by Dave Marshall
from Signs of the Times No. 46 - Jul 2012

Browsing through the latest edition of the Canons of the Church of England I was reminded how open they are.

Not in the detail, of course. Most describe precisely how the institution is required by law to operate. The openness is in Section A, which sets out the underlying principles. A key feature of this section is the consistent use of the phrase 'the Word of God' as the authority for statements about the Thirty-nine Articles, the Book of Common Prayer and the sections that follow.

'The Word of God' is explicitly not equated with 'the Holy Scriptures'. Instead 'the doctrine of the Church of England is grounded (my emphasis) in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures'.

'The Word of God' in this context must mean something like 'the mind of the Church having taken proper account of all relevant information'. There is no method for otherwise determining 'the Word of God' that could not reasonably be challenged. So the Church of England at the level of its constitution is open not merely to tweaks of the kind that currently take up so much of its energy but to fundamental reform, including but not limited to the place of the Thirty-nine Articles and the Prayer Book.

Building on this openness is however difficult. Those who most articulately express a theologically liberal position tend to frame their thoughts in terms that avoid the appearance of anything heretical. Services that are the public face of the Church are required to present a single theology on a take it or leave it basis, while outside of church the kinds of question being asked are 'what is the point of a national Church', 'does God exist' and 'why should I care'. To connect with people asking these questions the Church of England desperately needs a new understanding of itself and its purpose that makes sense in non-church terms. Simply being open to the possibility of change is not enough.

A further obstacle to even limited change is the way most features of the Church depend on each other. The nuts and bolts holding these together - and keeping useful innovation out - are the Canons. Therefore if the Church of England is serious about enabling the expression of Christian faith beyond its existing congregations - some might refer to this as 'mission' - the only realistic option is to rewrite the Canons using the same core principles that have in the past justified its existence to provide a constitution fit for 'mission' in England now.

Plans for such a radical step would obviously need to take account of the interests of those active in the Church as it is. I would expect any reasonable proposal to allow but not require the continuation of currently authorised practices as far as they do not block change.

But what are these core principles? Leaving aside the trappings of establishment, my reading is that any specific provision must be 'agreeable to the Word of God' and 'doctrine' must be 'grounded in the Holy Scriptures'. If this is correct, and if 'the Word of God' must in fact always be a matter of legitimate debate, a useful proposal will need to do two things: it will make explicit the non-binding nature of any continuation of the Thirty-nine Articles and Book of Common Prayer as sources of 'doctrine', and it will establish the means by which alternative criteria for membership, participation and 'doctrine' are decided and reviewed.

Objections to change of this nature are doubtless many and varied but two seem especially significant. The first is an inability to imagine a theology that is different enough to justify reworking the entire legal framework of the Church yet still authentically Christian. Then there is the question of what 'membership' would mean if the Prayer Book criteria, essentially assent to the historic creeds, were no longer used.

Overcoming the first objection would probably at least require describing some alternative theology in sufficient detail to demonstrate its credibility. One I am familiar with has two starting points that diverge from tradition. It claims for God only what follows from God's role as creator of the universe, replacing belief in God as an eternal being with recognition of God as a feature of reality. The detail is a matter for a longer article but in broad terms the focus on God's creator role excludes many traditional assumptions about God, especially those that rely on anthropomorphism. Alongside this is a philosophically different view of reality within which, instead of history being considered a 'block of time' through which 'now' moves, there is only God and 'now'. From this perspective the reality of the past exists as the imprint of history on the present; time is our experience of the process by which God recreates the universe each instant according to what we call the laws of nature; and life itself is the ongoing interaction of each life-form with God in creating the future.

But perhaps that is too much detail. What matters is that this theology can be shown to be not wacky. It is philosophically sound, consistent with a scientific world view, and can be understood as 'grounded in the Holy Scriptures'. It illustrates a viable alternative to traditional credal belief.

What then would 'membership' mean for a Church of England that did not insist on the traditional creeds? Assent to a system of religious beliefs is an inherently flawed basis for ongoing commitment - such beliefs inevitably change with time and experience in ways  impossible to predict.

One alternative would be identification with the core values and attitudes of Jesus as illustrated in the biblical record. This I suggest would be at least as 'grounded in the Holy Scriptures' as credal belief. And in terms of imagining the practical effect of this kind of change, the reframing of liturgy to reflect the values of Jesus rather than beliefs about Jesus does not seem an unreasonable step to consider.

Dave Marshall is former Modern Church membership administrator and website manager. He sometimes posts on the Ship of Fools discussion boards.