Monday, July 10, 2006

Catholicism trumps liberalism

Comment is free: Sowing the seeds of change: "Catholicism trumps liberalism"

A very interesting article from Theo Hobson, which gets things wrong in a provocative way (especially the Abraham comparison). I think he is right about the near term analysis, ie that liberalism is 'dead and buried' - but I think he gets the bigger picture profoundly wrong (he's also wrong in accusing Radical Orthodoxy of being a part of the liberal Anglo-Catholic stream - that might be Don Cupitt's analysis, but it's rather fervently disputed by the RO themselves!). By the way, his 'Father Giles' is a thinly disguised reference to Giles Fraser, who is himself always worth reading (and almost as often worth disagreeing with).

Where Hobson has something interesting to say is in pointing out the tension between a Catholic understanding of authority and the liberal tradition - the liberal tradition being derived from Protestantism, where both place primacy on individual will and understanding. What has happened is that the wider Modern culture has so reinforced that tendency that it became a distorted parody of itself, lacking any place for humility before the truth, and some sense of Christian solidarity - which is why Protestantism dissipates into the ten thousand things. A Catholic sense of authority - healthily understood, for even in Catholicism the individual conscience is paramount - is one that gives more weight to church tradition, and therefore tempers the arrogance latent in Protestantism, that the individual is in a position to know better than the church as a whole. It can happen - I think that Luther was right to Protest - but the onus is on the one seeking to overthrow the church tradition to show why. And as Rowan has put it, genuinely prophetic action has costly consequences.

What the liberals in TEC seem not to be able to supply is an argument properly grounded in theology for taking the stance that they do (see Oliver O'Donovan on this here). This is where Rowan is most seriously misread by the liberals, for he was never 'one of them' in placing individual opinion so recklessly ahead of the gathered consensus (which is why he keeps emphasising that full understanding of the truth requires unity). I'm quite sure Rowan still holds the same views about homosexuality etc that he has always held; what has changed is that he has taken on the office and authority of ABC and he has a profoundly Catholic (ie correct!) understanding of what that involves - that individual opinion comes second to the authority of the church. Not always - conscience does NOT have to be violated - simply a recognition that "I MIGHT BE WRONG" - and that the Spirit works through the church to lead it into truth - we therefore trust the process, and trust the church.

Where I most disagree with Hobson, however, is that the liberal tradition (in the CofE) is 'dead' - although he himself retreats a little with his final remarks. If you accept the classical Anglican understanding of authority (Richard Hooker's) , it is a 'three legged stool' - and needs all three elements to stand fast. So we can picture this as a triangle, with each corner representing one of the 'legs' (I'm equating liberal and 'reason' here). The church as a whole, and individual believers on their own path of spiritual growth, can move or emphasise one leg of the stool more at one time, and another at a different time. In other words there is a progression around the legs. A healthy progression is centripetal, ie it remains focussed on Christ, and tends towards the unity and integrity where all three elements are in harmony. An unhealthy progression comes when an aspect is emphasised at the expense of the centre, and there is centrifugal force, which destroys the unity and harmony of the whole.

This is a quick sketch of what I have in mind:

So there is a place for each 'strand', and the health comes from the recognition of the essential unity of all three strands in Christ; where things go wrong - and where some elements go zooming off into the outer darkness - is when the different corners lose touch with their opposite areas. At that time, the Spirit becomes most active, and rebalances the church as a whole. This is why, at the moment, the most interesting theological and ecclesiological work is taking place at the borderline between the Catholic and the Evangelical (things like 'deep church').

Liberalism won't die - or at least, it WILL die, but only to be resurrected. It has an essential part to play in the balance of the church, it is thoroughly incarnational and engaged with the world, but what it has forgotten at this time is that the church is to be in, but not of, the world.

There is something precious in this Anglican hermeneutic, and it is worth defending. Thanks be to God for Rowan! He knows these things. Trust him. The Lord is with him.


UPDATE: see this from the Archbishop of Cape Town, discussing "the rich heartlands of Anglicanism – the solid centre, focussed on Jesus Christ, to which we are constantly drawn back by the counterbalancing pull of the other strands, if any one threatens to become disproportionately influential."

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