Chris Green on the first Lambeth Paper
THE REPORT IS ONE OF FOUR from groups of bishops to stimulate thinking among Lambeth delegates. It has no authority save as a discussion paper on six issues (Human Rights and Human Dignity, The Environment, Human Sexuality, Modern Technology, Euthanasia, International Debt and Economic Justice) which had been suggested for their relevance.
It has a presentational tidiness in the common shape given to the analysis. Each ethical Situation is analysed, there is Theological Reflection, suggestions put it into Context, and finally there are questions of Practical Application. Each section concludes with a Bibliography.
This clarity is entirely superficial. These themes are massively diverse and disjointed, and it is surely methodologically slapdash to treat as contentious an issue such as Sexuality and as theoretical an issue as technology after the same pattern. Well-honed debates on Third World debt and unconsidered areas like Euthanasia need different approaches – and where has the demand to discuss Euthanasia emerged from? I doubt if it was Sudan.
This orderly presentation shows, I think, a deep desire to prove that we really are united, despite our differences. The supremacy of unity means that despite disagreements over scripture, assumptions, methods and conclusions, we can all at least agree that we are debating. Which of course betrays only too clearly that we are not united at all.
Note the ways the Bible is used. On Human Rights, where the Bible has much to say and the report assumes we are generally agreed, it is quoted with frequency and enthusiasm; similarly with International Debt and Human Justice. But where the issue is more contentious because the interpretation of the Bible is itself at issue it is hardly mentioned. Human Sexuality has one explicit quotation, on the ultimate end of marriage in heaven, and a few allusions to ‘themes’. Euthanasia has none, apart from vaguely mentioning ‘agape’ or that ‘life on earth is not the only life’.
Presumably, then, the Bible can only be used in non-contentious areas; where Christians disagree we must debate elsewhere. The Bible is thus only a collection of slogans which can support almost any position. It is certainly not God’s final word. Consequently, it must be stripped of those parts which offend a modern conscience. For example, there is no understanding in the Euthanasia section that taking life is forbidden, that death is God’s judgement on a fallen world, that our hope is resurrection, or that following death we come before God to face his verdict.
Instead, ‘For the Christian, life on earth is not the only life. Life perceived as God given is always to be treated with respect, with gratitude, and with responsibility. While such a truth must make Christians cautious about sanctioning the deliberate taking of life, it might also discourage them from clinging pointlessly to it.’ Such an sentimentalised theology of death can only come from people who share the squeamishness of moderns.
This timidity over scandalous texts crops up elsewhere. A theology of nationhood and ethnicity is surely impossible without including God’s scattering of the nations after Babel. It is not God’s will that we should undo his judgmental work outside the gospel proclamation at Pentecost. Only there, will we find a workable uniting of nations. But the subversive message of Babel is silenced. Babel/Babylon should also enter the section on technology and its fallenness – but it does not.
The section on Rights devotes much space to how the New Testament church struggled with diversity and prejudice but contained the seeds which eventually overcame it, thereby neutering any passage which is unhelpfully judgmental on doctrine or morality.
An obvious conclusion to draw from such skewed use of Scripture is that it is being used as a prop. Where it can be used as a resource it is, but honest self-critique under Scripture where we are called to form our worldview according to God’s counter-cultural values is absent. Hence the staleness of this report. Serious interaction with the Bible changes us, and makes us radicals in surprising areas; conversely one of the earliest signs of cultural capitulation is where we are predictable. There is not one part of this report where I could not accurately guess its presentation before I started reading it, and that there is not one that wouldn’t be guessed – and shared – by a well-intentioned secular humanist.
There is a second possible conclusion though – presumably its drafters assume that orthodox/traditionalist/evangelicals use Scripture in the same hollow way. That is, where the ethically orthodox uphold heterosexual monogamy they do so for a range of reasons which they quote Scripture to support. It is a worrying insight that some bishops assume that Scripture can legitimately be used to prove anything.
Another curiosity of this report is where one expects the Bible to occur but it doesn’t. For example, on Human Rights. People obviously have rights in Scripture. Psalm 82:3 ‘Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed’; Prov 31:4-5 ‘It is not for kings, O Lemuel, not for kings to drink wine, not for rulers to crave beer, lest they drink and forget what the law decrees, and deprive all the oppressed of their rights’ (etc.) – yet those kind of verses are not quoted. Instead the report leaps from an unproved allegation that Genesis 1 gives every human dignity to various New Testament passages on overcoming discrimination.
Perhaps there is a wariness about those Old Testament passages because the rights they defend are derived from living in a society ordered by God’s laws. They are not inherent in being human but granted under God’s covenant rule. He, as the good creator, has the right to circumscribe those rights, and to claim the duty he expects. Our rights and duties to God and to each other will not clash if we are submitting to his rule. Rights imply duty: rights given under God’s word imply a duty under God’s word.
But uncoupling those rights from the word, and granting them inherent status in the fact that God has made us as we are changes the whole method of arguing. There will be an inevitable clash between the way God has made me and the way he wants me to live. Under classical theology that is resolved by describing humanity as initially ignorant and subsequently sinful too, thus doubly needing God’s word as a rule. The pre-fall Adamic covenant presupposes God’s word as much as the Noachic, Abrahamic or Mosaic. But if my rights derive solely from my createdness, no text can claim divine authority if it tells me to behave other than in a way I wish. Similarly, my duty towards another is limited by respecting that one’s rights to self-determination. Rights are thus falsely grounded in creation rather than creation-under-covenant, and the way is opened for God’s word to be restrictive. You will not die.
That uncoupling is all-pervasive, and the Bible is only quoted to support its consequences. Each section could easily include Biblical material which radically undermines the contemporary secular world view, but these are never touched because the Bible is being treated as a means of lending spurious authority to what is desirable on other grounds. And what is desirable is that every bishop returns to his or her Diocese having been heard, affirmed and had their position represented in the conclusions.
This is devastatingly obvious in the section on Human Sexuality. Unsurprisingly, the report identifies three ways of living. The first is traditional marriage-or-celibacy. The second is those which are inherently sinful. The third way is “other forms of behaviour which some Christians claim should not be regarded as inherently sinful but may be less than complete expressions of the Christian way”.
Now this was where I got really cross.
Apart from the dreary predictability of this “Third Way” methodology (when are we going to learn that this is not the way to think?) it is simply the case that a position equipoised between two errors is unlikely to be true, and that when potentially abusive Christian marriage is slyly juxtaposed with options that are inherently wrong, we all know we what we are really talking about is gay sex. No-one is seriously suggesting that Lambeth debate any other sexuality issue except as a smoke screen – which is what happens here.
Three examples of this “Third Way” are given: an example from Africa of testing a woman’s fertility through childbirth before marriage, faithful homosexual partnerships, and the remarriage of divorcees. In other words, we are being stitched up in advance by the equation of opposition to homosexuality with racism and imperialism on the one hand and an idealism that is apparently doomed to failure on the other. Since, the assumption goes, Anglicans have found ways of accepting the other two options, and since the Bible is unclear and ambiguous, and therefore non-authoritative, and medical evidence is still developing (i.e. they can’t quote it yet because it doesn’t say the right liberal things) we need to find a new way of handling our differences and yet living together. Which is to find deeper Biblical strands – and, purely by chance the report hits on two (‘lovingkindness’ and ‘righteousness’) which bypass the difficult texts and allow us room to manoeuvre.
This is theology by smoke and mirrors. Just as the audience at a magic show suspends the knowledge that the only way a man can fly is by wires under his jumper, so the bishops are being invited to suspend their rational knowledge that Christianity has limits over what it can allow, and for the sake of unity to permit irrationality and bluster to pass as sense.
This depressing method continues for page after page. It is an extended exercise in selective theology, heavily underscoring the Bible where it can, reinterpreting or avoiding it where it is critical and, frankly, sometimes just making it up as it goes along. There is at no point any sustained exegesis, only proof texting. It is also breathtakingly naive when, in discussing potential problems over euthanasia, it says
“On the issue of abortion…in the 1960s the Church of England’s Board of Social Responsibility supported changes in law, but discovered later that the actual changes de facto were far more permissive than it had intended”.
What, no repentance? No grief over lost lives? No recognition that there is a profound similarity between different sets of permissive thought?
I wanted to be positive about this document, for the issues it touches are so very important – for some people, literally a matter of life and death. And there is a spiritual danger for me that as I pontificate on the theological hollowness of the report I ignore its real challenges. There is plenty of good secular thinking in the six moral issues. They are undeniably complex, and the facts in those strands of the report are fascinating and humbling. Those of us in prosperous parts the world should be examining our self-satisfied assumptions.
But it could have been done so much better than this wearyingly predictable agenda. Areas of disagreement are marked as minefields, and areas of potential press releases strung with welcome banners. Past blunders are never mentioned, and present opponents treated as straw men. Even relieving the Third World debt burden is given so one-sided a presentation of the economic issues and so fundamentalist a hermeneutic of the Jubilee that I almost took my name off the petition. And since it deceived so often in areas of Biblical truth, I become suspicious of it throughout. Even when I most wanted to support it I feared it had retained some evidence lest God say something to challenge a Lambeth consensus.
“As Christians, full humanity is expressed finally in Jesus Christ. In Christ we encounter humanity in all its fullness. Our relationship to God in Christ is what makes us fully human. Life in Christ now offers us a vision of what human life in all its fullness will be later.” The vacuity of the entire project is seen in those unnecessary two words “As Christians”. Delete them, and I’ll cheer the rest of it to the rafters as we seek to witness to the Lord Jesus in a pagan world; add them and you dilute every Christian distinctive, and relativise the entire gospel.
Christopher Green is Curate of Christ Church, Surbiton in the diocese of Southwark.