by Jonathan Clatworthy
from Signs of the Times No. 37 - Apr 2010

Belonging or believing: which determines the church's character?

For a few weeks earlier this year the UK tabloids were full  of a story about footballers. The captain of a team had had sexual intercourse with the partner of a team player. The media consensus was that the act was a moral affront to the woman's partner, even though she was not married to him, and the offender was deprived of his captaincy.

The traditional 'no sex outside marriage' rule seems  to have completely disappeared from public view; but I refer to this event for a different reason.

Suppose there had been an extended controversy, with half the football club wanting to retain him as captain, the other half threatening to split the club if he was retained, and the managers eventually deciding that, in order to keep the club united, they must declare the act immoral and dismiss him. What moral status would such a declaration have? They are football managers, not archbishops; but what would make any such declaration morally unconvincing would be precisely that they had made it in order to protect the unity of the club. Any ethical declaration, if it is to have moral authority, must be justified on ethical grounds, not on grounds of expediency like the defence of an institution.

Football managers are not usually treated as moral authorities.  Church leaders are. This means that when church leaders make moral pronouncements for unjustifiable reasons like the maintenance of the institutions they lead, they are more likely to get away with it. It is still an abuse of their authority.

It is easy enough to understand how this happens. Sociologists point out  that for many churchgoers the sense of belonging to the church is more important than what they are expected to believe, let alone any ethical guidance it may offer for their lives. On the one hand we have inherited from the sixteenth century Reformation debates an expectation that every individual should work out their eternal destiny for themselves; after all, if eternal hell awaits those of the wrong faith, it would be foolish to put one's trust in one's local priest or prince. On the other hand, we are in practice a diverse bunch. Some people are naturally inclined to blue skies thinking about the nature of God and Christian doctrine, and a thriving church will contain some of them; but it will contain far more people who would rather clean the floor, fill in the forms or visit the sick, leaving the theorising to others. The church has a proper place for those who value the belonging but don't worry much about the believing. Not that churchgoers can be divided neatly into these two types: most of us are a bit of both, but nature and nurture between them push some towards one end of the spectrum, some towards the other.

Difficulties arise, however, when the needs of the belongers  restrict the believing. I observed this at close quarters in my work as a university chaplain. The most popular religious societies for students in the 18-21 age range were invariably the ones which asserted a sharp distinction between those they defined as Christians and everybody else - me included - who were not. That Gnostic sense of belonging to a minority elite of true believers seems to have been particularly popular for young adults, away from their parents for the first time, with nobody to cook their meals, wash their clothes, advise them where not to go and set deadlines for their return home. The sense of dislocation naturally produces a desire for a replacement identity, a sense of where they belong. It is often accentuated by the sudden onrush of freedom: the apparently limitless opportunities for sex, alcohol and drugs needs to be regulated somehow. For some, discipline is provided by a sense of Christian identity which convinces them that they are not like other students.

This elitist sense of identity comes at a price.  The belonging suppresses critical examination of the believing. Beliefs which are examined critically often get relativised, in which case they will no longer provide such a black-and-white sense of identity. People who need a strong sense of belonging are therefore rarely in a position to do blue skies thinking about the nature of religious truth. If anything, they will feel a need to be defended against it.

Recently I have been struck by the reappearance  of this perspective in debates about the Anglican Communion. I have been in correspondence with some Anglicans who insist that open-minded debate about controversial topics should be postponed until church unity has been restored. Some have told me that they have no personal objection to women bishops or homosexual priests, but feel strongly that we should do without either if that is the price of unity. I have no business to psychoanalyse people I do not understand, but what often comes across is that a split in the Anglican Communion would threaten their sense of belonging, their self-identification as Anglicans, and that this bothers them far more than the proper role of women in the church or the ethics of homosexuality.

But in that case, why maintain the Communion anyway?  I would be very sorry to see a serious schism, and I deplore the tactics of those determined to threaten schism if their beliefs are not imposed on the rest of us; but the justification for keeping it united is that we work together in seeking to do the will of God. Once the two conflict with each other, and for the sake of unity we abandon our attempts to do the right thing, would it not then be time to disband it altogether? To treat the defence of unity as an argument against ethically motivated change is not a legitimate position. At best it expresses an emotional anxiety about identity; at worst, political rhetoric in a battle for ecclesiastical power.

Anyone who argues 'I am not prepared to question x or believe y  because I am an Anglican' (or a Methodist, or whatever) is too much of a belonger to take a lead in the believers' search for truth. Right and wrong should not be subordinated to the maintenance of institutions. Evidence and arguments must be judged on their merits, with no artificial limits. Questions about God and morality, if they matter at all, need to be discussed openly and honestly, as in all other fields of enquiry.

Once we reach the point where church leaders treat the unity of the church as the main criterion for passing judgement on the controversies of the day, the time has come for another Buddha, or Jesus, or Mohammed, or Luther, to start a new movement.

Maybe it will happen. Alternatively, maybe Anglicanism will rediscover the power of its unity in diversity, and celebrate its vocation to follow the Holy Spirit into new adventures.

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