General Synod elections
Church of England

General Synod elections: the ‘liberal drift’ is not a foregone conclusion

The Rev’d Peter Ould has been psephological over at Psephizo, and his analysis of the recent Synod elections merits some consideration in respect of the ‘liberal drift’ of the Church of England, which some adduce (quite frequently) for their leitmotifs of a church “losing its way” and doomed to “collapse into a secularized progressive Protestant splinter group“.

Former Bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir-Ali says:

The Church councils and synods are permeated by activists who each have a single-issue, often faddish agenda, whether it is about cultural correctness, ‘climate change’, identity politics, multi-culturalism (which actually encourages communities to live separately) or critical theory on race, religion and gender – a neo-Marxist theory developed to create conflict by dividing people into victims and villains.

Former Chaplain to the Queen Gavin Ashenden says:

Life as an Anglican Protestant always involved a series of contested variables which went to the heart of what constituted authenticity in the Church [of England], often made worse by trying to judge things by how much the laity, as consumers, liked them.

And so both have found refuge from the choppy seas of Anglicanism in the anchor of the Roman Catholic Church, where there are no single-issue activists, no identity politics, no faddish agendas, no neo-Marxist theories, no contested variables, and, of course, no concern with the theological views of the laity.

Such assertions are peculiarly myopic. Just because a church sports the motto Semper Eadem doesn’t mean that it is: Rome has its own disputatious synods and does its own contextual theology and amends its own dogmata and morphs to the disposition of each pope, and these variables sometimes cause schisms, confusions and chaos, with similar if not parallel allegations of a ‘liberal cabal’ embracing the spirit of the age against the immutable truths of the Magisterium.

Such tensions are inevitable when the Church is a living body: in many ways, the divisions in the General Synod mirror those which may be found in society. Whether or not you agree with the synodical form of church governance is immaterial: the Church of England, being the Established Church in England, does its theology in the Anglican way, and it does its theology very publicly, and sometimes fractiously, and sometimes messily, but it does it synodically with laity because the people are the Church, and it prefers Synod elections and open debate to secret priestly deliberation. And so it adapts by increments to each new sociological context, rather than concealing murky contentious issues beneath a perfectly ironed altar cloth.

Some are naturally averse to such adaptation, preferring instead the immutable professions of scripture and tradition, or the infallible assertions of ecclesial jurisdiction, not least because each increment is seen to aggregate in contention to the revealed and sanctifying truth of God, and that path leads somewhere new and sometimes unknown. This can cause disquiet, if not dismay, anger and hurt.

The interesting thing about Peter Ould’s analysis is that the liberal wing of the Church of England is manifestly not ‘winning’ (if one may put it like that). Admittedly, he takes a very narrow view (and questionable methodology) for discerning between ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘revisionism’ (which terms are also refracted through his preferred lens), but if the blessing of same-sex unions is indeed the theological touchstone of the age (which is itself a peculiarly myopic obsession), then the fact that “orthodox laity actually form a larger group than revisionist laity” is significant in one respect: clergy and media who perpetuate the belief that those who sit in the pews are agitating for change to become more ‘contemporary’ or ‘relevant’ on this issue are wrong. And the assertion that laity are essentially happy with moral relativity on sexuality and ever more ‘inclusive’ liturgical innovation is untrue.

It is also important to note that the religious and theological tensions (and sometimes bloody battles) between the ‘orthodox’ and the ‘revisionist’ has often yielded glorious movements of grace and revelations of greater truth: St Paul and Saint Peter were themselves once the revisionists; as were Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli and Calvin; along with Tyndale, Hooker and Cranmer; and Wesley, Booth, Spurgeon and Barth. Pope Francis has expressed clearly that theological diversity is not merely permitted and tolerated by God, but in His infinite wisdom and grace actively willed by Him:

Freedom is a right of every person: each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action. The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings. This divine wisdom is the source from which the right to freedom of belief and the freedom to be different derives. Therefore, the fact that people are forced to adhere to a certain religion or culture must be rejected, as too the imposition of a cultural way of life that others do not accept..

But when Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, Preacher to the Papal Household, lauded the virtues of the Church of England, his message was clear:

We need to start again with the person of Jesus, humbly helping our contemporaries to experience a personal encounter with Him. “All things were created through him and for him”; Christ is the light of the world, the one who gives meaning and hope to every human life – and the majority of people around us live and die as if He had never existed! How can we be unconcerned, and each remain “in the comfort of our own panelled houses”? We should never allow a moral issue like that of sexuality divide us more than love for Jesus Christ unites us.

The plurality of theology, ecclesiology and spirituality is not teleologically determined toward the perpetual liberalism, revisionism, schism and confusion which so many pessimistic purists aver, for are we not all in some sense orthodox, and we are not all in some sense revisionist? Do we not all individually discern and complement our own theological knowledge, our own understanding of Scripture and our own preferences of tradition with our own personal experience? And in that respect, when we each individually decide no longer to hold to a particular tradition or historic interpretation of a particular word, have we ceased to be traditionalist and become progressive? Who owns these definitions? Is the capacity to be ‘revisionist’ not more virtuous than it is iniquitous? Is ‘orthodox’ always the right teaching or the right belief? When St Paul challenged St Peter to his face (Gal 2:11), which one had ceased to be orthodox and become revisionist?

As we continue to wrangle over aspects of salvation truth and debate what constitutes primary or secondary matters of doctrine, it is heartening that the General Synod of the Church of England has nudged incrementally toward being a little more catholic and a little less reforming. Can we now just get on with talking about Christ and him crucified?

O, and how to save the parish?