David Dale reflects on some traditional aspects of
a Church of England Easter
THE POOR OLD Church of England had an odd press over the East week-end. On Easter Monday there were dark mutterings from Bishop Turnbull of Durham and Archdeacon Hawker of Swindon – he sounds a tough one – about poor quality clergy and the fact that no cleric had been had up for heresy for 33 years. The whole management structure of the Church of England is to be turned on those priests who are no good. I bet they will turn out to be the priests of ABC parishes – ‘Oh, you’re one of those are you?’ said the bishops’ wife to me, with scorn. You would think I had two heads – mark you, you need two heads to get your head round what follows.
More interesting than these vague threats – although one would be a fool to ignore them, the liberals are quite ruthless – were the responses of bishops to questions about the Resurrection, published on Easter Day. One response in particular was intriguing. I quote ‘I don’t see any harm, for instance, in people thinking how the Resurrection could be significant even without emphasising the empty tomb or its physical aspects. I want to hold the two together, but suppose Jesus’ body were to be discovered somewhere in Palestine, what would you do to the Christian faith? Obviously it would pose a problem, but we would still have an enormous amount left?
When you are up on a serious charge and are obviously guilty, I should send for the Bishop of Rochester – for it was the same. If he can preach a gospel even if the Resurrection is not true then he has a great future at the Criminal Bar defending mass murderers caught in the act with the gun in their hand.
The whole statement, as reported, is fascinating. It is full of that half committed language which says nothing but sounds nice and liberal. ‘Emphasising the empty tomb or the physical aspects’ – there are weasel words for you. Either a real human Jesus who had died on the Cross rose from the dead or there is no Resurrection. I don’t know what the event was like, can’t begin to imagine it, but what must be the case, if Jesus really was a solid human and died, is that the tomb was empty and that something physical and historical happened. It is not a question of emphasising this or that. It is simply that there is no Resurrection if, after what was supposed to have happened, it is found that nothing happened. This does not involve dogmatic statements about the nature of the event or of the risen body. It is just a simple statement that if you say that Jesus rose from the dead and then point to some mouldering bones in a tomb which belong to Jesus then you are either a mad-man or a con-man.
Other bishops were a bit tentative about the physicality of the event, but only Dr Nazir-Ali revealed real difficulty with it. He goes on ‘I want to hold the two together’ by which I take it that he wants a resurrection but no emphasis on the empty tomb and the physical aspects. As we have seen that is nonsense. The Resurrection is precisely an empty tomb and the physical aspects of it – of course it is much, much more but without that, right at its root, the simple concrete reality of the event, there is nothing. The whole thing is a fantasy. The simple reality of it may not contain, in itself, the full significance of the Resurrection but without the simple reality of it there is nothing to have significance. Christians would base their life on a fantasy.
Dr Nazir-Ali then moves in for the kill – ‘suppose Jesus’ body were to be discovered somewhere in Palestine, what would that do to the Christian faith? Obviously it would pose a problem but we would still have an enormous amount left.’ At which point we may feel that the Bishop is having us on but I don’t think so. It is the gentle understatement of the whole thing which is so charming – ‘pose a problem’. I should think so, Bishop dear; it would sink the whole enterprise in one blow.
‘Problem’ is hardly the word. We simply would not have a faith to preach – at least most of us wouldn’t. The Bishop however, nothing daunted, believes ‘we still would have an enormous amount left.’ My sadness is that the Bishop was not quoted further because I simply cannot imagine what, except a bit of nice millinery, Episcopal pay differentials, some buildings and glorious music, we would have left – unless, and here I begin to recognise themes from other bishops, there is something called the ‘Church of England’ and ‘Christianity’ which bumbles on with a sort of graceless nagging message about trying harder and being nicer and jolly well pulling your socks up. There are hints of this about.
We have the Bishop of Manchester who does not believe that Christ is necessary to eternal life; the Bishop of Portsmouth has said that Jesus came to challenge us to live responsibly and that we can bring about a new and better world by partnership in the structures of society. There is obviously quite a bit of good, cheering stuff which can be put about without the death and resurrection of Jesus. We can, as they do endlessly in sermons, speak about how important it is to sort out third world debt and that the Israelis are not very nice. Not that any of us can do anything about third world debt or the Israelis but it is all good stuff, putting the moral issues before the country. The problem is – is it Christian?
I think we have here the working out of the graceless religion which inevitably follows a meritocratic and gifted priesthood, the ordination of women and belief in a docetic, not quite real and solid Jesus which goes with it; the Jesus who assumes human nature but doesn’t become a real man or a real woman. I have bad news for these bishops. It is a religion which won’t work. It has been tried before and it has failed before. It is Christ Crucified and Risen and the call to follow him into his death and into his resurrection that packs them in. If the real Resurrection of the real Jesus is an optional extra then we have blown the whole thing.
I had better go into hiding now before Bishop Turnbull sends in the Thought Police; and if I was the Bishop of Rochester I would not accept any invitations to meet Archdeacon Hawker of Swindon. He is probably a reincarnation of Torquemada.
I have not mentioned Mr Tatchell’s tasteless intervention in Canterbury Cathedral. I bet that worked them all up – at Matins too! Whatever next! Doesn’t the silly Mr Tatchell realise that he has won the bishops and a significant number of the clergy over to his side. The only thing they won’t stand is bad taste and the high jinks in the pulpit looked pretty off to me. He has won. Let him now relax and enjoy his victory.
David Dale is Vicar of All Saints’, Ryde on the Isle of Wight in Diocese of Portsmouth.