The Revd Brutus Green
‘It’s God’s church and he gets to make the rules.’ The pronouncement of a disgruntled male conservative after the consecration of women as bishops was finally approved by the Church of England on Monday. The statement sounds a little bit too close, to my mind, to ‘It’s my church and I get to make the rules’; perhaps it was deliberate but it’s hard to miss the masculine pronoun from someone arguing against women bishops - claiming that in God’s church he gets to make the rules. Of course he would say that.
But the conservatives raise an important point. Should the church go running after, appeasing, the world; are we giving in our timeless moral principles for the populist godlessness of secular morality? If someone asked you whether you think there should be women bishops - would your answer be specifically Christian, or would you answer with dull EU rulings or the stirring feminism of Beyonce? ‘If I were a boy’, Beyonce might have said, ‘even just for a day - I’d roll outta bed in the morning and throw on my mitre and crook…’ Do we know what it is to think as Christians on moral issues?
One man who was very concerned with this sort of question was St Augustine who took it as his theme in The City of God Against the Pagans. His basic idea is that there are two cities. The City of God to which we pray we belong, and the earthly city, which is dominated by the ‘lust for mastery’. Now there are some who take this metaphor very seriously. For them the City of God is the church. The earthly city is everyone else. St Augustine himself wrote, though that: ‘In this world, the two cities are entangled and mingled with one another; and they will remain so until the last judgment shall separate them’.
As unlikely as it sounds there are indeed those within the Church motivated by a ‘lust for mastery’. You may also have noticed Robin’s furtive glances at the vicarage, and at Bryan’s spacious office.
The inspiration for Augustine’s metaphor is obviously today’s Gospel reading: the wheat and the tares - or weeds as we now have it. Here the good seed and bad are sown together and left to grow until they are finally reaped and sorted. The parable urges humility against rushing to the judgment that is God’s, as well as patience in enduring the persistence of those out to thwart the Gospel. It remains ambiguous though: how do we know whether we are with the wheat or the weeds?
These troublemakers naturally have been planted by the devil, who - depending on your perspective has had either a good or bad week at synod. For along with women bishops the new baptism service has been sanctioned which takes out the requirement to reject the devil. I say mixed because the devil knows that all publicity is good publicity. This appears to be another concession to the modern outlook, which doesn’t believe in monsters unless they are played by R. Pattz and somehow tragically beautiful and misunderstood (except, of course, for ‘the Blob’ which it seems has shuffled closer to victory this week…). On the other hand, the new baptism service provides ammunition for bleating secularists who will declare that even the devil has now left the church of England.
The other debate pulling at another of the frayed edges of the church this week is over the Assisted Dying bill, provoking unlikely representatives. Few would have predicted former Archbishop Lord Carey speaking up for it, while the liberal bishop of Worcester John Inge has made an impassioned case against it. More than other moral debates the majority of arguments are framed in extremely personal cases. John Inge’s wife, who died this year on Easter Sunday, commented shortly before she died: ‘The cancer has not made life more precious – that would make it seem like something fragile to lock away in the cupboard. No, it has made it more delicious.’ The bishop’s closing comment in the article caught my attention: ‘I, like the overwhelming majority of those who work in palliative care, am opposed to this bill – not on religious grounds, but out of concern for the weakest and most vulnerable in our society.’
My only objection is to his claim that ‘concern for the weakest and most vulnerable’ does not constitute a religious reason. No doubt he has said this to separate his argument from any reference to Scripture, but if the Judaeo-Christian tradition is based on anything then it is exactly ‘the concern for the weakest and most vulnerable in our society’. The endless tedious hermeneutic and expository biblical head slamming of Christians over women and homosexuality is not worth rehearsing. It doesn’t make either side more convincing. It’s become the trench warfare of church politics. Actually ‘concern for the weakest and most vulnerable’ provides a much more solid basis for Christian thinking both in pursuing the equality and immeasurable worth of each person, and in respecting those who hold minority positions.
Some of the arguments in question turn to human rights: ‘I have the right to die, the right to do what I want to my own body’. I would suggest that Christian moral teaching cannot be so simply individualistic - it asks that we take social responsibility seriously - responsibility both for others and to others. ‘No man is an island entire of itself… if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less’. Life and death are social occasions.
The question is not simple for Christians. I suspect that Scripture will be little use. But the starting point should come out of this concern for the weakest and most vulnerable - how does the possibility or threat of assisted death affect those who are extremely weak and vulnerable; those who who feel they’re of little value in the world, in the way, who worry that they are a burden to friends and family - that count themselves as little worth? But also what is the possibility of death to those who are in terrible discomfort? What is it for the doctors who must agree "this life is no longer worth living". And what is it for those who love and look on helplessly - wishing for an end, or for a few more hours.
The choice of assisted death does not add another possibility, grant a freedom, it changes the conversation entirely. And in a very complicated way. Palliative care and end of life issues affect all of us and needs approaching from every possible angle. It is not a clearcut moral case, but a change in the law would have dramatic consequences.
According to the prophets a nation may be judged, and the wrath of God governed, by how it cares for the vulnerable.
There are a number of resources for Christian thought on social and moral issues, Scripture, the tradition, but the place one must begin is with a ‘concern for the weakest and most vulnerable’. Because as St Paul says, ‘if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing’. The danger I think in today’s general moral discussions is sidestepping from the ethical to the political: that we make ethical decisions based on what we consider to be our human rights - or, worse, when we simply ask what will make most people most happy. When ethics loses sight of virtue, how to be a good citizen, and what makes a good society, it ceases to be ethics. One could argue, similarly, that there is a parallel danger in sidestepping from the political to the populist: when governments make decisions, say on immigration or on cabinet reshuffles, on the basis of what polls well. When ethics become populist - we will have arrived at the worst meaning of democracy - the rule of the mob.
For now we exist in this world of wheat and tares. And with it we must remain humble in trusting in God’s judgement at the last to sort our error from truth and wait patiently for conversion with those who we suspect are of the devil, whether he figures in their baptismal services or not. But at all times we must remember that Christ demands of us a concern for the weak and vulnerable, and as ethical and political animals this is where we begin. Finally this week we can at least be thankful that, while a diva is female version of a hustler, we are one step closer to a female version of a bishop. I have no doubt Margaret is already making inquiries into trading her tiara in for a mitre. To close with St Paul: ‘we hope for what we do not see, [and] we wait for it with patience’. Amen.