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). 

The demands of love

We can’t talk about love if we can’t also talk about sacrifice.  This seems so obvious to me that I’m not sure I’ve ever really tried to formulate it explicitly before.  But it is the way talk of love in contemporary discourse slips so easily into the assumption that love serves self-fulfilment which has struck me with ever greater force as I read the ongoing, and often rather futile, musings of Christians about human sexuality (and by the way I’m not excluding myself from this criticism).  Of course love seeks its own fulfilment, not least as the expression of desire, of eros.  But if love is only the fulfilment of desire, then it is masquerading as selfish passion, an appetite like any other.  Love cannot assume as its ultimate end its own fulfilment, but the fulfilment of the other person.  That may imply love’s own disappointment, its lack of completion, its self-limitation.

You can perhaps see this most completely in parental love.  Parents try to love their children into being, and into maturity, and as they see them grow, they have to accept the limits of their ability to guide, steer and protect them.  Their desire for their children to become fully mature, independent, secure people in their own right must entail the risk of loss and disappointment for themselves as parents: they cannot make their children like themselves; they cannot ensure they are always near them; they cannot control their children’s life choices when it comes to partners, friends and life styles.  The best parents learn to let go, but that letting go is almost never without pain.

But this is also true for all relationships of love, surely.  It’s certainly true in marriage and lifelong partnership.  Unless one partner is a brainwashed doormat (in which case can we really say love is present at all?), there will always be differences of outlook and interest that from time to time cause one or other partner pain.  To be in a committed, lifelong partnership is to accept the limitations of our own pursuit of pleasure, and to place at the centre of our lives, by contrast, the flourishing of our partner, our love. 

So that means sacrifice.  This is often an incredibly hard thing to discuss with couples seeking marriage.  What are you prepared to give up to make this marriage work?  How much space can you give each other to grow and change, even if at times that’s uncomfortable or difficult for you?  What comes first, your happiness, or the happiness of your partner?

I could put this argument on a Christological basis, for Christ surely is the one who supremely shows us love is exemplified in sacrifice – greater love hath no man than this…

But I’m simply trying to capture something of what makes love work humanly and practically.  It seems to me that the very idea of love implies the placing of oneself second, not first.  And doing that requires a kind of training, a discipline or ascesis.  Things that are hard need to be learnt, and re-learnt, sometimes day after day.  A Christian view of marriage, or lifelong partnership, then, implies an emptying out of the soul’s desire, if we take desire here as meaning to possess.  Love Christianly can’t be translated into possessive or acquisitive desire.  It may even require the renunciation of desire, though again a practical view of human love has to recognize the security, stability and joy which follow from mutual fulfilment.

If this is so, then there’s much more to be said about the Christian quality of relationships than is often said in the slagging match of contemporary ethical discussion.  In a way, the sheerly physical basis of human identity and desire is beside the point: the supreme question is, rather, what are we prepared to give up, or at least to struggle with, in order to promote the well-being of those we love?  We can’t simply apply the idea of rights in regard to love without also speaking of obligations 

I can hear alarm bells ringing.  Does this mean, for example, requiring same-sex couples to accept a greater sacrifice than others, as some might assume?  I don’t think so.  I’m not talking about the relative status of one set of relations over against another, but about the nature of human relations.

Another question might be, doesn’t this risk encouraging those demeaned or abused or betrayed to stay in relationships that perpetuate their suffering rather than leave?  Again I don’t think so.  There always has to be a practical judgement about the nature of an actual relationship: failure to confront often prolongs or even deepens abuse, giving the abuser (seemingly) more reason to carry on with their abuse.  There has to be reciprocity for a true partnership to work. 

And a further concern might be that all this risks displacing the proper sense of self-fulfilment and security that must lie at the heart of all healthy relationships.  Isn’t it the case that those who don’t look after themselves can’t really look after others properly?  This is true, surely.  But self-confidence and security are not the same thing as selfishness.  I’m not saying there isn’t a proper self-regard, a proper care of ourselves.  But that’s not what love is; it may be a precondition of a healthy, loving relationship, but it’s not love itself.

What all this amounts to, in my mind, is a plea to restore to contemporary arguments about rights in relation to sexuality the Christian quality of sacrificial fidelity.  I wish we would all talk a bit more about that.  If we did, it’s just possible that largely hidden grounds of agreement might come into view.

9 October 2021

St. John Henry Newman – a saint for Anglicans?

            Anglicans have generally welcomed Newman’s canonisation in 2019 with acclaim, in my view rightly so – as you’ll see.  But there is an irony in this.  Anglicans cannot really claim to have been ahead of the Roman Catholic Church in seeing Newman as a saint.  Few Anglicans in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries thought of him in those terms.  For Evangelicals the Anglican Newman was a crypto-papist.  Liberals and the Broad Church were no less anti-Roman.  Kingsley was not alone in accusing Newman of disingenuousness.  Even as late as 1939 the robustly Protestant Hensley Henson wrote of Newman’s “sophistry”.  Even many Anglo-Catholics were wary, and few considered his theology particularly significant or convincing.  Liberal Catholics such as Charles Gore welcomed the Essay on Development, for example, but generally they liked the basic proposition of doctrinal evolution, but not Newman’s method.

            Some partial rehabilitation began in the 1930s, especially with the centenary of 1833. Yet it would be hard to argue that at this time Newman, even in his adopted church, was regarded as much more than a figure of national rather than international importance.  It was really Vatican II that sealed the growing international reputation of Newman as a Christian thinker, and even then in Anglican circles the official recognition of his status did not begin until the 1980s and 1990s.  And we might wonder why it happened at all, given Newman’s quite severe criticisms of Anglicanism after his conversion. 

            As is well known, the Church of England, like most other members of the Anglican Communion, does not have a formal mechanism for recognizing sanctity, except for putting a name on the liturgical calendar for commemoration.  But that includes many figures we wouldn’t necessarily call ‘saints’ – such as William Laud, George Fox, John Donne, F.D. Maurice, Evelyn Underhill, and so on (which is to take nothing away from their merits and reputations).  In Common Worship, like them Newman still has only a ‘commemoration’, and not – unlike John Keble – a ‘lesser festival’.

            What do we think we’re marking, then, in welcoming the language of Newman as a ‘saint’ – if, that is, we are really trying to point to something more elevated perhaps than the broad category of ‘saints’ as the faithful dead?  Newman was a brilliant stylist, thinker, and theologian, a good friend to many, and a person of undoubted spiritual discipline and devotion.  But he was not without flaws: he could be petty, manipulative and unforgiving, and it’s one of his more engaging personal qualities that he never denied his weaknesses.  I can’t help but think – please forgive me, Roman friends! – that a mechanism that requires evidence of sanctity through miraculous healing risks distorting Newman’s (and others’) reputation.

            So why am I comfortable with language of ‘saint’ in Newman’s case?  What’s become clear in the last fifty years is the sheer profundity and originality of Newman’s voice as a theologian.  He’s poised exactly between a rigid conservatism and a pliable progressivism.  He was nothing if not orthodox, but at the same time he was acutely aware of the historical formation of Christian doctrine and the rational challenge that presents faith.  Appreciation of his significance has grown as time has passed; in a sense, the age has grown into Newman.  More than ever, though dead for over 130 years, he feels like someone who still engages contemporary philosophical and theological preoccupations.  His writing, always readable, remains fresh and relevant.

            So I regard Newman as a modern doctor of the Church – the universal Church, that is.  And Anglicans should celebrate him, not least in the Church of England because we are rapidly losing the capacity to value the distinct vocation of the theologian.  There’s an integrity of thought and ecclesial commitment in Newman’s career – to me that’s what comes out so strongly from the Apologia – and so his moral example as a theologian is in equal measure to his significance as a major figure in modern theology.  It’s quite hard to think of others of whom you could say that.  Perhaps Barth, surely Bonhoeffer, perhaps Von Balthasar, there would be others.  But when you think not only of the sheer range of Newman’s thought, but of its abiding relevance for churches other than the Roman Catholic Church, it’s impossible for me not to think of him as ultimately an ecumenical theologian.  The Essay on Development remains the starting point of modern discussion on the matter.  Newman made a major contribution, through his ‘On consulting the faithful’, to the theology of the whole people of God, and the theological significance of the laity.  The Grammar of Assent is an outstanding intervention in the modern history of hermeneutics and philosophy of religion.  And that’s just a start.

            Like the doctors of the ancient church – Augustine, Jerome, Gregory, Ambrose – Newman’s theology will continue to shape the way Christian theologians and church people think and argue about their faith for generations to come.  He has that stature. 

26 August 2021

The politics of pastoral encounter

            I imagine most people will look askance at the title of this post.  What has politics got to do with pastoral care?  Isn’t pastoral care something intensely and essentially personal, so that politics shouldn’t get in the way of it?  Well yes…and no.

            Yes, because Christian ministry can’t be parcelled up into differential modes of care depending on people’s politics and even life situations.  It was always a rather cheap jibe at the liberation theologians that they didn’t seem to have a gospel for the rich – but of course they did!  It is easier for a camel…go and sell all you have…But it’s true that the love of God leaves out no one, and it would be a shocking thing to start denying people care and compassion simply because of their views and actions.  I’ve always thought the most startling example was John Robinson, at Westcott House during the war, praying for Hitler.  We pray for the souls of murderers, thieves, abusers, drug suppliers, and so on.  It might be uncomfortable for some people, but that’s what Christians do.

            But the other side of the matter came to my mind reading Hensley Henson’s Disestablishment (1929) the other day.  Henson had done a seemingly abrupt u-turn on his views on establishment after the House of Commons twice rejected the revised Prayer Book in 1927 and 1928, showing up the much-vaunted, new legislative independence of the Church of England as a fiction.  With the recent example of Welsh disestablishment as a background, Henson concluded that the traditional constitutional relationship of Church and State no longer worked to the Church’s (or even the State’s) good.  But he’s very fierce against the idea that disestablishment would turn the Church of England into merely a sect. 

And he goes on to chide his clergy – he was bishop of Durham, and part of the book is a ‘Charge’ to his clergy – for neglect of pastoral visiting.  I really warmed to that.  He doesn’t concede anything to the claim that the Church, if disestablished, should abandon its community outreach and its appeal to every person in one place.  This is where the idea of politics is relevant, surely.  First, Henson would have strongly rejected the idea of a specific political bias as a requirement of Christian commitment – he was quietly scathing about William Temple’s views – but he would absolutely not have disputed that in a broader sense the Church of England’s pastoral responsibilities were part of the landscape of England’s political history. 

Neglect of pastoral encounter was, then, a form of political statement.  If – by implication – it was a wilful, deliberate neglect, motivated for example by resentment or by disapproval of someone’s views or position in life, you could at least say that it was a neglect with political consequences.  And likewise, if Christians persist in trying to reach out in compassion and care to those whom others are telling us should be shunned, then that too is a political statement of sorts.

But second, there is obviously another sense in which a Christian theological anthropology requires more or less explicitly a specific understanding of human community, or human sociality.  Christians commit to building up the polis – the social life, the relationships, the values, and of course the structures by which human community is shaped and defined.  And they do bring a particular perspective to bear on that – that’s what faith and the moral life require of us.  Pastoral encounter is a political act.  That doesn’t make it any less spiritual or personal – on the contrary.

23 August 2021

Revisiting Anglican classics 1: W.H. Vanstone, Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense (1977)

            When I was at theological college in the early 1990s, Bill Vanstone’s book was spoken of with awe, as a profound essay on the risk of love.  I think because of that reputation, I held off from reading it for years, fearing I’d be disappointed.  But I needn’t have done.  It is an extraordinary tour de force of theological reflection, beginning with the most unpromising of material, the apparent trivia of parish life and his impatience with it, and going on to develop a penetrating analysis of the costliness of divine love, and its imbrication with all the seemingly minor endeavours and disappointments by which our lives are structured.

            Despite a brilliant academic background and predictions of a glittering career, Vanstone chose to spend much of his ministry working on a Lancashire housing estate, giving practical effect to the attentiveness and patience (his next book was called The Stature of Waiting) that is an important theme of this book.  He waited until his mid-50s to publish it, and the word is that it was turned down by a number of publishers, until it was taken up by DLT and became a prize-winner and best-seller. 

            It’s a bold argument.  Without conceding anything to theoretical challenges to divine impassibility, Vanstone supposes that the risks we see inherent in love as we know it in our own terms – its willingness to recognize its own limits, its renunciation of control, and its openness to unforeseen change – must also be characteristic of the love of God.  Whilst the love of God is an infinite outpouring, the endeavour of God’s love is itself fraught with risk, with self-limitation and the denial of coercive control.  We see this supremely in the tragedy of the cross (for those in the know, there are echoes of Donald Mackinnon), but also in the life of the Church.

            Vanstone’s God is a God of small things.  We are constantly tempted by the grand gesture in the Church today.  10,000 new congregations!  Don’t think small, think big!  Grand strategies are what we need, aren’t they?  Yet the skeletons of failed grand initiatives litter the historical landscape – the National Mission of Repentance and Hope in 1917, Towards the Conversion of England in 1945, the decade of Evangelism, Mission-Shaped Church, perhaps even Renewal and Reform?  Well, few of these were or are outright failures.  Perhaps they all have their place.  Perhaps they all have helped to slow decline.

            But for Vanstone, I suspect, they would all have been beside the point.  What he learnt in his years of serving the people of his parish was that there was no disjuncture between the significance of the little action or gesture, and that of the great.  Where God’s people are, whatever the seeming triviality of their concerns, each one of them is fully the preoccupation and end of God’s love.  God’s grace is alive and working in each of them, and he is to be encountered where they are.  For me, this is the touchstone of parish ministry. 

            The book ends with the poem – ‘Morning glory, starlit sky’ – which has become a well-known hymn, set to Orlando Gibbons’s ‘Song 13’.  All is good, but the verse that sums up the gist of Vanstone’s essay is the fifth:

Drained is love making full;

Bound in setting others free;

Poor in making many rich;

Weak in giving power to be.