Rodney Schofield views a moral morass from an unsafe distance

Two young people, each having completed their secondary education, have recently travelled to England from Malawi. The young man spent a successful term as a teaching assistant in a school, but at Christmas the word came through that he was undergoing severe mental dissociation. His memory had gone, and he could scarcely express himself. Naturally, his parents felt that one of them should fly immediately (regardless of the cost) to be at his side. Two weeks later I met his mother in Zomba, when she reported all was well, although her son was moving to stay with her sister in London and was looking for new work. What had happened was that someone at a Christmas party had laced her son’s drink with a potent cocktail of drugs, which had induced the mental breakdown. As for the young lady, who was taking a one-year course in a college in the home counties, she of her own volition was abandoning the course (at which she was doing well) because she felt wholly alienated by the lifestyle of others on the course, including the girl with whom she shared a flat. She had not been prepared for the relentless obsession with sex, drink and drugs, to the extent that her own privacy was constantly being invaded. She had not found any fellow students with whom what she regarded as normal friendship was possible, so has returned to Africa to apply for some more local course (and to live in a place where behaviour is less barbaric).

Home from ‘Home’

Well, two swallows don’t make a summer, but I did feel ashamed of the experiences received at the hands of my compatriots. Of course, the abandonment of moral values by so many in England cannot be charged simplistically to any single cause, however much in a culture of blame such a temptation exists. Yet this is, as some Africans still believe, ‘Christian’ England, and it is not possible for the Churches to ignore what is happening. A decade or two ago it was not uncommon for us – then working in Lesotho – to come across white South Africans who, having sold up in the face of spiralling violence and gone to live in their ‘mother’ country, had been so shocked at the lack of moral decency they found in England (for example, the ubiquity of pornography, and the degradation of much television) that they had returned to weather the stormy ending of apartheid. ‘For years and years,’ they said, ‘we’ve been lectured on how utterly odious and untenable is our position here. We recognize the validity of such remarks. – but we were deceived into thinking that the western world held the morally high ground. What price social justice if there is no dignity in life and nothing sacred left?’

Spiritual impoverishment

Such comments need also to be heeded by those who now campaign for third world debt remission or cancellation. Jesus’ concern was not limited to material well-being, important though that is. He knew that ‘man does not live by bread alone’; he came that we might have life ‘in all abundance’. That certainly includes good health and education, food, shelter and whatever is spelt out in any listing of human rights – but there is so much more as well. The present danger is that spiritual impoverishment in the West may be exported, along with aid and trade, to countries such as Malawi. What is food and plenty if people’s hearts and minds are captured by a mood of materialism, or are violated by videos, or imprisoned in rampant individualism? One form of enslavement (to debt) will have been replaced by another (the culture of discontent). What else does modern advertising and much commerce feed upon? As written in the good book: ‘The horseleach hath two daughters crying, Give, give. There are three things that are never satisfied, yea, four things say not, It is enough’ (Proverbs 30.15).

Questions are constantly being asked of us here in Zomba, by partner Churches or other outside bodies (recently, the World Council of Churches), as to what we are doing to combat AIDS. An article in New Directions last year I hope spelled out our clear answer. In turn, third world countries – as evidenced at the last Lambeth Conference – want to know how first world Christians are tackling their own declining moral standards. It is to be hoped that a new Archbishop of Canterbury will be able to respond to such a challenge, and thus be a leader who represents the vast majority of Anglicans worldwide. Perhaps such a man must needs be sought outside the increasingly narrow confines of the Church of England (with which also must be grouped the Church in Wales and Scotland)?

Looking to the Rock

Here, for example, our Christian Ethics course weighs seriously the guidance of scripture and the unfolding traditions of the Church. We recognize that issues are often complex and many-sided, requiring technical knowledge as well as spiritual insight, and that the search for truth can be both arduous and controversial. Nor do we see it only as a matter of making moral judgements: Growth in Christian discipleship and the formation of Christian character makes it a personal and ascetical quest as well. Yet as John Paul II spelled it out in Veritatis Splendor (and as I have failed to discover it in the teaching material handed out to some Anglican ordinands in England, for example, those on the STETS course using what was, a year or two ago at any rate, known as module 307), there are moral norms from which the Christian is not free to deviate in pursuit of his or her own personal ‘integrity’. Module 307 features as its central example a lady minister Ruth, approached in confidence by a pregnant teenager who wants but cannot afford, an abortion:

‘In summary, Ruth considered the following as important in her decision:

a) defining and interpreting the situation, naming the morally relevant factors that activated prima facie duties and/or duties expected of her given profession;

b) living a story that exhibited those virtues inherent in her professional role and in harmony with the person she thought she was and wanted to become in the future;

c) attending to structures, keeping in mind issues of power, justice and liberation.’

It will not surprise readers to learn that Ruth encouraged the girl to talk her mother into procuring an abortion. Nor will it come as any surprise that at no point in the entire course was any thought given to the unborn child, and his or her ‘liberation’.

So my (perhaps avant-garde?) solution to the impending vacancy in the See of Canterbury would be to hand it over to the Holy Father (‘Peter, the Rock … on which I will build my Church’) and pray him to dig us out of the moral morass into which we’ve fallen.

Rodney Schofield teaches in the Zomba Theological College, Malawi