Robbie Low interviews Stephen Noll

IT WAS A BAKING JULY DAY in Cambridge. The students had gone down, the tourists had come up. On the river idle gondoliers, in whites and boaters, plied the bridges for passing trade. From the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to Emmanuel College was alive with earnest shoppers from the four corners of the earth seeking tangible memories of their day in the great University town.

As you would expect on this, a rare return to alma mater, the subject most hotly debated in the car on the way up was the old favourite of academic life – where to have lunch. My choice was Hobb’s Pavilion on the boundary rope of the great expanse of Christ’s’ Pieces – scene of last year’s greatest triumph for our church cricket team – where gazpacho andaluz could give way to chicken dijonnais and a honey and lavender ice cream. Sara was enthusiastic for the Turkish on King Street – back street of legend where young gentlemen of breeding (and later grammar school yobs like me) would attempt to down a pint in each of the eight pubs in two hours without evacuating at either end and thus complete the famous “RUN”.

It was upon the first of these hostelries, “The Champion of the Thames”, that erstwhile denizens of Westcott House (“seminary to the episcopate”) would descend, via the back wall, in the “greater silence” that followed Compline and Guest Preacher on a Monday night.

But first things first. We arrived down the Barton Road, left up Sigwick Avenue, past the concrete deformity of the History Faculty whose architect is, by now, doubtless ennobled for his contributions to landscape vandalism, past Newham College where the 60’s feminist rebel against the establishment, Germaine Greer, holds court as a pillar of it and onto the Grange Road where men, for the length of a game of rugby, are still allowed to be men. And finally into the quiet backwater of Selwyn Gardens and Tyndale House where, on a garden bench at the edge of a small croquet lawn, I caught up with Stephen Noll, Professor of Biblical Studies and Academic Dean at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, Ambridge, Pennsylvania.

Noll has a spare wiry frame, short black hair, deep dark eyes hooded from the sun and a warm, gentle and exact manner. Careful in his choice of words, he is not inhibited from plain speaking. He wants to know about Forward in Faith and Reform and takes a copy of New Directions – then reveals that it does, in fact, show up regularly at his seminary (a triumph for our circulation department). Noll sees himself as working in “a wider coalition” than us for some of the same ends.

An American priest friend whom I had seen a mere 36 hours before this meeting described Noll as a good and godly evangelical who still believed that it may be possible to work with a liberal establishment and that sooner or later they would behave decently.

Well, as they say, let the man speak for himself. I asked him:

Where did you begin?

“In the suburbs of Washington D.C. I came from a non-christian family and my early years were in the Unitarian Church. This was a philosophy that hardly differed from secularism”.

When did you come to Christ?

“At the end of a long course of seeking. I was baptised in the chapel at Cornell University. My new found Christian convictions led me to reject the purely secular imperatives that had governed my thinking before so it was a tremendous shock to me, when I moved on to Church Divinity School, Berkeley to encounter the “God is dead” movement there!”

You must have been there at the time of the riots?

“Yes – but I didn’t participate!”

Who influenced you?

“A non-Christian author called Alan Bloom who wrote, “The Closing of the American Mind”. He taught me to consider that possibility that past writers and thinkers might know something more than the sum of late 20th century man’s thinking. Also that from each great alternative world view certain things followed. Therefore if God has revealed Himself ……..

It was the beginning of a road that has, in recent years, enabled me to defend the literal interpretation of scripture and its real authority.”

Where was your first parish?

“Truro Episcopal Church, Fairfax, Virginia – large suburban outreach. Very into renewal. I saw God powerfully at work in this but also the profound dangers of renewal separated from biblical teaching and evangelical doctrine.”

And then?

“After five years and seeing the interregnum through I was privileged to go and be one of the last post-grad. students of F.F. Bruce at Manchester.”

Studying?

“Angelology in the Qumran texts.” (There is a little smile).” I’m not sure I’d choose to do that again”.

What about marriage?

“In 1967 Peggy and I got married. She was one of the witnesses that led me to Christ.”

(They have five children, aged 14 – 25. Sara – married to a law student at Cornell, Peter – in business, Abigail and Patrick at college studying English and Hanna at High School)

How did your present job come about?

“In 1976 the formation of a new seminary was announced to represent renewal in the evangelical traditional constituencies. I was asked to join on its opening in 1979 as an Assistant and moved on to Associate and finally Professor of Biblical Studies. I was made Academic Dean in 1983.”

What was the initial task?

“The first ten years, in addition to teaching, was to get it off the ground and accredited. As the only Episcopal Seminary started in the last fifty years this was no mean feat. Now we have 80-90 full timers, half on ordination courses, half on Master of Arts in either Mission and Evangelism or Youth Work. We’re known as “The Great Commission” seminary and it is where voluntary societies tend to send their candidates. We also do an academic M.A. in religious studies leading to teaching.

This year we’ve started an experiment in South Carolina – a parish-based ordination course with students flying in to Trinity for intensive studies periodically.”

You’re known for advocacy in the church?

“Yes. In 1987 I opposed the use of non-biblical imagery in the inclusive language debates. In 1992 I was asked to write on “The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture” for the House of Bishops. Friends warned me that my conservative arguments would be rejected – and they were right. In 1995 the presenters asked me to write the papers for the Righter trial.”

(Ten bishops indicted the thrice married Bishop Walter Righter for knowingly ordaining a practising homosexual. He freely admitted so doing but the case was dismissed by the Episcopal bench declaring “no core doctrine” opposed such practices. The ruling is a milestone judgement in the Anglican Communion and Righter was lionised at the Southwark Cathedral homosexual event last year.)

What was the reaction to this?

“Our seminary would not advocate this development and cannot compromise with the blessing of same sex unions. I wrote an orthodox defence of marriage. No main line publisher would touch it.”

(“Two Sexes – One Flesh” has been published now by Latimer – the imprint of Episcopalians United)

“I sent it to the bishops of the Anglican Provinces. Of course it was a challenge to many American “Conservative” bishops who have been divorced and remarried – more than once in some cases.”

How do you think General Convention will go on the homosexual issue?

“My guess is that they will put on a happy face and not do anything too extreme until after Lambeth next year. They will talk about pluralism and the wonderful diversity of Anglican practice. The reality is that the gates are open now. The Bishop of New Hampshire blesses same sex marriages and condones others doing it. Michigan ordains gay priests as part of an “emerging consensus” and so on.”

How has Hawaii affected things?

(Hawaii State legalised same sex unions. This would have the effect of obliging other states to recognise these “marriages”)

“Well 70% of the U.S.A. is opposed, indeed 70% of Hawaii is opposed and Congress passed the “Defence of Marriage Act” to get the other States off the hook. But it’s not clear if this is constitutional and Hawaii is seeking a constitutional amendment on the grounds of human rights – “defending our own concept of being.” We may yet find that the church will push on while society steps back.”

Liberalism seems utterly in control. How healthy are the liberal churches?

“They’re not. Liberalism has lost its vitality. It is now utterly dependent on the lobby groups. Gays and feminists provide the numbers, the money and the activity – otherwise liberalism is dead. Bishop Spong’s diocese, Newark, is in persistent decline. Those bishops pushing the limit are so indebted to the interest groups that they’re over a barrel.

In recent years the liberal movement has been taken over by the liberationists. Their philosophical roots are Marxist and their total thinking is in terms of power, All other views are a threat to that power and must be overturned and excluded. Opponents of gay rights or feminism will not be tolerated. This General Convention will seek to exclude opponents of women priests.

Strong-arm bishops are already vetoing candidates chosen by more traditional parishes and warning off Vestry Committees (P.C.C. equivalent) from “unsuitable applicants.”

Are there any signs of hope?

“I’m on the board of the American Anglican Council. It’s a broad coalition trying to mobilise sizeable portions of the laity. We may be able to do this round the Prayer Book.”

(This turns out to be the 1979 Prayer Book to which many conservatives have always objected).

What about the inclusive language problem?

“Although it was passed, only the elite use it. The real threat now is to feminize the Prayer Book. We would like to gather the coalition round the defence of the Prayer Book but it’s not helped by the number of evangelicals who have departed from liturgy altogether.”

How do Episcopalians view women’s ordination twenty years on?

“The majority of average attenders would say they have a right to be ordained. The reality is that large rectorships are held by men and very few women are in charge of parishes.

However, 50% of those being ordained are women – my old seminary graduated only women last year – and they have a huge voting presence. Unlike in England very few evangelical women have sought to be priested.”

Do you believe your church made the right decision?

“I have tried to have a neutral role. Sometimes I’ve thought maybe we’re a testing ground. But I don’t believe the 1976 General Convention was guided by the Holy Spirit and it’s become clear that, in a liberal church, women’s ordination has opened the door to other liberal issues. The U.S.A. had no reception period. It should have. There has been no discussion on the theological principles or effectiveness of women’s ordination. It’s really the desire to avoid schism that has held the remaining church together.”

Will a new Presiding Bishop change things?

“I doubt it. The two favourite candidates, Griswold of Chicago and Schimpfky of El Camino Real, a clone of Spong, are really more of the same. We are seeing students going off to other churches, charismatic and even Roman Catholic, so it’s a difficult time.”

What of the future?

“The Kuala Lumpur statement was very encouraging” (The non-western Anglican Provinces threatening a break in communion with the biblically disobedient American church).

“It is critical that next years Lambeth Conference does not turn a blind eye to the goings on in the Episcopal Church. Traditional believers in the U.S.A. desperately need help from the rest of the Anglican Communion.”

Battle-hardened traditionalists on this side of the pond will see this plea as the triumph of hope over experience. Most expect Lambeth to be a carefully orchestrated fudge which will allow the liberal bandwagon to career on unimpeded. Most will see it as the Last Chance Saloon and if a decent moderate evangelical like Steve Noll talks in these terms then it is difficult to exaggerate the crisis in the American Church and, in consequence, our own.

Robbie Low is Vicar of St. Peter’s, Bushey heath in the diocese of St. Alban’s.