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Right and wrong in a fallen world

12 April 2011

Michael Northcott admires a guide to today’s dilemmas


Tensions in Christian Ethics: An introduction
by Malcolm Brown
SPCK £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18

UNTIL he took up his present position as the Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Church of England, Malcolm Brown had for many years taught Christian ethics in Cambridge and Bangor. This book is a textbook based on his lectures. He also draws richly on his many engagements in public life in England, both in his time at the William Temple Foundation in Man­chester, and in Church House in London.

The book is particularly strong in social ethics, and in its engagement with the leading communitarian thinkers in contemporary Christian ethics — including Alasdair Mac­Intyre, Stanley Hauerwas, and John Milbank — recent Church of England reports, and the writing and speeches of Archbishop Rowan Williams.

The first half of the book pro­vides a survey of theoretical con­cerns in Christian ethics in­cluding the use of the Bible, the contrasting influences of Au-gustine, Aquinas, and Luther, the challenge of modernity, middle axioms, ecclesial ethics, and public theology. The second half is constituted of valuable and engaging discussions of abortion and euthanasia, human rights, just war, the market eco­nomy, and sexuality.

The central issue in the book is the tension between liberal and communitarian approaches to Christian ethics. Brown provides a sympathetic account of the com­munitarianism of Hauerwas and Milbank. But he suggests that there is greater continuity between their approaches and the tradition of liberal social ethics that character­ises the Anglican moral tradition in the 20th century from Temple to Williams.

Thus Brown shows how strength of Christian conviction against abortion is combined in an essay by Dr Williams with a sym­pathetic reading of the liberal impulses that drove those who legalised abortion in Britain and elsewhere. But, in a fallen world, the Church, while it opposes abortion in principle, can also recognise that those who sought to legislate for exceptional cases, and to minimise suffering, have, albeit unintention­ally, turned the abnormal — and proscribed — into a standard medical procedure.

Here is the key tension that Brown identifies in Christian ethics in a world that is no longer Chris­ten­dom, but where Christian customs, laws, and virtues continue to shape and undergird much mainstream culture. Theo­lological liberals — with whom Brown is sympathetic — emphasise the continuity between a post-Christian society and the Christen­dom culture that preceded it, while communitarians em-phasise dis­continuties and the need for the Church to recover a dis­tinctive life and witness from its liberal com­promises with modernity.

This is a clearly written, very well-informed, and up-to-date account of Christian ethics. Brown has succeeded in creating a primer in the subject which is more than an introduction in its depth of engagement with key debates and controversies in the field. The book deserves wide readership and use in the teaching of Christian ethics.

Canon Michael Northcott is Professor of Ethics in the University of Edin­burgh.

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