Who are the orthodox Christians?

PrintSome of my readers will have been aware of the Synod in Rome for leaders of the Catholic Church to discuss the issue of family life. As might be expected this meeting has been a tussle between conservatives who want to preserve traditional teaching which excludes divorced couples from the Eucharist as well as same-sex couples, and others who wish to see a more compassionate stance towards these groups. Somehow the Synod has concluded with a statement offering concessions to both sides. Neither group has had to feel that they have lost the battle for the heart and soul of the ‘true’ Catholic Church. Anyone outside that church following this debate must have wondered which side they would support. My readers will guess that I would be on the liberal inclusive side of the argument. But the question remains: on which side are the true Catholics? Pope Francis is obviously wanting to push the church more in the direction of a compassionate and tolerant set of values. But even if he is successful, who is to say that a successor will not arise who will reverse the new change of atmosphere in the Catholic Church a few years down the line? One has to come to the conclusion that the Catholic in good standing at one particular moment may be a Catholic who is later seen to be holding views that are outlawed by another version of orthodoxy which may be waiting just round the corner.

A similar thought struck me when I was reading the biography of Jim Packer. In 1967 at a big conference for Anglican evangelicals at Keele, Packer was right at the centre of the planning and of the statements that came out of that conference. The same group met 10 years later at Nottingham to discuss the situation of Anglican evangelicals but here Packer found himself on the fringe of the discussions. In ten short years the orthodoxy or, should we say, the fashionable preoccupations of Anglican evangelicals had shifted significantly. It had become more open to biblical scholarship and the discipline of hermeneutics. Packer himself felt alienated at the conference and this was part of what contributed to his decision to leave Britain for Canada in 1979. That is where he has remained and has made his home. The same question I asked in the previous paragraph about who are the true orthodox Catholics could be asked of Anglican evangelicals. Are we to suppose that each generation of Anglican evangelicals has a distinctive ‘correct’ version of orthodoxy which inevitably will be different from that held by the older generation?

Moving away from church politics for a moment, we may look briefly at the situation that seems to be engulfing the British Labour Party at present. We are witnessing an internal struggle for what is thought to be the ‘soul of the party’. The question has to be asked: who in fact encapsulates and represents this soul? Is it to found among the politicians who learnt their trade under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, or is it to be found in the activists on the extreme left who have recently joined the party? Could it be right to say that the orthodoxy of the labour movement has shifted in recent months and that a true member and supporter is someone who has likewise shifted their opinions and attitudes? Is the person who is a true orthodox politician or churchman like the Vicar of Bray? He was the fictional hero of an old song who shifted his theological views every time there was a change of monarch in Britain?

I was having conversation only last week with a senior clergyman who has recently left a well-supported evangelical parish in a large town. I asked him why there was a problem in finding a successor for his parish. I had heard that the committee were refusing to shortlist any of the candidates who had applied so far. His answer was interesting and reflects the issue that I have mentioned above. He said that for 20 years he had steered his parish away from the factionalism of evangelicals which he felt to be such a problem within the Anglican Church. This church was thus not a member of any of the evangelical tribes (my expression). In practice this meant that his church did not subscribe to Reform, New Wine or any of the other lobbying groups concerned with women clergy or the gay issue. He suspected that that all the best qualified up-and-coming clergy in the evangelical world had found it necessary to join one or other of these groups. The fact that he had kept his church out of church political tussles meant that his church was not attractive to a member of the new generation of politically aware clergy. Clearly fighting political battles is thought to be part of the identity of a young evangelical clergyman.

This conversation made me realise how fragmented the church is becoming, whether in its Protestant, Anglican or Catholic versions. It is very difficult to know where the emotional and intellectual centre of any of these churches is nowadays. The question remains for me and my readers as to what we do about the situation. Do we look for a factional group which more or less says the things we want to be articulated in the wider institution, or do we somehow go it alone and try to preserve intellectual and spiritual integrity? I am not sure I know the answer to this question. Speaking personally, the situation of retirement allows me the freedom not to have to identify with particular factions within the church. I have the freedom to seek other individuals who may share a common view on the issues of faith or indeed church politics. On many questions I am in a community of one! It would appear that for any Christian who wants to get it right in terms of their standing and orthodoxy within a group or denomination, they face an impossible task. Today’s orthodoxy will often prove to be tomorrow’s fringe idea or even heresy. This was the problem for Jim Packer and it will be true for anyone who wants always to be ‘orthodox’ in any institution, political or religious.

From time to time Chris has asked me what I think about a particular item of doctrine. Sometimes I have been able to give him a straight answer, but other times I have had to say: ‘I don’t know’. Perhaps the new orthodoxy will be, not certainty about a range of doctrines and issues, but a generous and compassionate refusal to be committed to any single exclusive position. As a title of a course that I led in my last parish was entitled, perhaps we all need to learn to ‘ live the questions’. This open non-dogmatic approach may be more successful in finding truth than always expecting answers. For the time being my orthodoxy is something along these lines, knowing the right questions to ask and then learning to live with the tension of having these questions not completely answered. I will no doubt have more to say on this matter and the way that having questions in the pursuit of truth is what helps to inform my approach to life and to God.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

One thought on “Who are the orthodox Christians?

  1. I love your last paragraph. What a great concept. And I have an idea who your retired clergyman might be. Very sad. The Archbishop will take over the decision in nine months, which will end the stalemate, but not the problem. You might read anonymous on the “Blighted Lives” page. A useful suggestion.

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