On 10 July 2010, at General Synod, the Church of England agreed to create a new Faith and Order Commission, streamlining the system for advising on theological issues. The sixteen members will be picked by the Church of England’s two archbishops (though they will consult an Appointments Committee and House of Bishops’ Standing Committee), and six of these will be bishops, one of whom will chair. It may also consult scholars from outside the group on particular pieces of work.
The bishops on this Commission will make up a core Episcopal Reference Group, the role of which “will reflect the special responsibility of the episcopate for matters of faith and order. It will act as the interface with the House of Bishops and will be at liberty to meet separately if required.” Thus senior clergy (all men of relatively high social status) will dominate. Though many members will take seriously the responsibility to look deeply into complex issues, there is a grave risk that the Commission will be used to promote outward conformity on certain issues.
The temptation is understandable. Members of the Church of England (like the wider Anglican Communion, the family of churches to which it belongs) tend to worship and express themselves in ways that draw on the Bible and church tradition, in particular the Trinitarian beliefs set out in the creeds; it is theologically extremely diverse. This can cause tensions and confusion among non-Anglicans. Indeed in 2009, the Anglican Communion Office appointed its first director for Unity, Faith and Order.
The Roman Catholic situation
Some Anglicans, and members of other churches which are theologically diverse, may look wistfully at the Roman Catholic church, with its Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (at one time known as the Inquisition), set up in the sixteenth century to defend the church from heresy.
But its methods have often brought the church into disrepute, even in modern times, and there is no guarantee that the positions reached are always true: indeed teachings on some matters have changed substantially over the years. Nor do Roman Catholics necessarily believe or practice what it teaches. For instance, numerous couples use contraception, and many worshippers would not object to women priests.
In any case, attempts by other churches to introduce penalties for expressing widely held but not officially approved views, could intensify strife, rather than creating unity. Careful thought is required on what issues are so central that theological diversity should not be permitted. This is not a plea for “anything goes” – a man who believed that wife-beating was permissible, for instance, would probably be unsuitable as a bishop or elder! Nor is it about not challenging views that one finds profoundly wrong. But church leaders who, for example, insist that they know exactly what happens during baptism or holy communion and try to silence other approaches may risk undermining, rather than nurturing, faith and order.
What is urgently needed in the Church of England is better communication, not measures which – however well-meant – may shut down rather than encourage conversation on what we believe, and why. There may be areas of consensus, for instance the firm conviction of so many churches today that racism is wrong, but this has been achieved through wide discussion, shared action and growing discernment, rather than supposedly objective leaders imposing their own view.
Different strands of Protestantism and of Catholicism, liberal and 'broad church' thinking are reflected in the Church of England. As in ecumenical circles, there are rich possibilities for mutual listening and debate. This may be challenging, sometimes painful. But there is greater potential for growing in faith, hope and love through dialogue which recognises that all human concepts of God fall short of the reality.
In Christian circles generally, too great an eagerness to agree a fixed position may get in the way of mutual respect and listening to one another and God. Churches may, in practice, have to decide a current position on contentious issues. But it is helpful to recognise that there may still be something to learn, and try to make sure that the words of committees and synods point to – rather than drown out – the living Word, leaving space for the Holy Spirit to lead Christians towards deeper truth.
What is more, sharing diverse journeys of faith and what attracts and inspires us, as well as more abstract ideas, can help us to grow in understanding – something hard to achieve in a paternalistic setting where the institutional church is emphasised rather than the community living out faith in homes, places of work and study and neighbourhoods across the world.
It would also be helpful for churches to do more to promote theological understanding among ordinary worshippers, rather than expecting the task of thinking through difficult issues to be left to 'experts' who, on some matters, may lack knowledge that some at the grassroots possess. Theologians and senior clergy (or elders) have a hugely important contribution to make, but on their own they cannot direct the work of the whole people of God.
© Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and she is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. An Ekklesia associate, Savi has contributed several chapters to the book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change , edited by Simon Barrow (Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia, 2008). She has written and reflected widely on the future of Anglicanism and is herself a member of the Church of England.
See also the detailed Ekklesia research essay, 'A better future for the Anglican Communion' - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/10247