Christopher Smith wonders if the Church of England is doing its moral theology in the right way
It is common among those who wish Christianity ill to throw the charge of hypocrisy at Christians, and particularly at those who are outré enough actually to practise their faith. It is something we must brace ourselves against if we are to tell others about the promise of redemption and the joy of eternal life, if we are to be, as the Diocese of London calls us, “ambassadors for Christ”, in a neat bit of rebranding of something St Paul was teaching the Corinthians in about AD 60. “Hypocrite!”, you may be called for going to church and not being perfect; and you might chose to respond in time-honoured fashion: “Well, there’s always room for one more,” or “Just think how terrible I’d be if I didn’t go to church.”
The trouble is that this attitude in society makes talking about the moral life very difficult. Modern society is not uninterested in what it calls “ethics”, by which I think it means analysing the good and bad aspects of any given moral question and trying to come up with an answer – either “yes, society will permit this,” or “no, that is not permissible in our society.” These are the kinds of questions we hear churned over again and again on Radio 4’s The Moral Maze. Euthanasia, abortion, admission of refugees, just war… Each of these can easily fill an episode.
But what the Church wants to talk about, when it can get a word in edgeways, is not so much situation ethics – although that has its place – but the wider matter of moral theology, of living the Christian life, and of the sum total of all situations seen through the eyes of God rather than man: “Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” That question comes up in Luke 18, and the story in Luke 16 about Dives and Lazarus reminds us that the way we behave now has consequences for the life beyond this one, and comes with a reminder that the moral life doesn’t work by running up a credit balance with God. Living the moral life is no more than our duty.
The church historian Edward Norman, in his Anglican days, wrote a book called Secularisation: Sacred Values in a Godless World. He has some interesting things to say about the modern world’s push against moral theology, and the Church’s capitulation to secular values. The Church, he says, has become anxious about appearing exclusive – both now and in the life to come – to such a degree that, “Stripped of the exact knowledge of revealed truth, and dependent for its content on natural truth, ‘liberal’ Christian understanding has no clear message to contrast with modern secular humanism.”
He’s right, isn’t he? The more liberal the Church becomes, the more it allows itself to be driven by secular values and trends. What was unthinkable fifty years ago becomes not only acceptable now, but somehow sacralised. Yet Christianity is not simply a virtually “open-ended exploration of human responses to intimations of a divine purpose in existence”. As Dr Norman says, when this reductionism is extended fully, “the only parts of Christianity which escape elimination are the ethicist parts. Then Christ is represented as a moral teacher, and the Christian religion as a nexus of human decencies expressed in the dated vocabulary of mysterious symbolism.”
This is Christianity seen through the lens of The Moral Maze. It’s a good programme, but it’s a long way away from being an examination of the ethics of a Christian society. Indeed, the only cleric invited to be a regular contributor is Giles Fraser, who, pleasingly, sometimes turns out to be not quite as liberal as he would have us believe. But, ultimately, the programme is like the search for the Key to all Mythologies – except that the starting point for the syncretism is not Christianity but secular humanism. It is very unlike the definition of moral theology of Bishop Robert Mortimer: “Its sources are scripture, reason inspired by faith, [and] the teaching of the Church and in particular of certain preeminent Church Fathers and Doctors – for example Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.”
When all is said and done, the sources of the opinions expressed on The Moral Maze are the imaginations of the panellists themselves. And the end product of their ethics is a kind of Benthamite realisation of the greatest good for the greatest number. Contrast that with Dr Mortimer’s understanding: “Moral theology judges and advises on the morality of actions and of agents in the light of man’s true end, the vision of God.” Likewise, a slightly older teacher of moral theology than Dr Mortimer, Bishop Kenneth Kirk, said that moral theology should deal with the nitty gritty, with the “minutiae of human conduct” only because “the highest prerogative of the Christian is the activity of worship; and nowhere except in this activity will he find the key to his ethical problems.” If only the Church of England could recover something of that understanding when it wrestles with its contemporary demons!
Having written last month about the naked emperors who inhabit our galleries of modern art, I see that the question arises in the other arts too. The Spectator published an article in mid-October headlined, “The Nobel Prize for literature, at long last, has been awarded to a complete idiot.” The article contained this memorable sentence. “[Bob] Dylan, perhaps better than anyone, raises a smudged and shaking mirror to the shallowness and lack of intellectual ambition which have come to stand as our age’s foremost images of excellence.” Indeed.