This post asks about the relevance of history to the claims of ‘conservatives’. What does it mean to be a conservative defending a tradition which has, in fact, kept changing?
Hereford’s Diocesan Synod voted to ask the House of Bishops
to commend an Order of Prayer and Dedication after the registration of a civil partnership or a same-sex marriage for use by ministers in exercise of their discretion.
Individual churches and clergy have done such things, more or less, by bending the rules, but this is the first time part of the governing structure, a diocesan synod, has proposed a formally authorised set of prayers. ‘Well done Hereford’ said Andrew Lightbown.
Here I focus on one element in the debate, the suppression of history in ‘conservative’ Christian discourse.
Those who have followed the church sex wars are used to the complaint that ‘liberals’ are changing the teaching of the Church. The implication, often clearly expressed, is that church teachings should never change.
But they have changed. They keep changing. To get an overview of church teachings on sexual ethics, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s excellent three part series of television programmes provides an informative and entertaining introduction. My very brief summary is here . Anyway, anyone with an education in history would be very suspicious of claims that a movement covering two thousand years has never changed. Change is normal.
Suppression of history
Once we recognise that church teaching has varied from time to time, it is no longer acceptable to describe one particular view as ‘the conservative view’. Yet the sex wars – over contraception, remarriage after divorce, sex before marriage, same-sex partnerships – are all characterised by one side claiming to defend the Christian teaching on the matter. It is as though church teaching has been static for 2000 years and now, for the first time, revisionists are coming along to undermine it.
It isn’t as though the opponents of change are ignorant of church history. The idea of an unchanging church is not simple historical error: it expresses a distinctive interpretation of the Church.
My focus is on the beginnings of the Reformation, 500 years ago. Before then, Renaissance humanists had already proposed a division of history into golden ages and dark ages. Ancient Greece and Rome good, Middle Ages bad. A thousand years after the fall of Rome, a new golden age was dawning.
Early Protestants could adapt it: Bible good, Catholicism bad. With the Reformation a new golden age of Christianity was dawning, getting back to God’s pure Word in the Bible and dispensing with Catholic misinterpretations.
But without Catholic interpretations, where should the early Protestants, as yet without church authorities of their own, look for guidance? At first they replied that the Bible doesn’t need interpreting. Every individual Christian should be able to read it for themselves and understand what it means.
Over time it became clear that this didn’t work. When individuals read biblical texts they understood them in different ways.
A split opened up. Some emphasised the right of the individual to understand the Bible in their own way, even if it disagreed with what other Protestants thought. This led them to reaffirm the need for authorities who specialised in understanding it. Thus arose the scholarly study of the Bible in Protestant churches.
Others continued to insist that the meaning of every biblical text is easily understood and needs no interpretation. It is this tradition that I focus on here. It was revived in the nineteenth century and again about forty years ago. It expects that, because the Bible never changes, church teachings should never change.
Nowell’s Catechism of 1570 declared that
it were a point of untolerable ungodliness and madness to think, either that God had left an imperfect doctrine, or that men were able to make that perfect, which God left imperfect.
Bucer took a similar view on the ordering of the church:
We do not want to introduce anything anywhere which is not manifest and certain teaching and the clear and undoubted command of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In keeping with his principle, what he offered was mainly a set of quotations from the New Testament, all equally authoritative, showing no awareness of the changed circumstances.
The same applied to ethical teachings. Given the supreme authority of the Bible, its commands must be equally applicable to all times and places. Cartwright even believed that we should refrain from doing anything not commanded in it.
Obviously, the conservative evangelicals of today do not go so far. They see no sin in wearing spectacles and switching on the church lights. They are aware that things have changed over time.
Nevertheless the idea of unchanging and supremely authoritative biblical truths has survived. To such people the arguments of liberals, with their concern for compassion and inclusion, means nothing.
This principle of unchanging teaching inevitably gave rise to a sectarian spirit.
If the Bible is to be read and understood by each Christian individual without needing any interpreter, a problem arises whenever two conscientious Protestants understand a text in different ways. If you accept the plain meaning of a text and somebody else thinks it means something different, they are just plain wrong. Worse still, if they insist that they are accepting the plain meaning, they must be deceived – and in the Reformation era that often meant being deceived by the devil.
To make matters worse, if every biblical text comes from God, no two texts can possibly contradict each other. When they seem to, they need to be understood in such a way that they do not. But then, what happens to the clear, plain, uninterpreted meaning?
It was a recipe for endless angry denunciations of fellow Protestants, church splits and the foundation of new churches whenever a group of people disagreed with what their minister was teaching.
This sectarian spirit has also been revived in recent times. To many who accept their interpretation of the Bible’s authority, it is important to draw a line between those who accept the Bible’s true teaching and those who do not.
I shall be surprised if the Hereford motion satisfies them. It proposes that parishes and ministers should have the right to refuse to conduct same-sex blessings. In this way it tries to reassure opponents that they will not be obliged to have anything to do with it.
However, if opponents find this acceptable, they will have moved a long way from the Anglican Covenant debate of 2002-2012, when bishops in every continent were insisting that one gay bishop in America was reason for schism. The point was that to accept his authority as a Christian bishop was to reject biblical teaching.
In the same way, opponents of same-sex partnerships may well insist that the Hereford motion would mean the Church of England was formally rejecting the Bible’s teaching.
Models of the Church
Another result of sectarian Protestantism was to understand the Church differently. The traditional teaching of both Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches has been that their church, with its priests and archbishops, was the true church instituted by Christ. What you see is what you get. For early sectarian Protestants, on the other hand, if the concept of a true church was to survive at all, it must consist of the people who interpret the Bible correctly. This group of people did not correlate with any one ecclesial institution. Who belonged to the true Church was known to God alone.
This makes it possible to ignore all church history. From this perspective, the Church is only Christian when it abides by the teaching of its own tradition, accepting the supreme authority of the Bible. Whenever any church deviates from this doctrine it ceases to be Christian, so it can be ignored. It becomes no more relevant than Buddhist teaching.
It follows from the logic of this position that, once such Protestants have removed all the deviations from consideration, the true Church they are left with is a church where everybody always agreed with them. History seems to have nothing to teach them.
In practice, of course, people who call themselves ‘conservative’ only buy into some of this. My point is not that they all follow all of it, but more simply that they are influenced by it.
It seems to me that those who object to the Hereford motion (like those who a few years ago supported the Anglican Covenant) are not being conservative at all. They are being revolutionary. They are demanding a total change to church culture, so that everybody has to believe the same things.
To be a true conservative would be to conserve the range of opinions and practices that have characterised our history.
Meanwhile the pressure builds up. The Church Times reports that the pressure for change in Hereford is coming from clergy being asked to perform these rites. To adapt to new pressures by making adequate provision, while otherwise maintaining the system as it is, seems to me characteristic of the conservative disposition at its best.