Wednesday 12 August 2009

The Cloud of Unknowing - living with mystery

The Revd Henry Morgan writes that:

“... what humankind will ever know is but a small island among a vast sea of unknowing and mystery, The edges of the island will shift as new things are learnt and old things are forgotten, but mystery remains huge and overwhelming and touches us everywhere, wherever we look.”

"I don’t even know very much about God. God by definition is beyond our knowing: a vast, silent emptiness. We may sense God’s presence from time to time. We may believe that Jesus has shown us something of his nature, sufficient of God’s nature, even. But, in another sense, however true that may be, God will always remain beyond our knowing.”

“So, maybe we could usefully learn to approach all of life with a sense of mystery, wonder and reverence. It might usefully teach us a little humility.”

[The God You Already Know, pp95-96]

The two previous blogs about the Bishop of Durham have attracted a lot of interest – 1,650 hits yesterday, a variety of comments here, a Fulcrum Forum thread. Some TEC members are relieved to discover an English group prepared to be openly critical of a bishop whose views are problematic for them. Some conservatives have leapt to Durham’s defence and attacked CA. One person thinks +Tom Wright and the Archbishop of Canterbury are friends and +Tom must therefore be accurately expressing what the Archbishop truly thinks. Some have accused us of attacking +Tom Wright.

I very carefully referred to the Bishop of Durham and never to +Tom Wright. I know that in naming and writing about individuals, I risk causing them emotional hurt, much as I am hurt by what some people write about me. I distinguish between criticism of me and Changing Attitude, and between the writings of +Durham and +Canterbury (which articulate what the person thinks and feels in the role of bishop) and Tom Wright and Rowan Williams, people inhabiting roles who may have different personal thoughts and feelings.
I am not a friend of +Tom Wright. We met just once, at a Fulcrum Conference two years ago. He wasn’t very interested in me. I thought of various reasons why he might not have responded as I would have liked: he was preoccupied with other thoughts; I’m small fry compared with him; I represent a view and a reality he disapproves of; I’m not worth talking with. Whatever the reason, I was disappointed. Personal conversations are nearly always beneficial and often change perceptions on both sides.

I do count myself a friend of +Rowan Williams. We have known each other for 30 years. Not a pop-round-for-tea friend but a friend who always greets me warmly and communicates pleasure when we meet.

Personal relationships and encounter are at the heart of God and should be at the heart of the Anglican Communion. I am primarily a heart, not a head person. +Tom Wright comes across as a head person, +Rowan Williams much more as a heart person. Human bodies need hearts as well as heads, and so does the Anglican Communion.

Head people feel more comfortable living inside an intellectual, rational framework, one in which there can be correct and incorrect, accurate and less accurate, interpretations of scripture. Heart people are more likely to be living on a small island surrounded by mystery and emotions, sometimes huge and overwhelming, touching us wherever we are and wherever we look.

I fear that the campaign being waged by the self-proclaimed majority in the Anglican Communion – ACNA, FOCA, GAFCON, Anglican Mainstream, Reform, VirtueOnline, Stand Firm etc. - is being organised and driven primarily by head people. I know it isn’t as easy as a simple division between head and heart Christians – we are all a combination of both – but how else to explain the judgmental attitudes and adherence to rules that characterises those driving towards schism?

In my ideal world, we would all be better off if we allowed more space for the heart, for mystery, humility and unknowing. There would be a greater reluctance to make concrete judgments about people or over-define our experience of God.

I wonder whether the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Reflections on GC09 with which I feel very unhappy, are a reflection of the potential breaking apart of the Communion, a prospect about which +Rowan Williams feels very unhappy. The more critical stance may reflect the difficulty the person inhabiting the role of Archbishop and the person of +Rowan Williams have in holding inner conflicts together, a break down between head and heart in which head seems to have taken greater control.

To resolve these tensions, the Archbishop opts for the needs of the Communion expressed so forcibly by the conservative faction over and above the needs of the Church of God that lives in the mystery of unknowing and dares to model radical justice, inclusive love and an unconditional welcome for LGBT people and The Episcopal Church.

I would experience such inner conflicts as intolerable. Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, is charged with holding these conflicts together and steering us through choppy, turbulent waters to a new, yet-to-be-imagined place where all are welcomed, respected and honoured, whatever our differences. This is the place to which the Holy God is calling ALL OF US. If only we could learn to approach all of life with a sense of mystery, wonder and reverence. It might indeed usefully teach us a little humility.


  1. An interesting article, I've just finished this book and also found it meaningful.

    Are the FCA,AM mob all "head" people? In some ways but I'm not sure it is that simple, as homophobia is actually rather irrational and illogical. I would rather describe those with a hard line view as unable to cope with complexity or uncertainty - whether emotional or intellectual. In other words, they are driven by the need for rules, the need to be right and have the "right answers" to everything - and not to have to really engage or be challenged. I think Christ constantly challenged. He often answered questions with another question or with stories that forced people to really "make meaning", both with their hearts and minds.

  2. My comments about Tom Wrights friendship with the ABC were in the contest the allegation that he is after his job. I expect that they have had many conversations on related subjects but the article is one of exposition and comment. It's accuracy can be judged by a close reading of the two documents.

    I would not do anything so ridiculous as to deny that Tom Wright is a head person. I think you may miss his heart if you only see his more polemical pieces. Think a sense of wonder and enthusiasm comes though in the NT for Everyone series, his Durham sermons and recorded lectures to students. This is of course expressed in a retrained British way