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Celebrating the DNA of the C of E

20 February 2015

We should recognise that diversity of opinion is key to our survival, argues Edward Probert


Evolutionary diversity: illustration showing "The modern theory of the descent of man", by Ernst Haeckel (1874), showing the human pedigree as a Great Chain of Being

Evolutionary diversity: illustration showing "The modern theory of the descent of man", by Ernst Haeckel (1874), showing the human ...

IN THE comment on the recent Parliamentary debate on the use of mitochondrial DNA to create "three-parent babies", speakers purported to represent the Church of England. But, on this matter, they did not represent me, and I was profoundly uncomfortable with what seems to have been said through the media on my behalf. I was left grateful for the politicians who, on this issue of conscience, seemed to me wiser than those who claim to speak with the authority of the Church of God.

This flagged up for me how sceptical I am about both the possibility, and the value, of speaking in this way on behalf of our Church. On the one hand, this is because of the way God has made the created order. On the other, it is because of what might be called the DNA of the Church of England.

First, an argument from natural theology. What God has made is changing, multiform, and creative. Evolution is right at the heart of the way life is transmitted. Species are able to adapt because there is difference; there is no greater risk for a species than having too small a genetic pool. If we are to honour the Creator, we need to honour the way he has made things.

This isn't all theory: serious economic issues can be involved, too. Take the case of the humble banana. Almost all commercially produced bananas are clones, and there is widespread anxiety that the entire business could be wiped out by a specific pest or disease. It isn't only the eco-warriors and the genetic scientists who have an interest in preserving genetic diversity in plants and animals: we all have.

Then there is the Christian community. On almost every important matter, Christians are almost certain to hold widely diverse views, which is as it should be. Very little that is truly important in life is really simple: it is possible to hold with integrity, and with mutual sympathy, very different views, and to reach different conclusions about the best way to act.

What we have to do, above all, is to act in good faith; and to ask that important matters are treated with the seriousness that they deserve. So my discomfort wasn't with hearing a Christian saying that, as a society, we need to be cautious about allowing so-called "three-parent babies". Of course, that is a very legitimate element of the argument. My discomfort was in hearing this view described as representing the C of E. There is an arrogance in that description, as well as in the view itself, to which I do not subscribe.

THE Church of England is characterised by its lack of a magisterium: by the rather complex, and confusing, diversity of opinions that it encompasses; and in the right of all its members, at every level, to disagree with those "above" them in the hierarchy. This diversity of perspectives reflects the diversity of life.

Our lack of a magisterium makes for an institution that cannot be easily managed, and in which elements don't simply obey orders, or even try to conform. It makes for an institution for which it can be hard to speak in soundbites. But it makes, too, for an institution with a rare strength, in that we have to learn to live (or at least co-exist) with our neighbours, however annoying or even plain wrong they may be.

In doing so, we express a truth about Christian living which would be masked by a veneer of simplicity, or by any attempt at conformity. When we seek organisational tidiness in this kind of body, we do so at some potential cost to its inner being. And we sell God's community short when we pretend that it is any more simple, or controllable, than the rest of God's created order.

The created order is not monochrome, and attempts to make it so are self-destructive. And, even in an era of bite-sized news and of message-management, I believe that the same applies to the self-presentation of the Church of England.

The Revd Edward Probert is Canon Chancellor and Sub-Dean of Salisbury Cathedral.

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