Ross Northing on the dangers of abandoning the concept of objective truth

There is a story, whether apocryphal or true, concerning a man knocking on a presbytery door who informs the priest that he wants to become a Christian. The priest replied, ‘What makes you think we want you?’

Not the most conducive of welcomes to be sure, but perhaps what lies behind the priest’s response is the knowledge that the Lord said, ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear cruit and that your cruit should abide’ (John 15.16).

As we know, much ofmodern secular thinking is subjective. Objectivity is virtually scorned and dismissed as the province of those with closed minds. The idea of objective truth has given way to the claim, ‘Well, it’s true for me.’

Personal opinion

This was brought home to me when seeing a documentary involving three young people visiting Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco of the Last Supper in Milan, following the rather interesting claims made by the author Dan Brown in his novel The Da Vinci Code. On arrival they were read a relevant passage from Mr Brown’s work and all claimed that they could see what he was talking about with regard to the sacred feminine in the V-shape gap between the Lord and St John. Then Brian Sewell, the art historian, was brought in and Mr Brown’s work was read again and Mr Sewell declared that this was of course ‘bunkum.’ He then explained that Leonardo da Vinci had painted the moment when Christ said, ‘One of you will betray me’ and St John had turned to St Peter and, like all the other Apostles, is asking who it might be or whether they were the betrayer. Two of the young people in the group were really pleased to hear an art historian’s view and stated that they could now see that Dan Brown had made the story up to suit the theme of his novel. The other young person said, ‘No, I still think Dan Brown’s right.’

That individual’s response illustrates all too vividly the fact that we live in an age where personal opinion is so often equated with truth, and where there is a real danger of inconsistency in our thinking when it does not fit with what we want to see. When what we actually need does not fit with what we think we want, how do we react? When Scripture and the Tradition of the Church do not suit our own way of thinking, do we vaunt our own opinion as being of greater value? Are we then following Christ who chose us, or the dictates of our own hearts?

Only when it suits?

I was recently reminded of these words of Pope Benedict XVI in his Introductory Words at Evening

Prayer in Westminster Abbey in 2010, ‘Fidelity to the word of God, precisely because it is a true word, demands of us an obedience which leads us together to a deeper understanding of the Lord’s will, an obedience which must be free of intellectual conformism or facile accommodation to the spirit of the age.’

Being called by Christ to follow him involves a call to discipleship and a call to witness to the faith he revealed. This involves having the humility to recognize the truth of those words of God, recorded by Isaiah, ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’ (55.8–9).

We want to be known as followers of Jesus – or is this only when it suits us? If Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life, then this surely requires the humility to accept that there is an ultimate source of Truth outside the court of our own personal opinion and that of individual Synods or Provinces?

We have experienced the damage that can be caused when individual Provinces claim to have the authority to be able to alter the sacramental order of the Church. In response to this we have always pointed to the truth that the Church of England’s understanding is that it continued with the historic three-fold order of bishop, priest and deacon as the Church had received it; and that, therefore, the General Synod had no authority to make such a change without the whole Church agreeing that the Holy Spirit was guiding the Church to do so.

Risk of inconsistency

Changes to the nature of the sacraments are not open to individual provinces or Synods, nor are they open to individual bishops or priests. We have argued for consistency in our approach to the theology of the sacraments of the Church, and yet, sadly, there have been calls by some who, while wishing to uphold the Church’s understanding of the nature of holy orders, for the understanding of the sacrament of marriage to be changed.

It seems to me that this is nothing other than sacramental inconsistency. Should an individual, who holds that the General Synod has no authority to change the nature of Holy Orders, campaign for a change in the understanding of the sacrament of marriage? How can it be Catholic doctrine that it is permissible to have private judgement in the matter of orders and sacraments?

Independent departure from what the Church of England has received regarding the nature of the Sacraments, by a Synod or an individual, runs the risk of failing any test of doctrinal rigour or consistency. It would simply mean that they mean whatever anyone wants them to mean. There is a vast gulf between that position and the faith and understanding of the one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of which we claim to be a part. ND