Lent Course 2006: The People of God

Unit Two - Ranking as an analytical tool

One of the cultural changes which took place in the second half of the 20th Century was the increased formalisation, into devices called 'tools', of processes which we had all previously undertaken in what we would loosely call a 'subconscious' way. Most of us thought we did not need:

  1. A Health and Safety Executive manual to help us look after our children
  2. A Risk Register to help us make decisions about the future
  3. An Audit trail to help us work out how events linked together or
  4. A Time Manager to help us get everything done by the end of the day.

These are only a few such modern tools.

Theology and philosophy have always used tools; in essence these disciplines which respectively deal with the nature of God and how we know about God and the nature of being and how we know about being are both tool makers and tool users. Indeed, one of the things that will become clearer in this Unit is that sometimes the tool making is more instructive than the tool using because making the tool forces us to answer the question: what is it for? Using the tool often only answers the question: What is it like?

If we look back at the theological account at the beginning of Unit One, we will see that it is what is called a hybrid list:

One of my favourite aphorisms is that: "If God exists she is a taxonomist". What does this mean? Well, often WE cannot solve a problem sensibly unless we know what kind of a problem it is. So when we are presented with a problem we have to classify (taxonomise) it.

Some kinds of classification are about motive; if we know why somebody did something we can try to solve the problem. Other kinds of problem are classified according to what sort of problem they are intrinsically. So, we might ask, is poverty a problem of:

Of course it might be more than one of these; but if we hammer away at the politics when the real problem is not political but a misunderstanding about agriculture, we will be starting from the wrong place.

When we are thinking about mysteries, as we are in theology, then there is not a right place to start; just different places. To demonstrate this, let us look at a number of different ways of classifying the issue of the meaning of the Eucharist which we are going to look at in more detail in Unit Three.

a) The Philosopher/Theologian.

A theologian who combines his contemplation with philosophical technique and anthropological reflection might look at the Eucharist this way:

God created creatures out of gracious love to love them and freely be loved by them. We know this both because it is of the essence of God to love and the God-given, anthropological essence of humans to 'lean towards' the divine as flowers seek the sun. This self communication of God is made concrete in the Incarnation which has, in turn, been bequeathed to us by the Redeemer in Eucharistic presence. This presence is attested in the New Testament and has successively been understood by the Church. The Eucharist is, then:

  1. A mysterious subject of theological reflection
    interlocked with philosophy (Reason)
  2. Attested in scripture (Scripture)
  3. Interpreted by the Church (Tradition).

b) The Scholastic/Traditionalist.

Another theologian might start with the tradition of the early Church. We have very terse Scriptural accounts of the Eucharist in Matthew, Mark, Luke and 1 Corinthians but the important development has been the understanding of the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit which has led us to believe that Jesus is really present with us. The Church's explanation accords with our best philosophical understanding of theology.

  1. We primarily understand the Eucharist through the deliberations
    of the Church (Tradition)
  2. The kernel of our understanding is contained in scripture (Scripture)
  3. Our understanding is supported by philosophy (Reason).

c) The Reformer/Biblical Fundamentalist.

A third theologian might start out by saying that our only source of the knowledge of God is contained in the scriptures and so this is the only place where the Eucharist can be considered seriously. The early Church, up until the early Middle ages, preserved an authentic view of the Eucharist but this was distorted by philosophy and so the tradition became unreliable. A better understanding of scripture corrected the situation. Philosophy is not important.

  1. The only source worthy of attention is the scriptures (Scripture)
  2. Tradition is only marginally helpful (Tradition)
  3. Philosophy is irrelevant (Reason).

You will see that I have put labels next to the numbered propositions; these are the famous Scripture, Tradition and Reason of the Anglican 'three-legged' stool we mentioned in Unit One. It is possible to be a member of the Church of England and accept any of the three sets of ranked propositions we have just looked at; and you could imagine other sets of propositions.

When we think about these rankings it helps us to understand that an entity like the Eucharist has more than one dimension but we can see that different people have different priorities. Think about all those interviews with politicians on the radio; when they are asked "Is it this or that" they usually reply: "A bit of both"; and while that is fundamentally true in theology it really does matter which is your starting point or your bigger bit!

Let us now look at our issue in Unit Four, that of women bishops. This is related to but not co-terminal, as we will see later, with the issue of women priests. Let us just look at this issue generically as one of ordained women:

a) The Philosopher/Theologian

Our understanding of people changes through time; there is a history of anthropological development and there is also a history of ethics and justice. These must be viewed alongside the unfolding history of the Church. God self-communicates with all creatures equally (the essence of creatureliness) and the difference between men and women (gender) is accidental. The very state of New Testament anthropology means it can say nothing helpful about this issue; and the Church has been male dominated. In summary, there is no reason why women should not be ordained.

  1. God meant men and women to be equal in the Church (Reason)
  2. Tradition is of only very limited use (Tradition)
  3. Scripture has nothing helpful to say (Scripture)

b) The Scholastic Traditionalist

Although men and women are equal in the sight of God they are not the same. The Church has enabled them to undertake very different tasks which are all worthy in the sight of God. This view is supported by scripture and natural law. Women should not be ordained.

  1. The Church reflects God's will (Tradition)
  2. Scripture supports this view (Scripture)
  3. Natural law supports this view (Reason)

c) The Reformer/Biblical Fundamentalist

There is no evidence in scripture that women should be ordained; but there is evidence of women being made Deacons. It does not matter what is happening today, the word of scripture is final. The tradition of the Church supports the Scriptural view. Much of the anthropology and philosophy is harmful. Women should not be ordained.

  1. Scripture is definite (Scripture)
  2. Tradition is supportive of Scripture (Tradition)
  3. Philosophy is hostile to both (Reason)

Finally in this brief enquiry, let us look at the issue in Unit Five. By now you will probably notice an emerging pattern, so let us use the same broad categories of theologian and see if we can work out what they are likely to say about Civil Partnerships.

Now I have to admit that these are rather rough-hewn ways of talking about theology but they are a starting point; and in the context of the Church of England's pluralism it is important to understand the way in which different emphasis is given to different tools.

Let us now, using a different set of tools, work out the importance of the issues we are trying to understand.

One of the problems of the Church of England is that it tends to drop all problems into a bucket labelled "Theology"; but unless we are going to say that all issues are of equal importance, we have to find a way to rank them. Sometimes an issue can be ranked on its own merits, sometimes it is crucially dependent on another issue where we say "We can't solve that until we have solved this". While that is sometimes true, it is too easy to take everything back to Monty Python's famous phrase: "It depends what you mean by 'mean!'."

Ranking issues in the Church of England is peculiarly important because of our history of allowing difference within certain limits. If we are going to live in that way we need to know what the limits are. If we were a member of the Roman Church, for example, this issue would be much less complex; the Magisterium makes statements on any number of issues and they must be obeyed. subject to conscience. If we were Protestants it would be almost, but not quite, as simple; we would commit ourselves to doing what scripture tells us to do. We will see in Unit Five why this is not as simple as it looks but the point still stands. Simply because we are in the Church of England we need to work out where we must agree and where we have room for disagreement.

As a starting point, here is my own ranking of issues which confront the Church of England:

  1. The Nature of God and God's loving self communication in creation, incarnation, redemption, Resurrection and the establishing of the people of God in the Body of Christ; the perfect union of God's self communication with our freely given love (Credal)
  2. How we know God and know about God; how God is present with us now (Scripture and Sacrament)
  3. Our response to God; worship, prayer; the spiritual life
    (Ecclesiology, spirituality)
  4. Ethics; the governance of personal and corporate life to reflect the loving purposes of God (the upright life).

In the remainder of the Course issues with the number 1. will be referred to as "first order", number 2. "second order" etc.

As will be clear from all our previous discussions, this set of classifications is by no means fixed and topics sometimes move from one ranking to another; but in general: matters pertaining to God stay at the top; matters pertaining to the Church are in the middle; and ethical matters are at the bottom.

Looking at the issues in Units Three, Four and Five, where would we rank these? Again, as a starting point, here is my personal ranking which might loosely be called 'liberal':

We will go on to see, however, that nothing is that simple.

It is important to see here how the ranking process might not only affect a debate about content, the ranking debate may be the one that is most important. We can see this clearly if we look at our three issues from the perspective, for example, of what we have called a "Reformer/Biblical Fundamentalist" who might, because of a reliance on scripture as primary guide, agree that Lay presidency is second order but might want to say that so are the other two issues. Some people, however, taking scripture as their primary analytical tool find it difficult to rank any issue other than primary or, as we shall describe it, first order. This, rather than the actual content of the issue, is why Civil partnerships has caused such a potentially dangerous rift.

Before we go on to study our three topics, it might be helpful for us to see how we would construct our own ranking of general terms and then match specific issues against our ranking. This should help us to reach a situation where we can think proportionately. This is not simply a theologically academic process. At the moment, as we have noted, the Church is in danger of being split over issues which some people regard as first order, absolutely fundamental to the nature of Christian witness, while others believe that these are second order or, in the case of Civil Partnerships, fourth order.

Finally, and, again, this is the topic on which we should spend most discussion time: is there anything in any of the six positions - for or against the propositions in Units Three, Four and Five - that would bring us to say that anybody holding such a position could not be a member in good standing of the Church of England? Further, is there anything in the six positions which would lead us to say that a person holding such a position could not be thought of as a Christian? Some people are saying these things; we need to know why.