Fear of ideas: The decline and fall of Anglicanism

Article by Don Cupitt in the Guardian "Face to Faith" series, Saturday July 7, 2001

On May 1, after some prodding, the Archbishop of Brisbane, Peter Hollingworth, spoke. Through a letter from his chaplain, he told the radical religious network, Sea of Faith in Australia, that "he is not granting permission for Bishop Spong to preach in the churches in this diocese".

Bishops don't normally declare war on each other in this way. What is going on? Bishop John Spong retired recently from the diocese of Newark, New Jersey, and is devoting two years to worldwide speaking engagements. This summer, he is promoting his autobiography as well as arguing his usual case for church reform. Sea of Faith in Australia has been busy arranging an Australian tour for him.

It ought to be easy: there must be between 60,000 and 100,000 professional ministers of religion in the United States; Spong is just about the only one who is widely known, and the only one who can draw an audience on the other side of the world—Jesse Jackson is primarily a political figure, and I am not counting Morris Cerullo. Spong is something rare: an interesting bishop. So why is he banned?

Archbishop Hollingworth's explanation in his letter was that on June 24 he was to leave his office to become the new governor general. At this time he wished "the focus of liturgical life in the parishes" to be upon the choice of a new archbishop, and upon those who "exercise leadership roles in this nation of Australia".

This was not an appropriate moment for Bishop Spong to "engage congregations in matters that could prove theologically controversial".

That is plain enough. Anglicanism may be in crisis and in rapid decline all around the world, and Bishop Spong may be almost the only leading church figure anywhere with anything to say about what should be done, but, when it comes to the point, Anglicanism is not about theology. It is about the maintenance of the peace of the establishment. Bishops are not supposed to go about stirring up controversy; they are supposed to glide around murmuring reassurance.

In Rome, there was recently a conclave of the cardinals to discuss the very acute problems that currently face the church. But then Rome is relatively brainy and liberal, whereas the Anglican rule is that you must never admit that anything is wrong. You must behave like Buster Keaton in that wonderful short in which he builds a ship, launches it, and then stands rigidly to attention on the bridge in full uniform as the ship sinks slowly beneath the waves, taking him with it. So the establishment goes down, in denial to the last.

Something very similar happened in Britain about 18 months ago. Sea of Faith approached a very senior figure about the possibility of a 24- or 48-hour brainstorming session at which bishops could debate with radical theologians. The figure would be in the chair. The answer was in the negative. Without a trace of irony, it was explained that the figure's role in the doctrine commission ruled out any association with an event such as was proposed.

I hope you can get your head around this one: it is politically out of the question for someone closely connected with the church's doctrine commission to be known to have been involved in any serious discussion of Christian doctrine. If you can understand why that should be so, then you understand the Church of England.

The position is this: the church is understandably terrified of ideas. In the past, when the common people have become interested in theology it has led to bishops being burnt, exiled to Paris and having their palaces burnt down.

We can't have that. The correct response to any flare-up of ideas in the church is always to deplore it, and to look for a way to calm it down. This is best done by kicking the question upstairs to the doctrine commission. After that the years will pass, and no more will ever be heard of it.

When an issue has been buried by referral to the doctrine commission, it stays buried. For the commission really exists not to promote the discussion of Christian doctrine, but as a safety valve which is used to ensure that the church never gets carried away by dangerous and unsettling ideas.

Such is the way establishments work. Deny the problems, keep a low profile, keep established routines running smoothly, and hope for better times. Recently, and especially in England, large tracts of the old establishment have followed this policy to the extent of making themselves invisible. I can't see it protecting them for long. Already we are forgetting about their existence, disregarding them. One day, they'll be accidentally swept away altogether, and nobody will notice.

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