What does Pope Benedict’s enthusiasm for the Latin Mass and the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) in Jerusalem in June have in common? Each represents an attempt to find a purer version of Christianity– closer to a classical conception of what, respectively, Roman Catholicism, and Anglicanism should look like. But is this desire for a purer expression of faith, closer to classic versions from the past, the right way forward for the church in this century?
First up, we can understand this desire. The accelerated rate of change is spinning the world away from the worlds in which Christianity was formed, and in which Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism took their classic shapes. We have no control over the world but some control over the practice of our faith. It’s easier to change our faith by purifying it than to change the world! But it is not the best way forward. If a religion has an agenda to win the whole world to its side then it must face the world as it is, not as it wishes it to be, and communicate its message to it.
The problem with the Latin Mass is not whether many Roman Catholics will welcome its return and appreciate its virtues: they will. The problem is that Latin is not the language of the world. The invitation of the gospel is not to join a movement in which the language of worship is a tongue other than one’s own. The world needs to be engaged by a mission in its local languages not in Latin.
GAFCON is a conservative response to some problems in the Anglican Communion which have sapped the confidence of some that the Communion can be an effective vehicle for the mission of God to the world. Some predict that GAFCON will lead to a new Anglican global structure which will be an alternative to the current Communion led by the Archbishop of Canterbury. If that happens, many Anglicans will be thrilled, feeling that a dead weight has been taken off their shoulders. (But note that for some ‘liberals’ the dead weight is the ‘conservatives’ heading in a GAFCON direction; and vice versa)!
My question, however, is how will this enhance the mission of our church to the whole world? A conservative version of classical Anglicanism, perhaps insistent on not ordaining women, certainly offering an exclusionary message to gay and lesbian people, will win adherents all right. But it will not win the world which is now accelerating away from the world of 1950, to say nothing of the world of 1550. To win the world for Christ we need to understand the world in order to engage in effective mission. Speaking as a conservative Anglican I know that liberal Anglicans (and those in between) understand dimensions of the world which I do not. It will be fascinating to see whether GAFCON acknowledges the missional strength of a broad Anglican Communion and pulls back from splintering it into narrow pieces.
(This is also my Witness column for the Diocese of Nelson monthly magazine, June 2008)