«1 Spiritual Life on the Anglican Verandah By Stephen Pickard Head of the School of Theology Charles Sturt University Without learning wisdom, the ...»
Spiritual Life on the Anglican Verandah
By Stephen Pickard
Head of the School of Theology
Charles Sturt University
"Without learning wisdom, the koinonia between us drops to
the level of ‘getting on together as best we can’, far from
enough to allow the people of God to be moved forward by the
life and purposes of God” (Daniel Hardy, Finding the Church)
‘The times they area a changing’
The third millennium is not an easy time in which to live. Finding the way ahead into an unknown future is even more problematic. For much of the previous century Western society and culture has undergone a progressive melt down through the trauma of world wars, unprecedented violence, massive disparity between rich and poor and the emergence of religious fundamentalism.1 The traditional structures of our social, political and religious life have been under pressure for a number of years and serious cracks have begun to develop. Increasing fragmentation of community life is now a feature of the world we inhabit, not to mention violence, war and loss of public confidence in leadership in society and church. There has been a major shift in values and expectations from the mid-twentieth century to the twenty-first century. As a society we are no longer sure what common values can hold us together. In the absence of any overarching narrative for social life and cohesion and with the increasing marginalisation and distrust of those institutions that used to offer a sense of meaning and purpose, such as the churches, we find ourselves at the mercy of a vast array of competing options for life in the global village. The smorgasbord culture might at first sight appear tantalising and the aromas enticing but it does present some major obstacles, not least being how to chose from among the variety.
But is it a case of unqualified gloom? The destabilising of established institutions and the questioning of once hallowed ideas and values can have a liberating influence on people's lives and social interactions. New found freedoms present new opportunities to discover more of the wonderful mysteries and joys of life. A critically reflective society will generally be a far healthier one than one which squashes dissent and free thought. Opportunities for fresh and vital wisdom are constantly emerging. The postmodern ‘decentred world’ may be the environment for new possibilities for human interaction and well being.2 So it seems we are between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand we are all too aware of the destructive tendencies of our times, the dissolution of the social fabric of our life and our loss of practical wisdom.3 On the other hand we recognise new opportunities for the adventure of life unearthed in the crumbling of the past. How are we to live between yesterday and its fast disappearing foundations and tomorrow, which hovers on the brink of chaos and new life yet to be revealed? There are any number of options open to us these days and perhaps none more so than in the ecclesiastical market. It is hard to know the sure path forward both personally and in our community. What can we hope for in rapidly changing times?
For an introduction to fundamentalism see Ernst Gellner, Postmodernism, Reason and Religion, Routledge, London1992.
For an exploration of the implications of the advent of the so-called postmodern see Paul Lakeland, Postmodernity: Christian Identity in a Fragmented Age, Fortress press, Minneaplois, 1997.
Practical wisdom is precisely what we lack and is most in need of in society. The category of wisdom is fundamental to the Christian story. The Cambridge Anglican theologian David Ford states that “Wisdom is about the good shaping of the understanding and of life in the midst of [the] multiple overwhelmings…. Wisdom is not just concerned about more information and knowledge…Wisdom deals with dimensions of life that much academic learning tends to bracket out, such as suffering, joy, or the purpose of existence”. See Theology: A Very Short Introduction, OUP, 1999, p.165.
Whose Verandah? Which Anglicans?
Christian discipleship has to be forged within the context all too briefly sketched above. The impact of this wider context has been felt in various ways throughout the Christian church. In the West the church has been increasingly marginalised as a credible and influential voice in society.
Though in Australia it could be argued that the church has never played a major role in our social, political and cultural life save for its role as a sort of moral policeman.4 Anglican Christians in Australia are not immune from the challenging and confusing times in which we live. Today the Anglican Church in Australia finds itself increasingly under pressure both from without and within.5 Social forces of radical conservatism and liberalism in all their guises and extremes find expression within the life of the Anglican church in this country. The voice of the broader middle way is often muted. Given the anxieties of our times perhaps these developments are not surprising but it should call us to stop and question what is going on. It is simply too easy to mimic the surrounding culture's anarchic or authoritarian tendencies.6 When our church does this we show our lack of wisdom and maturity: we loose the capacity to make a difference to be the ‘leaven in the lump’.
I have often thought of the church as a kind of verandah: on the one hand open and welcoming to the world and on the other attending to the deep needs of people in the inner life of individuals and communities. On the verandah both outer and inner world meet and the church of the gospel has the responsibility to occupy that in-between place critical for its own sense of purpose as witness to the coming Kingdom.7 Clearly from what I have described above life on the Anglican verandah is not at all a settled matter. The issues we face as a church to do with sexuality, gender, poverty and wealth, mission and worship, power, authority and church order are contested. Furthermore, they generate high levels of conflict, impairment of our common life (koinonia) and capacity for intelligent and compassionate witness and service in the world.8 Reclining in our well-worn chairs is not really an option.
In these challenging and confusing times a number of questions arise: What sort of Anglican verandah will be necessary to resource spiritual life for the future; what resources in the Anglican tradition are available to meet the demands of our present times?
Its roots are generally located in the early history of colonisation and the relationship between
church, state and general convict population. The assessment of Thompson is not uncommon:
“…Christianity was largely rejected by convicts and by other working class Australians, except among the Irish minority. There was a growing alliance, if at times tenuous, between the Church of England and the state to impose moral order upon a licentious settle community”, Religion in Australia: A History, OUP, 1994, p.10.
Statistics from the recent National Church Life Survey provide a snapshot of the present situation and raise some critical questions about the future character of the denomination in relation to the younger generations and in the rural regions of Australia. See NCLS: Initial Impressions 2001, NCLS In times of social confusion and fragmentation, often driven by the rhetoric of freedom and selfexpression, a counter movement of a distinctly authoritarian link often emerges offering certainty and safety in exchange for new obedience. These features of the wider cultural landscape have religious forms, which are both appealing and dangerous because of the divine imprimatur they give to.
See “The View from the Verandah: Gospel and Spirituality in an Australian Setting”, St Mark’s Review, Winter 1998, pp.4-10.
The Anglican Communion is at present experiencing significant internal stress due to major differences over issues to do with sexuality and gender in the West. Other stresses to do with inequalities in the distribution of wealth and power that involve the third world for the most part remain invisible but not for that reason any less crucial to the quality and sustainability of our common life in a worldwide communion.
This matter is quite urgent. Australia is a culturally and religiously rich and diverse nation.
Anglicanism basically belongs to one cultural strand; albeit historically the dominant one from Anglo-Saxon stock. Increasingly this cultural strand represents a diminishing element in the Australian cultural/ethnic garden. How will a narrow verandah Anglicanism offer the kind of space necessary to accommodate the rich cultural mix of Australia? My own view is that the only way forward is for the recovery of a truly broad church Anglicanism which can generate nourishing forms of spiritual life. There are good grounds for this belief. The actual history of the Anglican church testifies to the remarkable capacity of the Anglican church to interact creatively with local contexts and cultures.9 The world wide Anglican communion as represented at the Lambeth gatherings witnesses to the diversity within the Anglican communion and gives hope for the possibility of a broad based church with rich currents of spiritual life.10 What does the Anglican verandah look like and who is on it? This issue pressed home to me during the first National Anglican Conference in Canberra in 1997. In an address by Dr Graham Cole, the then Principal of Ridley College Melbourne, he discussed the issue of Anglican diversity and the need for moving beyond tolerance to see the varieties of Anglicanism as all having something to offer.11 What constituted that variety? Apparently this could be reduced to two groups; Evangelical and Anglo Catholic. Cole encouraged these two groups to work more closely rather than maintain the more usual separation. He likened the two groups to two different sides in a war zone with defections occurring from time to time. I was startled by the metaphor. Was this all there was? The Anglican Verandah did not look too inviting.
The irony was that the address was delivered as an irenic piece, an overture from evangelicals for a more cooperative joint venture. Yet something was missing; something vital to Anglican consciousness. However, it seems that Cole was simply echoing a popular view that Anglicanism in this country could be simply and accurately divided into two essentially opposite groups, the Anglo-Catholic and the Evangelical.12 I have just returned from the Inter Anglican Theological and Doctrinal commission attended by representatives from all over the Anglican Communion. What was remarkable to me was the immense variety and vitality of the participants and the stories they told of the way the gospel was being lived in their local cultural contexts. We can easily forget how innovative and resourceful the Anglican tradition has been and continues to be in the enculturation of the gospel. For a discussion of the challenges ahead in this regard see Ian Douglas and Kwok Pui-Lan eds., Beyond Colonial Anglicanism: The Anglican Communion in the Twenty-First Century, Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, 2001.
The list of attendees at the 1998 Lambeth Conference indicate the richness and diversity of the Anglican Communion. The centre of growth and influence is rapidly shifting to the Anglican church of Africa.
See National Anglican Conference Journal, 1997, Graham Cole, “The Boundaries of Diversity”, pp.53-57.
See the discussion in Tricia Blombery, The Anglicans in Australia, Australian Gov. printing Service, Canberra, 1996, pp.21ff. Having described the two strands Blombery notes that “In reality within the Australian communion the majority of Anglicans have been in the middle church tradition, or have followed moderate forms of the Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic traditions”, p.24.
The problem with this depiction of Anglicanism is that the majority ‘middle church’ apparently does not constitute a strand in itself and is not discussed as such. This of course makes no sense in relation to the actual history of the Anglican church and fuels the popular notion that there is no positive rationale for the traditional Broad church tradition. Blombery is in large part echoing the view of Bruce Kaye, A Church without Walls: Being Anglican in Australia, Dove, 1995, pp.111Though Kaye does refer to the ‘middle church’ as a discernible tradition and clearly in his own account the origins of this strand can be located in the architect of sixteenth century Anglicanism, the great ecclesiologist Richard Hooker.
What is particularly worrying about the above depiction of Anglicanism is the loss of the sense of ‘broad church’ as a discernible and positive tradition.13 The Anglican verandah is beginning to look a very narrow one indeed. The variety of spiritual life possible is similarly significantly thinned down. This was not always the case and in what follows I would like to make some proposals about the kind of verandah Anglicans occupy and the forms of spiritual life a broad verandah makes possible in our Australian context. This first requires a brief exploration of that much overused word ‘spirituality’.
The Notion of 'Spiritual Life' The term spirituality seems to be an umbrella term under which many and varied ‘religious’ people sit. The term in fact is quite slippery and this is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because it provides a convenient concept to gather the variety of approaches, Christian and otherwise, that exist in Australia. It provides a starting point for churches to have dialogue with many other people and groups beyond the traditional boundaries of church. So a broad based approach to spirituality can break down the ecclesiastical walls provide a more inviting environment in which religious impulses can be discerned. In an age weary and suspicious of formal religion and its institutional embodiment the appeal to spirituality has a natural attraction.