Spirit of truth

Norman Russell argues that Christians must develop a richer and more sophisticated understanding of truth and justice than is found in secular culture; so also over the issue of women bishops


The Venerable Norman Russell has been the Archdeacon of Berkshire since 1998, and is a member of the General Synod. At the July 2005 Group of Sessions, he successfully moved an amendment to the motion which initiated the process of looking at legislative options to enable the ordination of women to the episcopate, and which established the Guildford Group.

Archdeacon Russell’s amendment instructed the Guildford Group to ‘give specific attention to the issues of canonical obedience and the universal validity of Orders throughout the Church of England as it would affect clergy and laity who cannot in conscience accept the ordination of women to the episcopate on theological grounds.’

It sought, in other words, to highlight those two key areas of concern to traditionalists – jurisdiction and sacramental assurance.

Archdeacon Russell was elected Prolocutor of the Convocation of Canterbury (and therefore joint Chair of the House of Clergy) for the 2005–2010 Synod. This ancient office carries with it ex officio membership of the Archbishops’ Council.

We can be sure that he will be deeply involved in the scrutiny of any legislation for the ordination of women as bishops which may come before this Synod. Here he writes, not only about the question of women priests and bishops, but about the cultural and epistemological context in which the Church seeks to discern the mind of Christ today.

The General Synod of the Church of England is not always predictable. The February debate on a report of the Board of Education about Church of England colleges of higher education and universities was thinly attended, but it turned out to be one of the best debates of the Synod. The report emphasized that church-founded institutions are every bit as respectable academically as comparable secular establishments. Whilst the report contained evidence that some institutions, such as Canterbury Christ Church University, were intentional in honouring the Christian nature of their foundation, it was generally content to emphasize background Christian ethos and values as the main features of Christian distinctiveness.

If the section of the report on Christian distinctiveness could be said to be somewhat anodyne, the debate on it most certainly was not. In different ways, one after another, four of the most theologically alert members of the Synod – a theological college principal, a professor of theology, a canon theologian and the Roman Catholic representative on the Synod – invited the Synod to consider whether there ought not to be more distinctiveness to a church foundation university than simply to undergird, with a Christian ethos, prevailing secular views about knowledge and education.

If church universities settle for this, it was suggested, they are failing to do justice to all that should follow in institutions founded in the name of the one who has revealed himself to be the truth. Beyond the field of education, this most interesting debate highlighted some important epistemological questions which have wider relevance to contentious issues currently facing the Church of England and the Anglican Communion.

Most Christians readily acknowledge the importance of rational thought. Most equally readily acknowledge that there are truths about the nature of our world and the universe which are discovered by scientific method. Additionally, Christians have always believed that truths about the purpose of creation and human destiny are not discerned in the laboratory nor through a telescope, but in God’s revelation of himself and his purposes in Scripture, as it bears witness to Jesus Christ. That said, we also combine our affirmation of the central truths of the faith with an acknowledgement of a degree of provisionality in all our understandings, conscious that now we ‘see through a glass darkly.’

From time to time, contributors to New Directions write of ‘the Liberal Agenda.’ There are undoubtedly many agendas within the church, both liberal and conservative of various shades. My particular concern lies more with the default mode within which thinking is often shaped and debate conducted. What do I mean? Let me explain.

Consider, for example, the Government’s equality agenda, some of which has been warmly embraced within the church. Alongside more positive features, orders made under the Equality Act can appear to indicate that one lifestyle is to be considered as valid as another. Many would claim that this is a matter of justice because everyone has a ‘right’ to choose what lifestyle suits them – effectively turning morality into a matter of personal taste.

Christians should of course be deeply committed to justice. It was, as we heard at the February Synod, a passion for justice which led William Wilberforce, and the friends with whom he read the Bible in Clapham, to campaign for the abolition of the slave trade two centuries ago. As God spoke to them through their reading of Scripture, it was borne in on them that all men and women, irrespective of the colour of their skin, were equally created in the image of God, and that in Christ there is neither slave nor free. But as I read my Bible, whatever secular philosophy and contemporary culture may say, I do not read that all lifestyles are equally acceptable to God.

On the contrary, I read that those lifestyles which are destructive of loving, faithful and ordered family life and which do not give to children the security, love and care they need are exploitive, abusive and unjust. My point is that when claims are made for new policies on the grounds of justice, there is a question which is proper to ask: ‘Whose Justice?’

Is the concept of justice being used in a particular case shaped by passing fashions within our culture, or by God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ? Christians should always be valiant for justice, but we should also be discerning and recognize the existence of clear blue water between our culture’s default understanding of justice and that of the Bible. The relevance of our faith as Christians is not measured by how well we meld into the prevailing culture, but by whether we are able to retain our vision of the Kingdom of God and to live faithfully as the people of God even when our culture becomes ever more detached from its Christian foundations.

A degree of subtlety is needed as we engage with the ‘rights agenda.’ Most Christians, conscious of the value of every human life, instinctively wish to defend the weak and vulnerable and are often properly sympathetic to much of what human rights activists are trying to defend. Yet alongside this, we sometimes feel an unease, and frequently with good reason.

Alleged rights are too often absolutized and conflict with other rights. ‘A woman’s right to choose’ and ‘the rights of the unborn child’ is only one example, but a particularly stark one, of the conflicting rights of individuals detached from a wider relational context.

Fundamental to Christian anthropology is relationship – to God, the family, the church and the community. Assertions about ‘rights’ commonly ignore the context of the individual in community and are couched as if ‘intermediate communities’ have no ‘rights’ and have no real part to play as the state prescribes ‘rights’ for the individual. Yet it is precisely within these intermediate communities, most of all the family, that interaction is relational and whose existence is critical for human flourishing.

Dr Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, makes the key point forcefully. ‘In the field of personal relationships two systems of thought, two ways of life, have collided, one which speaks of interdependence, the other of independence. The battle against the family has been conducted in terms of rights, the rights of men to have relationships unencumbered by lasting duties, the rights of women to be free of men, the rights of each of us to plot our private paths to happiness…’

He refers to the work of the distinguished sociologist Professor A.H. Halsey who summarizes his work on one parent families, ‘On the evidence available, such children tend to die earlier, to have more illness, to do less well at school, to exist at a lower level of nutrition…and finally to repeat the cycle of unstable parenting from which they themselves have suffered.’ The point is that human flourishing is heavily dependent on the quality of family life and other human relationships.

Similar problems attend equality agendas. ‘How odd of God to choose the Jews’ – very odd indeed by the canons of today’s equality agenda. Yet the fact remains that the themes of election and covenant are central to the larger story of the Hebrew Bible. When God made his covenant with Abraham, he had yet to learn of the equality agenda! His plan was that through Abraham and his descendents the nations of the world would be blessed. With privilege went the responsibility ‘to be a light to the Gentiles.’

In today’s world, those growing up in caring Christian homes and experiencing God’s faithfulness in family relationships are likewise immensely privileged. Government can properly take steps to reduce gross inequalities in wealth and income. However, cultural and faith differences, which are at least as important, cannot be addressed in this way. Neither are gender issues as straightforward as a simple declaration of undifferentiated equality. Although both men and women are equally made in the image of God, Scripture recognizes also a complementarity between the sexes, leaving room for debate as to its implications!

It will be obvious from what is written above, that I am not attracted to arguments for the ordination of women when they are made on the basis of notions of justice, rights and equality drawn from contemporary culture. Nonetheless, unlike many readers of New Directions, I am supportive of the ordination of women and, in principle, of the ordination of women to the episcopate, although I do have some ecumenical concerns.

It is not as obvious to me, as it is to some, that such ordinations are contrary to Scripture. Rightly or wrongly, as I have observed the fruitful ministry of women and in recent years of women clergy, I have come to be positive about the ordination of women, rather as St Peter came to see that there was a place for Cornelius and other Gentiles in the Christian Church. But still conscious that I ‘see through a glass darkly’ and therefore conscious also of the provisionality of all our understandings, I remain uneasy about pressures in the Church to proceed in ways which will effectively eject those who not only hold sincerely to the traditional understanding and practice of the Christian centuries, but to the Catholic faith.

At the time of writing, it is not clear what proposals developed from those in the Guildford Report will be brought to the July General Synod. It will be essential, if the proposals are to be acceptable, that proper legal provision is made for those unable to accept the episcopal ministry and jurisdiction of a woman to be able to remain in the Church of England with a good conscience.

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