simply static and patriarchal; it assumed that the full evangelisation of the English people would bring social transformation in its wake.  That was the prompting spirit of all her educational and philanthropic work.

            The clue to what is distinctive about More’s work lies in the subtitle – ‘The influence of the Religion of the Heart on the Conduct of Life’.  More’s book is avowedly practical – it is about the difference true religion makes to personal motivation and conduct.  But her way of characterizing this true religion is to describe it in terms patently influenced by other Evangelical writers as a stirring in the heart, an inner personal transformation that – in echoes of contemporary reassessment of emotion – genuinely evokes feelings of awe, wonder and devotion to God.  The contrast for More, as with other Evangelicals, was with formal religion, or, as she calls it in the first book, ‘periodical [i.e. irregular or occasional] religion’.  The vast majority of More’s contemporaries were observant Christians of one shade or another: few disclaimed the term ‘Christian’, most availed themselves of the pastoral services of the Church from time to time, and a high proportion of the population were at least occasional attenders.  Without doubt, Britain was a Christian country.  Yet, More contended (as did Wilberforce), their faith seemed to make little difference to their standards of behaviour, and especially their behaviour towards others.  The religion of the heart was, for her, ‘the fountain of the spiritual life’, the ‘vital principle’ which animated ‘the whole being of a Christian’.  It was constant in its striving: ‘True religion is of an aspiring nature, continually tending towards that Heaven from whence it was transplanted.’

            All this fits perfectly with conventional Evangelical views of faith, conversion, and the spiritual life, and it mandated, for More, a careful, deliberate cultivation of habits of self-examination and introspection to study and counter the inroads sin could make into a soul.  More’s book is effectively a manual of devotion and morality.  In that it sits comfortably alongside other classics of Anglican moral theology such as Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Holy Dying, and William Law’s Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.  And yet there’s another side to it that gives away its context immediately – it is suffused with the language of system and rationality.  This is particularly striking in her description of the love of God as the ‘powerful spring’ which actuates ‘all the movements of the rational machine [i.e. human being]’.  So along with what we think of as the ‘Romantic’ language of the heart, there is also the thoroughly ‘Enlightenment’ notion of reason, predictability and control; in fact these labels are hardly helpful if we treat them as anything other than approximate descriptions of contrasting moods and affinities.

            The overall approach, then, focuses on the cultivation of habits of piety that will raise the moral life of the believer who is moved by what More calls at one point ‘the sober earnest of heaven’.  This is not in itself uniquely Anglican, of course, though as I’ve suggested it does sit well in a particular stream of Anglican popular piety aimed at inculcating habits and standards of moral behaviour.  But the final feature it’s worth noting that does put Hannah More firmly in the Anglican ‘canon’ is her simple assumption that she is writing out of, and predominantly for, the Church of England.  There’s no examination or defence of historic church order here; this is not a work of ecclesiology.  But time and again she does simply assume that the bishops of the Church of England are its appointed leaders and authorities, presumably to be respected and obeyed – at least that is the implication of her readiness to quote approvingly from particular bishops of widely varying views, such as Warburton and Secker.  In rejecting the suggestion that ‘heart religion’ might be fanatical, she refers to a long line of witnesses who could be accused of fanaticism if that were true, including Hooker, Taylor, Herbert, Leighton, Usher, Doddridge, Jewell [sic] and others, as well as Chrysostome [sic] and Augustine.  It was of a piece with Hannah More’s conservatism that she supported the establishment of religion; but then what she demonstrates in the book is the successful evolution of an Evangelical piety thoroughly at one with the Church of England, within a generation of the final rupture with Wesleyanism.

Whither Church reform? 1: Problems of the de-centralization agenda

            Another front has opened up in the internal conflicts of the Church of England in the last two or three years, bypassing the deep-set fissures over gender equality and human sexuality.  With the quarrels over the ordination of women largely resolved – I don’t at all mean that there aren’t continuing disparities and concerns, nor that the Church has reached a contented equilibrium on this – the spotlight has fallen increasingly on human sexuality, and especially same-sex marriage and its recognition (or denial) amongst the clergy.  I would have thought so much was obvious that it hardly needs to be stated.  But from behind these more prominent issues has appeared a third matter, one of greater structural significance for the Church of England, a ghost of past controversies as well as a harbinger of likely forthcoming disputes and dissatisfactions.  It is a strategic difference over the management of change, and particularly decline.  One side appears to be convinced of the need for top-down, centrally-devised and imposed programmes of reform, all in the interest of driving growth.  The other, in reaction, appears to be set on the dismemberment of much of the central apparatus, both at diocesan and national level, with initiative, responsibility and resources diverted back down to the parishes.  At least, those are the positions you could infer from the rhetoric of some commentators on both sides when speaking about the other side. 

            There are various reasons why this division has come to the fore.  The underlying cause is surely the long-term pressures of continuing numerical and financial decline in most regions of the Church of England.  Whatever it may look like in a generation or two, the Church is almost certainly going to be substantially different ‘on the ground’ from what it is now.   Medium-term factors are many.  The review of the 2011 Mission and Pastoral Measure, currently before Synod, in an attempt to find more streamlined and yet creative ways of dealing with the need to use buildings more efficiently, has focused attention on the difficulties facing many parishes with small, declining or impoverished congregations.  The older – though still working its way through implementation – proposals and implications of the ‘simplification’ process announced by the creation of a task force to that end in 2014 likewise has highlighted the apparent impediments to mission posed by the multiplicity of boards, bodies, processes and legislation overseeing the work of the Church of England centrally.  The overarching framework of ‘Reform and Renewal’ has hitched church revival to institutional change.  Impatience with the language of managerialism which seems to have accompanied many of these initiatives is growing.  Impressionistic evidence in the form of conversations I’ve had over the years with clergy suggests that there is, amongst many clergy, confusion, some hurt and disillusionment over the implementation of the Green Report on senior leadership and ‘talent-spotting’. 

But there was also a short-term ‘trigger’.  John McGinley of New Wine’s clumsy use of the phrase ‘limiting factors’ (which appeared to include theological colleges, historic buildings and stipendiary clergy) when describing what he saw as some of the obstacles to the Church’s attempts to be more flexible in its operation and innovative in its forms of worship in July last year provoked immense shock and hurt.  The ‘Save the Parish’ campaign, launched in the wake of that controversy, was an entirely natural reaction from those who feel that the central strategic direction of policy in the Church is increasingly detached from the real strengths – as well as weaknesses – of local churches.  Last, but not least, the Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically intensified the pressures on local churches, cutting active congregation numbers, putting for a time vulnerable people beyond immediate pastoral reach, and reducing income.  Despite the many innovative ways in which churches responded to this situation, the level of fear about what will be left when, finally, ‘normality’ returns is palpable in many village churches.

As ever, it’s much easier to identify the problem than it is to suggest viable solutions.  One of the main reasons for that is that the Church of England, as a church aspiring to comprehensive national coverage, operates in many different contexts.  So there is no one way of describing its difficulties, and therefore there is not going to be one way of combatting them.  Closure of churches will remove part of the financial burden of heritage, but at the cost of losing even more people.  Even greater reliance on non-stipendiary ordained and lay ministry will doubtless release new energy in some places – as it should – but the sheer variety of contexts in which the church finds itself, and the very nature of non-stipendiary ministry (mostly tying ministers to particular places of work and family settlement), will make the matching of human resources to need particularly complex.  Yet in a Church with a dispersed model of authority, top-down, strategic programmes of reform and renewal lack traction at local level (incidentally, I think this is something not fully appreciated in the published IICSA material).  No bishop can simply impose a diocese-wide programme.  All dioceses face extraordinarily complex internal balancing acts just to keep their parishes going, and there are bewildering conundrums to be faced somehow – for example, prioritize the large, prosperous urban and suburban parishes which are most likely to be leaders of growth, or cream off resources from successful urban and suburban churches to prop up the shrinking churches in the countryside and in areas of urban deprivation?  And of all this can be said without even taking into account the theological pluralism of the Church of England, which permits – even mandates – radically different approaches to ministry, pastoral provision, and authority.

            But if I go back to the unhelpful polarity of centre versus locality into which the current controversy risks falling, it’s clear that the frustration many ordinary churchgoers as well as clergy feel with the Church’s leadership is playing itself out in a growing conviction that the whole direction of strategic, national church ‘management’ in the last several decades has taken a wrong turn.  The difficulty with such a sweeping view is that it’s very easy to find – or rather, pick and mix – evidence to suit that argument.  Almost all the nationwide initiatives aimed at revitalizing the Church, from Donald Coggan’s ‘Call to the nation’ (actually not much more than a broadcast) to the endorsement of Fresh Expressions and ‘Emerging Church’ have not really dented institutional contraction long-term, except perhaps in a few areas (and there patterns of migration have also played their part).  Ambitious ecumenical projects can be written off as expensive luxuries.  Often it seems that enormous time and effort is spent on proposals which ultimately make very little difference to the local life of the Church.

            But is the answer simply forward to the past?  I don’t think so.  Though it’s tempting to criticize the costs of diocesan and national church offices, in practice these are mostly thinly-resourced positions at best, tasked with the role of co-ordination and developing consensus, rather than enforcing top-down change – the complexity of the Church of England’s structures simply precludes anything else.  And what there has been of a tendency to co-ordinate and centralize policy in some areas over the last two hundred years has mostly been a necessary response to the legislative obstacles, entrenched interests and gross inequalities that hindered the Church’s ability to adapt to social and economic change.  The slew of legislation effected through the newly-established Ecclesiastical Commissioners from the 1830s on lightened rather than increased the pressures bearing in on local churches.  The creation of new parishes where necessary, better processes of recruitment, the equalization of stipends and the creation of professional standards, more effective training and education for clergy, formal inclusion of the laity in the newly-emergent synodical system, assistance with programmes for building much-needed new churches, these processes – which carried on well into the twentieth century, even until the 1950s – were achievements of national co-ordination, as well as episcopal reflection and action. 

            There’s undoubtedly scope for simplification and greater efficiency.  Having seen successful examples of diocesan posts being tied to part-time parish positions, or to ‘house for duty’ arrangements, I don’t see why that shouldn’t become more widely adopted, if need be with some job-sharing too.  It’s entirely understandable that people react badly to the invasion of managerial language in church circles, because it badly fits the authority systems and the ecclesiology of the Church of England.  It’s also, often, remarkably tone deaf theologically and historically uninformed.  So too with the promotion of one-word or one-phrase solutions to the Church’s ills.  I’ve been in meetings in which the claim was made in all seriousness that Anglicans did nothing about ‘discipleship’ until recently – what do people think the Church was doing all those centuries, then, through catechizing, preaching, and educating?  For myself, I’d love to see a ban from church discourse of a whole of litany of ghastly managerial linguistic corruptions, such as ‘low-hanging fruit’, ‘going forward’, ‘strategize’, ‘monetize’ and so on.  Increasingly, it seems, we lack confidence as a Church in our theology and in our own distinct values and culture. 

            Perhaps simplification could even extend to further democratization of church culture.  I welcome the growing tendency of bishops to avoid the purple and wear clerical black.  There’s an old, unresolved argument in historical ecclesiology about whether the episcopate is really an altogether separate order of ordained ministry, or rather a sort of sub-category, an intensification, of the priesthood.  If we really believe that Christian ministry is fundamentally service, then the remaining accoutrements – I mean the cultural clothing – of the medieval hierarchy don’t have much justification.  I don’t personally see strong justification for substantial stipend differentials – provided legitimate expenses are taken care of.  We still haven’t worked out how to advance lay ministry consistently as a Church.  Lay theological education shouldn’t be a very, very poor second to theological education for ordained ministry.

            It is, however, another matter altogether to propose that the way forward for the Church of England lies in stripping away most national, central and diocesan offices functions, allowing initiative to remain at the local level.  It’s a siren voice urging the Church to trust its parishes, but the problems of the past ought to make us more cautious.  I can see real difficulties with this suggestion in at least six areas.

            First, finance.  Leaving aside – for a later instalment – the question of what to do about the burden of historic buildings, it’s surely obvious that to dismantle the mechanisms by which the national resources of the Church of England are made available for the whole Church, and disbursed (albeit often imperfectly) where need arises, will simply let the weak go to the wall.  A great burden though the diocesan ‘quota’ or ‘fund’ system may be, it is the means by which the Church of England manages to hold on to a pan-national system of provision.  This is not to defend all the decisions made by the Church Commissioners or by diocesan treasurers and board of finance.  It’s simply, I think, to point out that there are massive disparities in wealth and privilege between the multiple contexts in which the Church operates, and a levelling-out mechanism is necessary for sheer survival. 

            A second area is safeguarding.  Given my own recent experience, it may surprise some that I hold this up as an area where it would seem to me madness to dismantle what the Church, like other professions and public institutions, has put in place over the last twenty years. But I cannot imagine that it would be in any sense an advance to abandon the ambition of a national system of safeguarding, with national standards, professional safeguarding officers, and the independent safeguarding authority towards which we’re at last moving.  The lesson of the recent past is surely precisely that on this matter it’s simply dangerous to countenance a return to a plethora of local authorities and approaches.  Nor do I think the idea that this can all simply be left to the police holds up.  There’s a close parallel here to the University world out of which I’ve come.  Criminal matters are certainly the responsibility of the police alone, and must be referred to them.  But there are many matters that either fall short of the criminal standard, or which cannot be proven to the criminal standard, which may nonetheless require disciplinary investigation. 

            Third, what about conservation?  For most of the Church of England’s history this was hardly an issue.  Churches were built, demolished, abandoned, extended, modified, updated, as clergy, patrons and rich benefactors wished.  But the twentieth-century legislation has completely changed this, and introduced a level of complexity and constraint earlier generations could scarcely have imagined.  It’s inconceivable that church buildings could simply be removed from this national legislative framework.  And that means that parishes need professional advice and the mechanism for consideration and approval provided by the faculty process, as well as (sometimes) as due planning permission.

            Another area – sometimes almost invisible, but hardly dispensable – is health and safety legislation.  We might – frequently – moan about it, or satirize its seemingly absurd provisions (as in the arguments we had at King’s, Cambridge, about whether or not the BBC staff could use our ladders without fresh ladder training).  But it’s a fact of life, and obviously churches throw up particular challenges which may well require diocesan or even national advice – the recent pandemic being a particularly good example – ensuring a consistency of approach, and providing parishes with relevant expertise that would in most cases not be available locally.

            A fifth concern would be in the field of theological education, one of my pet causes.  Without national expectations and standards, a system of inspection and validation, and the means to enable ordinands to fulfil their potential theologically by directing them as necessary to the appropriate course at the appropriate level, the Church of England would rapidly lose depth and flexibility in its ministry.  I’m not sanguine about where we are even now (that’s something for another blog post some time).  But it’s the combination of a network of semi-autonomous colleges and courses with national accountability (backed up by budget, officers, etc) that at least has helped to retain what we do still have as a church, with capable theologians as well as an attempt to maintain standards across the board. 

            Finally – at least for now – that leads on to a sixth area, ‘employment’.  Alongside national financial systems providing set standards in housing, stipend and pension provision broadly across parishes and dioceses, we have diocesan offices and departments of mission and ministry considering how best to deploy the available clergy and lay ministers (given all the usual constraints), and advise on training and professional development.  None of this is neat or tidy or perfectly efficient in operation.  But it’s better than the alternative, which would seem to be falling back on something like a local ‘market’ for church employment.  That would open up lots of space for older, familiar abuses to return – reliance on personal, informal influence, jobs for friends inequalities in employment prospects, and so on.  I can’t see how any of that would be an improvement on the current situation.  Removing the buffer of proper professional systems (again, I emphasize, not by any means perfect even at the moment) would also enable the inverse to flourish – the unexplained silences, the promises unfulfilled, the warm words lacking action, that all of us have probably encountered at some point in the Church of England.  I dread the scope it would give for that characteristic Anglican habit of avoiding difficult or disappointing conversations by a combination of embarrassment, pity and fear.

            Defending bureaucracy is never an easy or attractive task.  But I don’t think I’m defending the indefensible here.  National and diocesan church officers are an easy target, because they’re vulnerable to the obvious criticism that they don’t have to live with the consequences of their decisions and advice – not, at least, at the coalface, the implementation of policy in parishes.  But thinking you can strip all this away, or massively slim it down, and somehow leave the Church of England in a healthier position to face its difficulties today is a fantasy, not unlike the fantasy that you can abolish all the managers in the NHS or in social services and divert the money saved to patient care. 

Gold, frankincense – and myth

            One of the things that doesn’t get easier year by year, when you’re ordained, is trying to find new things to say about the Christmas story that don’t unintentionally upset people who remain wedded to the literal truth of everything they absorbed about Christmas when they were young.  It’s to no avail – especially feeling the pressure to make people welcome who may not often come to church at other times, if at all – to explain that the traditional Christmas story is composite, that some of it is hard to square with other, established historical evidence, that the gospels each have very different, even contradictory, accounts which have been synthesized into a single narrative, and so on.  None of that really cuts the mustard for people who want a ‘traditional’ Christmas, and who think that if one or other aspect of the traditional story lacks historical credibility, then the whole thing falls.  And even if you do set off down the road of explaining it, what happens is that you then find you’re on a path of almost infinite regression, as you try to explain the difference between fact and significance, how you can establish the truth behind the story, and so on.

            The Christmas story is probably the most complex element of the life of Jesus, even in the un-synthesized form in which the two main components – the visit of the shepherds, in Luke, and the visit of the magi, in Matthew – are presented as alternatives.  Rich theological symbolism is present, weaving in and through Biblical allusions, prophetic quotations, and mutually contradictory regal genealogies.  This makes interpretation of the Christmas story potentially a hazardous exercise.  What’s the relationship between historical truth and theological significance here?  Why are there radically different accounts in the gospels?  Which, if any, of these differing narratives is closest to the truth?  Given that the gospels were almost certainly written down in the form we know them now many decades after the events they purport to describe, and that the events of Jesus’s birth were the earliest and probably least well attested of his life, how can we be sure that in fact they give us any firm information about his background?

            I don’t think there’s any way of answering these questions decisively.  And that’s why, to me at any rate, the Christmas story has always been an opportunity for a creative reworking and re-presentation of the enduring doctrines of faith, which after all has many precedents in early Christian thoguht.  Of course, redaction criticism – reading the theological preoccupations of the gospel writers – goes a long way to explain why there are such differences in the gospel accounts.  But even redaction criticism, illuminating though it is, ultimately can’t really establish for us a solid historical residue.  Jesus was born round about 4 ‘BC’, probably in Nazareth rather than Bethlehem, in a relatively humble family, probably to a mother named Mary and a father named Joseph.  That’s likely to be about as far as we can go in establishing historical truth.  I realize that birth in Nazareth rather than Bethlehem is itself a shocking suggestion to many, but most of the scholars I read do seem to think the Bethlehem location is likely to be a nod in the direction of royal lineage, just as the competing genealogies of Luke and Matthew are.  But of course I could be wrong!  In a sense, the actual historical facts don’t really matter much, because aside from these bare facts, not much in the synthesized Christmas story finally contributes much to the rather more important and generally better-attested narrative of Jesus’s ministry, death and resurrection.  But that doesn’t mean the story is useless to us as Christians.  It is at the very least a source of reflection about the meaning and identity of Jesus.  In that sense we’re free to do a bit of speculative theological work here.

            The visit of the magi, or if you prefer the kings, is a particularly good example of the creativity of the narrative.  It’s only mentioned in Matthew, and much of the detail in the traditional Christmas story is later embellishment – in particular the number three, the description of them as kings, and the names Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.  If we ask the question – just supposing, for example, that the writer of Matthew’s gospel had heard of the magi independently of the other gospel writers – why this story was considered significant and worthy of inclusion, then the gifts obviously assume particular importance.  But what do gold, frankincense and myrh point to?  The usual answers revolve around kingship, with myrh either for regal anointing, or for embalming after death.  There’s no definitive answer: the text doesn’t give us one. 

            But I’ve often thought that there’s another stream of Christian tradition which can give some insight into the gifts.  That’s the tradition of the three ‘offices’ (the triplex munera) of Christ, a tradition that attributes the offices or roles of prophet, priest and king to Christ and that has early Christian roots, was explored by Calvin in the sixteenth century, and then for English readers particularly featured in Newman’s Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church (1837), as it was republished with a much expanded Preface as the Via Media of the Anglican Church (1877).  In Newman’s hands, the triplex munera become a way of explaining how, in the Church’s history, the difficulty of maintaining in practice these three roles in perfect balance and tension could lead to periods of distortion and error, as one or other ‘office’ was given unduly prominent emphasis, but was then subject to correction by the other offices.  The application of this in particular to the juridical or ‘kingly’ role of the Papacy is obvious. 

            But it’s not the outworking of this idea in the history of the Church that interests me here, but rather the symbolic or moral truth that lies at the heart of it, which is almost certainly the reason why it came to be predicated of Jesus in the first place.  The language of the New Testament in relation to Jesus certainly picks up these ideas, as well as others of course.  Think of the discussion of Jesus’s high priesthood in Hebrews, the attribution of kingship to Jesus at many points in the New Testament, and also the way in which Jesus is positioned (though often with the recognition that ‘something greater’ is here).  Personally I could well see an additional office holding equal validity, namely the pastoral office – think of the language of shepherding (‘feed my sheep’).  So I’d see an argument for a quadruplex munera.  But I’m simply taking here the triplex tradition and applying to the magi’s gifts.

            These three ‘offices’ are complementary aspects of religious leadership.  If ‘ruling’ is the directive, disciplinary, juridical role, it is clearly necessary in the management of a community of believers which confronts many different challenges.  But what guides and determines the correct application of the regal role?  It is surely the truth of faith, and that’s what the prophetic function or office particularly defends – the apprehension of revelation, its critical interpretation and correct application.  But furthermore (and I suppose that really the pastoral function is encompassed in this) for a religious community, there’s also a need to serve and connect its apprehension of God, through worship and prayer.  And that’s the priestly office.

            I like to think that the magi’s gifts echo this tradition.  Gold answers to the kingly office.  Crowns are made of gold.  Wealth and power are symbolized and effected by gold.  Gold endures; it is virtually indestructible.  Traditional interpretations of this gift are persuasive.  Nothing could symbolize Jesus’s kingship better than the gift of gold.

            Likewise, frankincense surely symbolizes the priestly office of Christ.  Incense in ancient Israel, as today in Judaism and in many Christian churches, accompanied and worship, symbolizing the ascent of prayer to God, and echoing the sacrifices of the Temple.  Since Jesus is our high priest who has ascended into the heavens, the gift of frankincense would anticipate his earthly and heavenly significance.

            The puzzle perhaps is myrh.  It does not directly and obviously speak of the prophetic office.  Or does it?  The common distinction between the life and teaching of Jesus is a false distinction when we come to consider his death and resurrection, for he preaches his death as a matter of universal importance, and interpretation of his death and resurrection and their significance for humanity constitute the core of Christian theology.  Perhaps myrh is a gift not only anticipating death, but also highlighting that the role of this king and priest will be defined by his death, and (as anyone who heard the gospel narratives would have known) by his overcoming of death. 

            For all I know, I’m simply repeating a train of thought well worn by early Christian thinkers.  Most of my books are currently in storage, and so I can’t readily explore that.  But it does for me tie together a number of threads.  Christmas in western culture has swollen in importance so much that it overshadows other times of the liturgical calendar.  It’s dressed up as celebration and party – which I enjoy as much as anyone.  But it is, at least in Christian worship and in the gospel birth narratives themselves, never divorced from the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection.  The kingdom of Christ is an anti-type of secular rule – it is defined through love rather than control, and its defining event is not an imperial triumph after a military conquest, but a humiliating death on a cross, a criminal’s execution.  The baby is born to die.  A sword will pierce your own heart, Mary is told.  Life and death are united in this coming of the Christ child. 

Revisiting Anglican classics 3: Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons

            Some people may be surprised that I want to lay claim to John Henry Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons as an ‘Anglican classic’.  After all, Newman converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845, and as his spiritual autobiography, his Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864) made clear, this was not a sudden or hasty, unprepared change, but one that had come upon him over a long period, after much personal agony of thought.  Doesn’t that imply that these sermons are not really, or at least not quintessentially, Anglican?

            It’s sometimes said – with some exaggeration, I fear – that Newman, as a Catholic, had not altogether left behind his Anglicanism.  Cardinal Manning thought so.  But his Parochial and Plain Sermons were published without much controversy while he was an Anglican, and republished likewise as a Catholic with very few alterations.  They are not, therefore, Anglican in a unique or polemical sense,  They express a practical, devotional spirit that sits perfectly well in both communions, provided you can concede (as I can) a high sacramental theology to Anglicanism.  But the fact that these sermons could ‘work’ equally well in both confessional contexts doesn’t detract from what they have to offer Anglicans, and in that sense I’d regard them as an Anglican classic.  They were preached over some twenty years from the early 1820s to the early 1840s and cover therefore practically the whole of Newman’s ministry in the Church of England.  Their audience was mostly the congregation of St Mary’s, the University Church at Oxford, where Newman was incumbent – a literate, educated congregation, who would follow the complexities of his argumentation without much difficulty.  There are famous descriptions of Newman’s preaching, which in time drew large congregations of students.  These are not generally ‘plain’ sermons in quite the sense that, for example, many of Keble’s were, preached to a rural and semi-literate congregation.  But they’re not explicitly doctrinal or speculative in the way that, for example, Newman’s University Sermons were.

            The publication of parochial, plain or pastoral sermons was a common practice in the nineteenth century.  Almost all the leading Tractarians did it.  They give the lie to the common claim that the Oxford Movement was aimed first and foremost at an ‘academic’ context.  On the contrary, since their goal was to transform the worship and piety of the whole Church of England, and since they were well aware that the heart of the Church of England was its parish ministry, their publications were always aimed as much as the parochial clergy and literate laity as they were at university colleagues.  But these Parochial and Plain Sermons sermons did not set out to be ‘learned’ in the obvious sense of quoting and engaging with theologians, or establishing a controversial argument om particular points.  Their goal was to demonstrate how the sacramental theology of the Oxford Movement could be a real, practical basis for Christian living.  Their language is mostly plain and unadorned.   Nevertheless they constitute one of Newman’s most profound contributions to Anglican thought.  They express what I can only call a religious epistemology, and a corresponding theory of faith, which even now is under-received and not well understood in Anglican discourse.  They are a treasure-trove of insight that can inform a High, sacramental Anglican understanding, just as much as it continued to inform the Catholic reception of Newman.  They’re too rich for me to give a comprehensive account here, so I will just pick out briefly four representative themes.  I’m using, incidentally, the eight-volume Longmans, late-nineteenth century edition.

First, for Newman the material world is a type or shadow of the spiritual world: that does not mean it is trivial or irrelevant, but rather that the whole realm of things in faith is a field of sacramental apprehension.  That makes it, incidentally, more, not less important; more, not less, worthy of study and appreciation.  There is no fearful shrinking from the world here.  Clearly lying behind this is the doctrine of creation: the world, as Hopkins (who admired Newman) put it, ‘is charged with the glory of God’.   As Newman says, “He loves the unseen company of believers, who loves those who are seen.  The test of our being joined to Christ is love; the test of love towards Christ and His Church, is loving those whom we actually see.” (vol. iv, p. 184) 

Second, and related, truth is apprehended primarily through the imagination, though enlivened or illuminated by the indwelling Spirit, who makes up any deficiencies in our prayers.  There is resonance here with Coleridge, and perhaps with Coleridge’s heir F.D. Maurice (though it has to be said that Newman had relatively little time for Maurice).  So, for example, Newman can say: “When we call God our Father Almighty, or own ourselves miserable offenders, and beg Him to spare us, let us recollect that, though we are using a strange language, yet Christ is pleading for us in the same words with full understanding of them, and availing power; and that, though we know not what we should pray for as we ought, yet the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with plaints unutterable”. (vol. i, p. 148)

Third, for Newman piety or devotion is not so much a mental act, as an embedded consequence of practice.  This is particularly important, because it reverses or at least complicates the Evangelical assumption that devotion is a consequence of a faith cognitively apprehended.  Habits form dispositions, for Newman, not the other way round.  As he says, “[T]o pray attentively is a habit.  This must ever be kept in mind.  No one begins with having his heart thoroughly in them; but by trying, he is enabled to attend more and more, and at length, after many trials and a long schooling of himself, to fix his mind steadily on them”.  (vol. I, p. 142)  Here, then, is a defence of a disciplined practice of religion which fuses faith and life. 

Finally, Newman, ever the realist, also understands that the logical deduction is that the religious understanding requires time, patience, an adaptation of what is expected to what is actually possible.  “[W]hat treasure can equal time?” he said, “It is the seed of eternity”.  (vol. vii, p. 7)  This is the great Tractarian appropriation of the doctrine of reserve, which is perhaps better described as accommodation – the accommodation of religious teaching to the human capacity and context of understanding.  (For the classic Tractarian statement of this doctrine, you have to go to Isaac Williams’s Tract 80, on ‘Reserve in Communicating Religious Knowledge’.)  As Newman said, “We must wait for all opportunities of being useful to men, but beware of attempting too much at once.  We must impart the Scripture doctrines, in measure and season, as they can bear them”. (vol. i., p.307)  As I hope these few quotations have shown, many of these sermons bear careful reflection and re-reading.  There is much more that could be drawn from them than I have done here.  They may not be uniquely Anglican, or even distinctively so, but they do articulate a theology that, from a sacramental perspective, exemplifies the pastoral understanding of Anglican practice.  It is, in my view, a profoundly merciful theology.  And we Anglicans have much to learn from it still.

The faith of poetry and the poetry of faith

            My first book of poetry was a Puffin book of children’s verse, with a light blue cover; I enjoyed poking around in it, but I can remember very little else about it.  Poetry disappeared from my life in early adolescence, but reappeared at ‘O’ level with passages from the Prelude, Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, and a selection of Keats, much of which I learnt by heart for exam quotes, and which has therefore always stayed with me.  Likewise at ‘A’ level we had as a set text an anthology of contemporary poetry – Let the Poet Choose I think the book was called – in which living (well living when the book was published) poets writing in English chose two of their poems.  This will date me: it included W.H. Auden, Robert Graves, Charles Causley, R.S. Thomas (I wrote to him, and got a polite, encouraging but brief response, which I’m sad to say I can’t currently find), Vernon Scannell, Ted Hughes, amongst many others.  I loved it, and as my intellectual horizons opened up, poetry became a kind of permanent fixture in my reading habits, though I’m embarrassed to admit my reading of living poets’ work is fairly limited and obvious – Simon Armitage, Alice Oswald, Andrew Motion, a few others. 

            All the same, I think the fact that I’ve continued to read poetry – going through Milton again at the moment – means that the relationship of poetry and faith has always intrigued me, and I’ve begun to think a bit more seriously about it recently.  There are three dimensions of the relationship which I can get out the way fairly quickly.  The first is quite, simply, that there are obviously poets writing today whom we’d happily call ‘religious poets’ – Malcolm Guite would be one, Rowan Williams another (I know he probably doesn’t want to be categorized that way, but it’s hard not to see him, like Malcolm, as a priest who’s also a poet, and therefore as a ‘religious poet’ in the sense I’m intending).  These are people who comfortably inhabit the mental and imaginative world of faith, and write out of it and about it, though also about other things.  There are many examples in the past – Keble, Rosetti, Herbert.  I read all these and others.  But this phenomenon is not what interests me here.

            There’s also inescapably a sense in which the poets of the past, as well as some writing today, were Christian, so that Christian ideas and values flow through their work and it is to a considerable extent unintelligible without attending to them, even though we don’t necessarily think of these poets primarily as ‘religious poets’.  This is true of the vast majority of poets who wrote before the mid-nineteenth century or so, and of many, probably the clear majority, of those who wrote up until around the mid-twentieth century.  It simply doesn’t make sense to approach, for example, Donne, Wordsworth, Coleridge, without taking any account of their religious and spiritual convictions.  Even in those who were somewhat heterodox, the presence of Christian preoccupations and values can’t be ignored.  Tennyson, for example?  Robert Bridges, the Brownings, even Shelley and Byron to an extent.  Nor is this second dimension of the relationship what interests me here.

            The third dimension approaches much more closely to what I want to explore.  That is the conceptual overlap between poetry and theology, what I tentatively call the ‘metaphysical landscape’ (with a nod to Hopkins’s inscape) of much poetry.  Poetry offers transcendent perspectives, opening up insights or views that take us outside the specificity of one personal experience.  These insights may or may not be dependent upon an overarching metaphysical system, and they may not aim even to articulate metaphysical concepts as such, but sometimes they do, perhaps even conceiving of an alternative mythology to that of conventional religious belief – Hughes’s Crow is a particularly clear example.  There’s obviously a long list of words and images that have an affinity with theological ideas – creation, fall, inspiration, redemption, sacrifice, offering, presence, and so on – because they are in some sense bearers of metaphysical ideas.  Ted Walker’s Easter Poem (for John Cotton) is a good example of what I’m describing, even though the theological idea articulated here is essentially a-theistic, almost nihilistic and certainly parasitic on conventional Christian language.

            Though this third phenomenon helps to suggest why so many theologians find poetry to be so generative and productive of insight – and I’m well aware that I’ve not even attempted the complex, separate task of actually trying to define what poetry is – once again it’s not actually what I have in mind as I try to think more about faith and poetry.  My hunch – I can’t put it yet more strongly than that – is that the affinity between poetry and faith doesn’t hang solely on what poetry (in the various forms in which people read it) is itself and itself seeks to do, but rather on what theology and faith are.  One of the books that had a great impact on me when I was reading for my Theology degree was Janet Soskice’s Metaphor and Religious Language (1985).  I haven’t read it for years, and I’m fearful of doing it an injustice, but one of my main, remembered ‘takeaways’ from it was the sense in which almost all human attempts to define or describe the realm of being, even including science, ultimately entail resort to terms that are irredeemably metaphorical.  Theologians have always been aware of this, because the descriptions they offer of the substance of faith concern ‘things unseen’, and therefore one of the primary tasks of the theologian is to discipline and refine the use of concepts in faith to try to protect against their illegitimate or over-restrictive use.  Everyone knows the word ‘father’ used of God is a metaphor; how do we protect and refine the ancient doctrine of the fatherhood of God to prevent it becoming, for example, a justification for patriarchy? 

            But if, as Soskice taught me to see, the same challenge exists in all our use of language, then faith is not so much a separate, specialized category of knowledge – in fact it’s not really knowledge in a reductive sense, i.e. knowledge of ‘things’ – as a way of seeing the world in continuity with the ways others see the world.  In order to do that, people of religious conviction interrogate their own experience using language which reaches beyond the specific and limited to embrace a metaphysical horizon.  Faith is a sort of poetry of human experience.  The moment we try to bring factitious language to bear on it, we miss the point of it.  One of the problems with the ‘New Atheism’, for example, is that when I say ‘God exists’ I can’t possibly mean that God exists in quite the same sense that I can say the chair I’m sitting on exists.  The chair has being, a presence in the world of time and space; I can measure it, study its constituent parts, analyse its chemical composition.  God is above and beyond being; I simply can’t know he exists except through faith.  When we start to use language about theology with the same presumed precision that we might attempt in, for example, the analysis of a chair, we risk going seriously awry from the off.  Likewise, I can’t measure and define the quantity of love or suffering.  So the language I use about love and suffering takes me beyond the realm of physical measurement and analysis.  Let’s say faith and theology make a similar move to poetry, from human experience to ultimate meaning.

            But that puts human faith in the position of attempting to express the ultimately ineffable.  No matter how much I try to describe what I experience and believe, in the end, unless I am simply and deliberately describing an interior, psychological state alone, then I am trying to capture something in words that constantly fall short of what I want to say. 

            That’s not to say that there isn’t a logic and discipline in theology.  This requires a much longer post – a book or five or six – but in Christian theology, faith is rooted in a knowledge of God derived from the sources of Scripture, tradition (i.e. the experience of the ages), and faith-inspired reason.  The systematic methodology of theology draws on these, and compares and interrogates different attempts to clarify their meaning.  The doctrine of the Church acquires authority from the regard in which successive generations hold it, but it is never completely frozen or static.  Yet we do again and again come back to the basic point that the language of faith ultimately seeks to express something beyond definitive expression.  How do we know, then, that it is of any use at all?  Because it is language of faith – its premises are not based on empirical observation, but on the divinely-inspired imagination, so that the presupposition of faith is that God is present in all we attempt to do and say.  My guides here are, at least in the English tradition, Coleridge and Newman.  With Coleridge I can say, for example, “in all finite quantity, there is an infinite, in all measures of time an eternal; that the latter are the basis, the substance, of the former; and that, as we truly are only as far as God is with us, so neither can we truly possess, that is, enjoy our being or any other real good, but by living in the sense of His holy presence”.  (Aids to Reflection)  Rahner for one would have agreed.

            So for me all theological language peters out over the horizon of mystery.  That gives it a plastic capacity, a sense that if I define things in faith too sharply, I risk emptying them of meaning; there is always an ‘overplus’, something more to be said in all our attempts religiously to say anything.  And that again is why I’m much more interested in the poetic character of theological language, including the language of faith itself, than I am in any pretence it has to rational precision. 

Revisiting Anglican Classics 2: A.M. Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church (1936)

            Is this the greatest book of Anglican theology published in the twentieth century?  I think there’s a good case for saying so.  It’s certainly one of the most influential, and a book which retains much of its freshness and vitality 85 years on from its publication. 

            It’s not without flaws.  So let’s get those out of the way first.  Its assumption of something like a single Patristic witness, while consistent with the Anglo-Catholicism Ramsey had embraced, won’t stand up to critical scrutiny now.  The book was written before great strides were made in liturgical and Patristic scholarship, and Ramsey himself came to recognize its deficiencies.  Likewise, the latent assumption of a largely self-consistent New Testament voice would sit uncomfortably with many Biblical scholars today, though some schools of thought (e.g. canonical criticism) would be happier with it.  Perhaps most seriously, there’s a somewhat undefinable, and philosophically unexplored, quality to the central claim made in the book that the order of the Church is itself an expression (‘utterance’ is the word he uses) of the Gospel.  With it, Ramsey pulls history and proclamation together in a way that echoes his interest at the time in neo-Orthodoxy, and the influence of Barth’s translator Hoskyns, though it probably also reflects a lingering influence from the philosophical Idealism of his mentor William Temple, and others. 

            Maybe I’m biased – well, I am! – but though some people would regard Ramsey’s appreciation of F.D. Maurice as mystifying, I wouldn’t be among them.  Ramsey plainly understood Maurice’s intellectual breadth and imaginativeness, and grasped that the whole with Maurice is always more than the sum of the parts – admittedly another way of saying it’s not always clear how Maurice ultimately justifies his position.  But Ramsey perceived the importance of Maurice’s attempt in The Kingdom of Christ (1838; completely revised 1842) to honour his own Anglican perspective while at the same time taking to heart the precious truths proclaimed in other, separated Christian traditions, and in a way his book echoes that same fundamental move.  I have to admit, though, that Ramsey is always much more readable than Maurice – in fact, that very readability is one of the great surprises of the book, and something that keeps it alive even today.  It’s one of the best-written books of modern Anglican theology, without question.

            So why ‘the greatest’?  Ramsey spotted the abiding problem of modern Anglican theology, and tried to think a way through it.  That is, quite simply, the cohabitation of two (or even three, though the third is less easily defined) completely different and apparently irreconcilable theological systems within the one Church tradition – the Evangelical appeal to the authority of Scripture and its consequent ‘leaping over’ the importance of the tradition of the Church, and the Catholic appeal to the authority of Church tradition and its apparent demotion of Scripture.  The one position mandates (I’m not saying this is what all Evangelicals think – it’s a kind of tendency or norm) a sort of Scriptural simplicity that has the unfortunate side-effect of rendering much of human history otiose, the other a sort of traditional identity that embraces the significance of history but risks losing the radical message of the Gospel.  If there is a third, it is of course the ‘Liberal’ appeal to reason, or rather to the adaptability of the Gospel and the Church to changing human situations, which implies in turn the susceptibility of both to critical interrogation.  Ramsey leans very heavily on Maurice in his reading of this ‘third’ position (not that he simply identifies Maurice with it), but since Maurice’s concept of ‘reason’ was the spiritual capacity entailed in Coleridge’s use of the term, and not a logical, ‘rationalist’ view, it doesn’t directly affect the main lines of Ramsey’s case.

            Ramsey’s solution is effectively to argue that each of these two positions is incomplete without the other.  They are really two sides of one reality, God’s speaking – God’s Word – in history.  And since Ramsey accepts in the fullest sense the Pauline theology of the Church as Christ’s body, the Gospel is articulated not only in the Church, i.e. functionally as the Word of God is read, proclaimed, and taught, but through the Church in sacramentum and in its own very ordering.  This is a classic Coleridgean-Mauricean move – the limitations of two positions are transcended in a fusion of both.  Stephen Sykes (in The Integrity of Anglicanism, 1978) hated the resultant confusion (as he saw it), but he did I think miss or at least underestimate the extent to which Ramsey was trying to take the Church as we have received it through history seriously as the endeavour of the followers of Christ to remain true to his word.  Ramsey’s argument is the authentic Christian riposte to Nietzsche’s ‘There was only ever one Christian and he died on the cross’.

            The need for these two positions to ‘speak’ to each other, to be seen as part of the one reality of the Church, is so evident from the recent history of division and disagreement within the Anglican Communion, and particularly my own church, the Church of England, that the abiding relevance of Ramsey’s effort surely doesn’t need pointing out.  Of course – and he was well aware of this – it doesn’t resolve the actual, messy task of trying to work out how to regard different issues and different historical changes as they impact upon the Church, but it does defend the basic Anglican endeavour to contain these apparently different ecclesiologies within the one body, and indeed to articulate an overarching ecclesiology that can do justice to both.  This was not only something of which Anglicans needed to be reminded in the 1930s.  It was also something essential to holding together their ecumenical ambitions, which ranged over both Protestant denominations, and the Old Catholics, Orthodox and Roman Catholics.  No one has set out a more compelling vision of what an Anglican ecumenical strategy should aim to do than, by implication, Ramsey did in this book.

            There are two further points.  One is that, although at first reading one might be struck by Ramsey’s attempt to fold the Evangelical appeal to the Gospel into arguments about Catholic order, an equally important move is the modification he makes to the traditional ‘Catholic’ position in Anglicanism.  Gone is the somewhat narrowly defined, ‘supercharged’ (the word I think is Peter Nockles’s) theory of tactile, manual succession as the constitutive element of apostolicity, as received from the Tractarians.  Ramsey moves things on, allowing an opening out of the understanding of apostolicity to include a fidelity to the Gospel and an identification with wider currents of Church history, and thus enabling the broader view of apostolicity that was later to emerge in, for example, the Porvoo agreement, but also in the work of the Faith and Order Commission of the WCC from the 1970s on.  Ironically – though he again he would have been aware of this – from a Roman Catholic perspective, this was merely stretching the concept of apostolicity to its appropriate breadth.  A mark of that was Yves Congar’s appreciation of Ramsey.

            Finally, Ramsey achieves all of this not by a simplistic or crude idealization of the Church.  He had a thoroughly Augustinian notion of the Church as itself, in the specific conditions of history, often deeply flawed.  It needs constant reform, constant recall to its foundations – that is the importance of the Evangelical constitution of the Church.  I’m often struck today by how easily people seem to be disillusioned by the Church, and by Church leaders.  When did we learn to be so naïve?  The Church is called to be a peaceable, loving, safe and affirming community, but it will always fail, just as much as it succeeds.  It’s made up of sinners, after all.  Any alternative view would be a kind of Pelagianism, a trust that by our own efforts we can perfect ourselves.  We can’t.  ‘Catholicism always stands before the church door at Wittenberg’, wrote Ramsey, ‘to read the truth by which she is created and by which she is judged’ (p. 180).