Prof. Richie’s review ‘unfair’ to authors

Published May 1, 1998

PROFESSOR RITCHIE is right to insist on the importance of the pluralism question in comments on Anglican Essentials, and on The Challenge of Tradition. He does not provide his own vision, but I assume that it is much closer to concepts of the authors of the Montreal Declaration than to those of the critics of that declaration.

The authors defining Essentials leave no doubt as to their views. In one passage after another, pluralism is linked to characteristics of modernity, deserving some kind of doctrinal anathema: dogmatic liberalism, cultural illusions of liberal pluralism, accommodations (to secular society), inclusivism, relativism, and so on.

The pluralism question is not an easy one on which to comment in a short note. I suggest that one obvious consideration is to ask whose pluralism? If people on the fringes of the churches, or beyond, in some kind of diffuse religiosity, preach the virtues of pluralism, indifference to institutional religion, and relativism with regard to all religions, those attitudes are no more acceptable to progressives than to the orthodox in mainstream Christianity. The authors in Anglican Essentials seem extraordinarily apprehensive about some kind of radical liberal Protestantism, which they think is leading the church down a path to oblivion. They should consider assessments of pluralism and diversity in theology and practice in a quite different setting.

In 1984, the Vatican issued a stern warning to Latin American liberation theologians, not only about radical political conclusions drawn from reading of Scripture, but about dangers in advocating the liberation of theology and new concepts of authority in the church. Also in 1984, Karl Rahner, outstanding among Roman Catholic theologians in this century, a progressive in the context of his own church with relation to Vatican II, but not a liberation or a political theologian, wrote of the need for pluralism in theology. He referred to a legitimate pluralism in Catholic theology even in the Middle Ages and the Baroque period.

To come closer to home, particularly on the verge of another Lambeth Conference, at which rampant pluralism may well be expected, we might reflect on the full implications of the assessment by Owen Chadwick of the human spirit in which those conferences originated. Speaking of the founding bishops, he said “none of them believed in the infallibility of bishops, singly or taken together. They were all agreed that wrong or out-of-date decisions could be reversed without a qualm. But they hoped that they decided as the Spirit led them, and left the results to be what they might be.”

They represented a church at that time which was still trying to digest the shock of Darwin, evolution, and secular historical critiques of Christianity. They anticipated diversity and dealt with it.

In general, I thought that Prof. Ritchie’s review was unfair to the authors of The Challenge of Tradition. He complains that their book did not “chart a course for the future of the Anglican church.”

Were they supposed to plot the course in a systematic way for global or Canadian Anglicanism? Neither set of authors did so. Even General Synods and Lambeth Conferences approach that ambitious task with modesty. They try to ascertain whether there is a working consensus among participants, or among the faithful generally, sufficient to reach decisions about the issues and affairs of the day. Kenneth Williamson is a parishioner of St. Matthias, Ottawa, presently enrolled at the University of Ottawa in a doctoral program in contemporary Christian thought. Foreign service with the Department of External Affairs has given him broad experience of worldwide Anglicanism.


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