By Adrian Worsfold
I find it increasingly difficult to measure any consistency between the Archbishop of Canterbury’s lectures and his actions regarding the Anglican Communion. Contast his statement to the recent Global South gathering in Singapore, in which Mary Glasspool’s election and forthcoming consecration cannot stand, and about which he is in conversation with a number of unstated people regarding the consequences, and his lecture given to the Christian Muslim Forum Conference of Scholars dated March 22nd. Here is the first of some choice cuts:
A very significant part of the Christian tradition, especially the Christian mystical tradition, is the conviction that you will never have said enough about God. If God is infinite then you will never run out of things to say. And you’ll never come to a place where you can say, ‘all that has to be said about God has now been said’. Our speech about God brings us constantly to the edge of a mystery which is at one and the same time dark and even alarming, because it throws out all our preconceptions, and yet is also inviting, because we know it is a mystery of endless love and invitation and welcome. So the process of talking about faith, for Christians who’ve inherited that particular strand of Christian reflection, is always a process of coming to the point where you look into a mystery. Your words, you believe, are true, and yet they are not a truth that allows you to say there’s no more to discover.
Why can he not translate this breadth and generosity to the Anglican Communion?
Personally I have completed my transition from an Anglican identity to Unitarian (again). I do not believe in the significant doctrinal claims of Anglicans, regarding incarnation and resurrection, for example. The answer as to whether I believe in these is no. I prefer the emphasis on freedom of individual belief, of difference coming together. I will still attend Anglican evensongs, I cannot participate in chunks of any Eucharist, and I can still present theological material for as long as wanted.
I participate in a congregation that has attracted a Muslim into regular attendance. It simply could not happen in an Anglican church. Unitarian churches change when people join them, whereas in Anglicanism the people should change to fit in. The ignorant charge made against The Episcopal Church, that it has somehow become Unitarian, is rubbish. Your Rev. Ann Holmes Redding, on also joining Islam, and dressing for that worship, was found to be incompatible with your Church, and Rev Kevin Thew Forrester failed to get sufficient consents for being a bishop, due not so much to his additional Buddhist spirituality but his actual liturgical revisionism. The Church retains what seems to a Unitarian a highly dogmatic liturgy, one that retains an outsider’s view of Christianity that it is, above all, a cult of an individual, the saving personality of Jesus Christ.
Yet, bizarrely, that presentation of the Archbishop of Canterbury to a Muslim-Christian scholars’ conference is hardly out of place in many a Unitarian church. Here are some more choice cuts:
When I see some of the great classics of comparative religion of a certain kind, whether it’s the work of Professor John Hick, or Fr Hans Küng, my worry is that these are people who are eager to persuade everybody that their differences don’t really matter in the way they thought they did, that everyone is really asking the same questions, and that it ought to be possible to find the same answers,
But of course they’re not asking the same questions… ‘What must I do to be saved?’ may be a Christian question, but I doubt very much whether it’s a natural Muslim question or even a Hindu question – or a Buddhist question where the question might be ‘What could I do to be released?’ (which is a slightly different category). My point is that in dialogue I start questioning my own questions. I look at myself and say ‘Is that the obvious or only way of asking the question?’ ‘How do I listen to someone else’s questions and see how mine relate to them?’ In other words, in dialogue I discover the things that are not necessarily at the forefront of my mind.
And that surely is a very significant aspect of dialogue: the discovery that we don’t know even what we don’t know. And we must, in attention and listening find that out if God is to do what God wants with us.
A Unitarian is very well aware that different religions have developed different languages and questions. Some Unitarians might think they have a Hick-like Universalism or a Kung-like global ethic, but others are aware that their own concepts derive from a Judaeo-Christian humanist background. My own are religious humanist, liberal Christian and Western Buddhist, and where real absence meets non-realist presence.
It seems to me that I could have given the substantive parts of the Archbishop’s lecture, with the smallest of tweaks. But I combine this outlook with a view of full social inclusivity, of welcoming difference and complete liberality in interpretation. He combines it with a conservatism of bureaucratic Church interpretation and a narrative biblical approach that involves the wearing of blinkers. I don’t get the connection between his breadth and his narrowness, and I don’t think I am alone.
Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist), has a doctorate in sociology and a masters degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks.