I set Monday aside to pop into the Affirming Catholicism day conference at Bristol Cathedral. Labels are for other people and I've never held my evangelical cards too tightly but, since I was filmed in the entry queue and probably shown briefly on Points West, the game is up. I may as well confess. A lot of my more catholic colleagues came up to me with a 'What are you doing here?'
What was I doing there? First thing to say is that I feel quite refreshed by the occasional dose of high Anglicanism. Couldn't go to mass every week but twice a year feels about right. Secondly, the guest speaker was His Rowanness the Archbishop of Canterbury, a wordsmith par excellence who I have never heard in the flesh before. Thirdly, I thought the title was brilliant - 'Catholic and Evangelical - Two Sides of the Same Coin?' If he was going to speak on that I thought it would be more interesting to hear him in front of catholics than evangelicals.
The Archbishop is a man who, according to Mrs T, always looks like he has had an invitation to a 'Come as a druid' party. But what a speaker. For forty five minutes he carefully drew on sources including politics, sociology, literature, poetry, theology and name-dropping his dinner party guests. ('I am an Archbishop - if I invite them they tend to come.')
So what did he say? Catholics and Protestants both consider themselves under authority, therefore responsible to someone. There is someone with a claim upon us both. The Protestants focus on the authority of the Bible but have to understand it is more than a historical document. The Catholics focus on the authority of organised religion but have to understand it is more than a global sociological phenomenon.
Now that was in the first five minutes so for me already a days worth of chewing is set up from those few sentences.
'Catholics have to live with the strangeness of the Bible; Protestants have to live with the strangeness of other Christians ... so we can't reduce the Bible to the bits we can cope with, or the church to the people that we like.'
The Reformation was not about Protestant versus Catholic, but about who was catholic. 'Catholicism, for the reformers, was insufficiently catholic.'
Both Catholic and Protestant are, primarily, missionary imperatives. Not in the sense simply of converts, but in seeking a unified language for human beings, a unified reality for a divided, fractured world.
So what might a catholic evangelicalism look like, he asked? It would be a biblical faith that sees the Bible as something to be read and shared, as something for public, not private consumption. To provide the common, imaginative text. It is designed for the community. It would be an ecclesial faith. It would see the Bible as that which convenes us, which draws us together. The Bible is sovereign - not us lying down before an all-powerful, infallible text, but a community that allows itself to be called by it.
(The Bible is not the repository of ultimate answers but that which stirs us to say, 'Have I seen it?' If we simply seek answers we dramatically underplay the supernatural - in fact we should never expect to have got to the end of it.)
Every sentence of the Nicene Creed is true in the sense 'This is the world I invite you to grow into,' not as fact or conclusion.
This is a difficult time for organised religion. We look as if we are fighting internally. But if we all looked as though we were listening, people might begin to be interested in what we were listening to.
His conclusion: 'What would a church look like that looked as though it was listening?'
He was asked, from the floor, if there was such a thing as definitive truth. 'Yes, but you and I do not own it.' So I believe he is saying that although there are absolutes, life is about the search for them not the arrival at them. Even the absolutes we think we have arrived at, such as 'The world is absolutely flat,' may one day be seen as flawed.
He was asked what he would say in response to the accusation that the Bible is racist in setting out God's apparent approval of driving Palestinians out of their land. 'Regarding a text as sacred doesn't mean it is morally upright or gets full marks for ethics.' The Bible is itself a self-critical book. Hosea, for instance, is critical of the death of Jezebel, so gloried in by the writer of Kings.'
A critique. Would I dare? I think I am with him all the way in his belief that apparent opposites can be nuanced into agreement. He is great at seeing the common ground between old enemies. I am not entirely convinced that you can nuance black into white or light into dark. There comes a point where Isaac and Ishmael have to separate. I think I would be comfortable with the company of Affirming Catholicism watching Forward in Faith and Reform go off hand in hand into the sunset to have their own rows. The Archbishop most definitely stopped short of saying this.
'God's endless improvisatory technique means that he can bestow gifts on the church in its current breadth even though its current breadth was not his original idea.'
Thank you, if you read this far. Writing it has helped me reflect. It remains a thinking work in progress. But those eyebrows. Why? Why?