Posted by: dacalu | 5 February 2014

The Ethical Outline

This post is part of a sequence in which I attempt to lay out one Anglican Christian approach to sexual ethics.  The sequence starts here with the collection of ethical authorities, with the Bible being the first and foremost.

Having laid out the ethical authorities, we now start the process of narrowing our focus from Eternal Wisdom to specific practice.  It’s a long process, so let me outline the major steps:

1. Pray. (Talk to God about the question.  Wait patiently for an answer.  Wait impatiently for an answer.  When you can’t wait any longer, move on to step 2.  If you get stuck on step 1, congratulations, you are now a contemplative.)

2. Research, read, rank, and weight all of the opinions you can find related to your subject and to goodness in general.  (Once again, this can easily be a never ending process.  When you get tired of research or must reach an answer, move on to step 3.  If you get stuck on step 2, congratulations, you are now a scholar.)

3. Pray. (See step 1.  Really, this is the way it works in Anglicanism.  You will find the experience of prayer different after study, after soaking yourself in scripture and the wisdom of the ages.  You will have for more to talk about and listen for.)

4. Identify core ethical principles.

5. Pray.  (Okay, I’m just going to let you know that all the odd numbers are “pray” from here on out.  You get the idea.  And no, you can’t skip the odd steps.)

6. Discuss.  (It is necessary to try out your ideas about core ethical principles on friends, as many and as wise as you can find.  Anglicans follow the rule of Tertullian [160-225 AD, North African Christian theologian]: Solus Christianus, Nullus Christianus, the lone Christian is no Christian.  You must work out theology and ethics in community.  It doesn’t mean you have to do what they tell you; it does mean you have to listen and really consider what they tell you.  Sorry, you can’t skip this step either.  When you get tired of discussion, move on to the next step.  If you get stuck on step 6, congratulations, you are a teacher.  Keep praying, studying, and thinking and you will know something worth teaching.)

7. Pray.

8. Identify specific ethical principles by applying core principles to the context in question.  In this case we move from core principles (such as “Love your neighbor”) through intermediate levels (“Go the extra mile”) to specific principles along the lines of “only have sex when there is mutual benefit and consent.”

9. Pray, return to step 2 if necessary.

10. Discuss.

11. Pray.

12. Identify specific moral rules, the thou shalts and thous shalt nots of hypothetical situations (or if absolutely necessary, the situation at hand).  In this case, we move from principles like “only have sex when there is mutual benefit and consent” to concretes “do not commit rape.”  That’s rather a straightforward application, but the value of the steps shines through when we get to tougher questions like: “Is it okay to kiss someone if I’m attracted to them but not interested in seeing them again?” or “How will my date interpret my attire and what message do I want to send?”

(Some readers will be concerned about more immediate ethical questions that need to be answered right away.  First, if you find yourself in a situation where you are unprepared for a sexual decision and you cannot put it off, it’s worth devoting serious time reflecting on your environment.  That said, surprises do occur.  You can run through the steps quite quickly if you are familiar with the tradition and have had serious conversations with your friends about morality.  With preparation core principles, even specific moral rules, will already be present, voices of friends and authorities will be recalled.)

13. Pray.

14. Discuss.

15. Pray, return to step 2 if necessary.

16. Act.  Apply the moral rules.

17. Pray.

18. Reflect.  (This is a key and often missed step.  Good morality requires that we check our expectations against reality.  Have our moral rules achieved the ends our core values set for them?  Have the experience and consequences of our action changed our understanding of scripture, our weighting of authorities, or our relationship to friends.  If yes, return to step 1.)

Hopefully, this post has reinforced the idea that “method over doctrine” is the exact opposite of laziness, pride, or moral relativism.  Ethical discipline for Anglicans requires hard work and discipline in preparation for and reflection on right behavior.  No one can do all the work all the time, but when we are honest with ourselves and part of a healthy community, it can be a joyous practice, an opportunity to come closer to God and one another through engaging in serious questions and real sharing.

In the next post, I will talk more about how we form core ethical principles.



  1. […] process for developing sexual ethics.  The process began by exploring relevant authorities and continued with an outline for moral reasoning.  That outline included a call for constant prayer, study, […]

  2. […] process for developing sexual ethics. This posts marks as shift from core ethical principles (outline, step 4) to specific ethical principles (step 8). As always, the process involves prayer, but the […]

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