Time for open conversation leading to good disagreement about the fundamentals

We may think that there is just one version of Christianity that we who are Anglicans share with every denomination and all Christians. Not so - we are living with many versions of Christianity, not just within the variety of denominations, but within each denomination; within Anglicanism, for example, there are many versions of Christianity and many versions within the Church of England.

Denominations seem to maintain a unity of belief and practice because they are organised within structures and systems. The organisational structures contain and control practice and doctrine, performance and polity. But disagreements and turf wars abound within the church because in reality there is no single, coherent ‘Christian faith’ which we all believe and follow. There are many variations on the way people construct their faith, often conflicting variations. So we have Shared Conversations to achieve good disagreement.

But I doubt the conversations began to move beyond the disagreements in the Church of England focused on human sexuality, to the differences that divide us more deeply and underlie the different attitudes to women, sexuality, authority and church structures.

We, including me, indulge in talking about the Bible, faith, orthodoxy, doctrine, tradition and the Anglican three-legged stool as if we share a common mind about these core elements, the foundations on which our identity as Christians apparently rests.

But such a common mind should not be taken as given, and in the real world, is not taken as given. We do not agree on the basics of doctrine or the authority of scripture or the interpretation of the Bible. We do not agree on the fundamentals of Jesus’ teaching or of Christian practice.

This is not new! The diversity of irreconcilable differences was there from the beginning. Read the Gospels and Acts and the Epistles. The different narratives and theologies incorporated in the New Testament (and the Old Testament) cannot be reconciled. Read John Bowden’s Jesus: The Unanswered Questions, read a multitude of books by Christian authors from the past two centuries and especially those of the 60s and 70s.

The challenge facing Christianity now is that we need to face this truth and stop avoiding reality. We invest time and energy in church life, trying to find mechanisms that can solve specific problems and disagreements facing us, unaware that a far more significant problem faces the church. Resolving Anglican differences over human sexuality requires us to attend to far more serious, fundamental differences over biblical authority and interpretation. This includes the inability to know (despite the dogmatic assertion of conservatives) what Jesus might have thought about homosexuality and equal marriage and behind that, what the elusive construct we call ‘God’ might intend in creation for the diversity of gender and sexual identities. The Bible and tradition and Christian orthodoxy do not and cannot ever resolve these differences. In the end, human beings and societies will resolve the differences. I might call that incarnational.

Multiple Christianities and Christs

In Jesus: The Unanswered Questions, John Bowden notes that the images of Christ are, once we look closely and critically at them, too variegated, too contradictory, too much coloured by the varieties of culturally-conditioned Christianity to serve as any guideline that can be usefully adopted.

“What is the relationship between the various Christianities and the Christs which they have as their symbols? Are the Christianities a function of a particular kind of belief in Christ, or is belief in a particular kind of Christ a function of a particular kind of Christian culture, society, church, or sect? How far are cultures, churches and individuals shaped by a Christ-figure who can legitimately be shown to be rooted in an authentic understanding of Jesus of Nazareth, and how far is a Christ-figure essentially the projection of hopes, wishes, dreams, priorities, policies of a particular age – what we might want to call an ideology?”

I know I am making an utterly audacious claim, arrogant beyond belief, but Christianity, whether Global South or Declining North, will not evolve into a form capable of responding to the reality of people’s search for truth, hope and love until it begins to face up to what at present everyone colludes in avoiding.

I still call myself a Christian, still believe myself to be an ordained minister of the gospel with authority to teach and preach, still invest myself in congregational life and above all, still pray, dedicating generous time every morning to open myself, body, heart and soul, to the infinite, unconditional presence and love of God, the flowing energy of the Spirit and the most profound wisdom and example of the teachings and life of Jesus. But I do not rely on the doctrines and traditions and orthodoxies of the church to describe or proscribe the parameters of my faith.

The fragmentation of Christianity

That’s because the church’s parameters are themselves false or fragile constructs, they are agreements and contracts made by human beings over the course of Christian history to overcome disagreements and differences and achieve some kind of settlement. The settlements have never been static or final (though we collude in this false belief).

John Bowden asserts that our historical perspective and the knowledge we have gained as a result of modern scholarship now makes it possible for us to ask questions which are new to the Christian tradition. “[W]e can look at the doctrinal statements of Christianity as human constructions, negotiated by fallible human beings as a result of particular developments (which could have been otherwise) and on the basis of particular presuppositions (which are open to critical examination).

Evolution continues – it’s inevitable – like death. New movements and new areas of disagreement continually arise. New denominations are formed. Now the fragmentation becomes seemingly unstoppable as independent churches and individual congregations are started by people with no real connection to the evolutionary line beyond their personal belief that they are called, or have the right, to form their own church and preach the gospel. Ultimate fragmentation is occurring here in the UK as well as across Africa and other continents.

Is this the work of the Holy Spirit? The individual preachers and pastors and the members of their congregations believe it is – at least for a period. The long-established Christian denominations may despair at this fragmentation. But they are largely unaware of the parallel reality in their own churches and congregations. The same fragmentation of belief is occurring there. People may participate in common liturgies and recite the creed, pray together and sing hymns; but in the secrecy of their hearts and minds they are not united in their belief systems and the liturgies, hymns and sermons do not express what the many really believe.

This picture will produce feelings of anger in some (who will be convinced that I have betrayed the faith) and despair and hopelessness in others, because the present and the future seem beset with a descent into inevitable chaos and fragmentation. But we should not forget God (however that name is interpreted) and the Holy Spirit (however we imagine the presence of the spirit in creation) and Jesus or the Christ (whatever we make of Jesus’ life and teaching). I hold my faith with deep conviction, energy and passion. God doesn’t disappear and Christianity doesn’t die as a result of the chaos and fragmentation. The divine thread, the energy, the truth, the love, is always present, incarnated, flowing through evolution, innate in every human being (This may be too much for some to take on board).

The desire for experience

Dimensions of experience beyond those traditionally offered by mainstream Christianity now contribute to people’s construct of faith, relegating so-called orthodox constructions to a secondary place. Direct experience has become important for many, connecting with their bodies, feelings and energy and the desire to live more holistically, sensitive to our footprint on the planet. The moral and ethical ideals with which they live are universal. The may well practice prayer, contemplation, meditation, or mindfulness. Relationships are recognised as intrinsically important and creative, both personal relationships and our relationship to creation. The internet and social media help people cross boundaries, national, cultural, ethnic and spiritual.

All these ingredients are already to be found in the tradition and life and practice of churches. Charismatic churches engage those seeking emotional and physical release; cathedral and catholic liturgies nourish those seeking beauty and order and tradition; campaigning congregations satisfy those committed to peace and justice; those with strong moral and ethical ideals support food banks, immigrants and asylum seekers.

Globalization and anxiety

At the same time, the effects of globalization and global communication networks and the loss of control experienced by masses of people have created anxieties and fears which result in a defensive stance, in the world community and in Christian communities and churches. We are living through an existential crisis.

Christianity has lost the adventurous confidence present in the 60s and 70s. I think this is another of those hiatuses in history, when a flourishing of new ideas seemed to disappear, only to reappear when a critical mass is reached – a critical mass of frustration and courage. People have continued to deconstruct traditional elements of faith since the 60s in parallel with the institutional church losing its nerve and becoming more defensive and reactionary in parallel with global movements of change towards fundamentalism. The human community is disturbed, insecure, anxious, and has been turning towards religious and political movements that offer security and certainty, which both sides of the Brexit campaign demonstrated, is often a false, mythical certainty.

Evolution continues . . .

But under the defensive surface, evolution continues and people reimagine faith and God as the tradition and its accompanying doctrines lose traction on people’s real lives. Some get frustrated and disappointed and drift away; others are put off joining in the first place; there is a growing group who might have been attracted three decades ago but now look elsewhere for spiritual inspiration. Seekers still seek – nourishment, connection, depth, truth, love. There are varieties of experience and many paths to the holy, the source of love.

There is an invisible, underground, disconnected, boundary-crossing set of people (because they are found both within and outside the church) who are letting go of orthodoxy and dogma. In my dreams this group will reach a critical mass as the reality of the ways in which people are reconfiguring faith becomes more widely known. It’s the great secret of the current decade that dare not speak its name, though it has been emerging for decades.