Alan Cole asks “Who was not listening?”

THE 1987 CROCKFORD Preface shook the English Church, as did the imminent death of its author. Shock waves reached other parts of the world as well. The Anglican priest serving Finland and the Soviet Union at the time, on his yuletide tour of the Arctic Circle, explained to puzzled Christians in those isolated parts what the fuss was about. Were English scholar clergy not allowed to write openly on British church life? What terrible things had he revealed to evoke denial and condemnation in the media statements of Church of England leaders? One really had to know England to understand this particular ecclesiastical storm.

Tidings of Gareth Bennett’s death, identifying him as the Preface author, lent to those questions, in the popular mind, some suspicion of scandal. Ten years have not rendered matters raised in the Preface any less challenging. The Bennett critiques of the Church of England were correct and timely. So defensive was the church at large, that it did not heed one of its finest advisors. In certain questions, those most in sympathy with the 1987 Preface may also be accused of not reading Bennett attentively enough, putting their energy into horror and regret at the writer’s demise.

The core of the Preface was ecclesiology. From Anglican consciousness had been eroded its historic liturgical idiom, apostolic ministry, institutions of ecclesial authority, quest for catholic unity, and basis of theology in patristic study. Documenting this shift and seeking its cause, Bennett lay responsibility with those advising the 1976 Lambeth Conference, the Primates themselves and the management style of the still new Anglican Consultative Council. Bennett’s sword cut without fear or favour; several well-known to him were deeply cut by it. Many others were gladdened to feel they had a cogent spokesman. But nearly all failed to take sufficient note of defects in contemporary ecclesiology to which the Preface pointed.

The Preface and Gareth’s death together fuelled a latent resistance to welcoming women into the historic priestly ministry. That, in turn, fortified a fledgling movement around Catholic Renewal which became Forward in Faith. I think Dr. Bennett would have been pleased about that, though he was a more conservative ecclesiologist that many of the enthusiasts he spawned. Five issues within his Preface call for further attention. My quotations are from the 1988 posthumous book, To The Church of England.

“Anglicans have never been happy with questions which require them to set out a coherent doctrine of the church.” (p 190) The ecclesiology of Hooker and Jewell, which became Anglican norms for Anglican bilateral discourse on the ecumenical front, is a standard which Anglican practice at large has occasionally flouted. Anglicans have made their own rules and felt free to breach them. No wonder they have been doubted by other great communions of East and West.

The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral was an attempt to drew independent provinces to order, even in the nineteenth century, in matters of liturgy, ministry and doctrine. It had only cosmetic effect. Preparing for Lambeth 1978, Sykes and Rodger tended away from traditional ecclesiology with talk of ‘dispersed authority’ and a ‘hierarchy of truths’. In these, Bennett perceived neither authority nor truth.

” … virtual disuse of … the Book of Common Prayer.” (p 197) Evolution of the BCP accompanied the torrid history of the English Reformation. Unlike the Tractarians, contemporary traditionalists are inclined to miss Bennett’s point about the evolution of the English liturgy as a guardian of catholic unity. A majority of clergy have favoured Vatican II reorganisation, for its international and modern look, over the distinctive qualities of English language and culture. Dangerous premises implicit in this preference are that contemporary jargon will attract lapsed and young Christians; that orthodox doctrine can be imparted without orthodox liturgy; that simple means beautiful or true; and that to be relevant is to be in a state of flux.

“The essential characteristic of the new theologians lies in their unease in combining the role of theologian and churchman, and their wish to study both scripture and the patristic age without reference to the apologetic patterns of later Christianity.” (p 200) “Clergy without there being a sense of some authority in the historic experience of the Church may well come to think that theology is the latest fashionable theory of theologians.” (p 201)

Correct in his general observation, Bennett also pinpointed the advanced stage of a trend which, ten years after, is all but complete. Restoration of the church’s mission in Britain and the West entails restoration of classic theological study, especially ecclesiastical history. As parishes have modernised in keeping with the trend, they have become happier and clappier, while liturgical corners have been cut. Success, growth, change, relevance are substituted for faith, discipleship, sacrifice and gospel truth. Leading churchpeople are no longer generally learned in Latin, Greek (or even sound English!). Ancient hymns, potent in spiritual wisdom are passed by for vacuous doggerel and sentiment. Defence of the historic faith has become the burden of spurned and fanatic minorities after the style of Pio Nono. Clearly, Bennett believed the church could ill-afford the luxury of rapid transition to contemporary values. He blames the liberal ascendancy, but his supporters have also been too eager for reconstruction of Christianity.

“A plea for tolerance easily passes into a demand that others should conform.” (p 203) Proposing to free things up, says Bennett, liberalisers have shown themselves, in retrospect, to impose an inflexible agenda of the modernist kind. He takes infamous Jack Spong as an example. Jack rewrites Christian sexual codes to suit his daughters and a phalanx of promiscuous gay clergy and gets himself invited to spearhead the ecclesiastical revolt on every continent. Yet as diocesan of Newark he brooks no dissent. The reforming zealot eventually becomes the persecuting bombast, just the opposite of the Apostle Paul.

Maybe Bennett was not kind to describe Professor J D McLean as having that “air of judicial. impartiality and deliberative lack of information which has made him the leading lay figure in the liberal ascendancy.” I was privileged to serve an international ecumenical committee with Dr. McLean and found him both charming and knowledgeable. There is the rub : that wit and charm are persuasive but need not represent the core of orthodox dogma.

“a complex power-game is being played out, with momentous consequences for the future of the Church of England.” (p 219) Bennett scrutinised power sources in the church and influencing General Synod. Intense concentrations of power are wielded by very few, generally not the bishops. This has meant huge cost in stability and internal unity for the privilege of a pseudo-parliamentary democracy in church affairs. Inevitably, lay management would spill over into a bid for control of doctrine and order. People grow to feel they should have a say in what the church believes. It is no longer the case that pastoral oversight is assigned only to those whose quality of faith and theological depth was measured, as with Ignatius and Polycarp, by willingness to suffer. Which is not to say that bright stars never twinkle from the bench.

Bennett’s many complaints in his prophecy ‘to the church’ may be distilled to a desire for an authentic ecclesiology. Upon that devolves our methods of exegetics, patristics, liturgies, dogmatics and ecumenics. Those are areas in which Anglican Culture has specifically proceeded towards disintegration.

What were we to do about this state of affairs? Bennett did not say, but his implications are profound. These may be drawn from the five major considerations I have noted. So, for each I dare to propose an interpretation.

Anglican Ecclesiology

Our doctrine of the church may have English and historic quality, but needs first and always to be catholic. Ecclesial self-understanding is bound to the scriptures, creeds, councils of the undivided church, patriarchal authority, sacraments, ministerial hierarchy, common baptism and rule of grace. Rhetorically, it embodies Saint Vincent’s quod ubique it is the lex orandi lex credendi church, whose gospel base and incarnational faith are beyond question. Her authority lies in the Persons of the Holy Trinity; her magisterium is exercised patriarchally, not by appointed legislatures.

Holy Church is built of those elected to discipleship in Christ, baptised into fellowship in his living Body. Baptism is the fundamental of all Christian service, being ordination into the household of faith called the lay order. From that order, diaconate, presbyterate and episcopate are successively drawn. Unity in Christ’s Body is patterned upon, and part of the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Christ is one with the Father who sends the Holy Spirit. It is not therefore proper to speak of making or negotiating unity. Prayer for unity can be no more than conforming the Church to what is already true of God. The Church is itself that ‘wonderful and sacred mystery’ through which divine will operates in the world. Breaches of dogma or order are denials of the mystery of God’s being. Unity is not made by the faith and good works of synods: it may only be recognised by them. Individual faithful recognise that unity at the point of baptism and election to each subsequent order.

These marks have been true of all the ancient orthodox communions, whose ecclesiology has been expressed variously but remains unchanged. Anglican affirmation of the nature of the church might also abide unchanged. Recent Anglican history shows strong tendency towards ecclesiological revision: novelties in ministerial older, moral stricture, liturgical adventurism, doctrinal individualism, spiritual syncretism. A gradual creep across the accepted frontiers, under the banner of ‘unnecessary change’, has generally shifted the threshold of orthodoxy. It is doubtful whether a sound Anglican doctrine of the Church is maintained in more than isolated pockets.

Liturgy as Medium of Unity and Truth

The 1549 Prayer Book was the first distinctively Anglican rite, calling on Western liturgical order and the regional uses of Britain. A mass and ordinal may be nationally idiosyncratic but perfectly orthodox. Brilioth, a Swedish Lutheran, argued cogently that English prayer books up to 1662 were indeed so. Even the BCP was a relative latecomer, hardly essential to salvation. Yet, both the claim and the fact of the English prayer books is that they have emerged from patristic study of venerable pedigree and competently bear the apostolic tradition. Bennett was prepared to doubt that contemporary Anglican revisions could claim the same, being answers to contemporary fashion rather than the sacred tradition. If the notion of unity is across nations and cultures, it is also across time: it must therefore relate to ancient precedent.

Indifference, in our own time, to the evolution of liturgy, instanced in the palpable ignorance of many recent ordinands about Liturgy, marks a defection from ecclesiology and history as well. It is a salient factor in the weakening of Anglicanism and the broader church. Difficult as it may be, the recovery of liturgical sense is a requirement of Anglican return to mainstream Western Christianity.

Historical-Theological perspective

In this matter, Bennett joined a veritable crowd of prophets crying in the wilderness. As in the question of liturgy, Anglican clergy have largely been allowed to remain ideologically moulded to forward fashioning. They embrace perpetual modification as a doctrine necessary to salvation. They have been led to assume that fitting out a parish office with the technology of the third millennium is preferable to gaining an appreciation of the Fathers. Standards of theology among clergy and laity are all too frequently wanting.

There seems to be lamentable confusion between the biblical concept of repentance and renewal (changes which God desires in us) and conformity to the everchanging world (which trend-setting pundits desire in us). Preaching on the latter is frequently exegeted from the former. Some argument for change is simply justification for private theory, Where impetus for change denies our spiritual and cultural past and re-evaluates the mighty acts of God, modernisation joins the ranks of popular heresies. The church has a sound anchor in the historic disciplines. Diligent study of ecclesiastical history is a necessary element of the maintenance of catholic faith.

The Amount of Give in Tolerance

Obsession with tolerance has become an essential tool in the rational list kit. To love one another, as Jesus taught, is not to be mistaken for submission to libertarian values. We may see God in history allowing evil to take its course, but we cannot say he tolerates evil which is alien to him. Diplomacy seeks mutual understanding between opposing parties, agreement to tolerate differences of a certain order. This does not mean the parties are to be overridden by some agency representing synthesis or novelty. Usually tolerance respects the integrity of a partisan rather than his demand. The call for tolerance is part of the method of conflict resolution rather than a substantive issue in the case.

As churches meet together ecumenically, their common objective is to recognise commonly held truth. They lose their way if tolerance becomes the argument and not the means of grace. Mutual respect has a Godly quality that cleverly defined agreement may not.

Survival of Anglicanism: its Internal Unity

Since the Reformation, Anglicanism has not overcome its latent capacity for disintegration, a factor powerfully evident in our own century. If Anglicanism is the child of the Re-formation as well as a national emanation (like many others) of the ancient church, missionary movements of the last two hundred years have resulted in a series of autonomous provinces and primacies. Each of these has developed a distinct cultural style, together with an inclination towards exploiting autonomy as a means of liberation from the constraints of ancient dogma, order and morals. Since the executive arms of the Anglican world (via Lambeth Conferences, the Quadrilateral, Consultative Council and primatial summits) have re-defined unity and autonomy to eliminate necessity for agreement with ancient formularies, Anglican provinces have presumed ever-increasing independence in fundamentals. By these means, pivots of unity (scripture, creeds, liturgy, orders, magisterium) are being replaced by local fashion and management strategies. The Anglican Communion – a sound concept in ecclesiology – is now a federation of Anglican and other elements run by a powerful international committee behind the convenient front of a ten-yearly accumulation of bishops. Any real concept of episcopal collegiality has all but evaporated.

Within this mess, amazingly, the real church still survives, virtually underground, by the grace of God and the faith of committed laity and clergy. Ecumenical effort has been set back because Reformed, Roman and Eastern departments have all found Anglican ecclesiology not trustworthy. Dialogue and reports have delivered theology of memorable quality, but provinces have not felt bound by them.

Unity Within and Unity Between

The greater ecclesial communions cannot articulate their underlying unity in Baptism and Trinitarian Faith if individual jurisdictions do not enjoy internal unity. Since the seventeenth century Archbishop of Canterbury William Wake, visionary Anglicans have striven energetically for restoration of union with the Western Patriarchate. The historic pains of the Reformation have, alas, proved insurmountable to date. Yet the endeavour must not be abandoned. As I argue in The Old Catholic Phenomenon (1997), unity is a gift of grace always available to the Church because realised in the Godhead. We are free to appropriate it within Christ’s Gospel. Anglicanism has not done so in the past because it has succumbed to internal disintegration, latent within its proud national identity. The Bonn rapprochement with the Old Catholic world since 1931 has illustrated our ecclesiological strengths and weaknesses many times over. But we have not learned from it.

Gareth Bennett’s anxieties for the Church of England are still live issues. His suicide and the fuss over the Preface add pungency to his prophecy. He was on target about the liberal ascendancy. But his preoccupation was fundamentally with the doctrine of the church. Any deficiency there has not been attended to by the Anglican world. Nor has it been fully appreciated by the catholic minds mourning Bennett’s passing. When he died, authentic Anglicanism may have breathed its last as well.

Alan M Cole is Vicar of Holy Trinity, Ilkeston, in the diocese of Derby.