Does Anglicanism have room for a bishop who no longer believes in God? Geoffrey Kirk discusses the dangers of being a comprehensive church

Just when you thought it was safe… Richard Holloway is back! The white hope of the Loughborough Conferences, founder member of Affirming Catholicism and former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church has come a long way. The campaigner for women’s ordination who once described opponents as ‘seeking to sweep back the tide of God’ has now taken leave of the deity to whom he once appealed. Holloway no longer believes in God – but he continues to function as a bishop of the Scottish Episcopal Church, celebrating the sacraments and preaching the word (not, of course, of God; but presumably of… Richard Holloway).

Like Jack Spong before him, Holloway is making a splash on the lecture circuit. ‘A bishop rethinks…’ ‘Agnostic bishop challenges churchmen…’

However offensive it maybe to the rest of us, Holloway has grasped that there is money to be made from being an unbelieving prelate; a notoriety not readily available to a private individual. Richard Holloway ‘the Voltaire of Morningside’ would be nowhere near as marketable a commodity as an atheistical bishop of The Episcopal Church. And so he hangs on to the mitre he once cast into the Thames; to the eternal shame of the Church to which he belongs.

Vain and self-serving though this atheistical posturing is, Holloway has characteristically touched a raw nerve. ‘The worldwide Anglican Church has made room for ‘happy clapping’ evangelicals, bells-and-smells Catholics, women priests and, in the United States, openly gay clergy and even practitioners of other faiths,’ he is reported as saying. ‘So surely, he argues, it can find room for people like him -Christians who don’t believe in God.’ The challenge is to define and justify the limits of Anglican comprehensiveness; and he knows that it will be no mean task.

Outsiders might well conclude that Anglicans can only get agitated about second order issues – women’s ordination, same-sex marriages and gay bishops. When it comes to dogma (even at the most fundamental level) they exhibit a culpable coyness. Why does the appointment of an openly gay bishop result in threats of schism and actual infringements of provincial boundaries, and the continuance in episcopal orders of a Spong or a Holloway do nothing of the sort?

It is a good question.

The answer (as Richard Holloway has astutely grasped) is that there is, and always has been, a strain of theological levity at the heart of Anglicanism. The price of being a comprehensive (or as they now say ‘inclusive’) church has been to come dangerously close to not being a church at all.

This theological levity is most readily appar ent in two related areas: the Eucharist and Holy Orders.

Anglicans believe (or have said that they believe) that Orders are an effective sign of communion in the Church. In particular they have maintained that episcopacy operates to enhance koinonia in three modes: geographically (from diocese to diocese), historically (down the ages) and locally (within each diocese). At the same time they have maintained a doctrine of provincial autonomy, such that orders are thought to be at the disposal of each local church, without reference to others or to the Church Universal.

It does not take a genius to see that these understandings are mutually exclusive. Nor is it difficult to grasp the ecumenical consequences of such confusion. Anglicans have traditionally sought to establish with other churches what has been called ‘full visible unity’, a unity necessarily involving full recognition and interchangeability of orders. They have sought, in other words, in relationship with other churches, what they will not and cannot establish amongst themselves!

Things are no better with regard to the Holy Communion. What is the Anglican doctrine of the Eucharist? The honest answer must be that no such thing exists (as the studied and self-conscious ambiguity of Anglican liturgies serves to demonstrate). The ‘family meal of Christians’ is for Anglicans a battleground of incompatible theologies, from Transub-stantiation to Zwinglianism with all the cosy ambiguities between. One party has its monstrances and the other pours the leftovers back into the bottle. The very best that can be said is that on a matter that should unite them, Anglicans agree to be divided.

Richard Holloway has seen all this. Here is his eucharistic theology as recently reported in an Australian newspaper:

‘It very much depends on the interpretation you put on it,’ he explained. T still very much believe in the ” community of the church. One of the most fundamen-f tal strengths of the church, F or any religious community, is that it is still an expression of the human family. The eucharist \ [communion], in my under-m \ standing, is the family meal. ^^^ It is the way you express your identity and membership of that body. I happen to believe that it is a beautiful art form as well’

What, he wants you to ask yourself, could be more Anglican than that -where institutional loyalty replaces doctrinal certainty, and the aesthetic takes precedence over the theological?

The tragedy of those who are seeking to defend some sort of orthodoxy in the Anglican Communion is that Holloway has unerringly identified the wound of Anglicanism, and that no one seems capable of cauterizing it. GAFCON, FCA, the Anglican Province in North America: all embrace the mixed economy of orders and the brand of theological fudge which has precipitated the present crisis. And – which is further grist to the Holloway mill – they all seem to be held together, not by doctrinal agreement but by mere prurience.

Against such a background it is all too easy for the likes of him to preen themselves as ‘courageous’, ‘open, ‘inclusive’, ‘Christian even.