Paul Richardson concludes that the Bishop of Newark’s opinions will not shake the earth

IT IS TEMPTING to dismiss John S. Spong as yet another bishop offering way-out views in order to attract publicity. He first turned to radical theology in reaction against his Southern Baptist background and has since found that it pays high dividends in the form of media attention. Each day at Lambeth’ 88 a notice would go up announcing the names of bishops the press wanted to interview. It was always a matter of some interest to see whether the name of Spong or Jenkins came first with a number besides it indicating how many interviews had been requested.

Bishop Spong is no great thinker but his frequent outbursts do help to shed some light on the crisis facing Anglicanism and on the role of bishops. When Bishop Spong speaks of Christian doctrine, he gives no sign of believing that Christianity is a revealed faith and that the scriptures and tradition have authority because they witness to this revelation. Instead he plays theological lego, constructing creeds and dogmas from whatever takes his fancy. In his ‘Call for a New Reformation’ he is certain that the Book of Genesis gets it all wrong but takes Freudian mythology seriously. I wonder how many psychiatrists today would agree with that? Darwin is praised without any recognition of the evil consequences that have flowed from a rigid adherence to some of his views. His theory of the survival of the fittest led him to dismiss what the called the ‘barbarous races’ of the world and provided justification for racist policies in Nazi Germany and South Africa.

But when he appeals to Freud and Darwin or pours scorn on traditional beliefs, Spong is making use of a methodology that is also followed by many Anglican theologians who somehow usually manage to arrive at slightly more orthodox conclusions. Most Anglican theology is rationalist. Although ritual genuflections are made in the direction of scripture, reason and tradition ( with experience often added to the list) it is rarely made clear how they are meant to function in shaping theological reflection. Catholic Anglicans usually stress tradition, charismatics emphasise experience, evangelicals appeal to scripture and liberals give the last word to reason. With the virtual disappearance of the 39 Articles as a standard of belief, there are few texts other than the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds that are seen as authoritative in shaping our understanding of scripture. As Stephen Sykes has pointed out, Anglicans have a theory of how to think about doctrine but little to tell them what to believe or how to behave. They have a theological method but few conclusions.

Clearly such flexibility brings great advantage but it also causes many problems. The danger of fragmentation for Anglicans is often acknowledged: a church does need a common core of belief if it is to stay united. What is less often realised is that this approach makes it hard for us to make sense of the concept that God has given human beings a revelation of the truth and that the Holy Spirit is at work in the church today to enable us both to understand and believe in this revelation and to live by its teaching.

In some ways this is ironic because in other parts of the church a view of revelation has been gaining strength that should be welcome to Anglicans, especially those of us on the Catholic side of the church. Briefly this view stresses that God guides the whole church and keeps her in the truth enabling a common mind to emerge among the faithful. So we find an evangelical like Gabriel Fackre in his recent book ‘The Doctrine of Revelation’ recognising the need for an authoritative interpretation of the scriptures, an ‘ecclesial illumination’, and finding much of value in modern Roman Catholic teaching on the ‘sensus fidelium’.

Roman Catholic theologians, on the other hand, realise that the magisterium cannot function in isolation and that the Pope and the bishops have a duty to listen to the whole people of God. Vatican II put it like this: ‘The whole body of the faithful have an anointing that comes from the holy one that cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of the faith of the whole people, when from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest universal consent in matters of faith and morals’. The infallibility of the teaching office is grounded in the infallibility of the whole people of God.

This is why it is important that decisions relating to doctrine taken by synods and other official bodies need to be received by the whole church. It is also why it is vital to look not just at creeds and doctrines but how Christians worship and seek to live out their faith. Doctrinal statements are extremely significant. We can surely believe that no doctrinal statement that has been received by the church can lead us away from the path of salvation. However Christian truth does need to be re-expressed in different periods of history, taking past statements as authoritative but asking how the faith to which they witnessed can be re-stated under the Spirit’s guidance in the present.

Bishops have a crucial teaching role in the church. Vatican II referred to them as ‘authentic teachers’ who ‘draw out of the treasury of revelation things old and new. In exercising their teaching ministry they should be particularly mindful of what the Spirit teaches through scripture and the riches of tradition and also through the experience of Christians today dispersed around the world in many different cultures. Bishops also need to be aware of the ‘signs of the times’, of what the Spirit is saying to us in movements in the secular world. But this does not mean jumping on fashionable band-wagons or embracing the latest trend. It should not lead us to give Sigmund Freud or Richard Dawkins more authority than the scriptures and Christian tradition, Freud may, ‘just conceivably have said things that can help us to come to a new insights into the Christian faith; but we need to make sure that any dialogue is a genuinely two-way process and the gospel is allowed to challenge aspects of psychotherapy.

Bishops are not meant to be theological lone-rangers, seizing every opportunity to go public with some new fad or crazy theory. The media is always on hand to tempt them to behave like this but they must learn to resist the temptation. They are public teachers of the faith, responsible for both for guiding and instructing the faithful and also for listening to what the Spirit is saying through the whole people of God. Theologians have more scope for exploring new ideas or advancing fresh interpretations of doctrines and bishops need to pay attention to what they say and remain in dialogue with them. But the great strength of the bishops should be that they are more in touch with clergy and people in the church at every level than the theologians.

How seriously do bishops take their teaching ministry? Perhaps it would be more relevant to ask whether the church encourages them to give importance to this aspect of their role. In the Church of England today the emphasis is on management technique and efficiency. Ideas advanced by Alasdair Maclntyte in ‘After Virtue’ are relevant here. He argued that the rise of management reflects the weakening of moral consensus in modern societies. We turn to technique and efficiency when we are no longer held together by shared beliefs about the good life. Management offers us the prospect of success without the messy business of considering our goals and ideals. New Labour is a good example of what MacIntyre is talking about. The party is run by control freaks who keep their MPs on message and take great care of PR, but the core beliefs of New Labour, the so-called ‘Third Way’, are hard to pin down. The worry is that the Church of England is going down the same path and we will give more emphasis to management and spin-doctoring than to the effective proclamation of the gospel.

Bishop Spong calls for a New Reformation. Archbishop David Hope is much nearer to the mark in advocating renewal in the church. Such renewal will have to be spiritual, liturgical and theological. Theological renewal will mean recovering the riches of tradition, using the resources of the past to uncover the relevance of the gospel for today. We have plenty of people to help us in this endeavour. Names like Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karl Rahner or Henri de Lubac spring to mind from the recent past. Today there are theologians like Donald Bloesch, Frans Joseph von Beeck, Richard Swinburne or John Milbank. They do not agree on every issue. There is a good deal of diversity between them. Some are evangelical, some are Catholic; some reject the claims of reason and natural theology, others accept them. But all these theologians (and there are others like them) are concerned to wrestle with the gospel and to remain faithful to the great Christian tradition rather than to sell out to secular pressures. I suspect that in future the great names will come from outside Europe or North America. One thing I can say is that John Shelby Spong is not among them.

Paul Richardson is Assistant Bishop in the diocese of Newcastle.