Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Straying off Hysteria Lane to Lambeth

Readers of the Times will know that yesterday, apparently, the Church of England melted down over gays and women. Verdammt noch mal! I missed it! I was at Lambeth on a bishops theology day. Rowan invites any of us who want to come together and jam creatively with him about theology. We explored some free range patristics together — starting from, and expanding on, this year’s Gresham lectureEarly Christianity and Today. We jammed around 3 big historical realities
  1. The impact of early Christianity on public life, and the beginnings of a modern concept of politics as something more than sacral kingship and raw power. Early Christians invented the concept of the secular, as their martyrs bore witness to a higher loyalty than the state. Augustine speaks of this world as organised selfishness and violence, but somewhere that can be worked on, against the grain. The church is not the kingdom of God, but you can find the kingdom reflected in it and it’s trying to be. You can labour to unite people around a shared vision of love, but usually all that will pull them together is social paranoia about a notional enemy out there, over and against whom you define yourself. This throws some light on the growth of state power and the “war on terror.”
  2. Primitive Christian concepts of God and the natural world. Once you have a vision of ordinary reality as the fruit of the free action of an intelligent being, you can assume some consistency and seek a rational handle on it all. The Incarnation makes material processes significant. The blue touch paper that leads from here to our own natural science involves encapsulations of Classical thought in 6th century Syria, mediated through and supplemented by Muslim sources, back to medieval Europe. Thinking of nature simply as a machine has achieved amazing things, but has its limitations.
  3. Early Christian concepts of the self as revealed in models of personal Discipleship from Origen to the desert Fathers, culminating in Book X of Augustine’s confessions. Grace remains the key concept. Much contemporary panic and anger about sex and the body is essentially Pelagian; which is why it’s dumb and overpromises/underdelivers.
There is a theme park school of history that assumes anyone who lived before, say 1960, was a complete bloody fool. Isn’t it incredible that Augustine held wacky views on, say, sex? But hang on, those views are pretty much bound by the immediate flow of the culture around him. It’s no more of a surprise he expressed them among his compadres than it is that a contemporary person thinks Communism doesn’t work, or reflects our implicit wacky stuff. Trouble is, we don’t know exactly what our wacky stuff is, or how wacky... yet. Give it a few hundred years and they will, unless we lose the script enough to destroy the whole bang shoot. Then there won’t be anyone to know. Our wackiness will have its own (non-)memorial. What makes, say, Augustine interesting is the glimpses of big thinking, honest reflection or creativity that transcend the general run of his age, and show us we could be bloody fools, too, but with our own transcendent possibilities. Pressures they experienced were as great as those bearing on us. This is worth considering as an approach. It turns tradition from a coffee table book into a living resource.

Guided reflection with high class information and sharing around this material with about 20 colleagues was a rather joyful experience.
  1. Stepping back for a day from running the railway helps to put the minutiae of the day job in context. We live in a society that, like the ancient world, has largely lost its bearings. Sometimes Tradition gets hi-jacked by reactionary zealots who don’t really know much about it, to bolster their own insecurity and cosh their enemies. Christian tradition is actually a living resource, if you give it a chance.
  2. I’ve got some astonishingly thoughtful, perceptive and creative colleagues, with whom it’s a joy to work. There’s an amazing range and depth of talent, learning and good humour among them.
  3. Rowan lights up when you get him going on God. Perhaps that’s an essential quality in the nation’s holy man, but you’d probably have to go back to Cardinal Hume or Michael Ramsey to find someone as firmly grounded in, and passionate about, core Christian tradition and broad historical reality.
This was a grand day out. It was even worth missing the Church of England melting down over gays and women. To see the way forward we need prayer and lived tradition grounded in Christ, not managerialism and hysteria. Our hearts need to be fixed where true joys are to be found.


Anonymous said...

re point 1: "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church"
is this because even the early church wasn't very good at uniting around love and so found more sense of identity in uiniting against the kingdom/empire "out there".

And is this how some parts of the present day church re defininfthemslevs with defining those whoa are "out" and "in" ?

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks for this. The martyrdom we actually studied was the Passio sanctorum scillitanorum (17 July 180). There's certainly a note of truculence in their voice, but a bigger note of sheer incomprehension from the proconsul, who is trying to get them off but has very little straw wth which to make bricks. I don't think they defined themselves as anti-Empire, so much as expressed their loyalty to the empire as part of a higher loyalty others found incomprehensible.

The other tendency you note is, however, a constant fringe phenomenon. In North Africa you got these crazy people called Circumcellions, who hung out round churches and did things like assaulting travellers on the road demanding with menaces to be martyred. I agree exactly with you about contemporary resonances. Like the circumcellion phenomenon it was one reactionary way of handling uncertainty in an age of upheaval... Don't buy it myself.

Steve Hearn said...

I love the thought that we be living whacky lives but it may take a few generations in the future to be sure....! I have often suspected that I lead a whacky life but I am very comfortable with that! Whacky is cool!

Friend said...

Glad you had a good day. We don't hear enough from one another about how we resource ourselves - especially in the lived tradition grounded in Christ. Too many dead horses to be flogged perhaps.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks. I find the core traditions incredibly creative, not as things in themselves, or absolutes, but as resources to define and clear our thinking, and put everything else in context. The lived issues they faced provide a counterpoint for the lived issues we face, and in the dance between old and new, wisdom reveals itself and confidence grows. Revolution by tradition!

Simon Barrow said...

What an inspiring post. Thanks. I'm looking forward to reading the Gresham Lecture in full. I especially concur with your comment: "To see the way forward we need prayer and lived tradition grounded in Christ, not managerialism and hysteria. Our hearts need to be fixed where true joys are to be found."

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