BEYOND SPONG: SOME IMPLICATIONS OF RADICAL AND LIBERAL THEOLOGY
FOR THE FUTURE OF ANGLICANISM
In one of her interviews for her book 'C of E The State It's In' Monica
Furlong talked with Archbishop George Carey whom she quotes as
having said: "I'd like to argue, you know, that the broad church that we
are now is probably a foretaste of what is to come. If we want to think
about the coming great church, then it is going to be one in which we
have to accept huge differences within the family, and we are not going
to have final answers this side of eternity. Living with differences I think
is actually the genius of Anglicanism." p.162.
The suggestions to be made in this paper would test this so-called genius
of Anglicanism for living with differences, if they were to be carried out
and put into practice. In essence, this article states that, as a matter of
justice, minority rights where possible should be observed, respected and
made room for within the church. In particular, it states that those whose
theological convictions do not take a Trinitarian form should be allowed
to experiment by trying to create new forms of worship appropriate to
For over 250 years research has been taking place into the historical
Jesus, and the results of this research and interpretation are diverse and
conflicting . There are people today in the churches, and others who
were formerly in the churches, who find themselves drawn to the
viewpoint of those theologians who might be said to have two things in
common with the historical Jesus: firstly, like him they believe in his
God; and secondly, like him they do not believe in the Incarnation of his
God (not that Jesus or any of his fellow Jews would ever have
contemplated or entertained the idea of such an Incarnation). There has
been no "defining moment" of revelation. Their theological position is
non-Trinitarian, they do not believe Jesus to be the Saviour of the world,
and whereas in traditional Christian thinking he holds a 'centre-stage'
position, in their thinking he does not.
The orthodox beliefs of Christianity have been challenged both from
within and without the community of Christian believers since its
beginnings. This paper is itself a challenge to much of what has been
considered to be essential to Christian belief.
In the first half of the first century C.E. most Jews expected the world, as
they knew it, to continue much as before; although some longed to see
the independence of their nation. However there were other people such
as John the Baptist, Jesus and his disciples, and members of the Essene
community who were living in the expectation that the end of the world
was about to come.
Both the Old and the New Testaments provide evidence of how people
had believed that God would be the One responsible for bringing about
the end of the world and for inaugurating a new kingdom. She/he might use
an "agent" to help in this work, such as a "Messiah" or a "Son of Man".
Aswell as a time of great tribulation before the End, there also would be
a judgement both for those still alive, and for the dead; only the
righteous would be allowed into the new kingdom. This new kingdom
would be a good place to live in, ruled over by God herself/himself, with peace,
justice, and joy for all. Sometimes the new kingdom was thought of as
going to be here on earth, at other times it was imagined as going to exist
Here are some of the texts which are generally accepted as relating to
these beliefs and expectations (though a detailed examination of each
text is beyond the scope of this paper):
Daniel 7.9-10 "As I looked, thrones were placed and one that was
ancient of days took his seat; his raiment was white as snow, and the hair
of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, its wheels were
burning fire. A stream of fire issued and came forth from before him; a
thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand
stood before him; the court sat in judgement, and the books were
Daniel 7.13-14 "I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds
of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient
of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion
and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should
serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass
away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed."
Daniel 7.27 "And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the
kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the
saints of the Most high; their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom,
and all dominions shall serve and obey them."
Daniel 12.1-2,4 "At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who
has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as
never has been since there was a nation till that time; but at that time
your people shall be delivered, every one whose name shall be found
written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth
shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting
contempt. ..v4: But you, Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, until the
time of the end."
Isaiah 9.6-7 "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the
government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called
"Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of
Peace." Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no
end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it , and
to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and
for evermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this."
Isaiah 11.1-9 "There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the Spirit of the Lord shall
rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of
counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.And
his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his
eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall
judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he
shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his
lips he shall slay the wicked. Righteousness shall be the girdle of his
waist, and faithfulness the girdle of his loins. The wolf shall dwell with
the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and
the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The
cow and the bear shall feed; their young shall lie down together; and the
lion shall eat straw like the ox. The sucking child shall play over the hole
of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den.
They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall
be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea."
Luke 3.2-8 "in the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of
God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness; and he went
into all the region about the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance
for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of
Isaiah the prophet, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare
the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall
be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh
shall see the salvation of God." He said therefore to the multitudes that
came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you
to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit repentance, "
Matthew 10.23 "When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next;
for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of
Israel, before the Son of Man comes."
Mark 9.1 "And he said to them, 'Truly, I say to you, there are some
standing here who will not taste death before they see that the kingdom
of God has come with power.' "
Luke 9.7-9 " Now Herod the tetrarch heard of all that was done, and he
was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised
from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one
of the old prophets had risen. Herod said, 'John
I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?' And he
sought to see him."
Mark 10.35-38 "And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came
forward to him, and said to him, 'Teacher, we want you to do for us
whatever we ask of you.' And he said to them, 'What do you want me to
do for you?' And they said to him, 'Grant us to sit, one at your right hand
and one at your left, in your glory.' But Jesus said to them, 'You do not
know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or
to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?' "
Matthew 19.28 "Jesus said to them, 'Truly, I say to you, in the new
world, when the Son of man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who
have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve
tribes of Israel.' "
Luke 12.49-50 "I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were
already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am
constrained until it is accomplished!"
What are we to make of all of these beliefs and expectations contained in
these texts? The most obvious point to make is that the end of the world
has not come. People such as John the Baptist, Jesus and his disciples
held ideas which have been proved to have been mistaken.There have
been many other individuals and groups of people since then, who have
also lived with an expectation that the world was about to end, and their
beliefs too have been proved to have been misguided, mistaken and
deluded. We might well think of such people as loony crackpots.
We need next to ask about the specific beliefs of ancient Israel regarding
the end of the world. Modern study of their beliefs shows that, for a very
considerable period, they had no beliefs regarding an after-life. Such a
belief in Jewish circles was post-exilic. There seems to be no good
reason today to buy into their speculation about a "Son of man", or a
"Messiah" who would be God's agent in helping to process the events
imagined to precede the end of the world.
We simply do not know when or how the world will end. Nor does it
seem credible to accept that those who have died are in some mysterious
place of the dead waiting for their judgement at the end of time, and the
outcome of that judgement. Such a belief was reasonable, when it was
also believed that the new kingdom would be here on earth. If there is an
after-life, it is more credible to believe that a person at their death is
received by God into this after-life. Though what such a life will be like
is a mystery; and people who reason and speculate about it, which they
are entitled to do, need to remember that their thinking is just
Some of the first Christians like St Paul thought that death was a
punishment that had come upon the human race because of sin. The
modern believer today may well disagree. Scientific evidence would
point out that both animals and human beings have bodies that can not
last indefinitely. Whether we live for our expected life span or not, one
thing is certain, and that is that we will die at some point in time. This
fact would suggest that the theological theory that death had come about
for the human race, because of sin, is nonsense. Paul's view that death is
a punishment for sin, lies behind his interpretation that the death of Jesus
is for the lifting of the punishment of death; this theory can now be seen
to have lost its point. Jesus' death had nothing to do with such a matter.
There is another objection to the belief that death is a punishment for
sin; which is that it makes God out to be very wrathful and vengeful,
which conflicts radically with a picture of a God of tenderness,
long-suffering, compassion and forgiveness.
Furthermore, the theory held, by many Christians, that Christ died in
their place and suffered a punishment that rightly should have been
borne by them, as sinners, is both immoral and offensive to the
principles of justice. No judge should knowingly put on a person a
punishment meant for someone else, even if that person were willing to
accept it and suffer it. A central belief in any notion of a credible God is
that such a God is just. So, the theory that Jesus bore some punishment
in the place of sinners is untenable on these grounds too.
It would seem that Jesus did come to believe that in some way the
tribulations and suffering expected to precede the end of the world
would find their focus on him. Since the world has not ended, we can say
that Jesus was mistaken not only in believing the end of the world was
about to come, but also in thinking that there would necessarily be a
period of suffering that would find its focus on him. (In fact, he died
because the Roman rulers in Palestine accepted that he was seen as a
threat to the peace). He was misguided, deluded, and mistaken in more
ways than one. As were his disciples too, and John the Baptist and the
members of the Essene community.
It is important to be clear about all this, because these mistaken beliefs
and expectations were to have a very significant influence on the
subsequent beliefs held about Jesus by his disciples after his death.
We have drawn some conclusions already from the fact that the world is
still here, despite the expectations and predictions of John the Baptist,
Jesus and his disciples. One of those conclusions has been that it no
longer seems necessary to give credibility to all the weird speculative
ideas that came originally out of Judaism, and that included such figures
as a "Son of man" and a "Messiah", and such notions as a period of
immense tribulation before the end, and a belief that the dead were
waiting in some shadowy place for their judgement, and their eternal
destiny in heaven or hell. The modern believer does not need to buy into
these ancient parts of Israel's religious imagining and speculation.
Although the world did not end; yet, after his death Jesus' disciples still
took up the point of an imagined tribulation, preceding the end : it was
necessary for the Christ to suffer, they claimed. If it had not been for
their crazy expectation that the world was ending, would they have gone
on to state their bizarre conviction that they believed Jesus to be alive
again; who they also adamantly proclaimed would soon be returning to
oversee the ending of the world and the beginning of a new kingdom of
everlasting life? None of which has happened.
The point has been made frequently that since Jesus' disciples were
extremely frightened when he was arrested; therefore something such, as
his resurrection, must have happened to give them the courage to
continue believing that they were living in the end-times; and to go on
believing that Jesus had already and would continue to have a special
role in the events of what was imagined to be a crucial time.
The accounts in the Gospels of "Jesus' resurrection" have been studied
and written about by countless theologians. It is well known that the
stories contain many conflicting details. We will never know, for certain,
what triggered the disciples' conviction that he had been raised to life
again. The question that needs to be asked is this: if God did raise Jesus
from the dead and did make him alive again, what reasons would he/she
have had for doing so?
Despite the convictions of Jesus and his disciples that they were living at
the end of the world, it seems reasonable to believe that God knew that
they were deluded and mistaken. God also knew that the whole package
of Jewish speculation about the end of the world is simply the product of
the religious imaginations of the people of Israel at work, over several
centuries. So what good reason would God have had for raising Jesus
back to life in the ways described in the Gospels? It is hard to imagine
any, unless there is some truth in the doctrines of the Atonement and the
ATONEMENT AND INCARNATION
Both Judaism and Christianity have pictures of God as loving and
forgiving. The modern believer may well wonder why it is necessary to
have any intermediaries between himself or herself as a flawed person
and God. If God loves each individual person unconditionally, and is in
a one-to-one relationship with each person; then does it not make sense
to speak of forgiveness taking place between God and the person who
has sinned, without any other person being involved (such as a
Like many other religious peoples, the ancient people of Israel claimed
divine authority for their rituals of cleansing and forgiveness. Animals
were sacrificed for various reasons or driven out into the wilderness
from the Temple in Jerusalem. There is no ground for doubting that they
were sincere in their beliefs that what they were doing in these rituals
had been commanded by their God. However in the light of
anthropological studies of ancient societies, it has become much less
credible to believe that God had planned and sanctioned a whole range
of different customs and rituals for the different races and tribes around
the ancient world. It is more believable that each society developed their
own customs and rituals themselves, though claiming divine authority
for what they did.
When the first generation of Christians began to think and write about
the meaning of Jesus' death, they looked to their Scriptures (our Old
Testament) for ways to understand and interpret it. In passages such as
Isaiah ch.53, they found much that they regarded as helpful in this regard
even though originally in Isaiah's day this chapter had a quite different
and more contemporary application and meaning. Verses such as: v.3
“he was despised and rejected by men”, v.5 “he was wounded for our
transgressions, he was bruised for our inquities; upon him was the
chastisement that made us whole and with his stripes we are healed”, v.6
“he was oppressed and he was afflicted, yet opened not his mouth; like a
lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers
is dumb so he opened not his mouth” were all pondered over and used in
giving various meanings to the death of Jesus which all connected with
the common theme of reconciliation and forgiveness, and the lifting of
the imagined punishment of death which, they believed, had been placed
on all people because of sin.
Some of the other better known texts are the following:
Romans 5.8 "But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet
sinners Christ died for us."
Romans 5.12 "Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and
death through sin, and so death spread to all because all men sinned.
2 Corinthians 5.18 "All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled
us to himself"
Hebrews 9.11-14 "But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good
things to come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made
with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the
Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood,
thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the sprinkling of defiled
persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with ashes of a heifer
sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the
blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself without
blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the
We have seen already that a theory that is based on the belief that Jesus
died for us is unsustainable. What about the contention that Jesus'
manner of dying, uttering words of forgiveness, is a revelation of the
unconditional forgiving love of God? The German philosopher, Hegel,
wrote that God does not offer himself (/herself) for observation. This is a way of
saying that God always remains hidden, mysterious, and unseen. So,
when we speak of revelation, it does not mean, in theological terms,
what it means in ordinary discourse.
In ordinary speech we say, for example, that a woman bends down and
her white slip (which would not normally be seen) is revealed as she
does so, because her dress has been raised slightly. However in
theological discourse when we speak about revelation, we do not mean
that the hidden unseen God becomes visible in some way, she/he remains
mysterious and unseen as always. What we might mean though is that
something or someone in this world has enabled us to be clearer in our
understanding and faith.
We do not know that God exists and we cannot prove or disprove his/her
existence. God may not exist and may simply be a figment of our
imaginations. All religions exist at the level of faith, not of proof. So
when we speak of revelation, we are meaning that in some way we are
reminded of God or given some insight into what she/he may be like, if she/he
exists at all. Among some New Testament theologians there is doubt and
debate about how much real and accurate reporting the accounts of
Jesus' crucifixion contain. It could be that the details have largely been
created by the first Christian generation. For example, Psalm 22 may
have been one source for their stories. (This Midrashic use of Scripture
is considered by some to have also been used in constructing the birth
narratives of Jesus).
This means that depending on how a person interprets the stories of
Jesus' death, they may or may not speak of it as revealing the forgiving
love of God. But in the light of what has just been written, we cannot say
any more than that Jesus' manner of dying gives us some more insight
into the nature of the love of God. All the ways in which human
goodness is expressed may help some people to think more clearly about
the character of God: in so far as human life is understood, in faith, to
tell us something about its Maker.
So far we have not discovered a good reason why God might have
wanted to raise Jesus back to life again, in the way the resurrection
stories seem to be claiming. His God knew that he was mistaken and
misguided about the course of human history, the world continues on its
way. His God had not planned any role for Jesus in relation to a
"salvation/forgiveness" process. Nor, to substantiate this, had Jesus
returned as the Judge and Saviour of the world, as his disciples had so
fanatically claimed he would do.
What though if Jesus had been the Incarnation of God? Would that make
a difference? One can see, to some extent, how the first Christians got
their beliefs in Jesus' divinity off the ground. Perhaps during his lifetime
or maybe afterwards, they became convinced that he was the
long-awaited Messiah. If he was the Messiah, then was he not also that
heavenly figure described in the book of Daniel? And if he was that
figure too, and the one who had borne the sins of the world in his death,
maybe he was much closer to God than any mere human mortal? And
did not his being raised to new life by God (as they believed had
happened) confer on him special divine favour? Add to this, that the first
generation of Christians lived in a world where other people, in other
cultures, accepted quite readily that a god or the gods or goddesses could
easily have children of divine and human parentage.
We have seen that such figures as a "Messiah" or a heavenly figure such
as a "Son of man" (from Daniel) have no existence in reality. They come
out of the imaginations and speculation of ancient Israel, as its people
longed for an end to their suffering and subjugation, and hoped for an
intervention by their God. But none of this happened, nor, as we have
also seen, is it tenable to interpret the death of the misguided and
mistaken Jesus as salvific for humankind. If, and when, God decides to
bring present human history to its end; he/she will do it in his/her own way and
on a global scale. Messiahs and Sons of men will have nothing to do
Suppose though that, despite all this, God had still decided in some way
to live a human life and that the person through whom she/he was living this
life was Jesus. The difficulty here is that we would never know it had
happened. Jesus would have been living his fully human life; and all that
people would have been aware of was this human person from Nazareth
going about his daily work. Being human implies having only one brain
and mind; Jesus did not have an extra divine mind as was once
supposed. As God is unseen and hidden; how could anyone deduce that,
in Jesus, God was living in some extremely mysterious way? The answer
is that one could not have deduced such a thing.
No good reason has emerged for believing that the traditional belief in
the Incarnation is true. We are back again to the disciples' claim that
Jesus had appeared to them alive after his death. How stable and in touch
with normal reality had been the minds of the disciples during the period
of the last two or three years? Not very, is the best answer.
Here was a group of people who, with their leader, had been living from
day to day expecting the end of the world as they knew it and a major
intervention by their God. As they set off to preach their message in the
villages and rural districts of Galilee, they probably went believing that
the Son of Man (that heavenly figure from the book of Daniel) would
arrive to begin his God-given task, (Matt.10:23) of judging the dead and
the living. This did not happen; but then it would seem that their leader
began to imagine that the time of tribulation before the coming kingdom
would have its focus on him. He would die first, before God would bring
in his/her kingdom.
The end was so near that James and John could ask about special seating
arrangements for themselves in the new kingdom. Perhaps their leader
promised them all thrones on which they would sit judging the twelve
tribes of Israel, (wasn't that a bit of an insult to the likes of Abraham,
Moses, David, Elijah, Isaiah, et al?). At his last meal might it be true that
he had said to them about wine that they were drinking, that he would
not drink it again until he drank it in the coming kingdom of their God?
His arrest produced terror in his disciples, but that terror was
experienced by people who had been led by their leader to expect some
catastrophe as part of the necessary working out of the imagined plans of
their God. When those strange visions and experiences began which led
to belief that their leader was alive again; some of them doubted, at first,
while others were convinced more readily.The appearances and visions
only further strengthened their conviction that their God was about to act
to bring about the end of their world. There is no record that Pilate nor
such Jewish leaders, as the high priest or members of the Sanhedrin, had
any visions or experiences similar to the disciples.
They quickly allotted to their leader the key roles of being God's
right-hand man and awaited his return on a daily basis, frantically going
about sharing with people these strange and weird beliefs. Some fell for
this message, others rejected it as utter nonsense. Their promise to their
new converts that Jesus would return at any moment proved to be false,
he never did come back, the world went on its way.
In the Introduction to this paper, we read (about the paper): "In
particular, it states that those whose theological convictions do not take a
Trinitarian form should be allowed to experiment by trying to create new
forms of worship appropriate to their beliefs".
The Liturgical calendar is dominated by the life of Jesus, and in all the
various Services of worship he holds a key and central position. Whether
it be in the canticles of Morning and Evening Prayer eg. Te Deum Part 2,
Nunc Dimittis, Saviour of the World, or in the hymns addressed to him,
or in his role in Baptism and Holy Communion, or in Confirmation,
Marriage or Funeral Services, he holds a dominant and central position.
If the integrity and convictions of professional theologians and those
influenced by them are to be respected, then it is quite intolerable that
the only form of worship available throughout the Anglican Communion should be
Trinitarian in form (Father, Son and Holy Spirit).
There are liberal Christians such as those associated with the Centre for
Progressive Christianity, for whom Jesus is still clearly very important.
In the Eight Points by which they define Progressive Christianity they
state: "by calling ourselves progressive, we mean that we are Christians
who: 1. proclaim Jesus Christ as our Gate to the realm of God; .....3.
understand our sharing of bread and wine in Jesus' name to be a
representation of God's feast for all peoples". They do not accept the
doctrinal 'savior' language codified in the fourth century creeds, such as
Jesus being the sacrificial Lamb of God.
However the position in this paper is more radical than that. Those,
whose views are expressed here, have their roots in the Judaeo-Christian
tradition, but do not want to be constantly looking backwards through
nearly 2000 years of Christian history to Jesus of Nazareth and what he
may or may not have said or done, and what he may or may not be held
to mean today. Kahlil Gibran wrote in 'The Prophet': "For life goes not
backward nor tarries with yesterday." Their theological convictions have
set them free to live in the present and look to the future, they challenge
them to bring freshness, new visions, and words that resonate into their
spirituality and into the forms of worship they would like to see created.
In such new forms of worship there will be a place for readings from the
Bible, but such readings will not have any special authority per se
(simply because they come from the Bible), rather they will be received
as the thinking and believing of people from a very different age and
culture to their own which may or may not engage with them in a
meaningful way. The real search will be to find contemporary material
from poetry and drama, from literature, film and professional theological
writing that speaks with relevance and challenge in areas such as justice,
personal growth and healing, ethical exploration, wisdom and worship.
Good liturgy will seek to deepen the mystery, and not to resolve it.
There will be questions about whether to have a Liturgical calendar or
not; whether to simply have a framework for worship allowing much
freedom within it; what new feasts or festivals, or new symbols might
there be; will there be a new story of Creation, including much that the
Genesis myths do not have? It will take time to become used to not
having such occasions as Christmas and Easter as highlights in the year,
but it will also be a great relief not to have to go through with them.
Rowan Williams' words point in the right direction: (though he would
not agree with the general tenor of this paper) "where we find a
developing and imaginative liturgical idiom operating in a community
that is itself constantly re-imaging itself and its past we may recognize
that worship is at some level doing its job", p.7 'On Christian Theology'.
The Internet should prove a most valuable vehicle for people seeking to
create new liturgies.
In their rapidly changing societies in western Europe, many people are
struggling to understand the implications of these changes.
Anthropologists and sociologists have long noted the connections
between the nature of a society, its leadership and authority structures,
and its forms of religion and concepts of God. The present generation is
not immune in this regard to the changes taking place around them.
Many people have noticed that they are Christians in a post-Christendom
world, they are in the process of ceasing to be involved with an imperial
religion. Others have observed that many of their rituals have lost their
resonance; John O'Donoghue described ritual as the creative work over a
long time by a community after many internal conversations.
Writing about the new Information age, Francis Fukuyama in his book
"The Great Disruption" contends that we will see a decline in
"centralised religious orthodoxies". If he is right in this contention, it
may mean that there will be less resistance to the suggestions in this
paper in the future. Great art, and theology too, begin in the
unconscious; sometimes the artist has to wait until in Bergman's words
"the gods throw down their fire." Some people feel that they are waiting
for a new vision of God to emerge and enthuse them.
A symbol that may become more and more important is the ring. It can
be used as a symbol of God's faithfulness to her/his whole Creation; "she/he who
has welcomed you into life will be faithful to you". It is a symbol of
love, hope and trust between God and the human family. The trust is on
both sides: we are invited to put our trust in the faithfulness of God and
God ultimately trusts us to respond to the belief which she/he has in us.
In the Epilogue in his book "Why Christianity must change or die"
J.S.Spong wrote: "Is my reformulation of Christianity adequate for our
new world? I would be surprised if it is judged to be so. It is at least the
best I know how to offer at this moment, given when I live and how far
into the future I can see. But if I were asked to bet on what will happen
tomorrow, my best guess would be that my approach will prove to be not
too radical, as my critics will claim, but rather not nearly radical enough.
I suspect that the next generation might even dismiss me as an
old-fashioned religious man who could not quite cut the umbilicus to the
past in order to enter the future." p.227.
There is a clear sense that Spong feels it important to go on holding onto
Jesus, he remains the 'God-bearer'; by contrast it is as if those whose
convictions and vision are described in this article have taken the
scissors and cut the 'umbilical cord' between themselves and Jesus; or to
put it in another way, Jesus no longer functions as an archetype for them.
Monica Furlong wrote: "one of the symbols Jung cited was that of Jesus
as the 'archetype of the self' that is to say the symbol which helped us as
individuals or as groups to become what is in us to become" p.96 'C of E.'
H.A. Williams wrote: "Or as the preacher puts it in John Steinbeck's
novel, 'The Grapes of Wrath': "Don't you love Jesus? Well, I thought and
thought, and finally I says, 'No, I don't know nobody name' Jesus. I
know a bunch of stories, but I only love people.' " (p118, Poverty,
Chastity and Obedience).
A radical implication of this is that the cross as a symbol may be
jettisoned, and the symbol of the ring become the prime one - speaking
of God's faithfulness. This is not however to deny the costliness of
loving or forgiving; these must always be taken seriously, there can be
no meaningful insight into the character of God if this costliness is not
emphasised clearly and forcefully. To adapt words of Gabriel Marcel: if
we treat God superficially, we will end up treating ourselves
superficially too. For those who have 'cut the umbilical cord between
themselves and Jesus', Kierkegaard's words make sense: (he imagined
this question being addressed to us at the gates to heaven) "I will be
asked not why I am not more like Christ, but why I am not more like
If some or all of the Provinces of the Anglican Communion ever were to
make room for what would, at present, be new forms of worship for
minority groupings, then all sorts of difficult practical problems would
have to be sorted out. If the minority grouping did not practice Baptism,
what provision might there be for new members and how would the
majority accommodate themselves to another initiatory rite other than
Baptism? Would an ordained minister be required for these new and
constantly updated contemporary forms of worship, what about
marriage, for example? By dispensing with traditional Christology many
re-appraisals are required: in relation to the authority of the Bible, the
three-fold ordained ministry, forms of democracy within the churches,
and in Christian art, poetry, drama and music. An attempt to answer
some or all of these questions will have to wait till another paper.
Any person working on his/her faith and doing some theology needs to
take cognizance of the warning of Merold Westphal and this quotation
comes from a reference to him in Garrett Green's book 'Theology,
Hermeneutics and Imagination': "Merold Westphal characterizes the
common hermeneutic of suspicion in Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud as
follows: 'the deliberate attempt to expose the self- deceptions involved in
hiding our actual operative motives from ourselves, individually or
collectively, in order not to notice how and how much our behavior and
our beliefs are shaped by values we profess to disown' " pp12-13. In their
seeking to serve the truth, people can easily be deceived and this is why
belonging to a church of unlike-minded people may help challenge them
to constantly test the authenticity of their beliefs, values and lives. But
they need to listen to others outside the church too as the quotation from
Merold Westphal reminds them.
"Living with differences is I think the genius of Anglicanism". This
quotation from George Carey's interview with Monica Furlong, from the
first paragraph of this article, speaks of a basic trust in Anglicanism, in
its soft edges, in its ability to live not just with diversity, but also with
the conflicts that surround it. Time will tell how hard its members will
fight to preserve this genius and whether or not they will be successful if
they so fight. It would be surprising indeed if the future did not hold
many unexpected challenges and revolutions.
This present paper is itself making a challenge and calling for a
revolution. With real insight, Joan D. Chittister wrote in her book "Heart
of Flesh" (p.172): "The revolutions that count come silently, come first
in the heart, come with the force of steel, because they come with no
force at all. Revolutions of this magnitude do not overturn a system and
then shape it. They reshape thought, and then the system overturns
without the firing of a single cannon. Revolutions such as this dismantle
walls people thought would never fall because no wall, whatever its size,
can contain a people whose minds have long ago scaled and vaulted and
There have been those within Anglicanism who have replied to the
position within this paper by saying that if people do not believe in a
Trinitarian conception of God and in an Incarnational God, then they
need to look elsewhere for a different spiritual home such as the
Unitarian Universalist church. This works for some people, but for others who feel
the "reforming fire" in their hearts and minds, it does not appear to be a
viable alternative. There is a cost to being in a minority camp, as there is
a cost to tolerating minorities within the main grouping.
The Anglican Provinces have never been strangers to tension and conflict within their
membership. Out of such tension and conflict growth has come. The
Reformer may be thought of as a heretic and a traitor, but history has
confirmed his loyalty and his role on many occasions. Furthermore,
within Anglicanism, while there have been some believers who have
seen, in faith, the actions and hand of God in many ways; there have
been others who have felt much more a sense of unknowing and of
mystery as they have thought about their faith and the activity of God.
Anglicanism is bigger than the beliefs of any one individual with his or
her own limited perspective, and is enriched by the diversity of
experience of its members.
A church of unlike-minded people is a guard against any one group within it becoming convinced that it has all the
answers, and is not in need of the different perspectives of other groups.
The one who sees himself or herself as a Reformer needs to remember
that they could well be mistaken about what they are most convinced
about as true, history has its lessons to teach in this regard. However, at
the risk of error, the Reformer obeys the instinct to study and to think, to
discuss and write, to work for change and to bear with the slowness with
which change may come about, if it ever it does.
Neolithic man living in Co. Meath 5000 years ago thought, no doubt, that
in the generations to come people would be much the same as him: wear
the same type of clothes, eat the same sort of food, travel the same way,
communicate the same way, and have the same world outlook, culture
and beliefs. The Normans built their castles to last for centuries and also
no doubt did not expect radical change in future generations. Both
Neolithic man and the Normans were mistaken, the world did change
radically in ways they could not have imagined.
It may well be that in the future the Christian man and woman with their own distinctive outlook will
cease to populate the world. The Christian religion will have run its course
and come to its end. What are needed now are people who will venture forth
crossing over from Christianity by a bridge, still being constructed, and journey
in a wilderness with no familiar landmarks. This does not mean that values such as
truth, love, justice, goodness, beauty, forgiveness will be abandonned; but the Christian
vision of an Incarnate God being revealed through Christ nearly 2000 years ago will cease to
be found credible. Neither the Neolithics nor the Normans saw the writing on the wall, and very
few Christians do today. "We do not need a new landscape, but new eyes to see it with" Marcel Proust. If you can imagine yourself for a moment standing on the banks of a river and watching the water flowing past, then remember the message of the river: life brings change.
Our world will
change in the future: our culture, our society, our beliefs, and much else
too; we cannot imagine or envisage the worlds that lie ahead. We do
well to bear in mind the words of Kahlil Gibran who wrote: " Speak to us
of children: ...you may give them your love but not your thoughts, for
they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their
souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot
visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek
not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with
yesterday. You are the bows from which your children as living arrows
are sent forth. The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and
he bends you with his might that His arrows may go swift and far. Let
your bending in the Archer's hand be for gladness; for even as He loves
the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable." Kahlil
Gibran ('The Prophet' pp20-23).
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