The end of an error


In a surprise announcement last month, Dr Peter Carnley said that he would bring forward his retirement as Archbishop of Perth and Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia to May next year, after completing his duties in February and then taking accumulated leave. He and his wife, Ann, will move to their property in the southwest, where he looks forward to gardening and writing.

A stunned Muriel Porter articulated the response of liberal Anglicans when she wrote in the Melbourne Age, ‘I will be sad to lose Carnley’s outstanding intellectual contribution to the key theological and social issues of the day. More importantly, there is real concern at the loss of his strong leadership at a critical time for the future of the Anglican Church. In particular, the long lead-time until his retirement – it is still 16 months away – could well expose the Church to a dangerous period of volatility.’

In terms of Porter’s response, Peter Carnley’s stature as an academic theologian cannot be gainsaid. As a student in 1972, I was invited by the Bishop of Bathurst to attend a clergy school at which Carnley lectured on Process Theology as a means of making the Christian Faith intelligible in a secular age. My recollection is that those lectures provided us with a severe intellectual and spiritual workout! But along with many of the clergy present I was not convinced. For all of Carnley’s charm, brilliance and spiritual sincerity there seemed to be no compelling and objective reason to opt for the particular version of ‘scientific’ Scripture study to which he frequently referred; secondly, the Christ of the process theologians seemed to be a kind of Gnostic redeemer, and the really Christian understanding of both sin and salvation was discarded – or worse – caricatured.

More recently, I read an interview Carnley gave to priest/journalist James Murray in which he spoke of his being ‘much more a monotheist’ in his student days, for whom the doctrine of the Trinity was ‘a funny conundrum, on the shelf somewhere, but not terribly useful to life. It was something we assented to but didn’t find all that meaningful.’ James Murray continues, ‘Recent years have changed that perception. The Trinity now looms large in his thinking.’ Carnley says, ‘At the moment [1997] I’m in a very orthodox Trinitarian stage’. Influenced by St Basil’s Treatise on the Holy Spirit, it has become important for him to speak of the Trinity not so much as three persons in one substance but as ‘three persons in one communion’. For Carnley this has obvious ecclesiological implications. It is interesting to speculate on the impact of such a renewed trinitarianism on his previous approach to the process theologians.

Of course, Carnley is best known for his book The Structure of Resurrection Belief (1987), which is a masterly evaluation of theological scholarship on the resurrection of Christ from the late nineteenth century to the 1980s. Carnley interacts with the theories he describes, sometimes in a highly engaging manner, sometimes with greater detachment. His own stance is summed up on page 364: ‘ … the hearing of the Christian story, which pre-eminently transmits and celebrates the memory of Jesus and God’s revelatory deed in and through his life and death, should lead us beyond itself to a living encounter with the real presence of all that it celebrates and rehearses: him, whom by story we recall, we actually know as the living Spirit of the fellowship of faith. Apart from the story’s being true (in some sense of true) it is important that it be religiously useful.’

Does Carnley believe in the resurrection of the Lord’s body? In his book (as indeed in his recent utterances) he appears to accuse the orthodox of ‘reducing’ the resurrection to the mere resuscitation of a corpse. The caricaturing of his opponents’ views is a feature of Carnley’s method. No matter how often we explain the difference between resuscitation of a corpse and the glorious transfiguration of a body, Carnley will not desist from perpetrating the caricature. (This is especially evident when he is in full flight against Sydney Evangelicals!) So, does he believe it? In fact, Carnley is a slippery customer when it comes to being pinned down on the ultimate question. He certainly believes in the resurrected Christ. But I think, taking what he has written over the years, it is not unfair to surmise that his faith would not be seriously challenged if one day the bones of Jesus of Nazareth were to turn up in a Middle Eastern grave.

The extraordinary thing about Carnley’s book is that it trundles along quite happily through contrasting theories and ideas except in the case of those authors who assert the traditional understanding of the empty tomb and the resurrection of the Lord’s body. That otherwise intelligent scholars can be so unsophisticated annoys Carnley to the point where he becomes abusive. I’m not the only one to notice this. NT Wright puts it so well in a footnote to Chapter 1 of his Resurrection of the Son of God, that I cannot resist quoting him in full:

[Carnley] implies that the concern to bring rigorous historical study to bear on the Easter events (he has ‘fundamentalist writers and ultra-conservative popularizers of the Easter faith’ in mind) is to show that one has ‘no present knowing of the raised Christ’, resulting in ‘the projected hostility of the believer’s own “shadow side” of repressed doubt’ against the wicked historical critics who point out discrepancies in the narratives, etc. Attempted psychoanalysis of one’s opponents, and making slurs against their personal spirituality, is hardly either scholarly or helpful.

A similar touch of arrogant psychobabble crept into the ordination of women debate in the 1987 General Synod when Carnley tried to persuade us that we were not really opposed on theological grounds, but as a result of poor ‘psycho-spiritual development.’ We had a deep fear of women getting the upper hand. This, he said, could well be related to the absence of fathers during the war years, and the exclusive bathing of children by mothers at that time. (Yes, he really did say that!)

And who could forget his statement on the day he ordained Perth’s first women priests without waiting, even for General Synod’s approval: ‘Today, we are peeling away the sickly yellow, faded, silverfish-ridden wallpaper with which the Church has surrounded itself and imprisoned women for centuries past in its benign and perhaps well-meaning determination to confine them by role.’

Archbishop Carnley openly said to opponents of the ordination of women in the Diocese of Perth that they had best ‘shake the dust off their feet’ and go somewhere more congenial. Certainly, Forward in Faith members and other orthodox people have had a harder time in Perth than anywhere else in Australia. Maybe his retirement will mean a fair go at last for those who believe the Faith once delivered to the saints.