Sunday, December 23, 2007

Victory for moral relativists in the Anglican church

The Anglican Church in Melbourne has largely collapsed into modern intellectual trends, including, it seems, moral relativism.

Take the issue of abortion. The Victorian Government is considering decriminalising abortion and has been taking submissions on the issue. According to the Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr Philip Freier, "The Anglican Church has predominantly been silent about abortion." However, despite this silence Dr Freier also feels that Anglican men "have said enough" and so he appointed an all female working group to prepare a submission.

What did these Anglican women come up with? They argued for decriminalisation on a number of grounds. The first is that public opinion is accepting of abortion:

In our view, public acceptance of the reality of abortion, including acceptance of the practice among women of diverse religious communities, indicates that a change in the law is timely.

Determining the rightness or wrongness of an act according to public opinion seems to indicate clearly that we are dealing with moral relativism which is defined in Wikipedia this way:

moral relativism is the position that moral or ethical propositions do not reflect objective and/or universal moral truths, but instead make claims relative to social, cultural, historical or personal circumstances.

The Anglican women then write of a biblical vision in which "all life is embraced as the gift of a benevolent, self-giving God". But, they write, all life cannot be embraced in today's world as:

in the less than ideal circumstances in which we live, we realise that difficult moral decisions often have to be made. Further, we recognise that the Bible is a collection of texts written in a world without our modern medical practices and so does not speak specifically to the ease and safety with which a pregnancy may be terminated today.

So the "social, cultural, historical or personal circumsatnces" determine moral outcomes rather than a universal moral ideal as presented in the Bible.

The Anglican women then tell us that it is "absolutist" to believe that life begins at conception. They offer instead a vague formulation in which the embryo is fully human from the time of conception, but only accrues moral significance and value as it develops. The women believe that it is more serious to consider destroying a foetus at 28 weeks than at 10 weeks, though they are against any "absolutist end-point after which an abortion could not proceed". So neither the human status nor the "moral value" of the foetus seem to count for much.

Then there is a discussion of women's "moral agency". The Anglican women state that:

We do not advocate change on the basis that a woman has the right to do whatever she wants with her body, as that removes the rights of others, such as the foetus, the father and the wider community. In any legislation, we would like to see statements which affirm the value of the foetus, but hold that in balance with the moral agency of the mother, in community with others, to make choices.

Although this is, in theory, a step back from a radically individualistic approach to morality, it's next to worthless. In the next paragraph the Anglican women call for something close to free abortion on demand:

The Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, even within the diversity of members' views, supports the provision of safe and affordable abortions with appropriate safeguards for women who, for whatever reasons, request them.

So the intent to "affirm the value" of the foetus doesn't come to much. The only protections extended to the foetus are that abortions sought after 20 weeks would need to come before a hospital ethics committee and that abortion after 7 months would continue to be illegal unless the mother's life were in danger. The Anglican women state that late term abortions shouldn't be allowed for certain minor birth defects such as simple cleft palate, which suggests that they believe that more serious birth defects would be a permissible reason for late term abortions.

What has been the reaction of the Anglican hierarchy here in Victoria? The church's representative in Castlemaine made this classically relativist statement in support of the submission:

The Reverend Ken Parker, of Castlemaine, said in some circumstances, abortion was the only right way.

"We need to stand in the shoes of the woman concerned and struggle to see what's right for them," he said.

Then there was this comment:

Archdeacon Alison Taylor said yesterday the church recognised there were circumstances, especially foetal abnormality, when abortion was "the least problematic solution".

"We certainly don't adopt the pro-choice perspective, that it's something women can do with their bodies like having their appendix removed," Archdeacon Taylor said. "We live in a broken world where appallingly difficult decisions have to be made."

The Anglican Dean of Bendigo, the Very Reverend Peta Sherlock, emphasised instead the simplicity of the issue:

"To want an abortion is not a crime for somebody who is in need - I think it's a no-brainer," she said.

Two final points. One of the Anglican women who wrote the submission was Dr Muriel Porter, who is the reigning church feminist. She is an avowed relativist. A few years ago she urged the Anglican Church to support abortion. She ran an argument that the Anglican Church, by supplying chaplains to soldiers at war, was not consistently pacifist and so did not consistently uphold the sacredness of human life. Therefore, she wrote, the same "relativist" approach could be extended to pregnant women wanting an abortion:

If the sacredness of human life is an absolute value, then the churches should uphold a position of total pacifism. Why cannot the churches adopt the same generous relativism to pregnant women?

The last point is this. The relativists like to think that they are being intellectually sophisticated and advanced in their approach to morality. What the Anglican abortion document really shows, though, is the difficulty of running a consistent and persuasive argument as a relativist.

There are no logical grounds provided for the assertion that a foetus is fully human but only acquires "moral value" as it develops. We are given no reasons why it's possible to be fully human but without moral value, nor are we told the criteria by which a foetus is judged to hold more moral value at 15 weeks than at 10 weeks.

Similarly, there is no reason to think that something is morally right just because public opinion holds it to be so, nor because it represents an act of "agency".

The real effect of relativism is to make the church a servant of the times. Whatever seems reasonable to the age will most likely be upheld as dogma by a relativist church. But if a church mimics the age doesn't this make it less, rather than more, relevant as an institution? What can it offer that isn't already available in the wider society? How can a church lead when it follows the changing social mores of the wider society?


  1. It seems odd that the churches that have become less demanding of their followers have continued to lose their congregations at the same time. Yet religions and denominations that demand strict observance seem to be getting stronger. I don't know why, any thoughts?

  2. Dear OC:

    I found your swingin' blog through Abandon Skip.

    Great stuff mate, very nice thinking skills and prescient articles. You mentioned Liep Gony.

    When my Japanese wife had a cafe over in Maribyrnong, we saw a thousand Liep Gony's. Whatever they did, the parents and friends seemed devoid of any standards that they judged any behaviour on.

    They'd mostly just smile goofily as one of the group acted like well, a few steps from Junior Mau Mau. Never have I witnessed a more consistently indolenct, disconnected and alien child like culture. Madness, really.

    But that's Multiculturalism, there is no core belief, that's it's core belief...

    It means believing in everything, which is the same as believing in nothing. Few law makers lived in the are of course. That's more for the working class, I guess.

    Colonel Neville.

    PS. Here's 2 feeble posts I wrote on this very subject.

  3. sfw,

    Considering religion is about belief, a religion that believes in nothing hardly inspires someone to join.

    Many people want tradition, ritual and guidance of right and wrong.

    I expect the Victorian Anglican churches to empty further with this sort of moral sickness in their hierachy.

  4. On a related point:

    Here's inter alia, the Catholic Churuh funding Islamic Centres in Indonesia:

    Ean Higgins, 'Tsunami Aid Spent on Politics' The Australian (27 December 2007)

    Read it and weep.

  5. First off it reminds me of the joke "I'm not a member of an organized religion - I'm Anglican!

    At 50yrs old I have become utterly disaffected by the Anglican Church - here in Canada and in Britain - so much so that I have actually considered conversion to Roman Catholicism.