Recent Developments

within the Anglican Communion

Editorial by Paul Badham

from Modern Believing, Vol 52:3 - Jul 2011

A Theological Critique of Recent Developments within the Anglican Communion

Marilyn McCord Adams, who was formerly Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford and one of the University Representatives on General Synod has followed recent developments within the Anglican Communion with increasing concern about their theological and philosophical foundations. Her article makes plain the reasons for this. The premise she is most concerned to challenge is the idea that no innovation in doctrine or practice should take place within the 'Body of Christ' until a world wide consensus is reached preferably including not only all Anglican Churches but also the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. She criticizes the Vincentian claim that all Christians have from the beginning shared a common set of beliefs and values and argues that 'serious historical examination shows that very little if anything has been believed everywhere and always'. Even the ecumenical councils only agreed 'forms of words which continued to mean very different things to the warring participants'. Attention to these councils shows not only how the distorting effects of sinful human minds and institutions were at work in their proceedings but also that what was contested was not just inessentials (the so-called 'adiaphora'), but 'also and especially the essentials'.

Professor Adams' argument seems justified if one considers that every serious student of Theology knows that on such really core issues as how divine Creation is understood, or what can be expected from prayer, or the nature of Biblical authority or what is believed about the life of the world to come, profound differences of belief exist between equally devout members of the same Church. Given this, it is strange that differences of opinion about secondary matters of sex and gender should be thought of as grounds for potential schism. Marilyn Adams argues that rather than seeking to impose a false uniformity by fake agreements or coerced acquiescence, we should acknowledge that 'there is no common mind about sex and gender in the Church at the present time and scant hope of one any time soon'. This should be in itself evidence that the Body of Christ is and ought to be in a stage of vigorous differentiation.

Learning from the Cognitive Science of Religion

One of the most fascinating developments in recent years has been the growth of interdisciplinary studies in the Cognitive Science of Religion. I am glad to publish an article on these developments from Canon John Nightingale. One major theme has been the exploration of the origins of religious ideas. In contrast to educational theorists of a former generation who suggested that 'readiness for religion' comes with adolescence, it now seems to have been established that religious ideas are innate and naturally emerge in early childhood. Belief in God seems to appear as children learn about agency in general. In this context teleological thinking spontaneously arises. Young children have no difficulty in thinking of a transcendent, all-knowing and omnipresent reality. Such thoughts may subsequently be questioned and will often be discarded as the child grows up. But it is fascinating to realize that religiosity appears to be natural to human beings and presumably conferred some evolutionary benefit to have survived.

The problems posed by sub-Christian passages in the Psalter

This year's Modern Church conference addresses the question of how we should make use of the Bible today. Of no Biblical book is this issue more urgent than in our use of the Psalter in Christian worship. On the one hand the Psalter contains more inspirational passages than any other work in the Hebrew Bible. It has nourished Jewish and Christian devotion for two and a half thousand years as well as providing the original pattern for many of the finest Christian hymns. Yet as Canon Jowett shows even some of the most wonderful Psalms contain vengeful sentiments which are shocking to the Christian conscience. His article on this issue wrestles anew with a problem which has puzzled the Christian Church for generations.

Judaism and Euthanasia

Euthanasia is forbidden by both Orthodox and Reform Judaism. Rabbi Professor Dan Cohn-Sherbok documents very clearly the grounds on which this opposition has been based and the strength of the arguments in favour of the traditional line. However he goes on to argue that in both the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinic tradition the virtues of humane concern, compassion and loving kindness are overriding considerations, and that on this basis the Reform movement has abolished the traditional laws of divorce, and the traditional rejection of children born as a result of a forbidden sexual union. He argues that a comparable application of Halakhic teaching to the issue of Voluntary Assisted Suicide could allow this in cases of intense and prolonged suffering in terminal illness. He rejects 'thin end of the wedge' arguments on the grounds that there are no reasons to suppose that allowing euthanasia would lead to any general disintegration of standards in the care of the terminally ill. In support of the Rabbi's position on this it is significant that Switzerland has both the most liberal laws relating to Assisted Dying and the best health care system in the world. For example the Swiss have the highest ratio of hospital beds per 1000 inhabitants (18.3 per thousand compared to 4.1 in Britain).[1] Consequently sick people in Switzerland have longer hospital stays than in any other country, [2] and on average live two and a half years longer than we do.[3]

Rabbi Cohn-Sherbok notes that Reform Judaism allows the withdrawal of treatment when it serves no useful purpose and with the advance of medical science it becomes increasingly difficult to draw a moral distinction between passive and active euthanasia. He also rejects the argument that 'active euthanasia interferes with God's sovereignty over human life' on the grounds that 'similar objection could be made to any medical remedy which prolongs human life.

Faith in the Free Market?

For the last article in this issue we look again at a satire first written by Canon Martyn Percy some twenty years ago. The purpose of this satire is to imagine the consequences for a Church too eagerly mimicking the values of the secular world. This highlights the constant tension for a Modern Church in seeking both to bring itself up to date with the contemporary world, while simultaneously remaining loyal to the core message, values and insights of the Christian tradition.


[1] O.E.C.D. statistics from

[2] O.E.C.D. statistics from

[3] W.H.O. life tables at

Revd Prof Paul Badham is Emeritus Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David (Lampeter Campus) and a Modern Church Vice-president.