The Bishop of Oxford's defence of Christianity suffers from an excess of Anglican good taste, says Dwight Longenecker
God Outside the Box by Richard Harries, SPCK £9.99
Not long ago I heard an Australian's wry comment on the Anglican Church, "Listen, mate," he said, "Anglicanism isn't a religion. It's a set of table manners." What he meant was that the Church of England isn't really the Church of England, it's the Church of Middle England. Eamon Duffy has written that when the English church went Protestant, and therefore iconoclastic and intellectual, it lost the working classes forever.
This has never been more true than now. At the Reformation, the Anglicans threw out the authority of the Pope. With the advent of "higher criticism" they threw out the authority of the Bible, and as a result all that is left is personal opinion, which is often no more than questions of taste. Richard Harries is the archpriest of this Church of Good Taste. He has already produced a book called Art and the Beauty of God, and his new volume is a tasteful apologetic for the chattering classes. This is a good book, with well reasoned arguments in favour of God, religion and the Christian faith. But what it lacks is any dogmatic foundation. It is a beautiful house built on sand.
It seems churlish to complain of a book, which in many sections, is excellent. Harries confronts modern grumbles about God and answers the grumblers with straight logic and common sense. In five sections composed of readable short chapters he confronts: 1. The Case Against God; 2. Difficulties in Belief; 3: The Case Against Religion; 4 The Case Against Christianity; and 5. Spirituality for Today. In the first section he counters arguments that God is a male despot who demands praise and punishes people eternally. His answers are good. He shows that the popular critics haven't considered the whole question, but, like most Protestants, he only goes so far. He gives tentative answers based on his own opinion and experience.
So, in the chapter on the gender question, the bishop beats his breast over "the pain and anger of women when they read the Bible or encounter a male-dominated Christian liturgy". It is under
standable that critics blame the Protestant church for being overintellectual and male dominated. This is the result of chucking out the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Harries's remedy is not a return to the fullness of the historic faith, but yet more feminist liturgies and "power sharing". He hopes that "as women come to play an increasingly important role in the leadership of the Church this mystery will not only qualify traditional perceptions of the divine mystery but will enlarge and enrich them". I quote this particular passage, because it illustrates the bishop's essentially Protestant, intellectual,and English perception of the church and the world. So, no pilgrimages to Lourdes and bottles of holy water shaped like the Virgin Mary for this chap.
In the middle section, he addresses criticisms such as"religion is stuck in the Past", "religion is divisive", "religion keeps people immature" and "life today is simply too good to need religion". Each question is tackled honestly and Harries shows that, while there is an element of truth in each criticism, often the criticism is the fruit of some abuse of religion, or of the critics' own limited understanding. In the fourth section, he focuses on criticisms of Christianity: that Christianity is negative, that it
harps on guilt and sin, that Christians "eat God" or that it is only for wimps. In each of the short chapters the critics are both listened to and answered with tact, wisdom and precision. In the final section Harries proposes the current Anglican version of Christian spirituality, which is low on dogma and high on self-fulfilment and a kind of refined agnosticism. The bishop is
big on the "apophatic way" — the via negativa that approaches the "great absence" which is God. Has the much-vaunted Anglican via media become the via negativa? If so, it may be symbolic of the entire trend in the Anglican Church. The section on "spirituality" is the greatest disappointment, but it is also the greatest revelation. It shows what a modern Anglican bishop has on offer, and his stall is pretty bare subjective, watered down, agnosticism. This is the religion of the educated establishment today. If you like, it is not the Universal church; it is the University Church.
The aesthetic, intellectual context of God Outside the Box means that it can really only appeal to a niche audience. C S Lewis said that writing about religion for ordinary people was one of the most difficult forms of communication. Hoi polloi are intimidated by footnotes, quotes and literary references, and immediately assume that you are talking down to them. But if you try to use relevant illustrations from popular culture you tread through a minefield. Use a reference that is out of date, and you come across as ridiculously trendy and naff.
Bishop Harries doesn't seem to have noticed Lewis's advice to apologists. Harries writes well and clearly, but he crams the book with literary references: R S Thomas, T S Eliot, Stevie Smith and D H Lawrence. Long passages from Shakespeare and other writers intrude, and he pulls off delicious personal passages like this about the Last Judgment: "[Its severity] can be seen in early medieval icons in the monastery of St Catherine at Sinai, as well as in the Byzan tine mosaics in the church in Torcello, in the Venetian lagoon..." Such passages assume that the reader casually travels on the grand tour with Baedeker in one hand and a pair of white gloves in the other.
I do not lampoon the Bishop of Oxford for having good taste. Neither do I endorse that peculiar reverse snobbery I have sometimes come across in Catholic circles, in which art, literature, fine liturgy and architecture are pooh-poohed on principle. Beauty is certainly a pointer to God, and no one has written of the link between beauty, truth and divinity better than the Catholic theologians Hans Urs von Balthasar and John Saward. In this barbaric age we certainly need more fine Christian culture.
what I object to is that Bishop Harries has set an apologetic work firmly within the context of the tasteful literary world, and therefore not only limited his audience, but also implied that those who cannot rise to his high aesthetic standards are not worth addressing. Indeed, he seems almost unaware that there are souls who may not understand or care about his literary enthusiasms. He may be the Bishop of Oxford, but there is not much for Cowley or Blackbird Leys in this book.
My greater worry is that, once he answers the criticism of his audience, he offers them not full blooded, historic, universal Christianity, but a subjective, nondogmatic religion. This is a kind of bubble gum Christianity. It is sweet tasting and keeps the mouth busy, but it has no nutritional value. In this respect, Anglicanism is the same as Protestant Pentecostalism. Both are extremely attractive to a certain caste. Aesthetic Anglicanism is just as subjective, sweet and emotional as Protestant Pentecostalism; it is just not so vulgar.