The Anglican Bishops: a force for error

I recently did some research about the Church of England’s role in the promotion of progressive moral causes. I had known that the Anglican bishops had been the first major Christian leaders to support the use of artificial contraception, in 1930, since when our moral principles have rapidly degraded (and this after centuries of comparative stability). But I was astonished to find that the Anglican bishops supported the Abortion Act of 1967 in the House of Lords. Indeed, the Church of England actually paved the intellectual way for abortion with its report of 1965, Abortion: An Ethical Discussion, which supported abortion in cases of threat to the mother’s life or well-being, regarded as intrinsically connected to the life and well-being of her family1; and which even included a model parliamentary bill for abortion.

In the first attempt to introduce an abortion bill in 1965, the Bishop of Southwark said:

I agree with the basic aims of this Bill… I will have nothing whatever to do with the [wrecking] Amendment, which I deplore… I am a supporter of the noble Lord, Lord Silkin [mover of the bill], in his attempt to treat abortion intelligently, as befits an adult society.2

The Bishop of Exeter offered the following argument:

It is possible to say that the fœtus, the unborn baby, is not a member of the human race in the ordinary sense of those words, but that it has a potentiality of so becoming; and it is because of this potentiality which conveys to the unborn baby a right to its own fulfilment that we have no grounds for frustrating the right of the potential to actualise itself. But since the fœtus has only this potentiality of humanity which is not yet fully real, because it is in the process of turning that which is potential into that which is real, the rights of the mother who has already passed from the potential to the real, and who is on any showing a full member of the human race, take precedence over those of her unborn baby. So where there is a direct and unavoidable clash between the interests of the mother and of her unborn baby, the mother takes precedence over the baby.

From this it will be clear to your Lordships that our attitude is that we support the principle which underlies the first clause in this Bill, which would legitimatise abortion where the interests of the mother vitally require it. Where there is a grave threat to her life, to her physical health or to her mental health, we maintain that abortion may be legitimate.3

Perhaps Exeter was here supposing that abortions would remain rare, and that ‘mental health’ wouldn’t become a catch-all ground for abortion. But he should have known better. ‘Rare’ compromises with an evil soon cease to be rare. That’s how the devil does law.

Towards the end of the passage of the Abortion Act, the bishops voted 4-0 against a wrecking amendment. They also voted 5-2 against a successful amendment that removed the word ‘total’ from the phrase ‘total environment’. This phrase described the circumstances a physician could take into account when judging the danger of a pregnancy to a woman’s mental and physical health. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Durham made it clear that they wanted to word ‘total’ in there because without it the act would be too restrictive. As Durham said:

If we put ‘total’ in it means that nothing whatever need be excluded; and that, from the lawyers’ point of view, is more a help than a hindrance. I would plead that the word be left in to make it clear that nothing—no matter what—is excluded.4

As the decades progress, it gets worse. In the early debates, held in 1989, on the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Act of 1990, the Archbishop of York argued that a human embryo before 14 days of age did not possess full humanity, and that it was therefore reasonable to allow embryos of this age or less to be used for experiments and destroyed. York said:

Christians are no more required to believe that humanness is created in an instant than we are required to believe in the historical existence of Adam and Eve….

The biological mistake in the ascription of full value from the moment of conception is the confusion between development and growth…. the mental image which some people have of an early embryo is of a miniscule baby…. But early embryos are not miniature babies. What is lacking in that perception is any understanding of how, biologically speaking, the process of development creates the person. That biological view can be backed from a theological perspective by the understanding of creation as continuous—God continuously calling personal being into existence…

The real strength of that continuous history perspective as I see it lies not in some dubious claim about the full moral rights of fertilised ova but in the question: what are we doing to ourselves and to our own respect for human life if we fail to be sensitive towards something so intimately bound up with our personal origins? That is a serious and a valid moral question. It is a question which can be set alongside the equally serious and valid moral question about the importance of research as itself a basis for respecting and enhancing human life….

Both questions rest upon the same kind of moral presuppositions. Both are in the end utilitarian questions….

The 14-day rule, with all the safeguards surrounding it, seems to me to be a workable basis for such a consensus. It is no more possible to set it up as a totally clear moral dividing line than it is to do the same for the moment of conception. But to make it a cut-off point is morally and biologically defensible.5

And did you know that in 2010 the Church of England Mission and Public Affairs Council stated that the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos ‘ought to continue to be permitted’, albeit subject to strict conditions?6

The evidence is clear. For a century at least, Anglican bishops have been leaders of the assault on moral truth.

This motivates me to be frank about the final death throes of the Church of England. I suspect that future historians will characterize the ultimate collapse of the Church of England in terms of its failure to achieve the synthesis by which it has always justified its independent existence: namely the synthesis of reason, scripture and tradition. The claim to synthesize these three was rhetorically effective at the time of the English Reformation precisely because most people in our thitherto Catholic country believed that that was what the Church ought to do. For a time, the claim had some plausiblity, too. Now, however, the Church of England seems to consist not of a unified people whose faith is grounded in reason, scripture and tradition, but rather of three factions that each look to one of these things alone. Wordy liberals propound novel reasonings untethered to scripture or tradition; Anglo-Catholics, hatches battened-down in their bunker of tradition amidst a profoundly untraditional church, sustain their traditions, but no longer have much serious theology to offer; evangelicals have their readings of scripture, but these divorce theology from reason, and are drawn from no tradition predating the 16th century; hence evangelicals have no rational basis for resolving their endless internal squabbles about faith and morals, but, like Luther and Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy, can only lob bible verses at each other, gnashing their teeth at their opponents’ failure to see things their way.

No wonder, by the way, the Reformation created liberalism, and the odd idea that, whereas human reason could achieve wonders in science, it could not lead us to shared definite moral truths that the state could rightly enforce.