Friday, 7 December 2012

By stealth: why (some time ago now) I changed my mind

This piece in The New Yorker, somewhat misleadingly entitled 'The Fear of Women as Bishops,'  reminded me of the reason I changed my mind on the contentious issues now obsessing the Anglican Communion in the secularised western world, having been re-converted to the Christian faith after the almost obligatory rebellious teenage atheist phase - this was the late 1970s, after all - during my final year at Oxford. It happened  by a bizarre (as I see it now) combination of some very persistent evangelical and Roman Catholic friends, cathedral evensong,  and a reading of 'Christ Sein' by Hans Küng: God moves in mysterious ways indeed. 
At that point, however, I would have described myself as  a politically and theologically 'progressive' Anglican,  albeit having come from a traditional Anglo-Catholic background.
What changed my mind, having been directed to a (then) conservative, 'prayer book catholic'  theological college and my first year or so in a rather 'low church' parish, was a slowly growing perception that the methods, language and actions employed by the modern would-be reformers were clearly and violently at odds, not only with the scriptures and Christian antiquity, but with their own clearly stated aims of serving the God who is unlimited and unconditional love and compassion
The New Yorker article is an interesting illustration of the phenomenon:
"...How did this happen? By stealth, the women of the church said. Here is how my friend Judith Maltby—the canon and chaplain of Corpus Christi, an Oxford historian, and a Synod member—put it, when I called: “We’d been assuming that the problem was the conservative Anglo-Catholics, but they’re a diminishing group, and a lot of them really do want to be part of the Church of England; most realized that this compromise was the best deal they could get. The others needed the conservative evangelicals to defeat the revision—it’s the evangelicals who have the numbers and the money and the real power, and they don’t care about the rest of us. They don’t think that we’re really Christians. They wanted the right terms—a church within a church—so they made a power grab, with women being the convenient issue. They were pretty well organized. They worked the grass roots, where most lay people in a diocese don’t know each other well and don’t always have the time or energy to run for Synod. They told those people, ‘Oh, we’re all for women priests,’ and the trusting electorate voted them into the House of Laity. Remember, it only took six of them to defeat us.” Maybe the real question, in politics as in religion, should be: Why is the right so much better at stealth than the rest of us?....."
Having witnessed during the last quarter century the gradual and now almost complete take-over by stealth of western Anglicanism by liberal and radical theologians (some of whom have now fallen into explicit unbelief) who have shamelessly used their patronage to ensure that (only)  their friends  - though sometimes in theological disguise - were appointed to key positions of influence within the Church, Canon Maltby's words are, to put it mildly, a bit rich
In terms of her analysis of the methods used by lay conservative evangelicals standing for election to the General Synod, she is, if she is being reported accurately by her friend and fellow American, very careful to generalise and not name names (are there names to be named?) but she nevertheless seeks to cast doubt on her opponents' personal integrity.
But, as the so-called 'right' have discovered over the years at the hands of their 'liberal' opponents, innuendo and misrepresentation, shameless but calculated appeals to emotion, and the crude manipulation of popular opinion are much more effective weapons in a pseudo-democratic synodical battle than mere straightforward expressions of belief. 
And this seems to be real difference I suspect between, to put it as crudely and non-theologically as the New Yorker article itself, the Anglican 'left' and 'right' - political terms for what is seen by the author of the article as a merely political struggle. The Anglican ' left' is pursuing - we have to admit very skilfully indeed, if one ignores the haemorrhaging of communicant members - an overtly political campaign to change a nebulously defined, fallible, earthly structure into something it feels will be more acceptable to the world (and therefore much more effective in doing those things revisionists wish the Church to achieve in, for many, the only world about which they can be certain) whereas the 'right' (and, theologically, this by no means equates with secular economic or political views) sees the Church, not as a useful vehicle to effect social and political change, but the Body of Christ, with its feet in the world and its Head in heaven, as a society both earthly and divine, too sacred to be used as a 'vehicle' for anything other than the proclamation of the eternal Gospel and the expression of a revealed and, in all essentials, unchanging faith.  
As the future Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, stated in his great work, The Gospel and the Catholic Church (1936):
”...For the Church exists for something deeper than philanthropy and reform, namely to teach men to die to self and trust in the Resurrection to a new life which, because it spans both this world and another world, can never be wholly understood here, and must always puzzle this world's idealists. Hence, as the body of Christ crucified and risen, the Church points men to a unity and peace which men generally neither understand nor desire...”

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