Tuesday 26 February 2013

On Loyalty

Loyalty: noun Late Middle English. Origin: Old French.  The fact or condition of being loyal; faithfulness to duty or in love, friendship, etc; faithful allegiance to the legitimate monarch or government of one's country.  (OED)

What are the entities to which one might feel or express loyalty? I am (among other things and in the order they occur to me but no other): a Christian, an Anglican, an Englishman, a Briton, a Londoner, a European, a companion, a friend, a son, a brother, a cousin, a godfather, a godson, a priest and a deacon.  Each of these identities inspires in me a different sense of loyalty to something or someone; and if I had to put them in order of the strength of the loyalty engendered, I would be hard put to it in some instances.  This is perhaps partly because loyalty is not just a matter of unforced feeling or affection; it is sometimes a matter of perceived duty.  It is easy to be loyal to (say) my brother because he is a human being in respect of whom my loyalty is a subset of my love, an outworking of our personal relationship. Loyalty to (say) my country is different because, although I certainly also love it, I also have a stronger sense that my loyalty is something I owe it.

But what about religious identity?  I feel a strong loyalty to the Christian faith.  I hope this means I will be faithful to it and to the truth of the gospel to the end of my days; that I will advance its cause when I can and defend it when attacked.  I am also loyal to my Church: to the Anglican tradition, to my bishop and parish, to my brothers and sisters in the faith.  I recognise that this is of a different order of loyalty to that which I owe to the wider Christian faith and Church; though in truth the two are hard for me to separate.  Within Anglicanism, tribal loyalty to the CofE is a slightly awkward thing, because of its established status and the (perhaps consequent) lazy, hazy public view of it as a quasi-official entity in the same broad category as the BBC and the NHS.  It's just there, part of the landscape: criticise it and mock it by all means, even if you work in it - that is your birthright.  But loyalty to it is not required.

Yet loyalty to it is what I feel.  I am in it and of it; I could not think of leaving it.  To turn from the Church in which I was baptised, confirmed and ordained, which has nurtured my faith and vocation, and supported me in distress and weakness would be like abandoning my own mother.  I feel pain when it is traduced, and anger when it is misrepresented and abused.  That, you may say, is a cross I carry.

But there is more.  I am an Anglo-Catholic. I stand in an ancient and continuous tradition of English Christianity, revived and emboldened by the Oxford Movement of the 19th century, and which lives on in the modern Church of England.  This tradition places the Incarnation at the centre of the Christian understanding of the faith and the world; insists on the centrality of the sacraments (especially the Eucharist) in the life of faith; regards the Church on earth as having been founded by Christ himself, and as being unbreakably united to the Church in heaven and the communion of saints; and holds to a proper ordering of its structure and life according to ancient wisdom and practice.

This little summary, you may have noticed, would be endorsed by most Roman Catholics (and certainly officially by their Church) but rejected to a greater or lesser extent by evangelical Christians, including many who worship in the Church of England. When the evangelical view is in the ascendancy, and when wider public assent to traditional Church structures is simultaneously fading, the tendency is for conservative Anglo-Catholics to move further into their comfort zone, away from what has apparently become "mainstream" Anglicanism and towards Roman Catholicism.  In this way, they can find themselves in a liminal, intermediate place between Canterbury and Rome, sometimes with a stronger sense of loyalty to the latter than to the former. This can manifest itself in small things like the use of the Roman Rite and the inclusion of prayers for the Pope at mass; but also in overt and damaging public criticism of the Church of England from the pulpit and in the media. This can be taken to the point where an Anglican becomes a sort of pretend Roman Catholic: still in fact a part of the Church of England (and in the case of stipendiary clergy, still paid and housed by it) but in spirit a citizen of the Roman household of faith.  It is this little constituency for whom the so-called Ordinariate was designed by some bright spark in the Vatican. When you are desperate for priests and you know of some alienated, sympathetic Protestants, it is simple, pragmatic common sense to help them take that final step.

Yet it needs to be said that not all Anglo-Catholics inhabit this no-man's-land.  Most, while having a proper regard for the Pope and Catholic tradition and teaching, are quite clear about and comfortable in their Anglican identity.  For them, calling the Eucharist "mass" and the priest "Father"; invoking the prayers of the saints as a natural part of worship; instinctive awareness and celebration of the incarnational in ordinary life - none of these or associated "marks" of Catholicism translate into an ecclesiastical identity crisis.  Clergy in this situation might well describe themselves as "Catholic" within their own context; but are conscious that to do so indiscriminately and without qualification can cause confusion - both among those to whom they are called to be shepherds and in the community at large. And an important pastoral responsibility of the priest is to strive to hold confusion at bay.  Their Catholicism is dispositional, not institutional.

Also, they are aware that, as enfeebled a movement as it now seems, Anglo-Catholicism changed the Church.  The battles which it fought in the late 19th and early 20th centuries - to restore the Eucharist to its proper centrality and to increase the frequency of its celebration and in an identifiably Catholic authorised rite; to restore recognition of the ancient threefold order of ordained ministry; even to be able to wear vestments and to make the sign of the cross - these battles were won. They were not won as comprehensively as some had wanted (and still want); and reunion with Rome is undoubtedly as distant as ever. But, given the history of the Church of England, they were won as far as they could be; and to an extent that the Anglo-Catholic can usually worship comfortably and unapologetically somewhere within reach of his home.  And if he is averse to women priests and bishops - and not all are by any means - he can avoid them without too much effort.

Loyalty is a state of mind - or perhaps a state of the heart.  As virtues go, it is one that has a rather old-fashioned ring.  But, for the Christian, "faithfulness to duty or in love, friendship, etc" is second nature; it is, in its highest form, what binds God and man, the essence of the covenant.  It binds us to others, whether by love or by duty.  We need it to flourish; to interact wholesomely with each other.  It is a kind of currency.  And it is of God.

Tuesday 12 February 2013

Apologia Pro Sua Ecclesia

In my dumbed-down, over-simplified, rule-of-thumb grasp of Church history and theology, I associate the term via media with John Henry Newman.  He it was, I think, who, long before kicking the dust of Anglicanism from his Oxford brogues, used the term to describe the "middle way" between Puritan Protestantism and Roman Catholicism which was the Church of England's inheritance from the Elizabethan Settlement onwards.  Newman himself believed - at that stage, anyway - that the Church had, during the 18th century, forgotten its ancient Catholic heritage enshrined in the Book of Common Prayer, and had in the process become a dull department of a Hanoverian Protestant state.  He and his fellow Tractarians - who were to become the founding fathers of the Oxford Movement - fretted about Erastianism (the idea that the state should have authority over the Church in ecclesiastical matters) and worried that the Church of England was in danger of losing its identity, squeezed as it was between a newly restored and growing Roman Catholic Church and the vigorous Protestant sects that had grown during the evangelical revival of the previous century.  With reference to the Early Fathers and the Elizabethan and Caroline divines, the Tractarians re-imagined the true English Church.  This Church looked quite a bit more Catholic than it had done (and indeed than many were comfortable with) and effectively began what some regard as the recatholicisation of Anglicanism.  The Oxford Movement begat Anglo-Catholicism - a term I believe also coined by Newman, and a movement which survived his defection to Rome and which profoundly influenced subsequent Church of England life and polity.

But Tractarianism did not want England to revert to Rome; it wanted the Church to recover what it had lost or deprecated but which was there in black and white in the pages of the 1662 Prayer Book - its liturgical and ecclesiological authority. This, they believed, envisaged much more frequent access to the sacraments (Newman's "keys and spells"), the most radical expression of which was perhaps their espousal of the restoration of auricular confession in the Church of England.  But the "excesses" of Rome were not on the agenda, any more than were the radical claims and uncanonical practices of evangelical Protestantism.  The Church of England was not a confessional denomination like Lutheranism; it was the liberated and reformed catholic (ie universal) Church of England.  Seen from this perspective, the via media was not just a matter of advocating a moderate Christianity: it had been the Church's calling from the beginning.

If I were a fundamentalist evangelical I would be expected to believe in some or all of the following: the Bible as the literal and inerrant word of God; the claim that He created the world in six days about 6000 years ago; that ordained priesthood is at best unnecessary (and that when the Bishop put his hands on my head, nothing happened beyond his spoiling my hair-do); that the bread and wine of the Eucharist are merely symbolic; that the dead are dead and beyond my prayers; that some are predestined for salvation and that the rest are irretrievably doomed; and that the Church on earth is no more than a convenient way of organising Christians.

If I were a Roman Catholic I would be obliged to believe: the notion that a human being, however wise and holy he might be, is infallible (when speaking ex cathedra but not otherwise); that it is possible for that same person to arrange for me to spend less time in purgatory in return for my attendance at a service or event; that belief in the "immaculate" conception and bodily assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary are necessary to my salvation; that a prayer to a native Canadian woman who died in 1680 recently and miraculously cured a little boy of a fatal disease, warranting her canonisation last year; and for good measure, that my church is not a church at all, and that my holy orders are "absolutely null and utterly void". 

As it is, I am free to believe any or all of these things - but not obliged to.  (It would actually be rather odd if I believed the last of them, but some Anglican priests are doing just that in respect of the so-called "Ordinariate".)  It is probably good for me to make my confession to a priest, but my salvation does not depend upon it.  If I believe that the substance of the bread and wine of the Eucharist is changed by their consecration, I may so believe entirely legitimately, but may not insist on the same belief on the part of my fellow-worshipper.

For occupying this middle ground, and notwithstanding my decidedly illiberal credal orthodoxy, some will accuse me of being a wishy-washy fence-sitter, and/or a milk-and-water relativist. Others will conclude simply (and perhaps sadly) that I am going to hell in a handcart and that there is no help for me unless I repent of my wilful rejection of the truth. Well, they may or may not be right.  As it is, I count myself rather fortunate not to be obliged to adhere to dogma which I find ridiculous while keeping it to myself.  I belong to a Church and Communion which does not invite people to sign up to any theological propositions beyond those "uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds", but which says to them merely: "We are your church. This is what we do. Can you worship with us?"

Wednesday 6 February 2013

Times and Tides

I have watched many Parliamentary debates.  Some I have watched from the officials' box (one of that little row of faces to the left of the Speaker's chair as you face it), some from upper galleries out of sight to TV viewers, and some - like yesterday's - from the privacy of my own home.  They have been, on and off, a part of my professional life.  I have rarely enjoyed them.  This is partly because, for me, they have been work.  When, in my civil service career, I sat in the officials' box, I was usually there to produce information that would enable my minister to provide immediate answers to unforeseen questions raised in debate. When, nowadays, I sit in one of the galleries in the House of Lords, I do so to hear contributions on subjects on which my bishop speaks for the Church and, when he is participating, to tweet a sound-bite or two.  Yesterday's debate on the same-sex marriage bill I watched at home on TV for sheer pleasure (if that is the word).  I say "if that is the word" because I know enough about myself to realise that I dislike conflict and that I am prone to become personally involved to an extent that militates against the impartiality required of a Government official.  And although I no longer occupy that role, I can't get out of the habit.

There was little great oratory yesterday.  But there were some courageous and moving speeches.  I found myself marvelling that Tories like Nick Herbert and Mike Freer were able to stand in the Commons and on national TV and be open about themselves and their support for this gloriously unconservative bill.  Could they have done this 20, even 10, years ago?  I doubt it.  The old Tory dogs were still there behind them, yapping and snapping at their heels; but the earth has turned another quarter-turn, and for Herbert, Freer and a host of others, it is moving perceptibly from darkness into light.  To his credit, David Cameron understands this; I don't think his opponents do.  Not really.

If I had to pick an "anti" speech for special mention it would have to be Edward Leigh's.  Leigh is a proudly devout old-style Roman Catholic and gave an elegant and poetic (and accurate) account of the traditional Christian understanding of marriage.  Towards the end, in response to the claim that the world had "moved on" (from the civil partnerships debate), he replied: "The worry that some of us have is that the world...could move on again".  Yes. It could and it will.

The same theme was picked up by Sir Menzies Campbell (a supporter of the bill) who began his remarks by saying: "there is a kind of inevitability about what many of us are hoping will be decided here this evening".  He saw gay marriage as the next step along the road towards the full inclusion and equal treatment of all outcasts: a destination that we know we will reach eventually.  There is something profoundly Christian about this.

And inevitability is the point.  I expect this bill, which still has a good few parliamentary hurdles to jump, to become law in due course.  But even it if doesn't, a future Labour government will introduce a similar one which certainly will.  One way or another, sooner or later, we will have gay marriage.  And we all know it. Isn't the honest (and brave) thing to do to accept that, and to focus on introducing it in a way that commands the widest possible assent and calms the greatest number of fears?

It's been noted that this is a huge gamble for David Cameron; that he has betrayed Conservative principles and will lose "core" votes without gaining any others.  I wonder if his motivation rests upon his honest assessment that he will not, probably, in any event, be Prime Minister after 2015: that the times are simply against him.  Given that, perhaps he wants to be remembered for something other than austerity and benefit cuts and rising debt. Something that's not coloured grey. Something that makes us more human. Something lasting.  Perhaps this is the thing. Perhaps now is the time.

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

(Brutus, from Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 3)