Thinking Anglicans have put us on to several very useful essays:
Don Cupitt, fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and an extraordinary theologian, has written an important short essay on the theological struggles ahead for Anglicanism, published in the Guardian. He concludes,
“… the great churchmen know that sooner or later Christian thought must undergo a very great transformation. A handful of writers are already describing it, but they are not popular, for it is a change far too big for the church to contemplate as yet. In the short run most of Christianity will choose to go fundamentalist and countercultural, and in the short run church leaders cannot give us a worked-out rational alternative to fundamentalism. It would be much too radical, and people would not accept it. Hence the impotence of liberal theology.
What are church leaders to do, then? As they put the old metaphysical language on the back burner, they are hoping that new ideas and public debate will gradually change the climate. And that I think is about the best they can do, in their unenviable position.”
Giles Fraser, vicar of Putney and a lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford, whose columns appear often in the British press, has written a review of American Fascists: the Christian right and the war on America by Chris Hedges. Thinking Anglicans rightly references the last paragraphs of the review and its warning about fundamentalism in England. But the review is of considerable importance for us on this side of the Atlantic because it both points us to the book and to an understanding of fundamentalism and its relation to fear and the emergence of an underclass which includes much of what we think of here as parts of the middle class. Giles says,
“The common denominator, and the key difference between the fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist versions of any worldview, has to do with an ability to accommodate ambiguity and uncertainty. Fundamentalism is a closed system of thought, demanding certainty and providing emotional security. For fundamentalism is commonly an epiphenomenon of change, and has grown in parallel with the rapid social and economic changes that have come about through globalisation. "Change and decay in all around I see, O thou who changest not, abide with me."
... the need for strict internal coherence has little to do with the dem ands of truth and a great deal to do with the way people keep their demons at bay. The glue of the whole intellectual structure is fear. ... That's why debate with fundamentalists is all but impossible. Doubt and rational inquiry serves only to open the jaws of hell.”
When we look at why the Anglican Communion is in such a mess these days, and why the Episcopal Church in particular is not an easy carrier of good news to some, surely part of the problem rests with the Anglican propensity to live with provisionality – with the idea that matters including the language of theological and moral conversation is subject to revision, development, or unfolding depth… in other words, subject to change.
Only part of this provisionality derives from post-modernism. Some of it arises from much older problems of attempting to bring peoples whose beliefs were considerably different to the same table. The quote, attributed to Queen Elizabeth I, that “There is only one Christ, Jesus, one faith. All else is a dispute over trifles,” provided for a sort of provisional attitude toward all theological and moral discourse. Living with the uncertainty of just how the faith in the One Lord Jesus Christ is to be expressed and with the notion that moral reason is subject to development makes for a church in which there are lively debates, even if sometimes about trifles. But it does not provide what the fundamentalist craves – a certainty not found elsewhere in the culture – and does not conform to the theological structures of the past.
Don Cupitt’s remark, “In the short run most of Christianity will choose to go fundamentalist and countercultural, and in the short run church leaders cannot give us a worked-out rational alternative to fundamentalism. It would be much too radical, and people would not accept it. Hence the impotence of liberal theology,” is a sobering one. One conclusion is that in these unsettling times the Episcopal Church and perhaps its parent church the Church of England, will either be overtaken by fundamentalism or smothered in locked down theological conversation, in which case these churches, as we know it will cease to exist. Another is that if we are up to the task the Episcopal Church, and perhaps some others within the Anglican Communion, will begin the provisional risk taking that will both require us to live less assured lives and at the same time lives faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ in ways we now cannot easily imagine.
As to the costs, they are trifles, for perhaps Elizabeth was right. Keep our eyes on the prize: the “One Christ, Jesus, one faith.”
About the exercise of that faith in the continued effort to gather with others in community and communion, I like Dr. Katherine Grieb’s comments regarding the need for Anglicans to work with one another on matters of interpretation and understanding of a biblically based faith community. She said,
"What we need right now are for biblical interpreters and theologians and all the people living in our churches hearing the Word every Sunday, living it out in their lives all the days of the week, to reflect on these traditions of biblical interpretation," she said. "As we reflect also on our present context, we can recommit ourselves to welcome those who share another understanding of Scripture and therefore another interpretation of doctrine or ethics than we do."
"It is the time for the Anglican Communion at every level to renew its commitment to conversation about the Anglican Communion and about the history of biblical interpretation in Anglicanism," she said. "We're up to that; we can do this."
An attitude of provisionality, and I think Anglican sensibilities, require that we have this sense: “We’re up to that; we can do this.”