By L. Zoe Cole
During the day, I write ethical dilemmas that are used as part of a web-based simulation that teaches ethical decision-making skills. One of the things we teach is that more often than not ethical dilemmas are choices between competing goods rather than between right and wrong. The other thing we teach is that although there is often more than one “right” answer, some answers are better than others. Virtually everyone does in fact have a personal value system, although most can’t articulate it and to the extent that we make “good” choices, we do so by accident rather than a reasoned and replicable process.
In popular debate, those arguing for the maintenance of traditional notions of morality often posit the “anything goes” straw man as the only alternative to tradition. However, to reject traditional notions of morality (which are often simply about maintaining the power and privilege of one group over another) is not to reject all notions of morality or the value of morality. It is simply to suggest that a different set of criteria or understanding of the same tools (e.g. different interpretation of the same Biblical texts) be used to determine what is moral, ethical and why some choices are better than others.
As Episcopalians, we are sometimes criticized for a dearth of “official theology,” but we do have lots of information about how to make choices that are life-giving, or proclaim the Good News or spread the Kingdom – or however one describes the end results that are desirable for Christians. We have a catechism that tells us what sin and redemption are (sin is “the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people and with all creation” and redemption is “the act of God which sets us free from the power of evil, sin, and death” BCP p.848-849); we have Eucharistic prayers that tell the same story of creation, sin, judgment and redemption in different ways; the Easter Vigil which goes through the same history using various passages of Scripture; the baptismal covenant; the Prayers of the People—oh! and then there is Scripture itself!
All these provide tools for discerning whether one set of actions or values or politics is better than another. They also provide a common language, and, to the extent we take responsibility for learning, a shared teaching. Some choices are a matter of individual conscience, but if we are the Body of Christ, then we are not free to operate only from a position of individual choice. We have responsibilities as members of the Body to fulfill the vocations given to us. I am an elected deputy to General Convention and therefore have a responsibility to consider what common choices and commitments are appropriate and/or necessary for this part of the Church (The Episcopal Church) to do the work God has given us to do (as distinct from the Church of England or the Anglican Church of Nigeria), as the Church (as distinct from what I am called as an individual to do).
Some complain that the fact that different members of the Church come to different conclusions using the same tools means that we have no standard or shared language by which to justify one practice over another – in fact, we use similar standards and shared language all the time, we just don’t use it to justify the same practices. The fact that we understand these tools to point toward different decisions for different people at different times does not leave us to the “arbitrary rule of the majority,” whatever that means. Presumably those who complain of such a standard are making some distinction between the way we currently make collective decisions and the way other Christians do or did in the past. Are those decisions somehow less arbitrary or less the will of the majority?
Although I hope TEC lives out the Church’s vocation to be prophetic, and know that some congregations are profoundly and transformatively so, my guess is that in reality we are no more nor less prophetic overall than any other group of Christians. I think the only thing we can be is true to our own experience, even when, or perhaps especially when, that experience is not the same as others. I suspect based on what I read and hear from both the conservative and liberal sides that many see the parallels between our current religious debates and problems and Jesus’ criticisms of the religious leaders of his own day. For those who are called to live in the light, we still spend a lot of time in darkness of our own making.
Some complain that we merely mirror a liberal American culture in our insistence on full inclusion of all God’s children, regardless of gender, race, ability/disability, sexual orientation or gender identity. They argue either that these values are not intrinsic to the Gospel, or perhaps that our adoption of them is not theological, but a mere acquiescence in the questionable values of American liberalism or post-modernism (that dreaded and maligned antithesis of “orthodoxy” and traditionalism). While the claims are often over-inflated, the essential question is legitimate: we have no business as the Church in simply mirroring culture, even where cultural values are consistent with the Gospel. But often the claims themselves are not understood as a call to theological integrity, but simply reveal the critics as feeling out of sync with both the actions of General Convention and their experience of contemporary society.
I am frequently inspired by the thoughtfulness and learning of my sisters and brothers in Christ, especially my fellow deputies, in their approach to the issues facing the Church. They inspire me to work against my personal shortcoming of too often seeing those who disagree with me as taking unreflective positions. Often I find myself and witness others being pleasantly surprised by shared understandings among those of different theo-political positions. Therefore, what I experience as true of those with whom I find myself in alignment, I assume is true of those with whom I do not find myself in alignment: we are all seeking to serve the same God and we accept the responsibility as leaders to discern the will of God for the community, as well as for our individual lives; and even though we won’t always get it right, we trust that God is working with us to accomplish God’s purpose.
In the end I can trust God even in the face of the differences of others and my own fallibility because I know that (as former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple said): when we chose wisely, God reigns; when we chose foolishly, God reigns.
L. Zoe Cole is a lay member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Denver, CO and active in the Diocese of Colorado. Currently, she is a part-time municipal court judge and a full-time writer for EthicsGame.com, producer of web-based ethical decision making tools and training materials.