Saturday 3 May 2008

Liberals Should Leave

The Guardian Comment is Free article by Theo Hobson carries the sub-heading that For liberal Anglicans, it's time to go. The thrust of the article is that the Church of England lacks the courage to reform because it tries to accommodate those who do not want reform. Ongoing transitional arrangements after having women as priests are not believed in by either side, but buy a temporary peace of sorts, that translate into potential structural changes (in one option) if women are to become bishops alongside men.

The theological breadth of the Church of England contains incompatible positions, and to actually reform and make a decision removes the no 'women as bishops' position and, by necessary extension, those who hold such a stance.

I think Theo Hobson is right in his further analysis, in so far as the one option of extra geographical male-only dioceses would lead to a demand for a separate untainted Archbishop - in other words the three dioceses would logically end up as a province. After all, neither Archbishop over these extra dioceses could be a woman or originally ordained by a woman and, presumably, would be in dodgy company if they joined women in consecrating others.

This part is not necessarily quite right, though:

Maybe the very idea of an authoritative spiritual hierarchy is irredeemably pre-modern. That is why the reactionaries can't be defeated: they are always more in tune with the logic of the institution than the progressives. The fact is that the feminist movement is ecclesiastically subversive - and the gay rights movement, too. For they both expose the fact that church authority has a different logic to secular liberal principles.

It does not have to follow that the Church is responding to secular liberal principles. They may be just as theological in principle and from within the tradition. Of course the Church is reacting to social changes made over the past hundred years or so, but also many in the Protestant Reformation made inclusive moves either quickly or after some time with their preachers, and that society often did not put forward the women that a denomination might have accepted on theological grounds.

Nevertheless the pre-modern charge is an important one and does stick. I have been watching the series on BBC Four (despite the logo irritation) called Inside the Medieval Mind. In it Professor Robert Bartlett of St Andrew's University gives a calm and clear presentation of the bizarre way (for us) in which people thought in the mediaeval world. In terms of belief, it is a world where the dead are almost with us, and the living go and see the dead and the dead come and see the living. It is a world of no coincidences and a world of fears. Along with animals and humans there are spirit beings of different kinds. There is no doubt that this world is better connected to the Jesus world and the Church formation world than ours. There has been such a shift in the sociology of knowledge.

Dr Tanya Byron in a programme on BBC Two presented a programme called Am I Normal? in which she examined religious belief from a clinical psychiatric viewpoint, and not just around the issue of those who hear voices. Her survey included the likes of Benny Hinn (the one without the chasing semi-clad females), a street evangelist and a Carmelite nun as well as talking to Matthew Parris the atheist. There was no theologian as such; it was all about experience.

Most interesting in this was what happened after her own father's death. He was experienced as sat near to her in a waking hallucination, and of course was as real as he had been for the time he was bodily present. It was described by a fellow professional as common, and associated with good and positive feelings. This is what some of us suspect is at the core of any "real" experience of the resurrection, that is before it gets joined into the beliefs of the day, and indeed is interpreted on those bases, and becomes part of the very early Churches' theology. This will not be what Paul experienced, and it is not so described - but some disciples, if they had such an experience, may well have had such an experience, one to be interpreted instantly and even mentally encouraged by the culture of the day.

However, the description Dr Tanya Byron gives according to our culture and methodology is different from a spiritualist's and is certainly different from a believer using Jewish rituals seeing through the prism of the charismatic demons-removing healer and looking towards a pressing last day of transformation and bodily resurrection.

When I made my transition from the Anglicans to the Unitarians in the 1980s, I lived in Hull and a Unitarian minister I contacted came to meet me "half way" all the way from London to Lincoln. In Lincoln we went around the cathedral and Princess Diana went by. So I said to this ex-Anglo-Catholic, ordained in St. Paul's Cathedral, "What about the resurrection?" He said "Oh it will be something like bereavement experiences." This Unitarian minister had a symbolic approach to religion, but was something out on a limb in that his radicalism was Anglican produced and not formed through a Unitarian sub-culture of non-conformity. After all, as he told me, he celebrated the Eucharist one Sunday, preached as he was obliged according to his promises, announced to all there his resignation (as he had officially to others), and the next day walked into his new church and new home (underneath it). The London priest became a London minister, and continued with his travels on buses around his village of central London. A gay man, he had been married to the Church and lonely, and now he was able to choose his life in a different Church. Somehow, when he died suddenly of a heart attack, it had a symbolic effect on me - that something he represented within the Unitarians had died with him. He is one of a few clerics I have identified with.

Into the new millennium I was going through thought processes of the utter failure of the Unitarian Church either to be a pluralistic Church or a faith-path Church, and of it being relatively devoid of spirituality for me. I disliked its cold Puritanism (despite injecting some within me - I neither bow, scrape nor turn to face a holy book); I also disliked the institutional politics that associated expressions of Christianity with a conservative, resistant camp. I had previously found myself outside its provision for ministry: someone had put in one review that I was all right but where would I be placed? - such few radical UK churches as there were being always well occupied (and how fortunate was this ex-Anglican - his transference did raise some mutterings and jealousies).

About three years ago I started a building road of a Christian faith-path that I thought could be built, assisted in no small measure by a church that follows a church calendar and liturgical path in which to do this. But as someone who takes on the issues of the day, and perceives where the fit is within an institution, or not, there is no doubt that this is getting tougher and tougher by the minute.

The Guardian sub-heading says time to leave, and one resists because there is a spirituality involved and a burning need to uphold a corner of sense within the nonsense that is going on all around. The atmospherics (and real consequences) are now terrible: a crushing sort of dictatorial nature of Anglicanism being forged in the centre as a desperate institutional last stand, even though it is ridiculous, half-navigated by a man who seemingly used to hold views that I once had found encouraging. We have bureaucracy over ethics and the shackling of theological ideas belonging to the mediaeval mind to conserved liturgy.

And now I have an article on crucifixion and resurrection rejected by a representative of The Episcopal Church, acting rightly in his editorial capacity, because it falls outside the range of expected belief. Even there the boundaries are being drawn as The Episcopal Church worries about its exclusion from broader Anglicanism.

I'm not stupid; I know what this concludes: it is just that I haven't taken the step. Because, if I do, that is that, all that was begun in the early 1980s comes to a final end. Nevertheless, it seems this is what some institutional people need in order for the institution to somehow prop itself up. It seems to have an overriding first requirement to protect itself, as it sinks into some past mind from which it will never to be able to escape.

1 comment:

Erika Baker said...

I suppose it all depends on how you define "liberal".
Are these people willing to support the inclusion of women and lgbts at all levels? Or are they defined by a more mystical approach to theology? Would you include Anglo Catholics as well as followers of Spong?

The problem is that the increasingly moralistic and authoritatian group of Christians has defined and identified itself clearly in the public space. Because they're noisy and well financed they appear to be the majority forcing everyone else to comply or to leave.

Looking at my own parish alone, I think that most of us are unwilling to align ourselves with other groups and even less willing to impose our view on the rest.

If by "liberal" we mean those who are willing to hold their own views without imposing them on the others, I'm still not sure that they aren't, after all, the silent majority. But in a sadly declining church, because millions like them have already left, eroding the liberal base in the church and handing over to the new Calvinists.

Still, at grassroots level there is a resurgence in mystical spirituality that treats stories as a way in to a deep mystery not as literal truth, and that would not be discouraged if anyone found the bones of Jesus! Maybe there's hope yet....