BRASH INFIDELITY is the trade-mark of some. David Jenkins and Jack Spong have between them courted the limelight for two decades. But most liberal churchmen prefer a lower profile. It is not the bold statement, but the passing gentle word – unobtrusive, but none the less dismissive of Christian truth – which is their stock in trade. Consider two cases in point.
Speaking of authority, a commodity in which the Anglican Communion is these days generally agreed to be lacking, the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission, made the following statement:
‘In some cases it may be possible and necessary for the universal church to say with firmness that a particular local practice or theory is incompatible with Christian faith.’
It is not necessary, in order to grasp the reality of that statement, to ask what theory or practice the Commission might have had in mind – bestiality, perhaps, or baptism in the name of Beelzebub? Reflect rather on the words themselves.
The demand for ‘firmness’ at first looks hopeful. But ‘firmness’, one must ask, on the part of whom? The ACC? The Primates’ Meeting? The Lambeth Conference? It can be none of these, for none has the clout for ‘firmness’.
Instead ‘firmness’ is portrayed as the attribute of a distant and elegant abstraction: ‘the universal church’ – to the overwhelming majorities of which, as a matter of plain fact, half the provinces of the Anglican Communion have already indicated that they have no intention whatever to defer.
Then notice the deft way in which the ‘possible’ precedes the ‘necessary’. And also note the submissive ‘may’ (which limply qualifies both the ‘necessary’ and the ‘possible’), neatly removing, before ever the reader has reached it, any residual rigidity which ‘firmness’ might have retained.
Speaking of the significance of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lambeth ’98 paper ‘Called to Full Humanity’ states:
‘As Christians, full humanity is expressed in Jesus Christ’ (see Christopher Green on pp 5-7 of this edition of New Directions).
It is the defining phrase of the whole endeavour. In two words the absoluteness of the Incarnation is effortlessly relativised. ‘As Christians’, it appears, we might perceive one truth; as Muslims another; as cultured secularists, a third. ‘It all depends where you are coming from’.
In two slight words a Church which has given up on the task of world-making, and no longer has the tenacity to be world-denying (a Church which has not experienced martyrdom, and frankly has no taste for it) submits itself supinely to the tyranny of the current consensus. ‘As Christians…’ The phrase betrays the whole agenda: which is not to convert humanity, but to baptise mankind’s own high opinion of itself.