Tuesday, October 2, 2012

"Almost ubiquitous liturgical chaos," and more

From a John Milbank article in the Australian abc.net.au, "After Rowan:  Priorities for the Anglican Communion":
But perhaps even more urgent for the Church in England than addressing this issue [same-sex relationships] is the need to amend the growing incompetence and theological incoherence on the ground. There are three crucial elements that stand out: 
  • Almost ubiquitous liturgical chaos, where many evangelicals and liberals alike have little sense of what worship is for. 
  • The increasing failure of many priests to perform their true priestly roles of pastoral care and mission outreach, in a predominantly "liberal" and managerialist ecclesial culture that encourages bureaucratisation and over-specialisation. This has often led to a staggering failure even to try to do the most obvious things - like publicising in the community an Easter egg hunt for children in the bishop's palace grounds! To an unrecognised degree this kind of lapse explains why fewer and fewer people bother with church - though the underlying failure "even to try" has more to do with a post 1960s ethos that assumes decline and regards secularisation as basically a good thing, or even as providentially ordained since religion is supposedly a "private" and merely "personal" affair after all. 
  • Perhaps most decisive is the collapse of theological literacy among the clergy - again, this is partly a legacy of the 1960s and 70s (made all the worst by the illusion that this was a time of enlightening by sophisticated German Protestant influence), but it has now been compounded by the ever-easier admission of people to the priesthood with but minimal theological education, and often one in which doctrine is regarded almost as an optional extra.

If we are to come together, then we need increasingly to learn together - which means both to study and to wonder in concert. What should this mean in practice? I suggest at least three things:
  • The Church of England needs to make higher education its top priority - especially given that it can no longer necessarily rely on the universities providing theological courses if they are given no ecclesial assistance. In Britain, we need excellent divinity schools and an enhanced church role in the existing universities of Anglican foundation - from Oxford and Cambridge and Durham to the smaller and more recent institutions. (It should be noted that already the life of Oxbridge chapels and churches, like that of cathedrals, is showing strong signs of recovery, alongside the beginnings of a theological and vocational revival.) It would be a good idea also, as Rowan Williams himself has often suggested, to supplement this with an equivalent role for South Africa, which provides a vital link between the African world and that of the "western" nations. In such institutions new inspiration and old learning could creatively mix. And the elite future leaders of global Anglicanism trained there would preserve a natural love for their alma mater and its cultural and political setting.
  • The Church of England needs some sort of equivalent of the Catholic cardinalate. This could be supplied - not by the superfluous creation of an equivalent super-elite - but rather by reinforcing the collective international authority of Primates who are globally some thirty-eight in number. Currently they meet infrequently and in various locations round the world, but perhaps they need to assemble more often and usually in Canterbury, so that they can be given a more consistent role in shaping a new policy for the whole communion. This would at once enhance the "enforcing" role of Canterbury (without which no polity of any kind ever stands) and yet also increase the influence of Anglicans in other countries. For at present, the periodical Lambeth summit of all the world's bishops is simply too infrequent and too unwieldy - and this has been a considerable part of the problem. The archbishops might also be given special links to particular dioceses or even specific parishes in England so that they would have a sense of another home in that country and a stake in English affairs.
  • The Anglican Church needs to increase the effectiveness of its teaching office, since this is an essential aspect of priesthood and episcopacy. While the operation of the Catholic magisterium is still (whether fairly or unfairly) regarded as too draconian by many Anglicans, there is little doubt that Anglicanism has gone way too far in the other direction, and offers its members pitifully little guidance and only partial and sporadic leads on doctrine and practice. Again, the work of the doctrine commission in England has recently lapsed and needs to be revived, but in a new international guise and a more thoroughgoing fashion.

Here it should be noted that the Anglican legacy is perhaps more crucial and coherent than is sometimes realised. With English Catholics, Anglicans share common pre-Reformation roots that stretch back to the Venerable Bede. As Diarmaid MacCulloch has recently stressed, it was Bede who gave to the English a strong sense that they were another chosen people who would enjoy God's favour only if they obeyed his laws and sought justice. It was the same Bede who continued the originally Celtic concern with geography, history and the study of nature.

Likewise in Anglo-Saxon England, boosted by King Alfred's translation of the Christian neo-Platonist Boethius, there developed the most impressive early vernacular literature in Europe which, through Alcuin, helped to sow the seeds of the revival of humanistic learning in the Carolingian empire on the continent.

These four elements - Christianity, constitutional justice, empiricism and Platonism, along with the careful but imaginative use of words -- have ever since characterised the English legacy. Yet for all Bede's veneration of Celtic spirituality and practice, he insisted (and the British inherited from him) on a fervent loyalty to Rome and Roman ways, so that up to the time of the Reformation English characteristics were inseparable from the English people's interpretation of the Latin legacy, including Latin Christian art and architecture. It was perhaps the breaking of that link which helped to give later England at her worst an imperial arrogance, serving only herself rather than the transmission of European values, and a Promethean recklessness in the treatment of nature and human labour.

No comments: