Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 20 February
20 February 2011 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence
In his address to politicians in Westminster Hall last autumn the Pope pleaded that Christians should be allowed to make their contribution to public debates on ethical issues and other matters relating to the values of this country, and not simply to be marginalised. I, of course, fully agree with the Pope on that matter. So I am using some of the addresses at Matins this month to think about what might be brought to those public discussions, and today I want to think about the most fundamental of questions, how do we arrive at a Christian view on any issue? What are the building blocks which Christian men and women must use as they seek to find the contribution they might bring on any matter?
Well, if God be God, the ultimate truth about the universe and the source of all that is, then certainly one quality that should be brought to any discussion is a rigorous pursuit of truth. Christians should not be afraid of truth however it is discovered. But I think it has to be admitted that has not always obviously been the case in church history. On occasions some Christian views have appeared simply obscurantist in the face of truth; you only have to think of some of the ecclesiastical responses to Copernicus and, even more, to Galileo, when they first suggested that the earth moved round the sun rather than the other way round, or to think still in our own day of the responses of some more fundamentalist Christians to the theory of evolution. Of course the story has always been more complex than simply the Church officially opposing scientific discoveries that appeared to challenge the biblical story. Copernicus himself remained a faithful Catholic to his death, and clearly thought there was no conflict between a heliocentric view of the universe and being a Christian, and at first the then Pope himself was sympathetic to Galileo; it was Galileo’s way of developing his argument, and some internal political issues within the Vatican that led to his condemnation, and, of course, the Papacy has subsequently acknowledged and apologised for its earlier response. And in this country today I am sure the vast majority of Christian people see no conflict between their understanding of the Christian faith and Darwin’s discovery of evolution. Of course obscurantist views on some scientific issues still exist within the church, but they are held, I am sure, only by a minority.
But while scientific truth is immensely important and never to be ignored, it is not the only sort of truth. There is emotional truth, even psychological truth, and religious and spiritual and maybe even moral truth, and it is in the pursuit of truth in those areas that it seems to me the Anglican tradition has something useful to offer. And the traditional Anglican way of speaking about such matters is to say there is a complex interplay between scripture, tradition, and reason. The articulation of that interplay is attributed to the 16th-century Master of the Temple and later Sub-Dean of Salisbury Cathedral, Richard Hooker, whose eight-volume work ‘The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity’ was hugely influential in the years after the Reformation, but as the notion has been developed in the Church of England and in the wider Anglican Communion, many would add a fourth source of knowledge, namely experience. How do we arrive at a Christian view of some matter? Well, according to this notion we would look carefully at what scripture says about it, we would also look carefully at how the tradition of the church has treated it, we would use our God-given reason to think about it, and would reflect on our own and the wider Church’s experience of the issue under consideration.
The biblical writings are, of course, a vital starting point for any Christian reflection, but I would suggest they are just that, a starting point. On some contemporary issues they say very little, assisted dying or contraception would be two matters on which you simply could not read off a clear biblical answer, while on other matters, like the role of women in leadership positions or even homosexuality, what the relevant biblical passages say has to be read against a cultural background very different from our own. It would be foolish uncritically to think that cultural background was part of any lasting Christian revelation.
So even taking scripture as a starting point, which I certainly believe we should do, we must inevitably be drawn further into a consideration of the Church’s tradition, and, as no less a person than Cardinal Newman pointed out, once we look at that we can see development. Newman was concerned primarily with the development of doctrine, but I do not think it is fanciful to see also a development in ethical thinking. To take once example, just think of the development in this country at least of attitudes toward capital punishment. Go back far enough in Anglican history even since the reformation and you would find a near unanimous support for it in, say, the Bishops in the House of Lords. Today, I am glad to say, there is near unanimous opposition among the bishops to such a form of punishment. The simple fact is that Christian thought on moral issues does change and develop, and in considering a Christian response to something today we must carefully look at the way the Church’s tradition has developed on any matter.
But then, from that, we must move on to the third leg of the stool that Hooker suggested, human reason. God has given us minds, and he expects us to use them, and not least of all to use them in reflecting on that other dimension of these matters, experience, both personal and corporate. If, for example, one was to take the debate that has happened about the ethics of capital punishment there must be a careful and rigorous examination on such matters as to how many miscarriages of justice have happened in that area, how effective or otherwise the threat of it has been as a deterrent, as well as a careful examination of the moral and ethical arguments that the practice raises.
It is, I suggest, only after such a careful examination of an issue from the perspectives of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience that anything like a Christian view can emerge.
But then, of course, those ways into an issue can and do give different Christians different and conflicting opinions. To take the two most obvious examples in current ecclesiastical controversies, women in the episcopate and attitudes to homosexual relationships, those four factors might seem to argue in different directions, and the weight given to each factor would vary according to the ethos of any particular group within the church or the temperament of the individual thinking about it. And when that happens then whatever body is given the authority to make a final decision, be it Bishops, Synods, or, on the wider public issues, Parliament, we have no choice but to trust in the wisdom of that body to make what can only ever be a provisional judgement for that time, which must always be subject to later debate and the possibility of change. But in coming to any decision, including on those more public issues that might come to Parliament, thoughtful Christian thinking should certainly be allowed to play its part, reflecting the formative influence Christianity has played in the history of this nation. But in offering that I hope the Church is not presuming to tell parliament what to do, but at least to explain how Christian thought approaches the question. That is a valuable contribution to the public debate, even when there is no one view around which Christian opinion can coalesce. Sometimes the journey and how you engage in it is as important as the final destination.