Comments: Rowan Williams on Richard Hooker

This lecture, given under the auspices of the Ecclesiastical Law Society, is subtle and pertinent. Rowan Williams must be burning the midnight oil in his preparation for this and the South to South Encounter in Egypt.

Rowan in the past, like Hooker, has produced a pearl in reaction to grit. In terms of response to ultimate challenge, it takes one to know one. It seems to me, that Maurice Wiles’s patristic questioning of the divinity of Christ from the 1970s onwards irritated him into his massive project, which produced his major book of academic research, Arius: Heresy and Tradition.

Since his appointment as Archbishop, Rowan has had to respond to other gritty irritants: not now the radical revisioning of Wiles, but the puritan challenge of ecclesiological limits and the ultra-liberal provocative stretching of Anglican Communion ethics.

Posted by Graham Kings at Friday, 28 October 2005 at 9:54am BST

'Since his appointment as Archbishop, Rowan has had to respond to other gritty irritants: not now the radical revisioning of Wiles, but the puritan challenge of ecclesiological limits and the ultra-liberal provocative stretching of Anglican Communion ethics.'

Graham, I suspect the link is closer than you imagine. Wiles's adoptionist unitarianism is very widespread in North Atlantic Anglicanism. (The only 'successors' of the Arians I can think of today are the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Mormons.) Leslie Francis' latest book surveying actual English clergy belief has shown this (though Forward in Faith say they did a more comprehensive survey a few years ago, pointing in exactly the same direction). Those who hold the new sexual ethic belong largely within the same constituency - because doctrine and ethics really are a package that go together. You can't consistently 'revision' the sexual ethics of the Bible - so deeply founded on the Bible's anthropology, as Michael Banner stresses - without also rethinking more fundamental doctrines.
As for 'the puritan challenge of ecclesiological limits', well, these aren't really equivalent questions, are they? Do you think the Baptist Billy Graham and the Episcopalian Gene Robinson are equally 'wrong' (if wrong at all)? Is church order the same as sexual ethics? What I see across the North Atlantic Anglican world (and in Brazil) is that many people want to remain Anglican but they have little confidence in the bishops over them. That isn't so much a 'challenge of ecclesiological limits' (and remember it's Ecusa and the AC of Canada that are making national autonomy a theological principle) but a call for traditional faithfulness to Anglicanism's foundation documents (the 39 Articles, the 1662 BCP and the Catholic Creeds).

Posted by Mark Beaton at Friday, 28 October 2005 at 11:09am BST

My reading of the Archbishop's lecture has been necessarily cursory. I hope to return to it and read it more carefully. (My undergrad dissertation, back in 1969, was on Hooker.) My immediate reaction, however, is to congratulate His Grace on a cogently argued and interesting piece, acessible to the lay (in the figurative sense) reader.

Posted by Alan Harrison at Friday, 28 October 2005 at 1:01pm BST

Mark ; you can't simply pretend that Anglicanism has never included theological liberals!

Posted by Merseymike at Friday, 28 October 2005 at 9:34pm BST

But they do, they do. All the time ;=)

Posted by Göran Koch-Swahne at Sunday, 30 October 2005 at 9:48am GMT

Merseymike, from another background I've been researching Anglicanism for these past two years and more, and obviously I have much more to find out about its history. But already I can see that 'liberal' is a very e-l-a-s-t-i-c term, covering Frederick Temple, Charles Gore, Hensley Henson, Charles Raven, Bishop Barnes of Birmingham, Maurice Wiles and John Robinson, among others: some pretty moderate (incarnationist, trinitarian, kenotic), others quite extreme (unitarian, non-incarnationist, adoptionist, even deistic). So the term is so broad that without further qualification it is not terribly useful.
Merseymike, I would be interested to hear from you what you think 'liberal' means and whether there is a point at which it doesn't mean much any more to do with historic Christianity. This is one of the concerns of my research.

Posted by Mark Beaton at Sunday, 30 October 2005 at 9:40pm GMT

Mark Beaton: ++Rowan had the following to say on liberalism in his Anglican Identities:

We might begin to identify a style of Anglican liberalism that is rather different from what liberalism is commonly supposed to be. . . . It might be summed up as the belief that scriptural and Christian language always says more than it initially appears to say. . . . Revelation provides not a system to be received but a language in which to discover more and more echoes and consonances.

This approach corresponds quite closely to one of the two varieties of “skepticism” regularly found in Anglican literature, a skepticism about formulae and dogma that is fundamentally skeptical about the capacities of the human mind. It assumes that we are liable to self-deceit, that our knowledge is affected by our moral and spiritual lack. In this context, to be cautious about hermeneutical or dogmatic closure is not to discard or relativise sanctioned words; you occupy the territory marked out by those words, but you will not know where the boundaries are, because the search for definite boundaries suggests that you might be in possession of the territory, not yourself included in (possessed by?) it. And this contrasts with a skepticism more obviously generated by Enlightenment suspicion of authority, in which the target of the questioning is the formulae as such and the processes by which they were shaped. To revert for a moment to a phrase used a little while ago, this would be a conviction that Christian language says less than it claims to say; that it encodes illegitimate claims and covert appeals to uncriticized power.

Posted by Bill at Sunday, 30 October 2005 at 11:59pm GMT

Mark ; I think it can, as you rightly say, be used to describe the range of views you cite.

I don't think, however, that there is a specific 'cut-off' point where it suddenly becomes unrelated to historic Christianity. But I'm not sure that is a very useful concept in any case - to me, the key aspect of liberalism is its caution in accepting 'revealed truth' which is not coloured or affected by cultural and sociological factors.

There and again, I would say that I have moved towards a less orthodox position over the past three years, largely because of my experiences of conservative christianity.

Posted by Merseymike at Monday, 31 October 2005 at 12:23am GMT

Bill, thank you for this quote. If I can decipher it, it sounds a bit like a psycho-linguistic theory of knowledge and not really what theological liberalism (in its variety) has denoted in the past, which is posited more on confidence in human reason. I wonder if this skepticism doesn't prove self-defeating in its via negativa; for while it's a good thing to be humble, what good are words if we really don't know what they mean? I've never thought of the Bible as being a mystic code, but something of which we could say the great majority of it is mostly clear to most people (see Tim Ward on perspicuitas).

Posted by Mark Beaton at Monday, 31 October 2005 at 12:30am GMT

Merseymike, thanks for your comment, which I am working into my developing ideas. I wonder if what you call 'caution' others might call 'skepticism', the endless deferral of commitment or assent - or at least on some questions, for there are some matters that liberals (of all shades) are quite emphatic that they DO know. It is one thing to say we do not know exhaustively (and actually nobody does say this), another to doubt if we can know at all. The old-style liberalism I referred to above didn't say (as we hear today), 'There's a range of opinion, and no one can tell which is true'; rather it said, 'That's what people believed in past but science/reason/experience etc has disproved it.' So its project was to refashion Christianity and the creeds according to that epistemological principle. Bonhoeffer said the Creeds were a 'hedge around a mystery'; obviously it's possible to step outside the hedge.

Posted by Mark Beaton at Monday, 31 October 2005 at 12:08pm GMT
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