August 10, 2013

Living With the Questions

Thanks to Savi Hensman for a measured response to Andrew Goddard’s essay on the process of the Church of England attempting to come to terms with reality. Pointing out that it is better to be uncertain rather than certain but wrong, she nails the "stopped clock is right twice a day" modality of Goddard.

It can also be noted that the case against same-sex marriage, in terms of Scriptural clarity, is sorely lacking in certainty, and only Scriptural certainty will suffice for Anglicans when it comes to prohibition or mandate. (Article XX) Tolerance or allowance is the generous world in which Anglicans pitch their tents when certainty eludes us, and a reasonable doubt can be raised concerning the prosecution's case.

I explored this aspect of Anglican tradition in a post on Reasonable and Holy Doubt, in response to a long but rather unhelpful review of some of my work on the subject, by Dr Radner. He is also continuing to press what he can make of his case, but still seems to me to be confecting certainty where reasonable doubt is manifest, and proof is wanting, in spite of his impassioned insistence. And the chief problem is that he doesn't appear to recognize that toleration does not need to rest on proof, while prohibition does. Thus, when it comes to Scripture, he can assert (imprecisely) that there are "prohibitions of homosexual acts" in both the Old and New Testament; but while acknowledging these texts are few, he fails to note just how little these texts — none of them definitely referring to female same-sex acts, by the way, and those referring to males very likely limited in scope to particular situations — actually relate to the question of faithful, monogamous same-sex marriage; any more than the numerous prohibitions on various forms of heterosexual activity constitute a restriction on mixed-sex marriage. (Jacob Milgrom has presented the thesis of one of his students  that the Leviticus 18 text — with its partner in 20 the only precise Scriptural prohibition of male same-sex acts — is meant solely to forbid male homosexual incest to the same extent as the heterosexual forms listed in the chapter!)

The arguments from Goddard and others on his side of the divide will do little to convince anyone still on the fence on this matter, though perhaps they may ironically tip a few folks to the affirmative. Fair-minded people don't like what appears to be intolerance. (The debate in the House of Lords revealed the way in which the anti arguments pushed in the opposite direction to their intent, as the sea of pink carnations by the end revealed.)

Meanwhile, Fulcrum might rename itself Bulwark, as the wagons circle in defense of an idea that cannot long stand against the real moral values of love and fidelity, against which there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


thomas bushnell, bsg said...

I am intrigued by a bit of phrasing here from Hensman. He refers to the idea (which is clearly radical in England) that bishops might "admit that many of them privately disagree with the official position".

But there is an interesting thing about that. The expression of something could be in public or in private. Holding such an office, it is expressed publicly when spoken aloud in a large forum, or written for broad dissemination, or the like. It is expressed privately over a cocktail in one's study. And there is, of course, a range in between. Expression, as a kind of action, can be done in different ways.

But the believing, that can't be done in different ways. An honorable and thoughtful person does not believe now one thing and now another, opinions changing with the wind. Believing is not something which can be either public or private; there is no such thing as "publicly believing" a thing or "privately believing" a thing. The Queen can have an Official Birthday at variance from her real birthday, and the Prime Minister can have one official residence as the First Lord of the Treasury, and another official residence as Prime Minister, and a third where he actually lives.

But a person cannot believe one thing "privately" and then a different thing "publicly". It's simply inconsistent with the most basic idea of what it means to believe a thing.

So this "privately disagree", what does that mean? Does it mean that these bishops express their disagreement privately? Or is there a deeper and more morally problematic idea that these bishops think they can actually have one set of beliefs as their "public beliefs" and another as their "private beliefs"?

This is connected, naturally, with the epistemology of the closet, for that is what we are really dealing with here. One can be openly gay or in the closet, but there's no way to be "privately" gay. You can only be private about your expression, but the being gay part, that's a 24/7 thing.

I think Rowan Williams thought he could have an "official opinion" and a "private opinion"; I think the entire way the Church of England has enforced systematic dishonesty on clergy (about their sexuality) and on bishops (about their theological opinions about sexuality) has been a dancing with a pretty serious devil.

To Goddard, the question is not, really "what the church teaches", which is a phrase from a rather stale idea in which the church consists of a "teaching" part and a "listening" part. The church teaches as it acts and lives, in the actual experience and deeds and statements of *all* its members. And if that means the church doesn't speak about sexuality with clarity, them's the facts. Hand-wringing won't change it, and the bishops don't "speak for the church", so getting them all on the same page about adiaphora may serve some agenda, but not any kind of legitimate theological agenda here.

And as with the closet, for a bishop to have an opinion which is never expressed publicly about something that important, well, that's frankly the sort of constructive dishonesty as the closeted gay person who "omits" to tell his closest family the gender of his partner.

The "unity in teaching" crowd seems to think that if they admitted publicly and frankly that they disagree, people would stop respecting them in society at large. I gotta say, dudes, that ship has SAILED. But there is still a chance to salvage at least a little reputation for honesty. The question about whether the bishops should admit their disagreement cannot be answered by wondering "what will be the effects?", but only by whether it is *true*.

The decision about whether to speak the truth or continue lying, for a Christian, should not be a complicated one.

Tobias Haller said...

Thanks, Thomas, for a particularly robust and helpful analysis of the situation. This is a large part of the problem in the C of E, which appears to have cultivated, along with much of civil society in England, the art of not asking and not telling. As someone quipped in a related matter, England is so deep in the closet it is practically Narnia. Civil society has moved along into a more open and rational position, in part pushed by the scandals of the past in the exposition of hypocrisy ... oops, sorry... discretion and good manners.

I take your points on public and private, and it is indeed a troubling thing when people are of a double mind. We run into that with clergy who recite the creed with fingers crossed, or who continue to function long after having "privately" abandoned anything approaching credal belief. At the other extreme one could say there are those who cling to the idols of some past fundamentalism long after it has ceased to be the official "teaching" (or practice, at any rate) -- I think of the die-hard anti-WO contingent here.

At the same time, I do think there is room for informed dissent. For example, I respect the role of the Supreme Court in our national polity, and have little patience with those who bemoan "the decisions of a group of unelected jurists." But at the same time, I feel free to disagree with individual decisions of that court, while accepting that they have ruled, and until they or the legislature change something, that is the state of things.

But I think that is very different from the wink and nod hypocrisy that besets the Church of England.

Richard Edward Helmer said...

This morning at Grace Cathedrak, Dean Jane Shaw made note -- broadly speaking at least -- of this fundamental flaw in Protestantism: that belief (narrowly understood as intellectual assent) is all that really matters. The broader Catholic understanding is much more interested in practice. You know all this already, of course! My only point is that much hypocrisy, dissembling, and strangeness (a la Thomas’ analysis of what "private belief" really means or doesn’t mean) seems to occur at the limits of Protestant conservatism.