One of the things that we expect in a postmodern world, and rightly so, is that people will be upfront about where they are coming from, about what their story is and about their biases, so that they don’t pretend to an objectivity they don’t have, and so that we can have honest conversation. This being so, I need to tell you as I begin that at my core I am an Anglican of the evangelical variety, but at the edges I am quite fuzzy. (Well, maybe to say “fuzzy Anglican” is redundant anyway.) When I say fuzzy, let me be clear: what I mean is that I know God can’t be contained in my little box, or indeed in any human box, so I want to be open to God wherever God is to be found. Like the late Bishop John Robinson, who in many things is not a hero of mine, I want to be clear at the centre and open at the edges. I also want to acknowledge that this event tonight [Convocation] doesn’t take place in a cultural vacuum. I don’t need to tell you that the Anglican Church of Canada is facing what will in all likelihood be the most contentious of General Synods since the ordination of women was debated, and perhaps moreso. Friends of mine on both sides of the issue of blessing same sex unions are threatening to leave the Anglican Church if the vote goes against their preference. If that makes you nervous because you think that I am about to pontificate on The Issue, you can relax. It’s not my job, and I’m not sure I’m that courageous anyway. (I had lunch with Michael Peers a few months ago, and I said as we began, “Don’t worry. I don’t want to talk about the homosexual issue.” And he said with a wry smile: “That’s OK. Most people don’t. They just send me emails.”) I only mention this because it is the situation in the background for this evening’s convocation, and I think it would be naïve for us not to acknowledge it. Where then to begin, and which direction to go? In trying to be open to different ways of thinking, one of the schools of thought I have found helpful in recent years is postliberalism—people like George Lindbeck and Stanley Hauerwas—and I want to borrow their term “retrieval.” They would say in order to understand the present and to be ready for the future, we need to have a strong sense of who we are, and in order to do that, we have to reach back into our history, and “retrieve” a sense of what it means to be a Christian. I want to suggest there are perhaps three areas of Christian faith that we need to “retrieve” in order to understand the present and to be ready for the future, whatever it may bring: 1. We need to recover a sense of what story we are living in You may know that wonderful line from philosopher Alasdair McIntyre on this subject. He says:
I can only answer the question, “What am I to do?” if I can answer the prior question, “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?” (After Virtue 216)
Human beings need to know their story: it gives us identity and it gives us purpose. If I may adapt an old joke, you may know of the son who wouldn’t get up on a Sunday morning for church. His mother tried to get him up, but he said, “Why should I go to church? Nobody likes me, it’s boring, and I’m not sure I believe that stuff anyway. Give me two reasons I should get up.” And his mother replied, “Well, you’re thirty years old and you’re the priest.” What is the mother doing? She’s trying to get him to do the right thing by reminding him of the story he belongs to!
For the most part, Anglican Christians don’t know the story they belong to. We are biblically illiterate, maybe because we still live with a Christendom model of the church, where we assume everybody who walks through the door is already a mature Christian, or maybe we prefer to be biblically illiterate so that no-one will mistake us for Baptists.
What then is our story? We are part of what is basically a very simple story. Our story says God created the world good and beautiful and full of life; the story says we spoiled God’s creation by refusing to follow the manufacturer’s instructions; but the story says too that this is not the end, that the Creator has not given up, indeed that the Creator is seeking to restore this world to a beauty even greater than it had at the beginning. And, as we understand it in the Christian community, the centrepiece of God’s restoration project is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Does this make the Christian story a metanarrative, bete noir of postmodernism? Frankly, I don’t see any way around saying yes, it is a metanarrative. But I would say with Richard Middleton and Brian Walsh in their book, Truth is Stranger Than it Used to Be, that the Christian story is a uniquely benign metanarrative, whose intention is to bring freedom not oppression. Now the Christian story is not the same story a Muslim or a Buddhist might tell (though that’s no reason we can’t be friends). Neither is it the same story an atheist would tell. And, frankly, it’s not the story most Canadians would tell. So Christians need to be familiar with their distinctive story in order to answer the question, “What am I to do? How should I behave? What are wise choices?” Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham, has a great analogy for this, which I will adapt slightly. He says, suppose a previously unknown play of Shakespeare’s was discovered, but with one act, Act 5, missing. What could you do? Perhaps the best solution would be to get together the world’s most experienced Shakespearian actors, get them to read Acts 1 through 4, and Act 6, till it is second nature to them—and then set them loose to act out the play. When they came to Act 5 they would improvise, they would make it up. Now, if they are going to do that well, they would have to be true to Acts 1 through 4, the characters and the plot would have to be credible—and their improvisation would have to connect with the start of Act 6. Now, says Wright, that is where we are in relation to the Christian story. God has given us a framework for our lives in Acts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6. Act 1 is creation, Act 2 the fall, Act 3 the formation of the people of
2. We need to retrieve the story of the Gospel . . . because at the heart of our story is Good News. When you ask what brought the Christian church into being, it was, in a word, the Gospel. Those first followers of Jesus had stumbled on good news–the good news that Jesus had risen, that sins could be forgiven, that God is for us, and that the whole world looks different because of this. And the reason the Christian church spread so rapidly throughout the ancient world, and the reason it continues to spread in many countries today, is exactly that—that Christians have amazing good news to share. I think of one young man who became a Christian not long ago, who said to me, “I feel more alive than I’ve ever felt before!” That’s what the Gospel does to people. Now Anglicans are not exactly known for their (what shall I say?) unbridled spiritual exuberance. But unless we rediscover the Gospel, we will die—it’s as simple as that. Do Anglicans know the Gospel? I remember asking this question at a diocesan gathering once, and an elderly man in the front row said, “Well, I’ve been an Anglican for 60 years, and I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever heard something called the Gospel.” His priest, who was sitting beside him, turned to him in horror and said, “But you hear it every Sunday!” Who was right? Well, probably both were right. He had heard the words all right, but not in such a way that it came home to him as good news, not in such a way that it gave him joy or hope. We say, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”—and the greatest facts in the history of the human race just make us yawn, whereas, if they are true, surely they should make us want to shout and dance and sing and weep for joy all at the same time. Although as Anglicans, we would do it in a reserved and liturgical way, naturally. That doesn’t matter. Part of the problem, I think, is that we have not helped people discover the Christian good news in their own experience. Think of it this way. Suppose a war has been won and a country has been set free from oppression. That’s great news. (My father used to tell us children how he had liberated
For some years, I served on the Primate’s Evangelism Commission. I remember Michael Peers once reflecting how in his lifetime he had seen the church’s involvement in social action move from the margins of church life, where it was just the pet peeve of a small ginger group, to the centre, where these days we take it for granted that social action is the church’s responsibility. So my question, I suppose, is this: Can the reality and drama of our story move back to the centre of the church’s life? Can we grow again into loving the story, being passionate about the story, centering our lives and our congregations’ lives, around the story? Because in a world where many lack a story, this is a story that gives life, this is a story that is full of hope. Does the Anglican Church of Canada have a future? My answer is a definite . . . maybe. But in the big picture, you know, that’s not really the most important question to be asking. In the long run, if survival is our number one priority, one thing is clear: we will not survive. (You will recall that Jesus said some pretty strong things about those who tried to save their own lives.) No, our job is to be faithful to the story, not least because we believe it is God’s story, and our job is to retell the story and to live out the story—as Tom Wright puts it, with faithfulness on the one hand and creativity on the other. And to leave the consequences to God.