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Ethics: Yes, No, Don’t Know

06 February 2015

THE Church of England has very few opinions. It's not really the kind of thing that could. This is an irritation for journalists and for bureaucrats, who therefore conspire together to ignore the fact that it is almost always dishonest as well as boring to start a story with the words "The Church of England yesterday . . ."

If you want to know what the Church's opinions are, you must read them off the actions of the laity, not the pronouncements of its clergy - and least of all those of the General Synod's bureaucracy.

Thus, the Church is undoubtedly in favour of church schools, women clergy, marriage after divorce, niceness, fair trade, and foodbanks. These are things that a clear majority of its members practise or support. It has no coherent opinion on politics or economics. It certainly hasn't got one on reproductive technology.

Normally, this doesn't matter. Dangerous bores are kept from the public in committees where they can believe they matter. Every once in a while this civilised system breaks down, as it did in the case of mitochondrial DNA.

There is a bishop who knows about this stuff: Lee Rayfield, Bishop of Swindon. He has a doctorate in the relevant field, a past as a professional scientist, and is a member of the HFEA. He had no objections at all on the Friday before the vote, telling Sarah Knapton of The Daily Telegraph that, "As a bishop who has been closely involved with consultations around the technology, ethics, permissibility and regulation of mitochondrial replacement, I was more than a little surprised to read that the Church of England regards changing the law to permit this as irresponsible."

This was clear enough, but was immediately followed by an extraordinary piece of obfuscation in The Guardian's online section, where he published a joint piece with Brendan McCarthy, who had put out "the Church's" denunciation of the procedure.

I have now read it carefully. It says that Christians disagree, before rehearsing some of the disagreements in the case. But I had to read it three times to realise that it said anything at all.


FOR light relief, let's turn to Professor Richard Dawkins, who put out on Friday a tweet that read: "Good idea to beam erotic videos to theocracies? NOT violent, woman-hating porn but loving, gentle, woman-respecting eroticism." The tweet was deleted (or should one say rubbed out?) after a couple of hours, but it deserves to be remembered in the annals of rationality.


MEANWHILE, in Baltimore, the story of Bishop Heather Cook just gets worse and more shaming for the Episcopal Church. Most of the legwork has been done by the local alternative paper, The Baltimore Brew, but The Washington Post is also in on the act, and added the latest twist on Monday:

"The bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland suspected that Heather Cook - now charged in the drunken-driving death of a Baltimore bicyclist - was drunk during her installation festivities this past fall, a new official timeline shows.

"Officials with the diocese, which elected Cook its first female bishop last spring, have said for weeks that they knew before her election of a drunken-driving incident in 2010. However, they have declined to answer questions about whether they had any reason to be concerned about her drinking after she was elected - until the fatal accident in December.

"Bishop Eugene Sutton - who oversees Episcopalians in much of Maryland aside from the D.C. suburbs - suspected Cook was 'inebriated during pre-consecration dinner', the timeline says, 'and conveys concern to Presiding Bishop. Presiding Bishop indicates she will discuss with Cook. Cook consecrated.'"

The timeline is obviously an attempt to shovel the blame on to the Presiding Bishop, but it also makes clear that Bishop Sutton knew and concealed from voters that Cook had a 2010 conviction after the police pulled her over for driving with a flat tyre, and found her splattered with vomit, and equipped with whisky, wine, two baggies of dope, and a pipe, too drunk even to take a sobriety test. He says now that he had been assured that everything was all right by her previous bishop.

The Baltimore Brew dug up the detail that Cook is partnered with a former Episcopalian priest who was ejected or defrocked (both terms are used) from a parish in Connecticut for his opposition to the election of Bishop Gene Robinson on account of his homosexuality.


NEXT week's big story will undoubtedly be the trial of Lutfur Rahman, the boss of Tower Hamlets. The Times reported that the judge in the case, Richard Mawrey QC, had brought up a 19th-century law condemning "spiritual influence" - used then against Roman Catholic clergy who demanded that their flock vote for Home Rule. The difference, if there is one, is that, in the Irish case, the priests were pushing for a particular policy; in Tower Hamlets, the imams were supporting a particular politician. It seems to me that this law could be used to envenom any parliamentary election where there is a large Muslim vote.

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