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Sunday, 4 November 2012

A Tale of Two Bishops - Part 2

Dagenham bishop number 2 is, of course, Archbishop George Carey. George Carey was born in 1935 at 68 Fern Street, Bow, London E13.  Shortly before the war his family moved to 103 Woodward Road, Dagenham; a three bedroom house on the sprawling Becontree Estate.  At five George started his education at Monteagle School in Burnham Road. At eleven years old, having failed the examination that would have given him a place at Dagenham County Grammar School in Parsloes Avenue, George began his secondary schooling at Bifrons School in Bromhall Road.  Around this time the Carey family moved to 198 Reede Road near Dagenham East.  Although George was not born in Dagenham his formative years were spent here; so we can say that in a very real sense he was made in Dagenham.

In his autobiography George speaks of attending the youth group at the old parish church of St Peter & St Paul.  As time went on he settled into church life and felt comfortable with its open and evangelical style. After national service George started to feel "the call of ordination".  Despite some discouraging responses George threw himself into gaining the necessary preliminary qualifications.  Encouraged by the vicar George attended an ordination selection conference and shortly after he was recommended for training for ordination.  George opted to receive his training at the London College of Divinity at Northwood to the north west of London.

George was committed to the evangelical wing of the Church of England but became concerned at the dangers of a narrow or partisan tendency.  Although committed to the authority of the Bible he was unable to accept "narrow theories of inerrancy, in which the Bible was held to be historically accurate as well as literally 'true' in every detail....I did not require a book devoid of human error, corrupted texts or mistakes" (Know the Truth p48)  So for George Carey acceptance of Biblical inerrancy is not necessary to grasp the story of the drama of redemption.

In his studies he came to see that Biblical texts were written primarily as theological works.  Biblical scholars have often stressed the value of understanding the diverse theological agendas of the Biblical writers to grasp the import of the different presentations of similar materials found in the Scriptures.  George came to see this point with reference to the "profound differences" between the Old Testament books of Kings and Chronicles.  It is possible to recognise these profound differences and see beyond the texts to the glorious God glimpsed by the writers.

Many ministers feel that they cannot truthfully teach their congregations about the existence and significance of divergent accounts in the Bible. Perhaps they feel it would disturb the faith of the simple believers.  However Dagenham boy George found grappling with such anomalies challenging but ultimately faith strengthening.  As he wrote in 2004, "To this day I remain dismayed that many evangelical clergy seek to shield their congregations from critical scholarship.  It need not disturb trusting belief - on the contrary, it will often lead to the strengthening and maturing of faith."

Going back to the first post on this blog, many Christians have found that their faith is enriched by being open to the three major traditions that contribute to the dynamic conversation within the Church of England.  The critical scholarship here praised by George Carey often finds its origin in the willingness of more liberal scholars to ask challenging questions and use all the resources that God has made available to them to seek truthful answers.  The truth will always strengthen honest faith.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

A Tale of Two Bishops (Part 1)

I want to tell a tale of two bishops.  As this is Dagenham Anglican the bishops will be Bishops of Dagenham.  "Wait!" I hear you cry "there is no Bishop of Dagenham in the Church of England"  Quite right, my perceptive friend, there is not; there is only an Area Bishop named for the smaller town slightly west of Dagenham.  No, I am talking about bishops having the distinction of being made in Dagenham or at least born here.

Bishop number one in my story is Tim Stevens. According to Debretts the Right Reverend Tim Stevens, the Lord Bishop of Leicester, was born in Dagenham on 31 December 1946.  He is 63 when our story starts on 11th January 2009.  On that day Tim Stevens was invited to participate in the BBC debate programme “The Big Question" to discuss the issue of whether women should be appointed as bishops in the Church of England.  Now, I have neither a recording of the programme nor a transcript of the words spoken.  All I do have are, possibly jaundiced, reports of it.  It seems that Sarah Finch, opposing the idea that women should be bishops, quoted 1 Timothy 2 verse 12 "I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man".  It is possible that she believed this verse to be conclusive proof for her position because she sees it as "the Word of God" applicable for all time.  

Now Bishop Tim along with a number of well respected Evangelical scholars (e.g. R T France and Gordon Fee) does not believe that this verse settles it.  It seems that in the debate he suggested that it is not as simple as all that; that “For Christians ‘the word of God’ is the life of Jesus.  The Bible is the product of those who sought to understand the life of Jesus” Although this can probably do with further unpacking it does seem to suggest a rightly Christ-centred approach to the Bible.  It seems though that some associated with Sarah Finch felt they could smell heresy.  They rushed into print, or at least onto the web, to denounce the Bishop declaring "Bishop denies Scripture is the word of God".   

Questions were asked in parliament, or at least in the General Synod, the Church of England's parliament.  Dr Graham Campbell's question criticising Bishop Tim gives us a little more of what he is alleged to have said; "The Bible is not seen as the Word of God in the same way that a Muslim would see the Koran." You can imagine poor Rowan Williams in his patient way, letting out a quiet sigh of exasperation as he sought to respond gently to this heresy hunt:  
  • "It is perhaps worth gently reminding Synod that the proposition that the Bible is the Word of God in the same way that a Muslim would understand the Koran to be the word of God is not to be found in the Articles of Religion and I would be rather surprised to find its compatibility with the Articles defended."
The Archbishop in this brief comment suggested that the protesters are getting it wrong if they think that our approach to the Bible should be the same as that of Muslims to the Qur'an.  I am sure that Sarah Finch and Graham Campbell would, on reflection, agree with Bishop Tim's helpful comment. We rightly do not see Bible "as the Word of God in the same way that a Muslim would see the Koran"

I remember a discussion I once had with a Christian brother veering a long way towards fundamentalism.  We considered the claim that the Bible is the "Word of God" without qualification and he came to agree, as I think all Christians do, that at the very most we would have to say that the Bible "as a whole" is the word of God.  Approaching the Bible as a whole enables us to see overarching themes in the believers’ growing understanding of the God they were seeking to draw near to. Some of us believe that it is helpful to speak about the developing theologies in the Bible helping to set a trajectory that informs our meditations on our glorious God.

Recently Dr Keith Small has written a helpful book "Holy Books have a History". In this book he explores the textual histories of the New Testament and the Qu'ran.  He contrasts the way Muslims approach the Qu'ran with the way Christians view the Bible.  He states that "even the most fundamental Christian views are qualitatively different from Muslim views, and that equating them is quite wrong”.  Keith Small from his strongly Evangelical position seems to agree with Bishop Tim and Archbishop Rowan that, for the Christian, "The Bible is not seen as the Word of God in the same way that a Muslim would see the Koran".

Thank you, Bishop Tim for helping us with this key point.  In my next post I will enlist the help of Dagenham Bishop number two to further consider Christian approaches to the Holy Scriptures.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Church of England: Evangelical, Catholic and Liberal

The Church of England, we are told on its website, is a comprehensive church.  It is called this because it is made up of Christians from differing traditions.  Some see this feature of the church as a weakness.  However on the Church of England website it is seen as a strength:

“The history of the Church of England from the 18th century onwards has been enriched by the co-existence within it of three broad traditions, the Evangelical, the Catholic and the Liberal.

  • The Evangelical tradition has emphasized the significance of the Protestant aspects of the Church of England's identity, stressing the importance of the authority of Scripture, preaching, justification by faith and personal conversion.
  • The Catholic tradition, strengthened and reshaped from the 1830s by the Oxford movement, has emphasized the significance of the continuity between the Church of England and the Church of the Early and Medieval periods. It has stressed the importance of the visible Church and its sacraments and the belief that the ministry of bishops, priests and deacons is a sign and instrument of the Church of England's Catholic and apostolic identity.
  • The Liberal tradition has emphasized the importance of the use of reason in theological exploration. It has stressed the need to develop Christian belief and practice in order to respond creatively to wider advances in human knowledge and understanding and the importance of social and political action in forwarding God's kingdom.

It should be noted that these three traditions have not existed in strict isolation. Both in the case of individuals and in the case of the Church as a whole, influences from all three traditions have overlapped in a whole variety of different ways.”

The presence of three traditions within the Church is seen as enriching it. Although it may not be acknowledged, each parish and each individual is influenced to a greater or lesser extent by each of these traditions.
It can be difficult but we are strengthened as we seek to understand and learn from those who are fellow members of the Church of England but who do not always agree with us.  At their best the conversations with fellow Christians within the Church of England over areas of difference inform and deepen our thinking and learning. Such conversation is a strength to be rejoiced in.  An interweaving takes place as we give to and receive from other approaches. Of course there are always some who insist that only their way is right and will not even entertain the possibility that those who take a different approach could have come across something of value. But the Church of England as a whole values and celebrates the conversations between those from the evangelical, liberal and catholic traditions seeing each other as fellow believers seeking to serve Jesus out of a God given love.  

This is where many of us are at in Dagenham; the conversations include believers of all traditions within the Church of England and in the other denominations in our town. United in loving Jesus we can, from this basis, begin to honestly explore areas of difference.  

In the next post I want to look at different approaches to the Holy Scriptures; how different are they? Can we grow together as we learn from them about the Lord?