‘Blind Mouths! That scarce themselves know how to hold
A sheep-hook, or have learned aught else the least
That to the faithful herdsman’s art belongs.
(Milton, Lycidas 119–121)
Like most things in life, football has to be played by the rules. If you want to play in a football team, you have to accept restrictions on your absolute freedom. William Webb Ellis thought it would be a great idea to pick up the ball and run with it and as a result is credited with inventing the game of rugby. But rugby is not the same game as soccer, despite both games being played by two teams on a grass pitch with an inflated ball.
If a player disagrees with the referee over an offside decision, he is wise to accept the referee’s verdict – unless of course he wants to see a coloured card. He doesn’t have the option of demanding a change in the rules to redefine his offside position as onside. Like William Webb Ellis, he is at liberty to invent a different game, but not to demand that everyone else changes their idea of soccer so that the rules accommodate the practices in which he wishes to indulge.
Well, all analogies break down at some point and the rules of soccer have changed over the years. But if we believe that Christianity is a revealed religion, rather than one made up by a committee who have devised a pot pourri of propositions that we would find easy to believe, then we have to accept that the truths that God has revealed about himself are non-negotiable.
It has always been my understanding that the Christian faith is a revealed religion. How could we possibly know the mind of God if he had not chosen to reveal his thoughts to us – primarily through his son Jesus? The creeds, formularies and articles of the Church of England clearly accept God’s revelation to us from the mouths of his spokesmen through the pages of Scripture. This is the normative faith – the precious deposit of which the Apostle Paul speaks.
It should therefore come as no surprise that when a good-humoured clergyman was asked what he did for a living, he responded with, ‘The Church of England pays me to persuade people to become Christians.’ His questioner asked him how he did that and he said rather matter-of-factly, ‘Well, I teach them the Bible.’ He obviously took it as self-evident that that was what he was there for.
If one were to assume that all clergy passionately believed what the Church of England claims to believe; if they were praying single-mindedly for God’s will to be done and for people in their parishes to give their allegiance to Jesus Christ – then we would expect the Church to be growing rather than declining.
A politician was moaning to me some years ago about his party’s cash crisis and the lack of full-time paid agents to support constituency parties. On learning that the Church of England at that time had in excess of 10,000 stipendiary clergy deployed across the country, he was astounded. ‘If I had that number of full-time paid agents,’ he said, ‘we could have a one-party state in no time at all.’
But no surprises
I suppose the recent Cost of Conscience survey has told us what many of us suspected all along – that there is a worrying level of disbelief in the basic tenets of the faith amongst our clergy. Take belief in the uniqueness of Christ, for instance. How can you hope to persuade anyone to become a Christian if you think that converting to Christ is not necessary? Whilst conservative clergy, who between them run nearly all the thriving, growing and financially viable churches in the country, register in excess of 90% confidence in this doctrine, others apparently sound far less certain notes on their trumpets.
Assuming Dr Peter Brierley got his sampling right, and that seems a fairly safe assumption, it would appear that some influential groupings within the church have serious misgivings over such a basic doctrine. Affirming Catholicism is a grouping which is believed to have the allegiance of something like half our diocesan bishops. Amongst its leading luminaries have been the former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, Richard Holloway, and the present Archbishop of Wales, Rowan Williams.
Dr Brierley found that only 53% of clergy claiming allegiance to Affirming Catholicism would assert that Jesus died to take away the sins of the world. Put another way, 47% of them think he died for some other purpose – or no purpose at all.
When asked whether they thought that Jesus was the only way to salvation, we find that only 22 of the 53% are prepared to accept St John’s account when he records Jesus as saying, ‘No man comes to the Father but by me.’
So here is a grouping whose members’ beliefs are hardly in tune with the historic faith that has come to us down the ages. Roughly two in ten are prepared to accept Jesus’ claim to be the unique means of salvation. Three in ten believe Jesus died to take away the sins of the world (but presumably think there may be other ways of achieving peace with God). Nearly five in ten think that Jesus’ death is unconnected with the forgiveness of sins.
If these were the views of the St Mugwump’s Youth Group, you might think that the vicar would be concerned to beef up the teaching programme for the young people. He might worry that he hadn’t been getting the message across in his confirmation classes. He might be concerned that he had presented candidates for confirmation whose grasp of the Christian faith was somewhat inadequate.
If these were the views of members of the Barchester Deanery Synod, you might think their views were of little consequence and console yourself with the thought that they probably weren’t in a position to do too much damage. You might reasonably expect parish priests to revise the syllabus for their Sunday sermons to ensure that members of their congregations at least, were weaned away from any unorthodox opinions they might hold.
Unfortunately these are the views of a grouping within the church, which though small has influence out of all proportion to its numbers. If the people responsible for running the church, appointing clergy to livings, training new clergy, conducting assessments of the performance of local clergy, devising pastoral schemes and so on, cannot proclaim the foundation stones of our faith (because they lack confidence in them), what hope has the church of winning a sceptical and disbelieving world for Christ?
I may disagree with the views of many of those who associate themselves with Affirming Catholicism, but I would be the first to defend their right to freedom of belief. However, if their views are so starkly at variance with the doctrine of the Church of England, would it be too much to expect them to propound their ‘strange and erroneous’ opinions from outside the Church of England rather than continue with the charade of being orthodox ministers of the gospel within it?
Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.