Roger Bellamy explains that although the Church’s stance on ethical issues has altered over time, its fundamental order must remain the same
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.
So wrote Mrs Alexander, a bishop’s wife, in 1848 in her famous children’s hymn, All things bright and beautiful. Needless to say, we no longer sing those words, but they reveal the changing ethics of the Church. Many of the issues on which we are now very clear were once matters on which contrary views were held. The hymn verse shows support for social inequality, which was not only accepted but regarded as part of the divine order.
The way women were treated – always in relation to some man, and with no independence and only rarely with any education. Property laws which resulted in terrible punishments: hanging being a common sentence. The penal system itself, with overcrowded, unsanitary prisons, where people languished, was supported by the ecclesiastical establishment.
People like Elizabeth Fry and John Howard, concerned with prison reform; the Venns, father and son, working with the poor, Octavia Hill on housing and Wilberforce on slavery; these people worked from deep Christian convictions but the changes they wanted to bring about were gained in the face of opposition from the Church. Bishops nearly always voted against these reforms.
More recent reforms brought in education for all and votes for all, and the good of contraception was recognized by the Anglican Communion, inevitably changing our understanding of sexuality.
A different view
Now Christians are among those working to bring about a changed view of homosexuality. They are responding to a changing understanding of sexuality, and with Gospel imperatives. Homosexuals are increasingly seen not as some wicked or depraved group of people: but simply as different, but with the same ability to form stable, loving relationships as other people. Society has moved very markedly in the past 50 years or so, but the official Church has been slow to respond.
It is time, in my view, for the Church to see that the persecution of, and discrimination against, gay people needs to stop, and with slavery, poverty, inequality and vengeful punishments, should be relegated to history.
The Church ought to allow same-sex couples to be able to make their commitment to each other in a religious context, and we should honestly accept the ministry of gay people with the same moral demands as we make of anyone else.
But what of the ordination of women? Is this also an issue that requires us to change? I think not because this is not an ethical issue but one of Order. The fundamental order of the Church took a few centuries to be reached, but having reached the definitive position, those things remain unaltered.
I refer to the Scriptures, the Sacraments, the Creeds and the Historic Ministry. These matters have to be renewed in every generation: they have to be re-interpreted and their treasures owned by each generation, but they themselves do not change. We translate and interpret the Scriptures, and this has brought in the modern age an amazingly rich resource for our spiritual lives.
The Creeds, cast in a particular philosophic language, need reinterpretation but the essentials are not to be messed with. The Sacraments may have been misused, or abused, but again they are springs from which the living waters flow, and we do not change them.
At the Reformation the Church of England no longer required its priests to be celibate, but this was a superficial change. It did not change the symbolic nature of episcopacy and the other orders of ministry. We should remember that the Orthodox and Catholics, in some circumstances, do not regard marriage as a bar to ordination.
A better balance
What we need to do is to explore what ordination means and alongside that the importance of being lay for the vast majority of Christians. For too long lay people have been regarded as second class Christians, the Church being over-clericalized. If we could get that balance better, then, together with a truly Gospel understanding of ordained ministry, the Church would be richer.
Ethical views change as we gain a better understanding of what our faith is about. Order does not change because it is divinely given and we must learn how to use its resources fully in each and every age. ND