Time to shift C of E away from the Med

Secularisation
December 13, 2002

Edward Norman, Reith lecturer in 1978, was once a savage critic of the way that, in his view, leftwing and progressive political views had infiltrated Christianity and affected church statements. His thesis in Secularisation is that the values of secular humanism have now been internalised by the Church of England. Secularisation, for him, is not just a process that has happened in society, it is a betrayal that has been inflicted by the church on itself.

Humanism, properly understood as a concern for human wellbeing in all its aspects, is surely very much a Christian theme. And sometimes, even in his attacks on political correctness and the church's championing of equal opportunities, inclusion, disability rights and so on, Norman will grudgingly concede that these could perhaps be a proper expression of a Christian love of neighbour. What arouses his ire is the thought that the basis of these ethical injunctions by the church is an unreflective secular view of human rights rather than obedience to God.

Norman believes that Marxism remains an important intellectual tool, and he is often at his most telling when he exposes the link between a particular set of values and liberal bourgeois concerns (although he does not seem to be willing to acknowledge that, having made such a connection, one could still judge such values to have a wider reference). Norman's alternative to what he sees as the secular humanism now being preached by the C of E is a return to revealed truth taught by authority. This would result in definite truths rather than the vague mix of aesthetic and spiritual experience, on the basis of which human beings would be called to repent and submit to God.

The problem is that he writes in such stark, almost deliberately unattractive terms that it is difficult, first, to understand what might be meant and, second, to know whether, as a morally responsible human being, one ought to respond. For instance, the message of Jesus, according to Norman, begins "with a statement about the intrinsic wretchedness of each person". That is not my reading of the New Testament. Repentance is not about trying to make people feel bad about themselves. It is, as the Greek original indicates, a call to people to rethink their lives in the light of the standards of God's rule that Jesus put before them in vivid parables and haunting sayings.

Norman emphasises that Christianity is only for the few. "The biblical, and therefore Christian, understanding of humanity and of divine judgement, makes it clear that the greater part of the human population of the world has always been destined for an ultimate extinction." One is inclined to say with Ivan Karamazov that it is not God one does not believe in, it is just that one returns him the ticket.

Norman occasionally overstates the degree of secularisation that has taken place around and within the C of E, but the challenge faced by the church is certainly not less than he suggests. And occasionally the book implies a radicalism that also needs to be heard. He writes: "The churches still declare their truths within the world picture supplied by extensions of the Mediterranean cultures of the ancient world - but this context shows indications of imminent disintegration."

For this and other reasons he argues for the recovery of a true sense of authority by the C of E because only in this way will Christian essentials "be rescued from the detritus of a collapsed cultural world, and rendered in the emerging images and symbols of the new".

This radical side emerges also in his attitude to same-sex relationships. On the evidence of what we know about their basis, he suggests that the church will have to revise itstraditional hostility to them. Hence the need again for an authoritative teaching body to distinguish what needs to remain unchanged and what needs to be revised.

This is a salutary work, good for a person such as myself to reckon with, but one that surely ought to have also posed a challenge to Norman himself. For if it is true that Christian language, with its metaphors and symbols, has now gone dead on society as a whole, then Norman needs to rethink his phrases about the wretchedness of man, the need for repentance and submission to God and so on.

Such words cannot and should not be metamorphosed into the values of the secular humanism he disparages. But they do need to be restated in a way that can impinge on the most discriminating minds and sensitive consciences of our time.

Rt Revd Richard Harries is bishop of Oxford.

Secularisation

Author - Edward Norman
ISBN - 0 8264 5945 5
Publisher - Continuum
Price - £16.99
Pages - 159

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