Andrew Burnham replies to Kevin O’Donnell

REPLY TO Kevin O’Donnell’s gentle and eirenic piece should be itself no less gentle and eirenic in tone. There can be no doubt that labels have their limitations. People can and do believe in the doctrine of the Trinity and yet doubt whether the bread and wine of the Eucharist become the body and blood of Christ. People can and do believe that Christ was both fully human and fully divine and yet doubt the ‘traditional’ – there’s a label for you! – teaching of the Church about human sexuality. Nor can there be any doubt that some of our labels – convenient though they are – are slogans, indeed bits of mud to sling at those whom we love but passionately disagree with.

O’Donnell says that ‘if it is being prepared to see issues through….. admitting it when we haven’t got the answer’ he is happy to be called a ‘liberal’ and he duly speaks up for ‘evolution and development’ of doctrine. He reminds us of the dangers of seeing the first century AD ‘as an age blessed with a divinely sanctioned socioeconomic order’. ‘We have to discern the mind of Christ for today’, he says, and guides us through the homosexual debate and the new thinking on the place of women. He warns us against extremists – Jerry Falwell and naked circle dancing, and Don Cupitt and ‘unbelieving humanism’ – but speaks up for Richard Holloway’s Dancing on the Edge and David Jenkins’ theological writing. He commends Jenkins’ ‘reverent agnosticism about a literal virgin birth and physical resurrection’ and suggests that such matters are not essential tenets of the Gospel’.

I wonder why O’Donnell does not simply come clean and admit what helpful labels ’liberal’ and ’orthodox’ are. His position as he describes it (and it is a very honourable position, held by many of the world’s leading theologians) is indeed the ‘liberal’ position. It is even, in one sense, an inevitable position. Who now believes that Moses is the author of the first five books of the bible (including the account of his death)? Who now doubts the worth of various things anathematized by the popes at various times (including such things as trains and democracy)? Who now believes in the Divine Right of Kings? In one sense all of us are ‘liberals’ nowadays. Indeed we are ‘liberal’ in the way we think things through even if our thinking leads us to ‘orthodox’ conclusions.

The ‘orthodox’ label however remains a very handy one. ‘Orthodox’ means ’right praise’ or ’right belief’. lt describes a number of positions which are different from Kevin O’Donnell’s. Some people – and I include myself among them – would include amongst ‘orthodox’ beliefs a belief in ‘gracious patriarchy’: God reveals himself as Father and Son; this revelation is symbolised for catholics in the maleness of the ministerial priesthood and for evangelicals in the scriptural notion of headship. What I have called ‘gracious patriarchy’ needs to be sharply distinguished from ‘fallen patriarchy’, in which women are oppressed. As a recent study, much reported in the church press, has indicated, ‘fallen patriarchy’ is rife in the Church, not least among men who theoretically are in favour of women priests. Those of us who are ‘orthodox’ in the sense of believing in ‘gracious patriarchy’ have an urgent task to demonstrate that an all-male priesthood should not oppress women, nor should it exclude them from taking a full part in the life of the Church, not excluding new patterns of ministry and employment.

Another instance of how helpful the ‘orthodox’ label can be is in what Kevin O’Donnell calls the ‘evolution and development of doctrine’. He himself refers to ‘the riches of Tradition and Scripture’ as his guide. The difference is that whereas, for Kevin, these things ’guide me’ – that is, him as he himself thinks through what he calls ‘grey areas’ – for the ‘orthodox’ what counts is what the Church teaches or what the bible teaches. What Church or bible teach is a matter of authority – which is why we ‘orthodox’ say that Anglicans have got themselves into a mess about authority. Like O’Donnell they have looked to Tradition and Scripture for guidance, but neither has been in the end authoritative: too many ‘grey areas’.

What do Anglicans do about authority? It is because of a general agreement that authority is a problem that the Church of England General Synod passed overwhelmingly an Act of Synod, allowing priests of different ‘integrities’ to work alongside each other in the Church of England until the matter of the ordination of women to the priesthood is settled by the Church as a whole. A period of reception is crucial to the whole debate, as far as the Church of England is concerned. Whereas some Anglican bishops elsewhere, we hear, have bullied and cajoled traditionalists in order to implement synodical decisions, Church of England bishops usually have not. By and large they realise that, short of an ex cathedra ruling by the pope and the agreement of the Holy Orthodox, the matter cannot be settled. In short, we are in a period of reception, which may last a century or two.

‘Orthodox’ is useful as a label not only in describing the position of those who maintain the ecumenical and historic consensus on the gender of the priesthood but in other matters too. Kevin O’Donnell is surely right in denying that the first century AD should be described ’as an age blessed with a divinely sanctioned socioeconomic order’ but we must remember that it was the age which the New Testament describes as ‘the fullness of time’ (Galatians 4:4, Ephesians 1: 10). ‘Orthodox’ believers therefore steer very clear of the ‘if Jesus lived in Birmingham…’argument that recurs in liberal circles. Such an argument is useful in finding alternatives to biblical teaching in matters of gender and morality and it gets us off the hook in other ways too. Finding coins in fishes’ mouths, walking on water, cursing fig trees, leaving the Gentiles out, misquoting Old Testament passages – all these can be explained away by the ‘if Jesus lived in Birmingham, he would be an unemployed, Asian, female, cannabis-smoking, vegetarian, wheel-chair user’ argument.

‘Orthodox’ believers prefer the fifth century catchphrase of St. Vincent of Lerins to this notion – Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus (what has been believed everywhere, always and by everyone) – provides a surer footing for the Christian believer and, as St Vincent explained, does not rule out further growth in understanding and explication. The best argument available to Kevin O’Donnell, in fact, would have been to explore such understanding and explication, perhaps seeing, with Vatican II, that doctrines may be described as belonging to the original revelation of the mystery of Christ, even when they are stated in terms that were never explicit in the apostolic age.

Instead O’Donnell raises specifically David Jenkins ‘theological writing. He commends, as we have said already, Jenkins’ ‘reverent agnosticism about a literal virgin birth and physical resurrection’ and he suggests that these are not ‘essential tenets of the Gospel’. It is undeniable that the views associated with David Jerkins have been commonplace in academic theological circles. There is no need to be ashamed about believing that it is for theological rather than historical reasons that Matthew and Luke locate the birth of the prophet from Nazareth (Galilee), in Bethlehem (Judaea). Nor is it less than respectable to believe that, perhaps, Jesus was the child of normal human sexual intercourse. It may even help in an unbelieving age to say that the story of the empty tomb was invented to give a feeling of objectivity to psychological convictions about – or even shared visions of – the Risen Christ. These are well-supported views, with a good academic pedigree, but they are not what would be called ‘orthodox’.

Orthodoxy however is not the same as literalism and ‘orthodox’ Christology would not necessarily be under strain if, say, the birth of Jesus actually took place in Egypt or if Jesus’ dead body had been laid in the earth rather than in a stone tomb. What matters is that he was ‘incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary’, as the Nicene Creed puts it, and that he died, and bodily rose again. The question is, when does the ‘liberal’ peeling of the onion or, to change the metaphor, the erosion of a sure historical footing – result in doctrinal change and when does it not? Too often we find with ‘liberal’ thinking that credal positions – such as the divinity of the divine Word before all worlds have been dumped and the bible has been reframed as a work of human invention.

Again we are reminded how useful the label ‘orthodox’ is. It is a very convenient label for those who do not accept the findings of ‘liberal’ scholarship. It is ‘orthodox’ to believe and ‘confess Mary’s perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church 499). It is ‘orthodox’ to believe that ‘Christ’s Resurrection cannot be interpreted as something outside the physical order’ (ibid 643). It is ‘orthodox’ to believe that the bible is the inspired Word of God.

If we have said enough about what distinguishes ‘orthodox’ from ‘liberal’ and why what Fr. O’Donnell says amounts to what ‘liberals’ say and is different from what, say, ‘orthodox’ readers of New Directions believe, it might be appropriate to move to discussing briefly why ‘orthodox’ (‘right believing’, ‘right praising’) is preferable as a label to either ‘traditionalist or ‘catholic’. The answer is surely that ‘orthodox’ does duty for both ‘catholic’ and ‘evangelical’ in describing those who believe the faith once delivered to the saints. There will be some evangelicals who would maintain orthodoxy but object to the words ‘traditionalist’ and ‘catholic’. ‘Traditionalist’ might indicate someone who prizes ‘tradition’ over ‘scripture’. ‘Catholic’ might mean someone who believes that scripture can only be rightly interpreted within a tradition of interpretation. ‘Catholic’ indeed might be someone – like the present writer – who believes that the promise of the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth (John 16:13) is a promise to the Church and not to the individual believer. ‘Orthodox’ by contrast is a word that unites Catholics and evangelicals who believe in a revealed religion.

Finally, then, it would be inappropriate to deny Kevin O’Donnell the description of ‘catholic’. Indeed he should be proud to be what Roman Catholics would call ‘a liberal catholic’. He has indicated that he believes that scripture can only be rightly interpreted within a tradition of interpretation and, even though he looks for personal guidance in the ‘grey areas’, he probably believes that the promise of the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth (John 16:13) is ultimately a promise to the Church and not to the individual believer. Furthermore, I am sure that he celebrates his faith within the ‘catholic’ sacramental framework. Once again we are reminded just how useful the word ‘orthodox’ is. It indicates, as we have seen, something slightly different. If ‘orthodoxy’ in the sense of ‘right belief does not unite us, then we must fall back on the slightly more literal translation of ‘orthodoxy’, ‘right praise’. It is surely in ‘right praise’ that we discover – and recover – unity in the Body of Christ.

Andrew Burnham is Vice-Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.