Friday, 22 June 2007

Liberal Anglican

One of my most vigorous postings in recent months on Thinking Anglicans has been about Wycliffe Hall, the Anglican theological college and part of the University of Oxford. It used to be roughly described as Open Evangelical, under the Principal Alister McGrath. After him it moved to being Conservative Evangelical under a new Principal, Richard Turnbull, and this is confirmed by a video of a speech he made. This video was first brought to wider attention by an Open Evangelical called "Jody", and then I spent some hours transcribing it given its fighting content when its text made a bigger impact into the national press and especially the vigorous journalist Stephen Bates of The Guardian.

In October 2006 the Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Richard Turnbull, gave a speech to the Conservative Evangelical Anglican pressure group Reform in which he left no one with any doubt which way he was taking the college. For me, however, it wasn't so much the direction that mattered in where he was taking it, but the manner in which he saw his mission. It was purely partisan and purely oppositional regarding other types of Anglicans. They are the enemy - even his so designated "Liberal Evangelicals". They are the first to go in the bigger struggle against "the Liberals" proper. He accused Liberals of having a broad "strategy" to "capture" the "generations" of trainee ministers, but he had first indicated he had a "strategy" and so in fact was just talking about himself. As such the theological college would lack the breadth to serve a wider proportion of Anglicanism than itself (about which everyone should be realistic: Anglicanism is party oriented and any theological college would struggle to serve all the Church, although liberal inclusivity - unlike Turnbull's oppositional outlook - actually is somewhat self-limiting and therefore, rightly, reaches out some way beyond itself).

In the end Conservative Evangelicalism is a sectarian faith, here within a Church. In so far as these labels work (Church/ Sect) the Conservative Evangelical is, whilst forward thrusting, backward in terms of contemporary culture. It uses popular culture for emotional worship as an easy way in to start to climb up its high wall of doctrine and dogma, but it is not going to revive anything broader than the usual population fringes it attracts in and manipulates. What I would add, however, is that liberal Christian expression is also not a mass movement. It may even be a movement that takes previously "conversionist" people after their beliefs have undergone change, where more traditional ritual practices give an otherness to their commitments while beliefs get closer to the world in terms of common evolution stories and a this-worldly outlook. Liberal Christians will also attract in the moderate and spiritually interested, but will not do so in great numbers. It is too gentle to do any more than this, and allows the fact that people come and go and take time to form their views and practices. So it should, too.

I do not hide that I am a liberal Anglican (and I always have been liberal). My position is somewhere between Don Cupitt and John Hick (the adopted US Presbyerian) with some additional creative liturgical understandings, social anthropology, and actually a rejection of Don Cupitt's latest moves against what he calls heterological language. I view Christianity rather like Hick does as a "true myth", seen as myth, in The Fifth Dimension (2004), but I go with an earlier Cupitt on many postmodern consequences of contemporary religious faith. I also appeciate much of Cupitt before his Taking Leave of God (1980).

I think that Anglican liberalism has to be more honest about how it treats the various Creeds, never mind such as the Thirty-nine Articles, and also the relationship between belief and a more inflexible conserved liturgical practice. It has to be honest about when it subscribes to theological concepts in how they are being changed. It has to deal with modernity and postmodernity.

Some liberals are happy and solid with a realist God, the Incarnation and Resurrection, as sort of pillars of Christianity, even if they have a critical view of the Bible, redescribe the Trinity, or argue over details such as of a virgin birth and bodily resurrection. Whilst these Broad Church people once used to be seen as well heretical, say in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, they became rather central. Liberalism, however, extends further than this, where all these concepts are under a kind of constant review. There is a liturgical path of faith that one follows: it is a tradition that contains and releases the reverse ethics of that strange and hard to find historical Jesus and makes continuity with the early Churches (plural), but its ideological and institutional structure is open to critique everywhere. Christianity is thus relative and contingent. There is an uncomfortable division between the liturgical path as a path and the content that resists reductionism and remythologises any demythologised understanding. The fact is that religion is ancient and historical, and attempts to remake religion raid the past, and so we as moderns and postmoderns have to deal with these old texts as faith-paths.

So there are no secure walls against having precisely the same view of other faiths, though they may not be followed for cultural reasons and due to lacking depth of insight. I have had involvement with a Western Buddhist path, and attended sessions of Bahai Firesides. They are paths, whereas the Unitarian involvement I would call approaches to religion, if creative. I have also used postmodern neo-Paganism (partly as a remythologising effort within otherwise reductionist Unitarianism). Inevitably some of my understanding of Christianity is coloured by Western Buddhism. The Bahai Faith I have criticised to the point where it does not inform my faith: I recognise its contradictions between literalism and modernism set in a particular moment of a Shakya-Shia Islamic background spiritualising into a more Western oriented faith. Western Buddhism makes an effort of understanding essentials from culture (very modernist!), but drawing on cultural faith too back into the essentials (and allows some agnosticism about these extended riches - postmodernist), and is less "en-bloc" than say Tibetan Buddhism and, say, less purist than Hinayana Buddhism.

For me it is important that Christianity can communicate with the world. It is a form of incarnation, a form of the sacred within. There are not great claims to be made about it: it is more like juggling with balls. It is a way of spirituality and reflection and a pastoral free space. Ritually the eucharist embodies a sense of self-giving and receiving a gift in hope, a process of reorientation that involves bread and wine, earthly and human-made elements, related to the human body, to therefore reflect, go through it and come back into the wider world. My view, then, is heavily social anthropological (using Marcel Mauss's insight that giving materially and receiving spiritually in a circle of token-passing activity binds communities) - it mixes and even fuses the social anthropological and the theological.

One of the possible outcomes of current events around Anglicanism, of which the Wycliffe controversy is but one example (and a very informative case), is that much that has been suppressed in a spirit of compromise and inclusion, such as actual liberal views, or the aggressive sectarianism of the selective literalist interpreters, will come out. It may cause splits, of course, but more honesty will surface. Some of it won't be very pleasant, some of it seemingly undermining.

We have seen how the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, on taking his job, suppressed his own views in order to carry out and defend policies with which he was not personally associated. It is this sort of dishonesty, demanded by the institution, that ought to be ended (he has become almost, if not quite, more Roman Catholic in his adoption of a more centralised, institutionalist, internationalist, real presence Body of Christ stance). Well such dishonesty never will be ended, quite, because this is how institutions operate, and individuals make compromises, but it should become better than it has been, and as represented by the current Archbishop and so many others.

1 comment:

BusinessMan said...

It is increasingly worrying that many religions, including Christianity have imbibed the new spirit of extremism for which hitherto only Muslims have been notorious. Make no mistake: to many, religious adherence is not about about loving your neighbour but about asserting your position and that of your party as the only "true" righteousness. This may involve blowing yourself up literally as with Muslims, or trumpeting your cause as the only right one, as appears to be the case in the Wycliffe Hall situation. Where does love of God and your neighbour feature in all this?