Talk 2: The Vacuum

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The cultural and spiritual vacuum in the West requiring in Britain, the catholic, western, English Reformed tradition that is the Church of England as defined by Canon A5.

This is the subject of our second session. But is there a cultural and spiritual vacuum in the West? The answer is 'Yes' and the evidence is in June 2016's Brexit vote and from the November 2016 US Presidential election. Listen to how Walter Russell Mead summarized the situation in the US. This was written in May 2016, before Brexit and long before the election of Donald Trump:

"What makes Trump so appealing to so many voters is that the establishment does seem unusually clueless these days. …. With the PC crowd and the Obama administration hammering away at transgender bathroom [toilet] rights as if this was the great moral cause of our time … even as an epidemic of drug abuse and family breakdown relentlessly corrodes the foundations of American social cohesion, it's hard to believe that the establishment has a solid grip on the moral principles and priorities a society like ours needs."

And that is true in the UK as well as the US. Last summer's Brexit vote revealed a cultural and spiritual vacuum, as well as political ignorance. For contrary to the Brexiteers we need immigrants in Europe and to a lesser extent in Britain. For Europe is on a suicide mission. It has the worst fertility record in the world at 1.6 [children per woman - with population replacement being 2.1]. "How Europe is slowly dying despite an increasing world population" was one recent newspaper headline. Hence the need for net immigration, but, of course, stopping Jihadist terrorists entering Britain and the Continent.

Then contrary to the Remainers there are huge problems from the Cosmoplitanism behind their economic arguments. For the secular ideology of globalism can be socially destructive. It often has contempt for, or indifference to, traditional human supports such as faith, family and one's fatherland (and especially the Christian faith because of its unique claims). True, the economically top 20% in Western nations on average can live without such supports and prosper. True the bottom 20% need more than those traditional supports. But the middle 60% suffer most from a loss of Christian values, the breakdown of the traditional family and the loss of national solidarity. Unless there is a Christian renewal, it is hard to see how those traditional supports will be recovered. The gospel of Jesus Christ and then the fellowship of the Church is so needed. And nowhere is that gospel more needed than in our schools as they consider values as we saw at our last Conference.

But there is a growing awareness that values without virtues are valueless. However, in the pluralistic 'naked public square' there is an inability to teach virtues, coming as they do from a positive traditional morality which needs a religious grounding. Also currently there is abroad a negative morality in the West. It has three pillars:

  • one, that violence is mostly wrong;
  • two, that any consenting over 16 year-old genital activity is good and to be allowed; and,
  • three, that gay marriage (the ultimate sanction of infertility) has to be championed around the world, as David Cameron and Hilary Clinton have decreed.

But such morality will not encourage traditional virtuous behaviour. However, people are becoming aware that a society that emphasizes individual rights to what many consider quite immoral behavior, without concomitant shared public responsibilities, cannot survive. So in some places there is a return to a more classical and traditional form or moral education based on Natural Law.

C.S.Lewis called this the 'Tao' or a universal moral law. Others call it 'First Principles of Practical Reason' or 'Timeless Truths'. This moral tradition claims that 'Right' and 'Wrong' are not, in the final analysis matters of opinion but essential qualities that all civilizations over the ages have discerned. They are also reflected as hard realities which human experience will confirm through well-being when accepted, and disaster when rejected. The Old and New Testaments, of course, reflect this Natural Law as a created given. For in the Old Testament God renders judgment on Israel's neighbours, who do not have the Jewish Torah or law. You see that, for example, in Amos chapters 1 and 2. But that implies these neighbours knew somehow, or could have known, what God's justice required. In the New Testament the Apostle Paul refers to this phenomenon in Romans 2.14-15:

"when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts"

The West, over the centuries, through its Christian faith has been able to maintain confidence in a Natural Law tradition. However, that Christian biblical tradition of Natural Law, endorsed by revealed truth in the Bible, is being ignored, as well as is the Christian doctrine of sin. So psychologies and philosophies are generated that justify change. Hence the Western moral chaos. But in the hope of making good, there is a resurgent Nationalism in the West.

For nations are essential culture and world-view carriers. By contrast global cosmopolitanism produces a reduced culture. It gives you a lowest common denominator morality; and lacking a commonly agreed religion it has no spiritual traction. But a caution - history reveals that while the recovery of a national consciousness is important and can be good, it also can be quite evil without a strong doctrine of Natural Law and so the rule of law. For as national consciousness and pride can inculcate good and righteous behaviours, so, too, can they also inculcate bad and wicked ones and become demonic. This has happened in my living memory in Germany and the USSR and is now happening in parts of the Islamic world. What then is to fill the vacuum?

Two years ago we saw at this conference how you cannot have the British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs, without the Christian faith. It is now also becoming clear to many that you cannot have traditional morality as is generally wanted also without the Christian faith. For morality requires a creed and society to reinforce that morality. As J Davison Hunter puts it:

"without the grounding of particular creeds and communities, morality in public life can be advocated only as yawning platitudes."

But what is the Christian faith we need to advocate for the world? Because of the Establishment of the Church of England, those of us who are Anglicans have not only a right but also a duty to advocate the catholic, western, English Reformed tradition of the Christian faith that is the Church of England as defined by law. But what actually does that mean?

Well, the Greek word 'catholic' ties us to the tradition of those first four 'catholic' councils which are so important for Trinitarian theology and Christology (the nature of Jesus). We are Western, not Eastern, for a range of historical reasons including the fact that the seventh Council restored the veneration of icons and advocated the use of relics. This indicated a small but symbolic move of the East away from the more helpful Western tradition. And we are Reformed, but English Reformed.

That refers to the English tradition as it became under Queen Elizabeth I and is seen in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal as utterly biblical. It is sometimes said that the Church of England is halfway between the Puritans and Roman Catholics. That is not true. It was more halfway between Martin Luther and John Calvin. It commended Luther's biblicism but it saw the danger in being too unsystematic and his saying some silly things regarding parts of the Bible he didn't like, for example, James' epistle. On the other hand, with Calvin and his tradition, it saw you could be more systematic than the Bible. So your final authority could become your system into which you forced the Bible rather than the Bible itself.

The contrast between the English or Anglican Tradition and that of the Continental Calvin is seen in the Anglican Thirty-nine Articles of Religion compared with the Reformed Westminster Confession. That is a brilliant confession and the standard of belief for the Church of Scotland but not infallible. Here is J I Packer in his introduction to the current edition of Griffith Thomas', commentary on the Thirty-nine Articles. Packer is speaking of the tradition Thomas follows which is that of the English Reformers, Cranmer, Jewel and Hooker:

"Distrusting the intellectual rigidity which it thought it saw in Calvin and the Westminster standards, it rejoiced in the elbow-room for mental enterprise and rethinking which the broad and comparatively minimal statements of the Articles allow. Thomas' expression of this attitude is typical. 'There is obvious danger,' he writes, 'in every attempt at systematizing Christian truth … it is far better to be content with "Articles" or "points," with gaps unfilled … This method prevents teaching becoming hardened into a cast-iron system which cannot expand. It is the virtue of the Church of England articles that they … do not commit Churchmen to an absolute, rigid system of doctrine from which there is no relief and of which there is no modification.' Both intellectualism and anti-intellectualism are mistakes to be avoided."

But certainly Anglicanism as it has been left to us by our 16th century fore-fathers while being moderately systematic, is probably the most biblical of all the Reformed traditions. In its services the norm is for a Psalm to be said and an Old and New Testament lessons to be read plus an exposition. And in its official teaching you have in Cranmer's first book of Homilies (and he first Homily) this being said on the power of Scripture:

"The words of holy Scripture be called words of everlasting life; for they be God's instrument, ordained for the same purpose. They have power to convert through God's promise, and they be effectual through God's assistance; and, being received in a faithful heart, they have ever an heavenly spiritual working in them."

And through regular reading of Scripture there is spiritual transformation and godly living:

"And there is nothing that so much strengtheneth our faith and trust in God, that so much keepeth innocency and pureness of the heart, and also of outward godly life and conversation, as continual reading and recording of God's word. For that thing, which by continual use of reading of holy Scripture and diligent searching of the same, is deeply printed and graven in the heart, at length turneth almost into nature."

And God's working through Scripture, imprinted on your heart, fits you for heaven:

"This word whosoever is diligent to read, and in his heart to print that he readeth, the great affection to the transitory things of this world shall be minished in him, and the great desire of heavenly things, that be therein promised of God, shall increase in him."

You say, but is that the Church of England today? The answer from one point of view is 'Yes!' True, for too many the Church of England is seen only in terms of its Synodical Government with its Houses of Bishops, Clergy and Laity and its structure of General, Diocesan and Deanery level synods.

But such Synodical Government only came into force in 1970. It was not there when I was ordained; and it is now quite dysfunctional. For what happens in the General Synod (and I was a member for 15 years, a chairman of the General Synod, on its Standing Committee, on its Policy sub-committee etc.) … what happens, in the words of Philip Turner, is that there is no responsible theological reflection and dialogue going on. Rather …

"… what parades as reflection and dialogue on the whole is no more than impassioned repetition, within a politically controlled space of hardened positions."

However, for many what the General Synod finally decides is the voice of the Holy Spirit and the final authority. But that is totally wrong. For theologically the Church of England was, and is, determined by the Bible, the early fathers of the undivided Church and the Thirty-nine Articles, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal.

So how do you define the Church of England, if it is not by its synodical structure? It clearly can't be its buildings (ancient as some are) for they come and go and get refashioned. The answer was partially given recently in a court judgment. This was an Employment Tribunal in 2011 when a clergyman took the Bishop of Worcester and the Worcester Diocesan Board of Finance to court with a charge of unfair dismissal. The man was having to leave his Parish as he and his PCC had fallen out. But the Judge decided there was no body on which the clergyman could make a claim. So he lost. However, among other things the judge said this:

"As the established Church, the Church of England has occupied a central position in English society for several hundred years. Despite this, it has no legal personality. It cannot sue or be sued. The evidence conveyed to me the impression that rather than being one body with a centralised structure of administrative authority, function, control and direction, the title "Church of England" denotes an amalgam of what sometimes seemed an infinite number of bodies with no precise or clear picture to an observer such as myself … of how the various jigsaw parts interact and fit together. That situation has come about, I believe, because of the piecemeal approach of legislation over the years amending a diverse range of ancient traditions. The ultimate authority to restructure lies with the Church's parliament, the General Synod, subject to the approval of the Westminster Parliament."

(Note, the General Synod is an ultimate authority for restructuring, not for deciding doctrine or ethics.) But then the claimant appealed to the Employment Appeals Tribunal and won his appeal. Then, not unexpectedly, the bishop went to the Supreme Court of Appeal and that supported the original decision in a 2015 judgment. That original judgment was vindicated and so helps us with an answer as to how to define the ultimate authority in the Church of England and the Church of England itself. The answer is, of course, Jesus Christ and his Apostles and hence the Bible. And that is precisely what you have got, in effect, through The Church of England (Worship and Doctrine) Measure 1974.

That Measure, having the force of an Act of Parliament, defines the doctrine of the Church of England in these words:

"The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal."

Those words are verbatim from Canon A5 which gives you the Christian faith according to the Catholic Western English Reformed tradition. And that is the Established faith of this nation and it helps define the Church of England. How it needs to be recovered through a new Reformation!

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