Should the Church keep in step with the country?

25 September 2008

No, it should not, argues Edward Dowler. National, cultural norms are not reliable guides to Christian thinking

Before your body is overtaken by an irresistible torpor, I want to assure you that this is not an article about women bishops, but rather about the ecclesiology that underlies some of the comments surrounding the General Synod debate on that issue — which also applies to many other questions.

I was surprised as a schoolboy to find that in the 1983 General Elec­tion, two of our teachers suddenly jumped ship to become MPs (given the school, the party for which they stood was less surprising). I was therefore interested to hear one of them, Robert Key of Salisbury, a member of General Synod, giving his thoughts on the news after the debate on women bishops in July.

Mr Key described the events as representing “a good day for the country because our national Church, the Church by law estab­lished, is actually now in step with most of the country and what people feel”. With respect to a former master, I believe that people who want to live in fidelity to the Chris­tian tradition should, whatever they think about women bishops, be con­cerned about this statement. In sup­port of this, I want to make four simple points.

The first is that, although it is right to acknowledge that the main­stream Western Christian tradition, following Augustine, Paul, and Jesus himself (cf. City of God 19.17; Romans 13.1-7; Mark 12.17), has respected the role of the state, and upheld the duties owed to it by individual Christians, this does not mean that the norms of secular Western society can automatically be played as a trump card in decisions about church polity.

The Church does not have a monopoly on every kind of truth, nor can it forget its duty to remain in serious dialogue with the rest of society on many issues. But it is contrary to the mainstream of the tradition, and in particular to the prophetic strand within it, to argue that because a particular move appears to bring the Church closer to national practice, it is thereby self-evidently a good thing to do: “He who sits in the heavens laughs, the Lord has [the nations] in derision” (Psalm 2.4).


Second, any attempts at mission by a Church that under­stands its mode of operation as trying to keep “in step with most of the country” will fail. If this is our self-understanding, the Church of England is for ever condemned to live in a cultural catch-up mode, strug­gling to foresee where others are walking, and desperately trying to keep pace.

Thus we will inevitably die out, not for any theological reason, but by a simple logical process whereby everyone will conclude, sooner or later, that we have nothing to say to them that has not been said better, earlier, and by somebody else.

Third, Mr Key’s statement ends with the revealing words “what people feel”. Here we are in the region of what ethicists call “emotivism”, the characteristically modern Western idea that matters of right and wrong are primarily determined with refer­ence to people’s inner feelings, in rather the same way that, on a simp­listic view, we might come to an aes­thetic judgement about a work of art.

Thus, in the absence of more objective and agreed standards, how the majority of people feel about particular actions becomes the prim­ary arbiter of their rightness or otherwise.

Emotivism is an impractical guide for discerning the truth in complex issues, since these have a habit of evoking strong but often conflicting emotions. Moreover, it is inimical to the Christian tradition, which, while not discounting the importance of feelings, seeks to find the will of God in revelation, and to exercise right reason in applying it.

Reason plays a particularly im­portant part in the tradition of Western thought of which St Thomas Aquinas is the most famous expositor (cf. Summa Theologica I-II.94.2), and, of course, in Anglicanism.

Finally, when set alongside some events in modern history, Mr Key’s statement takes on a spine-chilling quality. Compare it with the (thorough­ly reformed) Barmen Declaration of 1934, in which Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and others protest about the Third Reich’s incursion into church affairs.

The authors reject what they describe as the false doctrines that the state, “over and beyond its special commission, should and could be­come the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the Church’s vocation as well”, and that the Church, “over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the state, thus itself becoming an organ of the state”.

These words remind us of what might be at stake when the Church is understood essentially as a depart­ment of state, and its clergy as religious civil servants. As Barth and Bonhoeffer knew all too well, a Church that understands itself in such a way will have little ability to stand up to state-sponsored evil when it comes.


Of course, there are far stronger and more theological arguments in favour of women bishops, but the trouble is that, although I would be happier if I could see Mr Key’s comment as a one-off piece of eccen­tricity, it seems to represent accu­rately the underlying thought-processes that pervade the conversa­tion in our Church at every level, and about all kinds of issues.

It is particularly poignant for those of us who come from the Catholic tradition to see this, because this year marks the 175th anniversary of John Keble’s assize sermon on National Apostasy, in which he looks at Ezekiel’s condemnation of the Jewish people for saying, “we will be as the heathen, the families of the countries” (Ezekiel 20.32).

Keble takes it as a warning “to all nations, as well as to all individual Christians, who, having accepted God for their King, allow themselves to be weary of subjection to Him, and think they should be happier if they were freer, and more like the rest of the world”.

Anglicans who want to live in the Church of Augustine, Paul, and Jesus Christ — and not that of Caesar and Henry VIII — must continue to heed these prophetic words.

The Revd Dr Edward Dowler is Vice-Principal of St Stephen’s House Theological College in Oxford.

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