Brian Miller on the dangers of emphasizing personal choice over spiritual duty

In his essay Thoughts After Lambeth, T.S. Eliot expounds on of his religious views and gives great insight into the nature of his Anglo-Catholicism, but perhaps the essay is most important because it follows the 1930 Lambeth Conference in which the Anglican bishops condoned the use of contraceptives by married couples in certain situations.

Eliot said:

‘I feel that the Conference was not only right and courageous to express a view on the subject of procreation radically different from that of Rome; but that the attitude adopted is more important than this particular question, important as it may be, and indicates a radical difference between the Anglican and the Roman views on other matters. I regret, however, that the bishops have placed so much reliance upon the Individual Conscience; and by so doing jeopardized the benefits of their independence. Certainly, any one who is wholly sincere and pure in heart may seek for guidance from the Holy Spirit; but who of us is always wholly sincere, especially where the most imperative of instincts may be strong enough to simulate to perfection the voice of the Holy Spirit?’

Essentially, Eliot agreed with the bishops that exceptions to the absolute rule of the Roman Catholic Church existed, but he criticized the bishops for failing to develop a general principle from which the particular exceptions may be drawn. He considered the English principle of allowing for every legitimate exception to be superior to the Roman doctrine, but predicted that if we only focus on the exceptions as matters of individual conscience, without ever coming to agree on the general principle, you inevitably undermine the spiritual authority of the Church.

This would seem to be a fine line to draw, but the history of the Church of England since Eliot’s time would seem to prove the consequences emphasizing personal choice over spiritual duty. Nowhere is this more exemplified than in the flagrant disregard for the Prayer Book. The Church that once provided common worship has become so committed to personal relevancy that when you enter a Chapel you have no idea whether you will hear the language of EastEnders or of Shakespeare.

This article was originally published by the Intercollegiate Review 2014/01/14/where-the-church-of-england-went-wrong/