It is often claimed, with pride, that the Church of England is a ‘broad church’, and to think this is a bad thing is to be narrow-minded and unreasonable. But the question never addressed is ‘how broad can a church be?’ I would certainly agree that sound theology can never come down to a single point; the classic way that Christian theology has been done has been to set boundaries within which theological truth can be expressed in a variety of ways. But that leaves the question of where those boundaries lie, and what happens when we cross them.
In what will be seen as a striking departure from its Christian traditions, senior clergy at the Minster have quietly introduced a new form of spiritual enrichment altogether: Zen Buddhist meditation. A new “sangha” – meaning community or order – has been set up under the auspices of the Minster chapter and meets within the medieval precincts every other Friday for an hour and a half’s silent meditation.
The idea has come from the Canon Chancellor of the Minster, Canon Dr Christopher Collingwood, who was also behind the Minster’s support for the York Gay Pride march last year..
Dr Collingwood described himself as “religiously bilingual”, combining Christian beliefs and Zen ideas, and having “a foot in more than one religious camp”… Asked if being religiously bilingual meant that he saw himself as being both Christian and Buddhist, he said: “Yes, I think in a sense, perhaps – I would be conscious exactly about how you might express that. There is a recognised phenomenon now which is explored in research … called ‘dual religious belonging’ where it is recognised that people have a foot in more than one religious camp.”
Even for those who are not well-versed in Buddhism, it is not difficult to see that Zen is not only a long way from orthodox Christian belief, but quite at odds with it:
The essence of Zen is attempting to understand the meaning of life directly, without being misled by logical thought or language.
This is not so much about putting experience alongside theological reflection, but seeing such reflection as something to be displaced—and hardly sits well with the kind of ‘logos’ Christology we find, for example, in John’s gospel.
Defining Zen is like trying to describe the taste of honey to someone who has never tasted it before. You can try to explain the texture and scent of honey, or you can try to compare and correlate it with similar foods. However, honey is honey! As long as you have not tasted it, you are in the illusion of what honey is.
The Zen Master who assists with the York sangha says this on his own website:
Zen gives us a method to put the wordless and imageless prayer of contemplation into practice. Zen training does not allow us to analyze or theorise about prayer or life. Instead it plunges us at the outset into the contemplative act in which there is no subject or object.
At one level, there might be some parallels in the biblical injunction to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’—but notice the language above of ‘illusion’ in reference to reflection on experience. You do not have to belong to one end of a theological spectrum (in Christian Concern) to see there is a problem with this. Surely anyone, of any reasonable theological tradition who is concerned about the boundaries of orthodoxy, would feel that there is a problem with promoting Zen Buddhist meditation in cathedral grounds. (The group did not meet in the Minster itself, so there were not the same issues with the holding of Muslim worship in a church last year.)
For other clergy in the diocese, and for any of us in the northern province, it is clear that the Canon Chancellor is in breach of his ordination vows, which (in the Common Worship form) includes:
Will you faithfully minister the doctrine and sacraments of Christ as the Church of England has received them, so that the people committed to your charge may be defended against error and flourish in the faith?
By the help of God, I will.
Relations between cathedrals and diocesan bishops are not always straightforward, but any clergy minister with the bishop’s license, and so the question is what action the bishop can take in this kind of situation. The Clergy Discipline Measure was supposed to make obvious cases simpler to deal with than the old process through the Ecclesiastical Courts, but it has not proved to be so, and many clergy are nervous about a process which pushes too much power back to the episcopate. The CDM process was supposed to be complement by a Discipline (Doctrine) measure which would have this kind of situation more in its sights—but Synod pulled back from implementing this.
The situation raises a series of other questions as well. Vivienne Faull, Dean of York Minster since 2012 (having moved from Leicester) was once tipped to be the first of the women bishops. But what diocese, in our current context, would want a diocesan who has overseen the promotion of non-Christian religions on her watch? It affects relations with the diocese as well; I have been told that it is ‘nearly impossible’ to arrange diocesan events in the Minster. How extraordinary that, at the time of a national initiative of prayer for evangelism, one of the Beacon events happened not in the Minster but in next-door St Michael-le-Belfrey church.
The timing of John Bingham’s report could not unreasonably be consider mischievous; after all, the workshops have been going on for around two years, and the programme for this year has been available since January. So why does Bingham report on this on the day of Pentecost and the climax of the national initiative?
But it illustrates the essential problem with the unqualified use of ‘broad church’ language. As long as there are, in effect, no boundaries to what is considered orthodox Anglican Christian belief, and what it is acceptable for clergy to teach—particular clergy in prominent roles—and no mechanism for bishops to act to address this, then the Church is hamstrung in its commitment to discipleship and evangelism.
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