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franciscan - September 1996

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1996

Proximate pessimist, ultimate optimist

by Michael Saward

Canon Saward, well known for his hymns and life as a Canon of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, contributes a personal review of the theological developments over the last thirty years of various groups in contemporary English Anglicanism.

So how does theology look these days to one from the evangelical tradition of the Church? One answer to that might be: ‘much as usual’. The Catholics are predictably Catholic, the Liberals predictably Liberal and the Evangelicals predictably Evangelical. Three Parties in one Bod. Nothing changes here. But that won’t really do. Lots of things have changed.

Take first the relative balances. Within the Church of England, in the forty years since I was ordained, a vast re-shaping has been going on. When I was a theological student, the old liberal attitude to Scripture, grounded in the nineteenth-century Tübingen tradition, was locking its horns with the ‘Biblical Theology’ Movement. Bultmann and Barth were in conflict.

On the fringes of all this was a nascent group of Evangelical scholars launching a new era of conservative, but not fundamentalistic, theology. They were scorned by some, misunderstood by many, but gaining in confidence throughout the Sixties and Seventies.
Faced with the challenge of the Radicalism of the Sixties, they stood and did battle. They watched their young men gain ground in university theology faculties and, in due course, occupy chairs. As they did so, they themselves threw over the old rigidities of the ghetto into which their fathers had retreated.

To the surprise of many, the Catholic movement showed signs of theological tension and, eventually of fragmentation. One group became increasingly biblical in its rooting, disenchanted with the kind of Liberal Catholicism which had so dominated since the days of Charles Gore. Even so, their biblical rooting did not extend to ministry and sacraments.

And then there were those who outdid the Sixties Radicals and lost all touch with Christian orthodoxy. Few in number, they have increasingly ditched God altogether in any recognisably Christian sense while, it seems, feeling no problem about taking the Church of England’s stipends, vicarages and pensions.

Numerically the Liberals declined, as did the Catholics, in regard to those training for ordination. The Evangelicals mushroomed, providing six times as many ordinands as in the Fifties. As they did so, they began to disintegrate. Some returned to fundamental-ism, some blended it with charismatic beliefs, a small number conceived its doctrine in rigorist and neo-Puritan terms, while the mainstream held fast.

In one sense, many of these trends were no more than continuing theological infighting among clergymen. But behind them all was a growing gulf between those who still believed in some kind of God, of a vaguely Christian kind, and the neo-paganism of New Age fashions and fads. Even further away were those who, under the umbrella of Postmodernism, the bastard child of Existentialism, denied any kind of absolute meaning, absolute truth, absolute morality, absolute anything. The wilder and more improbable the ‘-ism’, the more attractive it became to the media and the fashion mongers.

Such a rejection of meaning, truth and morality has gone hand-in-hand with every kind of inclusivism in society at large. Your truth, my truth, his truth, and her truth, means, eventually, everybody’s truth which ends up logically as nobody’s truth. So anything goes. What began as a noble concept of the Four Freedoms has now reached a whole succession of anarchies out of which is inevitably spawned a series of mutually colliding fundamentalisms. Immerse mankind in conceptual cloud and they come out screaming for total certainty.

How then will Anglican Christians emerge from this era?

I’m no prophet. I believe in a God who is purposeful for this people and yet who, within that ultimate purpose, permits all manner of folly to exist. The world seems, in so many ways, to be going to hell in a handcart but, with William Temple, I am ‘a proximate pessimist and an ultimate optimist’.

On one thing only will I put my shirt. A covenant-keeping God will always, through his Spirit, honour the mighty words, mighty deeds and mighty acts of his Son, Jesus Christ. The gates of hell will not prevail. Truth will triumph. And the core of that truth is to be found in the Holy Scriptures, lived out in the fellowship of a holy people.

Trends come and trends go but ‘the word of the Lord endureth for ever.’

Canon Michael Saward is Canon Residentiary and Treasurer of St Paul’s Cathedral.


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