In my last post I claimed that Millennials are interested in the church being clearer about moral expectations (though not necessarily moral requirements) around sex. Having said that, I thought, “Wait, I’m a priest and a theologian and a biologist; Why am I not writing about this?” It’s a tough sell politically and a tough problem theologically. Of course, neither of those is a good enough reason to stop proclaiming the good news. And yes, I do think it needs to be good news: there are positive, healthy, practical ways to deal with sex and romance in a way that leads to loving relationships. I keep complaining that others are not talking about sexual ethics, so I suppose I should give it a try. With that in mind, please say a prayer for me as I try to start a productive conversation on sex and morality for Anglicans in this time and place. Hopefully it goes without saying that I encourage your input.
I have entitled this piece “An Anglican Ethics.” Anglicans rarely commit to a single theological perspective. Largely we are more about method than conclusion. That means, I’m asking you to follow me and see how I do this. If I do my job properly, you will be able to do the process for yourself. You may not come to the same conclusion, but you will come to a similar and similarly informed position.
The Via Media
Any Anglican theology starts with the via media, the middle way. The via media suggests that theological and ethical questions should begin with a survey of expert opinion, where each perspective is carefully considered and given due weight. Note that you listen to everyone, but take some sources much more seriously than others and reflect critically on the way the community (tradition) and personal reason shape your understanding of those sources. For Anglicans, the foremost authority will always be the Bible.
Secondary authorities include the teachings of theologians, past and present, who have special purview either because of their universal scope and acceptance (Augustine, Aquinas, Hooker) or particular expertise (I’ll be drawing on Aquinas, CS Lewis, and L William Countryman). The Episcopal Church has produced few institutional documents, but I plan to consult the Book of Common Prayer, “To Set Our Hope on Christ” and “I Will Bless You and You Will Be A Blessing” the latter two being as close as we come to an Episcopalian position on homosexuality. (Sadly I am unaware of parallel resources on heterosexuality.) Secondary authorities also include the findings of experts in biology, psychology, and related fields who report on specific relevant empirical evidence regarding human sexual identity and behavior.
Tertiary authorities include learned and wise commentary on the primary and secondary authorities. There are many people whose opinions I deeply respect. My opinions are shaped by the many conversations I have had with them. Here I include theologians, bishops, pastors, and scientists who have reflected carefully on issues of sexuality both practically and theoretically. I will not name any of them for fear of misrepresenting their opinions. Any mistakes are surely my own.
Finally, there are quaternary authorities. (Did you there was a word for fourth order? It’s one of my favorite words.) In fourth place, we find public opinion. It’s true that public opinion has changed radically with regard to sexual ethics over the last 60 years. I have no doubt that that informs my opinion, but I give it lowest weight. Within the quaternary category, I include anecdotes, personal narratives, and feelings and the experience of friends and family members.
Once you have this giant mass of opinion, it’s time to do something with it. It’s time to actually practice ethics. I have devoted a post to the question of which authorities you choose, however, because I find it critical in reasoning well about ethics. Transparent reasoning about ethics requires that we first put our cards on the table about where we begin. Much disagreement can be avoided, or at least clarified, by communicating about your different choices of authority.
It is both silly and arbitrary to assign numbers, but I found it a remarkable meditation, so I’d ask you to try to put together your own list. It’s difficult, but as I sit here, let me propose:
15% respected theologians
15% respected scientists
10% The Episcopal Church
12% wise friends (6% in TEC)
8% popular opinion
In the next post, I will turn to the process of sifting through the authorities and coming to ethical principles and moral rules.