‘So what’s it to be?’ It’s a hard question and one most frequently asked of people, or institutions, when they have arrived at what might be thought of as decision time.
Is it too fanciful to suggest that ‘so what’s it to be’ is the question facing the Church of England in 2018. The decision that the Church of England must face up to and answer is this:
‘Are good disagreement and radical new inclusivity to be mere pragmatic, managerial, political and, perhaps, ultimately vacuous strap-lines or, are they going to be guiding theological motifs?’
Put another way will 2018 be the year when the Church of England decides whether it is going to rely on managerial and political solutions to our most contentious debates, or whether the hard work of doing our ecclesiology properly will win through?
Ecclesiology, as (well) defined by the conservative theologian Gerald Bray is the obligation to describe the church not merely as it is has historically been and currently is constituted in practice ‘but as it ought to be in principle.’ I suspect, or rather know, that Gerald and myself would come to rather different conclusions as to what a healthy church might look like in ‘principle’ and ‘practice,’ but I hope that we would agree that ecclesiology can only ever be verified through practice.
Principle and practice, I would want to suggest, are the two characteristics which differentiate a strap-line, or slogan, from a motif. The Lutheran bishop-theologian Anders Nygren was big into motifs and motif research. He was adamant that motifs had to possess both internal content and external manifestations. The internal content is the guiding principles, or theologies, at play. External manifestations relate to practice and, performance. Put the two together and, hey presto, a motif is the result! Leave principle and practice standing in isolation from each other and what you end up with is a meaningless strap-line, or slogan.
In some ways the introduction of good disagreement and radical new inclusivity (by ++Justin), as notions to be transformed into motifs, obligates a revival in ecclesiology. Radical new inclusivity can, after all, hardly be regarded as either radical or new if retention of the status quo is the end result!
For the Church of England our ecclesiology is verified through our liturgy. So if radical new inclusivity is to mean anything at all, if it is to become a guiding motif, then some form of rite of affirmation, dedication or blessing for same-sex couples will be required. Without this all that that can be offered are ‘informal prayers,’ which can only ever be an expression of inclusivity at the level of the local church, rather than a statement of theological principle by the national, and established church. The Church of England, it should be remembered is a formal, national, established and liturgical church. These are, perhaps, the most significant internal characteristics of our ecclesiological motif. ‘Lex credendi, lex orandi’ is the principle at stake should the Church of England continue to insist that only informal, non liturgical, prayers can be offered to same-sex couples.
The challenge for the Church of England is that not everyone is going to be cock-a-hoop with any form of movement towards rites of affirmation, dedication, or blessing. This is a statement of the obvious! And, this is why the notion of good disagreement is so important. Good disagreement, if it is to be a motif, has to be disagreement about two things: principle and practice. If good disagreement only ever relates to principle, its only real concern is the nature of our internal debates. At this level good disagreement translates as ‘kids play nicely.’ The problem is that in high stake games kids tend not to play nicely!
Over the last year it has become clear to me that good disagreement only makes sense in relation to radical new inclusivity and, that radical new inclusivity, as a guiding (theological) motif,only makes sense ecclesiologically if it leads to new forms of practice, the only verification for which are liturgical rites of affirmation, dedication or blessing. Without such rites all that we will be left with is a couple of essentially meaningless strap-lines, or slogans.
‘So what’s it to be?’ Are good disagreement and radical new inclusivity to be mere pragmatic, managerial, political and, perhaps, ultimately vacuous strap-lines or, are they going to be guiding theological motifs?’
For the Church of England and her leaders we really are approaching ‘make your mind up time.’ Strap-lines or motifs, managerial pragmatism or ecclesiology, these are the questions.