According to Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, “there is not and cannot be a gospel which is not culturally embodied”. He maintained that the missionary task of the Church is to challenge the “reigning plausibility structure” by examining it in light of the revealed purposes of God contained in the biblical narrative. He advocated a scepticism which enables one to take part in the life of society without being deluded by its own beliefs about itself.
The principle of inculturation cannot endorse uncritical acceptance of the totality of any culture. And yet the Church of England adheres to the territorial ‘church in community’ type of ecclesiology which works with the state to define its worship, and through dioceses, parishes and chaplaincies to effect its pastoral care and compassionate service. Establishment commits the Church to full involvement in civil society and to making a contribution to the public discussion of issues that have moral or spiritual implications. In his book Church Drawing Near: Spirituality and Mission in a Post-Christian Culture, Paul Avis observes:
The pastoral mode of mission is essentially the personal mode. It connects with the personal quest that motivates many reflective people in our culture – a quest for wholeness of body, mind and spirit, for wholeness in relationships and in community, for the integrity of the natural environment and for our harmony with it.
By concerning itself with the pastoral dimensions of wholeness and healing, Avis is persuaded that the mission of the Church accords with people’s quest for meaning and an assurance of identity which cannot be found without community, without fellowship. Yet one of the Church of England’s fundamental weaknesses, in common with many churches in Europe, is its tendency to demand that people do not merely acknowledge the Lordship of Christ but also abandon their former way of life in favour of that of a peculiar middle-class sub-culture.
Notwithstanding some of the excellent work going on in some of the most impoverished parishes in the country, the public perception of the Church of England remains one of middle-class privilege and an élitism which has little relevance to a modern, pluralist, multi-ethnic society. While this may be a misconception, it is undoubtedly exacerbated by the nature of establishment and the fusion of the Church with secular government.
And yet it is within the church-state settlement that there remains one of the Church’s primary functions in holding government and political parties to account. The 2008 document Moral but no Compass, although unofficial, illustrates the powerful role the Church of England may still exercise in highlighting the inadequacies – spiritual and political – of the entire political system, in order that people’s welfare may be improved. Pace the secular-humanists, the public realm remains an arena in which the Church’s moral and ethical mission continues to be exercised for the common good.
Perhaps it is only the Establishment Church which, in contemporary society, possesses the status to permit it to fight for representation of a slighted electorate in the face of an increasingly abstract political élite. And yet some of its chosen forays often concern themselves with issues which are ceasing to be of primary concern to the majority of the electorate – issues of equality, for example. These only add to the perception that the Church of England seeks to exclude or is out of sympathy with some distinct groups of people for whom it should have a pastoral concern. This would be less of a problem if the Church’s Supreme Governor were not also Head of State, for by virtue of being so, she is obliged to exercise her public outward government in a manner which accords with the private welfare of her subjects – of whatever creed, ethnicity, sexuality or political philosophy.
The Royal Supremacy in regard to the Church of England is, in its essence, the right of supervision over the administration of the Church, vested in the Crown as the champion of the Church, in order that the religious welfare of its subjects may be provided for. The Church of England exists for all people – not just the Christians. While theologians and politicians argue over the manner of this religious welfare – instead of just getting on with ensuring it – people are alienated and distanced: the Church is thereby hindered in its mission.
It is for all members of the Church of England – not just a few élite and aloof bishops – to participate in the ongoing quest for a distinct Anglican identity in the fragmented, (post-)modern, multifath, ecumenical context we now inhabit. We need argumentation which will soar above the trivial theological and political squabbles of the day and which might take every issue back to first principles – the nature and purpose of the Christian Church. The theological imagination must inhabit the past life of the Church, as well as Scripture and the creative, nodal points of contemporary culture. Scripture, tradition and reason must be brought into vibrant conversation. Ultimately, they must come together and co-inhere in an integrated working of authority in theology and Church. If they do not, we are irrelevant.
We may already be so.