Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Implacable Certainties

Conservatives, traditionalists, the orthodox, are almost universally portrayed as those who cling tenaciously to yesterday’s certainties whilst rejecting the genuine insights of modernity.
Not so; there are, of course, in all the Christian traditions those of a fundamentalist or Jansenist caste of mind who take traditionalism (there is a liberal equivalent of this, too, of course) to an extreme where, in any sane sense, they cease to follow tradition at all and acquire more than a little whiff of jihadism about them, those who deem themselves to be more Catholic than the Pope, more reliably Orthodox than the Œcumenical Patriarch, and more Anglican than ...... hmmm...
They are those who cannot tolerate any form of disagreement from their (in George Orwell’s memorable if rather unpleasant phrase) “smelly little orthodoxies.”

But conversely, it is tradition, that conservatism, that true orthodoxy, which takes into account the full picture of the ages (we’re back, yet again, to Chesterton’s ‘democracy of the dead’) which is fundamentally distanced both from the complacency of modernity’s temporal insularity, and the unhistorical approach of the ultra-traditionalists (for want of a better term) and, as a result, has much more freedom within which to believe. This is the via media of catholicism and stands in stark contrast to the partial truths and intolerant enthusiasms of the extremes.
Today those purveyors of certainty with the most influence are the liberal revisionists who come with so much ideological baggage, those givens of modern theology which are so unshakeable and which draw their a priori conclusions, not from the Christian consensus of the ages but from the various secular philosophies which trace their origins to the Enlightenment.
The classical ‘Catholic’ position is actually much more open and nuanced than it is given credit for. For example, it has consistently refused to accept the artificial and a-historical division between the ‘Jesus of history’ and the Kyrios, the exalted Lord, of the patristic period. As Aloys Grillmeier pointed out in a lifetime’s study, the catholic creeds, far from being unnecessary and over-restrictive constraints on Christian belief, are essential parameters within which it is possible to live in the freedom of the Gospels.

However, once the accepted boundaries, credal and otherwise, are broken down, and the contemporary church constructs its own narrative under the delusion of having received ‘prophetic’ inspiration, the first casualty is that cautious discernment of the signs of the times which is an essential component of the Church’s task. Within Anglicanism we see this problem writ large; in have come the implacable, secularised certainties and out has gone the 'tolerant conservatism' which should be at the heart of Catholic faith and practice, something which the now dying (and, alas, largely unlamented) Anglo-Catholic Movement at its best was able to display. Yes, we have lived a displaced Catholic life largely in a ghetto, but it has been a ghetto whose spiritual atmosphere and theological ambitions were, paradoxically, bigger and wider than its surrounding ecclesial culture.
I still wonder whether those who lead the Anglican provinces have even now fully appreciated the implications for the life of the church of the ‘constructive dismissal’ of its ‘catholic’ tradition and the consignment of orthodoxy to the unvisited lumber room of its history, or, if they have, whether they are now powerless in the face of their Faustian bargain with the synodical and clerical proponents of 'equality' to do anything much about it.
We’ll see.

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