More Questions for the Archbishop of Canterbury - 12th May 2007

After the Archbishop of Canterbury’s public lecture ‘Public Religion and the Common Good’ at St Andrew’s Cathedral (Singapore, 12th May), there was a Q & A Session. The transcript is posted here for your reading.  

Q: When you mentioned each human person is created by God with distinct calling and capacity, are you referring to both Christian and non-Christian? How can a non-Christian react to God’s calling?

Yes, I am referring to both Christians and non-Christians because we are told that human beings, male and female, are both created in the image of God and therefore every person is in principle capable of growing into that fullness of life. I don’t believe that there’s one thing that’s good for one group of human beings and not for another. And the Bible as a whole tells us that the image and likeness of God are of course perfectly fulfilled in Jesus Christ so everyone is capable of growing into that relationship with God that Jesus Christ has, which is what the whole process of salvation is about.

Q: How can a non-Christian react to God’s calling?

Well, I am a Christian and so naturally I believe that at the end of the day the fullest response to God, the life giving response to God, is the one that is through Jesus Christ as a son or daughter adopted by God’s grace. But that doesn’t mean that I want to say there is no call or no response outside the Christian church. And I think it can be a misunderstanding to imagine that it is just inside the church everything is light, outside don’t even think about it. We see, I think, in many non-Christians enough signs of a genuine attempt to respond to God’s call to make me or other Christians feel that they are on a journey which the Christians naturally longs and pray for them to come further on. So yes all are created with that call. We Christians have been, we believe, by grace given that freedom to respond in a way that sets us fully free to relate to God the way that God has made us to relate to God. Others in various part of the journey in the map.

Let me pick up a related couple of questions.

Q: How do we build trust and civic harmony among various religious groups? And in a multi-racial society like ours there is a fear that any public emphasis on religion will encourage religious extremism of some kind. Some think that it is the removal of religion from the public square which encourages the development of private, distorted & extreme expressions of religious fervour, thus threatening the ‘common good.’ Do you have any comments on this?

Well, lots. Let me just speak out of my experience for what it is worth in the United Kingdom. I that think if you continue to drive religion into the private sphere, yes you do actually encourage extreme unaccountable eccentric form of religion, and again, I think my Muslim brother in the front row (Ed: some local Muslim leaders were present at the lecture) may well agree that the drawing of Muslims into fuller visible participation in this civic process is bound to be a healthy thing in that it stops Muslim groups just locking themselves up among themselves and we’ve had that problem in the UK and not only in the UK.

So, I think the question is absolutely right to say that the truth is perhaps opposite of what is sometimes said “bring religion into the public sphere and you’ll have zealots and fanatics and bombers all over the place.” On the contrary I think it is in the open air of public discussion that religions find how to live together most creatively, not compromising their principles but knowing that they can argue,  negotiate and understand the process of working together. It takes time but again I was describing to some people yesterday how in Britain we have attempted to set up a national network of Christian-Muslim forum to work at local level on local issues to deal with families, schools, local community work and people with clear commitments can come together to work together on things like that.

Q: And here is another very interesting one about the role of Christian believers in the party political process, and what happens when they attain a high level of responsibility and what happens when government decisions clash with personal Christian ethics,  but for which people are expected to express government solidarity.

Well, we’ve had some arguments about this in the United Kingdom recently in relation to one or two highly placed people in government. I think first of all it’s important that Christians and other people of faith should not be afraid of the political process and not try to keep their hands clean at all costs. I think secondly there are many areas where a Christian may have to say personally I cannot endorse this decision and I can’t take advantage of its provisions. At the same time, I recognize that the government has come to a shared decision about this in the light of the democratic process and so I to some extend go along with it simply as a matter of civic legislation. I think it’s a difficult place to be,  a very difficult place to be. I’m thinking of the records of some in our government in the UK who have serious religious and ethical questions about abortions or about sexual ethics and they are a part of the government which operates a legal system in which abortion is permitted and which now of course certain kind of same sex union are legal. And I think some people go through great crisis of conscience over this and can resolve this only by saying, “I and my church will not allow our views and our actions to be changed by this but we recognize that society has accepted this.” We can’t just undermine that from within. And then I think I have to say there are some points of which that is bound to become unsustainable for a Christian. There may be some crisis so sharp that a person has no option but to resign. And there are some in our government in recent years who are faced with that kind of moral dilemma over some of these issues but also over the invasion of Iraq who said I can’t stay.  If I stay in I lose any freedom to speak my mind and any moral credibility. So,  without generalizing I would say it’s quite a spectrum of decisions but I would hope that the Christian community, the Christian church as a whole, is always ready to give careful, pastoral counsel to people in that sort of public position. But it’s not only something for politicians of course. I was thinking of my brother on the left here, it’s not unknown I think in the world of the law.

Let me just step sideways for a moment to another kind of question. Here’s a very interesting one.

Q: Public religion in the plural society or world will require a common language, if not for anything else, at least to facilitate communication. Do you think there is a place for a return to a retrieval of natural law though natural law has been held in suspicion?

Actually, I think the answer is probably yes. One problem is that we have tended to think of the natural law tradition, particularly characteristics of the Roman Catholic Church, as a rather mechanical idea. You know, just look around and there you see natural law working. Now, proper Catholic theology has never taught anything as crude as that. But I think what I have been saying does rather assume that there is a divine purpose, that there are aspects of the natural order which we go against at our peril, that we need to work out some kind of, let’s say, shared perception of the kind of place the world is and the kind of being human beings are. It won’t answer every question like that, but I suspect that without such a concept we are left rather stranded. I haven’t taught Christian ethics for over 25 years so I am very rusty on theories of natural law but I do notice that there’s a very lively discussion of the subject still going on and it’s by no means necessarily as crude a concept as people think.
  Here’s another question which are very interesting,  that’s taking us into another realm which I have just touched on.

Q: Explain how psychotherapy has separated people from the church. As we are all created by God, doesn’t psychotherapy help us to understand ourselves and help us to be closer to our Creator? Hasn’t God created people with specific talents, skills and abilities also created psychotherapists to help, heal and understand the minds of people of a disturbed or criminal nature?

Well, I’m delighted to have those questions because I think the answer is yes, that psychotherapy has an enormously significant place. I refer at the beginning of my lecture to the way in which the rise of psychoanalysis has weakened some people’s belief in the human reason, and perhaps that wasn’t altogether a bad thing. Freud shattered a particular kind of smug confidence in the Victorian age, and a good therapist does exactly what my questioner suggests – to understand ourselves and become closer to our Creator. A good therapist helps us to face and cope with part of ourselves we don’t like to look at very much and bring them into the light and that is all to the good because we don’t go to God as partial, censored, refined,  expurgated, abbreviated human beings. We go to God with all of ourselves, our complexities and our complexes, our traumas, our questions and our wounds, and everything else. So good therapy has everything to do with that. One of the most life giving and delightful part of my work for the last 10 years has been to share once every 2 years a conference of writers and literary critics,  theologians and psychotherapists. We meet for a weekend and for that weekend we will all have read the same book. We have decided that we would all read one book, a novel usually, or perhaps a play. We meet to bring our 3 perspectives to bear on this material in the hope that from this sharing deeper spiritual insights would emerge. It’s always very exciting and I can say I have learned more than I can say in that process. So 3 cheers for psychotherapists. And yes,  God has created them. He looked at them and He said they were very good.

Q: What is my view – morally or ethically, is the world becoming more Christian or less Christian in the way it carries out its business? And second, what is the most urgent and pressing task of the Church in the world now? What is possible next major step the Church should take to contribute maximally to the common good? What degree do you think the Churches in the world are able to come together to unite?

Numerically, yes. Is the world becoming more Christian in the way nations relate to one another and the poor are cared for? No. And one of the great imbalances in the world at the moment is that the part of the world that tends to have the most economic power and leverage is the part where Christian influence seems to be on the decline. And Christianity grows most in society where the people are in varying degrees needy. That in itself tells us something, that the gospel is really only good news if you are in some way hungry, literally hungry for welfare and survival,  but much more deeply, hungry for truth. An overfed, literally overfed and over-stimulated developed world, I’m afraid doesn’t normally feel hungry for truth in that way. So is it becoming more Christian or less Christian? Well not a simple picture. It’s certainly true that the majority of the great weight of Christian presence is now empathically in the developing world. And that changes the dynamics of all the Christian churches, not least the Anglican Communion, and we have to learn from that, some quite difficult lessons.

Q: The most pressing and urgent task of the Church in the world now?

Probably prayer and becoming holy, actually because everything follows from that, doesn’t it? Assuming that is always the first priority, then the 2nd I would say is to try and restore to the human race a proper sense of the consequences of its action, individually, politically, corporately. As individuals, as a whole race, in a small planet.

Q: Here’s one about Dawkins’  recent lecture arguing the value of human being which you spoke is universally being shared by man in general, government can build a foundation on this. He argues the state ought to prefer a society that is neutral as to religious value.

Well, the trouble is you see I don’t think that everybody does have a natural and obvious belief in the value of human life. I think where people say that, they in fact have a huge amount of Christianity still in their back pockets without noticing it, because for a very long time in the history of the human race people did not take it for granted that everybody was equally valuable. The very fact that slavery is persistent even within the Christian world shows just how long it takes to develop a healthy, universalism about human value. And I don’t think you can establish universal human value finally and decisively on anything other than a religious foundation. I say that as a Christian, but I think a Muslim would say that as a Muslim, a Jew would say that as a Jew, a Buddhist would say that as a Buddhist. So should the state prefer a society neutral as to religious value,  the state needs to be neutral I think in the respect that it doesn’t propagandize for any one religion but it shouldn’t be neutral in the sense of refusing to listen, to engage with religious groups and to allow religious groups to persuade society about certain values and certain priorities. So, I don’t really buy this neutrality stuff, I think it is a little bit false really, and I think that answers one other question about secular state and religious values.

There was one off question which I will just touch on briefly which is of course one of the great controversial subject of our day.

Q: In your opinion, what is the Bible’s view on homosexuality?

I’m surprised there’s only one question on this subject! The Bible tells us 3 significant things here, I think. First of all, the Bible begins by setting out a model of human relationship, human sexual relationship between man and woman in the Garden of Eden and that seems to be the model from which everything else is understood and seen as the Scripture unfolds. Second, in the law code of the Old Testament intercourse between man and man is described as something which is like ritually untouchable, it’s something that pagans do and Jews, the covenant people, don’t do it. Third, in the first chapter of Romans we have Paul taking for granted the argument that this is an example of human unfaithfulness to the order of nature. But I think those taken together explains why the Christian church has historically, thought as it has thought, reacted as it has reacted, to homosexuality. In the last 30 years or so, some Christians have raised the question of whether what we now see as the phenomenal of homosexuality in the world is exactly what the Bible has in view when it makes these prohibitions and these comments. And that is a debate that is by no means at an end yet. As you know, the position of the Anglican church is that corporately the Anglican church has not been persuaded let’s say to change the traditional view on this and that’s where our church stands. That I think is how the biblical view unfolds and I do want say in fairness to those who have raised questions in the last 30 years or so, not all of them want to overturn the authority of the Bible but are simply asking, “Have we got it right? Have we understood it right?” But it’s a long, painful discussion and you won’t need me to say to you at this juncture that some of us in position of leadership in the Anglican church feels the force of the debate very powerfully but also the importance of not rushing into a change that will divide us, that will increase our difficulties in ecumenical interfaith discussion.

Q: Let me turn to questions about Christian unity for a moment. There were one or two about relations between the Anglican and the Roman Catholic church clearly by people who read couple of months ago reports in the Times of London that we were about to unite, there was a “secret plan” I think that was the phrase, to reunite the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches.

Well, this plan was so secret that nobody had told me about it! I think it was a misunderstanding of a number of processes and documents that were going around.

Q: Will we ever reunite with the Roman Catholics or indeed with other Christian churches?

I think in my lifetime and in the lifetime of most people in this whole, I wouldn’t hold my breath. We are learning a number of things about how we relate, a number of things about the possibility of engaging together, let’s say in Europe, with the secularism that pervades Europe, and I’ve had interesting conversations with Roman Catholic colleagues and indeed with the Pope himself on this question of challenging the secularism of Europe, reaffirming the Christian universe which we all inhabit.  Lots to be done there, lots to be done in practical work to address poverty and development issues, lots to be done in defending the rights of Christian education, lots to be done in defense of the Christian’s idea of the family.  Plenty of work to do together. Meanwhile we have, as Anglicans and Roman Catholics, accumulated a very interesting, a very impressive body of material,  shared theological reflection on authority, on the sacraments, on the ministry and nature of the church. We understand each other much better than we did half a century ago and it’s not a waste in any way. But for full reunion to come, I think there would have to be on the Roman Catholic’s side some alterations in what is thought and said about the position of the Pope. And therefore perhaps by implications, those doctrines that depends simply on the authority of the Pope rather than on the authority of Scripture and the mainstream of Christian tradition, and we’re not there yet. I could see a situation where a change and reform papacy could be a focus not a supreme authority but a focus of unity for us, but I think that would need a lot of change. So, the discussion goes on and it’s very fruitful and very interesting, I think. I might perhaps also mention that we’ve had some very constructive theological discussions with the Eastern Orthodox churches and that in Britain our relationship with the Methodist church are very close and have been the basis of a covenant of agreement to work together and increase our recognition of each other’s church life.

Q: What is your view on Evolution and Creation Science?  Did God created the world in 6 days? Where is the Anglican Church’s stand on this issue?

Well, you won’t be surprised to hear that the Anglican Church stands in a great many places on this issue! Well,  what is my view? It’s this. I believe that the Bible tells us what we need to know for our salvation. We always have to ask as we read the Bible, “What is the question that the Bible is answering that is relevant to our salvation?”  And so as I’ve said in a lecture a couple of weeks ago, if some historians tell you that the dates in the Book of Daniel or the prophecy of Jeremiah are not confirmed by archaeology, well my answer is “don’t panic.” Your salvation does not depend on the dates of Babylonian history. So what does the Bible think we need to know about the beginning of the world? Well, it wants us to know exactly what’s exactly in Genesis chapter 1, in Genesis chapter 2, in Genesis chapter 3. It wants us to know that God created the world out of nothing, that it’s by the exercise of His free love and immeasurable resourcefulness. We really need to know that. It is assumed that we need to know that God made the world good, that it is something that is capable of reflecting His glory and beauty back to Him. It tells us that the creatively process moves gradually through different forms of life until finally God breathes into humanity the breath of life and human beings are the crown of that process carrying therefore a special responsibility, a special glory, a special destiny. And then it tells us that we also need to know that as soon as there were human beings in the world, they got it wrong. So dramatically and decisively that we’ve all been suffering the consequences ever since. This is what we need to know. Now Genesis 1 talks about 6 days. I don’t think myself that we are therefore bound to believe that the creation of the world took a week, like the week that has just passed since last Saturday. And just in case you think that’s a bit of a modern revisionist, I should say that a very substantial number of the early fathers of the church thought the same. They believed that the first chapter of Genesis and the second and the third were an inspired poetic expression of what God had truly done at the beginning. And what had God truly done? Created the world, created it in this way leading up to the appearance of humanity, letting fall upon humanity the consequences of their disobedience and also promising that there would be a future of salvation of them.

Now, what evolutionary science says about all that? I can live with the coming and going of evolutionary science without losing any sleep at all over it. Whether Darwin was right or not,  indeed I haven’t a clue. I was always dreadful about biology at school and I’ve never redeemed my record since. What I celebrate therefore is not that Genesis 1, 2 and 3 give me a photographic, scientific account of how the universe begun. They are about me and us and the world we are now in. And I don’t know if you remember some carol services before Christmas, you sometimes have a little bit of Genesis 3 read, the promise that one day the serpent’s head will be crushed. And that passage is sometimes called the “proto-gospel” and I’d like to think that Genesis 1, 2 and 3 are not only the beginning of the world but the beginning of the gospel. In the beginning God created and in the beginning God promised, and those words “in the beginning” are repeated at the beginning of John’s Gospel where the promise comes to fulfillment. So, I love Genesis 1, 2 and 3.

Q: We live in an increasingly multi-cultural society,  faith schools divide us into our creeds, our understanding of others becoming increasing in suspicion and intolerance. Couldn’t strictly secular schools encourage religious tolerance?

Yes, they could and they do but I don’t believe that faith schools when they are properly organized encourage suspicion and intolerance. Actually, I think if you have a really good religious education in your own tradition, one thing you will understand is why religion matters to people. And one of the most disturbing things that can sometimes happen is people growing up being educated in such a way they don’t understand why religion matters. And that is the kind of intolerance isn’t it,  the kind of suspicion. It means people never understand why people get passionate about some issues, and I think that is a great loss. In Britain,  very few schools, faith schools are monochrome. People from other faiths are encouraged to belong to faith schools. There have been discussions recently about how faith schools should, as a matter of policy, always include people from other faiths within them. And it’s I think a very good point of principle that you should allow people who are committed to faith to teach about faith in schools. I don’t think that the people who riot and protest about common social issues are drawn from faith schools. I think they are drawn from schools where their own ethnic and religious prejudices are being left untouched. A really good religious school educates you religiously, that means it educates you to know why faith matters to the person with whom you disagree as well as why the faith of both of you matters in society. So I really hope that is not the case.  I don’t think it is in the context I’m most familiar with.

1 Responses. Comments closed for this entry.

  1. Florence Kant Says:

    I have always wondered what are the views of the Archbishop of Canterbury on some of the issues in this Q&A.  Reading his responses gave me confident in his leadership.  Thank you.