The growing conflict between Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience

Classical Anglican teaching is held to be rooted in the three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason based on Richard Hooker’s teaching in The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Our knowledge of God and God’s intention in creation is rooted in these three elements. More recently, some have argued for the addition of a fourth leg, that of experience. Experience may be understood as an ingredient of the third leg, Reason.

Conservatives opposed to the full inclusion of LGBTI people in the church rely primarily on Scripture, arguing that the other two legs are utterly dependent on this. They deny that experience can be legitimately added as a fourth leg. We live in a society where experience is accepted as a given, an essential component of life. Conservative Christians argue against this cultural change.

The conflict between as to whether Experience is a legitimate fourth leg has been an undercurrent in many meetings and conversations I have been part of over the last two decades. I think the disagreement is fundamental in the inability of the Church of England to move towards resolving disagreements over human sexuality despite having been working on the subject for fifty years. The first working party was appointed in 1967 and I have just read its unpublished report.

Is experience a legitimate, integral element in the way we understand and interpret our beliefs about God. I would argue that experience is the fundamental element. All that we are and all that we know is dependent on our experience of ourselves and our lives and the world we live in. Scripture, Tradition and Reason are secondary, the human constructs of faith over which bishops and theologians and others have argued for two millennia.

Reactions to the recent Synod debates

The conflict was present at the recent meeting of the General Synod in York, identified in conservative evangelical reaction to the debates about conversion therapy and liturgies for Transgender people.

The Bishop of Lewes, the Rt Revd Richard Jackson, in a talk given at the New Wine Summer Conference in July, described the Synod as “a theological train crash . . . of conflicting pain narratives.” People spoke with passion about their personal experience, he said. He thought this was bad and believed “that Bishops are called to make some definitive statements’’ when they release the new teaching document in 2020. “We have to make decisions on the basis of biblical theology, not on the basis purely of listening to people’s experiences”.

On the Anglican Mainstream blog Andrew Symes wrote that the decision on ‘conversion therapy’ was not made for reasons of Christian theology but “on the basis of fake science, . . . fear of the LGBT lobby and the dreaded “Tim Farron question”, and “emotional manipulation by apostate activists within the church leadership.”

Ian Paul wrote on his Psephizo blog about a number of discussions at Synod which bewailed the fact that much of the debate on both motions “was personalised and story-driven. There was little theological reflection (apart from a few nods to Scripture, Tradition and Reason).” He wanted to know what David Walker, Bishop of Manchester,made of the consistent Anglican commitment to the authority of Scripture and why he failed to notice the lack of theological engagement, valuing instead “this ‘tone’ of emotionalism . . .”

Rob Munro, writing for the Church Society, said “The new norm for synodical debate on controversial matters has become the telling of stories - especially the personal and painful ones.” There was little or no theological reflection on the issues.

Susie Leafe, Director of Reform (UK) said members were asked to base their decisions on emotional stories or the impact of secular headlines. More worryingly, perhaps, was the atmosphere of the chamber; God's word was mocked openly and decisions were made lightly, with arrogant laughter. “At key points in the debates members were called to share stories of those who had committed suicide, but very few conservatives were called to speak.”

Listening to experience, personal stories, emotionalism, the personal, passion, were judged to have been present in excess at Synod and were responsible for the outcome, substantial majorities in all three Houses for both motions.

Evangelical identity and complexity

Three evangelicals have posted comments on the Thinking Anglicans thread about this week’s CEEC letter which describe some of the dynamics of the broad evangelical membership of the Church of England in contrast to the narrow CEEC position. Charles Read says that along with many, many others, he no longer feels CEEC speaks for him. David Runcorn says he keeps engaging with conservative evangelical concerns where he can because he doesn’t want to let them claim words like 'orthodox', 'biblical', 'faithful' as their own and no one else's. Simon Butler notes that CEEC have become less significant within the context of a much broader tradition of Evangelicalism. CEEC is much more conservative that its constituency. Other evangelical voices are present within the structures of the Church of England, working day-in, day-out supporting evangelical (among other) ministers in their mission and service of the Gospel. For some, evangelical unity has always been more important than Anglican unity. Evangelicals in the Church of England are the majority, but the CEEC constituency is only a small portion of the whole. There was time when the CEEC was the 'umbrella' which hosted the breadth of Anglican evangelicals but a few years back it got taken over by increasingly conservative voices.

I was retrained in my understanding of the evangelical world by my colleague Brenda Harrison, a dedicated evangelical and partnered lesbian, who ensured that I always distinguished conservative evangelicals from those who were less conflicted in their support for the full inclusion of women and LGBTI people in the church. I noticed how new evangelical bishops evolved over time in their openness to LGBTI people and in the process, were deemed no longer to be card-carrying evangelicals, no longer acceptable to Reform or the core of the CEEC.

The complexity of evangelical identity has yet to be made properly visible in the Church of England. I suspect the majority of people who worship in churches that would describe themselves as evangelical no longer subscribe to the homophobic teachings of their conservative elders. I count many evangelicals among my friends. Some may be quite closeted in their openness to the full inclusion of LGBTI people in the church, but others have undergone a remarkable trajectory as their attitudes have changed, a number of bishops among them. The process about to be started by the House of Bishops as they prepare to spend three years writing a definitive teaching document could be dramatically different if the church had a more accurate grasp of the varieties of evangelical identity.

One reason why those of my evangelical friends who have changed their mind did so is because they were open to engage with people’s experience, feelings, stories and passions. Why wouldn’t they as evangelicals? Didn’t Jesus teach through stories? Isn’t the Bible full of emotion? Wasn’t Wesley’s heart strangely moved and isn’t enthusiasm thought to be a good thing? A very articulate conservative evangelical rump is increasingly holding the church to ransom and blocking progress. They deride experience because experience undermines their dependence of their very concrete addiction to Scripture, Tradition and Reason. God is always undermining our over-confident dependence on our ability to intellectualise problems and challenges.

The House of Bishops teaching document

I am critical of the House of Bishops decision to take control and spend three years producing a definitive teaching document for two reasons. I’ve recently read or re-read every Episcopal document published about homosexuality. I am not convinced the new process is going to resolve the conflicts that previous working parties were set up to deal with, and failed. My second criticism is that nowhere in the outline of the work to be undertaken in producing the teaching document is there any mention of personal experience, feelings, emotions, and stories. Its prime task is to have yet another stab at resolving conflict. This won’t happen unless the spectrum of evangelical thinking and teaching is better understood.