Christ Centred AND Jesus Shaped

The Rev’d Canon Dr Robin Ward examines the wording of the new Church of England vision statement. Aside from it being a pithy phrase does it reveal a heretical theology?

The Church of England has adopted a new Vision document for the next ten years of her life, compiled after much consultation by the new Archbishop of York.  It has as its strapline ‘Christ centred and Jesus shaped. Simpler, humbler, bolder’ and a diagram that has at its centre ‘Christ centred. Rooted: going back to the heart of our tradition… Radical’ and ‘Jesus shaped. By the 5 marks of mission’.  Predictably this has taken something of a pebble dashing on social media, summed up in the lapidary remark of one commentator as ‘The Church of England has written its own Treaty of Versailles, and is now going to spend a decade looking for someone to surrender to’.  But it is perhaps rather more serious that the soundbite we are meant to take away from all this, and which I have no doubt will become ubiquitous in communications from the hierarchy, ‘Christ centred and Jesus shaped’, might in fact be not just a bit annoying but actually heretical.

How so?  St Cyril of Alexandria, writing in his Third Letter to Nestorius, says: Whoever allocates the terms contained in the gospels and the apostolic writings and applied to Christ by the saints or used of himself by himself to two persons or subjects and attaches some to the man considered separately from the Word of God, some as divine to the Word of God the Father alone, shall be anathema.  The whole burden of patristic Christology, beginning with the condemnation of Apollinaris at the first Council of Constantinople in 381 and continuing right up to the condemnation of the iconoclasts at the second Council of Nicaea in 787, is the attempt to express two fundamental principles: that there is one subject, one ‘I’, in the incarnate Christ; and that the human nature taken by the Word is a complete and integral one.  So expressions which seem to infer that there are two subjects in the Word made flesh: Christ on whom to be centred, and Jesus by whom to be shaped, would seem to contradict this.

Is the Church of England now committed to a decade of being Anglican centred but Nestorian shaped?  The Vision document itself is evidently a bit anxious about this as it adds a two-paragraph explanation of the phrase.  That this is necessary at all might well suggest that second thoughts about having it front up the next decade of policy are in order.  And the explanation in some respects makes matters worse.  It is quite proper to say ‘We make no distinction between ‘Christ’ and ‘Jesus’. The two phrases are simply a shorter way of saying we are called to be Jesus Christ centred and Jesus Christ shaped’.  But the second paragraph then goes on to make exactly the two-subject inference that ought to be avoided: that the title ‘Christ’ is being used as shorthand to refer to Jesus Christ ‘in [whom], and therefore in the Trinitarian life of God… we root ourselves’;  and the name ‘Jesus’ is used as shorthand to refer to Jesus Christ as ‘the preacher and healer from Nazareth, who… lived a life like ours… and showed us what our humanity could be’.  This is unhappy, and as an explanation makes matters worse, not better.

Does any of this matter?  Thirty years ago the general consensus held among those who taught Anglican ordinands was that Nestorius was tiresome in person but to a large degree fundamentally orthodox in doctrine, and that the Council of Chalcedon endorsed this by siding with the patrician Imperial civil servant Leo of Rome against the vulgar and shouty demagogue Dioscorus of Alexandria.  Scholarship has moved on, and with this has come a renewed sensibility about getting this stuff right: only this month, the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales have removed the word ‘one’ from the conclusion of the collects of the Roman Missal in English (…one God, world without end)for fear of an Arian interpretation.  When ordinands ask me why Christology matters, I ask them to look at the video of the new Russian Military Cathedral – dubbed with the music from Warhammer 40k: Mechanicus – and think about why Christians only 1500 miles away find this idiom more appealing than On Eagle’s Wings, Mary did you know, and The Kingdom Season.

A better Christian Russia gave us Sergius Bulgakov, who wrote this about the Name of God: The Lord Jesus Christ is perfect Man and true God: in Him were united without separation and without confusion two natures and two wills, with one hypostasis.  And the oneness of the hypostasis signifies, among other things, the oneness of the Name in which is expressed the individual being, the personhood… the Name of the Lord Jesus belongs to both natures; it is the Name of God and of Man in their unity.  The Church of England teaches this when it enjoins reverence to be made during divine service when the Holy Name is mentioned.  We should look again at a decade-long Vision statement that obscures it.

The Rev’d Canon Dr Robin Ward, Principal, St Stephen’s House

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