A cautious and reserved welcome to Justin Welby

The jury isn’t out on the Most Rev and Rt Hon the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. In fact, it’s not even in: as I write, he has just been appointed. Yet some comments are in order.

First, I know nothing about the Most Reverend apart from what I’ve read in the papers, where the news of his forthcoming appointment has been met with responses ranging from enthusiasm to ecstasy. Now, assuming that his positions on various issues are represented accurately, and this is an optimistic assumption, my own reaction is that of cautious neutrality at best.

Archbishop Justin is being depicted as the best candidate to smooth over the divisions among the catholic, liberal and evangelical strains of Anglicanism. Amazingly this claim is largely supported by his experience as an oil-company executive, whose relevance to the doctrinal issues at hand isn’t immediately obvious.

Disregarding his stint in the cutthroat oil business and concentrating instead on matters clerical and theological, I fail to see why Archbishop Justin will succeed in the task that has defeated all his predecessors for centuries. If anything, his own allegiance to evangelical Christianity spells bad news for Anglo-Catholics. Archbishop Justin came to Christ as an adult and he’s enthusiastic about the Alpha course at Holy Trinity, Brompton. Most Anglo-Catholics I know tend to regard the Alpha course as an aberration only missing paganism by a gnat’s nose.

The Creed Anglicans recite in their liturgy confirms their belief in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Roman Catholics will deny their right to say so, claiming that the Church of England broke the apostolic succession by severing its ties with Rome in the 16th century. The issue is debatable – but it’s only debatable from a High Church perspective, and even then not all that powerfully. It’s hard to see how evangelicals, such as Archbishop Justin, can argue this point against even a moderately erudite RC.

That, however, is a general point. Anglicanism, after all, contains both a Catholic liturgy and Calvinist Articles and, for the Church to be seen as anything other than a loose association of independent parishes, the conflict between the two must at least be patched up if not eradicated. It’s some of Archbishop Justin’s particular beliefs that worry me.

Prime among them is his support for the consecration of women bishops. This development, indeed even the ordination of women priests, crosses confessional boundaries, for it strikes against the very nature of any apostolic church.

Why is this even being mooted? What in the two millennia of Church history prompts such a radical violation of its traditional structure? The answer is, nothing. Christ didn’t consecrate women even though several of them were as important to him as any one of the Twelve. For the next two thousand years this quaint idea never crossed anyone’s mind, at least within any apostolic church. What then justifies going against both scriptural and ecclesiastical tradition in this case?

It’s conceivable that Archbishop Justin’s veneration of church tradition is somewhat muted – he is an evangelical after all. If so, such a position is suspect for it was tradition alone that fed the faith for some 30 years before the first Gospel was written, about 70 before the ink dried on the fourth, and several centuries before Scripture came together in its present form.

Therefore any attempt to use Scripture as an argument against the sacred significance of church tradition is at best spurious and at worst subversive. In this instance it’s also impossible, for there exists not a hint in the New Testament that either ordination or consecration of women was seen as desirable by Christ and his disciples.

So what arguments pro are there then? They are all based on premises that aren’t just secular but wrong. They also consign any rhetorical sanity to the way of all flesh.

Jesus, explain the pro enthusiasts, didn’t consecrate women because the culture of the day prevented him from doing so. The same goes for the two millennia worth of saintly or simply brilliant theologians, along with bishops, priests and laity. They have all been led astray by the culture of the day, or some 730,000 days to be exact.

Let’s forget for a moment that accusing Jesus and his apostles of being slaves to ‘culture’ is grossly blasphemous. Let’s further assume that shaping the church structure on the basis of extraneous secular concerns is wrong. Logically it follows that the pro enthusiasts, such as Archbishop Justin, are being driven by extra-cultural beliefs. In other words, the teaching of Jesus and his apostles was transient; the teaching of Archbishop Justin and the braying enthusiasts of female episcopate, transcendent.

This inference is absolutely logical, but I’m sure that our new Archbishop will wrathfully deny that he harbours any such thoughts. In that case, he has to admit that his views are a result of cultural conditioning, of the kind that revolves around ‘equality’, ‘human rights’ and, not to cut too fine a point, belligerent feminism.

It ought to be clear that Christian faith can’t be expressed within a domain defined by such categories, regardless of how one feels about them. I find them pernicious, someone else may find them invigorating, but surely we must all agree that they belong outside, not inside, ecclesia?

An apostolic church cannot, or rather should not, come up with a new theology in response to every half-baked idea emanating from the kind of people, most of them atheists, who in the relatively recent past were seen as the lunatic fringe and who are now seen as ‘the liberal establishment’. Nor should it change its doctrine to accommodate even solid secular ideas. The Church should stand above all such ideas, good or bad. When Jesus said his kingdom was not of this world, he meant his kingdom was higher than this world. No parity or ‘equal rights’ between the two was implied.

Any changes in ecclesiastical doctrine must be dictated by the Holy Spirit or the inspiration of subtle theological minds or, ideally, both. This particular change, inspired as it is by harebrained, kneejerk ‘liberalism’, will tear the Anglican Church asunder regardless of how nice a person the new Archbishop is, or how much management experience he accrued in the oil business.

I don’t know how welcoming Roman Catholics really feel to converts from Anglicanism, be that in the form of straight conversion or the ordinariate. If they really want to attract such converts, they won’t have to work very hard. Meanwhile, best of luck to the new Archbishop. He’ll need it.  










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