Teaching and teaching documents; some thoughts.

How should we respond to the Church of England’s proposed teaching document on sexuality? I don’t mean the report itself so much as the very notion of a ‘teaching document.’

Some, no doubt, will be delighted that the Archbishops have commissioned a report, regarding it as an opportunity to re-state the church’s historic position. Others will receive it with a spirit of resigned apathy, as yet another document which will slowly find its way to the bottom of the desk draw which contains all manner of documents that might otherwise have been thrown away save for a sense of church induced guilt. Yet others will be holding their hands up in horror at the sheer chutzpah of an institution whose track record on all things sexual they perceive to be pretty rank.

My worry, and concern, is what is meant by a teaching document. It also strikes me that the authors of the report are going to have to confront the very real possibility that in drawing on different sources, and disciplines, they are going to have to deal with competing sources of evidence. Scripture and tradition may well be found to offer different insights to reason (science)  and, experience. In taking insights from multiple data sets the authors will have to confront some stark epistemological choices: Do they assert the hegemony of scripture (and tradition)  over reason (and possibly experience), or do they look for some form of synthesis? In receiving data from a wide range of sources (scripture, tradition, ethical theories, science, experience etc) the authors will need to consider the thorny question of epistemology. They are going to have to ask themselves how truths are discovered, communicated and, validated.

My own view is that the authors of the report are going to need to hold carefully, but with courage, different forms of epistemology. The weight of factual scientific evidence, for instance, cannot simply be ignored or wished away. The sexual equivalent of climate change denial shouldn’t be given too much credence. If the weight of scientific evidence indicates that sexuality is a given then this should be accepted and, acknowledged. Facts must be treated as facts; even uncomfortable facts.

How the facts are then treated is of course a different issue. Facts don’t of course exist just in the scientific realm they also exist in history. It is a fact that the church has for the majority of its history regarded homosexuality as deeply sinful, it is also a fact that for the majority of church history to be anything other than ‘straight’ has meant be designated as ‘intrinsically disordered.’ It is a fact that these views have been largely validated through a particular view of ‘the fall.’ So, one of the urgent tasks of the group charged with writing the report may be to re-consider the traditional notion of the ‘fall.’

Tradition can, in some ways, be regarded as the way the church receives and, integrates into its ways of thinking, relating and, behaving historical facts. Healthy tradition, I would want to argue, is powered by two dynamics: the willingness to accept the ‘good’ things that have been passed down through the ages whilst, simultaneously critiquing the nature of (salvation) history.  Good teachers are in this sense traditionalists. Any appeal to tradition which precludes the right, or obligation, to critique is an unhealthy, reductive, static and, defensive interpretation of tradition. In fact it’s a distortion of tradition.

The proposed report isn’t just about sexuality. It is actually, at a more basic level, about how the Church of England does theology. 

Of course there will never be a universal buy in to one fixed method of doing theology but I do think that is important to acknowledge and recognise that real differences exist and, that the teaching document will in all probability expose these differences. At a recent diocesan synod I was aware that two distinct groups were highly critical of the report produced by the bishops for General Synod. I am of course talking of the (in) famous report that synod decided not to take note of. Both groups believed that the report failed theologically. One group sought to locate  theology as biblical studies (as defined in their own terms), the other group regarded theology as something far more holistic. The teaching document I suspect will be divisive in that it will lean either towards a holistic method, or towards prizing biblical studies above all else. If the biblical studies method wins through tradition will be co-opted in support; a more holistic approach will seek to balance out insights from the different spheres. The report, through the methods it employs, will I think promote disagreement and, may lead to dis-unity. Is this a bad thing? Possibly not in a ‘good’ teaching document.

The report is also about hierarchy and church order for the whole question of the bishop’s teaching role will also be placed under the spotlight. Bishops are charged with a specific teaching responsibility, but what does this mean?

Does it mean that what the bishop says goes? Does it mean that the bishops own view, perspectives and theology must always trump those of the clergy and laity in their diocese? Does it mean that a teaching document is an ecclesial version of a Haynes Manual, designed to instruct, members of the church how to proceed in a given situation? Or does it mean something richer, more nuanced and, designed to encourage deeper levels of reflective learning. 

The effectiveness of the report will be contingent, in part, on understanding what is meant by teaching, or good teaching. I would like to suggest that good teaching must include the following:

  • Accepting as factual that which is factual.
  • Encouraging a spirit of reflective learning fostered by providing ‘learners’ with a different perspectives, some of which will be complimentary and some of which may compete. It is vital that teaching is not reduced to instruction.
  • A level of acceptance by the teacher that whilst their own perspectives may be offered they should not necessarily hold sway. Good teachers (in the humanities and social sciences) offer to their students multiple perspectives. In marking assignments and exams they reward students who are capable of understanding, arguing and synthesizing multiple perspectives. The notion of twin, or multiple, integrities is normal in the humanities. Drawing out and permitting well-considered disagreement is integral to good teaching. A good teacher presents far more than their own exegesis.

All of this leads to a consideration of what is meant by (Church of England) theology in the twenty-first century; sexuality is the presenting issue but the real questions for the Church of England are how we do our theology and, how we hold authority.

Integral to doing authoritative-theology are the related activities of teaching and learning. Good teaching in the sciences always starts with a search for the factual. Good teaching in the humanities fosters the ability to interpret (often afresh) and, reflect. Good teaching in the social sciences encourages the ability to hypothesize and, theorize. Good, authoritative, teaching in theology does all of these things.

Good teaching presents (facts), encourages (dialogue) and, accepts (difference). The fruit of good teaching is validated through praxis.

The purpose of a good teaching document is to inspire, motivate  and challengemaybe even to disturbA good teaching document should never seek merely to instruct, still worse appease (or even reconcile). The effectiveness of a good teaching document is, of course, directly correlated to its ability to engage. 

The ‘target audiences’ for the teaching document should  not be  the ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ who have already come to a settled, and irreconcilable,  view on all things church and sexual – although the temptation will exist to regard these two groups as the primary categories of recipient  –   but instead the apathetic and, those who currently think that church is acting with astonishing chutzpah in producing a teaching document on sexuality. If the church and her leaders engage with and inspire these groups they really will have produced a good, and effective, teaching document. 

It’s a about building a relational economy, stupid.

In Friday’s Church Times the Bishop of Burnley wrote an interesting and thoughtful reflection on the emerging national mood, arguing that ‘it’s relationships and not the economy,’ that people really value.

I agree with much, perhaps most, of his analysis. Of course relationships matter. Christian anthropology has always stressed that life well lived is, by its very nature, relational. Genesis, our foundational Scripture, makes it clear that people are designed to live together in relationship. It is not good for us to be alone, isolated, disenfranchised (Genesis 2, 18). The poet John Donne famously wrote that “No man is an Island, entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.” 

Christians celebrate the importance of relationship through some of our guiding, and relational,  motifs; the concepts of fellowship, communion and, belonging to the body. Desmond Tutu has in recent times brought the African philosophy of Ubuntu – ‘there is no me without you, there is no I without the other,’ to western consciousness. So, Bishop Philip is entirely correct to stress the importance of relationships.

But is he correct to juxtapose the economy and relationships (and to be clear I don’t think he is saying that the economy is unimportant)?

I am less sure, for the simple fact that we all live in an economy and, that we are all economic beings. Economics isn’t just about facts, figures and statistics. It is also about ethics, relationships and, policy. The choices we make about the economy and how it operates are relational and ethical choices. Economics and theology in fact share the same basic agency question: ‘whose interests do I / we serve?’

Before ‘designing’ an economy deeper philosophical and theological questions need to be asked. Adam Smith knew this hence writing both The Wealth of Nations (an oft quoted but rarely read tome)  and, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The notion of a ‘who’ and, service reside at the heart of all economic decision-making. Of course we could answer the who and service questions by affirming that the economy exists primarily  to serve our own self-interest, in the vague hope that if enough people take this view a ‘rising tide will lift all boats,’ and, that the ‘trickle down effect’ will weave its magic. These were Milton Friedman’s arguments. They have been the guiding ‘ethics’ behind post 1980 capitalism.

I think Bishop Philip is arguing Friedman’s economic theory is outdated. He also, correctly, in my view discounts the ‘ethical theory’ (and Friedman was keen to promote his theories in ethical terms) that self-interest, actively pursued,  leads to  communal and relational benefits. The main  problem with excessive self-interest is that it necessarily leads to a hierarchy of interest; my interests will always take precedence over yours. This in turn leads to conflict between the inhabitants of different economic islands.

My interest, self-interest, always leads to regarding others, as well just that, other. Excessive self-interest erodes relationships, it renders impossible the enactment of ubuntu or Martin Buber’s ‘T -thou,’ philosophy. It is also unchristian. Excessive self-interest  stands contrary to Christian notions of justice, solidarity and service. Excessive self-interest diminishes the value of giving. Justice, solidarity, service and, gift are, I believe, ‘theonomic’ motifs.’ Excessive self-interest undermines sustainable economic growth. It is an uncomfortable fact, widely ignored, that economic growth in the period post the Second World War, has been at its greatest in periods of narrower disparity in wages and, higher taxation. Greater equality does not necessarily correlate to economic stagnation. There is no reason to believe, despite the rhetoric of those who passionately (and uncritically?) believe in the economics of self interest, that less disparity dampens the sort of entrepreneurial flair that the majority of people may benefit from. Innovation and risk taking are hard wired into certain people.

Yes, many people are thirsting for deeper relationships. But, many people also believe that the economy remains of primary importance. They feel that, in a word, the way the economy has been deigned and managed is just plain ‘stupid.’ They feel this because they know that self-interest has not proven to be the rising tide that lifts all boats. To pick up once more on John Donne’s metaphor that the economy has produced a series of islands populated by the have’s, the have not’s and, the barely getting along’s. And, they know that the economic system has already put in place hard border controls.

As a society we need to take people’s economic concerns seriously and, we need to do so in the hope that a healthy and equitable economy will also be good for relationships. We need to understand the importance of distributing economic goods to people on the basis of their needs (Acts 2, 45). We need to design an economy that truly looks after the young and the old, ‘the widows and orphans in their distress,’ (James 1, 27). We need to appreciate the importance of giving, and I don’t mean straightforward redistribution of our cast offs, the things we have already categorized as second best or out of date, but the giving to others of those things that we truly value. We need to take into the heart of our economic decision-making Jesus mandate that we should ‘give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back’ (Luke 6, 30) and, we should heed the advice that ‘if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.’ 

Our Scriptures stress the importance of relationships. They also ask us to relegate self-interest to its rightful place. After all why should we, how could we, relate to others when their primary motivation is their own economic self-interest? Justice, fairness, equity and, solidarity cannot exist where self-interest reigns. The economy cannot work for widow and orphan, the impoverished student and the refugee, the economically marginalized and the homeless where self-interest reigns.

For many people it really is about the economy.


Tim Farron: religion and politics in polite society

When I was growing up I distinctly recall members of my family suggesting that there were two subjects that should not be talked about in polite society: politics and religion. Paradoxically the people who I remember most frequently resorting to this quip were the most political people I knew! They couldn’t stop talking about the big political issues of the time, or about their MP Barbara Castle. They admired her character and intellect, but not I think it is fair to say, her politics. One of the tragedies of the current era is that a real tendency exists to denigrate people’s character based on their beliefs. Of course some beliefs are just plain odd, or even wrong, but surely it is unhealthy to categorize those we profoundly disagree with on various issues as either weak or bad?

For very many people, even those who aspire to inhabit ‘polite society’ it is impossible not to talk about either politics, or religion, or a combination of the two. As a Parish Priest I have to talk about Christianity and indeed have vowed to ‘proclaim the gospel afresh’ in and for this generation. For this Parish Priest the distinction between politics and religion is extremely blurred. My liberal internationalist politics, to some extent, flow from my faith and, I am sure that my faith is also informed by my politics. I don’t think we can easily demarcate the origins of our beliefs, try as we might.

Tim Farron was forced to talk about both politics and religion, by those keen to erode the borders of ‘polite society,’ during the election campaign and, clearly it was an extremely uncomfortable experience for him; it was designed to be an uncomfortable experience for him. Journalists after all like to see leaders squirm. Journalists like to invite their readers to categorize their victims as weak or bad. It is a very crude form of blood sport.

Tim has now decided that he is unable to manage the conflicts, perceived or real, between his life as a politician and, as an active Christian. This is sad. It is sad for Tim and, it is sad for the Liberal Democratic Party and, it is sad for politics. I hope that Tim continues to contribute to the work of parliament. Tim has accepted that he didn’t handle the situation as well as he would have hoped, but let’s remember the questions were designed to make him squirm and, to infantalise his faith. The hounding of Tim was designed to characterize him as both weak and bad.

So what could Tim have done differently?

He could have appealed to the long and noble history of parliamentary liberalism citing someone like Michael Ramsey who opened the debate in the House of Lord’s in favour of the decriminalization of homosexuality whilst still maintaining that homosexuality fell short of the highest moral standards. The trouble is the debate has moved on since Ramsey’s time. Where Ramsey was credited for his enlightened and progressive line of argument Tim would have appeared judgmental and, behind the times.

He could have suggested, and I think that this was his line of argument, that certain moral issues are of a purely private nature and, that it is not the remit of parliamentarians to stray into such territory, But, again this line of argument probably wouldn’t wash as the line between private and public is increasingly blurred and, in any case, parliament in making law frequently does so with an eye to public, or communal, standards of morality.

Or, he could have been up front and open about living with  the tension between  his religious and political convictions, with regard to issues of human sexuality. But, this again wouldn’t wash because the journalists were out to make him squirm. The idea that politicians (and people of faith) are as conflicted as the electorate on various issues and, that their views aren’t always as binary or as neat, tidy and orderly as the squirm makers would like isn’t afforded house room.

This for me is a serious issue for when we seek to stifle what seems to be contradiction we stifle good and honest debate. We trash any possibilities for the hard work of moral reasoning because we only care about an immediate  result. Inter disciplinary discussions between say politics and theology become impossible because success or truth can only belong to one discipline. The result is that real people are made to choose. ‘Come on Tim what’s it to be your politics or your faith?’ Binary thinking becomes the only possible outcome.

If I had to be critical of Tim it would be for his presentation of Christianity in his resignation letter. He seems to believe that Christians can only hold one view on the thorny issue of sexuality. On this I believe he is profoundly wrong. But of course I would say this as an orthodox-progressive! I say it as someone who has had the luxury of time and space to do my theology. Unlike Tim I haven’t been made to squirm.

But, in saying good-bye to Tim as my party leader (there you go I am now bringing both my politics and my religion into the sphere of ‘polite society!’) I would like to say thank you for voting for marriage equality. Thank you for doing so despite any personal reservations. Thank you for living with your tensions and, thank you above all for being both liberal and, progressive and, I am just so sorry that you were made to squirm.