Digby Anderson reflects on the relationship between the Church and synodical democracy
Anglo-Catholics are constantly being urged, not least in this magazine, to be active in defence of their convictions. This activism includes getting on synods, organizing candidates, signing petitions, voting, attending meetings and all the other ingredients of a modern ecclesiastical democracy. This activism is especially strongly urged in response to our opponents’ activism in pursuit of legislation for the ordination of women. We do not agree with our opponents’ views but we are at one with them about the methods for advancing such views.
Ceased to exist?
And how could it be otherwise? Our Church is a synodical democracy. Our convictions have to be advanced by methods appropriate to its structure. Yet there is something wrong with this, something only partly wrong, but seriously wrong. We surely should be democratically activist but there is another reaction which is deeper.
A priest, and friend, departed some years ago, once said, after the ordination of women to the priesthood, ‘You know, the church in which I was ordained has ceased to exist.’ To understand these words you have to know that he continued to practice his priestly ministry and believe in its validity and efficacy. The ‘church’ he was referring to was not his parish church and its altar nor those of other Anglo-Catholic priests. By ‘The church in which I was ordained’, he meant, principally, the wider Church of England and its hierarchy. If he was right then we Anglo-Catholics continue to practice our valid religion on little islands set in a sea of nothing, at any rate, nothing of what was once there.
Notice the difference between his characterization of the wider church and that of the activists. He did not say the church in which he had been ordained had changed somewhat, even somewhat radically. He did not say it was mistaken or that it advanced wrong views. He said it had ceased to exist. If it had changed, even radically, then activism would surely be right in order to change it back again, mitigate its changes or safeguard the integrity of the islands. But he said it had ceased to exist. To illustrate by one instance, its episcopacy, its synods, its measures and laws were, in catholic terms, nothing.
I doubt if my friend had ever read Nietzsche. I certainly hope not. But his words do recall Nietzsche’s words that God is dead. For the German philosopher God was not just an idea, even a wrong one, to be opposed. It was a person and his death like that of a person is felt. The church did exist. It does not anymore. It has passed, passed away, if you like, died. To think in this way does not mean ignoring God’s assurance that the church will never die. Those words never meant that all institutions calling themselves church would last forever. It means that the islands of true faith continue in their sea of theological nothingness waiting for the church to return, much as some of the God is dead chaps – not including Nietzsche – wait for him to return.
This view has something very helpful to teach about what we should do. If the church has ceased to exist it is surely right to mourn its passing. And is not bereavement and mourning exactly what we feel about what has happened? We may think an idea has been outvoted but we feel the loss of a loved one. Frenetic democratic activism may be the appropriate reaction to a lost vote but a lost church demands mourning. On the synodical front we will be urged to ‘move forward’ but the loss demands we be a backward-looking people, remembering, carrying on truth and tradition locally and waiting for the church, in whatever form, to return.
How will we recognize her when she does? This view has something to say about that too. The death of the church was brought about by the importation into its very heart of cultural tendencies from the secular outside, feminism, egalitarianism, relativism. One way they penetrated its heart was by the adoption of a particular wholly foreign – foreign to the nature of the church – belief and practice, that of electoral democracy. Whatever else she may look like when she returns, the radiance of the true church will certainly not be disfigured by synods and votes. Does it hasten the day of return for us to be so involved in them? ND