Monday, July 18, 2011

The danger of Jensenism

Commemoration of John Keble (14 July), preached at St Mary’s North Melbourne, 15 July 2011

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness

In 1833 John Keble preached a sermon from a very high pulpit to a group of legal and civic luminaries in a university city. Keble’s sermon, in its substance and context, holds almost nothing of relevance for the Anglican Church in Melbourne in 2011. It is, like most historical documents, so grounded in its own time and place that its purpose and cares have long been left behind. The notion of the Christian state, let alone the notion of that state becoming apostate in the manner of Saul in 1 Samuel 12, is an irrelevance to us here today. (I could here make a quip about CRI and School chaplaincy, but that is a story for another time.)

Keble’s sermon is irrelevant – but not entirely. Two points, I think, bear repeating and revisiting, even in Melbourne in 2011.

The first is Keble’s realisation that the church was in danger, and his reference to “The growing indifference, in which men indulge themselves, to other men’s religious sentiments.” In other words, he identified the great failure of liberalism in the church – that in trying to be inclusive we give full reign to those whose opinions are dangerous and downright wrong.

The second is Keble’s call to “the Church and churchmen”, as a “first duty”, having discerned the possibility of error, to engage in intercession followed by remonstrance. In other words, when we see that which we perceive may be wrong we must pray for guidance and, having received spiritual guidance through prayer, if the wrong is proved, we must speak out against it.

So, after long prayer and discernment, let me now be pompous enough to tell you where I believe there to be error in the Anglican Church of Australia in 2011, and let me end with remonstrance; a call to the Catholic wing of the church to abandon its policy of indifference, and to seize back the initiative from those who are putting the church, and the souls of those within it, in danger.

. . .

How, then, is the church in danger today? Keble in 1833 identified a threat to the church from without – from the State. Today, however, I believe the church is most in danger from within. For Anglicans in Australia, that danger may be characterised as Jensenism.

Muriel Porter, in 2006, published The New Puritans, a thorough-going engagement with the rise of fundamentalism in the diocese of Sydney. Charles Sherlock described his launch speech for that book as “an act of public repentance for not confronting more directly the reality that 'Sydney Anglicanism' is bad for one's spiritual health, making the 'food of the soul', the holy scriptures, indigestible.” Remarkable candour for a self-described “Son of Sydney”. Muriel has now written a follow-up volume, which is to appear under the arresting title Sydney Anglicans and the threat to World-wide Anglicanism. Muriel has been generous enough to allow me to preview some chapters of this book. I won’t give too much away, other than to say that when it is released in August you should buy it and read it. What Muriel does in this book is to narrate the back-story for why Jensenism is a threat, why the church is in danger, but why it might just possibly be about to go horribly wrong for the Jensenist camp.

When Charles launched Muriel’s earlier book he rightly identified the need for orthodox Anglicans to speak out against the errors and dangers of the Sydney experiment. A single sermon is insufficient to detail the problems even with one aspect of Jensenist theology, let alone the whole thing. So you’ll have to settle for some dot points – and I would encourage those of you who are theologians to dig deeply into one or more of them, to identify the error, and to outline in print why it is so. Having prayed about these things, I am prepared to say the following:
The Jensenist doctrine of God, which is subordinationist, is an error, and is a threat to orthodox Christian faith.
The Jensenist view of Scripture as its own interpreter, which removes the text from its context and disallows the work of the Spirit in the church, is an error, and a threat to orthodox Christian faith.
The Jensenist doctrine of the exclusive church is an error that drives people away from the Gospel of Christ, and is a threat to orthodox Christian faith.
The Jensenist doctrine of a differentiated male and female humanity is an error, is repressive of both women and men, and is a threat to orthodox Christian faith.
The Jensenist doctrine of human sexuality, which is obsessive about genital acts and labels love as sinful is an error, and is a threat to orthodox Christian faith.
I could go on, but that will do for now.
To describe something as an error is important language here – because that is a word the Jensenists apply when talking about any view that fails to be in complete agreement with theirs. Historically, though, the church has another word for theological error – that word is heresy.

. . .

The missionary success of Jensenism is one of the things about it that I find the most intriguing. I find the fundamentalist message so personally distasteful, that I find it difficult to understand how anyone, must less, for example, an intelligent young woman, might want to become involved in a form of religion that treats them as less than equal, and that seems to preach that God is to be feared more than he is to be loved. I had little understanding, that is, until I spent three years dealing with Oxford students, some of whom had been through the English equivalent of the Jensenist model.

What I learned from a number of undergraduates and postgraduates who had experienced the Jensenist-style Anglicanism that has infiltrated several Oxford parishes, was that bullying and spiritual coercion are at the heart of the Jensenist model of ministry, and a direct outcome of the false doctrine of headship. What is happening in many of the parishes where Jensenist clergy hold sway is – I am not afraid to name it – spiritual abuse. For me the issue came into clear focus when a student member of one of these churches began attending St Mary the Virgin, and was subjected to a barrage of emails, phone calls, even knocks on the door for impromptu chats, from fellow Jensenists warning him that to leave “the group” would mean damnation and, indeed, that going to a church like liberal St Mary’s would be worse than going no-where at all. When it became clear that he was indeed “lost” his entire peer-group for the past six years of his life cut him off as though dead.

This is spiritual abuse, pure and simple, and the example is not isolated. I dealt with this issue several times in England. And in Australia, in every parish I have ever worked, the back pew has been populated from time to time by people scared and scarred by their experience of church, almost inevitably of the Jensenist sort, often through youth ministry, who are, often years later, trying again in a place that they hope (but do not trust) might be more Christ-like than that which they had left behind.

. . .

And this brings me to prayer, discernment, remonstrance.

I outlined a short time ago a list of errors in Jensenism. One of the great problems within the more liberal end of Catholic Anglicanism has been our unwillingness, over many decades now, to claim for ourselves the opposite of error – the claim of truth. I would go further than unwillingness – it has been a fear. We have, over many decades, lost our collective nerve. We have, quite rightly, wished to remain open to a range of views, and accommodating of as many forms of understanding of God as might be helpful and demonstrably based on the triple witness of Scripture, tradition and reason. But the tearing apart of the Catholic party over the question of the ordination of women scared us. We became collectively unable to speak for fear of schism or even simply of misunderstanding. In the midst of it all, however, we still did what we do best – we prayed. And very many of us prayed very hard. Those decades of timidity, then, have actually been decades of prayerful discernment and, it seems to me now that in the Australian church at least, the Catholic party is near to achieving something close to full acceptance of women in the threefold order. The fight with ourselves is largely over, and those Catholic Anglicans who still oppose women in ministry are a dying rump – I’m sorry if that offends anyone, but it is true. According to their own website there are only three fully signed-up Forward in Faith parishes left in the whole of Australia – three. It is time, therefore, for us to gather our wits and regain the initiative. Because, having engaged in the sort of deep, painful self-examination that would scare the pants off the Jensenists, we are now in a position to do something we have not dared to do in years – to proclaim that our version of the church, of the Christian message, of the Gospel of Christ, is not simply one among many, but is one of the best on offer, and one worth sharing, promoting, even celebrating. Unlike the Jensenists, I would never want to claim exclusivity – that we and we alone hold the keys to the kingdom. However I would want to say that it is time for us to let go of the shackles of liberalism that bind us to a wishy-washing “never call heresy, heresy” sort of theology. We get many things wrong but, on the whole, the Catholic interpretation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ has more going for it than most, and it is time that we were prepared to stand up and say so, and to stand up for ourselves against the bullying attacks of the Jensenists. It is time to stop rolling over. It is time for us to become the evangelists.

Here is my moment of remonstrance – but it is a positive call. Because, unlike the Jensenists, I believe that the Catholic end of the church has done the hard yards. We have thought through and identified the many weaknesses in our position. We are able to be flexible, to accommodate difference, to make space for people to grow and mature in faith, rather than simply telling them what to believe. We have proved that, battered and perhaps still a little bewildered, we have been able therefore to do something the Jensenists quite possibly cannot – we have survived a crisis.

And so, rather than simply complaining about the rise of Sydney, it is time for us to do something about it. It is time for theologians to write, for preachers to preach, for those who have been scared and scarred, to tell their stories. It is time for dangers to be identified and opposed. It is time for us to shift our focus of prayer from ourselves to the wider church, and to do what we can to keep Anglicanism Anglican in the face of the heretical threat from within. And it is also time for us to do what those who followed Keble, Newman and the rest also did – it is time for us to be evangelists for our cause.

So let us not be afraid – fear is the opposite of faith. Let us hunger and thirst for righteousness, that the people of God may be filled.

- Craig D'Alton

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Some further reflections on Access

It’s an interesting experience; being a temporary minor media personality. The sermon immediately below in this blog was picked up by The Sunday Age, a Melbourne-based broadsheet, and turned into an article with the rather disarming title “Priest urges end to ‘forced’ religious education”. I had been contacted by Jill Stark from The Sunday Age, who had read my sermon, and having realized that she had some pretty basic facts incorrect, I decided that it was better to speak to her than not. As always, what comes out in print is never exactly what you would have written yourself . . .

Nonetheless, although I was initially annoyed by the newspaper report, as time has passed I find myself much less so. I think that there are two reasons for this. First, because of the quite astonishing level of support for what I said both on this blog and in the newspaper. Apart from one rather intemperate phone call from someone involved at the senior level in Access and one pretty mild rebuking email from a person in Warragul, the response has been exclusively positive. I have also turned down several requests for interviews with radio and television. Perhaps it was flattering to be asked, but Geraldine Grainger on The Vicar of Dibley learnt her lesson on clergy in the media the hard way, and I had no intention of repeating her mistake.

Second, having discussed this issue so many times, I find myself even surer of the need for change than I was when I preached my sermon. I think, therefore, that there are two further points I would now like to offer in this debate.

The first point is that Access has backed itself into a corner, and needs to find a way out before the way is found for them. I have been struck – perhaps even a little astonished – at the level of community anger towards Access, even from many of those who teach its programmes. I think that some in Access have been living in a bubble, believing that reform is being urged exclusively at the behest of the radical atheist lobby. This is, manifestly, not the case. Both the general community and very many members of churches are equally of the view that change is necessary. In my view, Access needs now to ask the State Government to conduct a review of religious education in schools. I think it important that Access asks for this, before the review is called in spite of them. In the former case they will be in a position to advocate their cause, perhaps to save some face, and perhaps to reinvent themselves. In the second case, I suspect there can only be one outcome.

My second point is an expansion of my view that General Religious Education is the best way forward in schools. I believe that should such a system be implemented in place of the present one, teachers of GRE should be encouraged wherever possible to seek out practitioners from various local religious groups, so that students can meet them, and have the opportunity to discuss and encounter what people actually believe, rather than a set of abstract principles. I would love, for example, to be asked into my local school once a year to put the case for why a socially progressive catholic form of Anglicanism is worth the effort. With the younger children, I might simply want to make sure that they understood that religion can be fun!

The debate over the provision of religious education in Victorian schools is not going to go away. It is time that Access and the churches themselves actively asked the government not to back the status quo, but to look again at what our children are offered, and at how we might make that offer better.

Craig D’Alton
25 May 2011

Monday, May 16, 2011

A different sort of Access

Sermon for Easter 4
15 May 2011
Preached at St Mary’s Anglican Church, North Melbourne

“A different sort of Access”

When I became vicar of St Mary’s, I discovered that one of the duties I had inherited with that title was to teach and coordinate religious education at Errol Street Primary School. I’ll be up front and admit that I wasn’t a duty I relished, but over a month or so late last year I took up the task, and enjoyed the interaction with the grade five and six students, as well as the younger students who were involved in the final Christmas session of the year. Fr Philip, who has taught RE for several years, was intending to take over these duties this year, freeing me up to do some other things. Things have worked out somewhat differently.

Doubtless many of you will have seen in the papers and elsewhere over the last few months – even this morning in fact – that there has been quite a kerfuffle about the teaching of Special Religious Education in primary schools. What you may not realize is that Errol Street Primary has been one of the trigger schools for the current unrest. At the beginning of this year the principal informed the SRE teachers that the programme would be timetabled at 8.30am, outside school hours. This is against education department guidelines, and one of the SRE teachers complained to Access Ministries, who brought in the education department to oblige the school to comply with the law. Several months later negotiations continue, but the school has not changed its position, and there has consequently been no RE taught at Errol Street so far this year. Frankly, I see little sign of this state of affairs changing soon.

This is the point at which I need to lay my cards on the table. Having seen the programme, albeit briefly, at first hand, I am not a supporter of the Special Religious Education system presently in place in Victoria. I have three reasons for holding this view. First, because I believe that, educationally, students would benefit more from a General religious education, where they would learn about a variety of the many forms of religion that co-exist in our multicultural society. In Special Religious Education they learn only about one religion, in most but not all cases Christianity. Second, because I believe that the schooling of our children is too valuable to be left to amateur volunteers, however well-meaning, and that religious education is a subject of sufficient importance and nuance that it should be taught by qualified and properly remunerated teachers. But my third reason is theological, and it may be summed up in a line from today’s Gospel: “anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.” For those of us who teach SRE whilst holding a church office that encourages us, or for the ordained actually obliges us, to be evangelists, there is a conflict of interest. In a real sense we are there under false pretenses, and it’s time we admitted it.

The current debate has centred around two things – the quality of the programme on offer, and the question of whether or not RE teachers are there to proselytise the students. Although I have a view, I am not qualified to pass judgement on the quality of the material prepared by Access ministries. On the second question, I can speak only for myself.

I am a priest in the church of God, and as such, it is part of my calling to teach people about Christ, to encourage them to explore belief, to engage with the church and, through the church, to encounter God. It is not, actually, my job as a priest to be an impartial or disinterested interpreter of Christianity, whether to school children or to anyone else. On the few occasions when I taught at Errol Street I did what was required and put my personal belief system somewhat to one side, but I have to confess that it went against the grain. It felt to me that I was there under false pretenses. I was climbing into the sheepfold over the fence rather than walking through the gate.

Those who teach SRE under the current regime are almost inevitably committed Christians who are there because they believe that it is important that kids learn about Christianity, and because the RE programme is the best chance – the only chance – to reach out to otherwise unchurched children in our schools. To claim that we are there for any other reason is, in my view, disingenuous. Yet, in order to justify our presence we are obliged under the legislation, and certainly in the current media climate, either to pretend otherwise, or to compromise our own belief that Christianity is a story worth telling in a way that excites interest and participation.

Let me be clear – I would love to be invited in to Errol Street primary, or any other school, to explain to students about my understanding of Christianity, why I am a Christian, and why I think being a Christian is a wonderful thing to be. I am much less interested in going in pretending to be an objective outsider in order to teach a watered down version of my own faith as an abstract “they” believe “this”. Indeed in the latter case I’m not quite sure why committed Christians would want to perform the task at all.

There are, nonetheless, many SRE teachers who are committed Christians who also believe that the current programe is worthwhile and a good use of their time. I don’t want to “dis” their position. But, over time and with prayer, I have reached the point that this is not a view I can hold or support. I have been praying long and hard over this for several months, and have now come to the view that if the education department does decide to play rough and hard with Errol Street school and force them to accept SRE teachers back I will not be one of them.

Whilst I have no sympathy with the militant secular humanism that is driving some of the current newspaper debate on this issue, I think that the parents, teachers and others who object to the SRE system on the grounds that it is an amateur programme being taught by well meaning people who are, actually, there for different reasons than those advertised, are correct. I would like the churches and the education department to embark upon a different discussion entirely – about how we might make available to those families that want it an option to learn about Christianity as practiced rather than in the abstract, and about how we might help in the compilation of a general religious education curriculum that places Christianity into its broader socio-religious context, and teaches students that religious people are not generally nutters, not generally corrupt, and not generally out to brain wash kids. If the media sometimes portrays Christians teaching voluntarily in schools in any of these ways we have only ourselves to blame, because of how we have allowed the system to develop in a desperate attempt to hold on to the little opportunity that we have left in schools.

It is, I believe, time that we found a new method of access – but it needs to be access granted to a trusted friend, through the school front gate, and at the invitation of the gate-keeper, not surreptitious access, climbing in quietly over the back fence.