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Thirty Nine New Articles: An Anglican Landscape of Faith by Martyn Percy

August 16, 2018

This book is a con because it’s not about the articles, so problematic for many of us, at all.

Recognizing difference and urging generosity of spirit , author Martin Percy focuses on Anglican understanding of key Christian doctrines; personal faith; our shared life with each other, with other churches and with society around us. He also celebrates some of Anglicanism’s guiding spirits, from St Columba to George Herbert.

Percy regards Anglicanism with a mixture of love and exasperation, often trenchantly expressed, not just in Article 8 “On believing in the Church” or throughout “Corporate Religion”, Articles 19 to 31. In Article 35 he writes “We like our religion to be interesting and rich – but also sedate, ordered, not overly fussy and certainly not exuberant” and in Article 14 says unambiguously that the besetting sins of the Anglican Church are impatience and procrastination. But all things work together for good, even our failures, and “It is a kind of blasphemy to view ourselves with so little compassion or such severity, when God already looks on us with such love” (Article 15).

In two articles he draws on music as an analogy. In the very first Article, “On the Trinity”, he suggests that jazz may help understanding and worship: idea, performance, listening. “To worship the Trinity is not to understand each note, or to deconstruct the score; it is to listen, learn and participate”. Then in a homily to students at the start of term (Article 13), “Try and pay attention to the bass line, and don’t get overly distracted by the melody. The bass line is all about patience, depth and pace…So listen to one another. Pay attention to the cadence, timbre and rhythm of what we are about. And listen for that greater sound…and the signs and notes of the Spirit, too deep for words.”

He shows that liberals can be challenging preachers and has a nice turn of phrase.

It is rare, these days, to encounter Anglicans who remember Thomas Ken, Richard Hooker, Edmund King, George Herbert and Evelyn Underhill.


as Luis Bermejo sj points out in The Spirit of Life, all our creeds were formed through fractious meetings that were rooted in controversy. Christians — and perhaps especially Anglicans — sometimes forget that the Holy Spirit works through meetings (often taking a long time, and over many years); it is how we arrive at truth.

In the Christian calendar, r January is also the Feast of the Circumcision, when the Church remembers Mary and Joseph tak­ing Jesus to the temple, in fulfilment of the law. The day reminds us that, in Christian tradition at least, we no longer face the future alone. If the message of Christmas is that God is Emmanuel, ‘God with us’, then the Feast of the Circumcision is the proof.

Previous generations of Christians attached great importance to the day, for they saw it as the evidence that Jesus really was flesh and blood in a way that his birth had not fully revealed; on this day he bled at the beginning of his life, a sign of his covenant with our lives, and his solidarity with human nature. Here is the first sign that God understands our frailty and pain.

So while welcoming in the New Year, we might reflect on how God has chosen to speak to us. It is a time when many are looking for clear directions or for answers to those questions with which tragedy confronts us. And so it is that in a culture where clarity and certainty are so obviously craved, God reminds us that he has indeed sent us a message.

But it is not one that is easy to read. For it is not a text. Nor is it a clear and obvious clarion call, precisely defining the future. It is, rather, the gift of a child, a baby that giggles, smiles and laughs; and also cries, sucks, pukes, poos and pees.

Is this a joke, I ask myself? That God should come among us not as an articulate adult but in a defenceless, vulnerable form? Yet it is precisely in this unexpected incarnation that the wisdom and love of God is truly revealed.

Here, we come face to face with all that matters. And God laughs, because, as anyone who has ever had a child will tell you, a tiny inarticulate infant is utterly absorbing and demanding. If we can pay attention to that child, the love we give will be returned sevenfold.

But in the meantime, all resolutions and plans are on hold. For God has come among us as a tiny child. And we will have to put time into that relationship if we are ever to hear him speak his first words.

Yet in a strange way, it is the words of blessing that flow from the dying Jesus that give a clue to what is going on in the crucifixion.

To those who curse and mock Jesus, there are words of forgiveness. For the dying thief, there is an invitation to paradise.

The cross then starts to look like a place of cursing that is turned into something for blessing,

Easter is not so much the rolled-away stone, as the carried-away church. Those who want to ‘prove’ the testimonies as ‘facts’ have missed something important. The point of Easter is not about attracting punters to peer inside the empty tomb, and persuading them as to the reasons why it is empty. It is about finding and encountering the risen Jesus in the very present.

So, the Easter story is not about proving beyond reasonable doubt that Jesus, who was dead, is now alive. It is, rather, an attempt to show that the ‘Jesus project’, apparently doomed within the ashes of Good Friday, is somehow born out of the indescribable experiences of the Sunday. To modify a Swedish proverb, good theology is ‘poetry plus, not science minus’.

But the first Easter was an altogether more confusing and cir­cumspect affair. The Gospels tell us that at the sight of the empty tomb, the disciples fled in fear. And as the appearances of Jesus increased over the following weeks, there were still doubts, ques­tions and more fear. The resurrection broke the world in which the disciples lived, but the new order to which they were beck­oned was, as yet, opaque.

It seems that God’s style is not to give proof but to pose questions. We are left with clues, not conclusions. The grave clothes are folded neatly, and yet the end of the Gospels are untidy and ragged, as though God could not bear to say ‘The End’.

the gift of tongues reminds us that God — who was and is incarnate in Christ — remains radically available in our contexts and language: we hear the gospel in a tongue we can understand. This is important, for we can appreciate how easy it is to exclude all kinds of ‘minority interests’ in the Church. Black, lesbian, gay, feminist and other kinds of theology or Christian expression, for example, can be narrated as substandard or even offensive ‘dia­lects’, marginalizing them as ‘bad language’ over and against the suspect claim that the Church has one true language. Moreover (and perhaps tellingly for the Anglican Communion), the biblical

A text suggests that although the apostles spoke to their international audience ‘each in their own tongue’, it doesn’t follow that the apostles necessarily understood one another at the same time. In fact, the message of Pentecost is that there are many tongues of fire. And because much is lost in translation, the hermeneutical task of the Church — what one theologian memorably describes as ‘reach ing across distances’ — becomes even more urgent. The Caribbean theologian Kortright Davis expresses it simply enough:

Western theologians are [now] attempting to educate them­selves about the new theological surges emanating from the Third World. They have finally realized that there is no uni­versal theology; that theological norms arise out of the context in which one is called to live out one’s faith; that theology is therefore not culture free; that the foundations on which theo­logical structures are built are actually not transferable from one context to another. Thus, although the gospel remains the same from place to place, the means by which the gospel is understood and articulated will differ considerably through cir­cumstances no less valid and no less authentic.

One of my favourite children’s books is Jasper’s Beanstalk by Neil Butterworth and Mick Inkpen. Jasper plants the bean and has var­ious problems with trying to make it grow. He encounters slugs, snails and worms. It shows the different stages of growing a bean and gives valuable lessons in life processes and cycles. But the pri­mary message of the book can be summed up in one simple word: patience. For our hero, Jasper — a cat, by the way — plants his beans, and simply cannot wait for the results. He plants Monday. He waters Tuesday. But when nothing happens by Wednesday, he digs up the bean and has another crack, and then another, and then another, before finally giving up, and simply tossing the useless bean away. Whereupon, of course, it falls into the ground, germinates and eventually gets its chance to grow into a giant beanstalk.

In an age of rapid consumerism and short-term solutions, we do well to dwell on what it means to remember, and why this might be important not so much for our past as for our present and future. Of course, remembering is at the heart of the gospel: ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ are among the last words Jesus utters to his disciples. And ‘Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom’ are among the last words uttered to Jesus on the cross.


Forgetfulness is the enemy of justice, and the destroyer of lasting peace; the task that beckons on occasions like this is not ‘forgive and forget’, but ‘remember and forgive’. This is true not just of the world wars, but of South Africa, Northern Ireland, Rwanda and other places. For our reconciliation with each other stems from our reconciliation with God. So it is important that we never forget; but equally important that we move and strive to forgive.

‘It is only by accepting the past’, wrote T. S. Eliot, ‘that we can alter its meaning and power.’ Yet this is no easy task.

Candlemas is a wonderful and appropriate time to be remem­bering the consecration of Jesus — and another consecrations. It reminds us that the people we set apart for things are never removed from us; holy does not mean separate. It means singled out for a purpose, one in which the light of God’s grace can be especially channelled and seen. The light is for the world, not the light shade. Simeon and Anna see this — uniquely — in Jesus. We hope to see a little of it in our bishops. But more seriously, Candlemas is our feast too. The light that Christ bears is to shine in us too; we are, in a sense, the candles to be blessed.

I sometimes think how funny it is that Jesus spent so little time in religious buildings, and on the first two occasions, like most children, he has been taken there by his parents with little choice in the matter. When he was old enough to make up his own mind, he hardly ever seemed to go.

Here’s an old joke about Anglican polity. One day, the queues of people to get into heaven are so long and thick that the angels guard­ing the Pearly Gates begin to panic. They fly off to see Jesus and ask for advice. Jesus suggests that potential entrants are graded. He will ask a question of everyone seeking entry, and depending on how they answer, they will either be placed in the slow track or granted immediate entry. The question Jesus proposes to use is the same question he once put to the disciples: ‘Who do you say that I am?’ The first person Jesus encounters at the gates is a Methodist minis­ter. Jesus asks her, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ The minister hesi­tates, and then answers, ‘Well, at Conference last year . . .’ But Jesus interrupts her immediately. ‘I am sorry,’ he says, ‘but I asked you for your opinion, and not for your denominational line. Would you mind going to the back of the queue? Thank you.’ The next person to step forward is a Roman Catholic monk. Jesus poses the same question, to which the monkreplies, ‘Well, our Pope says . . .’ But Jesus again interrupts, and points out that he wanted the monk’s opinion, not the Pope’s. Third, a Baptist minister approaches. His response to Jesus’ question is emphatic: ‘The Bible says . . .’ But Jesus again interrupts, and reminds the minister that he wanted his opinion, not his knowledge.

Finally, an Anglican priest approaches. Jesus regards the minister somewhat quizzically and with suspicion, but puts the question to him nonetheless. The Anglican replies categorically: ‘You are the Christ — the Son of the living God.’ Jesus is slightly taken aback by such an ardent response from an episcopalian, and is about to let the Anglican priest in, when the minister adds, ‘But then again, on the other hand . .

And so, I begin by inviting you to get lost. I don’t mean this rudely, of course. I mean by getting lost, that you may need the courage, and indeed some reassurance, that a degree of disori­entation is both inevitable and desirable in training and forma­tion. In order to seek God, you may need to get lost: just a little. Sometimes you may need to put away the familiar maps and com­pass, and allow yourself to find God in new places, people, experi­ences and ideas. Getting lost is all about finding the Lord of the Journey. Getting lost is about finding yourself in new ways. As Esther de Waal says in her fine book, Seeking God:

The very top of the ladder carries a promise of the serenity that comes with my discovery that God is in charge of my life and that as a result I am finally free. I am released from my bondage to my self-seeking, my ambitions, my self-sufficiency and all the rest of it. This is of course New Testament teaching, that in God’s service [we] find perfect freedom.

De Waal points out that it is when we are a bit more broken, or perhaps a little lost, the possibility of journeying from slavery to freedom exists. It is ironic, I suppose, that at the very point of sub­mission to God’s gentle rule for our lives, we find true freedom. At the point of surrender, we find ourselves captive to something more wonderful than what we thought we wanted or desired. She continues:

The only hope . . . is to throw myself on the support of God, relying on the protecting nearness of the God of the psalms who reaches out to me just as I felt that I could go no further. For obedience is a risky business. It is much easier to talk about it than to act it out. It means being prepared to take my life in my hands and place it in the hands of God.

Many are aware of the spoof Laodicean Hymnal that has recently been proposed for Anglican congrega­tions. ‘This collection of hymns really captures the essence of our tradition’, states the blurb: ‘At the core of our belief is the motto, “Moderation in all things”.’ The partial list of re-worked titles includes: Not My Life — Let Me Be; Onward, Christian Reservists; Sit Up, Sit up for Jesus; A Comfy Mattress Is Our God; Oh, for a Couple of Tongues to Sing; Amazing Grace, How Interesting the Sound; Pillow of Ages, Fluffed for Me; All Hail the Influence of Jesus’ Name!; Be Thou My Hobby. (You can spend the rest of the sermon writing your own.)

As the American theolo­gian Urban Holmes notes, ‘I have never known two Episcopalians agree totally . . . [but] the fact that we can admit our disagreements is indicative of our Anglican freedom to acknowledge the polymor­phous nature of all human knowing — something that not every Christian body is comfortable admitting’

In other words, we remain open because we see ourselves as incomplete; we are constantly caught between innovation and sta­bility; the possibility of new patterns of being, and faithfulness to what has been revealed; between loyalty to what has gone before and still is, and what might or shall be. So, as I return to Roget’s Thesaurus, I wonder if Anglicans might now be permitted to add words from their own treasury to the label? Solid, yet flexible; strong, yet yielding; open, yet composed; inclusive, yet identifiable.

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