Atheists in the pulpit, divine service optional - that seems to be the future direction of the famed Oxford University, hitherto a bastion of the Anglican Establishment in England.
In February, it is reported, well-known author Philip Pullman, a self-described "Church of England Atheist", in other words a "cultural Anglican" but not an actual believer (reminds me of the old joke: "Are you Christian? No, C of E."), preached - "gave the address" is often the euphemism used on such occasions - in the University Church of St Mary's, Oxford.
In order to fully understand the symbolic import of this unhappy event, it might help to rehearse some of the history of St Mary's, Oxford. This is the hallowed site of the trial of bishops Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley, at which they each received the sentence of death by burning for adhering to the principles of the English Reformation. It is also the church where John Wesley preached his famous sermon on 'Justification By Faith', leading to the Evangelical revival in the Church of England. From the same pulpit, some one hundred years later, in 1833, John Keble preached the famous Assize sermon on national apostasy, which marked the beginning of the controversial and divisive, but influential 'Oxford Movement'. John Henry Newman, the leading light of that movement, also preached regularly at St Mary's when he was still an Anglican and resident at Oxford.
However mistaken, from the Lutheran position, these men may have been on some doctrines of the faith, they were at least professed believers, not atheists. And even with Lutheran reservations about aspects of the public doctrine of the Church of England, one can still apppreciate the great historical significance of this particular church not only for English Christianity but for world Christianity. Sermons preached from the pulpit of this church have echoed down the centuries and around the world and led to orthodox missionary endeavours that have brought literally millions into the kingdom of God. But aside from that history, this is a church dedicated to the glory of God and built to serve the edification of his Anglican people at Oxford University, an historically Anglican institution. What business does the rector of the church have to invite an atheist, even one who claims to respect the church as an historical institution, to preach - or even "give an address" - in this church? Does the Church of England have a death wish?
This event follows quickly upon the approval, given in January by the university's governing council, to one Oxford college's (Hertford) proposal to remove the constitutional requirement to appoint religious chaplains (i.e. C of E clergy), along with the requirement upon them, when they are appointed, to conduct regular divine services. So, we have atheists in the pulpit, and clergy who, when they are employed, will not be expected to lead public worship. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction in late-modern Oxford.
Now, an enlightened pluralist observer of these developments might well respond: "Well, Oxford University is simply beginning to reflect the multi-cultural, multi-religious face of present-day England. Why should Christianity, especially the flabby, undisciplined, middle-of-the-road version of it that prevails in the Church of England, receive special treatment when most of the students are probably agnostics?" Agreed, the situation of established European churches, pallid heirs of the riches of the long-dead ideal of Christendom, is becoming increasingly untenable as their societies hurtle towards non-belief and moral confusion, and disestablishment is indeed a discussion that Oxford University and eventually England will one day soon have to have. But, in the meantime, bear in mind that this University still admits graduates to degrees with a solemn 'in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti' as a New Testament is momentarily placed upon their head. God cannot be mocked with impunity.
HT Cranmer [click on post title to view]
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