from Signs of the Times No. 41 - Apr 2011

from Brenda Watson

Dear Anthony,
I have been most interested in following this debate on the Eucharist.

I do think you are right to seek some 'fixed point among the flux' but I cannot locate it where Graham [Hellier] does in the Christian community per se. After all, the presence of Christ is sometimes very difficult to discern in how that Christian community speaks and behaves! For me, it is going back to the historical context in which this extraordinary symbolic act arose that ensures me its relationship to reality. I see the fixed point in the re-enactment of what Jesus himself advised his followers to do.

As Tim Belben noted (Modern Believing Jan 2011, p.71f) in his comment on Trudinger's piece in the October number, Jesus' concept of the Messiah was completely revolutionary as well as incredibly harrowing. It must have been completely mind-blowing for the friends of Jesus. The notion of the Messiah being crucified was beyond anything a normal person or a normal Jew could possibly entertain. Their expectations of the kind of victory the Messiah would achieve were completely different.

A powerful aid to understanding was needed which Jesus gave in this extraordinary  metaphor/symbol - a metaphor at once so simple that anyone could appreciate it, and yet so profound that even the most gigantic intellects must struggle to understand it. By giving them a way in which this new thinking could be acted out whenever the disciples came together as a community, the reality of seeing Messiahship as Jesus saw it could gradually take hold of their minds and hearts. So far from 'reducing; Christ's presence with his people, as Graham implied, this re-enactment was designed to help them become more aware of that constant and continuing presence of Christ with them all the time.

I was also very interested in your comment that 'each is right in what he affirms though maybe wrong in what he denies'. Would you agree, for example, that the doctrine of trans-substantiation is indeed right in what it affirms, namely, the real presence of Christ among the disciples who reverently partake of the bread and wine? But that nevertheless, the doctrine can become wrong and unhelpful if it is interpreted in such a way as to deny the real presence of Christ outside of that sacrament? This is a misunderstanding into which it is all too easy to fall, not only for outsiders but for devout Catholics themselves.

I guess that what is essential is to appreciate something of the nature of metaphor/symbolism.  This is not opposed to literal reality - as in the commonly-used expression 'It's just a metaphor' i.e. not basically true, only imagined. Rather, metaphor/symbolism points towards - rather than describes - what is literally true.

The relationship between literal and symbolic is sophisticated and one of on-going polarity. So-called liberals and radicals tend to emphasise the symbolic and so-called conservatives and fundamentalists similarly emphasis the literal pole. Do we not need to acknowledge the on-going nature of a to-and-fro between the pole, so that what each affirms is not lost?

from Jane Rolfe

Dear Mr Woollard,
I do not wish needlessly to annoy by unwelcome words, but I think that the article by Mr Clatworthy in the recent news letter is unworthy of him and of MC, and I think I ought to say so.

I suggest the consideration of a few questions:

  1. Might the phrase 'reactionary antics' be perceived as a putdown, lacking that courtesy with which one would wish to treat those whose views do not concur with one's own?
  2. Does the paragraph beginning 'The impact...' seem rather aggressive and also condescending? For example, our argument's 'hitting home...', and 'they' perhaps 'are working with a high level of anxiety' in contrast (unstated, but I think implied) to 'our' calm reasonableness.
  3. Do the paragraphs beginning 'Modern western culture...' and the following one display the even-handedness, factual accuracy and carefully considered analysis the writer would normally expect of himself and others, or are they more like an exasperated rant?

It is vital, in my view, and it would improve the quality of much 'churchy' debate, to recognise the difference between reality as such, and our mental maps of it, and to respect the fact that other people have different maps. We are all damaged and confused human beings, even (especially?) the best educated. To change the metaphor, we wear blinkers, and we need a compassionate acceptance of our own and other peoples. It is the way things are. It does not follow that we do nothing about it. Surely we do all we can to be as true as we can, willing to be 'led into the way of truth' (BCP!), and the Spirit's gradual activity of unblinkering us, often a painful business.

Of course we must ably present our maps to each other, MC's special role, and let it be done with genuine good will, good humour and if possible, lightness of touch. But the outcomes are, and always have been, throughout the church's past history (which Mr Clatworthy seems to me to hold in some contempt), in the hands of God, who is ever working great marvels with us mixed up and greatly beloved human beings. 'It doth not yet appear' but we go on believing and hoping, together.

Many thanks to Mr Clatworthy for the effort he obviously put in to working for a sensible (in our MC view) result regarding the vote on the Covenant. He must have felt deep disappointment at the decision.

from Jonathan Clatworthy

Dear editor,
To respond to Jane Rolfe's points:
  1. 'Reactionary antics'. I can see why the term causes offence. Perhaps I should have reserved the term till later in the article, after I had explained what I meant by it (which I did in the two paragraphs beginning 'Modern western...' and 'That stance...'). I do think we need to wake up to the widespread, and often strong, moral disapproval of the Christian churches for the continuing determination to discriminate against women and gay people. Such discrimination does appear to many to be reactionary antics, and even those who disagree should take the critique seriously.
  2. In view of what has been happening, I do not see why the paragraph beginning 'The impact...' is particularly aggressive. We have stood up for the kind of Christianity we believe in (open debate, no closing down of debate in the interests of tidy uniformity) and we have been severely and publicly criticised for doing so. As for 'condescending', this puzzles me. We are opposing the whole establishment leadership, of both the Anglican Communion and the Church of England. It seems to me that we are being treated with condescension - Lambeth Palace are refusing even to reply to our correspondence, and in their publicity regarding the Covenant, as sent to General Synod and now being sent to the Dioceses, they are refusing to include the arguments against it. In these ways they are breaking the normal rules of procedure for debating a major change, and I would think this itself reveals a 'high level of anxiety'. There is also much anxiety on the other side, both among those who seek to defend Anglicanism's traditional openness, and among gay and lesbian people who fear more public hostility.
  3. I agree that the paragraphs beginning 'Modern western culture...' and the following one do indeed make debatable generalisations about church history. I have defended them in detail in my book Liberal Theology in a Divided Church, O Books, 1998.  There is a partial summary on my blog. Most church historians do not agree with my analysis.

I agree about 'mental maps'. I may have got this wrong, but I wonder whether the issue between us might be the thorny question about how tolerant people tolerate the intolerant. If we agree that none of us has all the answers, how do we relate to the people who think they do have all the answers, and who are unwilling to tolerate us? It seems to me that if toleration is to survive, the rules of toleration need to be defended against those who want to break them. To my mind there has been a massive increase of intolerance in the mainstream British churches since the 1960s. The change is greater in some parishes than others; but to an ageing priest like me it is unmistakeable. This is why I think that in order to defend our more open tradition, agreeing to disagree will not be enough.

In order to have open and constructive debate about the content of our beliefs, we need agreed rules of method, for how we do our disagreeing. We need to articulate what it means to be inclusive and/or tolerant, publish critical analyses of contrasting views, and develop accounts of our vision for the Church.
I hope this helps.