by Jonathan Clatworthy
for the NW region day conference, Nov 2006

The Anglican Communion is being polarized into two camps, liberals and conservatives. The presenting issues are gay bishops and women bishops, but what makes them irresolvable is that the two camps speak different languages.

I shall describe the development of these traditions, and draw out some inferences for today.

The background

When the ancient Roman Empire collapsed, educational standards dropped. Medieval Christians knew it, and therefore believed that the teachings they had inherited from the past were more reliable than their own ideas. When educational standards began to rise again, from the eleventh century onwards, scientists questioned traditional theories, but many church leaders defended them.

That debate was resolved in the fourteenth century by a dualistic system, best expressed by William of Ockham. Ockham taught that reason can be used to study the physical, observable world; but when it comes to unobservable spiritual matters, he argued that human reason cannot discover anything at all. We therefore depend entirely on what God chooses to reveal to us, through the Bible and the Church. What we know by divine revelation we know with certainty; scientific theories might be more or less certain depending on the evidence.

The Reformation inherited this dualistic system. They agreed that there is no role for reason in religion. However they also rejected the Church's authority, leaving the bible as the single supreme authority. This implies that truth, at least in matters of faith and morals, is fixed for all time. There is no possibility of new insights, and therefore no point in looking for them. A new theory must, by definition, be absent from the bible and therefore wrong.

Different churches, including the Roman Catholics, convinced themselves that they and they alone knew the complete truth about religion, and that they knew it with absolute certainty. Because they denied any role for reason, there was no way to resolve disagreement. The result was the tragic religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, followed by the bitter sectarianism which still characterizes parts of western Christianity today.

The obvious solution was to bring back reason. This was done in two different ways.

The Anglican clergyman Richard Hooker argued that we do not have certainty. Instead we are given three authorities, scripture, reason and tradition. We need to balance them, in ways which may change. He had a broad sense of reason. It included instinct, the emotions and the imagination. By the end of the seventeenth century this position was the standard view of Anglicans right across the theological spectrum.

An alternative approach was taken by Enlightenment philosophers, led by Descartes and Locke, who continued to expect certainty but expected to get it through reason. Characteristically they said you begin with first principles which are self-evident and therefore certain, like 'I think therefore I am', and having established that, you logically deduce other things from it, using only methods which produce certainties. Which methods produce certainty? They thought there were two, logical deduction and the evidence of the five senses. On the basis of these two methods they believed it should be possible to establish public knowledge on all matters with certainty.

Subsequent philosophers have given a name to this method: foundationalism - because your first principle is your foundation and you build everything else on it. Most philosophers today say it doesn't work. Firstly, we don't have certainty. The only thing you can know with absolute certainty is the contents of your own mind. Your body may be a figment of your imagination.

Secondly, a great deal of the information we think we know cannot be established either by rational deduction or by the evidence of our senses: all moral rules, all statements about the past, other people's minds, causation, and the existence of God.

Twentieth century philosophers replaced foundationalism with coherentism. Coherentism means we begin with where we are and what we think we know. As our experience grows we make connections and things cohere - they fit together; but there is no single starting point and we never get certainty. Hooker's balance of scripture, reason and tradition was coherentist, though the word hadn't been invented then.

Where does that leave us now?

What people actually believe varies immensely, but we have inherited two distinct traditions, each with their own logic, and this is what underlies the disagreements.

One tradition says all religious truth must come directly from God, with certainty, unaffected by any human reason. Those who put their trust in human reason will end up not believing in God or heaven. But if you put your trust in the truth which comes from God, you can be certain of it.

If you have certainty, you can be sure that people who disagree with you are just plain wrong. Public debate collapses. There is no point in listening carefully to the views of people you disagree with, because you know the truth. There is no point in using reason to argue your case. The history of Christianity, it seems to me, reveals that those who demand certainty are granted bigotry.

The other tradition says we don't have certainty, and therefore there is a place for human reason to discover new insights, to apply old insights in new ways for new situations, and even, from time to time, to establish that some elements of the inherited tradition are wrong.

The kinds of reason we use are wide-ranging: not just deducing truths from biblical texts, but imaginative reflection on the best way to meet new situations, communal assessment of instinctive responses, and whatever other processes seem to help.

Because nobody has certainty, the search for truth is a social activity. Within the community, each of us contributes and receives, as together we learn. It is important that the believing community, the church, should be wide enough to encompass many different points of view, even, dare I say it, gay bishops.


Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.