It is surely ironic that the same weekend as I published a set of lectionary notes in which I call for religious leaders to disband the theological thought-police, one of my colleagues in ministry issued a call for people who hold progressive theological ideas to be expelled from the church.
In my notes for the Second Sunday after Pentecost I reflected as follows on Paul’s words in Galatians 1 where he demands that anyone with a different gospel than his own be accursed:
These are harsh words, and they are spoken from a position of privilege and power. Paul will have better moments in his career as a religious essayist, but he has many admirers in today’s church. The theological thought police are quick to confront deviations from approved forms of liturgy or theology. What the world needs now is more religious communities with some capacity to live with ambiguity. We need fewer fatwas and no more church edicts that divide, exclude and control the faithful. What might the world be like if the followers of Jesus were famous for our gentleness towards others, and especially those with whom we disagreed?
Quite independently (and indeed a day or so before my post was published), my colleague and friend—Ralph Bowles—completed his three-part review of a book written by two other friends and colleagues: Living the Questions. The wisdom of progressive Christianity, edited by David M. Felton and Jeff Proctor-Murphy.
While some of my friends who identify as progressive Christians find such a critique a cause for celebration, I remain concerned at the bleak assessment of the place of progressive thinking within the Anglican Church of Australia. If all of the concerns voiced by Ralph were authentic and valid, I would share at least some of his evident anxiety in response to this particular set of ‘fresh expressions’ within the life of our church.
However, I think Ralph is unnecessarily concerned about the negative impact of progressive Christianity within Anglicanism and in some cases quite mistaken.
In drafting this preliminary response to Ralph’s recent blog, I do want to stress my respect for Ralph and my appreciation for his friendship. Our offices at St Francis Theological College are just a few meters apart, and we have much in common—including a passion for churches that become places of transformation and hope. We come from different theological perspectives within the life of our national church, and this is not the first time we have corresponded with each other about these matters. Until now those conversations have not been in the public domain.
In particular, during 2012 we collaborated with others (from a range of theological viewpoints) in the development of a diocesan program to deepen the engagement of Brisbane Anglicans with the Bible. The BIBLE360 program is precisely the kind of project that brings together conservative and progressive members of our church, and it is characterized by teamwork and training.
Before responding to Ralph’s specific criticisms, a comment on the context in the Anglican Diocese of Brisbane may be in order. A group of conservative Evangelicals, for whom such a description is a badge of honor rather than a polemical label, have organized themselves as the New Cranmer Lobby. They tend to promote traditional and conservative forms of Anglicanism, more typical of the Diocese of Sydney than the Diocese of Brisbane. They have given notice of a motion for the June 2013 session of the Synod of the Diocese of Brisbane that expresses concern at a recent book that I have edited, and to which several senior clergy of the Diocese of Brisbane have contributed essays. Indeed, the Archbishop of Brisbane and Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia, contributed a Foreword to that volume and welcomed its publication as a contribution to the necessary debate within the church about the Bible. The complete motion reads as follows:
That this Synod:
a) Acknowledges the request, in the book The Once and Future Scriptures, for dialogue concerning the approach to interpreting the Bible.
b) Encourages further reflection on the theological content of the book, in light of the statements of faith contained in the Book of Common Prayer (and AAPB and APBA), Fundamental Declarations and Ruling Principles of the Anglican Church of Australia.
c) Welcomes open and thoughtful dialogue, however, expresses concern that aspects of the book appear to contradict the teachings found in the Book of Common Prayer (and AAPB and APBA), Fundamental Declarations and Ruling Principles of the Anglican Church of Australia.
d) Reaffirms its commitment to the authority of Holy Scriptures as expressed in the Thirty-nine Articles, Fundamental Declarations and Ruling Principles of the Anglican Church of Australia.
It seems unlikely that the blog published by Ralph Bowles is entirely unrelated to this notice of motion for Synod next month, even if he has no formal association with the New Cranmer Lobby and has played no part in the drafting of the motion. Ralph is welcome to participate in such a lobby group if he chooses, and as a member of Synod he can certainly contribute to debate in a variety of ways. This may include the publication of material that can be used to inform members of Synod prior to the debate, as well as assisting speakers in the debate to prepare their ideas and their speaking points.
Indeed, my response to Ralph also has one eye on the members of Synod, and is intended as much to assist speakers wishing to debate the motion as it is to dissuade Ralph of any ideas that I consider mistaken. Given my absence from Brisbane on Study Leave during the period when Synod meets, this response may be one way I can contribute to the debate that so many people are seeking.
Ralph indicates that he will provide “five reasons why Progressive Christianity is problematic for our Church,” although he actually has six numbered arguments as well as several other arguments that are not numbered. I will address each of the five (six) reasons. For the sake of brevity, I will not address directly each of the additional points that are not recognized by Ralph as separate reasons.
In very broad terms, my response to the arguments offered by Ralph is to suggest that only the first is really a serious issue. It is both the presenting issues and the substantive issue, with the others being very minor concerns if not entirely irrelevant.
I will paraphrase each of the reasons briefly, and then address them in turn.
- Such theological views are contrary to the ‘definitional boundaries’ of the Anglican Church of Australia, as expressed in the Constitution of our Church and its formularies such as The Book of Common Prayer and The Articles of Religion.
- It is not possible to hold together views that are as divergent as progressive Christianity and the traditional orthodoxy of the Anglican Church as expressed in its Constitution and formularies.
- Progressive theological views are incompatible with the mission of the church and undermine any prospect for church growth.
- Progressive Christianity has at its heart a ‘spirituality’ that is not compatible with either ‘historic Christianity’ or with the New Testament.
- The theological differences between progressives and traditionalists are so profound that this undermines any realistic prospect of them working together or sharing in training for mission/ministry.
- Proponents of progressive theology are set on a path that can only result in schism.
I hope these simplified paraphrases do justice to the argument proposed by Ralph, as I have no desire to misrepresent his views and I sincerely wish to understand his concerns. For now, I shall assume that I have been reasonably successful in describing his key arguments.
In responding to these concerns I propose to address them in reverse order, as I consider them to have a descending order of relevance and significance. I will conclude by addressing the first of the reasons offered by Ralph, as I consider it to be the core issue and also one of substantial significance.
The suggestion that progressive Christians are prone to schism is unfounded. Schism has been a dimension of Christian experience since New Testament times, and is certainly attested in the Johannine literature. Many groups of Christians have found that schism (separation) has been the most viable pathway for them in light of theological and other differences. In recent years we have seen schismatic Anglo-Catholic traditionalists, while the Evangelical enthusiasm for church planting in other ecclesiastical jurisdictions is a well-known contemporary expression of schismatic actions. Indeed factions and schisms are especially associated with Protestant and Pentecostal expressions of Christianity because of the relatively low value given to unity and the high value given to doctrinal purity. To accuse progressive Christians of schismatic tendencies when they have chosen to remain within the fellowship of church communities whose core concepts, liturgical practices, and missional priorities offer so little to encourage us to feel ‘at home’ is unrealistic and unfair. This ‘reason’ can be set aside as not worthy of further attention.
No basis for common mission or formation for ministry
This reason (#5) also has little substantial basis as responsibility for such lack of collaboration as may occur perhaps rests as much with the traditionalists (of various ilks) as with the progressives. The Anglican Church of Australia has a long tradition of tribalism, with many dioceses largely expressing (and promoting) one form or another of the competing schools of thought. With increased communication between the members of the church in various dioceses, this legacy of isolation has been addressed in some constructive ways. However, it remains the case that our church has very weak national institutions precisely because of the reluctance of certain ‘parties’ and their distinctive dioceses to collaborate. This is seen in fields as diverse as liturgical revision, theological education, missionary agencies, media relations, and welfare service delivery. Despite the longstanding practice of Evangelical members of our diocese sending theological students to colleges interstate or to local colleges operated by non-Anglican (but Evangelical) bodies, we have some recent examples of significant cooperation between progressives and traditionalists. The Natural Church Development project in which Ralph works is itself one example of such collaboration, while the BIBLE360 program is an impressive example of exactly the kind of teamwork and shared discipleship training that Ralph declares to be impossible. Rather than despair of the possibility of working together, perhaps our differences could motivate us to work harder to find, create and support such shared projects?
A spirituality that is incompatible with ‘historic Christianity’ and the New Testament.
The fourth reason from Ralph’s original list seems to be a grab-bag of concerns, few of which can stand up to examination. For starters, it is very unclear just what ‘historic Christianity’ means and what beliefs or practices it includes. Most likely Ralph means Western European and especially Protestant expressions of Christianity, and excludes the remarkable diversity found in Christian churches beyond our Western cultural sphere. Even within that sphere, Western Christians have fought one another in lengthy wars, tortured their opponents to extract confessions, and even killed one another over minor liturgical and theological differences. The term ‘historic Christianity’ seems to be an Evangelical neologism created to hide the lack of agreement between conservative expressions of Christianity: Roman, Protestant, Pentecostal, etc. In any case, such historic expressions of Christian faith and practice include beliefs and customs many Evangelicals find abhorrent precisely because of their perceived lack of fit with the teachings of the New Testament. It certainly cannot be assumed that ‘historic [Western] Christianity’ is consistent with the New Testament, and the Reformation was in part about that very point. The Councils and Creeds of the ancient churches have an ambiguous status in the churches of the twenty-first century, where no ruler can impose theological conformity on their subjects. We may simply have to face the fact that ancient rules have to be renegotiated in the new situation where we find ourselves as people of faith. One problem, of course, is that none of us anticipate easy agreement on these matters. All parties pretend to embrace the ancient creeds and confessions, ignoring those parts we find unattractive and promoting the bits we like. Uniformity was a value of the Medieval and Reformation churches, but is not a value much appreciated by people in our time and place. For the sake of the mission of God in the world, perhaps we need to stop hankering after a lost world of black and white tones, and embrace the diversity of our rainbow lives.
Incompatibility with the mission of the church.
The final lines of the previous section already indicate my view on the missional imperative of engaging constructively with the actual (diverse and multi-faith) world in which we live, which God has created, and in which her mission is coming to birth. A shorthand form of this criticism has been around for a long time: “It does not preach!” This was the charge leveled at liberals in earlier decades, and it is often thrown at progressives in our own time. In fact—as my own experience tells me repeatedly—it does preach, and it preaches so well that many traditional Christians find it discomforting and wish to stop their ears. They have ears but cannot hear, and eyes but cannot see, as the Bible suggests. A progressive theology that calls people to respond to God’s compassion and justice in their everyday lives in this world, rather than offering personal piety programs that mature only in the next life, is both prophetic and biblical. Empowering people to read their everyday lives in light of the Scriptures, and to explore together how best to act on what they discern the Spirit saying to the churches, is surely at the heart of the mission of the church. People of power and influence may not like such an expression of Christianity, but those kinds of people had no time for Jesus either. The current evidence suggests that such progressive theology does grow churches, and not just numerically. Unlike the old liberals, progressives are passionate about our faith and ways in which we might exercise it in everyday life. As the R&D department of the Anglican Church of Australia we may make lots of mistakes, but at least we are seeking to generate new expressions of Church that are faithful to Jesus and responsive to God in the world. This third reason proposed by Ralph simply will not fly.
The diversity is too great for genuine unity to be sustained.
This is a counsel of despair, and really just a re-statement of item five. The experience of the Anglican Church, in particular, is that we do hold together in creative tension diverse perspectives on faith and mission. In the past people who held these different views have persecuted and killed one another. We do not need to import the culture wars of our secular city into the life of the church. The disciples chosen by Jesus included collaborators and rebels. God calls us to unity, not to uniformity. I think the doctrine of the Trinity has something to say to us about that.
Conflict with the ‘definitional boundaries’ of the Anglican Church of Australia.
As indicated previously, I consider this to be the only substantive argument proposed by Ralph. It is one that I think requires more careful consideration than is possible in a Synod debate or an exchange of blog posts. Still, this online dialogue may be one useful contribution to the dialogue that is already long overdue. If gay and straight Anglicans can be invited into a listening process, perhaps the same is true of progressive and traditional Anglicans?
The essence of this argument proposed by Ralph seems to be that the Anglican Church of Australia is a voluntary religious association and as such it has the legal right to define the terms of its membership. If particular beliefs and behaviors are required under the Constitution and Canons of this church then any failure to adhere to those beliefs or follow those practices could place the membership of such ‘offenders’ in jeopardy. Such an argument has a certain logic and may one day be tested in ecclesiastical or secular courts, or in both.
I am not qualified to advise on the validity of such an argument, but I can recognize its theological implications. Should such a view of the church be upheld then its character will have been determined as a legal framework for enforcing uniformity and distributing certain benefits. Its character as a sacred mystery and a community of transformation will have been lost.
While some groups and dioceses within the national church may see things in this way, I am not sure it is a valid interpretation of the Constitution and Canons of the Anglican Church of Australia. That will be for others to determine, but a church that seeks to discipline its progressive constituency in such a heavy-handed manner will surely face the judgment of history, not to mention God.
It also strikes me as significant that those who appeal to such legal and constitutional frameworks are not seeking to engage with different theological views. Rather than enter a dialogue in a quest for new and deeper truth, they appeal to the rules to exclude the other point view from the life of the church. I hope we can avoid that cul de sac, and explore the broad via media together.
In previous private communications I have suggested to Ralph that to define the church and its doctrines in such a way as he is proposing would be to domesticate the Bible and reduce the capacity of the Scriptures to serve as a vehicle for fresh and continuing revelation. If the meaning of the Bible can never result in a change to the beliefs and practices of the church as determined in Late Antiquity, during the Middle Ages or at the Reformation, then the letter will indeed have triumphed over the Spirit. That would be a radical betrayal of the Reformation legacy indeed.
It is a dangerous thing to fall into the hands of the Living God, and she will not be constrained by either the Scriptures of the ecumenical church nor the Constitution and Canons of the Anglican Church of Australia. The canon lawyers and the Senior Counsels may yet determine that the corporate entity we have created to facilitate our common life as Anglicans in Australia is a legal straitjacket rather than an instrument of grace. I hope that will not prove to be the case, but I shall not be surprised if it does.
In the meantime, I choose to live with hope and with a considerable dose of ambiguity. I do not have the answers to life’s questions, but I am blessed to be part of a religious community that seeks to shape lives that are holy and true. For me that is sufficient.
© 2013 Gregory C. Jenks
29 May 2013