Saturday, 31 March 2012

Reversing the Church

I watched two interesting programmes about religion on Friday and today, Saturday.

Friday's was Reverse Missionaries featuring Kshama Jayaraj from Mumbai who went to Belfast and modelled herself a little on Amy Carmichael, who went from Belfast to India over fifty years. Well I had no sympathy for Kshama Jayarajfor the simple reason that religion in Northern Ireland is part of its problem and not part of its solution, and certainly not with her evangelical narrow outlook. Yes, she did a little in attracting over some from the Catholic side and that was significant, but religion will only ever become a focus for any unity from a position of weakness.

I recall when at Unitarian College and going to the General Assembly, and being descended upon by members of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland, a Christian for sure cousin of the Unitarians in Ireland. I was always critical of those ministers who went to Northern Ireland either as a means to shore up their Christianity or to get the bigger congregations. So when they came looking for recruits, I gave them my approving thoughts of Don Cupitt and non-realism. That was enough to get them off my back - they were so down the narrow path that all I had to do was mention this Anglican to throw them off.

Tonight it was the turn of
Diarmaid MacCulloch and the concluding part of How God Made the English. It included an interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. MacCulloch has opposed Williams on the Covenant, but here they were in agreement (and highlights Williams's inconsistency - how he treats his own Church and Communion far more narrowly and bureaucratically than he treats relationships with people of other faiths and narratives including in the English context). Both approve of the idea of the Church of England - epitomised by its cathedrals - as places that can broker the diversity of faith in England rather than being defensive about a particular view of Christianity and Church. Instead of a secular state of toleration, that worries about tolerating the intolerant, the Church becomes a kind of centre for a huge ethnic and religious diversity and a creator of shared values. (Sociologists call this civic religion.)

Oh if it was true within the liturgical services themselves! The Puritan Presbyterians (who never set up Presbyterianism) wanted to get back into the Church of England, but could not. When Unitarianism was no longer dominated by its ideologues, the high command of the Unitarian movement had good relationships with liberal and broad Anglicans, but notions of a broad Church that could include Unitarians were rejected as impractical (by Anglicans, and even friendly ones).

Diarmaid MacCulloch (who, I understand, has Anglican Deacon orders) has indicated on a previous television series that he does not accept the Bible as regulative, and his 'love' for the Church of England is a kind of cultural Christianity. We see exactly the same with the motivation of John Rutter, who is not a believing Christian but wishes to preserve the cultural forms of Anglicanism and produces much of its better contemporary music.

Well I am quite favourable to these broader ideas, but in the end the Church of England is not a pot into which any ingredient can be thrown. The Archbishop's own belief pattern is a strongly detailed narrative of Christianity; he seems to be well capable of being on the inside, and indeed has made himself so ecclesiastical that he has dumped ethical features of his former broader (somewhat postmodern) theology. There are boundaries and I would suggest that they are:

  • The regulative nature of the Bible, even when subject to biblical criticism
  • Liturgical conservation around the detail of Christian beliefs (Reformed, some Catholic)
  • Beliefs held in the Incarnation in general and Resurrection in general of Jesus as the Christ.

I do not hold to these. I do not believe the Bible should be regulative, but that all scriptures are open to critical review and use, and much more besides. I think we should be liturgically creative including insights from faiths and philosophies, and I do not believe in a unique Incarnation nor in Resurrection and indeed Jesus is but a man of his time.

It is possible for the Church of England to hold services that others can give their input, but its input will always be doctrinal to the extent of the guidelines above. The reason I am now Unitarian again is because I am a broader pluralist than possible in the Church of England, and because I am not a Christian.

I also think that the Church of England is still going to trim itself inwards. Certainly the defeat of the Covenant, of which Diarmaid MacCulloch was a part, will delay that process, but the intended work of GAFCON as entryists, the loss of Catholic traditionalists, the bureaucrats of evangelical Fulcrum at the cutting off point between being evangelical and being open, and shrinking of mythic liberality and the loss of open non-realism as an active potential part of the Church of England, means it will not spread as far and wide as it did.

For Diarmaid MacCulloch to be right, and for his view to be sustained, the Church of England has to spread further and wider, and its cathedrals have to become vessels for a variety of religious expressions wider than Christianity itself. I doubt they can achieve this, and they may be dragged back by a shrinking Church of England in terms of its outlook.

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