Reform and the Interminable Anglican Sex Kerfuffle

Down at the Graun, they’ve been looking into those “traditionalists” in the Church of England, the ones who are involved in the most recent bout of the Interminable Anglican Sex Kerfuffle. Andrew Brown has discovered complementarianism, and he doesn’t approve. He’s found the Doctrinal Rectitude Trust‘s site, wherein he’s learned that trustees sign various declarations of their doctrinal rectitude, annually (which seems a bit lax: I’d go for twice nightly, and three times on Saturdays). We’ve discussed the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy before, and the Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood was mentioned during the ComplementarianFail drama of 2009. It’s the Danvers Statement which has Brown so exercised, and he quotes a few choice passages from it for your enjoyment.

Intelligent, willing submission

Now, my old church was a Reform one, so I remember a bit about this stuff. I’ve been sharing my memories of those halycon days of “intelligent, willing submission” here; wheeling out the inevitable Houseplants of Gor gag (and handcuffs) here (another commenter has actually read John Norman’s books: fun times); making simont‘s point about the failure mode of complementarianism here; and arguing that Christianity is not necessarily evil here.

Some of the reports I’ve seen about the Sex Kerfuffle have been theologically confused (not Brown’s of course: he correctly identifies the Reform people as Calvinists). It’s reported that the “traditionalists” might all defect to Rome: in Reform’s case, this is about as likely as Ian Paisley getting all chummy with Jessel the Tri-felge Putenard. The traditionalists are two distinct groups, both of whom suspect that the other lot aren’t really Christians, but who are prepared to make common cause over the vital issue of penises and the possession (bishops must have them) and disposition (they must not put them too near other men) of the same. It is the traditionalist Anglo-Catholics who might defect to Rome.

Disestablishmentarianism

The Graun‘s recent editorial warned that the church should either get with the programme or face disestablishment: “The Church of England now expects both the benefits of establishment and the cultural freedom of private religion. At the very least, a national church should not become disconnected from the best values of the country it serves.”

The Graun seems to think that the established church should be what Andrew Rilstone describes as “the Church of Dumbledore”, a sort of deistic religion whose purpose is to work for social goods, “baptising the dead and burying the sick”. Rilstone originally wrote The Ballad of Reading Diocese the previous time a Kerfuffle over Jeffrey John arose, but it remains as relevant as it was then.

The National God Service, the Church of Dumbledore, seems to be one of those oddly British historical vestiges, like the monarchy. While I don’t particularly see the point of it, it hardly seems worth the trouble of getting rid of it. A church which patronises women and views gay relationships as sinful, on the other hand, should go its own way: the state should have nothing to do with such an organisation. It’s not clear to me who’s currently winning: I’ll watch developments with interest.

Brown, Bishops, Bigots, Justice, Laws

After the last case of nature imitating art, Gordon Brown’s gaffe reminded me of that moment on Yes, Prime Minister when Sir Humphrey learns an important lesson: the microphone is always live, just as the gun is always loaded.

I don’t know whether Mrs Duffy is a bigot. As Bernard Woolley might say, that’s one of those irregular verbs, isn’t it? I engage in open discussion on immigration; you are a bigot; he’s being charged under Section 19 of the Public Order Act. Andrew Rilstone says she’s read too much of the Nasty Press, and that Brown is himself too used to pandering to them, in public at least, both sentiments which seem fair enough, to me.

Justice and Laws

There’s a lot of blogging going on about the failure of yet another legal case where a Christian claimed they’d been discriminated against when they were sacked for discriminating against gays. Gary McFarlane, a relationship counsellor, was sacked by Relate for refusing to give therapy to homosexual couples. Lord Carey, the former archbishop of Canterbury, intervened in the case. He submitted a witness statement in which he called for special, religiously sensitive, courts to hear cases like McFarlane’s; said that Christians were being equated with bigots (that word again); and warned of “civil unrest” if things carried on (for an example of civil unrest organised by the Church of England, see Eddie Izzard’s Cake or death sketch).

It’s worth reading the full text of the judgement by the excellently named Lord Justice Laws. After giving his legal opinion, the judge addresses Lord Carey’s statement. He rejects Carey’s claim that the law says Christians are bigots, distinguishing discriminatory outcomes from malevolent intentions. He goes on:

The general law may of course protect a particular social or moral position which is espoused by Christianity, not because of its religious imprimatur, but on the footing that in reason its merits commend themselves. So it is with core provisions of the criminal law: the prohibition of violence and dishonesty. The Judaeo-Christian tradition, stretching over many centuries, has no doubt exerted a profound influence upon the judgment of lawmakers as to the objective merits of this or that social policy. And the liturgy and practice of the established Church are to some extent prescribed by law. But the conferment of any legal protection or preference upon a particular substantive moral position on the ground only that it is espoused by the adherents of a particular faith, however long its tradition, however rich its culture, is deeply unprincipled. It imposes compulsory law, not to advance the general good on objective grounds, but to give effect to the force of subjective opinion. This must be so, since in the eye of everyone save the believer religious faith is necessarily subjective, being incommunicable by any kind of proof or evidence. It may of course be true; but the ascertainment of such a truth lies beyond the means by which laws are made in a reasonable society. Therefore it lies only in the heart of the believer, who is alone bound by it. No one else is or can be so bound, unless by his own free choice he accepts its claims.

This debate is usually framed as Christians vs atheists and secularists. Indeed, Carey is still fulminating, fellow bishop Cranmer rumbles about establishment, and the Christian Legal Centre appears to think it’s a good idea for the courts to take a position on the veracity of the Bible (let me know how that one works out for you, guys). But not all Christians are with Carey and the CLC: some Christians call out Carey for bringing Christianity into disrepute, and some recognise that claiming persecution has become a cottage industry for Christians in the UK. See also How to spot a fundamentalist Christian lobby group in your news, where you’re encouraged to spot a pattern developing.

The Evangelical Alliance would like these cases to stay out of the courts. A common response to this sort of case is to ask whether some accommodation could be made to the discriminatory Christians: perhaps those who objected to dealing with gay couples could be excused such duties? That seems reasonable to an extent, but Lord Justice Laws makes it clear that there is no legal obligation on employers here. It would be churlish to object to employers freely choosing to make such arrangements, so long as they do not inconvenience co-workers who do not discriminate in this way, but it seems hard to argue that employers have a moral obligation to do so, either: co-workers would probably feel a bit like the elder brother in Prodigal Son parable, and might ask why should someone behaving badly get equal pay and more flexibility about their work then someone willing to do the entire job. More generally, if society has decided that such discrimination is wrong, why should those doing wrong get special treatment? What do you think, readers?

Edited to add: some more discussion of the McFarlane case is happening over on andrewducker‘s post about it.

Pullman, plots and stories

Metafilter had a posting on the ideas behind His Dark Materials a while back. It contains links to the video of a documentary where Melvyn Bragg interviews Pullman, as well as to articles discussing his literary influences, from Blake and Milton to Arthur Ransome.

The Plot

This set me to reading the books again. I enjoyed them. Pullman’s a craftsman, and the books show off both his skill in writing and his imagination. I still found the ending, the final separation of Lyra and Will, rather forced. Nick Lowe wrote The Well Tempered Plot Device, which partly deals with authorial insertions, not of a character who stands for the author, but of an object which stands for the Plot, so that, for example, we can say that “Darth Vader has turned to the Dark Side of the Plot” (this is also the essay which introduced “Clench Racing”, a sport for as many players as you have Stephen Donaldson books). scribb1e riffed on this, explaining that at the end of His Dark Materials “there can only be one hole in the Plot”, the one which leads out of the land of the dead.

Pullman’s stories are satisfying because they borrow from the greats: the Bible, Milton, Book of Common Prayer (where else does anyone learn the word “oblation”?) and the the English hymnal (“frail children of dust”). I doubt the Bible’s or the BCP’s authors would approve of His Dark Materials, but, as lisekit says, great art is characterised by its ability to sustain more than one interpretation.

The authors

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that God doesn’t exist, and that evangelicalism is like fandom (the latter wasn’t entirely an original idea of mine: livredor defines midrash as Biblical fan fiction). All these people who claim to be in a relationship with God obviously aren’t, so what are they doing? I think they’re not writing fan fiction but living it, creating their own stories in a world they see as belonging to the divine Author, stories which occur after their canon has ended.

In fandom, inserting yourself into the world you’re writing fan fiction about is seen as passé by the experts. There’s a disparaging term for characters who are obviously authorial self-insertions, Mary Sue. In religion, it’s not quite the same. You can and should insert yourself into the story, but you’d better not get too far above yourself if you do, unless you’re very convincing (this isn’t that dissimilar to fandom, since the real objection to Mary Sues is that they’re too perfect). C.S. Lewis wrote somewhere that Christians do not know whether they will be given bit parts or starring roles, but their job is to play them as best they can.

The disagreements within religions which are based on the same book are similar to the disagreements within Harry Potter fandom before the final book came out, about whether Ginny or Hermione should end up with Harry. The bitterest disagreements are always about sex, as illustrated by the perpetually imminent division (Rilstone wrote that in 2004) of Anglicanism into the ones who believe God hates shrimp and the ones who don’t believe in God.

Unlike Potter fandom, in Bible fandom there’s no-one who can produce the universally recognised Word of God, settling the matter with a final book (if you want to remain within the canons of your religion, that is: the Mormons and the Baha’i have taken the approach of adding a new book, as Christianity itself did to Judaism), so people end up grouping themselves into communities which more-or-less share a view on the One True Pairing, and the ideas of each community become fanon to those within it. The Bible is rich soil for this sort of thing because it is great art and so admits multiple interpretations.

The Story

What’s the point of living this way? To be in a story with meaning. lumpley speaks of the fun of roleplaying games as coming from three possible sources: one, wish-fulfilment; two, strategy and tactics; and three, “the fun of facing challenging moral, ethical, or socially informative situations”. He splits up games into two approaches:

Approach one: “made up journalism.” The conceit is, the characters and events of the game are real. The lives of the characters don’t have meaning, the same way that our real lives don’t have meaning. Approach two: fiction. Fiction, unlike life, is all meaning all the time. I prefer approach two. In particular, it’s very difficult to take approach one and yet get fun type three.

What does he mean by “our real lives don’t have meaning”? That shit (notably death) just happens. Wash’s I’m a leaf on the wind/I’m a leaf on a rake death scene in Serenity is shocking, and Anyone Can Die is a rare trope in fiction (except if you’re watching something by Joss Whedon), because we expect fiction to give us meanings for significant events.

So then, God is the Plot, in Lowe’s sense of the word, and if you believe, the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse. If you die, it’s what the Plot wanted. Your community knows they’re reading the canon the right way, that Harry really loves Hermione, that God disapproves of gay sex, or whatever, and everyone else has misunderstood the Plot. Of course, it’s not just about reading the book: you have the spirit of a dragonGod in you, however odd that sounds.

The reason Lowe can mock the Plot is that bad fiction leans on it so hard that it becomes ridiculous. The reader becomes too aware that they’re reading fiction and loses their suspension of disbelief. Why lose it? Because all readers know deep down that reality doesn’t come invested with meaning in that way.

Fun stuff

The site of the book of the sites, The Internet, now in handy book form, is good fun. Crackbook and Poormatch are particularly well observed. It reminded me of TV Go Home, but a little less bitter and scatological (only a little, mind you).

Quotable quotes of the week:

“… any time anyone’s said anything comprehensible about the Trinity the Church has declared it a heresy.” – gjm11 on a Rilstone post created specifically for him.

“The universe tends toward maximum irony. Don’t push it.” – jwz on taking reliable backups (which is much harder on a Mac than it ought to be).

“All those fine words about the rule of law safeguarding our liberties, the arbitrary exercise of power and Bunker Hill, Lexington and Normandy went right out the window on 9/11. That was when Henry and the rest of his stalwart defenders of the rule of law promptly wet their pants and then let their president use the constitution to clean up the puddle.” – Digby, via a friend of a friend.


There’s an option that I might have considered instead of apostasy. Unfortunately, in those conservative days, you couldn’t really do that sort of thing. These days, if LiveJournal is anything to go by, it’s all the rage. A woman tells us how she’s in an open relationship with Jesus.

Fresh new Rilstone, while it’s hot, they’re luverly

Andrew Rilstone has posted some more in his Sceptics Guide to Richard Dawkins. There’s a critique of Dawkins’s response to people who complain that he doesn’t know any theology, and another criticising Dawkins’s claim that “You shall not kill” was only ever understood to refer to fellow Jews.

atreic has a small discussion about it. gjm11 has commented on Rilstone’s blog, and, not very surprisingly, I think we’re in agreement on this. As I said in a previous entry on Rilstone’s earlier entries in his Guide, I don’t think he’s answered Dawkins’s best arguments.

Your pragma ran over my dogma

Ruth Gledhill, religion correspondent for the Times, has discovered that Richard Dawkins is actually a liberal Anglican (see her blog post for more).

Meanwhile, Andrew Rilstone has been writing his Sceptic’s Guide to Richard Dawkins, a lengthy series of articles which, among other things, re-iterates other reviewers’ arguments that Dawkins is not addressing the sort of God that Christians actually believe in (by the way, The Valve and respectable astrophysicist Sean Caroll both have good responses to Eagleton’s review).

I think that this argument is one of Rilstone’s weaker ones (he’s on much stronger ground pointing out Dawkins’s gaffes when talking about the details of religion). Dawkins responds to critics who say he only speaks about unsophisticated verisons of Christianity by saying that understated religion is numerically negligible. I agree, but my perception may be influenced by the circles I moved in when I was a Christian. As an evangelical, I believed in a personal, supernatural (in the sense of “beyond or outside nature”) God who created the universe (using evolution as a tool, admittedly, as I’d not entirely taken leave of my senses). That’s just the sort of God that Dawkins has in his sights. While there are lots of Christians who aren’t evangelicals, my perception was and is that most of them believe similar sorts of things. Yet Rilstone says he and many Christians believe something else, something more subtle.

Adherents.com isn’t very helpful in determining who’s right, since it’s hard to link denominational affiliation to a place on the spectrum between “God is the existential ground of our being” (or Gledhill’s bizarre “God is String Theory”) and “God is a white-bearded daddy in the sky”. I’d be interested to know of any other surveys which could help out here.

You could argue that it doesn’t matter how many people believe in the “existential ground of our being” version of God, because if that’s the strongest version, that’s the one an atheist has to beat. However, Dawkins is not writing philosophy, but polemic. If you want to change the world, you’d better aim at where most believers are starting from. If you don’t make them atheists but do move them towards more understated religion, that’s at least some sort of progress (although if you’re a true New Atheist, you want them to abandon religion entirely, of course).

I must confess that I have very little idea about what this moderate religion actually asserts, or how one would practice it while knowing that you’re basically making it up as you go along. Rilstone argues that God is more like an author than a fellow character in our universe, but this does not seem to excuse God from titles like “creator” or “person”, which puts you right back in the path of Dawkins’s argument that such a creator is itself complex enough to require further explanation.

Gledhill has a different sort of moderation. When she gets excited about Dawkins’s concession that there might be a gigantic intelligence in the 11th dimension (my layman’s understanding of string theory is that it’d actually have to be a very small intelligence, but never mind), she’s so keen to hear Dawkins talk in those terms that she misses his statement that such an intelligence would need some explanation like evolution, and that such an intelligence is a very long way from the Christian conception of God, whether it’s my old one or Rilstone’s author. Whatever they are, they walk near Sigma 957, and they must walk there alone.

I think Rilstone gets closer to the heart of moderate Christianity when he says that Dawkins thinks religion is all about belief, when it’s really about practice, or cultus as Rilstone puts it (gjm11‘s response to that is worth reading). Rilstone writes of Dawkins’s eulogy addressed directly to Douglas Adams in The God Delusion as the sort of religious practice that Dawkins fails to understand in the rest of the book.

When Dawkins writes to his dead friend, or Feynman to his dead wife (“Please excuse my not mailing this – but I don’t know your new address”), you’d need a heart of stone to be unmoved, or to berate these scientists for their departure from rationality.

But suppose that they continued to build a practice around writing to their lost friends, an edifice of thought to explain how their friends could read the letters, and a society they could go along to every week to meet with other people who also write letters to the dead. We might regard that as a little odd, and question them about the evidence for the dead reading their letters. Suppose some of them responded that, on reflection, they weren’t really sure their letters were really read by their intended recipients, but they were carrying on with the society anyway. That’s where the religious moderates lose me, because I do not understand on what basis they continue. God is dead. Best to move on, I think.