nally from Jerome to Augustine of Hippo, were used to describe Dr Gavin Ashenden, I imagine he would be very happy to receive such an accolade. In the final weeks of 2019, this well-known figure was received into the Roman Catholic Church. Ashenden, a former university lecturer, parish priest and Honorary Chaplain to the Queen left the Church of England and renounced his orders in 2017. The final straw for him was the invitation from the Provost of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Glasgow to a Muslim student to read from the Koran at the Epiphany Eucharist. The passage in question explicitly denied the divinity of Jesus. Ashenden subsequently accepted ordination to the episcopate in the Christian Episcopal Church: a continuing Anglican jurisdiction, from which he hoped that he might be able to gather together the forces of a renewed orthodox Anglicanism, comprising both Catholics and evangelicals – a venture that a variety of subsequent events indicated was unlikely to be possible.
Unlike Nicodemus who in St John’s gospel ‘came to Jesus by night’, Dr Ashenden’s reception took place in a blaze of tweets, blog posts, interviews and articles. He first broke the news on the YouTube broadcast and podcast Anglican Unscripted to which he regularly contributes, together with the journalist Kevin Kallsen and Florida parish priest and editor of Anglican Ink, George Conger. In that always interesting and sometimes challenging forum, Ashenden often uses the term ‘heterodox’ to describe modern Anglican bishops and clergy, and it is this in particular that I believe requires a little interrogation.
As I think even the Anglican Unscripted team would concede, the teaching of modern-day Anglican bishops and clergy is not heterodox in the manner of Don Cupitt, John Hick and other such luminaries of the mid-twentieth century. I believe we can be confident that senior clergy in the Church of England do not say the Creed with their fingers crossed behind their backs, nor that, like Cupitt, Hick and co., they seek to deliberately move the Church of England away from orthodox credal Christianity. And, if that is so, then how accurately can the charge of heterodoxy actually be sustained?
As an answer, we might want to look at the articles recently published in New Directions by Dr Colin Podmore in which he elegantly argues that, protestations to the contrary, Anglicanism has historically retained all seven sacraments, but that each of them is in different ways under threat in today’s Church. Although this may not be heterodoxy in a credal sense, it none the less undermines the foundations of catholic faith and life and so moves the Church in a heterodox direction. However, although related to such trends, one of the most pressing issues may not so much be theological heterodoxy, but a more subtle and primarily cultural undercurrent that is caused by apparently unquestioning allegiance to metropolitan liberal patterns of thought.
An instructive comparison is with another established national institution: the British Broadcasting Corporation. In his book The Noble Liar (2018), the former BBC journalist Robin Aitken writes about the way in which, for all its commitment to shibboleths such as diversity and inclusion, the BBC has become a more and more monochrome organisation in which the liberal consensus is almost universally assumed, and in which debate about any of its precepts is often intolerantly suppressed. Despite some striking examples to the contrary, such as the resolutely impartial Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC tends, contrary perhaps to its intentions, to offer a monochrome rather than truly diverse collection of different voices. It cannot provide an alternative to the ‘echo chamber’ effect of social media because it has itself become an echo chamber. The result is a diminished place for our national broadcaster, with the looming probability that it will need to find an alternative way of funding itself when, as the government has intimated, failure to pay the licence fee at some future time becomes decriminalised.
Thank God that it is now many years since non-adherence to Anglicanism has been decriminalised. But we can perhaps see some parallels in the Church of England: for example, the unanimous pro-Remain position of the House of Bishops in the Brexit debate, or recent Church Times front covers giving, on the one hand, hyper-prominence to the environmental activist Greta Thunberg whilst, on the other, depicting the Prime Minister as a clown. Whatever one might think about the individual merits of subjects such as the European Union, climate activism, or contentious theories of gender, the danger is that as the established Church we become subject to a gravitational pull that impels us in a culturally liberal direction which itself reflects the background from which the vast majority of our church leadership (myself as a north London boy certainly included) appear to be drawn.
Step by well-intentioned step, as we move in the direction of diversity and inclusion, we discover that we have unintentionally and ironically alienated large swathes – possibly a majority – of the nation that we exist to serve. A nation which the recent General Election and preceding Brexit vote indicated are, at least in some measure, inclined to be in revolt against the ‘Woke’ liberal culture and – perhaps we might hope – at some level longing for something more substantial than its empty utopian promises can ever provide.
It is difficult to know quite where we should go from here, though no doubt Gavin Ashenden would have a suggestion for us. In a sharply polarised national debate, turbo-charged by social media it becomes easy for those who seek to resist the unexamined assumptions and extreme intolerance of much modern liberalism to find themselves unwittingly pushed to the opposite extreme, but that surely cannot be the way of Christ. So I make two somewhat predictable suggestions that I believe catholics in the Church of England are well placed to offer.
The first is a return to the living sources of Christian faith and life. At the time of writing this article I am reading the magisterial history of the Cowley Fathers by Serenhedd James. The author explains in detail how the Fathers’ missional work in Cowley, as well as in India, South Africa and the United States was undergirded by liturgical prayer, the sacraments, and deep study of the Bible and the Church Fathers. These were not, as easily happens today, regarded as essentially a self-indulgent distraction from outward-facing missional work, but as the very heart and soul of such work, that would enable the gospel to be communicated with clarity and vigour so that it could truly take root in people’s hearts. In a time of great challenge, caught in competing cross-winds from the left and from the right, counter-cultural though it may seem I am convinced that we need to double down in these areas.
The second related suggestion is to keep on reminding ourselves and others that we are part of the wider Church and that therefore, although the centre of gravity in the Church of England may currently be oriented in a particular cultural direction, there is a vital wider perspective in the breadth and plenitude of God’s Church through the ages and around the world, which he graciously calls us to discover and inhabit.
The Venerable Edward Dowler is the Archdeacon of Hastings.