John Milbank. Wikimedia Commons

Returning to Tradition

How is it possible to respond to a society that reduces faith to a private matter? A group of Anglicans, led by the theologian John Milbank, has an idea...
Fabrizio Rossi

How is it possible to respond to a society that reduces faith to a private matter? A group of Anglicans, led by the theologian John Milbank, has an idea: accepting the invitation of Benedict XVI to broaden reason. Amid conferences and seminars, the origin of a friendship that intends to “judge everything with an unprecedented boldness.”

“How can Anglicans rediscover their own identity? By identifying the roots and future of the Church in its catholicity.” As Anglicanism is passing through a deep crisis, this is the solution proposed by Radical Orthodoxy, the Anglican movement born in the 1990s around the English theologian John Milbank. This is the heart of the conference proposed by Radical Orthodoxy, named, not casually, “Returning to the Church.” The conference was held at Oxford from January 4–6, involving 60 theologians, priests, bishops, and scholars.

Milbank is a name well known to the people of the Rimini Meeting, He has participated for some years, along with other proponents of Radical Orthodoxy. Perhaps, though, not all those who have seen them there know of the circumstances that led them to Rimini and what this movement is. How did it come to its present position, and why is it important within Christianity? Let’s begin with Milbank himself. Amongst the foremost Anglican theologians, Professor of Religion, Politics, and Ethics at the University of Nottingham, he studied under Rowan Williams, the actual Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of the Anglican Communion. Other members include Alison Milbank, John’s wife, lecturer in Theology and Literature at Nottingham; Phillip Blond, Director of the London think-tank ResPublica; Fr. Andrew Davison, Anglican priest and theologian at Oxford University; and Adrian Pabst, lecturer in Politics at the University of Kent. This list of names and posts would be enough to grasp the nature of Radical Orthodoxy, which in a kind of public manifesto published in 1999 declared that they want to “reclaim the world by situating its concerns and activities within a theological framework.” In other words, put faith once more at the center of life–from economics to science (one example among many: Conor Cunningham, also one of the group, studying Darwin, refutes the theses of Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion), and from culture to politics. In this sense, orthodoxy means “in the most straightforward sense of commitment to credal Christianity,” and radical, “in the sense of a return to … a notion which transcends the modern bastard dualisms of faith and reason,” to “criticize modern society, culture, politics, art, science and philosophy with an unprecedented boldness.”

At the station bar. It was this desire that the Christian fact embrace every sphere of existence that drew the attention of Archbishop Javier Martinez of Granada. Six years ago, he contacted Milbank. Various initiatives were born of their friendship, like the conference called “Meetings for a New Beginning,” which in 2005 brought together, in Granada, scores of Anglicans, Protestants, and Catholics sharing a passion for the Church and her unity.

In their awareness of the secularization that has conquered society, and in the solution they propose, they are in accord with what Pope Benedict XVI has been saying. In a speech at Milan’s Catholic University in 2007, John Milbank said, “Laicism is becoming a religion. As Ratzinger rightly says, only faith can save reason today.” Accepting the invitation to “broaden reason,” the Anglican movement organized a conference on “The Grandeur of Reason” in Rome in 2008, involving more than 250 academics. The thread that links these Anglicans to the Catholic tradition also passes through Communion and Liberation. In fact, at the January conference, “Returning to the Church”–dedicated to the theme of education–a session was devoted to Fr. Giussani’s educative method. This is a network of relationships and friendships that began four years ago, when Alessandra Gerolin, preparing for her doctorate in Philosophy at Milan’s Catholic University, spent a semester at Cambridge University and began to attend Milbank’s lessons at Nottingham. She recalls, “After the first day, he came to the station with me. I was on my way back to Cambridge, but we stayed in the bar for an hour and a half talking about my research and his studies, about Christian unity… He told me he hadn’t expected to find such a mature judgment in such a young person. So I answered that it wasn’t a question of my intelligence, but that it came from Fr. Giussani’s paternity.” This was followed by a whole series of questions. “He said he wanted to know the Movement, and wanted me to come back every week to talk about it.”

Some months later, at the invitation of the Milan Cultural Center, Milbank came to Italy and took the opportunity to meet the CL University students, and to get to know some of the works born from the Movement, such as the foster care initiatives Cometa and Welcoming Families (Famiglie per l’accoglienza); the Foundation for Subsidiarity; and others. He commented, “It’s a decisive day for the history of Radical Orthodoxy.”

Looking ahead. Many people were interested when, some weeks ago, Alessandra–along with David Blázquez, Pia De Simone, and Samuele Busetto, who for various reasons have gotten involved in this friendship–spoke at the convention on “The Education of Fr. Giussani and the Movement of CL.” Alessandra told us, “I was particularly struck by the Dean of the Anglican Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn, Phillip Saunders. Before he left, he said, ‘I was astounded by what you recounted. Could you help me to find someone of the community in Sydney?’ None of us is an expert on ecumenism, but the Mystery is building a real relationship with them, where the point is not a mission to the Anglicans; what is growing with them is our faith.” Fr. Davison, who has just inaugurated his course and is scheduling a conference of Fr. Giussani on The Risk of Education, is already planning ahead. “What do you say if we dedicate the next conference to the Fathers of the Church? Can we invite the Movement? Will you come?” Milbank confided to us, “We have met each other for a task. Now I can no longer do without the friendship with you.”
(With the collaboration of David Blázquez)