Wednesday, 16 September 2015

The Anglican Reich

Guess which two Christian movements in modern history I am thinking of?

Both have names which identify them with a particular nationality. Both aspire to be truly national churches, despite large parts of their respective nations rejecting those claims. Both cling to the notion of legal establishment, even though the state has no great affection for them. As a result, you will search long and hard in the liturgies, hymn-books and formularies of either movement before you find any critical (let alone prophetic) distance from their national governments: both are suffused with the assumption that the state is an unproblematic force for good, and both make a particular point of praying for the head of state.

Moreover, both, in the interests of pursuing national religious unity, have been willing to abandon doctrinal precision, and indeed to make a virtue of their comprehensiveness and their refusal to impose confessional tests. Indeed, many ministers in both groups are avowedly impatient with inherited rules restricting (for example) whom they might baptise, marry or otherwise provide with the church’s services, and under what circumstances – to the point of boldly defying regulations in the name of national inclusion. They are ready to see their external critics as fundamentalists or foot-dragging legalists, out of step with modernity. Indeed, both stir up opposition from conservative Protestants by attempting reconciliation or alignment with Catholicism, even though Catholics generally rebuff their advances. But for all this inclusiveness, these are movements which stick very strictly to their own internal rules, in particular to rules about precisely who can and who cannot be recognised as a valid minister. And, it should be said, that neither movement is conspicuous by its success in winning large numbers of converts.

Yes, you’re right. My two movements are Anglicanism; and the German Christian movement of the Nazi era.

I have been reading about the German Christians*, and had expected to be horrified by their  crazed racism and perverse distortions of core Christian ideas. Which I am. But I am also discomfited by the parallels above. The German Christians provided active moral cover for appalling crimes, without which – to be conservative – many, many thousand fewer people would have been murdered. And yet … they said, and believed, that they were just churches which trying to keep pace with the times, to work with the national mood and to remain relevant in a fast-changing society. It was the classic liberal theological enterprise.

Now the Nazi-era Confessing Church, supposedly the anti-Nazi church, was in practice not much better: often just as anti-semitic, simply more insistent on its theological traditions, sometimes mulishly so. But that did at least give it something solid to hold onto.

Is the comparison with Anglicanism fair? No. Does it mean anything? Not much – the Nazi era was, mercifully, truly exceptional, and attempts to read off general lessons from it are usually polemical and opportunistic. But I will say this much. It does remind us that liberal theological methods do not by any means necessarily imply liberal politics (in either the European or the American sense). And it reminds us that, when liberal theologians are led to question or jettison parts of their tradition, it is a good idea always to remain in dialogue with that tradition, and to listen even to shrill and hectoring voices coming from it. Naturally Christians want to move from spiritual milk to meat and to grow into the full stature of Jesus Christ. But just sometimes, when you let go of Nurse, you really do find something worse.

*Doris L. Bergen, Twisted Cross: the German Christian Movement in the Third Reich (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008).

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