A little boy, a friend’s grandson, was asked at school what word, starting with an ‘A’, describes a person who neither believes nor disbelieves in God, but says he just doesn’t know.
It took the precocious tot a split second to come up with the answer: “Anglican”. I don’t know whether or not the boy had ever come across the word ‘agnostic’, but in either case his, correct, understanding of modern Anglicanism is telling.
This is rather worrying, for Western Christianity has only two apostolic confessions: Roman Catholicism and, as I acknowledge when in a generous mood, Anglicanism. That’s why communicants in either ought to feel empathy for each other’s plight. And even cultured agnostics, along with – God forbid – atheists, should feel the same way, for the West can’t survive without its founding creed.
The plight of the C of E is highlighted by its hierarchy. That one doesn’t detect any present-day Richard Hookers among them is both understandable and forgivable: all priests can no more be expected to be great theologians than all soldiers to be heroes.
Anglicans, however, would be within their right to expect that their archbishops firmly believe in God. One would think that even agnosticism, never mind atheism, would be a disqualifying circumstance for a prelate in the same sense in which pacifism would be for a general. Every job has its requirements.
Alas, the present Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby echoed his predecessor by saying that his faith was shaken by the Paris massacre, which, as he put it, “put a chink in [his] armour.”
One wishes someone put some armour in his chink, for his present battle suit seems to be made not of steel but of wet lavatory paper.
“Where are you [God] in all this?” asked the Archbishop and obviously received no answer that satisfied his curiosity. My contention is that any priest, never mind a prelate, who can ask this theologically illiterate question and then leave it unanswered should be summarily unfrocked.
I’m not always happy with the way the present Pope answers what Dostoyevsky called ‘the accursed questions’. But, commenting on the same tragedy, His Holiness inadvertently taught the Archbishop how to respond to such enquiries:
“We should ask for the grace to weep for this world, which does not recognise the path to peace. To weep for those who live for war and have the cynicism to deny it. God weeps, Jesus weeps.”
Implicit in this comment is the kind of understanding that, as my brilliant friend the Rev Peter Mullen says, ought to be confidently expected from any Sunday school pupil.
Such a youngster would know that God endowed man with free will, which presupposes but doesn’t predetermine the free choice between good and evil. Being omniscient, God knows which way the person will go, but he doesn’t force him to go one way or the other.
That’s where God is in all this, Your Grace. Showing us how to choose right; weeping when we choose wrong. Hoping we’d choose good, weeping when we choose evil.
Having established his theological ignorance and at best uncertain faith, the Archbishop then displayed equally shaky secular credentials.
“Two injustices do not make justice,” he said. “If we start randomly killing those who have not done wrong, that is not going to provide solutions.”
This sounds suspiciously as if he thinks that any armed response to any injustice is by definition unjust. While in theological terms this betokens woeful ignorance of the basic principle of just war, first enunciated by Augustine, in secular terms such pacifism represents a shortcut to extinction.
Oh for the Anglican bishops of yesteryear, who blessed battleships sailing off to Jutland or, in the next war, Lancaster bombers taking off to do quite a bit of ‘indiscriminate killing’ of their own.
They knew exactly what needed to be done – and where God was in all of that.
P.S. You can find many such subversive thoughts in my book How the West Was Lost, now available in its second (paperback and electronic), edition.