Sunday, April 30, 2006

Archibald Fleming

Disturbed this morning by the awareness of increased dogmatism within the Christian community, I turned to one of my favourite books, Archibald the Arctic by Archibald Lang Fleming, the Flying Bishop. Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc. New York. 1956.

Archibald Fleming trained for 8 years as a teenager and young man in naval architecture and marine engineering in Glasgow. He also found time to complete university studies in philosophy and religion. He describes this period,
    Sooner of later a man must drink this bitter cup of intellectual doubt, for the eternal question forces itself upon the earnest seeker after truth - Where is now thy God? Is there no alternative to the depressing metaphysics of Hegel? Can we assume that, in spite of the evil, disease, suffering, cruelty, hate, the chaos and tragedy of life, order and meaning can be found? For months I walked in the dark valley of derision and doubt because no clear answer came. page 22
I apologize for leaving you with this but I am not the fastest typist. Archibald Fleming gave up a promising career to go as a missionary to the Canadian Inuit. His autobiography is a unique story of long travels by dogteam, prolonged living in igloos, deep mutual friendship with his hosts and reflective meditation. If I had to chose only one book to see reprinted this would be it. Reading this book is like sitting and listening to a friend of unusual intellect and self-effacing modesty, recount detailed tales of intrepid adventure. It also stands as a unique photographic and ethnographic record of the Inuit.

Here he meditates on his appointment to the office of bishop.
    There was another situation that I had not foreseen at the beginning of my English visits and which at first caused me great unhappiness, I refer to the question of churchmanhsip. It is far too easy to become so entangled in theological niceties that one loses sight of the vital issues of the Christian faith. Nevertheless, it will be readily understood that churchmanship is a matter on which every bishop must declare himself. The sifting of thought and searching of heart that I underwent in my few short years as archdeacon were of the greatest value after I was raised to the episcopate.
        It seemed to me that as an invited guest, as a Christian and a gentleman, I must adapt myself to the type of service I found in each church where I was invited to preach. I felt that this courtesy was laid upon me. At this time to wear full vestments was a grievous trial to my spirit even while I could see no fundamental objection to them. Alas, some of my dear evangelical friends did not agree.

          Brought up in a Presbyterian home, I became in young manhood a convinced Episcopalian and I have been intimately associated with most of the other Protestant denominations, including the Moravians and Danish Lutherans. Is it strange that I perhaps see things from a different viewpoint than those of less wide experience? I was and am in agreement with the French Jesuit de Lubac who said in "Catholicism" "the church which is not tarnished by our own sins is also not straitened by our artificial barriers nor paralysed by our prejudices."


          My difficulty was not with orthodox theology but with an increased dogmatism in what appeared to me to be speculative points on the Faith once delivered. I found that after listening to the theological wrangles, I could only maintain with Archbishop Temple that my earnest desire was to be a true Catholic not so much in externals as in devotion to the person of Christ Who alone is Head of the Church. The Faith once delivered I knew and believed. The doctine of the Apostles was clear. But through the years men had built up superstructures which might or might not be useful within certain limits but they were not essential to the Faith. In fact they tended to obscure that which is vital to the believer.


          To me the basic character of the Holy Catholic Church of Christ is clearly set forth in the New Testament as a belief in Jesus Christ as the Divine Son of God and the Saviour of Mankind. I also believe that some things which are of great value in devotional life, and which our non-Anglican brethren have not preserved, are to be found in the Church of England.


          Our first call, surely, is to follow in the footsteps of the Master. By many my attitude has always been considered far too liberal but I cannot see how all this bitterness between brethren is related to the Man Whose name we bear and Who left us no indication that such things were of vital importance. To me it is imperative that we return to the fundamental simplicity of faith in Him Who said, "He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness but shall have the Light of Life." And being, all of us, near enough to the Cross of our Saviour to touch wood, we are surely near enough to touch each other." pages 277 - 280.
        I think there is a copy of this book for sale here. It is worthwhile for the photographs alone. However, I have found in the past that when I write for a book it is already sold.


        Anonymous said...

        I have never before and probably never again will post a comment. Just wanted to let you know that I agree with you about this beautiful book. Fleming was married to Betty Lukens, a second cousin of mine.

        Anonymous said...

        This is indeed a beautiful book, and I thank you for your comments. I also have never before posted a comment, but now I'm wondering who your first Anonymous is. Betty Lukens was a cousin to my father, and I have a lot of Betty's correspondence to my father.

        Suzanne McCarthy said...

        Thanks for commenting. I have no idea who the first anonymous is.