Page 13, 8th July 2005

8th July 2005
Page 13
Page 13, 8th July 2005 — Opting out

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Locations: Rome, Canterbury


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Opting out

Raymond Edwards finds Dr Rowan Williams’ search for the historical Church a little too Protestant Why Study the Past?: The Quest for the Historical Church by Rowan Williams; Darton, Longman & Todd £8.95 It is, you might think, a dangerous thing for an Anglican prelate to study history. As an Irish couplet says: “The foundation stones of his temple/ are in the breeches of Henry the Eighth.” (I paraphrase – the original is a good deal blunter.) Nevertheless, over the centuries an impressive number of Anglican sees have been occupied by scholars of history. They and others produced an elaborate myth of Anglican origins involving a heroic struggle to cast off the corrupt, superstitious and above all unEnglish tyranny of Rome, freeing the native religious genius of the English people to inspire our glorious imperial expansion.

Rowan Williams here offers a different version of the past. Popular opinion sees Dr Williams as a Private Eye parody, a sort of ecclesiastical Professor Dumbledore – a benevolent beardie given to wrapping general goodwill and niceness in a shifting cloud of treble negatives and impenetrable academic jargon. Whatever the overall accuracy of this picture of the man, you will not find him in this book. There are moments of jargon-mongering, but his use of language is for the most part deft and telling.

He discusses the self-identification of the early Church, Reformation disputes about Christian identity, and (lastly) history’s lessons for Christians today. Throughout, his underlying concern is ecclesiological: how do we know where the Church is, both today and in the past; can we find in Christian history anything to encourage us now? He firmly rejects two possible approaches: that the past is so different from us that it has nothing to say; and that the past is merely the present “in fancy dress” ie our problems and insights must necessarily have been theirs too. A Christian, he insists, must write Church history aware that his subjects are also members of the Body of Christ.

All this is well and good, and is worth saying. But how does it translate into practice?

I shall focus on two issues. First, the Reformation. Dr Williams approaches this period via the high apologists for Anglican identity, Tyndale, Hooker and Lancelot Andrewes. The Reformation was, he writes, “a debate about where the Catholic Church was to be found”. His answer: in Protestant groupings rather than “the pseudopolitical model of the late Middle Ages”. This, you may think, is all a bit rich, especially when he refers several times to the post-Reformation “continuing Catholic Church”, equating historic Latin Christendom with something like the Anglican Forward In Faith movement (traditional Anglo-Catholics). This betrays an outlook that, in anyone less distinguished, one might call hopelessly provincial.

I was reminded of Evelyn Waugh’s observations to John Betjeman on the fundamental implausibility of “AngloCatholicism”. Would God, asked Waugh, found a Church, endow it with a sacramental life, adorn it with martyrs and confessors “and then point at a group of homosexual curates and say ‘that is the True Church’?” Similarly, does it seem likely that historically the vast majority of Catholic Christians were (and are) hopelessly deluded about a number of fundamental dogmas, truth being found only among the adherents of a tiny group of dissident Swiss and German theologians?

To examine the theorists of English Reform, but neglect how their principles were applied, is a curious oversight. Dr Williams notes – and we are, I think, expected to applaud – how Hooker conceded that Catholics might in some real sense also be Christians. One might find Hooker’s generosity of outlook less than overwhelming. Dr Williams does not remind us how the English Reform was actually implemented: by a coterie of extremist clergy, using all the apparatus of state terror (legal disabilities, confiscation of goods, propaganda, torture, judicial murder) to force innovations down the throats of a reluctant and vibrantly Catholic populace.

This deliberate attempt to extirpate Catholicism lasted the best part of three centuries. These things are not matters of opinion or denominational perspective but of definitive historical record, as Duffy, Haigh, and Scarisbrick among others have shown. The real politicisation of Christianity happened not in the High Middle Ages, but when 16th-century Protestants aligned themselves decisively with state power.

My second issue is his take on diachronic Christianity: what do we share with Christians in the past, and those of different traditions today? Christianity, he suggests, should be defined most obviously by its ability to protest against political systems incompatible with it, and by shared use of prayers and doctrinal formulae drawn (largely) from the Bible. No 16th-century Reformer could have said more, or otherwise. He argues that whatever these prayers and texts may have meant to their original authors is less important than the fact we can still use them meaningfully, that here lies the real ground for ecumenism.

This reads, frankly, more like an appeal to divergent camps within Angli within Angli canism than anything of more general significance. Nowhere does he suggest how, or by whom, dogmatic, ethical, and liturgical criteria are determined, except by reference to the Bible. This is pure Lutheranism. There is little sense here of the role of continuing apostolic authority in fixing the bounds of Christian belief and practice.

His ecumenical face is clearly turned not, as some Catholics fondly suppose, to reunion with Rome, but towards the largely liberalised Lutheran and Calvinist traditions of northern Europe. His great model for Christian unity is the German Protestant “Confessing Church” of the 1930s. For all his lip-service to historical witness, this inevitably ends with a lowest common denominator Christianity that is essentially ahistorical. Rather than building on Anglicanism’s venerable founding myths like his scholar-bishop predecessors, he has chosen to opt out of history altogether.

Many commentators were recently surprised to discover that, doctrinally, the Pope was a Catholic. Readers of this book, especially perhaps Catholics of an optimistically ecumenical cast of mind, may be equally surprised to find that the Archbishop of Canterbury is, emphatically, a Protestant.

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