Plural Truth: How Might It Play Out?
This is the third in a series of three blog posts, examining the concept of ‘Plural Truth’ in the light of what has been observed at the Lambeth Conference. The first looked at how ‘Plural Truth’ has impacted the Communion this week, the second looked at how it has developed over the last decade and this one begins to think about some of the possible implications for ministers of the gospel in the Church of England.
The English are in a unique position in the Anglican Communion. Not only is the Archbishop of Canterbury one of the four “Instruments of Communion”, he is also our Primate. It is not without difficulty for him that when he speaks, he does so in both capacities. Other provinces’ Primates and presbyters can ignore his views in favour of their own Primate and bishops, indeed they do so, but we cannot.
This Lambeth Conference has seen the formalising of plural truth as the defining mark of Anglicanism (the one thing that is definitely not adiaphora). That has been the crowning achievement of Justin Welby after many years’ toil to refashion the Communion in his image, see here.
To a good number, even in the Church of England, that will be a matter of little concern. Some, even many will believe that for as long as they can continue to preach, practice and pastor in accordance with their own convictions, in their own silo that is enough.
That, however, may be a deceptively simplistic way of seeing things for a range of reasons:
- One of the low-points of Day 10 of the Lambeth Conference were the “responses” to 1 Peter 5:8 – in which the lion referred to is variously identified as, “colonialism”, the “plunder of natural resources”, “danger from someone in power”, a “wave of terrorism”. Horrible as those things are, they do not compare to the lion of 1 Peter – who is the seemingly fairly innocuous snake of Genesis 3:1 – but who is actually the dragon of Revelation 20:2. Resisting him requires an under-shepherd who is sober-mind, watchful and of firm faith. The sheep are vulnerable to being devoured if the devil gets amongst them.
- “Neuhaus’ Law”, “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed”,  is well known, but also obvious – if orthodoxy is only accepted as a guest of heterodoxy, the latter controls the terms of the hospitality. To practice orthodoxy in such an environment is to surrender orthodoxy’s main belief- in objective truth- at the door on the way in. In yesterday’s blog a case study was given of the Church in Wales. Ghettoisation, voluntary, or otherwise, does not have a happy history, rather an inevitable outcome.
- “Mutual flourishing”, the firstborn child of “plural truth”, has, at least in relation to women bishops, been a failure. The conservatives feel increasingly marginalised, and the progressives feel the orthodox have been far too indulged. Again, that tension will only be resolved increasingly in the revisionists’ favour. There is a reason that it is more than half a century since the last complementarian diocesan bishop was consecrated- the tide is only flowing in one direction and there is no reason to expect any greater success on other issues in the future. While some clergy might be able to “stick it out,” if the “baton” is going to be responsibly handed on, one must consider whether if is fair that the next generation should have to take it when they face an all but impossible course ahead.
- Perhaps insufficient regard has been given to how Archbishop Welby praised revisionists for their stance being the fruit of, “…long prayer, deep study and reflection on understandings of human nature…”, as opposed to the orthodox who are simply culturally bound in their thinking. Again, as far as the archbishop is concerned it is the West who have “moved forward,” and it is likely that the current can only flow one way. This has an almost immediate practical outworking for the English. While the timescale for the introduction of approved services/experimental liturgy for the blessing or recognition of same sex civil marriages has probably not changed (Anglican Futures still believes that it will substantially happen in February 2023) that can only have been made easier by the formal adoption of plural truth. Moreover, further developments towards same-sex marriage, can now follow more quickly- it will all be part of reflecting the “reality” of “Communion life”, and now with the possibility of embarrassing “sanctions” removed.
- As a matter of practicality, ministering within a framework of plural truth undermines the credibility of teaching objective truth. Similarly when such teaching is constantly contradicted by other voices which are, apparently, officially, at least as equally valid and authoritative, any objective truth is weakened. An interesting thought experiment is to consider what it would be like for a vicar’s diocesan bishop to endorse a vicar’s sermon every week and then to consider what impact the reverse would have.
- There is a spiritual dimension to partnering with untruth (as for example Romans 16:17-20) both as to the danger of being corrupted and the exposure of the flock. This week the bishops of the Church of England have not only shown unstintingly loyalty by not contradicting their Primus, but even some of the more evangelical of them have been extremely vocal in their support for what he has said. However distant it might be said relations are with the bishop, most ministering in the Church of England hold the licence of and owe canonical obedience personally to that person as bishop; are subject to his/her discipline; and have him/her as chief pastor of their church. Likewise, they work in Church of England buildings, live in Church of England houses, receive Church of England stipends and pensions. Some participate in Synods, accept financial support etc. In the absence of any new arrangements, which seem even less likely after this Conference, that makes “visible differentiation” a challenge.
- Some believe there is value in continuing the struggle from within the orthodox silo, but this is unlikely to have much success because revisionists, are not so much interested in arguments about what is objectively and immutably true. Their main priority is to control the structures. It is hard to succeed in the struggle when two very different games are being played out.
- Experience of the introduction of the Five Guiding Principles, tells us that the acceptance of plural truth, is likely to become the sine qua non (the only test) for ordination selection, preferment etc. Already the criteria for selection for ordination asks, “Are they flexible enough and sufficiently open to formation?”
- Many have found that sacramental discipline, or attempting to ‘guard’ lay leadership positions, has been difficult in the past, but surely it is now impossible. If an errant church can’t be sanctioned for heterodox views how can a single person? In fact, if truth is plural, who can be wrong?
To draw these thoughts together: if it is right the markers of an apostolic church are: clear doctrinal boundaries, sacramental discipline and of discipline of ministers in matters of morality, where is the Church of England now left?
Anglican Futures Think Pieces are intentionally left unsigned. For more: www.anglicanfutures.org.