Christopher Smith reflects on ‘Framing the Debate’ at the recent Forward in Faith Assembly


Imagine my delight to have read on the BBC News website recently the following headline: ‘Dutchman, 69, brings lawsuit to lower his age twenty years.’ He wants the date changed on his birth certificate. He is, apparently, a ‘media personality and motivational guru’ who ‘converted to Buddhism earlier this year.’ Is he taking the mickey? I just don’t know any more! Whatever will we do about those inconvenient things called ‘facts’,,facts like ‘born 1949’? Well, I have my facts, you have yours, I guess…

Funny, isn’t it, how we’re the ones—we Christians —who are accused of making up ‘facts’? And we’ve not helped ourselves. Theologians, bishops among them, spent years peddling the line that we needed to shed what they called the ‘myths’ in order to be credible to the modern world: the miracles of healing, the nature miracles, the Virgin Birth, the myth of God incarnate. But the modern world is doing its own demythologizing: sex, colour, age, and perhaps, if I say so, I do have a 32 inch waist… Professor Dawkins, beware: they’re coming for the evolutionary biologists next.

One thing the modern arch-liberal is very good at doing is framing the terms of the debate, and often generating the vocabulary too. So here’s a challenge for us: can we, even at this stage, put ourselves in a position where we are the ones framing the terms of the debate? And the debate is not simply about the ordination of women. That’s a manifestation of deeper questions, questions about what we believe about God and about the Church. Perhaps if we were in a position to frame the debates of the future, our framework ought to be the familiar threefold line of enquiry: ‘Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What is the Church?’ Or you might say: ‘Is God? How is God? And who am I in relation to God?’

The questions we ask, and how we ask the questions, depends on context. For us, the question we perhaps need to keep asking to frame the debate is, ‘What is the Church?’ We’ve spent so much time responding to others over the last thirty years, explaining why we think something is problematic or uncatholic or impossible, that we’ve not given ourselves the chance to ask the questions in the way that makes sense to us. ‘What is the importance of our being human, and how do we live our lives in relationship with God?’ ‘What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou visitest him?’ And to answer that question, we must resist the pressure to conform to secularist views of what Christianity is and what the Church ought to be. Part of that process will be for us to slough off the restrictive critical method of the demythologizers which still hangs heavy round the neck of the Church of England, and ask how the account of Jesus in the New Testament is related to our experience of him as our risen Lord and Saviour today.

When the Church began to produce written accounts of the life of Christ, whose body the Church is, she did so by drawing together lengthy accounts of the events of Holy Week—the mighty, salvific act of God which had brought the Church into existence—and adding accounts of earlier events which brought out the significance of that great week. And it is important for us to remember that the evangelists were not isolated believers, but members of the Body of Christ, of the Church, who themselves were part of the gathered community on the first day of every week, for, as E.L. Mascall put it, ‘the Church’s life was maintained in existence as a continuing reality by the weekly celebration of the eucharistic mystery’ which Jesus himself ‘had commanded to be performed for his “recalling”, his anamnesis, and by which the salvific act was perpetuated in the Church’s midst with all its efficacy unimpaired.’ So, we are emphatically not keeping alive a memory of events long ago in a kind of weekly Remembrance Sunday; we are part of the continuing reality of the saving work of Jesus Christ.

I mention this because when we talk about the tradition of the Church, that tradition was liturgical (see Gregory Dix) and theological (see Eric Mascall) even before it was literary. And that’s why the stakes are high when we talk about matters of Church Order. They are not in some kind of second division of Christian theology. They matter—validity matters—because the Mass matters, because it is the continuing reality of the saving work of Jesus Christ. We know Jesus just as truly as those who walked with him on the road to Emmaus because we too know him in the breaking of the bread. That’s why it matters. So if we want to frame the debate, we should start at the altar, as Christians always have. ‘We do this in obedience to the command which the Lord Jesus gave on the night before he died; and now that he has risen from the dead this is where we meet him.’ The question, then, should never be, ‘what do we have to do to this faith in order to make it credible to the modern world?’, but ‘how do we present this faith to our contemporaries?’ Our place, in other words, is to communicate, not to innovate.

Framing the debate is hard, as we come up against a secular world which has a particular understanding of ‘progress’ and is caught up in its current. ‘I have long ceased to argue with people who prefer Thursday to Wednesday because it is Thursday,’ said G.K. Chesterton a century ago. It takes courage to challenge the terms of a debate, but we have every right to do so.