Posted by: rogermitchell | October 25, 2019

Love and Democracy (4): Anglican Political Theology

Thank you for patiently waiting for me to return to my work on Luke Bretherton’s extraordinary book Christ and the Common Life: Political Theology and the Case for Democracy.

Chapter Six on Anglicanism is, in my view, a very important one. It demonstrates that Anglicanism, and particularly the Church of England, is a contemporary example of how God works within the fallen partnership of the people of God and empire. God does not give up on his people but works with them, partnering with their gifts and abilities to redeem their foolish mistakes from within the mishapen, broken and judged systems that they make for themselves. This, as I have argued over and again on this blog and in my various publications, is the story of the human race, the story of Israel and the story of the Western Church since the 4th century CE. Bretherton recognises that this is also true for Anglicanism in his introduction to the chapter when he states clearly that in contrast to Black Power and Pentecostalism, Anglican political theology “assumes the possession of power”. What he doesn’t say explicitly is that this is imperial power rather than kenotic power, but clearly it is. In this context Anglican political theology is positioned from the sixteenth century onwards as a response to the enlightenment and modernity and its rationalistic challenge to the entitled establishment that Christendom constituted and the Anglican Church maintained. Bretherton lists poets and novelists such as George Herbert, Jonathan Swift, Anthony Trollope, and Dorothy Sayers alongside historians such as Thomas Macaulay, R.H. Tawney and Maurice Cowling as exemplars of Anglican political theology with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s work as particularly so and theologian Richard Hooker a key founding figure.

Luke summarises Anglican political theology as a contemplative pragmatism holding together the tension between continuity and change, focusing on sociality and plurality, to provide a modern social imaginary based on a particular understanding of God’s benovolent action in history.

It seems to me that this tension is key to understanding the unique contribution of Anglican political theology because it is a kind of double tension. Continuity is necessary both to hold onto the past reality of the Jesus story while maintaining the power base of the empire partnership. Similarly, change is necessary both to maintain the imperial power base despite the modernization happening around it but also to embody and promote the radical change that is essential to the coming fulness of the kingdom of God. For me, as someone relatively unfamiliar with Anglican liturgy, this crucial tension became vividly apparent at the colloquium I attended at Lambeth Palace to celebrate and promote the publication of Luke’s book. At the end of the day the participants had the opportunity to attend evening prayer together at the palace. The palace’s grandeur was the setting for the Anglican liturgy of Evensong and marked the extreme tension between the prayer for the Queen and the established authorities and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and the Magnificat. A totally different kind of kingdom to the United Kingdom was prayed for and the displacement of the mighty from their thrones and the elevation of the humble was announced. It brought home to me very powerfully the tension inherent in the Church of England’s assertion of the sovereign power of the Queen and governmental authorities while daily moving for the emptying out of sovereign power and the paradoxical intercessory insertion of the kingdom of God! Anglicanism is both wonderful and awful! For those of us who work outside Anglicanism but in the inevitability of other fallen systems this tension is a crucial one to practice. I have described something like this as the rhythm of kenarchy in Discovering Kenarchy: Contemporary Resources for the Politics of Love. (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2014).

In the blog piece I wrote for AltVisions earlier this year I spelt out the necessary task of emptying out sovereignty from within: katargēsing law, monarchy and temple and reconfiguring the mythology of incarnation and trinity (Inseminating Love. It seems to me that the task of emptying out sovereign power from within the sovereignty system and inseminating the kenotic kingdom of God instead is the Church of England’s primary calling right now, and its increasingly marginalised role will make it easier not harder. Hopefully Anthony Reddie’s work on Theologising Brexit that I have explored in the previous two posts and my review of which has been published today on the William Temple Foundation blog will help encourage this!

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