from Signs of the Times No. 21 - Apr 2006

This is a summary of a debate between the Rt Revd Anthony Crockett, Bishop of Bangor,  and Dr Andrew Goddard, Tutor at Wycliffe Hall.

The Civil Partnerships Act has demanded great ingenuity from UK bishops.

The Church in Wales' bishops accepted, in a statement made in November 2005, that there is a spectrum of scriptural interpretation on the matter of homosexuality. In keeping with this view, on 3rd December they issued a press statement on the Civil Partnerships Act, declaring:

The Bishops of the Church in Wales cannot and would not wish to prevent what the law allows for Church members, both lay and clerical. The legislation leaves entirely open the nature of the commitment that members of a couple choose to make to each other when forming a civil partnership.

The statement riled Andrew Goddard, Tutor in Ethics at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and member of the Fulcrum leadership team. Goddard pasted a long reply on the Fulcrum website, claiming that:

stated in this general form this principle amounts to a total abdication of their responsibility as shepherds of the flock of Christ. The bishops of the church cannot and would not wish to prevent Christians doing something the law allows! Applied as a general principle this is to deny the prophetic ministry of the Spirit and to abandon totally the fundamental principle that Christian discipleship involves following Christ not the world.

Goddard contrasts the statement unfavourably with that of the English bishops who:

carefully delineated what forms of civil partnership might be consonant with Christian teaching, and in particular the calling of ordained ministers. Their definition - avowedly non-sexual relationships - has faced much criticism and is easier to envisage in theory than in widespread practice but at least it sought to define what would amount to a civil partnership with Christian integrity.

In his concluding paragraph he summarizes that:

even if the bishops have not totally renounced their calling to speak the Word of God to society in their refusal to consider preventing something the law allows, they have clearly done so in relation to the specific piece of legislation which this statement addresses. Despite the clear teaching of the Anglican Communion and the example set by the English bishops they have effectively denied that the introduction of civil partnerships raises any serious questions for Christians and allowed both lay Anglicans and clergy to do whatever is right in their own eyes without offering any instruction or even guidance based on Scripture or Church teaching.

The Bishop of Bangor replied, saying it is not true that the Welsh bishops have no teaching to give; it is precisely that opinions differ.

Unless Dr Goddard wants to unchurch those with whom he disagrees (perhaps because of their 'lack of integrity'), he will need to recognise the reality of where our Church, consisting of clerics and lay people, is on this, and on other related ethical issues.

He points out that ethical teaching in the Christian tradition develops, for example in the cases of usury - completely forbidden for 1500 years - and contraception. He concludes:

One is left with the awful feeling that for Dr Goddard this issue of same sex relationships has become the contemporary test of Christian orthodoxy. But why not usury and the damage done to billions who - contrary to the consistent teaching of the Bible - are consigned to a life of grinding, absolute poverty because of the usurious workings of the capitalist system - which will, no doubt, one day pay for Dr Goddard's pension? Why not the use of artificial contraception? We could then be co-belligerent with the Roman Church, and thus reinstate Onan as one of the villains of the Biblical record. On Dr Goddard's static and unhistorical view of Christian ethics, these would seem to be examples of 'clear teaching' which he would want to uphold too. Why not, Dr Goddard?

As it happened, Andrew Goddard had a few years previously written a chapter of a book, on 'Calvin, Usury and Evangelical Moral Theology'. His response was to put the whole chapter on the website rather than replying in person. It is a learned piece. It shows how Calvin accepted that usury could be morally acceptable, despite the opposition of Scripture and the Christian tradition. To defend his case Calvin appealed to the principle of equity and the Golden Rule, of which he said that 'This precept is applicable every time'. Goddard concludes that

Calvin is generally well-versed in and respectful of the Church Fathers, recognising the importance of engaging with the Christian tradition especially if one is seeking to revise it.

The Bishop responded that this has been particularly useful, for we can now see that, if Calvin's method is held up as an example of hermeneutical rectitude, then the Welsh Bishops are in good company indeed...  This is exactly the kind of reasoning the Welsh Bishops see in some of those whom they had in mind, when they spoke of people who read the Scriptures with integrity.

See the Fulcrum site for the full debate here and here.