Andrew Starkie on a feast of assumptions

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, published at the end of September, has, rightly, been widely praised for its breadth and depth of scholarship. Even more surprising, to those who have any knowledge of the publishing world, it actually kept to its publishing schedule, and appeared on the date planned. A browse through either the online version, or the beautifully produced 60-volume set, turns up wonderfully crafted accounts, amusing anecdotes, pointed opinion, and dry humour, not least when dealing with men of the cloth. Eamon Duffy’s balanced article on Cardinal William Allen, the founder of the English College in Douay, for example, notes with irreverent glee the fortunes of the Roman bookmakers when he received a cardinal’s hat.

My way

Amongst the numerous churchmen who receive the attention of the Dictionary is Gilbert Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury 1689 –1715. Burnet, best known as an historian, was a court bishop who spent his ministry furthering his own career and advancing the political and theological causes of his own party (whilst all the time employing the language of via media moderation). As a bishop, despite the paucity of his own experience of parochial ministry, he berated the orthodox clergy of his diocese for not being pastoral or enlightened enough, and generally not doing things properly (i.e. his way). The Dictionary, although actually quite sympathetic to Burnet, does note that the bishop’s critics accused him of ‘overstating … his own importance in the events of his time’, and judges that, although much of what he asserted was actually true, he was ‘an egomaniac’ who ‘undoubtedly expected future historians to study him’.

The present occupant of the bishopric of Salisbury, David Stancliffe, like Burnet, sees himself as an important figure in the history of the Church of England, not (I hasten to add) because of egomania, but because of his strong convictions about liturgy, what it’s there for, and how to do it properly. And rightly so: as Chairman of the Liturgical Commission, the bishop has had enormous influence over the liturgy of the Church of England. He has written a book outlining his view of liturgy, entitled God’s Pattern, and it is just the sort of thing which will be recommended for Reader training (or even ordination training), thus transmitting the Sarum ethos to the most recently commissioned liturgical functionaries.

It must be confessed, however, that the present bishop does appear to share his predecessor’s low view of the Church of England clergy, or at least some sections of them, who, he claims, are characterized by ‘either a fawning dependence or a bloody-minded independence’ (p.7). It is also true that he does go on rather a lot about himself in the book, and how successful he has been in his pilgrimage round the Diocese of Salisbury, and his promotion of ordained local ministry. But this should be attributed rather to a desire to share best practise within the Church, and be open about his own story, and not to the egomania with which Burnet has been charged. He is sincerely proud of his achievements and those of his colleagues at the Liturgical Commission, highlighting ‘the way that liturgical revision has challenged us to do worship better and make it engage with how to be Church’ (p.13). The bishop’s concern is not just what words we say, not even how we arrange the chairs when we say them, but a more fundamental concern about our doctrine of the Church and even of God. Liturgy is therefore the way in to making those fundamental changes to the way we understand God and the Church.

Community service

The book introduces the shape of the eucharistic liturgy by reference to the Emmaus story. This approach, though of course not original, is a useful pattern. What the bishop adds is a greater emphasis on the ‘gathering’ What comes first is our own subjective experience. This sounds like a truism, but it is subtle and ambiguous. Our experience is the first thing that we as people know. But it does not therefore follow that it is where we must start theologically in order to understand the Eucharist, or anything else. By exploiting this ambiguity, the book builds on and reinforces the assumption it wishes to establish: that it is the transformation of the community which is the raison d’être of the eucharistic celebration. The true Anglican way, the bishop opines, is to ask not so much, ‘Is it correct?’ but, ‘Is it beautiful?’(p. xv). One might instead suggest the Christian way, which knows that if it isn’t correct then it will soon show signs of its ugliness, no matter how professionally presented it is; and if it is correct, then beauty will shine through it, no matter how plain.

Edited highlights

There is, on the positive side, a good catholic emphasis on the lectionary as the basis for the liturgy of the word. The bishop insists that we ‘read the balanced diet that the Lectionary sets before us; we do not choose the bits we want to hear, or that support our views’ (p. 18); and that ‘the purpose of a Lectionary, a set of readings chosen by the Church and read everywhere on that day, is to make sure that we are not only fed a balanced diet of biblical readings, but are also confronted with a number of passages we might not choose to hear, because they may challenge our comfortable assumptions’ (p. 31). These words might be better received however, if the Liturgical Commission over which the bishop presides had taken them to heart when compiling and authorizing the lectionary. The Common Worship weekday lectionary for the daily office on several occasions has portions of scripture omitted or rendered excisable by the use of square brackets. On 12 July of this year, for example, the New Testament reading for the morning office was ‘Rom 1.16–25 [26–27]’. I find it hard to believe that the omitted verses with their condemnation of sodomy are insufficiently challenging to contemporary comfortable assumptions. The New Testment reading for first evening prayer of Michael and All Angels this year was ‘Matt 18.1–6, 10’; it seems unlikely that the mention of plucking one’s eyes out or being throw into the hell of fire might induce complacency in the hearer. Between 28 and 29 January this year at evening prayer the entirety of Romans 9 was skipped, inexplicably interrupting the flow of the Apostle’s argument. Whether it was thought it might discomfort Jews or Arabs, or both, I know not. Between 20 and 21 April this year, the lectionary jumped from ‘1 Pet 2-end’ to ‘1 Pet 3.8’. The teaching about Christian marriage which the Apostle gives, enjoining Christian wives to be submissive to their husbands, and Christian husbands to bestow honour on their wives, has been excised. I do not think that it was on the grounds that it did not challenge any assumptions; it challenged some assumptions all too clearly. All assumptions may be comfortable, but some, it seems, are more comfortable than others.

An assumption which underpins the book, and which does need challenging, is that we are faced with an either-or choice. Either we have a Church with its own authority, and its distinctive doctrines, both of which rely on divine authorization in the person of Jesus 2000 years ago, or we connect with people’s real, lived experiences in the world today. The bishop uses the term ‘incarnational’ (p. 5) to mean ‘empirical’ or ‘inductive’, based on and starting from experience. Does this imply that not starting from experience but, for example, from what God has revealed, or from the consistent teaching of the Church, is docetic?

Deforming Catholicism

A ‘linear process of transmission’ of apostolic truth, or apostolic orders, is deemed not only unnecessary but a hindrance to the future of the church. The ‘unbroken chain of clearly forged doctrinal links’ (p.171) which the bishop berates as fragile is in fact founded on the incarnation to which it connects – the equally fragile baby in the manger, not, as the bishop characterizes it, a nice fairy story (p.57) but the actual historical event – which alone gives authority and authenticity to the church and to the Christian scriptures. It is expressed both in the divine authority of the scriptures and in the apostolic succession of orders. It is that particularity, that real ‘incarnational’ theology, and the ‘linear’ doctrine of the Church which it entails which must die, in the bishop’s view, in order for the new way of being Church to come to birth. The purpose of the Church is not the eternal salvation of man to the glory of God, but ‘transformation of the human community’ conceived in primarily this-worldly terms. Secularization is not, in the bishop’s view, a problem which needs reversing, but a fact that the Church needs to come to terms with, a process in which the church serves its purpose then withers away (p.27).

But in fact the Church does not have to abandon the central truths of the faith, or confidence in its divine authority, in order to connect with people and transform their lives. Indeed, just as the unhappiest people in the world tend to be those who only want to be happy, the least transformed people in the world are those who only focused on their own transformation. Real transformation, real relevance, happens when the Church has confidence in its divine commission, and in the truth of the Gospel which it preaches. Worship is transformative, not when it aims primarily to transform the worshipper, but when it aims primarily to honour the object of worship. It is love which transforms, and love is self-forgetting. Love cannot transform when it is contrived in order to transform. Then it is not love, it is therapy. What we are being offered in God’s Pattern is an understanding of worship primarily as therapy.

C.S. Lewis noted in The Abolition of Man that it is assumptions, which are not questioned, rather than theories, which are, that shape our view of things most fundamentally. So it is with God’s Pattern. Subversive presuppositions abound, from the presumption that the Luke made up (‘historicized’) the Ascension and Pentecost (p. 75) to a presumption that marriage is ‘more about the quality rather than the structure of the relationship’ (pp.100), a very spiritual-sounding phrase which prepares the ground nicely for the sanctification of pre-marital sex, the solubility of marriage before the arrival of the first child, and same-sex quasi-marriages—all of which the bishop advocates as if they were perfectly reasonable developments of orthodox Christian tradition (pp.134–37). Those who have placed themselves in the hands of the theological education establishment will study this book in their liturgy modules and think they are learning about liturgy. They will indeed learn a small amount about liturgy, and probably forget it shortly after the assignment has been completed. But what they are imbibing much more deeply are somewhat questionable assumptions about the nature of God, of man, and of the Church—assumptions which they are not encouraged to question.

Andrew Starkie is Assistant Curate of St Bartholomew’s, Long Benton, in the Diocese of Newcastle