The Breakdown of the Moral Argument in the Anglican Church

In Alasdair Macintyre’s book, ‘After Virtue,’ he laments that ‘[t]here seems to be no rational way of securing moral agreement in our culture.’[1] This is not just the case in our culture, but, sadly also, I would argue, in the Anglican Church of Canada. I witnessed this first-hand at our recent special one-day diocesan synod where the clergy and lay delegates were given the opportunity to offer perspectives on whether or not the Bishop should allow same-sex marriage to take place in the Diocese of Ontario.

It was an incredibly frustrating day. Not because the majority of clergy and laity voted for advising the Bishop to move forward with same-sex marriage taking place in our diocese. Rather, I was frustrated – from what I heard delegates say from both sides of the issue – that we no longer have the capacity as a church to have a coherent, moral conversation. Our assumptions of how we come to ethical conclusions are so diverse, that we’ve lost a common vocabulary and concepts for even approaching, not just the question of same-sex marriage, but I dare say, any moral issue. We don’t argue with each other. We talk past one another. Fortunately, the debate did not descend to screaming at each other, calling each other bigots or bad people, as did happen at the recent General Synod in July 2019. Still, there was at times a sense of ‘self-righteous superiority’ by delegates in their comments towards those who disagreed with them.

Why is this happening? MacIntyre argues the impasse that blocks people in our culture (and in the Anglican Church), from engaging in a real debate about same-sex marriage is that emotivism is often (not always, but increasing less and less), the basis for those who wish same-sex marriage to occur in our Church. What is emotivism? Emotivism, says MacIntyre, is the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral and factual elements. In other words, we use moral judgments not only to express our own feelings and attitudes, but also precisely to produce such effects in others.[2]

In other words, now that moral judgments are expressions of one’s attitude or feeling, there is no such thing as a moral that is ‘objectively’ true or false, good or bad. Moral judgment is no longer secured by any rational method. Instead, we use moral judgments to express our own feelings and attitudes on the matter and, in so doing, hopefully produce the same effects in others.

Interestingly, both sides of same-sex marriage argument claim the bible to support their respective positions. However, what is not discussed is how the emotive approach to morality impact how we read the bible. Many still say, ‘I believe in what the bible says,’ yet, their moral decisions seem to have nothing to do with what the biblical text actually says. When moral judgments serve to express our predetermined feelings or attitudes, the reader of the bible can’t help oneself from looking for the words and sentences that will approve those feelings and attitudes. In other words, the reader uses particular words, sentences, or texts to say whatever one’s feelings and attitudes has already decided is right or wrong. The bible no longer informs our moral decisions. Instead, our preference and feeling on a moral matter informs what the bible says.

Emotive driven reading of the bible is not the only one that cherry picks what the bible has to say on moral matters. Some conservative[3] readings of the bible do the same thing. Like their emotive/liberal counterparts, they too cherry pick words and text to support their argument. Instead of allowing the theological themes (i.e., anthropology, Christology, atonement, etc.), the biblical authors are trying to address inform their position, readers quickly grab individual words and texts out of theological context of a particular biblical text to support their position. Much more can be said on the theology of biblical interpretation and if you wish to read more, I suggest you go to where I’ve said more on the matter.

But, at least, conservatives are still looking to a standard for arguing their moral position – the bible. Sadly, now that the bible has been sidelined, the apparent assertion of principles on moral matters by many in the Anglican Church of Canada today, functions as a mask for expressing personal preferences. There are no valid rational justifications for any claims that objective and impersonal moral standards exist. Scripture, doctrine, and tradition – once the cherished ‘three-legged stool’ and foundation of Anglicanism – no longer serve as an objective and faithful guide to what God wants us to do.  

So, what to do? The answer is not to be disparaging and hopeless about our situation in the Anglican Church. That will only make matters worse. And, frankly, it’s unfaithful to our Lord. Christ has promised to always be committed to His Church – as He was with His people, Israel – even when it was not committed and faithful to Him. The fact of the matter is, there will always be a Church (I believe an Anglican one too!), although it may not look as it does today, because she has been chosen by our Lord to be His witness of the Gospel to the world. As was God’s promised not revoked even when Israel was disobedient to her Lord, neither shall God’s’ promise in Christ to His Church be voided because of its disobedience. The Church exists by sheer grace and will continue to exist by God’s sheer grace. So, don’t despair. God has not given up on His Church. Let’s make sure we don’t give up on Him

[1] (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), p. 6.

[2] Ibid., p. 12

[3] I know that ‘conservative’ is not an exact descriptor of the type of misreading’s of the bible I’m here addressing. There are plenty of those who call themselves ‘evangelicals’ who misread the bible in the same way. But the word’s meaning better represents a healthier reading of Scripture, although many who call themselves ‘evangelicals’ don’t practice what the word actually means. Thus, the use of the word ‘conservative’.

The Breakdown of the Moral Argument in the Anglican Church