Not quite the truth

 

Digby Anderson reflects on the subtle and complex questions surrounding the truth and the telling of it especially in today’s delicate theological climate

I heard recently of a priest who went to his diocesan bishop for a licence to officiate. The bishop asked what he considered his future. The priest replied that he might well go to Rome. The licence was refused. My initial reaction and that of some other clergy was that the priest was, perhaps, a little naive to answer honestly. I thought of the last words of the father of a priest who was my mentor. They concerned not eternity but were simply, ‘Never trust an Anglican bishop.’

The episode reminded me of advice given to a would-be ordinand about what to say at his selection conference when asked his views on the ordination of women. He was of impeccably proletarian origins, so he had a chance of success which should not have been thrown

away by reckless honesty. I don’t think we said ‘Lie’ but it was close: ‘Say you strongly support women finding their rightful place in the church.’

Dealing with bureaucracy

The point is that with codes of practice, ordinariates, ‘re’-ordination and all that, we are now at one of those times when it becomes, if not a pleasure, then a necessity to speak not quite the truth. Whether dealing with Anglican or Roman bishops, many of us will have to be careful what we say, assent to, agree with. You tut, ‘These are matters of principle calling for ruthless honesty.’ Well, they are also about individuals dealing with powerful bureaucracies and the bureaucracy, if not the power, calls for nice expression.

It may even be that the bureaucracy secretly wants us to lie. Consult the four-volume classic by Davies sj, Moral and Pastoral Theology, or the briefer, but gloriously titled, Sins and Their Remedies, and you will be told not only to tell the truth but that there are a horde of expressions well short of lies that count as them. These too have glorious names. One of the toughest points out that even if what you say is strictly true, it is deceitful if its aim is to allow the hearer to believe an untruth.

Unspoken rules

In general I am for telling the truth. But there is more to it than that. To give one instance, mentioned above, what if your literal truth but equivocation or distraction is not only perceived by but expected by the hearer? In some of these interactions we see not declaration but a sort of game. To court unpopularity, let me say that the ‘re’-ordination, entering into full, or even worse, fuller communion business certainly has some features of a game.

It is a game in which the participants are required to play parts. If either of them were to tell the truth so as to satisfy the authors of Sins and Their Remedies the game would have to be abandoned. I was careful to say ‘some features of a game’. Of course it is not just a game. Nor is the declaration of marriage vows or the countless sworn testaments in government documents. But there is an element of a game here, that of following deliberately unspoken rules.

There is a secular instance going on at the moment. Some power-crazed medical czar is demanding GPs ask patients what they drink and remonstrate with them if it is excessive. Now it is well known that patients lie about their drinking, reducing it by some 50%. Doctors and researchers know this and tend to double patient declarations. This, too, is known by patients, who cut their declarations by a further 50% so that the final figure is within the state-mandated ‘safe’ levels.

The nature of truth

The classic religious declaration is the creed. There are three. What does it mean when we declare them to be true? It does not, I suggest, mean that the creeds are exact descriptions of what we believe, but that we commit ourselves to these beliefs because they are authorized by church councils. Now these three creeds, while they do not contradict each other, differ, yet are liturgically exchangeable. So whatever their truth, it is clearly not the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Complete and exhaustive truth is only possible in closed languages like mathematics, if there.

This idea of the incompleteness of truth statements has been studied both by philosophers and socio-linguisticians. Briefly, there is always something more that you could say about social, psychological and religious topics. Moreover, many utterances say more than they appear to say. They have an et cetera clause so they say, ‘I believe this and other things of this kind.’ Moreover, many such statements are not descriptions of actions but themselves perform the action, performatives, for instance, ‘I swear’.

So credal statements are not full descriptive statements of the truth but actions committing oneself to beliefs like the ones mentioned. None of this should surprise orthodox Christians, for while they believe that God has been revealed, they also believe he is ineffable. Now we perceive through a glass darkly.

The need for trust

None of this should be used to relativize truth nor lessen its importance. Rather it shows that telling the truth is not a literal matter, but one in which speaker and hearer share tacit assumptions about what is being done in making this or that declaration. This makes trust central. So if one cannot trust an Anglican, or indeed, a Roman bishop, it raises far more problems than any minor literal inaccuracy in what is declared or sworn. ND

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