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Passionately Moderate: Affirming Anglicanism in the Church Today
Monday, 10 November, 1997

A REPORT BY TIMOTHY WATSON (Magdalen College, Oxford)

Oxford (England): At the annual meeting of the Oxford Affirming Catholicism group tonight, the Rev'd Dr Jeffrey John gave a talk entitled 'Affirming Anglicanism', in which he issued a call for Anglicans to be more proud of their church and its traditions, and more effective in communicating their enthusiasm to other members of the church and the outside world.

Dr John will shortly take up the post of Chancellor and Canon Theologian at Southwark Cathedral. For the past five years he has been rector of Holy Trinity, Eltham, South London, before which he was Dean of Divinity at Magdalen College, Oxford. He is also a founder member and Trustee of Affirming Catholicism, which was set up in 1990 to support the vocation of women to the threefold ministry and promote the Catholic tradition within the Anglican Communion.

Dr John emphasised that for him joining the Anglican church had been a positive choice, not an accident of birth. For him as a young man, and still today, Anglicanism offered a middle way between the dour and lifeless Calvinism of the Welsh chapels of his youth, and the more life-affirming but still overly authoritarian Roman Catholicism that he flirted with as a young man. Anglicanism, in the words of William Temple, offered a kind of 'Reformed Catholicism without the Pope' combining the best of both Reformation traditions.

Dr John drew particular attention to the Anglican tendency to be almost uniquely tolerant, almost 'to a fault'. But was it 'a fault, or a glory'? Increasingly he felt the latter to be the case, as he saw the value of a church that could hold together not only different traditions, but even different beliefs. New Testament Christianity, after all, was riven by disputes - about doctrine and practice - between Paul the 'liberal Protestant', and Peter the 'guardian of Church tradition'. Yet both clearly lived and died for the same Lord, and Paul's assertion in 1 Corinthians 12 that 'the eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you, for we are the body of Christ' was at the heart of his message.

Anglicans often feel under pressure because of their reluctance to provide easy answers to complicated questions, particularly in today's 'soundbite' culture, and Dr John took the media to task for their refusal to listen to more than a one-line answer. Being Christ-like involves loving and welcoming the other *first*, not waiting until we think that they meet Christ's standards. Indeed, Anglicans should be more bullish about refusing to accept the oversimplifications forced on us from the outside: 'Grow up! Life's just not like that'. Again in the words of Archbishop Temple, we should be 'passionately moderate', taking seriously Christ's call to be ambassadors of reconciliation, and taking advantage of the opportunities that are almost uniquely available to Anglicans.

If, then, the Anglican church is 'the pick of the bunch', why are we so shy of saying so? And why do so many people love to leave us so loudly, slamming the door with a bang on their way out?

Part of the problem lies in the sheer level of ignorance that prevails in too many of our parishes. Moving from a university to a parish ministry five years ago, Dr John said he was appalled to find how little his parishioners knew about, for example, the significance of the rituals of the mass, or about basic Christian theology, and yet how eager they were to learn - indeed, how angry they were upon realising that no one had ever thought it necessary to teach them! This, he said, seemed to be a serious problem in Catholic parishes. His solution was to institute programmes of systematic doctrinal and sacramental education, designed to help people answer the big questions about life and faith that they were already asking. He pointed out that so far in the Decade of Evangelism, the only parishes which have resisted the steady decline in numbers - indeed, which have grown over the last five years - are the ones which are teaching in this way. The lesson for evangelism was obvious.

Dr John bemoaned the failure of the church to provide good teaching materials which met the need of the average parishioner. The recent report by the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England on 'The Mystery of Salvation', for example, was an admirable and profoundly theological document addressing many of the big questions that people want to have answered: What was the effect of Jesus' death on the cross? What happens to me when I die? and so on. Yet it was written in often dry and difficult theological language, and hardly anyone had read it. He mentioned his own book 'This is our Faith', an Anglican edition of the Roman Catholic catechism - which has sold upwards of 40,000 copies - as an example of the market that exists for good readable material of this kind.

Dr John ended his talk with an appeal for Anglicans to be more upbeat about the merits of a church which is envied by many in other denominations for its tolerance and independence of mind. (One - anonymous - Roman Catholic reviewer of 'This is our Faith' had told him 'You seem to have a Catholicism without infallibility, with women priests and lay involvement, and in which you can talk sense about sex. Bloody marvellous! when can I join?') He also welcomed a new spirit of openness among many evangelical Anglicans towards the Anglo-catholic tradition, and called for those present to return to their parishes with a renewed enthusiasm for all that the Anglican church had to offer.

During the question time that followed his talk, Dr John addressed the calls by groups such as Forward in Faith for a traditionalist Third Province. He expressed his concern that this was more a matter of politics than theology. For example, there is now an almost Alice-in-Wonderland situation in the Church of England, whereby members of Forward in Faith are trying to move forward the legislation to ordain women to the episcopate, whereas supporters of this move are doing their best to hold back and wait for the storm to blow over. In his opinion, however, it is extremely unlikely that the bishops will allow the Third Province to happen, and in time the number of parishes requesting alternative episcopal oversight will fall away.

Timothy Watson
Magdalen College
Oxford. England

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