Saturday, 27 February 2016

A World Without Accidents

"a world in which accidents do not happen would be so different from the actual world as to be unrecognisable. If all air crashes were miraculously soft ones, there would scarcely be any need for runways; if all aircraft engines were divine guaranteed against fault there would be no need to service them. And if planes flew on after their engines or wings failed or fell off, there would be no need for engines or wings in the first place. The performance of one tiny miracle, provided it could be relied on, would so destroy the underlying principle of causality as to transform the world into a completely irrational state. What need or possibility would there then be for human intelligence? What chance, even, of appreciating the occasional miracle?"

James Jones, Why Do People Suffer? The Scandal of Pain in God's World (Oxford: Lion Publishing, 1993), 58, citing "a religious columnist for London's The Times".

Whose Side Is God On?

"Recently I was talking to a young couple who walked away unscathed from their car which was completely written-off in a road accident. They were understandably greatly relieved:
'Guess God was watching out for us,' they said.
It's good to be able to join in the sense of relief and thanksgiving. The only problem with this view is that if God is with those people who escape a tragedy, what does that say to those people who don't escape? Does it mean that God has taken side against those who suffer?

One Saturday evening in March 1987 a car ferry, The Herald of Free Enterprise, was leaving the port of Zeebrugge, off the coast of Belgium. It capsized in the darkness. nearly two hundred passengers were drowned.

The following day an able-seaman was interviewed on television. because of a change in rotas he had not been on duty the previous night. He was devastated by the death of so many of his mates and overwhelmed with relief that through a last-minute change in the rotas he had escaped the tragedy.

Trying to find words to describe his sense of relief and good fortune he added,
'I guess God was on my side.'
But if God was on the side of this seaman, does that mean that he took sides against those who drowned and died?"

James Jones, Why Do People Suffer? The Scandal of Pain in God's World (Oxford: Lion Publishing, 1993), 52-53.

Theses on Usury Then and Now

These theses were developed in 2007 in conversation with Chad Degenhart and Scott C. Mooney who argued fiercely against the view presented here on a website which is no longer accessible. My theses are reprinted unchanged from https://sites.google.com/site/thomasrenz02/usury
Note: Usury is today understood to refer to "exorbitant interest" but in the past the word was used to refer to usage charges on loans, that is to any form of interest payment, whether interest was 20-25% or 60% or just one percent.

(1) Commercial loans were known in antiquity. See M. Silver, Economic Structures of the Ancient Near East (London and Sydney: Croom Helm, 1985), esp. pp. 85-89 on the credit and investment market, and his Prophets and Markets: The Political Economy of Ancient Israel, Social Dimensions of Economics; Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1982), pp. 65-68, for an argument in favour of the existence of commercial loans in ancient Israel.

There was a custom for Mesopotamian kings to proclaim the remission of debts etc. at the beginning of their reigns and at intervals of seven or more years. Such a release was good news for impoverished people but it would have been bad for business, if commercial loans were included in the remission.

We are in the fortunate position of having one such edict preserved in fairly complete form, namely the Edict of Ammisaduqa from the 17th century BC. It explicitly excludes goods which have been loaned "either as merchandise for a commercial journey, or as a joint enterprise for the production of profit." It even includes a paragraph which specifies what happens to people who pretend that a loan was a commercial loan, when it was not.

It is worth bearing in mind, however, that a neat distinction between consumer loans and producer loans is not always feasible. Barry Gordon, Lending at Interest: Some Jewish, Greek, and Christian Approaches, 800 BC-AD 100, History of Political Economy, 14:3 (Duke University Press, 1982) p. 41, observes the following:
The predominant microeconomic institution in antiquity was the household, this was not merely the modern organization coexisting of a group of consumers. At the same time it was “the firm,” a group of producers. Hence, there was the most intimate relationship in institutional terms between production possibilities, consumption potential, and household capital. When a householder borrowed he was necessarily borrowing as consumer-producer. It is not surprising that it is difficult to discover unambiguous differentiation of business and consumption loans in the literature of antiquity. Certainly, one finds lending to the poor distinguished from lending to others. However, “poor loan” does not necessarily equate with “consumer loan.”
(2) Interest-bearing loans were prohibited within Israel’s polity. The prohibition of interest-bearing loans specifically applied to full members of the covenant (brother) but in this context the resident alien (Heb. ger) is to be treated like a brother. Not only must the same judicial standard applied to the stranger and to the native citizen (cf. Exod. 12:49Lev. 24:22Num. 15:18), but charity must be extended to the poor regardless of their ethnicity.

The loans in question are specifically loans to people who are not economically self-sufficient in Exod. 22:25 and Lev. 25:23-38 but the prohibition is not restricted to charitable loans, even if it is likely that the need for loans in ancient Israel was much more often related to crop failure than business opportunities. It deserves to be noted that Lev. 25 implies an obligation to charity towards the poor.

While the boundaries between the two were sometimes fluid (see above), it seems possible to distinguish between "charitable" loans for (the production of) necessities and "commercial" loans for expanding production. Only the former is explicitly in view in Exodus and Leviticus but in Deut. 23:19 all interest-bearing loans within Israel's polity are prohibited.

Such a complete prohibition of interest-bearing loans could have several reasons: (a) Opportunities for investment in an expanding business were likely rare in ancient Israel; a complete prohibition would not have a major effect on the economy, while protecting the weak from any attempts to dress up what should be interest-free charitable loans as commercial loans. The wide availability of interest-bearing commercial loans would likely reduce willingness to lend without interest to the poor. Thus a complete prohibition serves charity.

(b) It fits with the general ethos of the covenant community envisaged in the Torah that investment at a distance without partnership would be discouraged. Associates who share risks as well as opportunities  form a closer-knit community than  business "partners" whose only link is the actual loan - see the next two theses.

(c) It is possible that interest-bearing loans are considered wrong in itself. But this seems to me ruled out by the permission of such loans to a nokri, see further thesis four.

(3) Loans to a foreigner (Heb. nokri) were commercial loans. Non-resident foreigners need not be traders; a nokri is distinct from a ger by living outside the socio-economic structures of Israel’s polity, that is outside the covenant people in possession of the land allotted to them. Deut.14:21 implies a distinction between the ger and the nokri.


The ger is regularly mentioned in Deuteronoy alongside the orphan and the widow, e.g. in 24:19 in another context of benefits given free of charge. (The orphan and the widow are not mentioned in 14:21 because an impoverished member of the covenant community must still abide by the food laws; the ger is not a full member of the covenant community and therefore not bound by the food laws, cf. 24:1429:11.) There is an obligation to be generous and charitably to the ger (the foreigner who lives among you), but no obligation to be generous to the nokri (the foreigner who does not live among you).


A nokri might be, e.g., a Philistine from Ekron in the olive oil business who goes to a neighboring Israelite town to borrow silver with which to buy an additional mill in the expectation of a bumper harvest. Cf. E. Stern, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, vol. 2: The Assrian, Babylonian, and Persian Periods (732-332 B.C.E.)  (New York: Doubleday, 2001), pp. 111-12, for Ekron.

(4) The permission of usage charges on loans to the foreigner (nokri) in Deut. 23:20 implies that usage charges on loans are not intrinsically immoral. The unqualified condemnation of usury in Ps. 15 and Ezek. 18 should not be pressed to invalidate this exception clause (cf. Kimchi). There is nothing to suggest that those in ancient Israel who availed themselves of the permission in Deut. 23:20 were excluded from going up to the holy hill (Ps. 15) and under God’s death sentence (Ezek. 18). It is worth remembering that the opportunity for loans to a nokri would only arise in prosperous times, after the needs of one's own household were covered and charity was extended to the poor.

There have been several attempts to read Deut. 23:20 in a way which allows for the view that usury is intrinsically wicked. Traditionally, the permissions seems to have been understood as a concession to evil disposition (e.g., Aquinas, Grotius), similar to the divorce regulations. But this fails to deal with the command to treat the stranger as a brother (see above) and merely shifts greed or injustice outside the community rather than limiting it.

The proposal (Calvin; B. Gordon, Lending at Interest, 1982) that the permission applies the lex talionis principle (given that Israelites would be charged interest, if they borrowed from foreigners, it is only right and proper that they should charge interest when lending to foreigners) faces similar problems and fails to take into account that charitable loans were to be a matter for the community in which the need arose.
Ambrose suggested in his Expositions on the Book of Tobit that the permission related to Israel's warfare against the nations of Canaan (Patrologia Latina, vol. 14, chap. 15; cf. Luther and, e.g., Richard Capel [1586-1656]). This view is today argued by S. C. Mooney: "Usury was part of the violence that Israel inflicted upon the wicked people whom God was driving out before them." But (a) there is no hint in Deut. 23:20 of warfare, (b) the term nokri cannot be restricted to "Canaanite under the ban", the very next occurrence of the term in Deut. 29.22 relates to someone who comes from a distant country, (c) there is a difference between subjugating by usury and putting under the ban, see Deut. 7:1-220:16-17; cf. Num. 21:2 -- the Gibeonites knew this and Saul should have known this in his treatment of the Amalekites.

The most plausible explanation in my view is that the permission relates to the fact that the nokri is a non-resident foreigner whose desire for a loan is both commercial and outside the economic structures of Israel's polity. This explanation is not traditional but it is at least 300 years old (cf. Matthew Henry). It is the most satisfying explanation because it takes into account that the legal material uses different terms for non-Israelites who have become resident in Israel (Heb. ger, toshab). It is thus eminently plausible that Deuteronomy’s distinction between a ger and a nokri is between resident (semi-assimilated ) and non-resident (non-assimilated).

Echoing Exodus and Leviticus, a primary concern in Deuteronomy is preventing rich people from taking advantage of people who have fallen on hard times. In my reading, the nokri is not the exception to the rule, as if one may take advantage of a nokri --whether as a concession to greed or as part of a campaign to subjugate and eradicate "detestable Canaanites". The nokri has not fallen on hard times. While a strict distinction between consumer credit and producer credit is untenable for the ancient world (see above), there is a difference between people and families trying to make ends meet and people and families seeking to expand economically. The nokri would fall in the latter category.

(5) The Gospel compels us to be just and generous, equitable and charitable. This includes the admonition to “lend freely, expecting nothing in return” (Luke 6:35). Christians are not under the Law which governed Israel’s polity but they are to form a community whose fellowship includes generosity in sharing material possessions. Jesus challenges us to love our enemies and to do good without expecting dividends in this whole section (Luke 6:27-38). But if, as many of us believe, "to one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also" does not prohibit  every exercise of force, and if " from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either" does not abolish the legitimacy of policing, then "Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back" need not prevent trade and "lend, expecting nothing in return" does not rule out banking. This is emphatically not to say that these injunctions have no role in politics and economics but that the statements must be read in context -- "as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them" will preclude many forms of interest-taking but arguably not all.

(6) The church fathers categorically condemned usury. They did so in a context, in which “the main business of usurers was not so much earning interest on their capital as it was expropriating lands and other property that had been offered as security against loans that could not possibly be paid.” (J. L. Gonz├ílez, Faith & Wealth: A History of Early Christian Ideas on the Origin, Significance, and Use of Money [San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990], p. 175). Their sermons make it abundantly clear that they do not have business loans in view, neither condemning them nor commending them. Cf. my comments on Basil's second homily on Ps 15.

While usury may refer to any (fixed?) “usage charge on a loan,” it needs to be taken into account that the church fathers, whenever they elaborate on it, seem to have “making profit from misfortune” in view, which was probably by far the most common setting for loans. Cf. The Sacred History of Sulpitius SeverusBook 1chap. 18, and
Ambrose, On the Duty of ClergyBook 3chap. 3, par. 20

It is a mark of kindly feeling to help him who has nothing, but it is a sign of a hard nature to extort more than one has given. If a man has need of thy assistance because he has not enough of his own wherewith to repay a debt, is it not a wicked thing to demand under the guise of kindly feeling a larger sum from him who has not the means to pay off a less amount? Thou dost but free him from debt to another, to bring him under thy own hand; and thou callest that human kindliness which is but a further wickedness.

Lactantius, The Epitome of the Divine Instituteschap. 64:

He will not steal, nor will he covet anything at all belonging to another. He will not give his money to usury, for that is to seek after gain from the evils of others; nor, however, will he refuse to lend, if necessity shall compel any one to borrow.”
Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, fifth homily (on Matth. 1:22-23):
For nothing, nothing is baser than the usury of this world, nothing more cruel. Why, other persons’ calamities are such a man’s traffic; he makes himself gain of the distress of another, and demands wages for kindness, as though he were afraid to seem merciful, and under the cloak of kindness he digs the pitfall deeper.”
(7) The condemnation of usury in the early church is closely related to the call to invest available money with God by giving it to the poor. The notion that Christians ought to use every possession they do not actually need to alleviate poverty is widely attested in the patristic literature. See Gonz├ílezFaith & Wealth for an overview. The immense importance of almsgiving and the power attributed to it can be seen in Cyprian’s Treatise on Works and Alms summarized by Gonzales on pp. 124-28. I found Gonzales' chapter on The Cappadocians (pp. 173-86) particularly illuminating.

(8) Scholastic theologians developed the idea that usury is intrinsically wrong (making no distinction between consumption and production loans) but they sought to be just in taking into account risk and opportunity costs.Some may have done so because they wanted to avoid the plain prohibition of usage charge on loans but no doubt some were keen to be accurate, logical and fair in their understanding of what is at issue. In either case, we need to evaluate their arguments and leave evaluating their motives to Almighty God to whom all our hearts are open.

It is worth bearing in mind that attitudes to usury were not entirely stable in the medieval period. The Church and Christian rulers often allowed usury -- to be practised by Jews, not least when a pope or king needed money, one suspects. At other times strong condemnations of usury came in handy as an encouragement to participate in the the Crusades (as a form of penance). For discussion see E. S. Tan, “Origins and Evolution of the Medieval Church's Usury Laws: Economic Self-Interest,” The Journal of European Economic History(March 2005), also available online.
The same shifts and disagreements can be observed on the Jewish side, see S. Stein, “Interest Taken by Jews from Gentiles: An Evaluation of Source Material,” J Semitic Studies 1 (1956) 141-64. There is a traditional equation of “Christian” with “Edomite” in Jewish thinking which would prohibit Jews from taking interest from Christians, because an Edomite must be treated like a brother. Those in favour of exacting usury from Christians (the only business in town!) had to argue that Christians are not in fact “Edomites.”

The classic discussion is in Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 2.ii, question 78, but the encyclical Vix Pervenit (On Usury and Other Dishonest Profit) promulgated on 1 November 1745 by Pope Benedict XIV may be considered the apex of scholastic thinking on the matter.
One cannot condone the sin of usury by arguing that the gain is not great or excessive, but rather moderate or small; neither can it be condoned by arguing that the borrower is rich; nor even by arguing that the money borrowed is not left idle, but is spent usefully, either to increase one’s fortune, to purchase new estates, or to engage in business transactions. The law governing loans consists necessarily in the equality of what is given and returned; once the equality has been established, whoever demands more than that violates the terms of the loan. Therefore if one receives interest, he must make restitution according to the commutative bond of justice; its function in human contracts is to assure equality for each one. This law is to be observed in a holy manner. If not observed exactly, reparation must be made.
This is about as full a condemnation of usury as one might get, small or large profit, commercial or not… But then it continues
By these remarks, however, We do not deny that at times together with the loan contract certain other titles-which are not at all intrinsic to the contract-may run parallel with it. From these other titles, entirely just and legitimate reasons arise to demand something over and above the amount due on the contract. Nor is it denied that it is very often possible for someone, by means of contracts differing entirely from loans, to spend and invest money legitimately either to provide oneself with an annual income or to engage in legitimate trade and business. From these types of contracts honest gain may be made.
Such complexity (and confusion?) is the basis for those Roman Catholic scholars who argue that the position of the church on usury has not in fact changed like Gary L. Coulter who defines usury as "the prohibition of gain from a loan sought directly by a lender without a just title" and claims that "this is the definition of the usury prohibition as it was taught, understood and interpreted by the Church for thousands of years, just as it is today.” See also Austin Fagothey, Right and Reason: Ethics in Theory and Practice, 2nd ed. (St Louis: Mosby, 1959), pp. 471-74.

(9) The Reformers struggled to discern what faithfulness to Scripture meant in the area of financial interest, given the economic developments of their time. None of the Reformers were thrilled about the commercial practices of their time but while Luther stressed the traditional distaste for usury, Calvin was concerned to uphold the principle that the Church must not bind consciences beyond what is written in Scripture. For Calvin, see, e.g., the essay by Andrew Goddard on  Calvin, Usury and Evangelical Moral Theology.

Luther spoke often against usury. His 1519 sermon must have caused something of a stir and was published in a revised form in 1520. The 1520 Sermon was re-published unchanged in 1524 with further material added elaborating on commercial practices. B. Nelson observes that in private correspondence Luther moved from 1525 onwards to a view of interest-taking, in which “the economic situation and the consideration of public utility were of paramount importance” (in M. L. Stackhouse et al. [eds], On Moral Business: Classical and Contemporary Resources for Ethics in Economic Life [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995], p. 269). In his The Idea of Usury: From Tribal Brotherhood to Universal Otherhood, 2nd ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969), he distinguishes three phases in Luther's thinking. Unfortunately, Luther’s 1540 “Admonition to the Clergy that they Preach against Usury” (Weimarer Ausgabe 51.367) does not seem to be available online.

In England, Hugh Latimer condemned usury as "wicked before God, be it small or great; like as theft is wicked" in hisFifth Sermon upon the Lord’s Prayer and Bishop Jewel explicitly rejected the rich lending to the rich and the merchant lending to the merchant in his Exposition upon the Epistles to the Thessalonians (published 1583, but written some time before 1571), see W. J. Ashley, An Introduction to English Economic History and Theory, Part 2: The End of the Middle Ages, 4th ed. (1906), p. 223.


(10) A proper understanding of the concept of time preference demolishes the claim that usage charge on (non-productive) loans is intrinsically immoral. The concept of time preference realizes that people value $100 now more than $100 in a year's time, even without inflation or deflation (von Mises, cf. G. Stolyarov). This insight may be added to the acknowledgment of the right to compensation for the expenses of the transaction (damnum emergens), the loss of the opportunity to seize good bargains (lucrum cessans), and the risk of not recovering the principal (periculum sortis). This is of course not to say that a Christian must make use of such rights, or even that Christians are always allowed to make use of them.

(11) Contemporary economic arrangements are deeply problematic. High interest rates and irresponsible lending and borrowing, both on personal and international levels, are part of the problem but the mere existence of interest rates is not the problem. We should not underestimate the role of fiat money and its impact on the issue of interest. A sack of corn is valued differently just before the time to sow seed and just after harvest time but such fluctuations are different from steady inflation of money in our economy. An interest-free loan in which the same entity is returned as was borrowed (a sack of corn for a sack of corn, ten grams of silver for ten grams of silver) is different from an interest-free loan in which the same value is returned. The latter rises the question how to measure real value.

(12) The Scriptures traditionally used to condemn all usury have not always been properly understood and applied but they remain relevant for us today. The Gospel obliges us to charity and generosity and the regulations in the Torah should still inform our thinking about socio-economic arrangements which please or do not please God. The lifestyle of many Christians today would have been abhorrent to many Christians in the past. But I very much doubt that the church fathers would have put their finger on interest-bearing bank accounts. They would be horrified about the luxurious lifestyle of many of us, while people starve in other places of the world, and about debts being incurred to finance such a lifestyle. (Cf. this illustration, shadowing the argument presented here.)

A fundamental hermeneutical principle to remember in this discussion is this: repeating the same words in a different context is not saying the same thing. The condemnation of usage charges on loans in the past was most often connected with concern for the poor. The montes pietatis, non-profit making Christian credit institutions established in the fifteenth century for charitable loans, either went bankrupt once the bequest was used up (if they provided interest-free loans) or charged a small sum of interest to cover running costs and actually helped the poor. Those who condemned these latter institutions on the basis that they were charging interest, and without providing money for all the poor who made use of these loans, drove the poor into the hands of those who charged much, much higher interest rates. Such condemnation was very different from that in the early church.

Let us imagine people who at present own more than they need but who can anticipate a need in the not to distant future -- maybe they will need a car to get to work in a year's time or maybe there will be educational expenses for their children. Are Christians permitted, in principle, to put aside resources for future use? Yes, I should think so. Jesus does not demand that we live hand-to-mouth from day to day. How should they save? Are those who buy for themselves precious metals and hid them under their bed more righteous, because untainted by usury, than those who invest the resources in a microcredit initiative which seeks to help the poor? Just asking.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Agreeing and Disagreeing with Angus Ritchie, Part Three

In another piece published on ABC , responding to Ian Paul’s critique, Angus Ritchie puts his finger on the institutional hypocrisy of the Church of England. Our official position on same-sex relationships is clear but it is a facade behind which "gay ordinands may well have been encouraged by all of the key authority figures with whom they had to deal - including their Vicar, the staff at theological college and even perhaps their Bishop - to become priests without becoming celibate."
There is therefore "an important dis-analogy between blessing, and allowing clergy to be in, sexually active same-sex relationships and ordaining women to the episcopate." The latter did and could only happen after legal provision for it; the former is happening right now.
“In certain sections of the Church, the official line has been quietly ignored for years. This gentle and genteel form of civil disobedience is endemic in the Church of England. If we are frank, we must recognize that similar forms of rule-breaking go on in all its theological traditions.”
Ritchie’s central point is that the status quo is no longer sustainable because
"The reality today is than an increasing number of clergy, with growing boldness, are defying the official teaching on same-sex relationships."
In short, the genie is out of the bottle. Traditionalists are kidding themselves if they believe that the genie can be bottled up again. The only feasible way forward is to smash the bottle. 
Knowledge of the Church of England's institutional hypocrisy urges compassion in dealing with clergy who had been encouraged to believe that the church's teaching on celibacy can be disregarded; it can hardly be a sufficient reason for changing its teaching. In the ABC piece to which Angus Ritchie responds, Ian Paul had argued that on Scriptural grounds and for practical reasons it will not be possible to agree to disagree on same-sex relationships. 
In his reply Ritchie focuses on Romans 1:26-27 which he interprets with Loveday Alexander (in an essay in Grace and Disagreement) as referring to “a distortion of the default sexual identity, which Paul assumes to be heterosexual.” This means,
“Whereas for St. Paul, homosexual practice was a perversion practiced by people who were understood to have a fundamentally heterosexual identity, Loveday Alexander's claim is that today, ‘we know some people are born gay.’”
In other words, Paul’s reasoning in Romans 1:26-27 proceeds from what we today know to be wrong assumptions and therefore needs to be qualified.[1] For Ritchie this is 
“but another instance of a challenge at least as old as the Galileo affair... Respecting the authority of Scripture is a very different thing from accepting the validity of the scientific worldview of the cultures in which it was written, and to which it was addressed.”
This glosses over the significant hermeneutical difference between Ritchie’s approach and the approach traditionally practiced within the church.[2] Has the church ever declared a theological statement within Scripture or a Biblical prohibition of certain acts no longer valid because she now recognises it to be without foundation, having been based on faulty science?[3]
The departure from traditional Christian hermeneutics is somewhat softened later by the claim that,
“The question which arises for the Church today, and did not arise for St. Paul, is that within its Body there are same-sex couples whose relationships bear these same marks - couples for whom it is also "not good to be alone," but for whom heterosexual marriage is not an option. Theirs are also covenant relationships, where people choose to build a common life, "forsaking all others."
So while Paul held wrong beliefs, he was not wrong (at the time) to condemn sexual activity between partners of the same sex. It seems that Ritchie is committed to the claim that all same-sex relationships within the ancient world were abusive or at least that the apostle in his context was justified in failing to consider the possibility of faithful, loving same-sex relationships.
Ritchie seeks to persuade readers that the view that approves of sexual activity among same-sex couples who are committed to a permanent, faithful and stable relationship is not in fact "outside of Christian moral teaching."
He shows himself puzzled about the practical obstacles Ian Paul outlined. What he seems to overlook is that for “two integrities” to work it is not enough for each side to acknowledge that the other side sincerely believes to be inside Christian moral teaching. What is required is for both sides to be persuaded that both “integrities” are in fact inside Christian moral teaching. But the traditional view is that sexual intimacy outside marriage between a man and a woman is "outside of Christian moral teaching." In other words, traditionalist are asked to abandon the traditional view. It is hard not to see this as an obstacle.
While I do not want to put undue weight on a side comment, the following quotation seems to me to put the finger on a critical issue:
“I remain unconvinced that this can get Dr Paul to his desired conclusion on women's leadership. But that is a debate for another day: we both support the ordination of women, so let us focus instead on the issue where we disagree.”
It illustrates the lack of agreement on where the disagreement lies. Angus Ritchie gives the impression that what really matters is getting to the desired conclusion, never mind how. And he attributes the same thinking to Ian Paul. Because he acknoweldges that we are not likely to agree on this issue, we must agree to disagree. But the crucial issue is not “the issue where we disagree” but our different ways of reasoning. 

Angus Ritchie may genuinely believe that, "It is possible to be affirming of same-sex unions with every bit as high a doctrine of Scripture, every bit as faithful a hermeneutic and every bit as serious an attitude to sexual sin" but he provides little evidence to back this up. It is not altogether clear what "sexual sin" is in his account. (Is there sexual activity that is free of exploitation and abuse and does not obviously harm a third party, i.e. sexual activity which is not wrong for reasons other than those specifically related to sex, which is nevertheless wrong because it is "sexual sin" and on what grounds? Is there a middle ground between sacramental and idolatrous?) 

It is not at all clear that the hermeneutic he assumes is faithful, as none of the precedents suggested here ("Galileo affair") or previously (remarriage of divorcees, the ordination of women) stand up to scrutiny, and claims to a high view of Scripture need to be grounded in exegesis that is humbly and patiently seeking to discern what God is saying to us. It may be unavoidable that much exegesis concerned with the issue at hand looks agenda-driven but Ritchie has done little to dispel this impression, picking up Loveday Alexander's reading of Romans 1:26-27 apparently because Ian Paul has made some appreciative noises about this essay and not necessarily because her understanding of "nature" is the most plausible. Given that Loveday Alexander offers no defence of this reading in the essay in question and Ritchie offers no reflection on the other passages, we do not see the exegesis at work which would warrant the claims made.




[1] The literature that could be considered here is voluminous. Roy Bowen Ward, "Why Unnatural? The Tradition behind Romans 1:26-27," Harvard Theological Review 90 (1997): 263-84, focuses on contextual background. Theodore de Bruyn, "Ambrosiaster's Interpretations of Romans 1:26-27," Vigiliae Christianae 65 (2011): 463-83, offers insight into how early Christians read the verses.
[2] Margaret Davies, in an essay commended by Loveday Alexander, speaks of Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9 as "an anomalous emotional blindspot in an otherwise radical transformation of tradition" ("New Testament Ethics and Ours: Homosexuality and Sexuality in Romans 1:26-27," Biblical Interpretation 3 [1995],  318). This is hardly the language traditionally used in Christian reasoning.
[3] The "Galileo affair," is much misrepresented today and cannot do the work to which Ritchie wants to put it. In the words of Dinesh D'Souza, "The Church's view of heliocentrism was hardly a dogmatic one. When Cardinal Bellarmine met with Galileo he said, “While experience tells us plainly that the earth is standing still, if there were a real proof that the sun is in the center of the universe…and that the sun goes not go round the earth but the earth round the sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and rather admit that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true. But this is not a thing to be done in haste, and as for myself, I shall not believe that there are such proofs until they are shown to me.”"

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Committed Church Membership

In Yours Lord: A Handbook of Christian Stewardship (A&C Black, 1992), pp. 96-97, Michael Wright offered an adaptation of A Short Guide to the Duties of Church Membership as a help for considering one’s own personal discipline. He suggests noting some specific intentions for the next twelve months to be kept in one’s Bible or a devotional book, for regular reference.

·         We have our unique part to play in the life and witness of our church.
What do you see your part being in your church now?
·         We have the opportunity to reflect the light and love of Christ in our lives.
How do you see you can do that in your activities, decisions and relationships each day?
·         We are invited to share each day of our life with God.
How do you intend to safeguard time to listen, love and share with him each day?
·         We are offered the Word of God in the scriptures.
How do you plan regularly to read and seek to understand the Bible?
·         We have the opportunity to share in worship and fellowship with other Christians each week.
How often do you plan to do this?
·         Christ invites us to his table, to be fed with the sacrament of his body and blood.
How often do you intend to accept this invitation?
·         Christ asks us to ‘always treat others as you like to them to treat you’.
How do you plan to express this in service of others?
·         Marriage is intended as a lifelong partnership of love.
How can you help to nourish this ideal in your own relationships, and how can you help others to do so?
·         Christ has a special love and protection for children.
How do you aim to nourish and protect the spiritual, emotional, social, educational, and artistic well-being of your own, and other people’s, children, and help them to know Christ’s special love for them, and to experience the joy of knowing him?
·         Christ invites us to store up treasure in heaven, rather than treasure on earth.
What proportion of your income will you decide to give this year, as an act of gratitude to God for all he has given you, that you may help to do his will on earth as it is in heaven?

Duties of Church Membership

At the request of the Church Assembly in 1954 Geoffrey Fisher and Cyril Garbett, archbishops respectively of Canterbury and York, produced 

A Short Guide to the Duties of Church Membership

All baptized and confirmed members of the Church must play their full part in its life and witness. That you may fulfil this duty we call upon you:

To follow the example of Christ in home and daily life, and to bear personal witness to Him.
To be regular in private prayer day by day.
To read the Bible carefully.
To come to Church every Sunday.
To receive the Holy Communion faithfully and regularly.
To give personal service to Church, neighbours, and community.
To give money for the work of parish and diocese and for the work of the Church at home and overseas.
To uphold the standard of marriage entrusted by Christ to His Church.
To care that children are brought up to love and serve the Lord.

Geoffrey Cantuar :
Cyril Ebor :


Published by the Church Information Board and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. S.P.C.K., London.

A report to the Church of England's General Synod in 1990, Receiving and Giving: The Basis, Issues and Implications of Christian Stewardship (GS 943), recommended that an updated version of this be widely used 'as a guide, rather than a requirement, for new and existing members' of the Church. In Yours Lord: A Handbook of Christian Stewardship (A&C Black, 1992), pp. 96-97, Michael Wright offered an adaptation as a help for considering one's own personal discipline.

Christ Church Virginia Water offers a Bible verse for each of the nine statements.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Is it possible to tolerate liberal views?

Did that title grab your attention? This is an argument for saying that it is structurally impossible to tolerate a less rigorous (‘liberal’) practice within a more rigorous (‘conservative’) set-up. Or at least it is a thought experiment; thinking out loud. I use three questions on which one might distinguish a more ‘liberal’ and a more ‘conservative’ view within the church. The argument applies to any polity, of course, but my interest is in the church.

Is it possible to enter marriage only once while a (former) marriage partner is still alive or are there circumstances in which it is possible to enter into a second marriage while one’s former spouse is still alive? A church that officially holds the more rigorous view may be able to tolerate that some members  hold a more liberal view but it cannot condone practice grounded in the more permissive view. Once actions grounded in a less rigorous view, i.e. the remarriage of divorcees while a former partner is still alive, are permitted, the institution has adopted the more liberal view. In this case the question is no longer whether to tolerate the more liberal view but whether the more rigorous view can be tolerated. It should not be too difficult to do so, as long as those views are not considered in and of themselves obnoxious. It is even possible to accommodate conservative practice, which is simply a refusal to engage in the additional act, alongside liberal practice, as long as one finds a way to ensure that whether a couple can or cannot get married does not become a postcode lottery.[1]

Is the ordination to the priesthood only possible for men or also for women? As long as a church holds the narrower view, it cannot allow for the ordination of women, even if it allows for people arguing in its favour. Once the more liberal practice is adopted, the church may be able to tolerate those who hold the narrower view and maybe even make concessions to those with a more tender conscience, as long as these do not threaten the overall consensus.[2] The greatest difficulty here may be the harmonious ministry of clergy alongside other clergy whom some consider not to be clergy at all or to be clergy wrongfully.

Does marriage require a diversity of sexes or not? A church that teaches that a marriage covenant must involve both a man and a woman might refuse to excommunicate those who disagree with this teaching but it cannot approve of marriages in which both partners are of the same sex. Once it does this, it has abandoned the conservative teaching. A set-up in which marriages are allowed between any two consenting partners of whichever sex might tolerate people who hold the more traditional view and even try to accommodate clergy who refuse to conduct certain marriages. In such a case the church might well struggle to allow for clergy that refuse to recognise certain people as ‘married’ because they are in a covenant relationship in which there is no diversity of sexes. It would certainly seem impossible for a church to allow for both the approval (blessing) of sexual activity within such covenantal partnerships and the condemnation of such activity as immoral.

The short thought experiment shows that it is difficult but arguably not necessarily impossible for conservatives to tolerate liberal views and for liberals to tolerate conservative views. But as far as practice is concerned, while churches which allow a wider practice may be able to accommodate members who favour a narrower practice, it is structurally impossible to hold a conservative view and allow liberal practices, not without the charge of hypocrisy becoming appropriate.

In sum, agreeing to disagree is not much of an option when it comes to deciding which practices are permissible. The only possibility for permitting two different, contradictory practices in the examples above is to adopt the less rigorous practice as the official stance and find ways of accommodating / tolerating those with more rigorous views.




[1] Because this could be read as a comment on the Church of England, it should be pointed out that, strictly speaking, the practice of the Church of England seems to have been more rigorous for many years than its official teaching required which means the situation is more complex than the illustration above.
[2] Again the situation with the Church of England is more complicated than this, especially since the ordination of women to the episcopate which makes it harder for conservatives to avoid women clergy but ways have been found to accommodate people who hold the narrower view and practice.