Until a fortnight before I sat down to write this I was relatively content. I was worshipping at, and fairly heavily involved in, the life of a typically unique Church of England parish. The church was in the Liberal Catholic tradition although I am a theologically-educated Evangelical, but that caused me no concern. My education has necessarily broadened my outlook so I can appreciate the common core of belief Christians share.
The balance between Scripture, Tradition and Reason is credited to Richard Hooker (1554-1600) as being likened to a three-legged stool. This analogy is good in that all three legs are equally necessary for the stool to stand, but has the weakness of implying equal and parallel authority. In reality, these three methods of understanding are not parallel, but serial in their interaction. We perceive through reason, because it is with our minds that we process all the information we receive. We cannot therefore process any idea without it passing through the filter of our reason. In that sense all knowledge is subjective – we know only our minds’ reconstruction of it. Therefore, reason or experience forms the viewpoint from which we assess all evidence.
Although it is possible for experience also to constitute a certain measure of evidence, as when we have a “gut feeling” or believe the Holy Spirit speaks within us, its main effect is to colour the way in which we interpret what comes from elsewhere. This is partly because the subjective nature of experience and its containment within our own minds gives it an essentially private quality which is not directly accessible by others. Faith is one such experience: I am totally convinced what I believe is true, but I would be a fool to think that would carry any weight with anyone else, for whom their own inner reality is far more direct and obvious. In general, if I would convince someone else I have to be able to point to something external to which they can apply their own reason.
The other two legs are Tradition and Scripture, although the precise relation between these is not universally agreed. In Protestant thinking they are separate, whereas in Catholic thought Scripture forms the earliest and most authoritative part of the Tradition. The distinction is not that important, however, when one considers that the two models become equivalent with a mere addition or subtraction. Depending on which model is adopted, Tradition either serves to guide the interpretation of Scripture or contains Scripture and the history of its interpretation.
So, rather than a three-legged stool, a better analogy might be the stairwell of a three-storey building, in which, from the top floor of reason or experience, we view the ground floor of Scripture through the first floor of Tradition. This provides a serial rather than parallel understanding of these three components, avoiding the danger of seeing them as three rival or competing sources of authority and recognising the essential manner in which they form a unified whole.
Although the Scripture is a fairly constant base – variant readings abound but most of these are relatively minor with little impact on interpretation – opinions can differ widely in interpretation because there are different traditions among Christians, and experience and reason can both be heavily conditioned by culture. Thus expectations of what is reasonable can vary widely in different ecclesiastic circles or in different societies where expectations vary. In addition, the values or structures, legal or social, of a country or culture, can heavily influence those implied by Scripture so they become identified with cultural rather than Biblical definitions. (An example would be marriage, which is mostly seen in Scripture as a God-given lifestyle [not always practised as originally envisaged], but in many cultures as a legal status entered by undergoing a ceremony and signing a document.)
Since the Restoration the Church of England and, by extension, the Anglican Communion has sought to provide “liberty for tender consciences” by accommodating the various doctrinal views that might arise from well-argued interpretation of Scripture and Tradition. This has enabled Catholics, Evangelicals and Liberals, more recently joined by Charismatics, to co-exist within the one Church. Liturgy and doctrinal statements are carefully worded so as to be capable of reception by people from all these schools of thought within the framework provided by the historical creeds and the thirty nine Articles of Religion in particular. Although controversies frequently arise as the boundaries of this arrangement are continually tested the Church has so far been able to contain a wide range of doctrinal positions.
Then, two weeks before I began writing this, a statement relating to a popular issue appeared on the website of the church at which I worship, committing it to a position incompatible with my doctrinal position. Needless to say, I found this devastating, as I could no longer worship there with a clear conscience. I felt despised and betrayed. I found myself excluded. Yet I recognised if the words were removed others would feel equally slighted. This article is an attempt to find a way through to a position which all could at least accept, even if they cannot wholeheartedly agree.
The Need for Inclusiveness Statements
In the past it was possible to put “all are welcome” on a programme or notice and that would be considered enough to indicate all would be made welcome. Actually, there were probably some classes of people who would not be made welcome, perhaps those with criminal intent or those who might be disruptive in some way. The American Declaration of Independence famously proclaimed the equality of all men and their “unalienable” right to liberty, when it had actually been drafted by slave owners. It is not always safe to assume people mean what they appear to say.
Crossing the threshold of a church is daunting for those who have not done so before. This can be amplified if there is some perceived social difference between the person entering and those habitually seen to enter, or if the architecture is sufficiently different from that person’s everyday experience. The church cited above has a particularly grand mediaeval building but has in its parish many blocks of high-rise and deck-access Council flats, many of them occupied by disadvantaged people. Many of the congregation, especially the more established members, travel in from wealthier parts of the city, often in expensive cars with the men wearing tailored suits: woollen in winter and linen in summer. Whilst these people would actually welcome and speak to anyone who came through the door, it is easy to see why an occupant of the flats might assume otherwise and never get that far.
This presumption of not being welcome can be exacerbated for members of certain minority groups, especially if they fall into categories associated with behaviour likely to be classified as sinful. The distinction between Being and Doing, which is found in some philosophies and held to by many Christians, is disparaged by much of contemporary culture. In rejecting that distinction, modern politics can insist that a person’s behaviour should not be judged, that to reject behaviour is to reject the person who does it, that behaviour expresses who we are and therefore is indistinguishable from the person. This leads to a rejection of the common Christian ethic of loving the sinner while hating the sin.
Furthermore, the concept of Sin, as understood by Christians, is no longer understood by others. For Christians it simply expresses our belief that the world is imperfect and that imperfection pervades everything and everyone. Nothing is purely good. Everything is tainted to some extent, therefore nothing is good enough. This applies to each and every one of us and therefore all of us need God’s forgiveness, which is available in Christ. There is no exemption; this is the human condition as we see it, so to label someone as a sinner or to describe an action as sinful is no more than to say it is completely normal for the compromised world in which we live. In theory it is a pejorative term but, since everything is to some extent covered by it and nothing earthly can escape it, it is not singling anything out for particular criticism. It is simply a recognition of the state of the world. However, because this concept is not widely understood it becomes offensive to many, especially if applied to an action someone finds within their natural desire.
All the foregoing causes people to doubt the welcome the Church offers them, either directly or because others advise such doubt. In order to counter that it is felt by many that the Church needs to make a special effort to welcome anyone who might doubt it, by explicitly stating that people are welcome, and applying that welcome precisely to the groups that might be most inclined to doubt.
Unfortunately, this is not as straightforward as it might at first appear, and if done badly can alienate others while welcoming some. I was one of those excluded by a recent attempt to improve the Parish’s welcome to others, so I write from experience.
The problem of Diversity
I became aware of Diversity becoming a political virtue in the 1970s. It grew out of movements such as multiculturalism and feminism which had earlier roots but became mainstream from the 1960s on. It rejected the previous idea that there was a single right way to view the world and behave, that the values of a nominally Christian culture were normative, and substituted the idea that every group should be equally valued. No culture should be able to impose its values on another.
This seems a very simple idea and much of modern society has embraced it, but there is an inherent self-contradiction concealed within which can turn the movement into its own direct opposite. This contradiction arises from the fact many of the diverse cultures contain ethical principles which generate strong internal moralities, making these cultures mutually incompatible. Valuing them all equally is in danger of valuing none of them at all because the governing virtue of diversity is not found within them. Added to that is the problem of those who deliberately refute the idea of Diversity or tolerance and try to make a virtue out of intolerance. This can be perceived as the problem caused by those who seek to use freedom to destroy it.
One answer proposed by those who favour Diversity is to set a requirement of tolerance on a culture if it is to be treated as a legitimate expression of Diversity itself. This has the effect of elevating the concept of Diversity to a moral absolute which cannot legitimately be challenged and subduing all other cultural expressions under it. Thus, we now have a single dominant culture which will tolerate no opposition. No other culture can claim to be the truth except to the extent it agrees with Diversity. Any culture which makes any kind of exclusive claim cannot be tolerated. The wheel has turned full-circle and returned to its starting place – a single culture which judges all others. To quote the popular 1960s aphorism, “the trouble with freedom is that, sooner or later, they make it compulsory!” The claim to champion Diversity remains but, in practice, an attitude which started out in favour of tolerance has developed into a form of totalitarianism.
When challenged about this, those who favour the status quo usually reply that this is the only sensible approach; the alternative would be to allow extremists to subvert diversity. They apparently do not realise that their defensive measure has already subverted it out of existence.
The problem with categories
Current Diversity thinking is based around the idea of protected categories. If a person belongs to a category which receives unfair treatment of some sort, or is made to feel unwelcome as a result of belonging, that is the issue which must be dealt with.
This raises several difficulties: who defines the categories, which categories should be protected, what about those who do not recognise the same categories, or do not recognise the authority which seeks to define them? Should those who define the categories differently constitute a category worthy of protection?
The practical answer to the first of these problems might be to have the categories defined by a lawful authority of some kind, but on what basis should it choose them? How should it decide which set of categories to adopt? Those whose proponents shout loudest? Those with the most votes in them? Those which bring most economic advantage to the ruling group? How does the imposition of such categories from above differ from a totalitarian regime shutting down dissent? Once categories are imposed by law, how are we to avoid sliding into a position where intellectual disagreement becomes a crime? There is clearly a danger with this approach.
Another way to approach the question might be to look at history and contemporary society to see where unfair treatment occurs or has occurred, and to define categories based on those examples. That is arguably the piecemeal way in which the categories currently protected by the Equality Act 2010 were devised. However, the Race Relations Act of the 1960s was not seen at the time as the first of many Acts protecting members of particular categories from unfair treatment. It was intended to address a particular perceived wrong by which a specific ‘type’ of person was being excluded from equal consideration in matters such as employment and housing. It later became a model for other laws protecting other groups from unfair treatment. Eventually, these laws were consolidated into the Equality Acts, which kept the same notion of protecting people on the basis of the categories to which they belong. Yet this was a historical accident resulting from the piecemeal process by which the categories were identified and added. It was not a design to produce a generally fair society, which might have taken a different form if that aim were established from the beginning.
Later on, these categories were recruited into the Anglo-Saxon interpretation of the Second World War, so they have become part of our national identity. There is now an assumption that if the Nazis persecuted something, we must protect it, as if the Nazis being definitive of evil, doing the opposite must be good. But that is clearly nonsense, not least because the Nazi evil is not defined by the particular groups they singled out for first unfair and later murderous attention, but by the fact they thought selecting groups for injustice and mass murder was a legitimate political activity. The liberators of the death camps were not horrified so much by the identities of the dead and starving victims, so much as by the condition of the dead and starving victims. The Nazis also saw it as politically legitimate to mislead their population with a combination of lies and half-truths, thus subverting Public Opinion and enabling their evil to go unchallenged by keeping people ignorant. Perhaps we should have laws to protect the populace from such manipulation, but we only have to think of the recent referendum campaigns to understand why politicians would never pass such laws. They continue to consider these same techniques valid despite what past generations did in consequence.
Another problem with protecting people by categories is that there is no end to the categories needed if everyone is to be protected fairly. Even those who see different categories, or want to see the categories differently, or believe categories should not be used might be seen as another category or group of categories who might claim the need for protection. After all, freedom of conscience is a very precious thing and needs to be protected, so people should not face persecution because of their beliefs. Defining the categories therefore becomes difficult because there is no consensus on which to rely.
That lack of consensus is not just a theoretical problem; it has practical implications. For instance, there is room for disagreement about whether some of them even exist. Is gender a biological or a social construct? Are races real or just an arbitrary way to classify people? Do people really have a sexual orientation, or is that just a device to categorise different emotional responses people might have on meeting each other? It is actually quite difficult for people to interpret the data and agree about these things, and yet laws are formulated around them as if they were hard indisputable facts. In many cases the science simply hasn’t been done or more work is needed to refine interpretation, yet it is so politically toxic to study these issues scientifically it is unlikely any further work will occur in many of these areas for fear of being misunderstood, or even prosecuted, for raising them.
It could be argued that it is precisely because these categories are so ill-defined that they should not form the basis of judging people and that is why discrimination on these grounds should be outlawed, but if that is so, people should also be discouraged from using these categories to identify themselves, because that creates a sense of difference which isolates people and that isolation leads to alienation and distrust. Yet people do have identities and who am I to tell them they cannot? Then again, should I be forced to recognise those identities if I do not agree with them? In a free society, the categories in which people place themselves and those others recognise might be different. Why should that not be the case?
Then there is the arbitrary linking of categories which appear to be different in order to create a common cause where it is arguable that does not or should not exist. So, at the time of writing it is conventional to link lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and a few other categories together to form a supposedly single group to claim recognition on the grounds of “sexual orientation”. This combined category is usually known by a string of initials such as LGBT, LGBT+ or even LGBTQIA. Although the variant forms expose disputes about exactly which categories should be included in the mix, the chosen letter combination is usually presented as an unquestionable given.
Nonetheless, they are not beyond question. For instance, the first two letters imply two separate categories, lesbian and gay, but it is not clear why these two categories are present when the single category, homosexual, would appear to cover both. Indeed the category “gay” could be held to cover both since I have often heard women use that term to identify themselves. Perhaps the term “lesbian” is included not to indicate a separate category but only to comfort those who prefer one term over the other.
Then there is the bisexual category. This is intended, I believe, to denote those who can enter into intimate physical relationships with people of either sex. Yet, the presence of this category raises huge questions about the nature of the first two, for it implies that there is not necessarily a hard, fixed distinction, but a continuum of human experience. Given that the whole notion of minority rights is based on the argument of a fixed, innate, binary “sexual orientation” with “equivalent” rights, the presence of this exception undermines the theory on which that notion is based. It could be, and many would doubtlessly assert, that there are two basic types of attraction between people, and a small number who fall somewhere in between because nothing is quite perfect in this complex world, or it could just be that there is a continuum of attraction to which we are all subject in different ways under different circumstances, and we all have to make choices when that happens. The difficulty here is to distinguish the undoubted observed behavioural phenomenon from the complex and invisible motivations which drive human aspiration. Without proper carefully-devised psychological experiments designed to confirm or otherwise specific hypotheses, we simply cannot begin to know the answer. Yet, the political climate makes such experiments, or even the hypothesising which must precede them, difficult if not impossible.
Whatever the truth or otherwise of the above discussion, we can at least recognise that, on the whole, those involved in the categories considered so far are content. They are likely to attribute any discontent not to their own condition but to the response of others to it. Whether they are right to do so is likely to be a matter for individual judgement and could vary between individual cases.
However, the situation is different for those represented by the fourth letter. The Transgender category, almost by definition, consists of people who are or have been desperately unhappy. Such people are likely to be confused and distressed; indeed, if they were not they would probably not identify with this category. As such they are vulnerable, probably keen to grasp any explanation or offer which shows any prospect of providing relief. They are exactly the kind of people who need not to be harnessed to a political bandwagon. They are people who need society’s protection and assistance. They need the best professional understanding and help detailed knowledge can provide, and that knowledge needs to advance in an unbiased direction in order to help them better. It is highly likely each case is unique and needs unique care. Anything that could prejudice that care, either by persuading a vulnerable person as to what kind of care to seek or by constraining the care professionals might offer, would be dangerous to their well-being. In my opinion this is not debatable. It is unacceptable. I could never accept the inclusion in the list of the ‘T’ because adding vulnerable people to a cause célèbre which could prejudice their care is clearly wrong. Yet, however strongly I hold this opinion, I can only argue it. I cannot force others to accept it or vilify them if they disagree.
So, I believe it is demonstrable that the use of categories as a means of generating justice is unlikely to be ideal, and that the categories themselves are matters of opinion which, in most cases, is debatable, and in one case, potentially harmful. Diversity based on categories imposes too much to be truly diverse. It actually requires the tolerated Diversity to conform to its own preconceptions in order to be tolerated. As such, it is not truly tolerant.
The true nature of Diversity
However, true diversity need not require all the tolerated cultures to tolerate each other. In fact, it must not do so if it is truly to tolerate them at all. For it is not tolerance to subordinate a world view. It is not tolerance to prevent a position reaching its natural conclusion. It is not tolerance to impose ones values on everyone else, however much one believes in those values. Tolerance must uphold rather than suppress what is different, even when the difference is the extent to which what is tolerated tolerates.
What tolerance must do is protect the principle of tolerance, not from those it tolerates, but from intolerant abuse. That is to say, in a truly diverse society, everyone is free to express themselves, and that freedom must include freedom from fear. It follows that, although group A might believe group B is wrong, or even evil, it is not entitled to act in a way which might cause members of group B to be fearful. This would include incitement, intimidation, threats and slanders as well as direct acts of oppression or violence. Both groups must be free to exist and to express their opinions, but not in a manner which would cause the other group harm or fear of harm. In other words, what a truly diverse society needs to control is not opinions, but actions, including the means by which opinions are expressed.
This, of course, is where things become interesting. When does a freely-expressed opinion become an incitement or slander? When does fear become sufficient to justify a claim of incitement or intimidation? It is obvious that precise definitions are difficult and establishing exactly where boundaries should lie is a matter for very fine judgement. One can see the attraction of a simpler system with more clearly-defined and enforceable rules. However, simplicity of implementation is not the goal. Freedom, the maximum freedom for all with protection for the vulnerable should be the goal. Oppression is simple to implement. Freedom requires more care.
A truly diverse society is one in which all views are allowed to coexist. No view is forbidden. No position is condemned, if condemnation is intended to prevent its expression. Opinions are expressed freely and arguments are presented calmly and rationally, without emotional manipulation. It could be argued this would make public debate boring, but I would sooner have boredom than mass killing or oppression. There must be freedom to hold opinions, even to disapprove, but disapproval must not spill over into oppression – action or expression intended to suppress or harm those at whom the disapproval is aimed. Disapproval is not a license for oppressive action.
Agreeing to disagree: the only viable option
There is a model for true Diversity in Anglican Comprehensiveness. Since the Restoration, the Church of England has aimed to be a body in which a wide range of theological opinion can be held and those holding it can work together for the common cause of the Gospel. There is no requirement to agree on precise details but a general assent only to a set of core principals which remain open to multiple interpretations. From time to time this is tested by a particular controversy, but the principle has held the Church and the Anglican Communion together despite wide theological differences.
Critics of Anglican Comprehensiveness are found in both Roman Catholicism and independent Evangelical traditions. They argue the Church of England lacks definition and discipline and allows its ministers to preach falsehoods and undermine true faith, and indeed, it does at the extremes. However, that is not what happens in practice in the majority of parishes where much genuine faith is to be found, although often accompanied by those whose grasp of truth is weaker. It is also true that it is often possible to sit in an Anglican congregation for a lifetime and never understand the core teaching of the Christian Faith, because sermons usually address the application rather than the core essentials of the Faith. However, this is also true in the Roman tradition. Both can claim the defence that it should not be necessary to explain in sermons what is already explicit in the liturgy and it is remarkable that some people fail to understand what they hear, and even say aloud every week, and recognise its implications for their own lives, simply because it is rarely elaborated in preaching.
So there are weaknesses in the Anglican tradition of Comprehensiveness, but there are also great strengths. By allowing diversity in Anglican ministers and congregations it enables the unity of the Church to trump the petty differences which otherwise tend to divide Christians. This is an example of unity to set before the world and other expressions of the Church in other denominations. It shows how people can work together despite differences in a church which is truly catholic because it can include believers of different kinds, and not just those of a particular doctrinal position. This is possibly the greatest gift the Anglican Communion has to contribute to the Ecumenical process.
For Anglican Comprehensiveness is really an agreement to disagree peaceably. It is a recognition that what we have in common is greater than our differences. It has a “live and let live” quality in which opinions are held, but not imposed, and open discussion can take place without fear of censure. It enables truth to be explored and beliefs to be held with sincerity within a broader framework, and all to be considered orthodox within a broader core. Hence it is possible for Anglicans to have multiple opinions on the precise process behind the Atonement or exactly what happens at the Eucharist, while all agreeing that the Atonement and the Eucharist are real and valuable to our collective spirituality.
We have disagreements about the proper extent of ministry, and what it means to be called and ordained, and who should be ordained, and yet, so long as we don’t force people to go against their consciences and make provision for those who disagree to do so with integrity, we can all hold together.
So why is it in areas where secular politics has become intolerant in the name of a false tolerance, that the Church is unable to resist? Why are we unable to hold to our principles in the face of pressure to commit ourselves to one side of a controversy? How can we set an example to the world if we bend to its wind and refuse to show a distinctive witness?
The current issue is often called “sexuality” within Christian circles, so let me address that. (I do not like this term because I do not agree with the implied definition of sex behind it, but let that go for now.) I do not imagine it is the only such issue that will arise as time passes, but as it is the one which currently threatens to cause pain and split the Church of England and the Anglican Communion, let us ask what Anglican Comprehensiveness might have to say about it.
So what shall we say? If we can have a range of understandings of the Eucharist, ranging from mere symbolism to a very real presence, from the unchanging nature of the bread and the wine to the transformation of both into the sacramental body and blood, from a memory of a past event to a sacramental presence in which that event becomes now and we become then, why is it so difficult to accept that understandings of marriage might also have a range of interpretation?
Indeed, although the thirty nine Articles of Religion recognise only two sacraments, there are those in the Church of England who would regard marriage, if not a sacrament, as having sacramental significance. It can be seen as a witness reflecting the image of God (imago Dei) in the union of the one humanity across the divide of the two sexes, thus mirroring the one God in three persons of classical theology. For those who see it thus, the need for both sexes to be involved is an essential and definitive aspect of the whole without which it simply cannot exist. A single sex marriage would be as pointless as a car without wheels or an aeroplane without wings; it could never get off the ground.
For others, marriage is simply a public expression of belonging between two people who wish to make a formal commitment to each other, and it follows if that is all a marriage is that placing restrictions on who might take part looks arbitrary and unfair.
Similarly, although the male homosexual act is condemned in the Biblical Law in language normally applied to idolatry or dishonesty, there are disputes as to whether that should still apply in the Christian context, when much of the Law is no longer considered obligatory for Christians.
Both sides might be able to support their view from Scripture, using different parts and different Biblical principles to draw their conclusion. Of course, there would be a need to make cases and present arguments, but there is no reason to think either side could prove the other wrong to the satisfaction of all. This is, of course, precisely the kind of circumstance in which Comprehensiveness comes into play.
So what is to stop us recognising the existence of a variety of viewpoints on this issue as on others? Why do we presume everyone must agree? Why do the Americans try to impose their understanding on those who are not prepared to recognise it, whether in their own country (forcing those who disagree to separate from them) or in other parts of the world, bringing the integrity of the Communion into peril? Why do churches in parts of the world which see the North American beliefs as contrary to their understanding try to bring the Americans into line, imposing their view as mandatory? It is because, for some reason, we fail to see that our tradition of Comprehensiveness can apply here also, as it does to other disputed doctrine.
Of course, this is not just about sex. It is really about culture and politics, about individualism versus social responsibility, and about freedom versus coercion, but at the heart of it is the interpretation of Scripture, conditioned by experience, reason and tradition, and disagreement because of those cultural factors which contribute to experience and tradition. It should be self-evident people will not agree about such things and can only work together when they seek to recognise the underlying reasons for our disagreement and give each other room to explore within those differences. Agreeing to disagree really is the only viable option when a firm conclusion cannot be reached.
What does this mean in practice? If it is to work, it requires any changes made to structures, canons or processes to be made in such a way that they do not undermine the consciences or beliefs of those who are sincere in their understanding. That might be achievable through careful wording or it might need multiple definitions to be acknowledged and separate provision for each, so no one is forced to compromise in order to permit others to thrive. This is not a new approach; it is just a continuation of the Anglican genius for inclusion which has characterised the Communion for hundreds of years.
Finally, I would like to state that I believe truth is important, and study should always continue, but where the position is ambiguous, or appears to genuine enquirers to be so, agreeing to disagree is the only practical option available. It is always second best, but it is often the best we can achieve in this practical, Fallen world. Perfection is for the next.
Thank you for reading this personal opinion.