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Anglicans seek new balance: group reacts to 'traditionalist' images.

Group reacts to |traditionalist' images

OXFORD, England -- "It needs shouting from the housetops," said Fr. Jeffrey John in a rousing peroration "that the ordination of women is not a disaster for Catholics, it is God-given chance to break out of the morass we were already in, and to give up false securities and fears and open up to new life and new growth."

"Who is Father John?" I hear you cry. He is a British Anglican, sometime chaplain at an Oxford college, and now the leading thinker in a movement among Anglo-Catholics called Affirming Catholicism.

It was born three years ago in reaction to the more "traditionalist" Anglo-Catholic wing who threatened to "swim the Tiber" (that is, depart to Rome) if women were ordained priests in the Church of England.

Affirming Catholicism wants to "redress the balance that has painted the Anglican Church as in terminal decline with thousands of clergy and laity leaving to join the Roman Catholic Church." What it affirms is that, on the contrary, Anglo-Catholics "are alive and well and committed to staying in the Church of England." They are not looking over their shoulder toward Rome. The logic of the original break from Rome in the 16th century, they claim, gives the Church of England today the right to go it alone when it comes to women's ordination. As David Jenskins, the feisty bishop of Durham put it, "We Anglicans don't have to take our faith from a Roman autocrat or old men with long beards from Constantinople."

Jenkins was debating these issues with Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary Sr. Lavinia Byrne at a conference at York University last week. Byrne, who has become something of a media star, was skillfully diplomatic and quoted Rosemary Radford Ruether's dictum that "the fullness of Christian truth lies in the future."

Were the Affirming Catholics granted a glimpse of that future? It seems that they are striving for the right balance between tradition and innovation, respecting tradition without being fixated on it. Byrne admitted she would much rather see this group "come over to Rome" than those who are threatening to convert because they cannot stomach the prospect of women priests.

Affirming Catholicism is utterly orthodox and -- women priests apart -- would probably satisfy Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger himself. Whether the same can be said of Fr. Anthony Freeman, vicar of St. Mark's, in the Sussex villege of Staplefield, may de doubted. For Freeman, 46, has ceased to "believe in God." He rejects the "liberal" idea of God as "a sort of cosmic Father Christmas who has lost his power." Yet he holds that the word God can retain some usefulness if applied to ourselves: "If you let go of him altogether, you can get some power back into the God idea by using the word God to cover up some of the things that fire you up."

If this sounds faintly familiar, it echoes the teaching of Don Cupitt, lecturer in theology at Cambridge, England, who in The Sea of Faith and other works embraced first a kind of Unitarianism and then moved on to a version of humanist agnosticism.

Freeman and 21 colleagues have held annual summer Sea of Faith meetings to study Cupitt's ideas. Freeman is the first to come out, so to speak, in a book called with exemplary clarity God in Us.

Freeman seems to have vindicated the theory put forward in Ludwig Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity, which had so much influence on the young Karl Marx: God is nothing but a projection of noble human aspirations and desires. Why doesn't Freeman just give up his priestly ministry? "I like going to church. Not to be able to go to cathedral even-song, not to be able to take part in a glorious High Mass with incense flying, ... it's a part of me I don't want to deny," he said. This is too much even for the tolerant Church of England. Chichester Bishop Eric Kemp has banned Freeman from preparing candidates for the ministry but agreed to let him stay on in his parish for another year.

The Church of England has long prided itself on its "glorious comprehensiveness," its ability to embrace almost any theological position. But Freeman, it seems, has "gone too far." There are limits, old chap.

Meanwhile, there could be a useful dialogue with the Affirming Catholics.
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Title Annotation:Affirming Catholicism group
Author:Hebblethwaite, Peter
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Sep 17, 1993
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