The Venerable David Silk was appointed last year as the new Bishop of Ballarat and enthroned last March, after a distinguished career in the U.K. Bishop Spong visited Australia shortly afterwards to promote his new book on the Resurrection. The anomaly associated with this visit was that while he used Australian Catholic University's Brisbane facilities (see August 'AD2000') to demolish Christianity, Bishop Silk was a speaker at an Anglican conference in Melbourne organised to repudiate Spong's claims. The following is an extract from Bishop Silk's address which he has approved for inclusion in 'AD2000'.
Christianity was not founded in a dream world. The Church did not create the figure of Jesus to explain its existence and identity: it was itself created by the figure of Jesus, whom it was created to explain. As Stephen Neill wrote somewhere, "That Jesus Christ whom the Christian meets when he comes to Holy Communion, who is made present to him in the proclamation of the Gospel in Christian worship, to whom he speaks when he prays, who speaks to him through the Holy Spirit, is the same Jesus who was born at a specific time and place in history, who lived a human life, who spoke certain words, did certain deeds, and suffered certain things, of which we have clear though far from complete knowledge."
I have profound difficulty with that whole approach which assesses the credibility of the New Testament evidence on what my experience tells me is likely. I might put it this way: "Since I am not in the habit of passing cemeteries and bumping into dead people walking about, I assume it is not possible. If it is not possible, then it did not happen. Therefore there must be some other explanation for the story of the resurrection.
It is an approach which in the end declares that human reason is to be preferred to divine revelation. And there is the rub. For I believe that the initiative is with God. Over and over again I come face to face with the principle that God is a God of revelation. The whole point about the word "mystery" in the New Testament is that it is about something revealed rather than something hidden, an open secret. The Divine Master who said, (Matthew 13:11) "To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven..." is echoed by his disciple Saint Paul (Ephesians 14-5) when he writes, "the mystery of Christ ... has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit ...".
On the other hand, the "Spong school", if I may so describe it, seems to believe in a sort of latter-day Gnosticism.
The real truth has been somehow hidden from the people of God for centuries, coded in an obscure book which has been waiting to be interpreted by the modern human mind, and has now been discovered by them. I find myself asked to believe that for nearly 2,000 years we have been allowed to get it wrong, to believe in a fairy story because it was good for us. I find myself asked to believe that these things have been hidden from the babes and revealed to the wise and understanding!
How curious for a bishop, for one who is to be the focus of unity and love, to be the guardian of the faith, the teacher and pastor of the people, to find that he must so radically depart from the traditional position of the Church in her understanding of Scripture, that he is saying one of two things: either that God has kept the truth hidden and has now revealed it to an intellectual elite, or that humanity is discovering a whole new way of understanding the source of the documents. Either way, a new religion has been invented, based on human reason.
In the case of the Resurrection, the good bishop is investing his capital in a number of contentious and disputed theories, which are at the moment in fashion, about how the documents should be assessed, analysed and understood. He then incorporates them into his own interpretation of the faith. What worries me most is that he does not distinguish the seminar room from the church, or the role of an academic from the role of the bishop.
An academic has no pastoral responsibility, and no commission of the Church to teach. Indeed, an academic may float theories and explore ideas at will and without reproach. An academic may espouse one view or another about a contested matter of scholarship. But the academic does not commonly have as a primary responsibility the conducting of a funeral service, the absolving of a penitent, or the defending of the Church's tradition and position in the media.
On the other hand, a bishop cannot have the luxury of publishing his private opinions, or the present state of play in his gad-fly mind. If a gold miner in Stawell announces that he does not believe the tomb was empty, there is no story. But if a bishop, especially a bishop known for singular views, says that he does not believe in the empty tomb the media have a field day.
As a bishop myself I find it irresponsible for a bishop not to accept the primary duties of his office. At my own consecration those primary duties were summarised in these words from the Alternative Service Book of the Church of England: "A bishop is called to lead in serving and caring for the people of God and to work with them in the oversight of the Church. As a chief pastor he shares with his fellow bishops a special responsibility to maintain and further the unity of the Church, to uphold its discipline, and to guard its faith. He is to promote its mission throughout the world. It is his duty to watch over and pray for all those committed to his charge, and to teach and govern them after the example of the Apostles, speaking in the name of God and interpreting the gospel of Christ."
What is so extraordinary to me is Bishop Spong's dismissal of those who do not share his views: "The churches that are growing don't understand the issue, so they can traffic in old-fashioned certainty. They can convince people that they and they alone are right, and that is terribly appealing. The churches that are declining do understand the issues. They are embracing the relativity of truth; they therefore feel like they have no message. So they are declining. What that means to me is people who are thinking are leaving the Church. And people who are not thinking are going back looking for security in old-time religion."
Is that not a recipe for the Church to disappear in a puff of blue smoke?