‘We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable; that all men are created equal and independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…’

So begins the first draft of the American Declaration of Independence, from the pen of Thomas Jefferson, gentleman, slave owner and philanderer, of Monticello in the Commonwealth of Virginia. It is not just that the rhetoric is in excess of the facts – George III was no tyrant, and the administration of Lord North, though dull and incompetent, was not the ancien regime at its most virulent or most flagrant – but that the vapid generality of the Declaration makes it eminently suited to misconstruction and misapplication. It is surprising, in fact, that such a document has not wreaked more havoc than it has; for the language of basic human rights, as it turns out, is seldom conducive either to individual freedom or to the pursuit of happiness. It is too easily used by the powerful to create or entrench privilege. ‘How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?’, Dr. Johnson wisely asked.

The homosexualist lobby in the United States, as you will have read in the newspapers, has recently put Mr. Jefferson’s rhetoric to good effect. By a decision in the Supreme Court of the State of Hawaii gay ‘marriage’ has been regularised (if not permitted) in all the states of the Union. It is worth reflecting upon the process by which this conclusion, wholly undemocratic (for neither political party supports it and a majority in the Congress could not be found for it) and highly irrational (as I hope to demonstrate) has come about.

First, redefine marriage. Marriage is a universal human institution. It exists in and across diverse societies and cultures as a demonstration of the seriousness with which the procreation and nurture of children have always been viewed. Whether a simple rite of commitment or an institution heavily enmeshed with the laws of property or with cults of purity, at the heart of marriage has been the creation of a stable environment for children. The provisions of modern Western societies – tax concessions, housing benefits and the rest – exist to serve the same end. All surveys and statistics show that the nuclear family is the cheapest and most effective means of rearing and socialising the young; and most societies have had the common sense to give the process some encouragement.

But supposing those benefits and concessions could be portrayed, not as means to an end, but as ends in themselves. Suppose, indeed, that individuals could claim (as one of Mr. Jefferson’s ‘rights inherent and inalienable’) the right to define what marriage is and who should engage in it. And suppose that there existed a judiciary sufficiently enamoured of its own reputation for radical chic to endorse what was claimed.

You would have, if all these supposals came into effect, a complete reversal of all previous attitudes to matrimony. By upholding the view that not to permit same sex marriages would be to contravene its own sexual discrimination laws, the Hawaiian Supreme Court has shown, at one and the same time, the extent and the absurdity of those laws. The unreasonable has been elevated to a matter of first principle. Privileges, concessions and benefits originally framed to enhance the dignity and ennoble the role of those whose responsibility it is to rear the citizens of the future, are now, on a dubious principle of absolute equality, to be conceded to every Harry and Dick who lays claim to them.

Add to this the provisions of the Fourth Article of the American Constitution that ‘full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records and judicial proceedings of every other state’ and the effect is shattering. The taxpayers and employers of New York or Philadelphia, with no prior democratic consultation whatsoever, are now obliged to foot new bills and establish new rights and priorities for any couple which chooses to take a TWA flight to Hawaii and get obligingly spliced. It is an arrangement which, whilst it may work wonders for a specialist sector of the Hawaiian tourist trade, is unlikely further to cement the bonds of the Union. The Hawaiian decision is, in effect, a Trojan horse by which homosexual activists in every state can up the aggro.

All this, far though it seems from English constitutional experience, is curiously familiar to Anglicans. We have walked this way ourselves. When Bishop R.O. Hall took it upon himself to ordain a couple of ladies in the diocese of Hong Kong he did so, no doubt, from the highest of possible motives. He had no doubt come to feel, in the words of Roy Williamson in the English General Synod debate, ‘compelled by what I conceive to be the cause of justice’. Thomas Jefferson’s inalienable rights had seemed to him to include the right of women to ‘test their vocation to the priesthood’, (far though that notion must have been from the thoughts of Mr. Jefferson at the time of writing). It is worth reflecting upon the process by which he came to this conclusion, and by which great provinces of the Communion have come to side with him.

First redefine priesthood. Christian priesthood is a divine gift, the gift of the Lord to his Church in the power of the Spirit. It is given to be faithfully transmitted (it is a part of the tradition, the ‘things to be handed on’), a precious channel of connection with the Lord himself. Indeed, in the person of the bishop, ‘the principal minister’ in every diocese (Canon C18.4), it exists to ensure the faithful transmission of the those other good things of which it is part. The Apostolic Ministry, what is more, expresses and creates unity and communion within the church precisely by being, in all times and all places, the same gift.

But supposing it were to be portrayed not as something given, but as something made; not as a gift of the Lord but as an administrative convenience, like synods or parochial church councils. Suppose its origins were thought to be, not in the apostolic era but in the tangled confusion of the second and third centuries. Suppose, what is more, that it were seen not as a heritage of the whole church – indispensable to its unity and communion because constitutive of it – but the possession of an individual church or churches, or even of one diocese and one bishop.

If all these supposals were put into effect, the sacred ministry, of course, would have been changed beyond recognition. It would have become, not the gift of the Lord to structure the Church, but the tool of the present generation to restructure it. And, of course, it would be subject, as all things else, to Mr. Jefferson’s inherent rights and inalienable principles.

Add to this a thoroughly Anglican spirit of tolerance and compromise – the ‘respect’ and ‘courtesy’ of which the Lambeth Conference and the Eames Commission have spoken, and the ‘prudent reticence’ which Eames recommends – and the effect is shattering. As effectively as the Fourth Article of the American Constitution, this gentlemanly inertia guarantees that what is done in one place will take root and have effect in another.

All this might not matter so much (and to those many Anglican evangelicals who view ecclesiology as a catholic hobby on much the same level as needlepoint or tatting, it probably would not matter at all) were it not for the inescapable consequences. We know quite certainly and surely to what conclusions the introduction of Mr. Jefferson’s rights and principles into the theological equation inevitably leads. Thomas Jefferson himself blazed the trail. He was, after his own lights, a religious man, and he set about the serious task of improving Christianity according to reason and his own presuppositions. His hope was that the Bible could be expurgated of all its embarrassing supernaturalism and all those messy primitive sacrificial motifs, with the ultimate aim of rescuing a Jesus fit to believe in; a broad Messiah for a broad continent, all philosophical ethics and moral uplift.

That his attempt (and Tolstoy’s and Ritschl’s after him) proved an abject failure is a matter of history. Its tragedy is the destructive legacy which it has left behind. For the application of Jeffersonian principles to matrimony and ordination, as all but the blind and the doctrinaire can see, achieves the opposite of its stated aim. It does not ‘free up’ those institutions or make them ‘relevant’ – it undermines and ultimately destroys them. A view of matrimony which is founded on individual rights and not on parental obligations will self-destruct in no time at all. A view of priesthood which makes of it a tool and not a gift, has already subverted its primary purpose.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St. Stephen’s, Lewisham, in the diocese of Southwark