The Church of England is currently being tortured by a dead German philosopher. An unlikely story, I know. But not when you recall that the head of the Anglican church is a former Oxford don with a deep love of Hegel. And it's partly because of Hegel - specifically Rowan Williams's commitment to Hegelian dialectics - that morale in the Church of England is so low.
For those who didn't spend hours in the student bar plotting the overthrow of global capitalism, it may be worth a recap. The dialectic proposes that human culture advances through a serious of oppositions. A thesis is opposed by its opposite, an antithesis, which is then taken up into a synthesis of the two, shifting culture into a whole new territory. Here is Dr Williams's explanation: "Reflection requires that the plain opposition of positive and negative be left behind. Thinking is not content with the abstraction of mutual exclusivities, but struggles to conceive of a structured wholeness nuanced enough to contain what appeared to be contradictories."
The Canterbury dialectic was in evidence at a summit of bishops who were considering whether they should remain a boys' club. It works like this. Take someone who believes that women ought to be bishops. Take someone who believes women ought not to be bishops. Put them in a room with flip charts and shake them all about, and you come out with a synthesis. Or a structured wholeness nuanced enough to contain what appeared to be contradictories. But you don't. What really happens is that you come up with a bodge and a room full of very angry Christians, exhausted by the politics of eternal negotiation.
Following Hegel, the archbishop believes that all oppositions can be nuanced into resolution. It's a matter of faith for him. The dialectic describes the path a divided humanity must travel if it is to reach the good infinity, the kingdom of heaven. It's the way of personal and social transformation under which all human conflict will come to an end. The lion will lie down with the lamb.
Long before Hegel drew breath, Anglicanism has always had something of Hegel about it. After all, the genius of the Church of England is to create a synthesis of Catholics (thesis) and Puritans (antithesis). But whereas historic Anglicanism believed that compromise between different theologies was a price worth paying for a truce between them, Dr Williams's dialectical Anglicanism is an encouragement to war.
For dialectical Anglicanism just cannot say no. Every no always comes with its attendant yes. And that means, it can't resist the bigotry, sexism and homophobia that is currently making a nasty comeback in the Anglican pulpit. Whether it be those who would treat women clergy as second class or those who compare gay Christians to beasts, the logic of Dr Williams' position is always to accommodate. Commendably inclusive, some presume. But this sort of inclusivity offers little protection against those who would undermine the tolerance that has been the Anglican trademark. When dealing with well-organised and well-motivated bullies, it's a hopeless philosophy.
Worse still, the dialectical quest for unity is callously indifferent to the casualties of its grand plan. Isaiah Berlin was right to call the dialectic "a sinister mythology which authorises the infinite sacrifice of individuals to such abstractions as states, traditions or the destiny of the nation" - or, one might add, to the unity of the church. Even Hegel admitted that the dialectic is a "slaughter-bench" on which the welfare of individuals is counted as collateral damage. Isn't that precisely what happened to Jeffrey John?
But the saddest casualty of Hegel's system of reconciliation is the archbishop himself. Holding all these opposites in tension is grinding him down. He presents as Christ on the cross, taking upon himself the pain of the church's division. Each new fight is a spear in the side, yet he continues to maintain faith in the reconciling process of nuance. If he's right, it's a work of supreme Christian sacrifice. If he's wrong, all this pain will have been for nothing.
· by Giles Fraser
Vicar of Putney
Saturday June 17, 2006