Should the Church split?

Classical Anglican theology has until now remained sufficiently influential to ensure that having a bishop with whom one disagrees is a normal and acceptable part of church life. Evangelicals, Catholics and liberals alike have not expected to agree with their bishop about everything. Even at the height of the debates about slavery many proponents of reform had slave-owning bishops, but they did not issue threats to split the church or demand alternative episcopal oversight.

From the perspective of coherentist liberalism there is no reason why a church should split over the ethics of homosexuality. Homosexuality is but one of many hundreds of ethical issues and churches often change their views on them. Where the current debate innovates is not, therefore, in the proposal to consider homosexuality morally acceptable but in the claim that having a bishop with whom one disagrees is not acceptable. This claim derives from foundationalism and is clearly quite contrary to the character of classical Anglican theology. As I argued in the last chapter, in the long run it will be revealed

to be utterly unrealistic; it only appears realistic as long as the focus of attention is restricted to a single ethical issue. It is true that some people are asserting that it is such an essential issue for the church that we cannot just agree to differ; but is only an assertion, and a recently invented one at that. No satisfactory case has been made as to why we should all agree about it when we disagree about so many other issues.

To liberals it seems that homosexuality is the central issue of our time only because conservative evangelicals have chosen it as the one most likely to unite evangelicals who otherwise tend to be too fissiparous to unite around a common cause. Liberals and Catholics had no part in giving it so much prominence above other issues. It unites conservatives in Europe and North America because their host society is becoming more tolerant of it. As society changes the moral standards of Christians, as so often happens, follows those of society but with a time lag; in the meantime a moral stance which used to characterize society as a whole can be presented as a distinctively Christian moral norm. For those who believe that God is active outside the church this is only to be expected; there is no reason to expect churches, or Christians, to be first with new insights. On the other hand for those who expect to derive all their truths from Christian revelation it indicates that the new ideas must be contrary to God’s will.

At the time of writing there is much speculation about whether the Anglican Communion will or should split, with some arguing that the split has already happened. One group acknowledges the fact that society has become more tolerant of homosexuality and believes that as a responsible part of society it should respect the change. Among them are those who believe homosexuality is not immoral, but also others who believe that since opinions differ a diversity of views should be accepted in the church. In either case they think there is a proper place for churches to adapt their teachings in the light of new insights. Some of them do some campaigning on the issue but most do not. If their view does not prevail they will be disappointed but there will be no major international campaigns, no rival provinces, no consecrations of ‘alternative’ or ‘adequate’ bishops to cater for their point of view, no conspiracies to create splits. The institutional church is not so important to them that they are prepared to devote all their energies to it. Some will stay in the church, perhaps muttering – like churchgoers who do not like their new vicar – that one day things will change again. Others will move to a different church if they can find a suitable one. Others again will attend less often or not at all.

Another group also acknowledges that society has become more tolerant of homosexuality, but is determined to oppose it. Its immorality is not up for debate, and those who are opposing the church’s opposition to it are undermining the whole church. A church which refuses to make it clear that homosexuality is sinful is not the true church. Better to create a split, so that half a true church survives, than collude with the apostasy being proposed. For people who see Christianity as opposed to society and its values, it is all the more important that there should be true Christian institutions which do not compromise their beliefs. This group has both the commitment to the institutional church and the emotional energy to preserve purity. If offence is caused – if they are accused of bullying and bigotry – well, the Old Testament prophets made themselves unpopular too.

A third group is less concerned about the ethics of homosexuality than the protection of the institutional church. For some this is because of a commitment to Catholic theology, for others because they are in positions of leadership and feel some responsibility to hold the church together. They cannot fully satisfy both the other groups. If they disappoint the conservatives they are threatened with the prospect of a rival administration, and the church may well split irrevocably. It they disappoint the liberals there will be no fireworks, just a slow reduction of support; a churchwarden resigns here, a gay couple stops attending there, but most will carry on supporting the church albeit a little more grudgingly. From the point of view of church leaders taking a pragmatic view of the situation, the solution seems obvious: better to retain the conservatives and let the liberal element quietly decline.

In the long term, however, it will be a different matter. At the end of the last chapter I suggested that if the spirit of foundationalism is allowed to set the tone for the Anglican Communion, far from avoiding a split it will ensure a succession of splits precisely because it will have sanctioned a more intolerant response to differences of opinion. It will also cut off its main source of new members. Black and white certainty claims attract some but repel others. Numerically, the numbers repelled are probably far larger but less noticed. There are statistics to show how the numbers of churchgoers increase and decline, but there are no statistics to show the numbers of people who did not attend any church anyway but are now more strongly opposed to Christianity because of its hostility to gays and lesbians. Yet these people – the generally unchurched, potentially sympathetic but easily put off by hardliners – represent a huge proportion of the population. According to the 2001 census in the UK around two-thirds of the population consider themselves Christians but do not attend church services. In the long run these are the potential new supporters and members of churches. Their beliefs and attitudes vary; but the more church leaders present Christianity as very different and more reactionary, the less attractive most of them will find it.

If history is any guide, over the next ten or twenty years homosexuality will go the way of drinking alcohol. Increasing numbers of opponents will become aware that close friends of theirs, perhaps even members of their family, engage in it. They will refuse to believe that it stands out above all other issues as the defining one for Christians. It will cease to unite them. This will be good news for homosexuals, but not necessarily for other liberals. Foundationalism will move on to its next unifying issue, whatever that may be. This perhaps is the most tragic part of the situation we are in. To split the Anglican Communion over the ethics of homosexuality is no more sensible, or necessary, than splitting it over divorce, contraception, pacifism or many hundreds of other ethical issues. What would justify a split would be an inability to agree on how to make decisions. This, unfortunately, is not a fantasy. Behind the debate about homosexuality lies precisely this issue, expressed through the different perspectives of foundationalists and coherentists: do we deduce everything from divine revelation and discount other sources, or do we draw on the widest possible range of sources and allow a place for development and new insights? Is it possible that what the church has taught for the last two, six or nineteen centuries is wrong and it is time to change? Or is it always the church’s task to defend the certainties it has inherited?

Until now the Anglican Communion has contained within itself the tools for change in response to new insights. However the gradual growth of foundationalism within it has now reached a point where its supporters feel strong enough to lay claim to the Anglican Communion itself. Many of them have never experienced churches which are not foundationalist – or, if they have, they have been warned against their ‘unsound’ or ‘liberal’ teachings and have not engaged constructively with them. The current debate reveals many confident assertions of foundationalism as the only acceptable way to be Anglican. Even the Windsor Report and primates’ meetings speak its language. How should coherentist liberals respond?

This is where the difficulty of holding the Communion together is at its greatest. It is nothing to do with homosexuality, everything to do with the excessive certainty-claims of foundationalism. How does a tolerant church tolerate the intolerant? How does an inclusive church include excluders? When a church with a history of inclusiveness and tolerance welcomes into its ranks large numbers of people whose beliefs make them exclusive and intolerant, only two options are available. One is to capitulate to them, and allow them to change the church into an intolerant and exclusive one. This is, at the time of writing, is the direction in which the Windsor process seems to be moving. The other is to insist on maintaining the principles of inclusion and tolerance, even at the expense of members who refuse to accept them.

Between these alternatives there is no possibility of compromise. If you are willing to compromise with me but I am not willing to compromise with you, every time we succeed in reaching agreement it can only be because you have given in to me. In the same way the Anglican Communion contains coherentists who admit that their views may be wrong, are prepared to change their minds if persuaded, and even if they are not persuaded are willing to compromise. It also contains foundationalists who are convinced that their views are certainly correct and do not believe alternative views should be permitted. If the Communion’s leaders are determined to keep both sides together in the same church, it can only be done by allowing the foundationalists to impose their will on every issue.

I therefore believe that the Anglican Communion should do the exact opposite of what the Windsor process has sought to achieve. It should protect diversity of opinion, willingness to accept uncertainty, tolerance and inclusiveness, by insisting that they are to be respected and valued as essential parts of a welcoming and developing church. Liberalism does not mean that ‘anything goes’; like every other system it needs to be protected against those who attack it. The Anglican Communion does not need to expel those who disagree with diversity of opinion. It can accept them as members, but must impose on them the discipline of respecting Anglicanism: that is to say, refraining from undermining its tolerance, inclusiveness and diversity. Only when people declare – or make it clear by their actions – that they are not prepared to accept this discipline, should we reach the conclusion that Anglicanism is not for them; but when it happens we should not be afraid to do so.

Ultimately, the unity of the church is less important than its ability to help us relate to God. If, as Henry McAdoo observed, ‘Anglicanism is not committed to believing anything because it is Anglican but only because it is true’, this is all the more reason why the search for truth, in matters of religion as in all else, should be allowed to continue unfettered and the church should see it as its business to encourage it.

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