Response to Milbank

My recent thoughts on the Church of England – see 2 posts down – provoked a response from the leading Anglican theologian John Milbank. He said they were ‘typically peculiar and unrooted’.

In fact, to call Milbank a leading theologian is understating things. I doubt that any British academic has had such an influence on his or her discipline in recent decades. In the mid 1990s he was the key founder of a movement called ‘radical orthodoxy’. With huge erudition, and enviable fluency in French postmodern theory, Milbank and others attacked liberalism in both politics and religion, drawing on Marxist as well as Catholic thought. They dominated Anglican theology, mainly through intimidating sceptics into silence. They have also influenced politics a bit: Milbank’s pupils include Philip Blond, founder of Respublica think-tank, and Adrian Pabst, theorist of post-liberalism, who is admired by Danny Kruger MP. 

According to Milbank, ‘liberal Catholicism in the C of E never meant acceptance of political liberalism…Anglicanism has historically been far more Tory than Whig, but Hobson wants to claim Whig Anglicanism as normative.’

This summarises the difference between me and him very usefully. He sees ‘political liberalism’ as a bad thing. He idealises the ‘integralism’ of the pre-liberal era, meaning the integration rather than separation of religion and politics. This surely makes him a marginal reactionary figure, you might think. But the whole trick of post liberalism is to present such thought as edgy and brave not reactionary but ‘postmodern’, post-secular’.

I have half-admired Milbank’s work for years – he was one of my teachers when I was a postgraduate in fact. His polemical pugilistic style is a welcome contrast to the dullness of most academic discourse. But he and his movement have enjoyed far too much respect. It’s partly the fault of more liberal theologians: cowed by the post-liberals’ erudition and self-belief, liberals have shrugged and withdrawn from the fray. No one wants to be dismissed as a dated liberal who doesn’t get it.

Well I’m proud to be a Whiggish Anglican, meaning one who affirms the liberal state as a good thing. The alternative is to idealise a theocratic model of religion. Milbank and co laugh when accused of this – we’re just harmless academics, they say, not blood-stained inquisitors! But it is not entirely harmless to pose as a defender of this old model, and disparage what is good in our politics. 

In a sense he’s right, though. The Church of England has never got off the fence and drawn a line under its early phase which was indeed integralist, because the unity of religion and politics was still taken for granted in Tudor times. It has never clearly articulated its affinity with the liberal state. That’s the task for our day.

In good faith

This was in the Spectator a few months ago

It would be weird if my 13-year-old daughter didn’t say she was an atheist. It’s what you say in our culture when you’re that

age. To be honest it would creep me out a bit if she was all pious. But she is getting confirmed into the Anglican faith. This is a piece of hoop-jumping that her parents have decided to require of their children.

I went for coffee with the vicar, to ask if she could join the classes. I admitted that she was a bit reluctant. In fact, it was a mixed picture. Whenever I mentioned confirma- tion she professed her atheism, but when I didn’t mention it for a couple of weeks she asked when the classes were starting. She is not entirely averse to attention, even if it is directed at her eternal soul. Her church- going to date has been patchy. She quite liked Sunday school for a while, when there were some good craft activities and some younger children she could dominate. And she likes occasional guest appearances at her grandmother’s church in the country, where she’s as famous as Pollyanna.

The vicar, no fool, smiled at my sheepish admission that I had not raised St Thérèse of Lisieux. He said that one of his rich arty parishioners had recently paid his teenager to attend church.

That’s what gave me the idea. At first I was a little shocked that a vicar was half- recommending bribery. But then I took the long view and recalled what I had once learned of the conversion of the Anglo- Saxon kings, in which worldly motives played no small part. Why not? Bribing her would settle the matter, and seal her commitment. Otherwise she would perhaps be tempted to stage a little drama of teenage power-play, threatening each week to walk out. And that would be arguably worse for her soul than the acceptance of this bribe.

I won’t say what sum she is promised, but it is far less than was spent on her secular development over the summer, as an ama- teur rock-climber, tennis player and cho- rus girl.

The idea, of course, is to expose her to something that her parents consider beneficial. Attending church for five weeks or so will slightly deepen her acquaintance with

Christian culture. Yes, she will encounter some boredom. But she will also be prod- ded to think about the world in a new way.

Religion is incomprehensible unless you have been exposed to it. To the outsider, it must all seem absurd. To the teenager studying RE, it must seem odd that atheism did not completely triumph circa 1900. But if you witness people worshipping, and join in, it’s all subtly different. You see that these words and gestures matter to people — people who seem decent and sane. You see that these stories are revered, but they are also puzzled over, and sometimes joked about too. You see that an assortment of awkward English people can come together, in an understated way, through singing hymns and speaking some set phrases together.

At first it seems a bit creepy, people uttering responses in the liturgy, as if we’re all pretending to be brainwashed. But then, perhaps, you get to quite like the calm poet- ry of ‘And also with you’ and so on.

And the business end of the liturgy at first seems like a lot of faff over some silver cups and napkins, and everyone pretending to find it all sombre and momentous. But then, gradually, you get a little taste for the group theatre of it.

Sure, it’s a bit too understated to rock a teenager’s world. I don’t expect her to be excitedly Instagramming the experience. But let her see something that doesn’t fit with all that. She might quite like the quiet otherness of it, even if she doesn’t admit it.

Some might say: fine, pay her to go to church for a few weeks if you want, but not to be confirmed. That should be entirely her decision, unclouded by bribery. It is bad for someone to profess faith without really meaning it.

Well, I’m not sure. In Anglicanism, teenage confirmation isn’t really a decisive testimony that one is saved; it is, in effect, a cultural gesture. The teenager is acknowledging that he or she is somewhat shaped by this tradition, and showing some respect for that shaping, without claiming that it is any sort of fixed identity. ‘I’ll go on thinking about it, from this base,’ they are saying.

Even this sort of gesture should be the teenager’s free decision, you might say. But the idea of total autonomy is an illusion. You can’t make up your own mind about religion unless religion has been a factor in the mak- ing of your mind.

If she gains a little bit more respect for this tradition, it will be the best money we have spent on her. Religion might be some- thing she ignores for a decade or two, then finds she is glad to have access to. It does not hurt to have such options in our lonely culture. It does not hurt to know that vicars are almost invariably good sorts: trustworthy, thoughtful, open-minded. They might not like me publicising the fact they offer free therapy, as long as you can present your angst in terms of spiritual seeking. I hope that she does encounter such angst. It’s a strange thing to say, but it’s an odd part of raising, or trying to raise, Christians. One hopes that they will not find things too easy, fit in too nicely, if it means they don’t learn faith’s necessity.

I don’t expect her to come out of the classes a fervent believer. Real belief matures slowly, and co-exists with scepticism. She’ll go back to her crappy TV shows and her gossiping and her thrift-store rummaging. But with a little seed sown in her.

Recent Spectator Article: full text

Divided we stand: Anglicans need to agree to disagree

From magazine issue: 8 January 2022

Divided we stand: Anglicans need to agree to disagree

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Two years ago the Church of England decided to delay any public discussion of its deepest division, over homosexuality, until 2022. So this might be the year in which an already troubled institution has a dramatic public meltdown. Or it might be the year in which the Church of England sorts itself out a bit. Yes, really. Stranger miracles have happened. 

There are grounds for hope, and not just on the gay issue. The Church has a core strength that it could draw on, and a core identity that could stand it in good stead, though one it is weirdly shy to assert.

First let’s admit that things haven’t been going so well, even while the gay issue has been kicked into the long grass. The pandemic has obviously been a nightmare for church attendance and finances, but it also deepened a dangerous ideological rift. It emboldened those who want to experiment with more flexible structures, which alarmed those who don’t, and who fear the demise of the parish. This rift is dangerous because it strongly overlaps with the old rift between evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics. At the same time the Church got drawn into the culture wars, with knee-taking progressive bishops irritating a large section of the faithful. The former bishop Michael Nazir-Ali was irritated all the way to Rome.

It might sound like crazy optimism, but challenging times can clarify minds, and prod an awkward, uncertain tradition into life. I refer not to the Church in general, which has pockets of passionate conviction, but to the core Anglican tradition of liberal Anglo-Catholicism. It is liberal in the sense that it affirms the liberal state and rejects a reactionary response to modern culture. It is Anglo-Catholic in the sense that it has confidence in ritual tradition, and is wary of simplistic emotional piety and bossy legalism. It prefers mystery, difficulty, open-mindedness. This is, in my humble opinion, the best Christian tradition, and in fact the best tradition in all of human culture. So why does it have all the self-confidence of a pimply teenager?Liberal parishes must be free to conduct gay weddings, evangelical parishes must be allowed to refuse to

Some readers will be surprised some feel the Church lacks liberal confidence. Isn’t it full of trendy bishops trying to jump on woke bandwagons and modernise everything? Well, yes, there is a BBC-ish culture of political correctness, especially in the central leadership, but that’s not true liberalism, that’s just another form of tyranny. The Church could and should champion its own truly liberal identity. It only nervily apes secular trends because it has lost touch with its own tradition.

Consider the above-mentioned former bishop, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali. In an interview that he gave to this magazine he spoke of his early life in Pakistan, and named one of the key differences between Islam and Christianity. The former religion is ‘legalistic’, he said; it puts rules in the way of the believer’s relationship with God. His use of this contentious term struck me as a bit rich, quite frankly, in the context of his move from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism. 

Legalism is the belief that religion entails a ‘law’, or firm rules, about morality and ritual culture. Compared with other monotheisms, Christianity is relatively critical of this aspect of religion. You could even say that it separates religion and moral rules, arguing that God chooses not to be built into a particular moral system; he prefers to associate himself with an ideal of perfection. It is within Protestantism, and particularly liberal Protestantism, that this ‘post-legalism’ has been most fully attempted. This was a major ingredient of the modern liberal state: politics became secularised, as religious rules loosened. The Church of England partially and awkwardly signed up to this. It is joined at the hip to liberal culture. Yes, this makes it easy to criticise, but this is its special calling. 

So the Church of England should regain some pride in its positive affinity with cultural freedom. Admittedly this will not in itself get agnostics back in the pews: secular liberals obviously don’t think they need any lessons on cultural freedom. But it is a crucial part of Anglican identity, and only a church that has confidence in its core identity can attract people.

When the Church’s liberal Anglo–Catholic core finally rouses itself into life, its task is threefold. First it must simply assert its centrality in the Church. This means speaking up for the Anglican version of liberalism, and defying the fashionable post-liberalism that has over-impressed a generation or two of Anglican intellectuals, from Rowan Williams to Giles Fraser. It’s time for a nuanced approach, in which aspects of liberalism are criticised, but in which the basic Anglican affirmation of the liberal state is renewed. 

Asserting its centrality in the Church also means treating evangelicalism with a bit less respect. For decades it has unbalanced the Church by drawing relatively big (and affluent) crowds with a style that grates on most Anglican sensibilities. Its simplistic idea of mission has dominated all recent attempts at innovation, which have been heavily backed by the archbishops, leading to discontent in the parishes. A case in point is the newish Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell: though he comes from the Anglo-Catholic side of the Church, his promotion led him to an uncritical embrace of the evangelical model of mission, with its grim middle-management diagrams and cheery facile slogans. Evangelicalism remains ebullient as ever, but thankfully its reputation for trend-bucking success is now fading: a recent report showed that its latest church-planting efforts were largely fruitless. This makes it easier to put it back in its box. 

The second task is to begin to end the dispute over homosexuality. It won’t be solved overnight, or over-year, but the solution is clear enough. Diversity must be allowed: liberal parishes must be free to conduct gay weddings, evangelical parishes must be allowed to refuse to. The Church allowed such diversity over the ordination of women; there is no reason that this compromise should not be repeated. 

I have sometimes felt that the Church was wrong to tolerate dissent on the ordination of women and let the traditionalists have their separate structures, but it turns out that it was providential because it set a precedent that can now belatedly be followed on an even more divisive issue. Only by embarking on this admittedly messy course can the Church reaffirm its affinity with the moral culture around it.

The third task is to renew Anglican worshipping culture, both within the parish system and beyond it. Bold innovation is needed, but it must be in tune with the Church’s core traditions. We need a paradigm shift in which every parish has a dual function. As well as staging weekly worship it should contribute to wider cultural projects, such as local festivals, collaborating with other churches and other cultural bodies. Every parish should have an extrovert creative wing, an in-house arts centre. The aim is a new Anglican culture of creativity, rooted in parishes.

It is not an easy fate for a Church to be joined at the hip to liberalism. It is open to charges that it dilutes Christian orthodoxy and is full of moral muddle. The former charge must be refuted, but the latter charge cannot be. Our Church is full of moral muddle. But that is because you and I are. It reflects us. It is the muddle of honesty. The alternative is a Church that issues clear moral rules that most of its adherents do not quite believe in. You might say that a Church with a positive view of liberalism is simply too weak to stand. This sounds like a hard-headed analysis, but it’s not true. Plenty of us still feel called to keep the experiment going, of Christianity plus moral honesty. We trust that God will not allow this form of witness to run into the sand. He might even have grand plans for it.

My theology – a summary

My theological work has four stands, though they overlap a bit, especially the first two, which relate to theopolitics and liberalism. 

Defending Christianity’s affinity with political liberalism

I see the liberal state as a good thing, despite everything. Unafraid of seeming Whiggish, we should salute the vision of those radical-liberal Protestants who rejected theocracy, or unitary theopolitics (Calvinist as well as Catholic), in favour of a new idea: God wills a new sort of state in which liberty is central. I see the Church of England as committed to this, by virtue of having chosen to remain the established church of a liberal state. I think we need to oppose the current dominance of ‘postliberal’ theology, which is at heart reactionary. I have addressed these ideas in Milton’s Vision, and God Created Humanism.

Distinguishing between good and bad liberal theology

What complicates the above is that ‘liberal theology’ is wider than this. It also refers to the modern tradition that seeks to ‘reform’ Christianity in the direction of rational humanism. This tradition started life as ‘deism’, which rejected revelation, ritual, the need for faith. It gradually infected a huge section of Protestantism. Kierkegaard and Barth were right to warn against this. But they failed to save the baby from the bathwater, i.e. the positive affinity with political liberalism outlined above. Authentic liberal Christianity is rooted in faith and ritual, and guards against rational-humanist dilution. I addressed this in Reinventing Liberal Christianity.

Articulating faith

I have tried to show that faith has a dialectical structure. It is a conversation between two voices in the believer, one that doubts and one that assents. The latter voice should be seen as miraculous, the presence of the Holy Spirit. This dynamic was largely invented by Luther, and it returns in Barth’s ‘dialectical theology’. I see it as the authentic Protestant account of ‘faith and reason’, and reject the (mainly Catholic) tradition that claims that faith and reason are harmonious. An angular fideism makes more sense to me. I have addressed this in various places including Faith, and the final chapter of God Created Humanism.

Renewing Christian cult-ure

By ‘cult-ure’ I mean worship. Where to start? Christian culture as I have known it is weak, cut off from most of the dynamism of culture in general. Unless one is drawn to an evangelical or high-church subculture, one has a major problem. Church is unlikely to feel like an engaging cultural event. For some years I evaded the issue, vaguely hoping that some successor to ‘organised religion’ and ‘institutional church’ might emerge. At the same time I became fascinated by ritual, in an anthropological way, and an artistic way. I yearned for a new culture of primitivist-inspired creativity, and of neo-medieval festivity. Then I admitted that I needed church, and the core rite of the eucharist, and that this had to be the essential building block of Christian culture. But I could not drop my awareness that it was problematically weak. So I have wondered how a new energy can be imported to church, with new theatricality and participation. I also feel that parishes should link up to create large-scale events, fusing worship and public art. I have so far written about this in scattered journalism (including a BBC Lent talk about a performance-art ritual I attempted). 

Divided We Stand

This is my recent Spectator article (published 8 January with a couple of little changes)

Two years ago the Church of England decided to delay any public discussion of its deepest division, over homosexuality, for two years – until 2022. So this might be the year in which an already troubled institution has a dramatic public meltdown. Or it might be the year in which the Church of England sorts itself out a bit. Yes, really. Stranger miracles have happened. 

I think that there are grounds for hope, and not just on the gay issue. I think that the Church has a core strength that it is weirdly reluctant to draw on, a core identity that it is weirdly shy to assert.

First let’s admit that things haven’t been going so well, even while the gay issue has been kicked into the long grass. The pandemic has obviously been a nightmare for church attendance, and finances, but it also deepened a dangerous ideological rift. It emboldened those who want to experiment with more flexible structures, which alarmed those who don’t, and who fear the demise of the parish. This rift is dangerous because it strongly overlaps with the old rift between Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics. At the same time the Church got drawn in to the culture war, with knee-taking bishops irritating a large section of the faithful. The former bishop Michael Nazir-Ali was irritated all the way to Rome.

It might sound like crazy optimism, but challenging times can clarify minds, and prod an awkward, uncertain tradition into life. I refer not to the Church in general, which has pockets of passionate conviction, but to the core Anglican tradition. The core Anglican tradition is liberal Anglo-Catholicism. It is liberal in the sense that it affirms the liberal state, and rejects a reactionary response to modern culture. It is Anglo-Catholic in the sense that it has confidence in ritual tradition, and is wary of simplistic emotional individualism and bossy legalism. This is, in my humble opinion, the best Christian tradition, which means, to be Christian-centric, and unanglicanly boastful, that it is the best tradition in all of human culture. So why does it have all the self-confidence of a pimply teenaged mouse?

Some readers will be surprised that I feel the Church lacks liberal confidence. Isn’t it full of trendy bishops trying to jump on woke bandwagons and modernise everything? Not really. Yes, there is a BBC-ish culture of political correctness, especially in the central leadership, but the bigger picture is that the Church lacks confidence in its own liberal identity. It nervily apes secular liberal trends because it has lost touch with its own liberal tradition.

Consider the above-mentioned former bishop. When Dr Michael Nazir-Ali became a Roman Catholic in October, he fired some parting salvoes at his old Church, uttered in a spirit of deep sadness of course. It kowtows to liberal orthodoxy and fails to stand up for core Christian values like the sanctity of marriage, he said. And in its excessive liberalism it fails to nurture a truly free society in which religious belief is protected from secularist tyranny. His core complaint was clear: the Church needs firm moral rules, and Anglicanism has decided that anything goes.

Did any voices question his logic? Did anyone in the press think to defend the C of E from these charges? Did anyone question whether the Catholic Church is really the superior defender of religious freedom, for example? No. Because in a sense he is right. The liberalism of Anglicans tends to make them cautious about voicing their liberalism, if it might cause offence to other traditions. Well, let me follow Dr Nazir-Ali’s advice and try to shake off some of that cowardice, and speak straight.

In an interview that he gave to this paper he spoke of his early life in Pakistan, and named one of the key differences between Islam and Christianity. The former religion is ‘legalistic’, he said; it puts rules in the way of the believer’s relationship with God. His use of this contentious term struck me as a bit rich, quite frankly, in the context of his move from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism. 

Legalism is the belief that religion entails a ‘law’, or firm rules, about morality and ritual culture. Compared to other monotheisms, Christianity is relatively critical of this aspect of religion. You could even say that it separates religion and moral rules, arguing that God chooses not to be built in to a particular moral system; he prefers to associate himself with an ideal of perfection. It is within Protestantism, and particularly liberal Protestantism, that this ‘post-legalism’ has been most fully attempted. This was a major ingredient of the modern liberal state: politics became secularised, as religious rules loosened. The Church of England partially and awkwardly signed up to this. It is joined at the hip to liberal culture. Yes, this makes it easy to criticise, but this is its special calling. 

All I am saying is this: if Roman Catholics accuse the Church of England of weakness and muddle and liberal trendiness, they should not be surprised at the old-fashioned rejoinder. Their Church is…what shall we say, less intimately acquainted with the spirit of cultural freedom. It lays down laws, especially relating to sex, that give it the appearance of standing up to liberalism with hard-core crusading courage. Anglicans are somewhat impressed, for there is much in liberal culture that should be opposed, but ultimately we feel that true courage does not lie in anti-liberal reaction.

When the Church’s liberal Anglo-Catholic core finally rouses itself into life, its task is threefold. First it must simply assert its centrality in the Church. This means speaking up for the Anglican version of liberalism, and defying the fashionable post-liberalism that has over-impressed a generation or two of Anglican intellectuals, from Rowan Williams to Giles Fraser. It’s time for a nuanced approach, in which aspects of liberalism are criticised, but in which the basic Anglican affirmation of the liberal state is renewed. It also means treating Evangelicalism with a bit less respect. For decades it has unbalanced the Church by drawing relatively big (and affluent) crowds with a style that grates on most Anglican sensibilities. Its simplistic idea of mission has dominated all recent attempts at innovation, which have been heavily backed by the archbishops, leading to discontent in the parishes. Thankfully its reputation for trend-bucking success is now fading: a recent report showed that its latest church-planting efforts were largely fruitless. This makes it easier to put it back in its box.

The second task is to begin to end the dispute over homosexuality. It won’t be solved overnight, or over-year, but the solution is clear enough. Diversity must be allowed: liberal parishes must be free to conduct gay weddings, evangelical parishes must be allowed to refuse to. The Church allowed such diversity over the ordination of women; there is no reason that this compromise should not be repeated. I have sometimes felt that the Church was wrong to tolerate dissent on the ordination of women, and let the traditionalists have their separate structures, but it turns out that it was providential. For it set a precedent can now belatedly be followed, on an even more divisive issue. Only by embarking on this admittedly messy course can the Church reaffirm its affinity with the moral culture around it.

The third task is to renew Anglican worshipping culture, both within the parish system and beyond it. Bold innovation is needed, but it must be in tune with the Church’s core traditions. We need a paradigm shift in which every parish has a dual function. As well as staging weekly worship it should contribute to wider cultural projects, such as local festivals, collaborating with other churches and other cultural bodies. Every parish should have an extrovert creative wing, an in-house arts centre. The aim is a new Anglican culture of creativity, rooted in parishes.

It is not an easy fate for a Church, to be joined at the hip to liberalism. It is open to charges that it dilutes Christian orthodoxy and is full of moral muddle. The former charge must be refuted, but the latter charge cannot be. This Church is full of moral muddle. But that is because you and I are. It reflects us. It is the muddle of honesty. The alternative is a Church that issues clear moral rules that most of its adherents do not quite believe in. You might say that a Church with a positive view of liberalism is simply too weak to stand. This sounds like a hard-headed analysis, but it’s not quite true. Plenty of us still feel called to keep the experiment going, of Christianity plus moral honesty. We trust that God will not allow this form of witness to run into the sand. He might even have grand plans for it.

Dancer

This is after church at St Martin’s Kensal Rise – where they have the perfect high beams for it – and a good bunch of young volunteers too.