Geoffrey Locke finds something for everybody in ‘The Mystery of Salvation’
BY AN OVERWHELMING majority, General Synod at York ‘took note’ of the Doctrine Commission Report The Mystery of Salvation. Synod warmly commended the Report for study and urged its recognition as “a substantial contribution to the Church”. What has given the report its popularity?
It focuses on two matters – the place of other faiths in relation to a Christian understanding of salvation and the Christian hope for the future. Media attention concentrated on the latter. Hell disappeared from the Church, only to reappear in newspaper headlines. But where do we stand in relation to other faiths? Extensive discussion of this issue is found in Chapter 7 Christ and World Faiths. But what of the hundred and fifty pages before we get there? Noteworthy first of all is the list of Doctrine Commission members. Membership fluctuated over the period 1989-1995, but some half a dozen (around a third overall) were card-carrying evangelicals. This is a significant element in the positive evangelical response to the Report. Secondly, some of the Report’s discussion of Biblical material is not only very good, but excellent. Page after page cries out for quotation in all sorts of different contexts. One is tempted to indulge in source criticism and to guess who first drafted what parts of which chapters. For these and other reasons (like what an improvement this Report is over some of its predecessors), evangelicals – with exceptions – received the Report well. This response was encapsulated at Synod by a rumbustious speech from Professor Anthony Thisleton. He offered a superb example of how to evangelise lager-drinking unbelieving youths on a train!
But the report was also welcomed in a thoughtful speech by Vasantha Gnanadoss, of the Board of Mission’s Interfaith Consultative Group. She told how her grandfather was a Bishop who went to the Edinburgh Missionary Conference in 1910. She concluded by quoting favourably Hans Kung’s advocacy of peace between religions. While not widely echoed in the debate itself (save by implication in evangelical critiques), her view has been expressed by many who have welcomed the Report. Evangelising people of other faiths is unnecessary, since their devout adherents may ultimately find salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ. Indeed, they may be “spiritual allies in a world mostly indifferent to the claims of God” (Communities and Buildings GS 1185). This latter report about Church of England buildings and other faiths makes explicit use of Chapter 7 of The Mystery of Salvation.
So the Doctrine Commission Report is welcomed by those who see it as a positive endorsement of mission, especially in this Decade of Evangelism. And the Report is welcomed too by those who see all faiths as potentially or actually salvific. How has this Church of England dodo race – in which all have won and all must have prizes – come about?
In 1972, Dr Francis Schaeffer (The Church Before the Watching World) wrote “A Historical Critique of Theological Liberalism”. He quotes a Finnish professor who saw the new liberalism as being like a shopkeeper who keeps many things under his counter. When someone asks for old-fashioned liberalism, the shopkeeper reaches under the counter and says, “That is just what we have here.” When someone asks for Bible-believing Christianity, the shopkeeper again says, “That is just what we have here.” The Report The Mystery of Salvation is such a shop. As an example, Schaeffer suggests the Fall. The new liberal says that “it does not matter historically”. He tries to be realistic about human cruelty “while dispensing with the Bible’s explanation of how he became this way”.
Where does The Mystery of Salvation stand on the Fall? The doctrine entails (page 53) “that our first genuinely human ancestors … faced moral choices … in innocence. The … primal choice … was a real choice …” But (page 86) the “common biblical pattern of movement back from … history to cosmology” makes “the Fall less pivotal for biblical theology as a whole …” Indeed (page 135), despite the Apostle Paul, “we now read Genesis 3 rather differently”. So is the Fall historical, or dehistoricised and existentialised? Any which way – that is just what we have here.
Furthermore, writes Schaeffer, “With the loss of antithesis there is an implicit or explicit universalism in the new liberalism.” Here is the nub of the matter. The report sees the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as “constitutive” of salvation (page 134). “Because this ultimate salvation is found in Christ, mission remains the central task of the Christian Church.” Here surely is a rallying call for the Decade of Evangelism. But we are warned not to deny “the truth and goodness which Christ, as Logos, and God by the Spirit can also inspire in those of other faiths and of none”. The Commission prays that God will bring all people “including those of other faiths” to explicit faith in Christ. But this is not because “the God revealed in Christ is unable to save them without this”. Ambiguities in the Report’s opening chapter reappear in its conclusions. To be sure, the Report acknowledges (Pages 180-1) that for example “we cannot agree with Muslims” that Christ did not die on the cross. But Muslims are only being faithful to the Quran. For Christians, “the Lord’s death” (1 Corinthians 11.26) is proclaimed every time we eat this bread and drink this cup. So it is difficult to accord revelatory status or salvific import to the Quran’s denial of this central Christian affirmation. I should add in fairness that some people are sure that mine is a nit-picking misreading of the Report. It clearly means …. ; but what it does mean depends upon who is telling me that I have misread it!
The report is closer to the inclusivism of “trying to have it both ways” and blurring distinctions (page 171) than it wishes to acknowledge. For the Doctrine Commission has sounded its trumpet (1 Corinthians 14.8) and General Synod has well-nigh unanimously sprung into action. For some it has sounded “Charge!” And for some it has sounded a ceasefire. But at least it can be ‘true for me’. That is just what we have here.
Geoffrey Locke is a member of the General Synod and lay chairman of the Lichfield Diocesan Synod.
Andrew Dow spoke in the debate and asked if there is more to death than annihilation …
THERE IS MUCH in the report The Mystery of Salvation that is thought-provoking and stimulating. I particularly enjoyed the magnificent description of heaven as “an everlasting participation in the exploration of the inexhaustible riches of the divine nature”. But having said that, I am uneasy with the Commission’s treatment of the other place.
In particular I am uneasy with the way that the chapter on the Last Things appears to limit final judgement (hell) simply to annihilation. To me, this is inadequate – firstly on grounds of justice. Many unbelievers would be affronted if they thought the Christian church was teaching that the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot were just snuffed out when facing God, and so bracketed together with everyone else not in heaven. Secondly, the annihilation idea does not fit totally with Jesus’ teaching. At the end of the parable of the talents (Matthew 25) he talks about the worthless servant being “thrown into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”. Those and similar phrases, certainly something more than just simply “perish”, are quite frequent in the Gospels.
Now of course it’s poetic imagery, but it strongly implies a state of terrible consciousness – darkness that can be felt, and remorse and frustration that eat into the soul. If judgement is simply annihilation, why did Jesus mention these things at all? Obviously the idea of some kind of conscious punishment in the after life becomes especially difficult when it is summarised by the problematic word “eternal”.
In the parable of the sheep and the goats at the end of Matthew 25, Jesus sums up the fate of the unrighteous in two concise phrases, “eternal life” and “eternal punishment”. Many people stumble at the whole concept precisely because they misunderstand the meaning of the word “eternal”, thinking that it means “going on for ever”. But were not many of us taught at college that the Greek word (aivnios) is more about quality than quantity? Thus in the more palatable corresponding Biblical phrase “eternal life” the emphasis is not on duration (lasting for ever, whatever that means), but on intensity and depth. The report seems to overlook this point. Jesus warned, then, of something more than spiritual extinction.
Now if Jesus included this element in his teaching about the last things, we are not free simply to filter off the currently unfashionable and unpalatable. We must not settle just for annihilation because that is more comfortable to the modern mind. Rather, as Christian people, we must try to submit to the parts of Scripture we find difficult, and wrestle to absorb them. Every generation of Christians is asked to do this in respect of some doctrine. One consequence of this is that we will have to try – with great care, and mindful of the excesses of the past – to graft back into our Christian teaching what has been lost in recent years. We need some element of fear of God the Judge – a legitimate threat that persistent ungodly living and evil will have awesome consequences in the next life. Surely our country, as it throws off all moral restraint, and faces a total breakdown of all authority, needs to hear this part of the Christian message again. Certainly Winston Churchill thought so. Forty years ago he said, “The moral landslide in Great Britain can be traced to the fact that heaven and hell are no longer proclaimed throughout the land.”
Perhaps as a church, we can learn something from our Orthodox brethren, who have not bowed so easily to the prevailing winds of contemporary thought. Part of their liturgy for Matins on what they call the “Sunday of the Last Judgement” (the second Sunday before Lent) runs as follows. “What a time it will be , and what a fearful day when the Judge will sit on His fearful throne.” The Vespers liturgy for the same day includes, “I weep and wail when there comes to mind the outer darkness, the abyss of torment coming to those who have sinned unceasingly. I am one of them, in my wretchedness the first.”
Yes, quite – and did my Saviour go to the hell of Gethsemane and the Cross simply to save me from annihilation, from non-being? Is that all? I know a number of unbelievers for whom the thought of annihilation would be quite pleasant – certainly no deterrent. No. God in Jesus Christ came to save me from the full weight of His own righteous and “dread-ful” (literally) wrath against sin and it’s against that pitch black background that the star of the Gospel shines so much more brightly.
Andrew Dow is Vicar of St John the Baptist, Knowle, and Rural Dean of Solihull. He is a member of General Synod and represents Birmingham Diocese.
Hugh James on the uniqueness of the Christian Hope
THERE ARE SOME very helpful insights in The Mystery of Salvation report, which I welcome. Nevertheless, when I come to the chapter on other faiths, I am saddened. I feel that the Commission has fallen short of Scripture’s claims about Christ’s uniqueness, let alone the claims of tradition. The report itself records that the original position of all Christian groups has been exclusive – that salvation only comes by open acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord. However whilst the report acknowledges the pluralist position – that all roads lead to God, it seems to prefer the so-called inclusivist position – that all faiths, or is it all people of good will (or people of fairly good will), will receive salvation through Christ’s death. The report’s attempt to combine all these positions seems to lack credibility.
When I read the Old Testament, I find the whole meta-narrative is about truth and salvation being available only through the God of Israel. As a citizen of the 20th Century, I may find it hard to accept the treatment meted out to Israel’s neighbouring tribes as a result. But the message however is clear. Their worship is unacceptable to the creator God, the great “I Am”. Worse than that, even intermarriage is dangerous, as it might dilute the true faith. The report is quick to point to Ruth and Rahab to support an inclusivist position. But surely, Ruth’s position is revealed in the words “Your God shall be my God.” Certainly, as the plan of God is revealed, it goes beyond Israel. But not by acceptance of the heathens’ worship. No: they are called, like Ruth, to worship the one true God.
When we come to the New Testament, I dissent from the Commission’s opinions even more strongly. Texts which seem clearly exclusive appear belittled. And what of the texts used to support inclusivist or pluralist positions? Most seem to be texts which prophesy the expansion of the Church into the Gentile world. Certainly, a New Jerusalem, of every tribe and tongue and nation, is foretold. But isn’t that wholly acceptable from an exclusivist standpoint? At the present rate of progress it is not a lack of the nations from beyond traditional Christendom, which might be found before the throne, but a lack of Brits! For this we have to thank the missionary movement of the last two centuries. The modern missionary movement had a shining example to follow. The Church in the first century had made the most spectacular strides. It was an evangelising, witnessing, proselytising Church. It was all that some would find distasteful. Yet it was also a powerless and suffering Church. How God honoured it! What a pity the Church then went to sleep for so long.
What then do inclusivists say to the heroic missionaries of both eras? If you accept the inclusivist position, why should Stephen lay down his life? After all, they claim, God would save those pious Jews by their faith. Yet Stephen’s death was one step in St Paul’s conversion. But why should he too, the great theologian of his age, suffer and die for the sake of the Gospel? It is true that in Romans he foresaw the salvation of the Jews, but was that not a final acknowledgement, by them, of Christ as the long awaited Messiah? Wasn’t that the theme of all Paul’s writings? And what does one say to the European missionaries to West Africa in the last century? Their life expectancy was under a year. Humanly, their mission was suicide in the face of malaria and other infections. If one accepts the inclusivist or pluralist positions, their lives were simply wasted. Were they? The report doesn’t tell us. It doesn’t tell us either what we say to the Christians from other faiths who are in our churches. Take, for instance, the Hebrew Christians rejected by their Jewish families for acknowledging their Messiah. If they will all be saved, unknowingly by Christ, why pay the cost?
The report makes much of a few anecdotes of converts from other faiths who take an inclusivist position – people who believe that their non-Christian relatives will enjoy salvation. But are they typical? Most converts from other faiths who I have met take a strong exclusivist position. I don’t feel that the report reflects that balance. Of course, everyone from any background hopes that somehow their non-believing relatives will ultimately be saved. That is natural. So do I. But it is a merely human hope – wishful thinking – it is not Christian Hope.
Dr Hugh James is a lay member of General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Leicester.
Stephen Trott surveys the aftermath of 1992
BECAUSE THE JULY MEETING of General Synod in York is a four-day residential meeting, it is possible to hold a variety of fringe events to discuss subjects ranging from alternative worship to the National Lottery.
One such meeting took place in Derwent College, on the first evening of the Synod, for those concerned with the development of women’s ministry in the Church of England three and a half years after the decision to ordain women as priests. The Movement for the Ordination of Women was disbanded following the achievement of women’s ordination, but Friday’s fringe meeting was held to address some of the very real difficulties facing women in the ordained ministry since the 1992 vote.
Members of the former MOW were there, along with a number of new Synod members, women and men, priests and laity, to discuss the related questions of women bishops, the Lambeth Conference and church appointments. The remarkable thing, from the point of view of an observer, was the complete absence of any member of the House of Bishops. Bristol and Hereford sent messages of encouragement with apologies for absence, but of all those others who have ordained women to the priesthood since 1993, and who might have been expected to show their support, there was not one to be seen. And with a few exceptions, there was little evidence of the Affirming Catholics and others on Synod who voted for the ordination of women and who have since made it a feature of their election addresses.
These absences have their significance beyond mere curiosity, which unfolded as the evening drew on. After a presentation to veteran campaigner Dame Christian Howard, soon to reach her 80th birthday, the business of the evening moved on to the situation facing women priests in the Church of England and the prospect of eventually opening the episcopate to women. It quickly became clear that there remains a pressing need for a support group in the General Synod which will focus attention on the role of ordained women in the Church of England – and those meeting at Derwent College decided to constitute themselves as an organisation which will continue to meet and to monitor progress, rather than resuscitate the old MOW.
The atmosphere has changed very considerably in the three years since the ordination of women, and there was none of the passion in evidence which brought about the vote in November 1992. Although several of those present were nervous about the fact that several members of Forward in Faith have signed the private member’s motion calling for a debate on the ordination of women as bishops, the meeting remained charitable towards those who in the past might have been seen as opponents, an indication perhaps that the concept of ‘Two Integrities’ is becoming established as a way forward in the minds of both schools of thought.
Indeed even those who remain convinced that the decision to ordain women priests was a costly mistake for the Church of England must recognise that for those women who have been ordained, the present attitude of the Church of England towards its new priests is to say the least, ambiguous. Disappointing would be a more accurate term, and coupled with the gentle atmosphere of the Derwent College meeting, there was an overwhelming feeling of disappointment, and even lack of direction.
Despite all the achievements of MOW in bringing to fruition in 1992 their campaign to admit women to the priesthood, numbers of whom were at the meeting, there was no great sense of rejoicing. It was clear that although the Church of England has consented to their ordination, it has yet to work out how best to use their ministry.
Under the chairmanship of Canon Rosemary Anderson and the Ven David Hawtin, the meeting discussed the plans for the next Lambeth Conference which will include a number of women bishops from overseas. They are to be invited to meetings around the country, to talk about their ministry and to promote debate in England about finally including women in the episcopate here. The decision of the Church of England to agree to women priests but not to women bishops appears to be founded on no point of principle which can long be sustained, and for that reason the motion for debate has been signed by some members of Synod who also belong to Forward in Faith. The lack of senior appointments for women priests extends far beyond the episcopate, however. Many of those ordained since 1993 have previously served many years as deaconesses, then as deacons, and have considerable experience of ministry and pastoral gifts which they long to see taken up and used effectively by the Church, which seems now to be almost embarrassed as to how to deploy its new resource.
The difficulty is undoubtedly exacerbated by the present financial stringencies of the Church of England, which appears to be looking increasingly to non-stipendiary ministry to sustain its national role in the parishes. Those women being ordained in numbers in recent years must feel doubly discriminated against, where pressure is being applied to serve on half a stipend, or none at all, while senior appointments remain mysteriously out of reach, as in so many other professions to which women have been admitted in recent times.
Now that it has taken the momentous, if controversial step of ordaining women, the Church of England ought to be setting an example to the secular world, by treating with scrupulous fairness all its priests and ministers, in both Integrities, as a point of first principle for all to see. It is not enough simply to pass such legislation: hard work is required to put it into effect with due respect for all of those involved, on both sides of the debate, whose lives are caught up in the ‘process of reception’.
Stephen Trott is a member of the General Synod. He represents clergy in the Diocese of Peterborough.
Mary Judkins asks what message Youth A Part will convey to the young
YOUTH A PART – what a clever title, but what does it mean? What do the authors of the report mean by it? What will young people in the church think it means? What message did members of the General Synod receive? These are difficult questions to answer.
The opening presentation by a team of young people stressed the fact that they want to feel a part of the whole church not a group to be treated differently. A panel of three of them answered questions from the floor very confidently and succinctly. The Report was then debated, but I felt that the debate was uninspiring. After all, who was going to disagree with such a report?
There were three challenges to members of Synod – and to the whole church as well. These were: Do I care about young people? Do I want them to hear the Christian message in the next century? What part can I play?
The Archbishop of Canterbury said that we must make room for the spirituality of young people. Too often the church does not feel that the young have anything to offer, and consequently does not acknowledge them. It is often said that they are not the church of tomorrow, but the church of today, though is this really true in most of our parishes? Yes, we want young people in our church – but only if there’s a paid youth leader to work with them. Yes, we want them – if they sit quietly. Yes, we want them – if they dress more conservatively. But we were all young once! Often it was only the dedication and support on the part of an older Christian that kept our faith going. It was the weekly Bible teaching in the Crusader class. It was the faithful Sunday School teacher praying regularly for us. Does the paid youth leader have the same commitment? Is the work with young people seen as a job, not a vocation? The commitment should be twofold, firstly to Christ, Bible teaching and prayer, and secondly in time and resources.
The open Christian home has introduced and kept more young people in the church than any youth club with games. We sell our youngsters short if we decline to tell them the good news of the gospel, teach them, or give them responsibility in the church. So what if they make mistakes? Are we perfect? They are the future leaders of the church, not us.
The report can be summed up in the vision of the young people to be taken seriously, of a church committed to mission, of young people as leaders, of full involvement at all levels, of valued spirituality, of developing worship, of understanding topical issues, of supporting those with problems; a vision for good relationships, for good practice, for high calibre and well trained workers and for clergy committed to youth. The report must not be put on bookshelves, unread, but studied by parishes, deaneries and dioceses. It must not be kept as a discussion document; but acted on. The church must have a commitment to young people, especially now during this Decade of Evangelism. Was this the message received by members of the General Synod? I do sincerely hope so.
Mary Judkins is a lay member of General Synod representing the Diocese of Wakefield.