Friday, October 17, 2008

Holding Together - Fr Edward Dowler

This book review by the Vice-Principal appears in the Church Times this week:

Holding Together: Gospel, Church and Spirit—the essentials of Christian identity
Christopher Cocksworth.

Polarisation is not the neces­sary and healthy disagreement and debate that should exist at all times within the Church, but something more sinister. It is, as Nicholas Lash describes it, “the dramatised simpli­fi­cation of disagreement to the point where there appear to be, for all practical purposes, two and only two approaches or opinions possible (and these two locked in mutual incomprehension and distaste).”

Christopher Cocksworth’s book, written near the beginning of his episcopate, comes as a timely and hopeful contribution to an increas­ingly polarised Church. Surveying a wide range of subjects, including salvation, the Church, liturgy, euchar­ist, mission, and Mary, Cocks­worth argues that a “catholic form of evangelicalism in the Spirit”, “gospel-driven, church-based and Spirit-led”, provides the best hope for reconciliation within the Church, and mission to those out­side it.

The author’s ability to bring to­gether seemingly divergent tradi­tions impressively testifies to the gift that Anglicanism might make to the wider Church; but it also holds out a challenge at a time when ecclesi­ology is not a fashionable subject.

Far from being an infinitely malleable agent of delivering on the ground whatever seems to be neces­sary, the Church bears the import­ant task of handing on inherited wisdom and apostolic authenticity, albeit that these must be continually reinterpreted. He regards the ques­tion of a Syrian Orthodox friend, “Which Apostle founded your Church?” — an uncomfortable one for Anglicans — not as a piece of antiquarian whimsy, but as an im­portant one for us to try to answer.

Cocksworth’s account of where the Church should be is thoroughly and unashamedly theological. The Church should be where Christ is, and should go where the gospel leads. In the words of John Webster, whom he quotes with approval, “the gospel precedes and the Church follows.”

In his constant reworking of the triad in the title of the book, gospel, Church, and Spirit, Cocksworth looks particularly to three sub-groupings of Anglicanism to pro­vide the resources that can get it there: Evangelicals, Catholics, and Charismatics. These triads are dif­ferent from the ones many of us have grown up with, and imply that Cocksworth is not happy with view­ing “reason” as a source of authority in its own right; and that he does not think that the Erastian liberal­ism that, in practice, is so much a feature of life in the Church of England has a particularly helpful contribution to make.

The holding together of tradi­tions that Cocksworth advocates is not the armed truce that is some­times covered by platitudes such as “being secure in your own tradition, but respectful of others”. So far as he is concerned, the mutual inter­action of these traditions must open their adherents to learning from one another, and thus to reformation and change.

For example, in response to Evangelical insights, he believes that Catholic ecclesiology should tone down de Lubac’s claim that “what­ever is true of [Christ] is also true of His Bride the Church,” just as some Evangelicals and Charismatics will have to stop thinking that any sort of adherence to the Church’s liturgy and lectionary always inhibits free­dom and mission.

He is far from naïve about the extent to which the three traditions have sometimes been constructed in deliberate opposition to one an­other, and thus to the sacrifices that will be required if they are truly to hold together.

Some minor quibbles might in­clude Cocksworth’s sometimes ex­cessive caution about setting the Catholic cat among Evangelical pigeons. He hastens to assure us that Aquinas’s sacramental theology is, contrary to appearances, “full of the gospel”; or to warn us that the Wesleys’ high eucharistic theology can “sail very close to the wind”.

It is also often possible to spot, below the surface of the text, the three-point sermons of the Evan­gelical preacher, intensified by the fiercely bulleted, PowerPoint-friendly style of the theological college lecturer. In one example of alliterative overdrive, the Wesleys understand Christ as praying for the world, pleading his Passion, and presenting his people to the Father, so that their evangelical experience of the presence and purpose of the ascended Christ gives rise to a tradition that takes seriously the practice of the Church, and so on (all Cocksworth’s italics, not mine). All this can make the experience of reading refractory and rebarbative.

But these are comparatively minor quibbles about a scholarly and inspiring book that delineates a coherent and compelling vision for a new type of Anglican life, in which our differences are, as the Arch­bishop of Canterbury has expressed it, a mutual gift rather than a mutual threat.

The strongly polarising pressures evident in recent months make it difficult to be optimistic that it will come to fruition; but Bishop Cocks­worth has shown us that God gives us good reason to be hopeful none the less.