Address given at a Service of Reconciliation, Healing of Memories, and Mutual Commitment for the Church of England and the United Reformed Church
7 February 2012 at 18:00 pm
The Most Reverend and Right Honourable Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, Primate of All England and Metropolitan
Our Christian faith is something constantly growing, constantly moving towards greater maturity, a greater approximation toward the stature of Christ. And as we grow we need for our maturing, challenges that push us away from infantile faith. History is not short of those challenges. And the history we remember from the seventeenth century in this country abounds in such challenges. It is worth remembering that the events of 1662 marked a political as well as a religious watershed. That moment was the beginning of a new kind of political identity and a new kind of political idealism in this country – not simply the old ‘Puritan’ agenda but a new, focused, self-aware, minority Christian identity, very conscious of precisely this imperative to grow into maturity. In the centuries that followed it was those who followed ‘Old Dissent’ who were very often those most eager to stand for and push us towards a mature faith - yes, but also a mature presence in society.
It was a climate, intellectual and spiritual that produced extraordinary people, extraordinary imaginative writers and thinkers, extraordinary scientists, the world of the Dissenting Academies, the world of Doddridge and Watts, the world in which joy in the things of the mind and the heart helped people move into the space they believed had been cleared for them, the space of being free citizens, even at a time when the state and the established church had, let’s say, not quite caught up with that vision.
Indeed you could say that the vision was almost kidnapped by the Anglican oligarchs of the eighteenth century. 1688 was a moment when, with the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’, the Anglican establishment briefly but very effectively ‘borrowed the clothes’ of Dissent, and for the rest of its history told itself the story that history had been moving smoothly and inexorably towards the eighteenth century, when Anglicanism in its most rationalist and often least imaginative form appeared to be the ideal form of Christian identity in Europe if not the world. But however much we attempted to steal the clothes of Dissent, Dissent went on digging away at foundational questions of political liberty and theological exploration. It was and remained a challenge, a challenge to grow up, a challenge to critical questioning – but more than that, a challenge to reach the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ and to put behind those things in politics and in the Church which kept people infantile.
It’s not quite the same thing as the Methodist conscience. Methodism, as we know, was a relative latecomer to the world of Dissent in the eighteenth century, and one of the greatest Congregationalist writers of the twentieth century Bernard Lord Manning, in his wonderful book The Hymns of Wesley and Watts speaks of the difference in sensibility between ‘old dissent’, and new Methodism.
‘Let me put it this way. Charles Wesley in his hymns concerns himself mainly (I had almost written exclusively) with God and the soul of man: their manifold relations, their estrangement, their reconciliation, their union. Watts, too, concerns himself with this drama; but he gives it a cosmic background. Not less than Wesley, he finds the cross the centre of his thought: all things look forward or backward to the Incarnation and the Passion. But Watts sees the cross, as Milton had seen it, planted on a globe hung in space, surrounded by the vast distances of the universe. (Hymns of Wesley and Watts, London 1942, p.83)
That wonderful evocation of Isaac Watts’ hymnody reminds us of that—in the most positive sense—enlightened dimension to the world of classical dissent – seeing the great events of Christian history and revelation against the background of the universe, and yet in no way reducing Christian identity and Christian exploration to the dry rationalism of the Enlightenment. Indeed it’s during the eighteenth century that the thought world of Dissent in England and Wales—at least as represented in its most enduringly powerful hymn writers—moves more and more away from the temptations of Unitarianism, of a reductive approach to thought and prayer, rediscovering and deepening all the time its roots in the classical and essential doctrines of Christianity.
And I turn again for illumination to Manning. Manning is writing specifically about Congregationalism – and I have to say writing in a fairly aggressively Congregationalist rhetoric about the inadequacy of all other forms of reformed Christianity! But speaking of one of the great classical Congregationalist hymn books, he says:
‘It reflects purely and clearly that mind which we should like to think is the Congregational mind: in taste, catholic; in feeling, evangelical; in expression, scholarly; in doctrine, orthodox.’ (op cit, p.110)
That splendid evocation of the heart of a classical, reformed Christian identity in this country tells us a great deal about the manifold gifts of God given to the life of church and nation here by the Reformed tradition, unified so blessedly forty years ago.
But that characterisation by Manning could apply to so much that the world of reformed British theology has given us in the last century or so. Think of the great scholars and writers of the English reformed tradition; John Oman, H H Farmer, C H Dodd, John Whale and, of course, the great Bernard Lord Manning himself. All of them explorers not of a ‘mere Christianity’ in a narrow and impoverished sense, but all of them building on a very deep foundation of Christian essentials: the incarnation and the passion (as Manning says) seen located on a globe viewed against eternity; the wondrous cross in the midst of the whole world of nature. And it’s that cosmic vision, that positive enlightenment shot through with incarnational and passional faith, that binds itself to and shows itself in the constant commitment to political freedoms and political maturity which is no less a precious part of the legacy of this tradition.
Well, in spite of these centuries of questioning from Dissent you will have noticed that episcopacy, not to say monarchy, are still in place. Westminster Abbey has not changed as much since the seventeenth century as some might have liked! But episcopacy and monarchy have been changed forever by the questioning presence of English dissent, chastened by history and theology. Whatever the bishop or the monarch might be today, they cannot be what they were in the seventeenth century. They cannot be the tools of infantilising faith or political identity.
Because of the questioning gently but relentlessly pressed by our brothers and sisters in the Reformed tradition, we’ve had to discover how both episcopacy and monarchy, and many other features of the seventeenth century settlement, have to change and grow in order to serve maturity not to frustrate it. And there is the challenge for all our churches and all our institutions – a challenge (dare I say it) as much to the United Reformed Church as to the Church of England; a challenge as much to the Society of Friends as to the Roman Catholic Church. How do our Christian institutions serve maturity rather than frustrating it? How do they build us up towards the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ? To look back with questioning and with gratitude at our history is to see what we must be prepared for if we really want to see our institutions serve that maturity.
We have to take a deep breath and expect to be challenged by one another. We have to assume that our discoveries will sometimes be painful and that they will not be without rupture and misunderstanding. But we have to trust that the irresistible pressure – and I use the word ‘irresistible’ in deliberate genuflection toward John Calvin here – within us of Christ seeking to be mature in us. That is what we celebrate in and through any number of conflicts ruptures and tensions. Can we as Anglicans bring what we have to bring to the ecumenical table without any empty hierarchical posturing? Can we even seek to persuade our Reformed brothers and sisters that it is possible to value tradition without being shrunk and infantilised by it?
Well, we have hope. We have grounds for confidence that the maturity of Christ is indeed at work in us. That dynamic towards the maturity of Christ brought together in the United Reformed Church different families of the Reformed tradition. That dynamic is still at work today and it is what we are praying for here tonight and what we are seeking to open ourselves to in the name of our common Lord and in the confidence of the Spirit poured out for us all to drink.
We began this evening by listening to some words of Richard Baxter, who wrote in one of his best-known and best-loved hymns: ‘He wants not friends that hath thy love’. Baxter, who reminded us that in friendship with God we learn the essence of how to be friends with one another, and the imperative of being friends with one another: Baxter who so loved George Herbert - something which I feel says a great deal for both of them.
Because it does seem that an Anglicanism deeply informed and shaped by George Herbert, and a Reformed identity deeply informed and shaped by Richard Baxter, could hardly be a more attractive proposition for our future. A friendly church, a church in which our shared friendship with God bound us more deeply together, in which our shared friendship enabled us to grow into maturity into the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, something which allowed us to grow into a church together. It reflects purely and clearly that mind ‘which we should like to think is the Congregational mind: in taste, catholic; in feeling, evangelical; in expression, scholarly; in doctrine, orthodox.’
May it be so; Amen.