Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Liberal Christianity

This last term one of the American students I have been teaching did a course with me on the history and development of Anglicanism. At the end I came to the conclusion, and in a way that had never struck me quite so clearly before, that Anglicanism in its official expressions and practice - never mind what individual groups within may do or have done over the centuries - is quintessentially Liberal Christianity. 

By that I mean not just the idea of the via media, but that Henrician Caesaro-papalism embraced quite a bit of the Liberal agenda of the age, that Cranmer's system was somehow a Liberal alternative to pre- or post-Tridentine Catholicism and to the claims of Calvinism or radical Protestantism, that this was reinvented in the Liberal Catholicism that was Laudianism (too High for many of course, but not Roman Catholicism), in the latitudinarian response to the era of the Enlightenment, and in the growth of a world wide Anglican Communion that retains links between disparate groups yet never seeks to push anyone too far. Lambeth Conferences and Anglican Consultative Councils that pass fudged resolutions that never successfully bind, but do quite a bit of loosing. That Liberal brand has succeeded for over 450 years, the Civil War not withstanding, in holding a great number of English people in spiritual fellowship one with another and with people with whom they may well profoundly disagree. No mean achievement. It is Catholic and it is Protesrtant, yet it is properly neither, and likes Orthodox icons and Celtic spirituality (but not too much of either) and somehow seems to believe that one day the world will wake up and decide it has been Anglican all along.

However, and it is a very big, indeed fundamental, reservation the price of such Liberalism is high. Everything becomes a matter of opinion - to which, sooner or later, everyone becomes entitled about just about anything and everything. Dogma dies, truth is relativised, preferences prevail.

Bl. John Henry Newman's biglietto speech about his opposition for half a century to Liberalism and his lectures on The Current State of Anglicans appears ever more prescient to anyone who shares his view that there is such a thing as Truth in religious matters.

I had wondered whether to post this thought, but considering it nothing new, merely a further clarification in my mind, until I happened yesterday to be reading The Times (once a newspaper, now a tabloid). Here was further proof . The paper had an article, which can be read at Times claims Church of England 'on the brink of appointing its first openly gay bishop' (courtesy of Pink News, which will have an interest in the matter) by their well known Religious Correspondent, Ruth Gledhill, about the reported fact that the Dean of St Albans, the Very Rev. Dr Jeffrey John, had missed out by one vote on being nominated for the vacant bishopric of Exeter. Now Dr John, a distinguished figure in many ways, famously missed out on the suffragen bishopric of Reading in 2003 when he had to withdraw his acceptance following pressure on the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican hierarchy because of Dr John's alleged homosexuality. He was, in effect, compendated with the Deanery. Now, in the wake of Civil Partnerships being accepted by the Church of England as no bar to clerical promotion if the partners remain chaste, and he now has a civil partner, Grant Holmes, who is also a clergyman, there seems no reason why he has not received a mitre. He has been long-listed for Southwark and Durham, and short-listed for Exeter. It is apparently only a matter of time before he gets a diocesan see it would appear.

I do not doubt his abilities - though of the one time I heard him preach in Oriel chapel I can recall nothing - and I am not taking particular sides in the internal debate in Anglicanism about "Gay clergy". I would add as a historian he would not be the first homosexual Anglican bishop in these islands - it is just that the Anglican Church has not hitherto approved of such a situation. 

No, what really struck me was arose from the point made by Ms Gledhill, that of the six Anglican dioceses that are or are about to be vacant, those of Europe, Guildford and Hereford were the most likely, having "liberal" traditions to accept an openly homosexual bishop. Her insider source then really gave the game away by saying that Europe was probably the ideal for Jeffrey and Gavin. After all they have no children to worry about putting through University - not, I think, very likely unless they seek to emulate Sir Elton John and Mr David Furniss in these matters, and I should add that I was struck by the remarkably close resemblance in the photograph accompanying the piece between Dr Jeffrey and Sir Elton - and how they would love all the food and wine to be sampled on episcopal visits across a diocese that stretches from Madeira to the Urals.

There you have it - never mind scripture or tradition, St Paul or Cranmer, the unity or disunity of the ecclesia - what really matters is that everyone has a fair chance to sample the cuisine of Europe whilst wearing a purple frock.

1 comment:

Michael Gollop said...

Although the reaction of the Russian Orthodox would be, shall we say ... interesting...