The House of Mirrors
Relativity and Anglican Comprehensiveness
It was 1990 and the Anglican Deanery Clergy Fraternal had gathered in my parish hall for a discussion on the Decade of Evangelism. Each of the parish clergy was asked to say briefly what they thought should be done about evangelism in their parish. The Anglo-Catholic all in black piped up, ‘It’s about getting people back to Mass. Bottoms on pews. ‘Haven’t we got to make the liturgy attractive enough for them to want to come?’ questioned the young Anglo-Catholic in his black jeans and leather jacket, ‘If the parish isn’t attractive why should they come to Mass?’
‘Ahh,’ the sound Evangelical smiled, ‘Surely it’s not so much about church services, but about sharing the Good News of the Gospel with those who are still unsaved.’ Brown clerical shirt; tweed jacket.
The liberal Anglo-Catholic was more modest. ‘I think I would want to say that the thrust of evangelism in our day is showing the world a church that cares for them where they are. I may be wrong but …’ Clericals, scruffy jumper. Brown boots.
‘We just want to lead people into a new experience of the Holy Spirit in their lives …’ said the evangelical Charismatic wearing an open necked shirt and jazzy jumper.
The tall middle-of-the-road Liberal from the next parish looked perturbed at the extremism from his colleagues, ‘I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone in my parish what might be right for them spiritually,’ he drawled in a languid and superior way.
‘That’s right …’ piped up the plump rural dean, ‘…because there is no such thing as an objective theology.’
I had come to be a country vicar in England as a result of the American Dream. The American Dream, of course, is that you can do anything and be anyone if you just put your mind to it. My particular version of the American Dream was, admittedly, an eccentric one. I didn’t want to make a world record by scoring a huge number of home runs. I didn’t want to be president or even end up as a hugely rich businessman. By the time I had graduated from the fundamentalist Bob Jones University I had got a severe case of Anglophilia. I had visited Britain a few times and after studying English literature had decided that I wanted to follow in the footsteps of George Herbert and be an English country parson.
Bob Jones University was founded after the second World War deep within the Southern Bible Belt by Bob Jones, an old-fashioned, hell-fire evangelist from Alabama. Billy Graham got started there, but moved on and ‘became a Liberal’ according to Dr Bob. It was there, ironically, that I was introduced to the Anglican church through a little Episcopalian schism called Holy Trinity Anglican Orthodox Church. There in a little stone chapel in the bad part of town we liturgically starved young Baptists discovered the Prayer Book, candles, Anglican chant and the religion of C. S. Lewis, Oxford, and England.
So when the chance came to study theology at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford I jumped at it. After completing the course, through a mixture of eccentric individuals and Divine Providence, I was put forward for Anglican ordination. After serving as a curate and a school chaplain in Cambridge I accepted the living of two country parishes on the Isle of Wight. After nine years my American Dream had come true. I was extremely happy and planned to stay there for a long time and enjoy the rural idyll of being an Anglican country parson.
During my training at Oxford I had found my taste in worship moving away from the evangelical low church style. I went to Pusey House where fine liturgy mixed with good music and excellent preaching. Although I was attracted to things Catholic I was never part of the Anglo-Catholic club. Nevertheless, as I moved through college to a curacy and eventually to my own parish my understanding of the Church and my orders became more and more Catholic. I understood that I was ordained not so much into the Anglican church, but into the Church of God. My orders were Catholic in the widest sense. My appreciation of the Church of England deepened as well. The romantic notion of a Herbertian idyll matured into a more profound desire to be a part of the ancient church in England, the church whose roots were in the faith of the apostles.
I realized that my run away from fragmented and harsh American Evangelicalism was not just an escape to a fairy- tale England. It was a search for a faith that was historically rooted: a faith which was unified and universal. Furthermore, I wanted a faith which was comprehensive. I had been taken by a quote of F. D. Maurice’s that, ‘A man is most often right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies.’ The fundamentalist religion of Bob Jones was fissiparous, negative and narrow, so Maurice’s dictum seemed eminently sane. As a result I wanted to affirm the good things about Evangelicalism, Catholicism, Liberalism and the Charismatic movement. I described my churchmanship as ‘Evangelical–Charismatic–Catholic’ and tried to weave together the different strands of theology and practice, genuinely believing they all had something to offer while none of them was completely right.
What disturbed me was that I didn’t seem to meet many others who wanted to hold together the Evangelical’s high view of Scripture, the Catholic’s sacramental theology and the Liberal’s social conscience – all enlivened by the Renewal Movement’s Holy Spirit. Everyone else preferred either a bland Anglicanism or one of the party lines. Where were the other Christians who affirmed a similarly holistic vision of the church? I thought this comprehensive sort of church existed in the Church of England, but by the time I went to my parishes on the Isle of Wight I had become increasingly disenchanted with Anglicanism, but didn’t bother to figure out why. Ever since my time at Wycliffe Hall I had visited Catholic Benedictine monasteries on annual retreat. After my curacy I had spent three months hitch- hiking to Jerusalem, staying in monasteries on the way.
During this time I had met many Catholics with whom I seemed to ‘connect’ in ways that I didn’t with my fellow Anglicans. There was a reality about their faith which made Anglo-Catholicism seem like pretending. When I went to the Isle of Wight I established close links with the monks at Quarr Abbey and my friendships with Catholics continued to be close while my connections with fellow Anglican clergy were increasingly few and marked by a bewildering fragmentation and alienation.
That deanery meeting in 1990 was the chink in the wall. It was the rural dean’s comment which brought me up short. He who thought there was no truth had spoken the truth. My dissatisfaction with Anglicanism was that many of my fellow clergy and a good proportion of the bishops openly agreed with the rural dean about there not being any objective theology. Furthermore, they saw this as a strength. As Pope John Paul II said in his 1998 letter to the bishops at Lambeth, they had turned theological relativity into a kind of ‘post-modern beatitude.’
In the weeks afterward I struggled with the real identity of the Church of England. It wasn’t easy. Living in the Church of England is a bit like living in a ‘House of Mirrors’ at a fun fair. There is a maze of images all looking the same, and yet all slightly distorted.
The different Anglican opinions are like the different mirrors. None of them is the truth. They are all distorted reflections of the truth. The ‘comprehensiveness’ of Anglicanism looked appealing when contrasted to sectarian Protestantism, but I had mistaken a confederation of contradictions for unity. The Anglican church with her various parties, clubs, confraternities, associations and societies is more like a Council of Churches than a Church. My own deanery clergy meeting was a microcosm of the whole uneasy alliance.
The rural dean’s statement that ‘there is no objective theology’ was not just a theoretical statement. The belief that there was no objective theology meant that ordinary pastoral choices had to be made not on theological, but utilitarian grounds. Everything from choice of liturgy to the most crucial questions of sacramental practice and moral theology were made on relativistic principles. In other words, the decisions were made not primarily according to what might be true, but what worked – what people ‘found useful’ and what the congregation wanted. Of course some clergy turned to Scripture for answers, but they were left to their own Biblical interpretation to come up with an answer. And if a minister did decide according to Scripture, his interpretation was likely to be contradicted not only by the priest in the next parish, but by his bishop as well. In such a relativistic climate it was often safer to choose a course of action by what was useful instead of what was true. Read More