Richard Holloway helps Simon Ellis to see that love is not all you need

IRONICALLY, I believe, Bishop Richard Holloway has done the orthodox cause in the Bristol diocese a great service, following the two lectures he recently delivered at the Triennial Clergy Conference on the Lambeth 98 theme of “Called to Full Humanity”. Evangelicals and Catholics both recognised in his talks the logical outcome of liberal Anglicanism: nothing less than a turn away from the faith as revealed in Jesus Christ.

To be fair, one would not disagree with some of the Bishop’s comments and ideas, for example, his criticism of the institutional church, that it has so rarely communicated to the world that it is a community of broken people, rather than a community of those who have cleaned up their act. Neither could anyone fail to recognise that the church has failed to communicated what the Bishop called the radical scandalous grace of the gospel.

In order to break open that radical, graceful gospel, Bishop Holloway looked at the parable of the prodigal son1. He took us on a quick tour through the gospel, and quite rightly explained how the love of the father towards his fallen son is the model for the love God shows to his children. He moved to his conclusion from the parable from which his theology is now based: that the father’s forgiveness preceded the repentance of the son. He claimed this because although it is written that the prodigal son “came to his own”, it only meant that he realised that he would be financially better off if he returned to his father. So we were assured that the only ingredient in this parable is the love and forgiveness of the Father, despite the fact that the son does say before he even returns home: “I will arise and go to my father and say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son’ “.

The bishop’s insistence on forgiveness preceding repentance was the main element of his radical, scandalous gospel and he used this idea to build what appeared to be his whole theology of salvation and the church. In contrast, it appears to me that although the Father’s (and here I am talking of God) love, mercy and forgiveness may flow to us in one sense, before we have repented, I do not think we access that forgiveness until we have repented: the Bishop seemed to be asserting very strongly that we are fully forgiven and restored before we repent of our sin. Of course a number of clergy present liked very much this gospel they were hearing, because it put aside the question of sin! One priest remarked that he now realised that when Christ said to the adulterous women ‘go and do not sin again2’, he actually meant, go and do not feel guilty (about the adultery) any more! Another thanked the bishop for his talk and informed us that in the liturgy we should all be proclaiming the absolution before people have made the general confession.

It was at this point that the penny dropped among the orthodox clergy and they realised they were being sold not even half a gospel. They were being sold a gospel of ‘love’ which did not take seriously the problem of sin, repentance, and judgement. And what of the numerous places in the gospel where Christ did appear to focus on the question of judgement. For example, one priest asked ‘what did the bishop think about the parable of Dives and Lazarus3?’ Well, conveniently, he choose to reject them. And, what a lot of the gospel he needs to reject in order to fulfil his theology!

But it was not until the last day of the conference that I realised a great contradiction, when the second key speaker, the Revd Dr. Rebecca Lyman, a patristic scholar from California, tackled the question of distributive ethics, focusing on the Jubilee 2000 campaign. We were reminded of the possible similarity between the Jubilee 2000 movement and the campaign to abolish slavery. In particular, Dr. Lyman argues, was the church not called to condemn the North’s (or the so-called ‘first-world’) economic domination of the world? Was the church not called to proclaim the sin of economic injustice, leading to such evils as hunger, disease and modern forms of slave labour (sweat shops)? And, closer to home, did the church not need to look again at its own investments, and to consider whether these were furthering the kingdom? Clergy at this point then responded with ideas on gestures of corporate repentance.

But we had just been encouraged by the Bishop not to get hung up about sin and focus on God’s love! The contradiction of the liberal agenda (and the conference) was once more exposed: that sin was somehow both trivial and fundamental4.

Maybe it is this relational aspect of sin5 which will convince others to look critically again at liberal theology. At the end of the conference the Bishop of Bristol, Barry Rogerson, attempted to respond to various complaints by assuring us that whilst many would disagree with some of Bishop Holloway’s remarks, we would all, at least agree with the central crux of his argument. However, I believe many remain unconvinced: surely it is at the very centre of things where Bishop Holloway departs from the faith as revealed in Jesus Christ. This gospel we were being offered seemed so inviting in focusing on God’s love. However, this love did not seem to have any context, and it did not make any demands. It seems to be a gospel which has no need of the incarnation, the teaching of Jesus, the crucifixion, or his descent into hell: it tries to rush straight to the resurrection.

Of course none of us should be motivated primarily by a fear of God’s judgement or the thought of eternal punishment and we are all called to emphasis the overflowing mercy and love of God. And of course the Christian faith does not encourage legalism and scrupulosity. However, ‘love is itself ordered and shaped’6. It is not, then, the task of all teachers of the faith, to articulate those things in us which may, or may not, help us in God’s work of sanctification? The Bishop was surely right in calling us back to remember that the church is a community of the broken: but is it not also therefore the community of those who seek repentance and absolution, and therefore wholeness and reconciliation? If not, then are we in danger of presuming7 God’s mercy?

These were Bishop Holloway’s own words from a book he edited fourteen years ago:

“Our grip on the gospel is sometimes so slack and listless that we are often in danger of letting it slip away from us altogether. This is why we must constantly listen to the warnings of scripture…all our standards are derived, not from Christ, but from the world and society. Without knowing it, we have committed apostasy. We have drifted out to sea’8

Simon Ellis is Curate of Holy Nativity, Knowle and All Hallows, Easton in the diocese of Bristol. is Curate of Holy Nativity, Knowle and All Hallows, Easton in the diocese of Bristol.

1 Luke ch 15 vv 11-32

2 John ch 8 v 11

3 Luke ch. 16 vv 19-31

4 There were several other moments when the Bishop was openly suspect, but the most memorable was at the end of his last talk, when he was questioned what society should do with paedophiles. This was the only moment when the Bishop seemed to get really serious about sin, but instead of talking about repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation, he came very close to sanctioning the tabloid philosophy of lock ’em up and throw away the key.

5 Which I believe is well put in John Macquarrie’s book ‘A Guide to the Sacraments’, when he writes in the context of infant baptism that everyone is ‘part of a diseased society and since we are social beings and dependent one upon another, sin is universal’

6 Oliver O’Donovan, in ‘Resurrection and Moral Order’, 1986

7 This presuming on God’s mercy was witnessed recently when bishops assured us, following Princess Diana’s death, that she was now in heaven.

8 Richard Holloway (Ed.) ‘The Anglican Tradition’, Mowbray, 1984, pp. and 7, also see Hebrews ch 2 v 1