Monday, July 11, 2011

Misapprehended Latitude: Dorothy Sayers and the Centrality of "Dull Dogma"

I first published this back in July 2007 when I started blogging. In light of Episcopal parishes that see fit to dump the Nicene Creed from the Eucharistic liturgy, clergy who charge that the creeds are defective, and those who pit "dull dogma" against "love" and find alternative creeds more "accessible" and "inclusive" than the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds (like, for instance, the Iona Creed), it seems fitting to republish.

Thanks to Fr. Jones, I came across this rather pointed observation on the web the other day:

Every now and then, a smug Episcopalian will make a statement that gives me cold chills. They will say something like, "I love being an Episcopalian, because I can believe anything I want." This statement is a gross misunderstanding of the doctrinal flexibility built into our Church. The point is that on certain issues, like the nature of Christ's presence in Eucharist and other sacramental matters, a range of nuanced positions are possible. Unfortunately, some misapprehend the latitude offered within Anglicanism as license for disbelief.

There are many antidotes to this kind of "misapprehended latitude," and one within the Anglican tradition is Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957). Perhaps best known as the author of detective stories that feature a character named Lord Peter Wimsey, Sayers was also a Christian apologist with a keen sense for the beauty and truth of Christian doctrine and the historic creeds.

As one writer puts it: "Like her friends C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and Charles Williams, Sayers was a brilliant Christian thinker, an Anglo-Catholic who took doctrine seriously and bristled at the growth of 'fads, schisms, heresies, and anti-Christ' within the Church of England."

Sayers was a tough-minded defender of the notion that Christian faith entails non-negotiable truths that don't change simply because the winds of intellectual fashion and the culture have shifted in a new direction. Relevance comes, not from revising core dogma to accommodate post-Christian thinking, but from faithfully doing what the Church at her best has always done: preach, teach, and practice the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Here's a taste of Sayers' writing taken from A Matter of Eternity: Selections from the Writings of Dorothy L. Sayers, edited by Rosamond Kent Sprague (William B. Eerdmans, 1973). Even this small sampling gives a clear picture of her passionate embrace of creedal Christianity. Sayers would have little patience for even the suggestion that being an Episcopalian means that one can believe whatever one wants!


The Christian formula is not: "Humanity manifests certain adumbrations of the divine", but: "This man was very God." On that pivot of singularity the whole Christian interpretation of phenomena uncompromisingly turns.

If Christ was only a man, then He is entirely irrelevant to any thought about God; if He is only God, then he is entirely irrelevant to any experience of human life. It is, in the strictest sense, necessary to the salvation of relevance that a man should believe rightly the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Unless he believes rightly, there is not the faintest reason why he should believe at all.

... if the Church is to make any impression on the modern mind we will have to preach Christ and the cross.

It would not perhaps be altogether surprising if, in this nominally Christian country, where the Creeds are daily recited, there were a number of people who knew all about Christian doctrine and disliked it. It is more startling to discover how many people there are who heartily dislike and despise Christianity without having the faintest notion what it is. If you tell them, they cannot believe you. I do not mean that they cannot believe the doctrine: that would be understandable enough, since it takes some believing. I mean that they simply cannot believe that anything so interesting, so exciting, so dramatic can be the orthodox Creed of the Church.

God did not abolish the fact of evil: He transformed it. He did not stop the crucifixion: He rose from the dead.

It is a lie to say that dogma does not matter; it matters enormously. It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe. It is hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely idealistic aspiration of a simple and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting, and complex doctrine, steeped in a drastic and uncompromising realism. And it is fatal to imagine that everyone knows quite well what Christianity is and needs only a little encouragement to practise it. The brutal fact is that in this Christian country not one person in a hundred has the faintest notion what the Church teaches about God or man or society or the person of Jesus Christ.

If Christ is not true God equally with the Father, there is no essential difference between Christianity and pagan polytheism.

Official Christianity, of late years, has been having what is known as "a bad press." We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine - "dull dogma," as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man - and the dogma is the drama.


You can learn more about this gifted Anglican theologian by logging on to the The Dorothy L Sayers Society.


Rev. PMB said...

Our dullness in Atlanta is about to end.

The Diocese of Atlanta is trying hard to make progress. Finally, the effort to make amends for the past is coming to fruition.

Winning the Anti-Racist Future for the Diocese of Atlanta by Electing our Historic First African-American Bishop on June 2, 2012

Unsustainable Racist White Privilege in the Diocese of Atlanta Obstructs and Delays Social Justice

Bryan Owen said...

Interesting, Rev. PMB. But what does any of this have to do with the posting?