Editorial by Anthony Woollard
from Signs of the Times No. 37 - Apr 2010

Whilst the Anglican Communion fiddles with its own affairs, the wider world does not stand still. And as our President, John Saxbee, makes clear in his recent book No Faith in Religion,1 it is within that wider world that we as liberal Christians should be finding our principal focus. The Gospel must be relevant in the marketplace or it is not relevant at all.

A General Election is upon us. Signs of the Times is not a political journal and it is not our task to analyse the parties' likely manifestos. But those manifestos begin to be interesting to us when they betray what looks like the influence of theology. I have in mind particularly the phenomenon known as "Red Toryism" which may, or may not, help to shape the Conservative manifesto and perhaps indirectly others also.

What interests me about Red Toryism is its link - through its main proponent Philip Blond and the support of John Milbank - with Radical Orthodoxy, some of whose theological concepts have figured in this journal in the past. Its thinking goes back to a generation of Christian social thought which is of much the same age as the MCU, and is equally critical of Fabian or Marxist socialism and of red-blooded capitalism. It traces its roots to F D Maurice, William Morris and John Ruskin, and one of its foremost proponents was G K Chesterton (in his Anglican and his Roman Catholic periods alike). Its ideas were (and are) enshrined in the work of the significantly-named Christendom Trust - and here there is a link, if seemingly a negative one, between John Saxbee's book and the ideas that the Red Tories are promoting.

John believes that "there is too much religion in the world and not enough faith". He calls as witnesses a slightly unlikely pairing, Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer, both of whom he sees as attacking "religion" or (particularly in Kierkegaard) "Christendom" in the name of a living faith. I am not myself sure that these two were actually advancing identical critiques, and I suspect that much of Kierkegaard's spiritual and theological position would have been rather unsympathetic to Bonhoeffer (and vice versa). I read Kierkegaard as a full-on individualist who believed that the outward forms of religion were at best irrelevant; whereas Bonhoeffer seems to have placed far more value on those forms and on Christian community, and is mainly opposing contemporary trends in the Lutheran tradition towards pietism and individualism, as well as the "establishment" of the so-called German Christians which those trends permitted to arise. Be that as it may, we are presented with these "knights of faith" who challenge the Christendom that they perceive around them. (This has some parallels - though they are not exact - with the way Jonathan Clatworthy uses the typology of "believing" and "belonging" in his article below.)

For John, and here I think his two interlocutors would agree, "religion" - a sociological phenomenon all too subject to the laws which govern such phenomena - is about taking our human agendas and promoting them as God's agenda, whereas "faith" is subordination to the agenda of God. But is this more than a play on words? How do we know which agenda is which? (As Father Kelly of the old Kelham pre-theological college famously said, when asked by one of his students how we know the will of God: we don't, and that's the giddy joke.) I note, as I read further, that John, Bishop of Lincoln, does recognise the inevitable and potentially positive role of outward forms in any faith which is not purely individualistic. His discussion of "vicarious faith", as in some ways the raison d'etre of the Church of England ("we go to church for the sake of the God who is there and the people who are not"), is a model exposition of the implications of such decidedly non-individualistic New Testament passages as Paul's discussion of the Body. Faith is not just the pilgrimage of the individual knight, but something which we express together - through religion - on behalf of the world.

But would John want the restoration of Christendom? Would he go as far as the Red Tories (some of them at least) and Chesterton in terms of what has become known as communitarianism - and all under the banner of the Cross? I suspect not. And I suspect that most MCU members would be with him. Some of the talk about Christian communitarianism, going back as far as the 1930s, still bears a slight sulphurous whiff of Franco and Mussolini. The break-up of the great Church-and-State collective which allegedly governed every aspect of our ancestors' lives, along with the fall of Fascist (and later Communist) regimes, is surely to be seen as what Bonhoeffer would call a stage on the road to freedom.

We cannot go back to full-on Christendom even if we wanted to. The world has moved on, and those of other faiths and no faith have an honoured place in our society. Even trying to turn the clock back on some key ethical issues, such as supporting marriage through tax breaks, is crying for the moon; ethics as well as religion has outgrown the monolithic stage. As John says, the Enlightenment cannot be disinvented. Some may want to enter into dialogue with some of its assumptions, and certainly with the way in which its implications have been interpreted by Richard Dawkins and his ilk (as Keith Ward did so effectively at our Annual Conference). But Pandora's box has been opened and cannot be closed.

Yet our dialogue with the Enlightenment could include the question: has our society - and our religion (I use that word advisedly) - become unhealthily individualistic? Is there an uncomfortable parallelism between the conservative evangelical, with her emphasis on individual faith in Jesus, and the MCU liberal, with his stress on other sorts of personal experience and freedom from some of the constraints of tradition? At what point do we need to listen to those, in both the social and religious spheres, who remind us that we are members one of another and that we are in grave danger of losing that basic truth? Ought we to be asking ourselves about the theology of a more communally-based solution to social as well as religious problems? What might such a solution mean? After the debacle of red-blooded capitalism in the credit crunch (though it is taking an unconscionable time a'dying) and the possibly imminent demise of New Labour, might the seemingly half-baked economic theories of Chesterton and the Christendom Trust, based on the redistribution of capital, have anything at all to say to us? And is Radical Orthodoxy, with its attraction to mediaeval religion and social order perhaps arising from too much reading of Eamon Duffy, simply a case of what Maurice called "opposing the spirit of the age with the spirit of a former age instead of the Spirit of Christ", or is there more to it than that?

Questions, questions. I was struck recently, in a media discussion on the needs of gifted and talented children, by the following aphorism:  'Able pupils answer the questions on the exam paper; the really gifted, however, question the answers.'

God forbid that MCU should ever be restricted to those who are gifted and talented, theologically or otherwise. But we are, after all, a learned society; and, even if some of us question the odd detail of his answers, we should be thankful that we have a President whose gifts challenge us in our own faith (and/or religion) and perhaps inspire us to challenge the answers to existential questions that are being peddled in the wider world.

Notes

  1. John Saxbee No Faith in Religion, O Books 2009, paperback £11.99. Reviewed by Vaughan S. Roberts in Modern Believing Jan 2012.

Anthony Woollard is editor of Signs of the Times. He taught Theology at William Temple College  before entering the Civil Service where he spent most of his career in the the Department of Education.