The Achilles Heel of Anglicanism (In North America and the United Kingdom)

By Rev. Dr. Philip Turner


April 15th, 2011

For many years I studied in England or worked within the British sphere of influence; and during that time I learned to look forward to Alastair Cooke's, "Letter from America." I enjoyed his broadcasts immensely because of their positive presentation of American life. I was surrounded by the British media that portrayed America as a cautionary tale warning the British people that, if they were not careful, they might become like their American cousins. A positive word about my "homeland" provided a welcome antidote to compliments from my English friends that were in truth insults. "You're so nice," they would say. "You don't seem like an American at all"

I am tempted to entitle this essay also "A Letter from America." This time, however, the letter would comment on how these fears have been realized. From afar, Britons look increasingly like their American cousins, and the change in appearance has not been for the better. How is this so? The difference in English usage remains and increases daily. Public manners remain (marginally) more civil in England, and the English Bobby still provides a welcome alternative to "The Wire."

However, these differences are superficial. Under the surface the two societies grow increasingly similar. Both peoples seem fixated on the same things–birth, death and sex. Read the English tabloids and then take a look at the magazine stands in America's supermarkets. No real difference. The important matter for present purposes, however, is that the change in the character of social relations typical of both societies to one degree or another has begun to migrate into the life of the church. As a result, the same issues have come to dominate relations both within and between the churches, with the result that the culture wars have migrated into the very heart of church life.

Why is it that both church and society are so taken up with birth, death and sex? These are the flash points in the moral battles that rage in both countries. Is abortion to be permitted? Are there moral limits on what we ought to do to have or get a child? Is it right to take one's own life or have someone else end it? Is it right to have sexual relations with a person who is not one's spouse? Should society allow people of the same gender to marry?

These are the questions that so absorb us. Why, however, do the moral questions of believers and unbelievers alike cluster around these three points rather than others? Why do we feel so passionately about them? Why is it that we seem unable to talk about them save with people who think as we think? A part of the reason is simply that these are perennial questions that touch upon the very center of our lives. However, it is also the case that these issues are made more pressing by what Levi- Strauss termed "socio-logic." More than at any other time in history the logic of social relations regnant in the West places great weight upon the private desires and goals of individuals. Birth, death and sex are, however, points at which that socio-logic is challenged by the fragments of a former moral universe–one that still has a diminished but real purchase on the mind of society. I hope the truth of this claim will be clear by the end of the following discussion.

Every society has a way to describe its members as social agents–as beings capable of acting and being acted upon in a social way. So, for example, people in the West once thought of themselves as beings with bodies, souls, minds, and spirits. In the 19th Century, as Dickens' novels exemplify, the way in which these constituent elements of what we often call a "self" were thought to come together in standard patterns called "character." Granted the definitional boundaries of all these terms were and remain a bit vague, but they were and remain serviceable enough. We still use them. Nevertheless, we are not exactly sure of what it is we are talking about anymore.

Now we have other more commonly used ways of referring to ourselves as agents. We have minds and bodies, and our minds have both conscious and unconscious contents. We have personalities that distinguish us one from another. As descriptions of social agency, however, three rather recent terms have taken pride of place. We now like to think of ourselves as persons, selves and individuals.

We do argue about what it takes to be a person or a self or an individual, but in a rough sort of way we understand what is being said when these terms are employed. Each of them has a particular social function. Each has its own moral work to do. To be a person is to enjoy a legal status that establishes certain rights, duties, privileges and responsibilities. To be a self is to be a person that has a particular history. It is a term that tracks the history of our experience in a way that renders our lives intelligible. To be an individual is to be a person and a self that is unique and unrepeatable. Being an individual protects us from summation in generic terms. We cannot be rendered adequately by a phrase like "Americans are just like that."

Each of these terms carries with it a great moral gain. Of that there can be no doubt. It is good to be recognized as a person with rights, privileges and responsibilities. It is good to have a particular developmental history, and it is good to have the freedom to develop a self-identity. It is certainly good to be recognized as a human being who is unique and unrepeatable. At many times and in many places people have suffered because these terms were not available to them.

These are terms that protect us, but each also carries with it a moral task. As persons we are expected to exercise our rights and privileges in a responsible manner. As selves, society calls upon us to expand our experience and "grow." As for individuals, there is a pervasive expectation that they make the most of the unique qualities that give each a particular identity.

The moral gain of this way of understanding ourselves provides both protection and challenge. Progressive movements in our societies have come to recognize these gains in ways that people of a more traditional frame of mind have not. The notion of personhood has consistently expanded the boundaries of those included within the social and political life of nations. Awareness of the meaning of selfhood has made society far more conscious of the particular needs and aspirations of individuals. Awareness of others as selves makes it difficult to understand them simply in terms of their station in society and their duties within that station. Thus, each person is also viewed as an individual with particular needs and wants that impinge upon what flourishing (as they conceive it) entails.

These are real moral gains but the gains carry with them a question to which we are now struggling to find an answer. Are persons, selves and individuals located in a world larger than one of their own making? To be sure, society grants "individuals" the rights and privileges due "persons" within a legal system, and these rights and privileges provide individuals protection against the actions of other "selves" that might, on their journey to find life's satisfactions, do them harm. Moral philosophers in the modern period have made two suggestions about how to establish protections for individuals, persons and selves in the market place of free action that is characteristic of industrial and post-industrial society. One of these options, famously championed by Immanuel Kant, says that we should not act unless we can will our actions as a universal law. The second, put forward by John Stuart Mill, says that we should act always to establish the greatest good for the greatest number. The first protects individuals by positing certain forms of action that are never right, the second by saying that our actions must produce a quantum of good for all. Philosophers call the position associated with Kant "deontology" and that associated with Mill "utilitarianism."

Both positions have their own set of problems, problems that have yet to be resolved. Thus, society is involved in a dispute between the advocates of each position; and the argument goes on, and on, and on. The tools persons, selves and individuals have to resolve the moral issues they confront yield no generally agreed upon answers. Consequently, the disputes about birth, death and sex go on and on and on. Nevertheless, it appears that, for the time being, a utilitarian calculus has the upper hand in what we sometimes call "the culture wars." If confronted with questions about birth, death and sex we tend to ask not about right and wrong but about benefit and burden.

A part of the reason for the ascendency of utilitarianism is certainly the inability of people to locate themselves in a moral universe larger than themselves–a moral universe that lays claim upon conscience even at the expense of what appears to be personal flourishing. In this moral universe the flourishing of individual lives asserts itself as the summum bonum. In this universe, sexual relations are measured first by their contribution to personal well-being. Having children is related to private goals and personal satisfactions, and death is a reality to be defied as long as is possible or chosen as a means of enhancing the value of life's final phase.

In brief, a form of "possessive individualism" sums up the socio-logic that shapes the lives of persons, selves, and individuals. One is tempted to say that as we search for freedom, we are unaware that our thoughts are shaped by our habits of mind. We are aware, however, that the ways in which we now think brings us into conflict with a moral universe once inhabited, but now only partially so, by the "Christian West."

The remnants of this moral universe continue to exert their influence, not as the collective representation of a society but as fragments from the past. These fragments remind us that once we thought of sex as an aspect of a more primary relation by means of which individuals entered a social institution that both provided help in the midst of life's challenges, a means of providing for future generations and a basic unit of social life. They remind us that we once saw the care and nurture of children as a contribution to a larger social whole, and death, not as a personal choice and an unfortunate limitation but as a divinely intended end that was not chosen but suffered in the company of family and friends.

It is the tension between these fragments and the present socio-logic of western society that has generated the cultural struggle in which we find ourselves. It is this tension also that has thrown the churches of the West into a state of inner conflict and confusion. Defenders of more traditional views of birth, sex and death tend to "reassert" classical views–often without reasoned defense and with no awareness of the extent to which their own lives are shaped by the socio-logic of modernity. On the other hand, progressive voices tend to see traditional views as compromised by the course of history and so in need of restatement and reform. This work they often undertake without adequate knowledge of the moral tradition with which they are having problems. They also, like their traditionalist opponents, move forward (with their moral reconstructions) having little awareness of the extent to which their minds are shaped by a socio-logic of which they are largely unaware.

All of which brings me to the Achilles Heel of Anglicanism in North America and the United Kingdom (and for that matter a majority of the "churches" into which the Christian west has shattered). Because it is the tradition I know best, I will take Anglicanism in America, Canada and the United Kingdom as a particular example. Today, the Anglican churches inhabited either by Britons or their colonial descendants in North America find themselves divided from Anglicans in Africa, South America, and South East Asia by arguments over sex. Though grossly inaccurate, the division is often described as one between "the Global South" and the "Western" or "Northern" Churches. A better way to describe the division is one between those churches infiltrated by the socio-logic of the West and those whose socio-logic has yet to metamorphose into a copy of that of the colonial powers from which they have recently become independent.

In consequence, western changes in sexual ethics and in the understanding of marriage are judged by "the Global South" to be defections both from Christian teaching and from the more communal socio-logic that has proved so welcoming to Christian belief and practice. As things stand, a majority of Anglicans in South East Asia, South America and Africa feel they must distance themselves from the churches that first brought Christianity to them.

It is tempting to stop right here and say, as many do, that Anglicans are now confronted with a standoff between rival versions of Christian belief and practice. It is also tempting, as many do, to declare those on the side of the divide opposite themselves as either heretics or unenlightened bigots. I am inclined to believe that those from the Global South who judge the novelties now present in the "Western" churches a defection from Christian belief and practice are closer to being right than those from the "West" who view the churches of the Global South as simply unenlightened and discriminatory.

Nevertheless, judgments like this one, be they true or false, fail to get to the bottom of the issue Anglicans throughout that Communion now face. Indeed, judgments such as these, valid though they may be, serve to gloss over a more fundamental problem. That problem is the Achilles Heal of Anglicanism in North America and the United Kingdom. The problem is one of over adaptation to a regnant socio-logic. For Anglicans in these lands, the theological warrant for over adaptation is the sacred cow of pop Anglican culture. We are an "incarnational" religion chant the acolytes of cultural relevance.

It is certainly true that no Christian can remain a Christian and yet deny the doctrine of the Incarnation. However, among the Anglicans of whom I have been speaking, the doctrine of the incarnation as been replaced by an ideology best termed "Incarnationalism." "Incarnationalism" is not a statement about the person and work of Christ. It is a principle cut loose from a doctrine and subsequently used to justify cultural adaptation by the churches and their individual members. The Gospel of "God with us," the Gospel of "The Word became flesh" has had the cross expunged from its content. What remains is a principle of affirmation designed to proclaim the goodness of creation and to support moral betterment. Christmas has become a feast of affirmation. Good Friday does not mark an act of reconciliation and redemption but a moral tragedy. What incarnationalism misses is that, in taking human form to reconcile and redeem the world, the Word of God exposed, judged and conquered its darkness. In wrestling with his death Jesus says, "Now is the judgment of the world, now is the ruler of this world cast out" (John 12:31). When the Word is made flesh, all cultures are judged, and in all cultures a struggle with the "ruler of this world" takes place.

Such is not the case for "Incarnationalists." The only war to be fought is with the people who oppose the views and practices of those who represent the progressive movements of culture. What Incarnationalists cannot fathom is that when Christ takes form in the world, the life of each person and the very foundations of social life are challenged at their core. Incarnationalists, therefore, miss the depths to which the judgment of Christ penetrates the life of any society and the life of each individual member of that society.

What they do not see is the terrible struggle involved in casting out the ruler of this world. They do not understand the extent to which the socio-logic of the age as now deployed is challenged. They do not see that the benefits brought by their account of moral agency have been compromised because that account has been hitched to determinations by each individual about what best suits their interests. What Incarnationalists miss is that, in this era, persons who are also both selves and individuals, are charting the course of their lives by taking sightings not off fixed navigational points but off the bows of the ships they are themselves sailing. In this world, the self determines what is best for it as an individual and then demands the rights of a person to pursue the direction it deems most profitable. The only limitation on this acquisitive form of life is the extent of possible harm personal pursuits may cause other selves who, on their own part, are also demanding a right to happiness.

In a world where the moral judgment of individual selves is determined by the pursuit of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" one can expect that moral issues will cluster around those points in life where the freedoms of individuals (and so also their rights) to pursue happiness might be limited by moral factors not to be found within their account of what constitutes flourishing. The most obvious of these are sex, birth and death. Selves, who are persons in search of happiness, are bound to ask, "Do I not have a right to a satisfactory sex life?" "Do I not have a right to a child?" "Do I not have a right to die on terms that suit my view of happiness?" Finally, because these matters have been cast in the language of rights, they will ask, "Do I not have a right to justice?"

If the "socio-logic" of those asking these questions is not challenged, the answer is bound to be yes. If unacceptable harm to others is not likely, the socio-logic of the age demands that individual desires be given license to seek satisfaction. These are matters of justice, and if denied the cry goes up, "justice must be done." Further, attendant upon the cry for justice is the view that suffering is in no way part of a good life. All suffering, therefore, must in so far as is possible be eliminated. In this world, sympathy rather than courage, fidelity, perseverance or truthfulness becomes the chief social virtue. Individual desire and public sentiment thus support one another. The search for happiness leads individuals to make their own way in matters concerning birth, death and sex. Society responds with sympathy to the suffering that might result from frustration of these desires and seeks to create maximal space for their satisfaction.

Thus, the only restraint on the quest for a much-wanted child, or a sexual partner or a "good death" is unacceptable harm to other individuals. Decisions in these matters are not determined within a moral field that provides a more objective account of the right and the good. A utilitarian calculus that gives greatest weight to individual satisfaction and fulfillment determines them.

What then is the theological and moral task that confronts the churches of the West? Is it, claiming revelatory authority, simply to reassert the moral practices of the past? Is it, claiming new truth from the Holy Spirit, to make adaptations to the utilitarian calculus of modernity? Or is it to begin a theological and moral task like that undertaken on behalf of both church and society by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas? Both inherited a view of the self common in the Mediterranean world. There was nothing uniquely Christian about the map with which they operated. In the social world they inhabited, what might be called the moral self was understood to comprise body, soul, intellect, will and appetite. The question in this world was how are body and soul related, what is the proper relation between intellect, will and appetite, and what are the goods that produce happiness. Neither Augustine nor Thomas questioned either this map of the self or the goal of happiness. They took over both and integrated them (sometimes with greater success than others) into an account of God's relation to the world and the virtues and practices that reflect the life of Christ. They placed the socio-logic of their age within an objective moral field determined by the revelation of God in Christ. It was this world that determined the work of the moral self and its good rather than the social goals prevalent in societies of the Mediterranean basin. It was within this Christian world that embodied souls found the proper orientation for intellect, will and appetite.

The work they did stood for centuries, but the map of the self and its proper ends with which they operated have been eroded and finally replaced by others. Persons, selves and individuals with embodied intelligences that pursue privately determined ends have replaced souls and bodies with intellect, will and appetite in search of happiness. These moral agents now take their direction from a world in which flourishing has become the goal of each "self." It is not surprising that these "selves" who are also "persons" believe they have a right to those goods that support their view of what flourishing requires. It is also not surprising either that justice (understood as the right to the goods that support flourishing) along with freedom have become the chief social goods.

This view of the nature of human good is one that no Christian can accept, but neither can any Christian reject the moral advances that our current map of the self has brought with it. They can neither measure their lives by a utilitarian calculus nor move into a world with its own special account of moral agency. What Christians can do is follow the lead of Augustine and Thomas and place the account of moral agency provided by Western culture within an objective moral field–a field that is far more complex and rewarding than the narrow space framed by the personalized and highly individualistic accounts of flourishing now regnant.

The picture contained in the larger frame looks like this. Each life comes from God and finds its proper end or point of fulfillment in God. Only in God can the flourishing for which each is created be found. That end can only be pursued in the world God has created–a world that is good precisely because God created it. There is in this world an objective moral order–one not determined by the needs and ambitions of particular individuals. Rather it is an order that defines the nature of true human flourishing. The goods to be found in this order include all forms of human relationship and all forms of human exchange–sexual, familial, cultural, economic, political and religious. Within these forms of relationship and exchange, life is to be ordered and lived. Within them individuals find fulfillment by directing their creative energies toward the good order God has given in creation.

Things are made more complex, however, by two additional factors. First, human self-will and ignorance have distorted and obscured the order of things God intends. As a result, humans must pursue their good within a distorted, even perverted order. Human agents pursue their good in a "fallen world." They live in an unending tension between the order God intends in creation and the twisted simulacrum of God's order that defines everyday life. Second, God has entered the fallen world he created both to reconcile humankind to himself and to redeem the creation from the futility brought on by the "fall." By "coming down" as reconciler and redeemer to the world we inhabit, God has blessed the order he created and opened new possibilities for living in the tension over which his providence presides.

It is within the push and pull of creation, fall, reconciliation and redemption that people must now find the way to God's original and final purposes. To quote W.H. Auden, it is in "the everyday world of darning and the 8:15" that we embodied intelligences, who are persons, selves and individuals, have to practice the art of living well. It is in the good but now less than perfect world that persons who have been reconciled and redeemed must find their true right. In this world, selves must take responsibility for their particular history and that individuals must find their place in a larger whole.

Augustine and Thomas, in their time, taught embodied souls with powers of intellect, will and appetite how to live in a world tensed between God's creative will, our disobedient one and God's act of reconciliation and redemption. That lesson was well learned. It shaped the way in which the Christian West thought about how life is to be lived (again as Auden says) "for the time being." Everyone (or almost everyone) accepted that embodied souls were to use their intellects both to direct the will toward its proper end and to moderate appetite and orient it to our true good.

Among Anglicans, this pattern of thought was ubiquitous. It shaped how they thought of all forms of relationship. So, for example, the marriage ceremony in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer states that marriage is a form of relation between a man and a woman instituted by God before the fall and approved by Christ through his first miracle in Cana of Galilee. As such it is "ordained" both for procreation and mutual society. These are goods of the created order. Marriage is, however, also ordained as "a remedy against sin" in that it serves to prevent "fornication" and it provides a morally acceptable outlet for uncontrollable desire. Finally Anglicans held that the marriage bond forms a little commonwealth in which members of a family learn mutual aid and charity.

In like manner political relations were understood within the same pattern of thought. Thus, in praying for the health of the church, members of the Church of England were to pray also that Christian rulers be "saved and defended" so that the good order of the commonwealth might be preserved in a fallen world. They were to pray that within this order virtuous rulers might maintain justice along with "true religion and virtue." As each moral agent was to govern their wills and appetites by reason instructed by faith, so also, in the commonwealth, rulers were to govern in a way that supported true religion. They were to perform this task by restraining "wickedness and vice," and in so doing sustain a social order that supported right moral aims among citizens and a peaceful space in which the church could carry out its divine calling.

There is something beautiful about the way in which Augustine and Thomas integrated the map of the self society provided them within a complex account both of Christian belief and practice and an extensive account of the forms of human relationship. Indeed Anglicans still employ versions of these exhortations and prayers. Nevertheless, they sound strange to many in the pews who think of themselves not as embodied souls with intellect, will and appetite but as persons with rights, selves with particular histories and individuals whose nature is unique. These people may well look to marriage to provide mutual society, help and comfort. These, after all, are good things for selves in search of flourishing. Nevertheless, the tie of marriage to procreation will most certainly be jarring if children are not part of a couple's notion of flourishing. Again, persons (in the modern sense of the word) probably do believe government is to provide civil order and administer justice fairly. These tasks create the space necessary for the pursuit of private goals. However, is government within its rights to maintain true religion, and ought government to be given the right to monitor the private virtues and vices of individuals? Embodied souls once thought that as the intellect was to order the powers of will and appetite, so the ruler was to order the unruly wills and affections of the citizenry. Nevertheless, in our time persons protective or their rights may with good reason believe assignment of these responsibilities to government intrudes inordinately on the freedom of individuals in pursuit of good, as they understand it.

The theological task, therefore, is to integrate the present account of human agency within a comprehensive account of Christian belief and practice. It is false to say that progressive voices have not attempted to do just this. It would also be false to say that more traditional voices have not sought to bring the changes in moral practice now common in the West under the scrutiny of such an account. The problem is that progressives have made the connection by reducing Christian belief to rather vacuous account of divine and human love; and traditionalists have, as it were, "majored" in dogmatic assertions while remaining unaware of the moral gains that have come with our present map of the self.

If I hope for a more adequate account of Christian belief and practice from progressives, I hope also that traditionalists will manifest less dogmatism and more awareness of the moral gains that have accrued to the West because of its current account of moral agency. In a way, addressing these inadequacies defines the theological and moral task now presented to the churches of the West. If this task were to be undertaken by Anglicans, the Achilles Heel of Anglicanism in North America and the United Kingdom would most certainly be exposed, and perhaps the Anglican Communion in those lands would be spared Achilles fate. Perhaps other churches might even undertake the same task.