Minority of a minority, Nicholas Reid

The Way Ahead: Anglican Change and Prospect in New Zealand 
Brian Davis
Caxton Press, $33.50 cased, $26.50 pbk
ISBN 0908563 698

Only a minority of New Zealanders are actively committed christians and only a minority of that minority are Anglicans. Census figures still show Anglicanism as the country’s largest single christian denomination, but collectively there are far more Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, etc. in terms of regular participation in formal worship, repeated surveys have shown that on any given Sunday in New Zealand more Catholics are in church than Anglicans. Church and state are quite clearly separate in New Zealand. There is no “established” church.

Yet in spite of all this, one still meets Anglicans who assume that their church is the christian establishment ‑ the New Zealand norm against which other christian groups must be measured. Doubtless this assumption is reinforced by the British connection. Theoretically, as Brian Davis reminds us, the Anglican communion is “a world‑wide fellowship of self‑governing churches” and the Archbishop of Canterbury is not a pope. But our New Zealand head of state is, after all, the Queen of England, who is temporal head of the Church of England, and visiting royalty naturally say their prayers in Anglican churches. Further muddying the relationship between church and state, a recent Anglican primate became Governor‑General. Then there is the fact that Anglicans have been far more generous than other denominations in allowing their churches and cathedrals to be used for cultural events and purely civic functions. Ecclesial theory notwithstanding, numerical realities notwithstanding, it’s been easy for some Anglicans to take a privileged place for granted. Until recently, they officially called their church “The Church of the Province of New Zealand”.

Archbishop Brian Davis is no longer primate of “The Church of the Province of New Zealand”. He is primate of what now calls itself “the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia”. The new designation reflects a new form of organizational power‑sharing between Maori, pakeha and (other) Polynesians. But, I suggest, it also reflects the reality that the Anglican church is not the church. It is a church. If one stimulating theme emerges from the varied concerns of The Way Ahead, it is the archbishop’s awareness that this Anglican church can’t take its membership for granted and certainly can’t assume a privileged role in New Zealand religious life. Along with other churches, it is a minority in a largely secular and materialist culture. It must, perforce, be a mission church and an evangelising church. Farewell to delusions about being a “natural” establishment.

This sense of mission and sense of the sociological realities of New Zealand encourage Davis to write his most interesting and forthright pages. But not all of The Way Ahead is either interesting or forthright.

To dispose of the lit crit niceties, The Way Ahead divides into 14 chapters which have something of the quality of self-contained essays. A chapter on the New Zealand Anglican church as it used to be (entitled “The Church of England Transplanted”) a chapter on changed styles of ministry and the role of the laity (“Ministry for All”) a chapter on liturgy and the impact of the New Zealand Prayer Book (“Gathering for Worship”) a chapter on ecumenism (“Elusive Unity”) and so on. Sometimes there is uncertainty over the implied audience. When words such as “cassock”, “alb”, “mana” and “pakeha” are glossed in footnotes, one has to assume that at least some of the intended readership are neither New Zealanders nor versed in fairly elementary points of liturgical practice. On the other hand, the chapter on the international Anglican communion (“A World‑Wide Family”) trudges through lists of conferences and their participants as dully and dutifully as an internal company memo.

Some of the book’s clumsiness is, I think, inevitable. There will always be awkwardness when a church leader generously flies the banner of ecumenism, but also has to make specific, exclusive claims for his own particular denomination. Personally, I gritted my teeth when, two pages into his text, Davis declares that the Anglican church “has uniquely preserved what is best in both the Roman Catholic and the protestant traditions”. This is the familiar Anglican “via media” concept, but that word “uniquely” does have the unfortunate effect of implying that Roman Catholics and protestants don’t know what they’re on about. Later, Davis acknowledges that renewal of Anglican worship has benefited by “helpful learning from liturgical renewal within the Roman Catholic church”. But his lengthy discussion of changes in the Anglican reception of children to communion (before confirmation) shows no awareness that those changes actually brought Anglican practice into line with what was already long‑standing Roman Catholic practice. In other words, he sometimes discusses the Anglican church as if it is an autonomous body uninfluenced by what is happening in other christian churches.

Just as inevitable ‑ and many times more forgiveable ‑ is the archbishop’s tact and diplomacy in discussing the Anglican church’s internal politics. “Today,” says Davis, “Anglican parishes are often places of theological tension… Keeping Anglicans happily together in the one body is a much bigger challenge today. Being a vicar or a bishop is a good deal more demanding.” In the light of this, it is understandable that we signally do not hear the inside story on why the controversial Canon Paul Oestreicher failed to become Anglican Bishop of Wellington a decade ago. Davis simply says that Oestreicher “inadvertently displayed insensitivity toward the church” in some of his comments. But he does not spell out what those comments were. Likewise, while noting “a tradition of diocesan self‑sufficiency” in the seven Anglican (pakeha) dioceses, Davis never discusses personalities or the different leadership styles of individual bishops. He notes that some within the church “were critical on grounds of priestly commitment” of Paul Reeves’s appointment as Governor-General, but he mutes his own opinions.

All of which is, of course, exactly as it should be. As the head of a diverse and potentially fissiparous body, Davis has no intention of opening old wounds or pointing to the blood on the floor. Reconciliation is the key.

Regrettably, though, Davis’s tact and restraint apply equally to his handling of some general issues. Church schools and the charge that they are “élitist” receive a cautious half‑page. There is no real sociological examination of the shrinkage of parishes and decline in church attendance. Instead, with wary optimism, Davis suggests that nominalism is declining and notes a marginal increase in the number of communicants over the past 10 years. The perceived connection between Anglicanism and the British (royal) establishment is never raised. And the impact of feminism on church practice is curiously underplayed. Davis politely lauds the advent of women clergy (women now make up about 10% of Anglican clergy). But he declares “the expectation that the ordination of women would lead to radical changes in the decision‑making processes, bring new theological perceptions and provide a more nurturing emphasis in pastoral ministry has not been realised in any dramatic way”.

The silences and the tact are the most frustrating aspects of The Way Ahead. Often as I read I was forced to infer from scattered and disparate comments (aided by the concluding autobiographical sketch) where Davis’s own heart lay on many issues. I think I discern what would once have been called a “High Church” inclination (not that that term is ever used). Davis begins his chapter on ecumenism by discussing his relationship with Cardinal Tom Williams and regretting that the present Pope has cooled on some interchurch dialogue. Only then does he move on to his belief that Anglican plans for formal unity with protestant churches have lapsed permanently. He is a strong supporter of cathedral‑building in Auckland and elsewhere (“the work and witness of our cathedrals is of major importance”). He repeatedly emphasises the importance of traditional liturgy and the centrality of worship (“in the life of our church, worship must come first”). In his chapter on personal and sexual morality he articulates the Anglican position on remarriage of the divorced (in implicit contrast with the Roman Catholic position), but he makes a strongly‑worded anti‑euthanasia statement, comes as close to a general anti-abortion statement as a tactful Anglican primate can and describes himself as “intuitively conservative” in matters relating to homosexual clergy,

Perhaps most significant of all, while he praises the gender-inclusive, culturally‑sensitive language of the 1989 New Zealand Prayer Book, his own confessional language (in chapter 8, “Theological Renewal”) is orthodox and traditional. For Davis, “creator, redeemer and giver of life” is a description of, not a substitute for, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Davis’s declared enemy is secular humanism and the liberal theology that has enabled it to penetrate the churches. Taking incidental swings at the likes of Lloyd Geering and John Spong, he scorns the tendency to turn theology into issues‑related anthropology. Whole paragraphs read as rebuttals of deleterious trends which he sees as having originated in the 1960s. His preferred ideological formula is “dynamic orthodoxy”.

There are some incidental ironies in all this, to be sure. While properly deploring the widening gap between rich and poor in New Zealand (especially in the chapter on “Church and Society”), Davis can also write as if the decline in “welfarism” is a window of opportunity for the church’s own charities. Nor should we be surprised that he is such an enthusiastic advocate of ethnic power‑sharing. Maori constitute fewer than 10% of the New Zealand Anglican church, and Polynesian numbers are even smaller. But the church’s revised constitution gives equal decision‑making weight to the three “tikanga” ‑ Maori, pakeha and Polynesian. Of course this constitution has outraged some conservative pakeha members of the church but Davis’s support for it cannot be construed as radicalism. Quite the contrary. Davis breathlessly describes western cultures as “secular, humanistic, individualistic, pluralistic, fragmented, materialistic, consumer‑oriented and sensate”. By contrast, he claims, Maori and Polynesian cultures “have preserved a pervasive spiritual awareness and sense of the presence and mystery of God that has been seriously eroded in secularised western cultures”. Is it straining things to see his advocacy of tikanga parity as a route of conservatism ‑ a reaffirmation of the traditional values he cherishes?

As a non‑Anglican, I’m bound to report that I find myself in sympathy with many of the positions Davis adopts. I also believe The Way Ahead is an important book, if only because it is written by the head of a mainstream church whose thinking will have considerable influence on thousands of his co‑religionists. But diplomacy, good manners and the demands of leadership inhibit Davis from charging full tilt into some of the matters that have riven Anglicanism over the past 30 years. Save when he is attacking secular humanists, this is not a book to turn to for spirited polemic. Nor does it convey much sense of what it is like to be an ordinary Anglican in an ordinary parish. But then, I suppose, it would be unreasonable to expect to find these things in a book by a church leader.

Nicholas Reid is a critic and reviewer of long standing who is currently undertaking an Honours degree in church history.

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Posted in Non-fiction, Religion and Review
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