Robert Hannaford comments on the recent report of the Church of England Doctrine Commission

The publication of The Mystery of Salvation, the latest report of the Church of England Doctrine Commission, was greeted by headlines proclaiming that the Church of England no longer believes in the reality of hell. The message of the press and the media was clear: this is another example of the Church of England’s slow but inexorable decline into secularism and un-belief. As I write this review I have before me a selection of press cuttings about the report and a number of the early reviews and I have to say that I do not recognise in them the book that I have just finished reading.

It is perfectly true that hell is mentioned on page one hundred and ninety two and discussed in a single paragraph on page one hundred and ninety nine; and, yes, the report does indeed call into question the idea of eternal torment; but this is set within the context of a vigorous defence of Christian eschatology, of that final ‘participation in the communion of God’s love’ which is already anticipated in the eucharist and in the Christian life of prayer [p. 196]. Although the report questions the traditional imagery of hell-fire it boldly asserts the reality of the final judgement and insists that this is insupportable without an accompanying belief in the reality of hell. The argument at this point is set within the context of a discussion of human freedom. Universalism is rejected as incompatible with the affirmation of a loving God’s gift of freedom. Freedom must include the possibility of a final rejection of God and hence of the only ultimate source of life. ‘Hell’, the report continues, ‘is not eternal torment but it is the final and irrevocable choosing of that which is opposed to God so completely and so absolutely that the only end is total non-being’ [p. 199]. The more informed commentators fastened on this arguing that it implied a denial of eternal punishment. Maybe it does but there can be no gainsaying the logic of the case articulated by the commission. How can those who are so punished be sustained in their state of eternal torment? Only, it seems, if they retain that which they have so decisively rejected, life. This then presents the advocates of eternal punishment with a paradox: either hell is a state of being sustained by God or it is a form of negative being which exists independently of God’s power. The former option is clearly incompatible with belief in human freedom for it presupposes that no-one can ever finally reject God the giver of life, while the latter is incompatible with belief in the creative omnipotence of God.

In the case of this book the instant comment of the press and media indicates just how ignorant most journalists are about Christian theology. Instead of assessing the report by its own terms of reference they chose to judge it by one page out of two hundred and twenty five. Had they taken the trouble, like this journal, to seek an informed view they would have discovered that this is actually a work of enormous significance. The report bears comparison with those of two earlier Doctrine Commissions: Doctrine in the Church of England [1938] and Christian Believing [1976].1 Like both earlier reports The Mystery of Salvation explores the entire scope of the Christian faith. However, unlike the famous 1938 report, which largely contented itself with describing the various positions held within the Church of England, this new report does not shy away from arguing for substantive theological positions. It is also striking that, unlike the late but hardly lamented 1976 report, this report is issued as a joint statement endorsed by all the participants. Christian Believing caused enormous embarrassment to the Church, signalling as it did the failure of a significant group of Anglican theologians to reach anything like a consensus on the nature of Christian belief. The impression left was of a group of theologians who could not even agree about the bases of Christian theology let alone its substantive content. In contrast the present report exhibits a clear confidence in orthodox Christianity and unashamedly utilises biblical sources.

What then of the report’s contents? The first thing to be said is that the subject covered, salvation, is so central to the entire Christian faith that any discussion of it necessarily involves touching upon most of the other central elements of theology: the Trinity, creation, salvation and history, Christology, theological anthropology, the theology of religions and eschatology. The end result is in effect an introduction to the Christian Faith, a survey of the Christian tradition from the perspective of salvation. In short the book deserves to be judged as a short definition of the Christian faith, to borrow an expression from the late Karl Rahner. From this point of view there is much to commend it to readers of this journal.

Catholic Anglicans will be pleased to note the sympathetic discussion of topics such as the eucharistic sacrifice, the communion of saints and prayer for the departed. More importantly they should welcome its rich indebtedness to scripture and its clear advocacy of the trinitarian context of Christian theological reflection. As one would expect in any Anglican doctrinal statement considerable attention is given to the cultural setting of theological work and the need to address the changing patterns of human experience but a distinction is drawn between this and the foundations of theology in the historical events of salvation. As the report itself so clearly puts it: ‘It is not contemplation of the human plight as such which gives rise to soteriology [the theology of salvation], but particular historical experiences of the saving power of God’ [p. 86]. In point of fact the report’s opening analysis of the absence of God in contemporary western culture and the lack of a common language for discussing ultimate human well-being leads to one of its most important insights. Whereas the Reformation disputes about the nature of salvation led to a stress on the correlation between faith and the gift of God the giver, the loss of any sense of transcendence in modern culture means that today theology must stress the correlation between faith and God the giver of the gift. ‘Where the Reformers insisted that salvation, by its nature, can only be received as gift, we need to insist that salvation, by its nature, can only be received as the gift of the God who gives himself in his gift.’ [p. 38]

I welcome this report as a rich theological resource for the Church. It is not an easy read but it deserves wide study and will I suspect be seen as something of a watershed in contemporary Anglicanism. As a teacher of Christian theology I shall not hesitate to recommend it to my students. I hope that thought might be given to the possibility of preparing a study guide in order to open it up to an even wider readership.

Robert Hannaford is Senior Lecturer in Theology at Canterbury Christ Church College and honorary assistant priest in the parish of St Michael and All Angels, Harbledown.

1 Doctrine in the Church of England. The Report of the Commission on Christian Doctrine Appointed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in 1922 (London, SPCK, 1938); Christian Believing: The Nature of the Christian Faith and its Expression in Holy Scriptures and Creeds. A Report by the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England (London, SPCK, 1976).