Doctrine and law – servants or masters?

Warning: there is hardly any law in this post whatsoever: it’s an impertinent and entirely personal theological rant by a non-theologian.

Giving evidence to the Public Bill Committee on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill currently before Parliament, Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans, told the Committee that

“One of the problems that we have in the Church of England is that there is a real divergence between the teaching that is put forward publicly on these issues and what is said and done privately. We have a real gulf between the public morality of the Church and the private morality that is used by bishops and Church leaders in the study, as it were. That is very worrying. It is one of the most corrosive things at the heart of the Church, which we need to address”.

Which leads me to wonder, “So what’s new?”.

A couple of years ago a friend invited me to preach at choral evensong in his college chapel. Because it’s not the kind of thing that Quakers do, I accepted the invitation with very mixed feelings indeed – and, as ill-luck would have it, I found myself preaching on the Sunday after the Ascension.

It’s rather difficult to preach coherently on an event that one simply does not believe in and, at the same time, to manage to say something intellectually honest which still comes within the (admittedly rather wide) bounds of what is acceptable in a Church of England pulpit. So I just did my best: I talked about God as the ground of our being and the tension between “facts” and “faith” and suggested that what the account of the Ascension demonstrates – whether it’s “fact” or whether it’s “faith” – is that people experience the Divine in their everyday existence in totally unexpected and unpredictable ways.

I survived: no-one accused me of heresy and everyone was very friendly over dinner afterwards. But what sticks in my mind is the member of the congregation who came up to me immediately after the service and told me that she didn’t understand my problem because no-one believed in the literal fact of the Ascension anyway. To which I replied that some people certainly did – and that many of them were even Anglicans.

The divergence that Dean John discerns between “teaching that is put forward publicly” and “what is said and done privately” goes far beyond matters of sexual conduct or even of morality generally: it goes to the heart of “doctrine” itself. Part of the reason I became a Quaker was because as I found myself believing less and less of the Nicene Creed it became harder and harder to recite it in good conscience – but even as I left the Church of England I wondered how many of those I was leaving behind would admit, if they were honest with themselves, to being in the same credal boat.

Almost all churches have doctrinal standards and those standards are frequently embedded in their internal regulations or canons: but what does that mean for the folk in the pews? For the Church of Scotland, for example, Article II of the Articles Declaratory annexed to the Church of Scotland Act 1921 declares that

“The principal subordinate standard of the Church … is the Westminster Confession of Faith approved by the General Assembly of 1647, containing the sum and substance of the Faith of the Reformed Church”.

So does that mean that lay members of the Kirk have to believe everything the Confession says? I assume not – not least because s 5 of the Churches (Scotland) Act 1905 was enacted precisely in order to protect liberty of conscience in the interpretation of the Confession.

Similarly – but much more prescriptively – the Roman Catholic Codex Iuris Canonici 1983 declares in Can. 212 §1 that

“Conscious of their own responsibility, the Christian faithful are bound to follow with Christian obedience [christiana oboedientia prosequi tenentur] those things which the sacred pastors, inasmuch as they represent Christ, declare as teachers of the faith or establish as rulers of the Church”.

For Anglicans the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion (which are subscribed to in one form or another by almost all of the Anglican Communion) state at Article VIII (Of the Creeds) that

“The Nicene Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles’ Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.”

“Ought” rather than “must” but, even so, what if you are an Anglican who is slightly shaky on the virgin birth or the resurrection of the dead? Are you still in good standing with the Church?

My suspicion is that considerable numbers of people in the mainstream denominations have at least minor disagreements with the doctrinal packages that their Churches present to them but they either simply keep their mental reservations to themselves or prefer to regard doctrinal formulations as historical documents rather than mandatory articles of belief. And presumably the Churches themselves don’t inquire too closely into precisely what each individual lay adherent signs up to. But if my surmise is correct, then once a Church has conceded – even if only tacitly – that people are allowed to make choices about which bits of doctrine are important and which are not it is no great step for those people to start deciding for themselves which bits of moral teaching are important and which are not – or, maybe, just plain wrong in light of modern circumstances. After all, if St Paul was so wrong about slavery[1] – which he undoubtedly was – might he not also have been equally wrong about other aspects of “the Christian life” such as women keeping silent in church[2] or even, dare one say it, about same-sex relationships?[3]

And what about some of the bits of clear biblical teaching that people tend to ignore because they are just too damned inconvenient? How do “payday loans” at an APR of 1,700 per cent and more (and no, that’s not a typo) fit with the biblical injunctions against usury?[4] And if we don’t lend at such usurious interest rates in person, how careful are we that the companies that we invest our savings in don’t do so on our behalf? [The late and much-lamented Tom Heffer and I once collaborated on an article which looked at the issue of law, doctrine and the Bible from a specifically Anglican canonical perspective: “Necessary to Salvation? – The canon law of the Church of England and the interpretation of scripture” (2008) 10 Ecc LJ 137–160.]

An Anglican friend recently sent me the draft of a paper (as yet unpublished) in which he observes that

“If we could see religion as a human search to identify what it is to lead the good life there would be common ground between almost all faiths and outcomes of great value. However, as soon as the idea of religion becomes entwined with relationships between people and gods it becomes both ludicrous and toxic. There have never been any wars or schisms about how best to love one’s neighbour or to show compassion”.

Possibly an extreme view with which, perhaps, only Don Cupitt, the Sea of Faith Network and, maybe, a minority of Quakers and Unitarians would readily agree. But his point that schisms are almost always about doctrine rather than about how to manifest the love of God in daily life carries considerable force – and if anyone can cite an example or two to the contrary I should be very interested in the references.

My (utterly heretical) conclusion is this: that if canon law is the servant of “The Church” (in the broad sense of that expression) rather than its master, then doctrine should stand in the same relationship to the Church as canon law does. The ultimate point of religion is surely not to believe six impossible things before breakfast but to lead “the good life”: in Christian terms:

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”.[5]

And since it is pretty obvious, merely from day-to-day observation, that people are either good or evil and behave either well or badly irrespective of their particular basket of beliefs (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero and Maximilian Kolbe versus Johannes Strijdom and Francisco Franco, perhaps?), what is the purpose of doctrine other than to provide some kind of useful intellectual framework for the real purposes of religion: to love God and to love one’s neighbour? And if a particular item of doctrine is not useful for either of those purposes, then is there much point in it? After all, there’s nothing in Matthew 22:37–40 about transubstantiation or double predestination or penal substitutionary atonement: it’s about orthopraxy, not orthodoxy.

Frank Cranmer


[1] Eph 6:5–8.

[2] 1 Cor 14:34.

[3] 1 Cor 6:9–10 and 1 Tim 1:9–11 – neither of which is easy to translate definitively from the Greek text.

[4] Ex 22:25–27: Lev 25:35–37.

[5] Matt 22:37–40.