By Sue Careless
About 280 people gathered at the eighth and largest annual Mere Anglicanism conference Jan. 24-26 in Charleston, South Carolina. Two scholarly bishops — the Rt. Rev. Paul Barnett, retired Bishop of North Sydney, Australia, and the Rt. Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali, retired Bishop of Rochester, England — addressed the gathering’s theme of “Behold the Man!: The Person and Work of Jesus Christ.”
“I could not reject the historical reliability of the New Testament, even if I wanted to,” said Bishop Barnett, author of Is the New Testament Reliable? (IVP Academic) and several other books.
In his eucharistic sermon, Bishop Barnett challenged the congregation: “Let us learn from Judas, who loved money more than God; from Peter, who loved man’s approval and praise more than God’s; and from Caiaphas and Annas, who loved power more than justice. The sins of them live on in us; the same foibles beset us.”
The Rt. Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali spoke on “The Unique and Universal Christ,” drawing from his book of the same title (Paternoster, 2008).
Speaking without notes, he addressed topics as diverse as the Insider Movement (of secret believers) and whether it should be encouraged in evangelism; the “cycle of virtue” as seen in India and Latin America; how discrimination against Christians differs in North America and Britain; and the Christian meaning and symbolism within the Coronation ritual.
He gave two striking examples of the “cycle of virtue” and how Christ can act as the transformer of a culture. In the last 150 years in the caste system of India, many Dalits or untouchables have become Christians and some of the higher castes now come to them for education and health. In Latin America, Nazir-Ali said, Pentecostalism has brought about more widespread socioeconomic change in families and communities than Liberation Theology was able to achieve.
The bishop said that in China Christianity is a real challenge to Marxism; in Islamic countries Christianity is a challenge because it is the only other major missionary faith; and in North America Christianity is a direct challenge to secularism.
Asked why Buddhism was so popular today in the West, Bishop Nazir-Ali said, “The Dalai Lama doesn’t demand anything of you” except to be careful. Buddhism denies the individual, he said, leading to emptiness, nihilism and violence.
The Rev. David Wenham, a senior tutor in New Testament at Trinity College, Bristol, answered those like Karen Armstrong and Philip Pullman who claim that Jesus was merely a good Jewish prophet who never claimed to be divine and that St. Paul created the cult of Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God. Did Paul create a new religion on the basis of his Damascus experience?
Certainly Paul’s letters are very different in style from the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. There is hardly any mention of Jesus’ birth or of any of his parables or miracles (aside from the greatest, the miracle of his Resurrection) in his epistles.
Wenham stressed that while Saul/Paul was persecuting the early Christians in Jerusalem, the Church under Peter and James was already fully proclaiming Jesus as risen and divine, the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. The idea did not originate with Paul; he only expounded on it. Nor did Wenham think that a recent convert and outsider like Paul (who was never part of the Jerusalem Church leadership) could create a new religion.
Paul’s letters are different because Paul is “trouble-shooting” in his epistles, Wenham said, addressing particular problems and issues that have cropped up in various churches. Jesus and Paul were teaching the same basic message but in very different contexts. Jesus was ministering primarily in rural Jewish Palestine while Paul was addressing pagan urban societies, translating Jesus’ message into their culture. Did Paul get Jesus right? “Yes,” unequivocally, Wenham said.
Author Eric Metaxas was the only non-academic speaker at Mere Anglicanism. Metaxas spoke about the 20th-century hero who is the subject of his latest book, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. It is the first major biography in 40 years of the young German theologian who refused to sit safely in America when Hitler came to power in his homeland, but returned to Nazi-Germany to take part in a plot to assassinate the Führer. Metaxas draws on previously unavailable documents (personal letters, journal entries and firsthand accounts) to tell the story of the young German pastor whose execution Hitler ordered in the waning days of the Third Reich.
The theme of next year’s Mere Anglicanism, meeting Jan. 16-18, will be “Science, Faith and Apologetics.” Keynote speakers will include Alvin Plantinga of Notre Dame University and John Lennox of Oxford, a British mathematician and philosopher of science who has publicly debated Stephen Hawking and Christopher Hitchens.
Sue Careless is senior editor of The Anglican Planet.
Photo of Bishop Paul Barnett by Sue Careless