by Jonathan Clatworthy to the GRAS AGM on 15 May 2010

What authority do we have to make changes, or to forbid them?

It's easy to forget how different things were before 1992. Let me remind you of two Acts the bishops voted for in the House of Lords in the 1960s. One was the decriminalisation of homosexuality. The majority of the British population believed homosexuality ought to be illegal, and they knew the Bible forbids it, but the Government decriminalised it nevertheless, and the bishops actively supported them. The other was the abolition of capital punishment. Again the majority of the population opposed the Government, but the Archbishop of Canterbury and sixteen bishops voted for them, and not a single bishop voted against. The Bible mandates the death penalty for a wide variety of offences, including homosexuality. The 39 Articles of the Church of England, to which the bishops had all publicly assented, state that 'the Laws of the Realm may punish Christian men with death, for heinous and grievous offences'.

On both those issues the bishops stood out for change, against majority opinion and against the Bible and inherited Christian opinion. Then, nobody demanded alternative episcopal oversight. Nobody campaigned to make those bishops resign for not upholding biblical teaching. Everybody was used to hearing bishops expressing their views in public, and nobody expected to agree with their bishop on every issue. Being a Christian - especially being an Anglican - allowed you to think for yourself.

Now it's different. We have this extraordinary alliance in which conservative evangelicals come down off the fence and decide to oppose women priests, and conversely - in the three years I spent as a single man in a residential theological college, never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine that Anglo-Catholics would support a ban on gay priests! They must have forgotten what they themselves were doing when they were younger.

Today, many younger people find Christianity a reactionary and autocratic religion where you have to believe what you are told. So they hear about 1992 and the ordination of women, and say 'Wow! That was a big change. But was it biblical? Is it okay?' And in various ways, usually quite inarticulate, they express their fear that it might have transgressed a holiness taboo.

So what is okay? How do we know when we're going too far? By what authority do we decide that it is or is not okay to have women priests or gay priests or to receive communion from a man who was ordained by a male bishop who had himself been consecrated by a woman?

History of authority

Early biblical interpretation

We have inherited a mixture of ideas and I find it helpful to set them in their historical context. At the time of Christ the Jews had their authorities, the ancient scriptures they read in the synagogues. Many of them already seemed hopelessly out of date, or utterly immoral, or incomprehensible. The Greeks had the same problem with Homer, and they had learned to allegorize, so the Jews did the same. For example Deuteronomy 25:4 states 'You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain'. In 1 Corinthians1 Paul responds:

Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Or does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was indeed written for our sake, for whoever ploughs should plough in hope and whoever threshes should thresh in hope of a share in the crop.

That's allegory: behind the literal sense is a deeper spiritual sense. Paul's predicament was typical. If he interpreted the text literally it had nothing to say to urban Christians of his own day. And so allegory became standard Christian practice.

Medieval scholasticism

Some medieval scholastics tried to logically deduce Christian doctrines like the Trinity and the Incarnation. Later they decided it can't be done, and they concluded that these doctrines must be divine revelation, given directly by God. By the end of the Middle Ages there was a consensus that human reason is incapable of understanding matters of faith, so we just have to accept what God has revealed to the Church. They believed that because divine revelation is more reliable than human reason, there is no point in questioning it. We just accept it as more certain than any amount of human reason.

They already had plenty of historical information that the main Christian doctrines had in fact been hammered out by the early church in intense debates, with all sides using all the reasoning powers at their disposal and much else besides. But they came to believe that God had directly revealed them to the Church. Catholics later described these truths given by direct revelation as dogma.

This makes a big difference. If dogma is how we get truth, then two things follow. Firstly, all the important truths of faith have been revealed in the past, so anything new is suspect. Secondly, all the important truths of faith are already known by church leaders, so any insights from other faiths or the world around us can only be true if church leaders already know them. Here then are principles for expecting the Church to be both backward-looking and inward-looking.

Reformation

The Reformation complicated matters. Catholics said God has given us two things: the Bible, and an authority to explain how to interpret it, namely the papacy. Protestants agreed about the Bible, but rejected the Church's authority to interpret it. So who does have authority to interpret it? At first Protestants insisted that nobody has authority to interpret it. It is to be accepted as it is, uninterpreted. So they rejected allegory, and insisted on accepting the literal meaning of every text. But of course this reopens all those problems about the texts that the early Church had to face. Initially Protestants insisted that the Bible is in fact easy to understand; it's just human unwillingness to accept it which gets in the way. This is the origin of that slogan we still hear today: the plain, clear teaching of the Bible.

It was on this basis that Calvin developed his doctrine of the Church. Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism understand the true church to be the public institution. Calvin believed the true church was wherever true doctrine was taught, doctrine based on the Bible's teaching.

Early Calvinists had an explosive combination of doctrines. The Bible is the supreme authority. It is easy to read and understand. You don't reason about it, you just accept it, if you want to avoid eternal hell. Your next door neighbours also read it, but they understand it differently. If it's easy to understand, why the difference? Calvin and the Puritans developed various theories. As well as reading it, you need to read it with faith. Or you need to read it under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But of course that didn't help. Who has faith? Who is being guided by the Holy Spirit? Well you know you are opening your heart to the Holy Spirit and praying for guidance. You are doing all the right things. So that proves that the next door neighbours are not, because they understand the Bible differently. They think they are being guided by the Holy Spirit, but they are wrong. So what is this spiritual force guiding them? It can only be the devil. So now, it isn't enough just to disagree with them. They are agents of the devil, and anyone who listens them will be led to eternal damnation. It is now your moral duty to warn the community against them. You must publicly denounce them as agents of Satan.

This is the logic behind the bitter sectarianism of some Protestant denominations. It has survived in some places, and some of the ideas have recently been revived in Anglicanism.

Reason

Eventually reason had to make a comeback. In the early Enlightenment, Church of England proponents of reason drew on the writings of Richard Hooker.

Hooker's account of authority was Scripture, reason and tradition, in that order of priority. Whereas Calvin taught total depravity, which means that because of the fall, human nature cannot even understand true religion and moral virtue, let alone practise them, Hooker believed reason is a God-given faculty enabling us to understand the truths God reveals. In this way he sees reason as a faculty through which God can open us up to new insights.

Hooker also had a place for tradition, but he expanded it. In his day Protestants mainly appealed to tradition in one way only, to use the early church as a guide to interpreting difficult biblical texts. Protestants and Catholics alike claimed to be the same as the early church, and accused each other of innovating. Hooker on the other hand believed there was a proper role for historical development. The church therefore could use reason to make changes: as he put it, the church 'has authority to establish that for an order at one time, which at another it may abolish, and in both do well'.

Henry McAdoo's classic book The Spirit of Anglicanism describes this tradition, Hooker and his successors, as the Anglican spirit. What we've inherited is a method rather than a set of doctrines: Anglicans, he says, do not believe anything because it's Anglican, but only because we think it's true.

The method is the 3-legged stool, scripture, reason and tradition. Some want to add 'experience' to the list, but Hooker interpreted reason widely, so most of what we mean by 'experience' Hooker would have counted.

Coherentism

What makes this tradition so different from the dogmatic ones is the refusal to accept a single supreme authority which trumps everything else. In philosophical terms the method is coherentist rather than foundationalist. Foundationalism seeks certainty: it wants to begin with a secure foundation, truths which absolutely must be true, and build further certainties upon them. The medieval scholastics treated church doctrines as certain because God had revealed them. Early Protestants treated the Bible as absolutely true with complete certainty. Tradition, scripture and reason have all taken their turn at claiming to be the supreme authority. But as supreme authorities they are all disasters. They are all fallible. This is why we need them all, to balance each other.

The balance of fallible authorities is quite different from those other theories of authority. Firstly, it isn't backward-looking: it allows for the possibility that the right thing to do may be something new, which church leaders haven't thought about before. Like women priests. Secondly, it isn't inward-looking: it allows for the possibility that we may gain insights from other faiths, or from the secular world around us, like the idea that women are on average just as capable of holding down a demanding job as men are. Thirdly, by accepting a role for development it allows us, as Hooker said, to establish something at one time, abolish it at another, and in both do well. Finally, the fact that we don't have certainty allows us to admit that we were wrong in the past, and change our minds.

Change

Having said all this about authority, what does it tell us about change?

We in the modern west have inherited a linear view of history. From the big bang through gases and planets, the first living things, evolution, humans, and Microsoft Office, there is a continuous story of how we got here. We got that linear view from the Old Testament prophets. Other ancient societies believed that history alternates between a dark age and a golden age, or degenerates from one to another, or has a limited number of discrete ages with sudden jumps between one and the next. Some of the first Christians believed that Christ had brought in the next age, in which there would be no illness, sin or death. The theologians of the fourth and fifth centuries updated the idea and produced the standard medieval account of history. The first age was the original creation, when everything was perfect. The Adam ate the apple and the fall happened. The second age lasted from Adam to Christ. Christ redeemed us. Now we are living in the age between the first and second comings of Christ. This view of history is still very influential and makes some Christians uncomfortable about evolution. It describes history as though everything stays exactly the same within each age, and the changes all take place in the interface between one age and the next. From this point of view the authors of the New Testament were right to make changes, because they were establishing a new age; but our job now is to keep doing exactly what our parents and grandparents did. Today, people who call themselves conservatives often mean they want to keep the version of Christianity they were taught in their childhood, and imagine that the church of their childhood was the way it always had been before then.

Hooker could resist this picture because Renaissance humanists had developed new scholarly tools to show that the church had changed. These tools were extended after the Restoration, and supported the idea of a balance between scripture, reason and tradition. This balance was accepted across the Anglican spectrum from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, and only came under attack when the Oxford Movement reverted to a more dogmatic understanding of the church.

More recently conservative evangelicals have revived some of the early Reformation theories. We now have this extraordinary alliance between Anglo-Catholics who oppose women priests and evangelicals who oppose gay and lesbian sexuality. What they have in common is an ideology which says the church should stay unchanged, because when it's operating properly it is accepting without question what it has inherited from the dim and distant past.

The Anglican Covenant

The current proposal for an Anglican Covenant is the product of these more reactionary movements. It treats change as a problem. The presenting issue is the gay bishops debate. The first substantial response by church leaders was the Windsor Report, published just over five years ago. That report acknowledged the interplay of scripture, tradition and reason, and accepted that innovations are sometimes right, but it argued that we need a Communion-wide system for agreeing when an innovation is right. The new Anglican Covenant, which General Synod will be voting on in later this year, would establish that Communion-wide system for passing judgement on proposed innovations, but not on the basis of scripture, reason and tradition. Instead, the covenant proposes that legitimate innovations should in future be based on scripture and canon law. Reason and experience have been excluded. We are back to the idea of unchanging religion, which has to justify everything it does by appealing to its own past authorities.

If we had had the Covenant in 1992, the introduction of women priests in England would almost certainly have been blocked. General Synod's vote would have been subject to objections from any Anglican province anywhere in the world. It would be up to each province to establish how it decides whether to make objections; in practice, in many provinces it would be the personal decision of the archbishop. The objections would have been submitted to the Standing Committee, an international body of 15 people, and it would have been up to them to judge. In theory it might have judged in our favour, but the whole point of the Covenant is to allow objectors in other parts of the world to prevent innovations like this.

The very idea of a moral obligation to make special arrangements for people who object to a change strikes me as accepting something we ought not to accept, namely that people have a right to expect the church to remain unchanged. I've heard many opponents of women priests say 'This isn't the church I joined'. But the Church of England changes every time General Synod passes a resolution. The root cause of the controversy is the mismatch between on the one hand the myth of an unchanging church and on the other the real world.

Conclusion

So to conclude, what authority do we have to make or forbid changes? Most religions begin as movements of reform, when the teachings of the old religion no longer make sense to large numbers of people. Buddha was dissatisfied with the state of Hinduism in his day. Since a new religion arose from his teaching, it would appear that a lot of people thought his teachings made better sense. Mohammed could see the absurdity of Nestorian, Monophysite and Orthodox Christians fighting each other over arcane differences of opinion about the divinity of Christ; he offered something different, which again made better sense to a lot of people. We can say the same of Luther's reaction against Catholicism.

But the best example of a new religion celebrating newness and change is Christianity itself. The first Christians claimed to be holding onto the important insights of Judaism, but they were prepared to let go of the outward symbols which marked Jews out as different from everyone else. The main symbols were circumcision, the sabbath and the food laws. By letting go of these they made their version of Judaism more attractive to a lot of non-Jews, and opened the way for new symbols, new expressions of faith to develop. Scholars now agree that Christianity in its first two centuries was very diverse. There was no central control over changes and innovations. It got so diverse that eventually bishops felt the need to draw lines; but the lines kept moving, at least until the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

From time to time religions face a crisis of authority. When their leaders are too confident that they have the complete truth with certainty, they refuse to take new ideas seriously. When the old theories lose credibility and the pressure of the new ideas builds up, one of two things happens. Either the old religion adapts to the new ideas, and has a new lease of life, or it fossilises and a new religion takes its place. Within Christianity, both have happened many times.

I don't know which of these is going to happen to Anglicanism, but I do know that the pressure is building up. Church leaders are increasingly mesmerised by the distinctive features of the institution, and therefore see the calls for reform as a threat. Meanwhile younger people are appalled that the churches are so crass as to discriminate against women and gay people; but a great many of them have a sense of the spiritual, believe there is someone up there, and would welcome guidance from a source they could respect.

The early Christians distinguished themselves from the Pharisees by saying to their neighbours 'You can join us without having to obey lots of outdated laws or believing lots of outdated teachings'. I believe the church today needs to follow their good example.


Notes

  1. 9:9-10.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and (at the time of writing) was Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.