Ecclesiastical and Extra-Ecclesiastical Anti-Realism

This review of Anthony Freeman's 'God in Us' was written by Adrian Worsfold and published in 'Faith and Freedom', Oxford: Manchester College, Volume 47, Part 1, Number 138, Spring and Summer 1994, pp. 64-60.

A CURRENT CENTRAL CONCERN OF ANTI-REALISTS is whether their form of religion and thought has any long-term place within ecclesiastical structures or whether at best it is transitory (on the way out). Anthony Freeman's book is a case for staying in, but the Bishop of Chichester dismissed him from his post as Bishop's Advisor for Continuing Ministerial Education and threatens to remove him from his parish [this took place]. The bishop can, because Freeman is in both posts by licence: if he had a freehold he would be protected, the freehold being a liberal guarantor inside a potentially dogmatic institution. Freeman shows that he certainly does bring the faith afresh to each generation, which the Anglican church charges him to do. It is necessary because 'The Way we Live Now' (pp. 1-12) is different from when the faith and its liturgies were written for use. Indeed he must offer a changed faith because he sees it as simply the sum of its surfaces, a 'fictional faith' (p. 77). But he sees the clash of his approach and his Church in that he has to be increasingly loyal to specified explanations of the tradition the older they get. So he can claim that parts of the Prayer Book or Thirty Nine Articles are no longer helpful, but he cannot suggest the framers of the Nicene Creed got it wrong and certainly not that a biblical passage is plain wrong (p. 76). His answer is that he holds his Christian Humanism with integrity, it continues him in fellowship with the Church, his loyalty to the inheritance of the faith means the Church should not be handed over to the conservatives, he has a duty to help others to keep their faith alive, his view is a common ground for Church and world, and it fits with the multi-faith and multi-cultural environment (pp. 83-84).

So the whole of the short book is an internal argument for Christian humanism. It is easily read and contains little that is actually new to any theologian. As such it demonstrates just how near modern theist theology is to a postmodern and anti-realist view. On God he just points out that the language of revelation and natural theology is just that language about belief in God and his extra move is to suppose that we assume no God. If invented, then the list of values offered would be similar to those attributes in the believed God. His view of Jesus is simply to outline the many often conflicting accounts of him in divine sources and the lack of reliable history. Accepting equal selectivity, Freeman says that Jesus is an icon who teaches by stories and lets people draw their own conclusions, challenges religious laws, sits lightly to the moral conventions and calls hearers to trust, love and forgive but not to judge (p. 40). He even claims that 'God in Christ' can be the idea that Jesus provides a unique focus for all human ideals, although this does not deny other religious traditions (p. 44).

In my own view Jesus provides no such unique focus. He is too culturally relative for present concerns. He is so messianic-Jewish, so supernatural, so lost to a previous time, that we first have to relate our own concerns to our own ideals and see whether Jesus or which prophet/religious system relates. It is we ourselves who are the creative ones in this process. So, as on God, Freeman is quite limited in his expressed view. He gets more interesting regarding the Holy Spirit, in that the Spirit could have meant the end of the Church whereas the creators of doctrine boxed it up inside the Church. Freeman claims that the supernatural must go, to remove easy belief, stop deceivers, raise individual esteem and aid natural talent (pp.48-9). Moral and political values have developed despite traditional Christianity, not because of it. Worship is like an anchor, often using familiar and old texts, with music. Prayer for someone who knows it is offered helps them and even positive thought has a 'natural (but as yet unexplained)' (p. 54) power to affect people and situations. He affirms the communion and church fellowship. Personal prayer is about stillness and recollection, and all life is prayer to bring Christian values to the world.

Freeman claims that traditional doctrine demotes life before death because it promotes life after death. So we should see that it is the length of our actual life that gives it shape and meaning. Human values are really human judgements (p. 70), changing, argued about and chosen in this one life. Clearly, crossing the thin line between liberalism and radicalism is easy. The author says the liberal position is wishy washy, and, whereas most exciting theology is unbelievable this long time liberal decided to 'give away' his liberal view for a radical one (p. 12). The book, a personal account, goes no further than to reflect this within an Anglican position.

Yet is any ecclesiastical position possible or enough? Regarding the Anglican structure I am now pessimistic. Its Catholic traditionalist position has been weakened by ordaining women, and this may give the chance for liberalism and radicalism. But for how long? Both will face the evangelicals, charismatics and fundamentalists (all conversionists) who will get proportionately stronger as the Church declines. At the same time the Church Commissioners have made such enormous losses of capital that even the subsidy of continuing freehold priests will be threatened [the capital resources recovered]. That means more churches paying their own way, and with the conversionists' Reform group already limiting their payment to dioceses, the battle is joined. Even liberals will he threatened in time. It will take secular employment (as in Higher Education) for liberal and radical views to continue as the churches on the ground move from a broad National Church Anglicanism to a missionary Church in the multi-faith society. It may even become impossible to be both a liberal or radical theologian and ordained in this changed Church.

In any case, with the secular connection, theology is bound to become more and more extra-ecclesiastical and semi-detached in relationship in all Churches. With the influence of Buddhism (the issue of impermanence), the scientific narratives, the symbolisms of art and the whole secular- based debate regarding truth and language, I do not see how historical Churches with historical truth-based beliefs can now contain the basis of leading theology: the most they can do is provide one inherited religious resource, one that must be greatly altered and added to in order to be credible with all the other narratives we live by.

It has been useful to root religious thinking with religious fellowship, to make thought practical, but not when worshipping communities throw up a perverse private fantasy of supernaturalism. Of course it may be that this rejuvenates the specialised liberal Church. However, it would depend on how genuinely broad such as the Unitarian Church can be. It has its own increasingly private and defended chapel-based subculture of theistic inheritance and also must live by its resources.

All Churches are becoming so sectarian or detached that leading religious thought is becoming detached from them. It now combines with secular thought, being an intellectual commentary on ideologies and beliefs, and concerns the narratives of faiths, social sciences, philosophies, sciences and the arts. As such, anti-realists are perhaps condemned only to dip into faith communities and not take them as seriously as they take themselves. Thus, whilst I would support Anthony Freeman in trying to free his faith, and I push for anti-realism myself in various places, his type of position is probably transitional. I would like to be proved wrong!

5 years on:

Note: Freeman was dismissed and went into secular employment. The resources of the Anglicans' Church Commissioners did recover. Otherwise the process outlined continues.