The principle of provincial autonomy within the Anglican Communion recognizes the deep cultural differences between national Churches, and reveals a determination to avoid any lingering semblance of colonialism. One of its consequences has been that relationships between provinces have had to depend on trust, friendship and mutual respect, rather than on institutional arrangements and enforceable rules. The Archbishop of. Canterbury has a symbolic role as the focus of unity, but his actual powers are minimal. Given this looseness of structure, the Communion has always been vulnerable to unilateral action, but has hitherto avoided catastrophe by a widespread and generous willingness to value freedom and to enjoy the positive benefits of living with diversity. Not any more. “War” is perhaps too strong a word to describe its present state, but there is certainly a bid to dictate the agenda by those who are utterly convinced that they alone know the mind of God. The result is that attempts to resolve the Communion’s problems by appeal to its traditional values seem likely to fail, because for some dissidents it is precisely the readiness to tolerate differences, which is now the main source of contention.
A Church at War is an impressive piece of journalism, well informed, anecdotal, highly readable, sharp, sometimes unfair, gently mocking where mockery is deserved and, as far as I can judge, mostly accurate. Its author is a Roman Catholic, the religious affairs correspondent for the Guardian, and is married to an Evangelical Anglican. His theme is that the current dispute within Anglicanism, though ostensibly about homosexuality, is best understood as an attempt by conservative Evangelicals to seize power.
Bates adds much illuminating detail to the history of the crisis, from the Church of England Bishops’ 1991 Report Issues in Human Sexuality, to the firm and, as many believe, disastrous anti-homosexual stance taken by the 1998 Lambeth Conference, the subsequent dispute in 2003 over the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in the USA, and Canon Jeffrey John’s forced withdrawal from the offer of a suffragan bishopric in England. Unfortunately, like many others, Bates misses the main point of the 1991 report, namely that in strongly contested matters there must be freedom for individual consciences, but that the Church as an institution must not prematurely commit itself to one side or the other. As a significant background to these developments, he also charts the post-war rise of evangelicalism, and the recent growth of hardline groups which have fastened upon homosexuality as a rallying point for Christians worried by critical attitudes towards biblical authority, and disgusted by what they imagine homosexuality must entail. “What precipitates the split now he writes, “is that a section of conservative Evangelicals, with a militant and exclusivist philosophy and a taste for confrontation, has organised an attempted coup to seize the old church for its own agenda. Theirs is a sectarian, congregationalist church that can tolerate only one sort of Christian and only the authority of those bishops who agree with them. There is no room for dialogue, doubt or debate…” A harsh judgement, maybe, but there is plenty of evidence to show that it is not far from the truth.
Stephen Bates’s book A Church at War is the subject of a 3000 word article on “Anglican Mainstream”.
Unsurprisingly, Andrew Goddard and Chris Sugden don’t really like the book. Interestingly in their quest for errors, they make no criticisms of the pages of the book which refer either to the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies (where Chris Sugden works), to Anglican Mainstream itself, or to them personally. They do however catch an error that I missed: Wycliffe Hall (where Andrew Goddard works) is not called Wycliffe House.
These apparently accurate references include, for example, this description of OCMS funding:
…The OCMS is a group based in a converted North Oxford church, whose raison d’etre is to liaise with and foster educational opportunities for developing-world Evangelicals, and it was to take an increasingly partisan and shrill stance on the homosexual issue over the coming years. It was also happy to see the ex-Christian Reconstructionist, the American millionaire Howard Ahmanson - and other wealthy Americans - give support to its projects and to place one of Ahmanson’s employees on its management team.
And this description of Anglican Mainstream’s petition:
The numbers were fairly slow in coming but jumped suddenly when archbishops from Uganda, South East Asia, the Congo, Central Africa, Kenya, the Indian Ocean and South America signed up every member of their archdioceses. [page 214, another error that I missed too, he means provinces] This suddenly produced 13 million supporters, which Mainstream blandly announced represented ‘a majority’ of the 70 million-strong Anglican Communion - shaky maths and shakier polling practice. For good measure, the petition announced that Robinson had only been endorsed by ‘a minority group’ in the American church…
But even more interestingly they make no serious attempt to deny Bates’s main thesis of a power-driven conspiracy within the CofE by Evangelicals. Indeed they provide a lovely quote for a revised dust jacket: “almost impossible to refute” :-)
Collectors of such reviews may also wish to note this one which I have failed to link to previously.
A Church at War Anglicans and Homosexuality is the title of a new book by Stephen Bates, the Religious Affairs correspondent of the Guardian.
I wrote a full-length review of this book for Anglicans Online this week.
You can read it here.
The Church of England Newspaper has also published a review of the book, by Le Roux Schoeman The Lambeth War correspondent.
Some interesting comments by Richard Thomas can be found on the Oxford Diocesan website:
‘Jeffrey John wanted to retract his resignation’ new book claims
Update Another review was published last week in the Telegraph by Damian Thompson
A Church brought to its knees
MacCulloch has taken on this vast subject and produced one of the most magisterial and stylishly written historical works to be published in a decade. The book sparklingly synthesizes scholarship on an astonishing array of subjects, ranging from repentance rituals in Protestant Transylvania to the Jesuits’ reactions to what they saw as the “Judaizing deviations” of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to church architecture. Throughout, MacCulloch, professor of the history of the Church at Oxford, explicates complex theological issues with startling lucidity. And his analyses of the lives, personalities, ideas, and struggles of Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Cranmer, Philip II, and Ignatius of Loyola are at once sharp and profound (and not infrequently funny).
Earlier reviews of this book were noted here.
Speaking of which, Kendall Harmon spotted a book review in the Tablet that I missed:
NT Wright reviews Gerald O’Collins’ book, Easter Faith: believing in the risen Jesus.
The book is REFORMATION: EUROPE’S HOUSE DIVIDED, 1490-1700 By Diarmaid MacCulloch, Allen Lane/Penguin, £25, pp.831, ISBN:0713993707.
This one on 1 November, in the Guardian from David Edwards, The door to a new church
Daniel Swift in the Spectator
And today, Richard Chartres in the Church Times
Richard Chartres says:
At a time when we are perhaps better able to appreciate and fear the reality of religious passion than our immediate forebears, MacCulloch helps us to enter into the minds of furious disputants. At the same time he exposes the many ironies in the story, such as the earnest efforts of the eirenic Cardinal Pole to reconcile the realm of England to the Roman obedience while being himself on the run from the Holy Inquisition.
As we ponder the reconciliation of the successor parts of the Western Church and reach out to the Christian East, this book helps us to understand the complexity of the task, and gives us the humility necessary if we are to make progress. Including the notes, select bibliography and the useful index, Reformation extends to 832 pages. Once embarked upon it, however, I found it impossible to put down.
Back on 1 October, I reported that Tom Wright had published a new book.
On Saturday 18 October I failed to report that Karen Armstrong had published an article in the Guardian, This is our heaven - or hell which comments on this book.
Yesterday, the Guardian published a letter by Tom Wright in which he claims she misrepresented his views. Later that day, an American New Testament professor wrote this criticism of Tom Wright’s criticism.
The Glasgow Sunday Herald has a review of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s new book, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700. Here is a quote from the review (but read it all):
As MacCulloch explains it, US presidents such as Ronald Reagan and George Bush owe their mind-sets to the Reformation. “In the USA, Protestantism, stemming from England and Scotland, set the original patterns of identity,” he writes. “American life is fired by a continuing energy of Protestant religious practice derived from the 16th century. So the Reformation … has created the ideology dominant in the world’s remaining superpower …”