Rodney Schofield considers the fall-out from Lambeth ’98 and the problem of authority in Anglicanism

REPORTING ON the Lambeth Conference 1998, one English bishop has spoken of the immense shift of power from the First World churches to the Third World churches that has taken place since the 1988 conference. The latter, he said, showed a new sense of confidence, organisation and determination, “a power which at times made the First World bishops feel almost disenfranchised”. Although there appears to be an underlying unity of the Anglican Communion in its worship, issues of authority remain troublesome, especially the nature of Biblical authority. “There is a need”, he suggested, “to think hard and long about what our basis in scripture, tradition and reason means in practice.”

Indeed, these thoughts have been echoed by a number of his colleagues. Some have been outspoken about many of the Third World bishops, branding them as fundamentalists. Effectively they agree with Paul Gifford (in a recent book) when he portrays African Christians as belonging to a pre-Enlightenment culture. The Bishop of Edinburgh vented his frustration in words for which he had later to apologise.

No doubt there is an element of truth in these accusations. We have certainly witnessed a clash of cultures. East and west, or at least north and south, differ not only materially, but in some of the deepest values that each holds. The one is more obviously individualistic and profligate of natural resources, the other more alive to the family and community, and more sensitive to the created order. The one seeks to control life technologically, the other is still in awe of hidden spiritual forces. But to begin to see the First World as “advanced” and the Third World as “primitive” is dangerously misleading. We have much to learn from each other. The hospitality shown by African Christians, for example, is often overwhelming in its generosity. The respect shown to the older generation, and indeed to those who have died, is a challenge to our cult of youthfulness. The patience, suffused even with joy, of so many in adversity is a rebuke to our own demands for instant gratification. If this is Biblical Christianity, let us have more of it!

To suggest that this is scripture without tradition reads very strangely indeed. It is our own society which looks the more cut off from its roots than the African church. We are the ones who constantly change, update and modify, for whom the past is but one resource among many to be exploited. We restlessly innovate, and are seldom satisfied with the results. By contrast a church that is ready to suffer in the face of persecution (as, for example, by militant Islam) needs to know where it stands. Faith in such circumstances cannot afford to be individualistic or subject to constant revision. Its strength is in communal celebration. Tradition surely is about the bonds that bolster this strength, linking one generation with another; it is that unity through time and space which affords solidarity in believing. These qualities can be more obvious in Anglicans of the Third World than in our fragmented church.

To deride African bishops for being uncritical (as I have heard) is a taunt that also backfires. The formative years of Anglicanism may have coincided with the Age of Reason, but that does not reduce the Christian Fathers and the medieval Scholastics to mere untutored fools! In scriptural terms we have learned much from close scrutiny of sources and texts in their historical setting, but there is also much we may have forgotten. There is a holistic approach which appreciates the divine revelation linking the canonical writings, words that mean more than the several authors ever intended themselves. Reason is not the same thing as reductionism; it is human imagination and intelligence reaching out to understand meanings, interpretations and connections which are there because in God’s wisdom they exist already. If Third World bishops come to different conclusions from ourselves, it is not through lack of rationality: it is through their readiness to submit to God’s Word rather than to judge it, as we do. For the Bishop of Edinburgh, the Bible is “flawed and fallible”: that is very different from saying it is complex, many-layered and yet still revered. Scholarly sophistication can of course complement simple devotion, but scepticism is another animal altogether!

How far the idea of an Anglican trilogy of scripture, tradition and reason may be pressed is doubtful anyway. It is something of a cliché without too much substance. Any other church might well claim a similar basis, although differing in their reading of scripture, in their use of tradition, and in their philosophical foundation. In common usage there is a tendency for evangelical Anglicans to emphasise the Bible, for anglo-catholics to revere tradition (or in the case of some who label themselves catholic Anglicans to reduce tradition to its liturgical expression only, forgetting the ecclesiological, doctrinal and moral aspects), and possibly for liberals fondly to imagine that reason is their forte.

Actually the Roman Catholic Church offers more consistency: official teaching coheres to a much greater degree. In our Church of England, let alone across the Anglican Communion, the status of many authorised statements and publications remains unclear. Little attempt to collate thinking is ever made. It was interesting to hear the Bishop of St. Germans’ comment at the last General Synod that few if any of the Lambeth Fathers appeared to have read the conclusions reached at previous Lambeth Conferences. What price, then, “reason” or “tradition”? I note that when the Pope issues an Encyclical, as for example his latest “Faith and Reason’ (my italics), there are extensive quotations from the Bible, from earlier Christian writers and from previous councils or encyclicals. I note too his urgent plea for the reinvigoration of philosophy in the seminaries. “Teaching in this field necessarily entails a suitable scholarly preparation, a systematic presentation of the great heritage of the Christian tradition and due discernment in the light of the current needs of the Church and the world.” He has made it clear elsewhere that an important part of the heritage lies in the approach of natural as well as revealed theology. (If this were more embedded in our Anglican thinking there would be less raiding of the Bible for proof texts to determine controversial issues.)

However, theological coherence is achieved at a price. There is undoubtedly a heavy-handedness at times that stifles legitimate debate, but the Papacy does perform a unifying office. Without such an authority, Anglicans will ever live with diversity. Our genius lies, I suggest, not in any supposed theological basis so much as in a remarkable temperament, the willingness to remain in communion across quite serious divides. If there is one thing we can salute in our own Church of England, it is this – exemplified most recently in the 1993 Act of Synod. I believe such reconciled diversity is an exportable commodity, not in competition with a unifying institution, but complementary to it. Although I argued earlier for the gifts we need to receive from the church elsewhere, perhaps we can perceive here something that others can learn from us. African Christianity has its flaws, as tragically we see in Rwanda and Liberia. At the heart of the Gospel lie charity and forgiveness, as well as truth. While standing in our received Biblical traditions and exploring them further, we need an openness of heart to allow others to coexist and to continue their search as well. That is the imperative of love, the only final authority in the Anglican Church.

Rodney Schofield is Diocesan Director of Ordinands in the diocese of Bath and Wells.