Thou Shalt Not Forget

The following summary of a debate in the 'Independent' appeared in 'Portholes', the newsletter of the SoF UK Steering Committee

Many of you will have seen the Sunday Times' survey of 200 Anglican clergy which discovered that only 34% of those asked could cite all Ten Commandments. Kenneth Wilson, a member of SoF had this letter published in the Independent (29.1.97):

Surely it isn't too worrying that we clergy can't remember all the Commandments. After all, if you can't tell right from wrong without recourse to a list, you'd need a much longer list.

What is more worrying about the Sunday Times report is the clerical responses to the questions about beliefs. Of course, having to answer "yes" or "no" to doctrinal questions is far too simplistic, but it seems that 69% of clergy "believe" the Virgin Birth story, 88% think there will be a Second Coming, and a staggering 95% believe the miracle stories.

A Church which portrays itself as less superstitious and anachronistic would have a better chance of getting the real gospel message across.

His letter begged a question (sic) which Professor D G Barnsley was not slow to ask (2.1.97):

Would he care to inform us what he understands by the "real gospel message", and on what he bases his Good News? Certainly not the scriptures.

Kenneth was not slow to respond (8.2.97):

Professor Barnsley ...wonders whether there can be a religious Good News without the elements I consider superstitious.

Nobody, after 200 years of biblical scholarship, can take an uncritical view of the Church's founding document. every page of the Bible is shot through with the cultural signs and assumptions of those who wrote it. We live in a different world.

We reject without hesitation the New Testament writers' implicit assumptions about women, children, slaves, crime and punishment, sickness, the economy, science, angels and demons, and almost everything else. We also, therefore, increasingly reject literal and supernaturalist readings of the text. We do not believe that prayer holds up the course of the sun, nor that epilepsy is caused by demons, nor that water is literally turned into wine. And we know how stories grow with the telling.

The great strength of liberal Christianity is that it has reinterpreted and spiritualised all the stories that the non-religious mind would simply reject as quaint. They are an important part of the tradition of the fabric of the faith, but they are not to be regarded as true in any real sense.

The process of liberalising tradition has still further to go. I suspect that most churchgoers, despite the best efforts of their more conservative clergy, are at least agnostic about the supernatural assumptions of the Gospels. But however liberal they become, there is an underlying basic degree of supernaturalism that seems non-negotiable. God, surely, must be a supernatural being?

Not necessarily. If we can see all the cultural baggage of previous eras for what it is, we can at least imagine the possibility that a real God in a real heaven comes in the same category.

Then a true embraceable gospel for the third millennium might emerge. For if the life and death of Jesus stands alone, as human act, without divine will to bolster it up, then surely it shows itself to be altogether more redemptive, true, wonderful and soul-creating. Then here is a Gospel really worth living for, and maybe even dying for.
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