Digby Anderson urges an emphatic rejection of the reforming theology of the Seventies and a return to far older values if we are truly to re-evangelize the nation
In the New Directions of January 2008, Fr Philip North wrote of the problems afflicting Anglican Catholics and the need for them to renew and evangelize rather than ‘focusing on internal arguments’. Set aside, for another article another day, his understanding of evangelization; what was intriguing, and I think, almost totally wrong is its depiction of the cultures (his term) within and outside the church.
He sees Anglican Catholics as a tiny group set in a hostile or indifferent culture of ‘virulent secularism’. Instead of engaging with this culture and imaginatively bringing to it the truth of Christian revelation, we ‘offer little more than internal arguments.’ This is not, I think, how the battlefield lies.
The surrounding culture is certainly hostile but it is not predominately secularist. We are not confronted so much by atheism as by paganism and idolatry. A few of the many various false gods are self-affirmation, therapy, distributive justice and scientism, and the last, while it would like to think itself scientific and secular, is held and advanced with all the worst features of Protestant religious enthusiasm.
Even more important, the hostile culture, while certainly surrounding the church, has already penetrated it and is a powerful force within it. Hence what are dismissed as ‘internal’ arguments are no such thing. Forget the relativists outside the Church; it is the ones sitting on episcopal thrones that must be defeated. When Benedict XVI muses about the need for a smaller, purer church, it is this countering of alien forces within the Church that he has in mind.
A tired progressivism
What are the signs of these alien, hostile ideologies? Clearly some are to do with the paganisms mentioned above, Christians’ spousal of extreme and anti-humanist environmentalism or feeling-good-about-ourselves counselling or egalitarian Liberationism. They can be spotted by Christians’ use of alien vocabularies. Thus the Clinical Theology movement saw theological terms being ousted by psychotherapeutic terms and Liberation Theology imported Marxian language. But there are other less virulent but still alien tendencies in the church. They too can be can be spotted by vocabulary. Thus Fr North wants us to be positive and to manage perceptions. There is not enough good practice in our parishes. Worse, some parishes lack ‘the most basic strategies for growth’. We need ‘new (sic) initiatives’. We must ‘plan and execute growth strategies and commit resources.’ Only the word ‘targets’ is missing to show the ideological provenance of this vocabulary Instead of committing resources, meeting challenges and the rest, what are some of us Anglo-Catholics doing? We are undermining our evangelistic opportunities by our ‘prevailing culture of negativity’. Even more worrying is a ‘tendency to retreat into a mythic past of cure hats and eastward-facing High Masses where recreating the world of Fortescue and O’Connell seems to be more important than true inculturation.’
‘Managing perceptions’ and the rest are the banner words of a tired progressivism in which moving forward and embracing new challenges are a given good and being stuck in the past, or, even worse, retreating into the past, are obvious bads. It is a shame to see the language that has destroyed our schools, trivialized business management and corrupted everything from politics to personal relationships used about the church. This progressivism is now much older hat than anything worn by the parish priest of Ars. No one was less likely to set up the nineteenth-century version of ‘new initiatives’ than Jean Marie Vianney Yet he was a not unsuccessful evangelist. The concepts of progressivism have enjoyed full reign in the CofE for half a century and, unlike the Cure, they have emptied the pews.
Today, in his Roman Catholic Church it is the cure hats of The Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest and the faithful followers of Fortescue and O’Connell in The Priestly Fraternity of St Peter who are attracting vocations and making converts. It is the profoundly conservative Opus Dei that is so successful in evangelism. And the Pope himself has explained why he favours eastward altars and indeed vestments from the ‘mythic past’. That same Sovereign Pontiff is clearly aware that we must embrace and preserve the past. He has made it quite clear that elements of modern liturgical practice represent a decline and one not unconnected with evangelistic failure, the decline of the Church in Europe.
Authority of the past
Unfortunately the progressive vocabulary and the culture to which it belongs are widely embedded in the Church. The great Anglo-Catholic churches and the great Anglo-Catholic Societies all have their contingents of identikit 1970s Romanist fashion. They are the ageing trendies of the Church who, some of them forty years on, still imagine they are part of a new, ground-breaking movement.
The desire to conform to Roman innovation has become a blind adherence to post-Conciliar novelties, many of which were not demanded by the Council and several of which are being criticized by Rome itself. Not least are many of these people wedded to an infantile liturgical language or mistranslation of the Missale Romanum, similarly childish and secular music and a cult of ugliness in church ornaments and vestments which, as so often with language, may betoken less than adult and occasionally ugly thoughts.
What Benedict has done in his writing and above all in sanctioning, and promoting, two versions of the same rite, one ordinary, one extraordinary, goes beyond liturgy. He has nailed the Whig progressive heresy. Too many within the Church have flirted with the Enlightenment religion of linear progress.
The Pope has re-awakened an understanding and appreciation of the past, our past, in which there is no place for progressivism or for syncretism with alien ideologies. Those of us Anglicans who desire to follow Rome will have to do something even more demanding than relearning our declensions and Fortescue and O’Connell. We shall have to learn how to make a reverent bow of apology (profonde inclinatus) to the authority of the past and turn our backs on the cult of the future.