Sunday, 20 April 2014

On Being Anglican: Letter to Archbishop Justin - first draft

Dear Archbishop Justin,

You are doubtless inundated with unhelpful advice from an infinity of sources. I propose to add to the woes of those who sift through your post. My concern is not so much about the unfortunate comments you recently made about the effect Equal Marriage in England and Wales might have on the peoples of Africa, but about Anglicanism itself.

We live in times of fast-moving change, and the churches, which are at best ponderous creatures, find this profoundly challenging. What was thought always to be true, turns out to be less true than it was, or not true at all, or just plain wrong. The media wants us to skip to, and keep up with the latest thing. We want to skip, but we don't know the steps.

The main reason we don't know the steps in the present controversies is that the theology has not been done - not the theology of sexuality and gay relationships, which has had a field day, but the theology of Anglicanism itself. There is too much reliance on the "clever form of words", and not enough on solid scholarship and the celebration of revealed truth. Take, for instance, the House of Bishops' statement about their clergy entering into marriages under the new law. These are, for the time being, civil contracts, which the church may or may not choose to solemnize, but which it certainly cannot in law forbid. Those with a sense of history, might remember the legend of Mrs Cranmer in the trunk, and Article XXXII. It is not fitting within the Anglican tradition to prescribe how the clergy should live, in this fashion. What might be cause for scandal in one congregation, will not be in another, and those priests and their congregations must work out together how to live with their different callings to be together. It is much to be regretted that the dismal pamphlet "Issues in Human Sexuality", which is neither good theology nor plain common sense, has become a touchstone in this regard. It is a political document which introduced the toxic notion that the standard for the clergy must be different - in kind, not degree - from that of the laity. Ours is a reformed church. Double standards are not permitted. And where bishops encourage them, bishops are rightly despised, and the Gospel goes unheard.

The Anglican Way isn't a church, and the idea of its being a denomination like the Roman Catholic or Orthodox, or other free church ones, is absurd. We say throughout the land that any baptised Christian is welcome to receive the sacrament at our altars. The Roman Church says their people mustn't. We say they are welcome. The principle is deeply rooted in the text and rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer Communion Service that ALL must be free to come to share the sacrament together, because if anyone is lost, all are bereft. When I asked Peter Akinola in Nigeria if he would come to the altar with me, he said No. I would still go with him. Which of us is the schismatic? Who is breaking communion?

I came to faith as a teenager at university, and quickly found myself at home in the Church of England. I was drawn by Cranmer's inclusive liturgy, and by the subtle genius of Elizabeth I in establishing a settlement which was for her all people. There was the music too, of course, and most of all there were faithful friends, for whom church-going was a normal thing, something I'd not really come across before. But those roots in history are important. The Anglican Way was a local church for local people, and as times have changed the the word spread, so other branches of the Church of England have gained independence, as the colonies did from the Empire, and done things in their own way, for their own people (like the tolerated polygamy in some of the African churches which are now condemning gay relationships). From the first, particularly under Archbishop Matthew Parker, we have entertained the teaching of "adiaphora", the things indifferent, about which we should not fall out. This heritage is unique in Christendom, and is our our charism, our own gift, to the greater church beyond our shores. If we hold to it.

What the bishops of the Church of England have been saying, and threatening to do, is selling out that heritage for the sake of keeping a peace which is no peace, and a unity which is no unity. Richard Hooker taught us that we must look to Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, for our theological opinions, and seek to balance our conclusions on a tripod with those three legs. In over twenty years now of being asked to explain what Anglicanism is, I have come to value a different, I hope complementary, Trinity.

The Anglican Way is Scholarly, Pastoral, and Liturgical. Cranmer himself was one of the first Reformed theologians who immersed himself in the writings of the Greek Fathers, as well as the Latin ones, and you find them in his works. The Reformation was about not taking things on trust - back to the sources, and let's hear what everyone has to say. Ever since his time, we have been graced with theologians of immense intellectual power - in the last century, Evelyn Underhill, Michael Ramsey, and Austen Farrer come to mind - and you may recall Pope Leo XIII's rueful comment when he received the Church of England's reply to his Bull denying the validity of all its orders "I wish my Cardinals could write Latin so well". Arguments that don't stand up are not to be permitted. Saying that the Equal Marriage Act is for the laity, but not the clergy, is one such. So is saying that if we do what is right for gay people in this country, Christians in other, barbarous, countries, will pay the price, is another. The test is not whether it works across the world's media, not whether the African bishops like it, not whether it can be kept quiet until I can retire, it is about truth. We have discovered in the 21st century that gay people are equals. That is the truth. And it is Good News not just for gay people, but for everyone. Scholarship points the Anglican Way here.

The Church of England has been uniquely pastoral from the first - beginning with the gory and unpleasant business of furnishing a divorce for King Henry VIII, but developing with a much more interesting subtlety ever since. The marriage of the clergy was permitted, not because anyone sat down with books and worked it out from the theory, (not least because there are no Anglican clergy in the pages of the New Testament, and never could be) but because the practice of human lives demanded it. Cranmer himself was illegally married for two decades - whilst he was archbishop of Canterbury. We are so used now to the presence of Mrs (and increasingly, Deo gratias, Mr) Vicar in the parish, that we forget what a big deal it was that the church was listening to the human condition and ceasing to impose a wrong and cruel prohibition which many in any case ignored. It happened again with the Deceased Wife's Sisters Marriage Act of 1907, something fought bitterly for years. It sounds outlandishly strange now, but I have a distant cousin it personally affected. We were told the sky would fall in. It didn't. The saintly Archbishop Ramsey incurred opprobrium when he voted in favour of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967, because he'd actually done some research, and knew what he was talking about. And for years parish clergy have been marrying divorcees in church against the instruction of their bishops (since adjusted) because it would be wrong to do anything else. We listened. That is the essence of being pastoral, to listen. And to care. And having listened, sometimes to change your mind.

The third mark of the Anglican Way that I see is liturgical, which sounds grand to outsiders, but the simpler way of putting it is, "how do they pray?" Prayer is the action of the Holy Spirit in the heart, the flame that galvanizes theological study or spiritual experience into focused intention. Liturgy makes it public, and shares it. We have read the Bible and found nothing there to condemn gay marriage. We have listened to the tradition of the church, and found nothing there which resonates with the time we are now in. And we have listened to the people who say "can you please ask God to bless us as we start this new step in our life together?" - and, as a church, we say, No. You may be too much of an insider to understand just how incomprehensible this is to people who might otherwise be well-wishers, or even converts. When Cranmer drafted the first marriage liturgy for the 1549 prayerbook, he was dared to put "for the mutual society, help,and comfort that the one ought to have of the other" as the first, not the third, reason for the church solemnizing it. His nerve broke, and he put it third. Subsequent prayerbooks have put it where he wanted it. He was married. He understood that bit, in a way that none of his predecessors had done. That's the bit that everyone understands.

This Anglican Way, Archbishop Justin, is the one which I believe you are jeopardizing by allowing strident views held in Africa to hold sway in our own country. Justice delayed is justice forgone. You cannot expect the Church of England hierarchy to be forgiven for how it has been behaved in this matter, unless words of penitence match deeds of reparation. It is bad enough for those of us who were honest to you lot, and you then lied about us. But we're insiders, and the C of E is part of us. We have a mission to the English nation of outsiders, and a homophobic church is just going to be despised by a generation growing up with cleaner minds and clearer thinking. Good News isn't Good News if it's really Bad News if you're gay. The punters aren't stupid, they can join the dots. The astonishing thing is that our bishops can't.

Time really is running out. The debate has been won. The Church of England needs to act on it, and move on, and fast. Above all, it needs to rediscover how to become Anglican, for the sake of its non-members, for whom, thank God, we exist.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
Easter Day 2014

2 comments:

  1. You announced last year that you'd left The Church of England. Why are you still so interested in what it does ?
    What I find interesting is that while so many opposite-sex couples are shacking-up and disdaining marriage,same-sex couples are wanting to get married.

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  2. I never ceased to be an Anglican! And your observation is an interesting one. We are contrary creatures, we always want to do what we are told we can't, and not to do what we are told we must. We don't really grow up, I fear.

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