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Anglicans Online last updated 15 September 2019
|Address to the General Synod of the Scottish
By the Primus, The Most Revd Richard Holloway
June 10, 1999
On Trinity Sunday I attended two extremely moving services here in Edinburgh. On each occasion, the new Scottish liturgy of Christian Initiation was used, but the feel and emphasis was different in each place. In the morning I was at Old St Paul's, where the liturgy was framed within a traditional High Mass, with a robed choir and an army of acolytes and concelebrating priests. In the evening I was at St Paul's and St George's, where the atmosphere was informal, though profoundly devotional, and the baptism was by total immersion in a paddling pool specially rigged up for the occasion in the chancel. I was warmly received and felt completely at home in both places.
That experience captures the breadth of our Church, both theologically and liturgically. I could describe the diocese of Edinburgh as a continuum that stretches between Old St Paul's at one end, and St Paul's and St George's at the other; between an open and generous form of Catholicism, and an open and generous form of Evangelicalism. However, I do not want to make it sound too bland and cosy, as though this theological inclusiveness were an easy thing to maintain. Far from it; it requires great magnanimity. Being a member of our kind of Church means that we have to affirm, not only the presence, but the value, of different ways of doing things; and that includes different ways of understanding the nature of faith and the sources of authority on which it relies, scripture, tradition and reason. It is a matter of straight fact that we approach these resources in different ways, understand their authority differently, and develop different liturgical responses to them. For example, there have always been different schools of biblical interpretation, nor is there any infallible arbiter who can step in confidently and tell us the right way to understand scripture. The state of contemporary biblical scholarship illustrates the difficulty. Tom Wright, one of the most brilliant biblical interpreters at work in Britain today, strongly disagrees with Dominic Crossan, one of the most brilliant biblical interpreters at work in the United States. Raymond Brown, another brilliant scholar, would probably be found some where in between. We unavoidably take sides in these fascinating disputes, because that is what theology is all about. And our particular history and temperament will influence the point of view we adopt. The important thing to realise is that there is no place in this life beyond these disputes and differences where everything can be reconciled into a single, inescapably obvious point of view. That is why, for instance, the working party on human sexuality, set up by the General Synod last year, quickly ran into difficulties. I hope that, under its new convenor, the Bishop of Glasgow and Galloway, it will soon get back to work in helping us to deal with our undoubted differences in this sensitive area, rather than supposing it can magically resolve them. Conflict and difference belong to the nature of faith itself, as they belong to all other aspects of human experience. We should celebrate, not deplore, this variety of experience. It is perfectly admissible, of course, to settle for one point of view, and to acknowledge that this is where we are most comfortable. What we cannot honestly do is assume that ours is, in fact, the only sound approach. There is clearly a multitude of approaches: why can't we celebrate them instead of lamenting them?
This does not mean that we are never to take a stand, to identify some attitudes as wrong and decide against them. For instance, using scripture to justify hatred of particular groups is something we can no longer tolerate, though the Church has tolerated it for centuries; just as using scripture to justify discrimination against women is something we no longer tolerate, though the Church tolerated that for centuries. One of the things we have learned about scripture is that it corrects itself, as we meditate upon its deeper meaning. But that process of self-correction is itself the result of the kind of theological conflict that distresses people who have lost sight of the dynamic nature of faith, as well as of the God who prompts it. In chapter 16 of the Gospel of John, Jesus tells us that the Holy Spirit will make known to us 'what is to come'. That kind of new knowledge is usually the fruit of struggle and difference, rarely of static tranquillity.
Belonging to a Church that believes in difference and variety is not easy. Sects are usually more comfortable than the Catholic Church, because in them you rarely have to encounter people who disagree with you. We do not possess that dubious, exclusivist luxury, though there are elements in the Anglican Communion that are trying to drive us in its direction. Since the Lambeth Conference a particular group of archbishops has met several times with the clear intention of trying to force upon our communion a new doctrine of provincial conformity. I have no doubt that this centralising dynamic will fail. Were it to succeed, however, it would convert world Anglicanism from a church into a sect, from an uncomfortably inclusive body into a stultifyingly conformist one, and truth would be the loser.
One of the things we have discovered in our era is what Isaiah Berlin called 'the incommensurability of values', or the fact that good people can disagree with one another for good reasons. The recent conflict in Yugoslavia is an eloquent example. I do not recall a situation that has more divided good people. Many friends of mine, allies in previous campaigns against what we believed to be abuses of power in our society, were surprised that I was not able to join them in their protests against the NATO bombing. Like many people, I was caught between a rock and a hard place, but I was unable to join the campaign against the bombing, though I would have felt more comfortable if I'd been able to go along with my friends. Life is filled with these agonising dilemmas, when we have to make up our minds as best we can, and live with the consequences of our choices. I hope that we can all join together again in trying to make the peace work, long and difficult though it will undoubtedly be. It is because truth is such an elusive and paradoxical reality that we have created political and theological cultures of argument and disagreement. That is why, for instance, our country is governed by parliaments, not dictators, and why our church is governed by Synods, not bishops. Ours is a lively, argumentative family in which there is endless opportunity for the practice of charity and the picking up of new ideas. I hope and pray that this Synod will provide us with plenty of opportunity for both.
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