Binding the church and constraining God

Savi Hensman


In a paper carefully analysing the popular use and misuse of biblical and doctrinal language about God and Church, Savitri Hensman shows that inflexible, one-sided, naïve or ideological conceptions of God in sections of the Christian tradition can reinforce domineering models and practices in the Church – which is in fact supposed to be a creative vehicle of Jesus’ broken body in the world, not a defensive fortress. God is not confined by rules set by humans and our institutions, she argues, however powerful they may be by earthly standards. In the biblical tradition, God is at work outside as well as within institutions, including those that claim to be about God’s business. Liberation, reformation and healing will continue to happen even if, at first, they are not acknowledged by the authorities (ecclesial and otherwise); and in time truth will break through our illusions. This paper is highly relevant to issues being discussed in and beyond Anglicanism, concerning its disputed future, and in other sections of the worldwide Church. It makes specific reference to the debate about an Anglican Covenant in the run-up to the Lambeth Conference 2008. It may also give those outside the Church a better understanding of how language and tradition is being applied and misapplied within very diverse Christian communities during a time of considerable upheaval and anxiety, both inside and outside the Church.

Worshipping a God who is more wonderful than humans can possibly imagine can be difficult. Almost inevitably, our minds seek something or someone within our experience to whom the Divine might be likened, linked perhaps with how we relate to God individually and collectively.

The Bible offers numerous metaphors – a rock, a dove, a mighty warrior, a woman searching for a lost coin and so forth – and the abundance and variety can remind us not to take any of these, including their gender designations, literally. The heavenly Father does not have hormones and the living Water will not freeze at low temperatures! Theologians, artists, musicians and poets have further added to the rich store of images which reflect one or another facet of the Divine, and which help humankind to delight in and respond to the generosity and love lavished on us.

This is not to say that all images of God are equally valid. For example the ‘prosperity gospel’ approach which teaches that wealth and comfort are evidence of God’s favour, as if God were a superhuman version of, and inspiration to, those living in luxury while their neighbours go short of the necessities of life, is a travesty of the good news of Jesus Christ.

However it is tempting but risky to underestimate the complexity, from a human viewpoint, of expressing and representing God’s unsurpassable nature; and, perhaps unconsciously, it is easy to give too much weight to a particular way of trying to comprehend the Divine. This may be an idealised version of a certain kind of leader – perhaps a feudal monarch who is generous to those who submit to him but harsh to his foes, the head of a household or the wise and charismatic chief executive of a large non-governmental organisation empowering volunteers to do good – and of a framework where such leadership can be exercised.

There may be an element of truth in such a picture: if humans learn to love (however imperfectly) through being loved by God and wisdom is a gift from ‘on high’, something about the Divine may be learnt from observing leaders when they act in a wise and compassionate manner. But even the greatest person is finite and fallible.

Crucially, God may also be glimpsed in those with little power and prestige, if humankind as a whole is made in God’s image (Genesis 1.27) and whatever we do to the least of our brothers and sisters we do to Christ (Matthew 25.31-46). Indeed if Jesus is like a servant (Luke 22.27), and whoever has seen him has seen the Father (John 14.8-10), this turns conventional notions of divinity and glory upside down. For most of us, used to worldly notions of greatness, it may be easier to imagine God as a power-wielding patriarch than as an anguished mother hen whose chicks reject her nurturing (Matthew 23.37) or as a convict awaiting execution. Yet in fact the King wears a crown of thorns, and far from endorsing power mongers, he is crucified by them.

Imposing institutional limits on God

Since the early days of the church, there has been a tendency to create institutional structures and to define the bounds of what could be said about God. While valuable in some ways in enabling Christians to coordinate what they do and be clear about what they believe, this has drawbacks. It may foster power-struggles as different individuals and factions strive for supremacy or try to stay in favour with the winners, as tends to happen in any institution. And the imposition of rules and codes, if these are experienced as oppressive, instead of binding believers together in harmony may cause resentment and provoke strife.

What is more, even well-meaning attempts to discourage fellow-Christians from holding erroneous beliefs may themselves lead to error if a particular way of imagining and relating to the Divine is held up as a fixed norm, and other approaches are dismissed as heretical even if they may contain partial truths. In the course of debate, those with different perspectives may come to understand one another better and perhaps refine their own views. But if an ecclesiastical elite (often dominated by a particular faction) holds power and tries to enforce what it regards as true, serious difficulties may arise.

It is of course impossible to avoid offending everyone. White people with racist tendencies, for instance, may feel that the presence of black people in ‘their’ church is an imposition, though they may try to rationalise this. The image of a God who is white only may have been instilled into them at an impressionable age, and they may never have come to realise the beauty of One who can be imagined in diverse forms but contained by none of them.

Likewise there are some 'traditionalists' who are offended by female or maternal images of God. These images are a definite minority in the biblical tradition, but they are there. They have re-emerged in recent liturgy and theological writing as a corrective to naïve uses of ‘Father’ which do not appear to recognise its metaphorical construction, or which have been employed to justify patriarchal domination. (Commentators have pointed out that, rightly understood, construing fatherhood in relation to God, who is beyond limit, may call into question, rather than reinforce, patriarchal notions of the role of father.)

Debate not decree

Church leaders can indeed play an important part in confronting discriminatory attitudes and practices, but are likely to be most effective in the long term if they engage with those with whom they strongly disagree, explaining and debating rather than simply issuing fiat-like decrees. And sometimes it is senior clergy who lag behind, and who can learn from those ‘below’ them in the church hierarchy (one example being the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, which many bishops opposed).

An authoritarian system supposedly intended to preserve church order and protect the truth can end up trying to control not only people but also God, as if God’s graciousness could be regulated by the church. ‘Ordinary’ Christians and local congregations may learn to devalue their own encounters with the Divine, the insights they gain and what they learn about their calling unless these fit a pattern which has been authorised by those at the top. This may appeal not only to leaders but also to those laypeople and junior clergy who value conformity and predictability. Freedom, while valuable (2 Corinthians 3.17), can be challenging (Galatians 5.1).

A particular means of grace or concept of God may be enshrined as if it fully represented the truth, thus becoming an idol. So it may turn into an obstacle rather than an aid to encountering the living God, who continually goes beyond what humans expect. And idols can require human sacrifice (Ezekiel 23.36-39), as well as being powerless to save (Isaiah 45.20).

The institutional church can become an idol, its own interests and apparent unity taking priority over almost everything else. This may be rationalised as necessary to protect the faith of ‘simple folk’, obedience to the Biblical emphasis on unity – though to St Paul, for instance, valuing unity (Ephesians 4.1-6) certainly did not mean shying away from vigorous debate (Ephesians 4.15-16, 5.10-11) – or an imitation of the mutual love of the Holy Trinity, as if it were unloving to challenge acts of cruelty and cowardice which stunt faith and damage humanity.

The cover-up of child abuse by clergy (a problem in various denominations) is an example of how such an approach can backfire on leaders and institutions as well as causing great harm to individuals, families and the church’s witness.

In the mid-twentieth century, it might have seemed that the days of rigid systems of church order and strictly-enforced boundaries of acceptable belief were coming to an end. In future, perhaps, differences would be settled not by the edicts of a small group of powerful men but rather by wide discussion and the opportunity to compare the fruits of different approaches to theology, liturgy and organisational matters (Matthew 7.15-20). The quest for truth would be aided by the Holy Spirit (John 16.13), poured out on even the lowliest so that they could discern and speak of wonderful things (Joel 2.28-29).

This is not to say that Christians of the day were starting from a blank slate: the Bible, the Creeds, liturgy, influential texts, commonly-used prayers and hymns had decisively helped to shape who they were, and served as an inspiration and guide. The ferment of discussion meant that ideas – whether from senior church people and approved theologians or little-known thinkers and previously marginalised communities – were often tested rigorously in the course of debate, and poorly constructed arguments or wild speculation challenged.

The cross as subversive, not conformist

In a flourishing of creativity during the Renaissance, great artists had depicted a flesh-and-blood Jesus, as vivid as if he had just been delivered by a local midwife or had stepped into a nearby market. Now Jesus was being drawn and painted in many different forms, not only as European-looking, the Divine incarnate amidst people of every nation, ethnicity, class and gender.

The ecumenical movement was flourishing, founded on an acknowledgement that Christians who did things differently were not necessarily scoundrels to be fought or fools to be pitied and maybe converted. There was an increasing willingness not to write off other forms of Christianity – perhaps the Baptist in a plain church building, the Anglo-Catholic amidst statues and clouds of incense and the Pentecostal swaying and clapping in a borrowed hall, and the Anabaptist holding all things in common and refusing to resist violently really were reaching towards the same Saviour! The winds of change blew over even the highly centralised Roman Catholic Church, which convened the groundbreaking Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s.

In many ways, things have gone backwards since then: the drive for ‘purity’ and centralisation of power in the Anglican Communion, say, is symptomatic of a wider trend. This may be due as much to an embrace of some of the more troubling aspects of the modern world as a rejection of it by those hankering after a largely imagined golden age, when the Bible or tradition supposedly held sway, and troubling problems could be referred to authoritative men in black suits or flowing robes.

How can churches ‘market’ themselves amidst strong competition from other denominations, religions and organisations? What kind of ‘brand’ is it they offer if their members worship a nameless, formless God who has been, and continues to be, experienced and followed in a myriad ways? How on earth can product recognition be achieved? And what chance is there of viable business strategies, let alone the prospect of mergers and acquisitions, if the chief executives or boards of directors cannot exercise international control over local branches?

The cross is indeed a globally recognised symbol, but what if it is seen not as a logo or talisman but rather as a reminder of a God who confounds expectations, mixes with the powerless and disreputable and gets into such trouble with the religious and political authorities that they exercise capital punishment, yet who will not stay safely buried? In trying to make God more marketable and manageable, what is most attractive, valuable and liberating about Christianity may be lost or driven underground.

The changing struggle within Anglicanism

Forty years ago the worldwide Anglican Communion, for all its faults, was widely associated with the valuing of Scripture, tradition and reason, the encouragement of scholarship in an atmosphere of intellectual freedom, provincial autonomy and recognition of the important role of laypeople. What emerged from the struggles of local Christian communities to hear and live the good news in their own context might not be adequately recognised by others, but could not be easily suppressed by senior clergy living thousands of miles away.

Sometimes there were hurt feelings when members of one party or faction felt that their own views were not given enough weight, and some of the ideas and practices which emerged seemed strange, even offensive, to those of other theological and liturgical persuasions. But innovations not led by the Holy Spirit tend, in time, to fizzle out, while more inspired developments spread.

At times, the most extreme Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics, ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ had some very unflattering things to say about each other’s beliefs and rituals! However, those who were less partisan had the chance, in time, to expand their own horizons. And Anglicanism, through the wide variety of ways that God was perceived and worshipped, pointed to the truth that the Divine was greater than any human concept – an important lesson for today’s world.

Now major divisions have become apparent as certain leaders convinced of their own correctness have demanded that supposedly erroneous practices in other (geographically-organised) provinces be stamped out, and some moderates have agreed to this, largely in order to persuade hardliners not to leave. In the course of the controversy, a small group of Primates (the most senior bishops in provinces) have taken unprecedented power, and the drive for centralisation continues.

Covenant, commitment and freedom

Early in 2007, a Primates’ meeting began consulting on a draft Covenant in which provincial leaders would promise to ‘uphold and act in continuity and consistency with the catholic and apostolic faith, order and tradition, biblically derived moral values and the vision of humanity received by and developed in the communion of member Churches’, and express willingness ‘to seek the guidance of the Instruments of Communion, where there are matters in serious dispute among churches that cannot be resolved by mutual admonition and counsel’; those who did not submit to their judgement would risk sanctions. (Three of the four bodies which bring Anglicans together internationally, the ‘Instruments of Communion’, are made up entirely of bishops.)

Though responses from some provinces have indicated profound misgivings about a Covenant of this kind, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, a strong believer in church unity, is pushing ahead. In an Advent letter in December 2007, he made it clear that those attending the Lambeth Conference of bishops which he is convening in 2008 should be willing to endorse the notion of a Covenant which would ‘avoid the present degree of damaging and draining tension arising again’. He also urged that bishops, rather than synods on which other clergy and laypeople are represented, should take ‘responsibility for sustaining doctrinal standards’.

Later that month, a leading figure in the drive for greater centralisation, The Rev Dr Michael Poon from Singapore, chair of a Theological Formation and Education Task Force created by the hard-line Global South Anglican coalition, wrote of the extensive work this Task Force had put into ‘a draft of the theological framework for an Anglican catechism’, which would be ‘a unitive and building document for the whole Communion’ which ‘would complement the GSA theological input to the Anglican Covenant processes. We took particular care in defining orthodoxy in the Anglican Communion in the document’, which ‘has important ramifications for Christian discipleship throughout the Communion’.

Divisions have opened up within the ranks of those seeking to impose their own version of doctrinal orthodoxy on the Anglican Communion on how this can best be achieved, with much debate over the wisdom of organising a Global Anglican Future Conference in Jerusalem which many see as a rival to the Lambeth Conference. However another leading light in this movement, the Rev Professor Stephen Noll, now based in Uganda, suggested in January 2008 that ‘Strategically the idea of a Covenant is a good one’ and urged that ‘Those attending the Global Anglican Future Conference should maintain ties with those orthodox leaders who are working on the Communion Covenant.

It seems unlikely that a final Covenant from Canterbury, filtered now through the Anglican Consultative Council, will be sufficiently crisp to deal with the present crisis. However, the opportunity may arise hereafter to negotiate an ecumenical Anglican Covenant that will serve as a means of warding off heresy and will chart the future of orthodox Anglicanism.’ Once the principle of a Covenant is established, it can be revised to be more restrictive.

God is God, not just ‘our’ God

While there is clearly much politicking going on in Anglican circles, there are some leaders who sincerely believe that enforcing what they regard as orthodoxy would be good for the church. However, their own beliefs and practices might be regarded by many other Anglicans as unorthodox, maybe even heretical.

Even if there were a far greater degree of agreement on ‘orthodox Anglicanism’ than currently exists, there would be problems in wording a Covenant and catechism which could be used to judge the acceptability of what people say and do in future. God is greater than any human concept or formula, tenderly intimate and compassionate in dealing with humankind but also unspeakably strange.

Attempts by church hierarchies to ban incorrect ideas and ensure that only suitably ‘holy’ or ideologically sound candidates are chosen as leaders may make some people feel more comfortable. Yet while greater strictness may prevent certain kinds of heresy, it may foster others, and there is a risk that worshippers may in some cases end up paying homage to a lifeless idol rather than the living God. And the witness of the church will be damaged, in a divided world where fanatical beliefs in distorted images of God or in ‘market forces’ and nationalist extremism wreak such havoc and threaten even greater destruction.

Yet God is not confined by rules set by humans, however powerful they may be by earthly standards, and is at work outside as well as within institutions. Wonderful things will continue to happen even if at first they are not acknowledged by the authorities, and in time truth will break through our illusions.


About the author: Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities and is a respected and widely published writer on Christianity and social justice. An Ekklesia associate, Savi is author of the recent 'Anglicans need deep learning not cheap victory' (http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/6478) and ‘Re-writing history’, a research paper on the row within global Anglicanism: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/research/rewriting_history