Reason and First Order Issues
by Jonathan Clatworthy, General Secretary, Modern Church.
I was very sorry to hear that Mark Chapman, one of the most distinguished of Modern Church’s members, has written the article “Spatial Catholicity” for Living Church in support of the Anglican Covenant. I am even sorrier to see some of the arguments he puts forward.
I shall focus here on two. First, the authority of reason. Chapman writes:
Anglicans schooled on the threefold understanding of theological method of Scripture, tradition, and reason might well raise objections about the absence of any discussion of reason in the Covenant document. While there is some ambiguity about the use and status of reason, I think that the key point is that reason fills in the gaps where Scripture is silent.
Does anybody really believe this? Despite his words I cannot bring myself to imagine that Chapman does. It does cohere with many 16th century documents, but nobody could seriously defend it today. To take one example, Leviticus 20:13 states that men who engage in anal sex are to be put to death. We do not put them to death today. Choosing not to kill them is not a matter of filling in a gap in scripture: on the contrary it is a matter of deliberately choosing to disobey a biblical text. We think we know better. In other words, we are using our reason to reject some biblical texts. Nor is this a stray text: it would be easy enough to provide hundreds of examples of biblical texts we routinely disobey.
Secondly, the distinction between first order and second order issues does not help. In the recent debates it has usually been applied, as Chapman applies it, to distinguish between doctrines on which all Christians (or all Anglicans) must agree, and on the other hand issues on which differences of opinion are legitimate. Often first order doctrines are described as ‘necessary for salvation’. Granted this distinction, it then becomes possible to argue about whether the immorality of same-sex partnerships, or whatever else, is a first order doctrine or whether, instead, we can agree to differ.
However this whole discourse has its origin, and its natural home, not in seeking to defend the Church’s unity but in saving souls from hell. Since the focus today is on preserving the Anglican Communion from schism, the relevant distinction to make is a different one: between beliefs and actions which cause schism, and those which do not. You may not go to hell for approving of border crossings, but they do mess up the Anglican provincial system. On the other hand, we can and do disagree with each other on the truth and meaning of the Trinity without expelling each other.
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