Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Centenary of Foundation: Homily by Dr Robin Ward

At the Parish Church of St Magnus the Martyr, London Bridge

July 6th, 2013

I am sure that I am not the only one in this church to have been charmed and engaged by Father John Salter’s biography of the former rector of this church and co-founder of the Catholic League, Henry Joy Fynes-Clinton.  Partly I think because Fynes-Clinton’s rather mannered eccentricity in old age was so amusingly captured by Colin Stephenson in his facetious accounts of the Anglo-Catholic Movement in its most tinselly days of glory, he has been remembered as a sort of odd totem or fetish of Papalism in the Church of England, an ecclesiastical coelacanth inhabiting a Tridentine zareba by the unpropitious Thames. 


But how fascinating to read about him as a young man: tutor in an Old Believer family in Moscow, consulted by the Archbishop of Canterbury while still a curate about relations with the Eastern Churches, instrumental in bringing to study in Oxford at St Stephen’s House students from the Serbian Orthodox Church, among who was St Justin Popovich.  Both then and now people found it difficult to reconcile his evident sympathy with the Orthodox churches and intimate knowledge of their culture and rites with his overt and systematic theological Papalism.  Fantasy about the character of belief and practice in the Orthodox churches as a sort of oriental Anglicanism is at least as old as Bishop Compton’s abortive relations with the church in what is still called Greek Street, established in 1677, from which he requested the removal of all the icons.  Fynes-Clinton particularly suffered in his work from this sort of political ecumenism, which assumed that my enemy’s enemy must be my friend, and that because the enemy was and always would be the Pope, the difference between the religion of George V and Nicholas II was simply one of detail and culture.


The degree to which this myth was and is a theological and spiritual dead end has become ever more apparent as scholarship, common sense and ease of travel demolish its tenets one after the other.  Only this year the Cambridge theologian Marcus Plested has published a work of outstanding originality and insight, Orthodox Readings of Aquinas, in which he demonstrates with real learning how important Thomas Aquinas was in the Greek theological tradition, not simply to those who wanted reunion with Rome or who opposed the doctrine of S. Gregory Palamas, but also to divines such as George Scholarios who became the first Patriarch of Constantinople after the Ottoman conquest, and Peter of Mogila, whose Kievan scholasticism was by no means the alien growth subsequent patristic fundamentalism has sought to portray.  And this should come as no surprise really: any reader of the Summa Theologiae soon encounters lavish quotation from the Greek fathers, and the Angelic Doctor’s regard for S. John Damascene as the crowning doctor and synthesizer of the Greek tradition is obvious. 


Among Plested’s most engaging discoveries is a liturgical canon in honour of S. Thomas Aquinas written by Bishop Joseph of Methone: As a star out of the West he has illumined/ the Church of Christ/ the musical swan and subtle teacher/ Thomas the all-blessed,/ Aquinas by name,/ to whom we gathered together cry:/ Hail, universal teacher!


This intellectual catharsis of the tradition we have received is particularly important as we seek to make such sense as we can of the current doctrinal and cultural decadence so characteristic of the contemporary theological scene in Anglicanism.  For we can see that in both Anglicanism and Orthodoxy the vitality of the nineteenth century revival became strangely distorted by an insularity and a nationalism that sought to exclude from the tradition influences perceived to be in some way undesirably foreign, an impulse at best wedded to myth and at worst to overt racism.


And here the root of the problem goes back inexorably to the reception in England and in Russia of the philosophy of Hegel: Hegel taught by Jowett and Green at Balliol to Charles Gore and his friends; Hegel as he inspired the principal architects of Slav orthodox particularism from Dostoievsky to Bulgakov.  As that perceptive cultural critic and old member of St Stephen’s House A N Wilson points out in his astute work on the intellectual history of this period in England, God’s Funeral, given the choice between Hegel and the Thirty-Nine Articles it is not surprising what the intelligent young found most inspiring, but the consequences for theology have been curious and unsatisfying. 


For the Russians, Slavophil insularity and a rejection of scholastic method has led some of their most original minds into the speculative obscurities of sophiology and the erection of doctrinal differences on issues like the Filioque and the Immaculate Conception into epochal fissures.  For the Anglicans, what looked to be the key of release from obscurantism and anti-intellectualism turned out to be in fact the liberty to pursue theology in characteristic splendid isolation, the long Hegelian summer that begins with Lux Mundi and ends with Christus Veritas.


It is worth looking at this a little more closely.  The first generation of Tractarians were badly educated in philosophy but were by no means insular in their theological culture, albeit within the bounds of a tradition that was somewhat inadequately resourced to counter the virulence of contemporary critiques of Christianity.  The second generation thought they had found the answer to the problems posed by biblical criticism and scientific evolutionism in the Idealist philosophy handed down from Hegel, in a way that also enabled them to assert their pristine Catholicity without having to worry too much about the unpromising hinterland the Church of England provided for this endeavor. 


If Darwin and the Germans were demolishing English Biblicism, then a free and frank acceptance of the higher criticism was a good way to make Anglican Catholicism both intellectually chic and doctrinally distinctive; if a Christology of kenosis meant that Jesus didn’t really know who he was during his earthly ministry, then neither should we be surprised if the Church which is his body on earth appears not to have a definitive sense of her own mission and teaching either.  With Gore and his disciples this is a sophisticated and brave attempt to make durable bricks with not much straw; with their less able successors, we arrive at the abject embarrassment of N P Williams’ Northern Catholicism, a characteristic product of the sinister 1930s in which we are asked to believe in the essential religious genius of the Northern peoples … of a mystical and soaring quality, appropriate to dwellers amidst the less genial aspects of Nature and beneath ‘grey and weeping skies’. 


Truthfulness about all this is fundamentally important when we come to think about what Anglican patrimony is.  True ecumenism cannot be built on crypto-racist assumptions that God in some way reveals himself more aptly to favoured nations because of the sort of weather they have or soil they till.  George Weigel in his recent Evangelical Catholicism has identified the key moment for modern Catholicism to be the agenda set by Pope Leo XIII in reviving the Thomist synthesis.  The most perceptive Anglican theologians in the Catholic tradition in the last century – Dix, Mascall, Farrer - all understood this, just as Plested’s work is beginning to unearth the same for the Orthodox. We need to have the humility to realize that fantasies of Anglican doctrinal particularity have cut us off from the much-needed irrigation this revival brings in doctrine, in apologetic and in social thought.


Henry Fynes-Clinton warned his contemporaries about this in his Oxford Movement Centenary Manifesto of 1933: On such supreme and vital matters as: the person of Our Lord, the union of the two natures in Him, the interpretation of Holy Scripture, the authority and infallibility of the Church, and the moral standards of historic Christianity, much of the teaching openly propagated within the modern Movement is in sad contrast with the orthodoxy of the original Oxford Fathers, and with the Catholic standards to which ex professo the Anglo-Catholic Movement makes appeal.  Our patrimony in liturgy and theology is only worth having and nurturing insofar as it is faithful to this deposit of faith.  The Catholic League since its foundation one hundred years ago – in Corringham where I learned the faith - has been unremittingly faithful to a two-fold loyalty: loyalty to the Oxford Revival as authentically Catholic in its content and orientation; loyalty to an ecclesial vision that has refused to embrace myth and fantasy about Anglicanism as a special dispensation of revelation.  This ascesis is all the more necessary in our current strife.  May the universal doctor and teacher pray for us, that the Church of Christ may be united in one faith and one sheepfold.

The Revd Canon Dr Robin Ward
Principal, St Stephen's House, Oxford



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