Some initial reflections on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s presidential address to General Synod

 

By Thurstan Stigand

Having read through Archbishop Justin’s presidential address carefully several times it seems to me that he makes two major points in it. The first is that we need to be a church marked by love rather than fear, and the second is that as this sort of church we need to be a place where people will seek to ensure the flourishing of those with whom they disagree. The Archbishop sees these points as applicable both to the issue of the ordination of women to the episcopate and to the issue of human sexuality.

In what follows I want to raise critical questions about each of these points.

First of all, is it right to see fear as always being a bad thing?

Taking his cue from the statement in 1 John 4:18 that ‘perfect love casts out fear’ the Archbishop consistently sees fear as something negative which we need to allow God to overcome in us. I have two reservation about this approach.

My first is about his appeal to 1 John 4:18. If you look at the context of the words which he quotes from 1 John 4:18 you will see that the Apostle John is not talking about fear in general, but about a very specific form of fear, the fear of the judgement of God on the last day. What the Apostle is saying is that as Christians filled with God’s love we should not fear the judgement.

The specific nature of what the Apostle John is talking about means that this verse cannot be taken as a blanket rejection of all kinds of fear. This is particularly the case as the Bible elsewhere depicts fear as perfectly legitimate. Three examples will serve to illustrate the point. In Ecclesiastes 12:13 the writer of Ecclesiastes declares ‘fear God and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of man.’ In Luke 12:4-5 Jesus warns ‘fear him who, after he has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear him!’ In 2 Corinthians 12:20-21 St. Paul writes about his fear of what he will find if he comes to Corinth ‘For I fear that perhaps I may come and find you not what I wish, and that you may find me not what you wish; that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. I fear that when I come again my God may humble me before you, and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned before and have not repented of the impurity, immorality, and licentiousness which they have practiced.’

What these examples show is that some forms of fear are entirely legitimate. In his address Archbishop Justin notes the fears of those on the conservative side in the Church of England and the wider communion who are concerned about where the Pilling process will lead the Church of England in terms of its belief and practice with regard to sexuality. He rejects that fear, arguing that we cannot find a way forward on this issue on the basis of fear.

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