Monday, May 19, 2008

The Latin Mass and GAFCON

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)


Anonymous said...

The missional strength of a broad Anglican church hasn't exactly been apparent in the Anglican church in the West these last 50 years or so. If we judge a movement by its fruit, there isn't much to show for that time. It pains me to think of the church continuing on down its fissiparous path, and yet...

Struck too by the apparent suggestion that the church needs to conform to the mores of the world. Ordination of women maybe right or wrong, but neither case is made because of the practice of the wider secular community. The world is accelerating away from 1550 or 1950, and yet we proclaim a gospel revealed in around 50. So we need thought forms and ways of communicating that help open the hearts and minds of our contemporaries, without selling out the timeless truths. One of the problems with the Anglican church is perhaps that is has not spoken with an authority and confidence, and Spirit-empoweredness to make many come to their senses, and to the Gospel

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Michael
The missional strength of the broad Anglican church in the West is that it remains a functioning active church in many parts of that world when other churches have fallen by the wayside. But there are weaknesses to being 'broad' and one of those is identified by you, namely the tendency to absorb rather than critique the mores of the world.

If I have apparently suggested that the church needs to conform to the mores of the world then I have not communicated clearly!

Two quick notes. One is that our world speaks in certain languages and the gospel should be communicated in those languages - as, of course, the church did with Greek in 50 AD. The other is that we should think about how we communicate which opens doors rather than shuts them. Thus my comment about the danger of perception that our message is primarily defined in terms of exclusion of gay and lesbian people. One attitude/value of the Western world today is toleration of diverse sexualities. Engaging with that toleration, the reasons for it, and the reasons why it might become something else seems to me to be a discussion with great potential to shut doors to the gospel rather than open them.

But life is complex, and these few sentences do not do justice to all that can be said about the issues you raise. I cannot disagree with you final comment about the problem of Anglican diffidence!