Orthodoxy, morality and, discernment

Orthodoxy matters; not just a little bit but, a lot.

Orthodoxy (right belief) feeds orthopraxis (right behaviour). If we want to do the right things it therefore follows that we need to believe the right things.

Orthodoxy and its offspring, orthopraxis, because their concern is ‘rightness’ (which is pretty close to righteousness) cannot be disaggregated from notions of virtue, the exercise of which is one of Christianities prime, first order, concerns. After all Christians are called on, by Jesus, to ‘be perfect just as your Heavenly Father is perfect,’ (Matthew 5, 48).

Yet, orthodoxy is also an aggravating term; open to misuse and abuse. And, this raises an interesting point for, when someone misuses the term orthodoxy to make a point they are affirming their ‘rightness,’ and, your ‘wrongness.’

When we use the term orthodox (or orthodoxy) we therefore need to be aware of two potential problems:

  • We need to be sure we are right in the technical sense of the word; that is to say correct. Orthodoxy is technical.
  • Different traditions within Christianity have developed different orthodoxies. The implication of this is that we are duty bound to understand both the strengths and the weaknesses of the traditions in which ‘our’ beliefs (orthodoxies) are developed.

If we don’t understand these two problems it could just be that we become responsible for inverting orthodoxy and, orthopraxis. Put another way, we might just start doing, or reinforcing, historic wrongs because the nature of our beliefs are wrong, even if they are sincerely held.

Sincerity and force of commitment are not necessarily indicators of right judgement, belief and, practice.

However we also need a more positive spin for orthodoxy can act as a break on wrongdoing, both at the individual and corporate level. As Gerard Hughes wrote in God of Surprises:

Because we are all liable to self deception and tend to use God and Christ (and Scripture – my addition) to justify and support our own narrow ways of thinking and acting, we need the institutional and critical elements of the Church as a check to our self deception, but ultimately it is Christ himself who is our teacher.

And  so it is right that all ministers are held to account by the Church under whose authority, and by whose permission, they act.

However, it would be naive to suggest that the Church has always believed the right things (orthodoxy) and therefore always behaved impeccably (orthopraxy). We know this not to be true.

Therefore claims that the Church has always (using the term ‘always’ to validate a position held to be orthodox) …….need to be treated critically and, cautiously.

We must not, in my view, overextend that which we consider to be orthodox. Using the word orthodox judiciously and sparingly may be regarded as a moral imperative, perhaps especially, when the Church is seeking to discern the ‘right’ way forward when negotiating a currently presenting ethical issue.

Gerard Hughes once again made this point, in arguing for the necessity to constantly refresh the mystical element in Christianity. Talking about ‘the safe’ (my metaphor) in which we deposit and protect our most cherished beliefs he wrote:

We guard it, treasure it, defend it by all means, fair or foul, not because we have any personal appreciation of its contents but, because we have been conditioned (see bullet point 2, above) to believe our lives depend on guarding this treasure box, but we have never been told, or have felt the need to examine its contents. This attitude is the root of all division within the Church and between churches. Christ becomes a label which we stick on the nonsense of our own lives, on our greed and power lust, on the cult of our own comfort, and self importance. When challenged or criticised, we wave our Christ label in front of our opponents, declare them unorthodox, heretical and a threat to our eternal destiny, threatening and, if we consider it necessary for our own and God’s defence, murdering them.

When we use the word orthodoxy to protect a prior set of beliefs (over and above the core beliefs articulated through the creeds?) and, validate resulting practices it might be legitimate to label our ‘conclusions’ wrong both in the common sense of being mistaken and, more seriously, in the ethical sense of allowing a vice to continue masquerading as a virtue?

Failure to look afresh at presenting ethical issues, in the era in which they are presented, could be regarded as failure to worship God ‘with all our minds,’ and a ‘sin of omission.’  Frequently orthodoxy is validated only through a prior set of assumptions which may, or may not be, valid. Discernment, in part, involves separating truth from assumption. Discernment asks us to ‘open the safe,’ to leave it unlocked for a while, and to free ourselves of prior assumptions. Discernment, as an ethical activity, is concerned not just with doing the right thing but also the avoidance of sins of omission. When, each Sunday we ask forgiveness for the things ‘we have failed to do,’ we are owning up to our reluctance to discern where the Spirit is seeking to lead us. Orthodoxy falsely asserted risks perpetuating sins of omission.

If we are going to persist in using the word orthodoxy – which we must – if we are to act with integrity – we are faced with one more problem:  The chronological problem. From where do we date our orthodoxy?

Let me illustrate:

Many have used orthodoxy to argue against ‘female headship.’ In doing so orthodoxy and orthopraxis are amalgamated, for it is true to say that for the majority of Christendom (and into the post Christendom era) females were excluded from leadership in the Church, in England.  But, we need to be a little bit more forensic because female headship only became a ‘no-no’ following the Council of Whitby in 664. Now interestingly, the Council of Whitby was presided over by none other than a woman; Hilda. This was possible because, according to Grace Clunie, in ancient British (Celtic) Christianity:

There is also evidence of gender equality and less patriarchy, especially evident in figures like St. Brigid of Kildare, St Ita of Killeedy and St Hilda of Whitby, who presided over the Council of Whitby in AD 664.

 So, recent decisions to re-confer female headship, validated through ordination, can be regarded as a return to orthodoxy, just as it can also be viewed as a breach with orthodoxy; it simply depends on where you start the clock from.

If we accept the two propositions (for orthodoxy is propositional) put forward:

  • Orthodoxy is essential in order to guide right (righteous) behaviour
  • Orthodoxy is open to misuse and danger

How then can we proceed?

I think there are two positive ways of working with orthodoxy. The first is to accept that visiting and revisiting ethical (and therefore doctrinal) issues as they present, in any given era is in itself part of Christianities’ traditional approach. This does not mean we have to change beliefs and practices but it does mean that there is nothing unorthodox about challenging the status quo; opening up the conversation, allowing our theology to be appropriately critical, accepting that any prior positions we hold dear may be wrong.  When we approach orthodoxy in this way we commit to the possibility of God’s progressive revelation. Christians have done this throughout history; we are morally mandated to continue doing so.

Same sex marriage is a ‘current presenting issue,’ and I would argue that there is nothing unorthodox or heretical about looking at the issue afresh, just as the Church has re-examined a wide range of ethical issues as and when they present.  If I am correct, we all ought to be encouraged to re-examine the issue afresh, free from the fear of being labelled unorthodox or, heretical.

The Church after a period of discernment may assert the status quo, or it might arrive at a different set of conclusions, but those involved in the discussion should not close down lines of enquiry through invoking the ‘tyranny of orthodoxy.’ There would be little rightness, or righteousness, in such an approach.

The second positive stance we can take is to limit the range of subjects which we place in a safe marked orthodox. If we could limit orthodoxy to the Catholic Creeds and explicitly stop using the term in relation to current and live, debates, it might be that we can move forward in some form of unity, as orthodox Christians?  We might be able to improve our praxis, whatever this comes to look like in reality?


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