Church of England: The problem with its Clergy and its Cultured Despisers

I am reading a book on ‘The English’ first published in 1998 by Jeremy Paxton. He deals in chapter 6 with the Church of England.

He quotes a conversation he had.  “I once asked the Bishop of Oxford what you needed to believe to be a member of his Church. A look of slight bafflement crossed his face. ‘An intriguing question’, he answered… You cannot imagine an orthodox rabbi, or a Roman Catholic priest replying like that. When the bishop went on, he opened with an inevitable English preface, ‘Well, it rather depends. It depends on which church you go to. An evangelical church will say you need to be sincerely converted. A traditional Anglo-catholic church will teach you a Christian orthodoxy virtually indistinguishable from Roman Catholic teaching.’ It doesn’t add up to a very coherent set of rules of belief, does it? The Church of England doesn’t believe in laying down rules’ he said. It prefers to give people space and freedom. It’s enough to makethe effort to attend and take communion. That shows you believe.’ This is the sort of woolliness that drives critics of the Church of England to distraction.’

Jeremy shows himself  in his views of the Church of England to be one of the ‘cultured despisers’ (to borrow a phrase from Schleiermacher) of the Church. What drives him crazy is the so called ‘wooliness’ of the bishop’s thinking.

So what does that say about him? Does it mean that he prefers certainty to ambiguity? Is there not a certain call to adult Christianity in a religion that gives people ‘space and freedom?’ That is my first criticism of Jeremy Paxman. Should we be able to present to him a coherent set of doctrines as the Catholic Church does, or as some other forms of Christianity do he is more than likely to reject them. But he admires people for standing up for what they believe, even if he rejects their belief. He is no more likely to become an Orthodox Jew, or a Roman Catholic simply because they have a coherent set of beliefs.

The problem for the bishop is that he is feeling after some valued thing about Anglicanism which he cannot quite put his finger on. In thinking out loud with Jeremy Paxman he seems woolly, but in what he says, I thinkthere is a  germ of what I think is the clue to Anglicanism in what he says.

The bishop says ‘What Anglicanism teaches depends upon what Church you go to.’ Spot on! Teaching is secondary to participation in the Church. This is because the Anglican answer to the question ‘What kind of a thing is the gospel?’  is not ‘The gospel is a set of words’. Any church that says ‘The Gospel is a set of doctrines to be believed’ is not an Anglican Church, even though it may bear that name on the notice board. The Anglican answer to the question ‘What kind of a thing is the Gospel’ is ‘The Gospel is a liturgy’  There are varieties of doctrine, but one Eucharist. The Eucharist is God’s ‘play’ in which we all have parts. The proper response to God, when the Gospel is a liturgy is not ‘belief’, as it might be when the Gospel is doctrines. No, the proper response to God when the Gospel is liturgy is participation. That, I think,  is what the bishop was trying to say when he said ‘It depends on what Church you go to’. Belief follows belonging. Doctrine grows out of participation and need not be a primary category, except the one doctrine that: ‘The Gospel is not doctrines, but liturgy.’ This also means that the question for Jeremy Paxton is the question of discipleship. In Anglicanism people are called to follow. How one follows is a matter for adult accountability. That is also what I think the bishop was trying to say when he talked about giving people space and freedom.

My problem with the bishop of Oxford is that he was woolly, yes, but not woolly in the sense that Jeremy Paxton complained about, but woolly in the sense that he did not have clear enough in his mind those two ‘pegs’ that for me make Anglicanism. He could not offer this version of Christianity that is absent in versions of Christianity that rely on doctrine. That is: as an Anglican I am first of all called to participate in God’s drama, the Eucharist. Second, I am called to be an accountable, adult disciple.

It is true that this way of being Christian leaves open the kind of ‘non attending, non-accountable members’ who fill in ‘C of E’ a form. But this is a small price to pay for the freedom from dogmatism and being kept in childish beliefs that some versions of Christianity which are doctrinally based have as their besetting sin.

Jeremy Paxton does talk about poorly paid vicars who are witnesses to their faith, but then criticises them for not proclaiming it because they are afraid that it might ‘get in the way’ of their work.

Again, he is right that there is a certain diffidence about some clergy because they do not know how to say to someone ‘Come and see’ (an invitation to discipleship) as part of their work. Proclaiming the Gospel is not abut getting people to sign up to a set of beliefs, but about inviting them into a journey of discovery of Jesus, the Christ. There is nothing to be embarrassed about in that.

But Jeremy Paxton does not understand about the role of being a deacon in the Church. He would surely be critical of what used to be called ‘rice bowl’ Christianity, where in Asia, Christians were made because it was the condition upon which rice was given to the starving, as he would of the Salvation Army who did the same.The role of the deacon is to show God’s unconditional love. Before we say ‘Yes’ to God, God is showing us his love in kindness and service. That is why ‘proclaiming the gospel’ sometimes ‘gets in the way’ being the gospel.

Once, there was a person who regularly came to my door to ask for money. He used to make up all kinds of stories about why he needed it, none of which were probably true. I used to feel for him, because of the humiliation that he had to go through each time he wanted money. I said to him ‘You know, if you were a member here, you would be able to receive this help, as of right. You would not have to put yourself through all this humility to get it. Wouldn’t that be better?’ That was a step to far for him. But that is the relationship between proclaiming the gospel, and diaconal service. Service is free, with out strings, proclaiming the gospel invites people into  discipleship, which then gives them access to these services, not as supplicants, but as ‘children of the household.’ It is a pity that those servant priests could not explain this to Jeremy Paxton.

So here is a frustrating chapter 6 for me. Frustrating because the Church of England clergy mentioned in it have not drilled down deep enough into the heart of Anglicanism to see its real strength. Frustrating because Jeremy Paxton is left in his lack of knowledge about the true genius of Anglicanism to be a ‘cultured despiser’.

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About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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