More or less history

ON A PERSONAL LEVEL, quite a number of us in Forward in Faith Australia actually like our new Primate, Dr Peter Carnley.

We know him to be a man of prayer, driven by his love of God and a genuine compassion for others. We admire his ability and courage in relating Gospel values to the social justice issues of our day. We are grateful that, in contrast with others who might have become Primate, he is open to dialogue on alternative episcopal oversight in the Australian Church.

But we have a problem.

Dr Carnley has an irritating habit of sneering at his opponents, especially if they represent the mainstream evangelical views of the Diocese of Sydney. Anglo-Catholics also come in for it from time to time, as those who were around during the General Synod debates on the ordination of women will remember.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this, together with Dr Carnley’s constant caricaturing of his opponents’ views, is his way of avoiding the risk of careful theological debate.

The final straw is his frequent claim to having been misunderstood or misrepresented, when all that has really happened is a relentless re-nuancing of definitions so as to avoid being pinned down – a game he obviously enjoys.

Take the resurrection of Jesus, for example.

It is one thing to say that the resurrection is more than the resuscitation of a corpse; it is quite another thing to say that it is less than the raising up of a body. Even those who have read Dr Carnley’s book are left guessing as to what he REALLY thinks about the historicity of the empty tomb tradition.

The fear around the Anglican Church of Australia (and not just in the Diocese of Sydney) is that Dr Carnley regards the resurrection of Jesus’ body as unhistorical “embroidery” long since outgrown by educated people.

In the lead-up to Holy Week, the Australian weekly news magazine, THE BULLETIN, published an essay by Dr Carnley, which seemed to be saying just that. This was also three weeks before Dr Carnley’s installation as Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia in Sydney’s S. Andrew’s Cathedral.

Understandably, mainstream Sydney Anglicans were outraged, and statements condemning Dr Carnley’s remarks were issued by the most influential of their leaders. In fact, the service was boycotted by at least three assistant bishops, as well as by the Revd Rob Forsyth, assistant-bishop-elect of the South Sydney region.

The whole debacle led numerous Anglo-Catholic priests to make statements in church distancing ourselves from Dr Carnley’s views. However, it was disappointing to us and to many lay people that not one of “our” bishops thought the matter serious enough to be seen supporting the mainstream Sydney protest. The Revd Phillip Jensen, Rector of the mega-parish of Centennial Park in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, spoke for many when he countered those who thought a protest was in bad taste by asking if the Primate-elect’s apparent denial of the resurrection of Jesus’ body is not the point at which to speak out, what ever else could be?

The media loved it; indeed they love to hate Sydney Anglicanism. A prominent Anglo-Catholic voice joining the Sydney voices might have made a difference to the way the whole thing was presented to the Australian public. As it was, Dr Carnley became a quasi-hero persecuted by Australia’s most powerful diocese.

Dr Carnley’s Installation went ahead, and the cathedral was comfortably full. Various spins were put on his statement, including his claim to have been misunderstood. Typical of these was the statement made by the Most Revd John Patterson in his Presidential Address to the New Zealand General Synod:

“The occasion was not without a measure of controversy, as Dr Carnley had been misunderstood and misquoted in a recent published piece on the resurrection of Christ, leading to a partial boycott of the service of Installation, and the circulation among parts of the Diocese of Sydney of a petition calling on the Church to dissociate itself from so-called heretical views.”

One doesn’t have to be a fundamentalist to believe that only a real resurrection of the body of Jesus can account for the historical evidence. In fact, it is not at all difficult to find reputable historians and Biblical scholars at least as qualified as Dr Carnley who are propelled by ordinary historical evidence to the conclusion that everything that went into the tomb came out again. Not, however, (as Dr Carnley unfairly caricatures the classical Christian point of view) the resuscitation of a corpse, but a transfiguration, a metamorphosis, a glorification of the flesh and blood body of Jesus as the first fruits, not only of our resurrection but of the glorification and redemption of the whole creation.

To reject the bodily resurrection of Jesus on some kind of a priori philosophical assumption before turning to the historical evidence is unfair and unscholarly. Furthermore, to make “salvation history” into something that never touches “real” history is to take the first step towards the kind of gnosticism against which significant parts of the New Testament itself were written, and which reappeared in different forms during the Christological debates of the great Councils.

Such an approach ends up confining God’s interest and activity to the spiritual and the philosophical. This may seem to make the Church relevant to the spirituality supermarkets of the new millennium, but it is NOT the Christian Faith, which has always proclaimed that in the resurrection of our Lord’s body “a handful of dust has already made it to glory” (Richard Holloway).

We agree with Dr Carnley that the resurrection of Christ is not JUST history. It IS a mystery, a working of God, and it IS greater than history. We still wait, however, for his assurance that he believes it is not LESS THAN history.

David Chislett is Rector of All Saints, Wickham Terrace, Brisbane in the diocese of Brisbane.