Monday 23 November 2009

Whither Ecumenism?

One is now, of course, left with the important question: what is ecumenism?

There is loud condemnation of Pope Benedict in certain quarters for his ‘unecumenical’ hostile act in issuing Anglicanorum Cœtibus. Mostly these would seem to be Anglican liberals (such as the Bishop of Oxford, as excoriated by Fr Hunwicke), but there are those who feel the same way in the Catholic Church also.

If you have been following this blog, you will know that I take the opposite view, that the genuinely ecumenical convergence that has been taking place since, well, the Assize sermon, 1833, I suppose, and which has been given textual expression by the ARCIC documents, has now been brought to its profoundly ecumenical conclusion. The difficulty is that it did not take account of the other thread that has also been growing over much the same period.I am referring, of course, to the liberal movement within Christianity.

One of the early proto-Christian-liberals was the famous Richard Whately, (1787—1863), Oxford Don, (Anglican) Archbishop of Dublin, and ancestor of Kevin Whately, the actor who plays Sergeant, then Inspector, Lewis on TV. Newman fought him robustly, and was very clear about the danger that liberalism posed: in fact he regarded the foundation of the Dublin Catholic University as being an important continuation of his opposition to Whately. Newman's own attitude to Liberalism is summed up in his famous ‘Biglietto Speech’, after he had received his red hat:

Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy. {65} Devotion is not necessarily founded on faith. Men may go to Protestant Churches and to Catholic, may get good from both and belong to neither. They may fraternise together in spiritual thoughts and feelings, without having any views at all of doctrine in common, or seeing the need of them. Since, then, religion is so personal a peculiarity and so private a possession, we must of necessity ignore it in the intercourse of man with man. If a man puts on a new religion every morning, what is that to you? It is as impertinent to think about a man's religion as about his sources of income or his management of his family. Religion is in no sense the bond of society.

Liberalism was given a considerable fillip by the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, together with all its attendant publicity. This affected the Church of England far more than it did the Catholic Church, though the latter did not escape entirely (StGeorge Mivart being a good example). No doubt it was the biblical literalism, still a feature in the CofE—the spirit of of Bishop Ussher had not yet entirely departed—, that caused the real loss of faith. This was succeeded by the ‘higher criticism’ of the German biblical schools, which implied that even the Bible could not entirely be trusted as a guide to truth. If the Bible were not self-interpreting, then where were the grounds for faith?

The Church of England and the government made life very difficult for the nascent Anglo-Catholic movement (some clergy were even imprisoned for ritualism), but liberalism met very little opposition. No doubt this was partly due to the national superstition that if one simply maintained outward uniformity (Book of Common Prayer, Authorized Version of the Bible) then what one believed didn’t really matter so much—the CofE had survived for centuries that way. The Anglo-Catholics did not just hold doctrines in common with Romanists (against whom, though, they still defined themselves), but many of them abandoned the Book of Common Prayer for the Anglo-Catholic Missal or the English Missal—simply, translations of the Roman Rite. This was seen as anathema, or at least as close to an anathema as the Church of England would pronounce.

But the tide was now flowing strongly the other way. The first half of the twentieth century saw a steady progression of the Catholic movement in the Church of England, at least in terms of the outward expression of Catholicism. Bishops began to abandon their aprons and gaiters and assume croziers and mitres. But alongside the wheat of Catholicism, and sometimes with it, grew the tares of liberalism. The publication in 1922 of Foundations: A Statement of Christian Belief in Terms of Modern Thought: By Seven Oxford Men (brilliantly satirized by Ronald Knox in Some Loose Stones) sought to promote and explain what the Catholic Church had now condemned as Modernism. It is significant that one of the seven authors of Foundations, William Temple, went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury.

In the Catholic Church, following the condemnations of Modernism in Pascendi and Lamentabili Sane under Pope St Pius X, liberalism had gone underground; one of its few manifestations (in a rather odd way) perhaps being the work of Teilhard de Chardin (and perhaps that of Annibale Bugnini). But liberalism had not disappeared, because it had not disappeared from the world, and Catholics are not hermetically sealed from the world. We are not Amish. It simply awaited its time.

The Second Vatican Council was crucial in all this. To most Anglicans, it seemed as if Rome finally was answering some of the reasons why they were not Roman Catholics. They had always claimed to be ‘Catholic and Reformed’; well, here was the Catholic Church seeming to accept many of the original (1519) objections of Martin Luther, and finally ending its four-hundred-year-old sulk, abandoning its aloofness and joining the human race once more.

To some in the Catholic Church, the Council was a great opportunity to revolutionize the faith. There were, after all, two councils; one of bishops in the Aula of St Peter’s, and the other of periti and journalists in the bars of the Borgo. This meant that by the time the bishops had returned to their sees, the council had already been interpreted to their dioceses by the newspapers. They were being told what they really meant by what they had actually said. 'The use of Latin in the Western Rites must be maintained' really meant 'Latin must entirely disappear'. And that sudden sense of liberation, of fresh air, of daring to do the previously-unthinkable, inspired the same bishops as they returned for later sessions and caused a wave of optimism whose reverberations have still not entirely subsided. It created a whole new generation of liberals within the Catholic Church who have become increasingly disappointed as the old dogmatic approach lives on and now appears to thrive.

So, you have a partially liberal Catholic Church, with dogmaticals in the driving seat, and a partially dogmatic Anglican Church with liberals in the driving seat. These (or rather, their carefully-chosen delegates) sat down together to thrash out some common statements in the process known as the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, or ARCIC. And because dogma is important to a sense of Catholicism, then dogma must be discussed.

Through all the ARCIC period, Anglo-Catholicism experienced a grave decline from its strong position, its moral high ground being captured by the Evangelicals, but the liberals becoming the strongest element in the Church of England and in other parts of the Anglican Communion. The then-apparent pro-liberal stance and direction of the Catholic Church did a lot to undermine the position of the Anglo-Catholics, who were not quite sure where they stood now. In the 1970s, though, they were not quite dead, and played a strong and enthusiastic role in the ARCIC discussions. Catholic ornaments and style of liturgy were nearly ubiquitous by now, and when combined with a liberal theology, you get the phenomenon now known as ‘Affirming Catholicism’: no longer is there an objection to calling a presbyter a ‘priest’, but the ‘priest’ might well be a woman.

No doubt because of the participation of Anglo-Catholics and a couple of Evangelicals, ARCIC on the whole assumed that dogma is important: liberalism, however, sees it as an obstacle. I'm not sure what part liberals played in ARCIC.

In one sense, liberalism is a natural consequence of a Protestant approach to dogma: if I can decide it for myself, having made prayerful deductions from the Bible and maybe other sources, then it is inescapable that others will differ from me. We can’t all be right! So, perhaps dogma doesn’t matter so much. There will be those who think that we need to maintain a number of core dogmas (no doubt Rowan Williams would be one of these), and others who think that all attempts to approach God are fluid and unknowable, so will cheerfully shade their opinions into those of other religions. And no two sets of opinions will be the same.

This liberal approach, paradoxically, does not free those who hold these views from dispute or argument. But about the only thing they can all agree on is that the dogmatic approach—that there is a real objective revelation that can be known with sufficient certainty to invite the response of faith—is anathema, and people simply quietly holding the dogmatic position can reduce a gentle liberal to the likeness of a red-faced, spluttering fascist.

The hymn writer, Fred Kaan, in his 1965 hymn ‘For the healing of the nations’ expresses the liberal position quite well:

All that kills abundant living,

let it from the earth be banned;

pride of status, race, or schooling,

dogmas keeping man from man. (now, of course, altered to ‘dogmas that obscure your plan’)

In our common quest for justice

may we hallow life’s brief span.

You, creator-God, have written

your great name on all mankind (—humankind)

for our growing in your likeness

bring the life of Christ to mind,

that by our response and service

earth its destiny may find.

It’s hardly Shakespeare, though, is it?

Earth is given a strange status in liberalism; the Creator is replaced by his creation as the focus of our interest and energy, and good causes replace piety. Whether it’s revolution in Latin America, or global warming, or gay whales for nuclear disarmament, liberals express their need for the transcendent in the world here and now. For Christian liberals, God may be there in the mixture, but he is not the focus, rather the one who stands alongside humankind in the battle to make a better world. In a sense, it is the real works-righteousness that classical Protestants hate. The natural allies of the liberals are not their fellow (dogmatic) Christians, but secularists, humanists. It is the dogmaticals who are seen as the enemy.

In any revolution, there are always moderates—those who support the revolution in a moderate way, but still do not want utterly to wipe out all vestiges of the former regime. The revolutionaries are happy to make use of these people, but as soon as they actually achieve power, these ‘running dogs’ are the next to face the firing squad after supporters of the old regime. There were many clergy in Russia who supported the Revolution, but they soon went the same way as the Tsarists. Should the atheist secularists win the day, the liberals should not trust that those they thought friends will remain that way.

'Did we not go on marches together? Did we not condemn homophobes, bigots, pro-lifers with you? Did we not vote Green? Did we not recycle?'

'So what?' Bang!

So where does that leave us? Well, here we are in the world of Anglicanorum Cœtibus. Two groups of dogmaticals have agreed to combine, and it will be a combination that will be highly resistant to liberalism. No wonder liberals are spitting feathers, both in the Catholic and the Anglican communions. To them, ecumenism is the process not of common definitions of dogma, but the eradication of dogma, or at least its reduction to a set of core values, as Rowan Williams suggested in Rome the other day. To most liberals, of course, even this definition would seem too dogmatic.

Is there a future for ecumenism, then? Well yes, there has to be, but I am afraid that for a while it is likely to be a dialogue of the deaf. Future ARCICs will need to be not about the content of our faith, but about the significance that dogma itself has for the Christian faith.

It is my belief that liberalism will now wither quite rapidly without orthodoxy to feed it: in my experience, liberalism is sterile; it cannot reproduce itself. Few people are converted from unbelief to liberal faith; liberals are usually those who have believed dogmatically (to a greater or lesser extent), and for whatever reason, have ceased to profess it with the same energy. This is why the devotion they formerly gave to God is now devoted to causes; it fills the space God used to fill. Their fellow cause-devotees, secular liberals, do not see what God adds to the stances with which they are already happy, so, on the whole, I’m afraid that I can only see accelarated decline now for the Church of England. It is no longer the Conservative Party at prayer, but a spiritual version of New Labour. And we all know where New Labour is going.

Re-reading this, I am struck by its illiteracy. I wrote it (stream-of-consciousness-style) during a busy morning, when I had no time to revise it, and had to post it straight away because of the imminent arrival of a visitor. I think I stand by the content, however, and am not keen to start tinkering.


Dorothy B said...

Thank you so much for this splendid post.

Sir Watkin said...

One can sum up the success and failure of the Anglo-Catholic Movement (which you recount well here) very simply: it won its battles with protestantism, but lost its battles with liberalism.

Laura said...

Great post Father. Thank you. In haste,

fidelisjoff said...


fidelisjoff said...

An excellent analysis father. In my experience liberal Catholic parents end up practising their faith alone as their children see little relevance in it. A colleague at work once said to me "won't you be upset if your child grows up and rejects religion". I answered "Won't you be upset if your chield grows up and rejects atheism or do you presume that will not happen. Likewise I am not going to worry just do my best for them in keeping the faith myself".

Sussex Catholic said...

A Magnum Opus Father. Sometimes stream of consciousness is the only method guaranteed to produce something of real genius and this is what you have captured in this piece. Your analysis that the secularist state has subtly suborned Liberal Catholics was right on the money. I think that some of our Bishops who sought acceptance for the Church by the secular world perhaps guided by a "Leaven of Society" Vatican II approach combined with just a whiff of social climbing are witnessing now how the state is turning on them viciously. I fear they will be haunted in their retirements if they ever realise how they have been used.

the owl of the remove said...

Far from illiterate, Father - an excellent piece!