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.