Friday, January 30, 2009

Contraception third in a series

At this point, I am not planning another installment. I do suggest reading the links provided, with gratitude to Project Canterbury for the hard work of making many historic Anglican documents available at the click of a mouse.

After the Lambeth Conference of 1930 it was taken for granted that the Anglican Communion now allowed contraception, even though the one resolution on which this assumption was based is easily given to another interpretation. Even if some of the bishops meant to open this door (no doubt, some did), they meant at most to open it only a crack for "hard cases" in rare situations. The debate over the resolution, it seems, was not about contraception itself (which was generally considered to be sinful by all Christians everywhere), but about the danger that this resolution might become a Pandora's box. That is exactly what happened, inasmuch as some new liberty was proclaimed by people who had never once read Resolution 15. A whole generation grew up with this assumption, and after a while many had thought that it was simply a fact that they were allowed by their church to do as they pleased.

After the Lambeth Conference, Francis Hall wrote an essay almost immediately, in which he blamed the bishops who voted for the resolution, no matter what they intended: "Some at least of the bishops who had voted for the Resolution were plainly taken aback at the interpretation placed upon it, complaining that the general context in which the Resolution appears had been disregarded." He went on, "The language I have quoted, as it stands, sanctions under exceptional circumstances a practice which Christians have hitherto regarded as necessarily impure and unholy." The first line shows that some bishops were surprised that a new liberty had been perceived from reading the resolution. As I have argued in the second of this series, the resolution does not, in its exact words, grant any such liberty; as the phrase "other methods" in context most likely was intended to clarify the generally accepted use of the "safe period" against the idea that every sexual act must be for the purpose of procreation; an idea that the context of the resolution might otherwise have implied heavily. The fact that some of the bishops later objected to the general interpretation of the resolution proves, in and of itself, that even some of those who voted for it did not mean to approve contraception.

Therefore, I disagree with Hall on this one point: "The language I have quoted, as it stands, sanctions..." With all due respect to Francis Hall, it is not the language or its plain meaning that was the problem. The problem was the culture into which those words were thrown, and the times that shaped how that culture thought. The bishops who voted against the resolution were right, for the public at large was not willing to read it in context, or to place much weight on the actual words. In fact, to this day most of the people who want to speak about 1930 as the year when the Anglican Communion began to slide downhill to the point of crisis, have not read the resolution, certainly not in context.

The question for Continuing Anglicans is not really about what the Anglican Communion did in that year, but about whether or not we should Continue the Anglicanism that made a clear sound ten years earlier in the Lambeth Conference of 1920:

The Conference, while declining to lay down rules which will meet the needs of every abnormal case, regards with grave concern the spread in modern society of theories and practices hostile to the family. We utter an emphatic warning against the use of unnatural means for the avoidance of conception, together with the grave dangers—physical, moral, and religious—thereby incurred, and against the evils with which the extension of such use threatens the race. In opposition to the teaching which, under the name of science and religion, encourages married people in the deliberate cultivation of sexual union as an end in itself, we steadfastly uphold what must always be regarded as the governing considerations of Christian marriage. One is the primary purpose for which marriage exists—namely the continuation of the race through the gift and heritage of children; the other is the paramount importance in married life of deliberate and thoughtful self-control. We desire solemnly to commend what we have said to Christian people and to all who will hear.

The question cannot be answered by arguments from hard case questions, which is why they would not consider rules for "every abnormal case." The teaching of the Church on moral issues must be clear and universal in its meaning. The question can be answered only from trying to perceive the mind of God as revealed in Scripture and as understood by the Church with her authority in what we call the Tradition.

In 1977 the Affirmation of St. Louis was written because the situation had already forced a separation from the Episcopal Church and the Church of Canada, which crisis soon forced separation from the official Anglican Communion altogether. This means that the latest symptoms we encounter now are not the whole disease, but neither were the most pressing symptoms of 1977. The disease had already advanced by that time, namely failure to teach and practice plain orthodox Christianity. Then as now, in some churches of the official Canterbury Communion, orthodoxy was tolerated as an option; and that was the problem. It cannot be an option, for it must be the teaching of the whole Church.

Only on that basis can we discuss the matter of contraception, or anything else that requires correct moral theology. Sociology and modern science may be called on as witnesses to provide information; but, neither these things nor the influence of the culture at large, can sit as judges of moral theology. Neither can the subjective concept of "what would Jesus do?", inasmuch as we are better off considering what he told us to do.

For further reading, in addition to Hall's essay, are two by Bishop Charles Gore, one before Lambeth 1930, and one after.

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