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
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