Discipline and Doctrinal Deviance

Encouraging religious integrity

Written by Graham Shaw who is an Anglican and a Quaker, and author of 'God in our Hands'

The search for freedom of worship played a considerable part in the creation of our modern understanding of human rights, but accompanying that heroic story there is another narrative of resistance to the tyranny of religious authorities. The outcome has been a resolute attempt to separate church and state, which gives to the lay member of most religious traditions a freedom of association, to join or to leave.

The position of religious professionals is however more complicated, not least because they are sometimes the heirs and beneficiaries of feudal privilege and jurisdiction, and sometimes its victims. They have attracted two very different approaches. In some legal views their direct relationship to God has been so emphasized as to strip them of almost all employment protections – they are so to speak God’s employees and he must look after his own. Elsewhere there is often a desire simply to subsume the clergy among the beneficiaries of other secular employment law with a few specific modifications. Neither of these approaches is entirely satisfactory. Many other professions have codes of professional conduct, but no other profession requires the formal subscription to doctrine. By contrast the clergy are not only required to study and to teach the sacred texts; they have in most Christian denominations been required to teach them in a certain way. Similarly Jews may not have formal doctrinal requirements, but as even the Chief Rabbi has discovered there are clear limits to acceptable teaching. The nearest secular analogy is perhaps to be found in the teaching of history in some European countries, and the penalties that surround holocaust denial. At the outset we must also recognise that the religious professional attracts deep feelings of ambivalence. Secular purveyors of human rights are often quite unsympathetic to the very existence of religious professionals, and within most religious traditions themselves there is a stand of anti-clericalism. It is, for instance, intrinsic to the parable of the Good Samaritan and not unrelated to its popularity.

To address this ambivalence churches and congregations should first ask themselves whether they really want clergy at all. One can imagine a future in which the number of religious professionals has been sharply reduced. A small elite of well-groomed and personable, media-savvy clergy would provide exactly the kind of video packages that many congregations might prefer to the messiness of a real human being wrestling with and taking responsibility for a religious tradition in a half secularised world. The video would not be discouraged by the meagreness of the congregation, nor would it be discredited by any embarrassing familiarity or the staleness of middle age. The dilemmas of intellectual integrity would barely arise. Instead of having to take the risk of ordaining a person of unknown potential, a bishop would only need to give each video an imprimatur. Quality control would be assured, only the highest standard of musical accompaniment would be offered to the public and the possibility of doctrinal deviancy precluded. Congregations could rest assured that they were only hearing sentiments of unimpeachable orthodoxy and were in no danger of being led astray. Such well-packaged forms of religion are already on the market, particularly in the areas of self-development and contemplation. By comparison the traditional free- range religious professional is both more expensive and usually less entertaining. If there is to be any demand for such services in the future it can only be because the reality of the person offers possibilities, which the video package does not. The integrity of the person, in religious and intellectual terms, is obviously an area of risk – but it is also the precondition for any serious engagement with the religious tradition. A religion lives because real people take present responsibility for it and in that way transmit it to the future. For Christianity in particular the involvement of real human beings with all their doubts and shortcomings is the only appropriate vehicle for a religion of incarnation.

For this believer some kind of religious professional is probably a necessity for the transmission of most forms of religion and certainly of any recognisable form of Christianity. I believe that this reflects the needs of both the community and the individual. The community needs the resource of someone who commits the attention of a lifetime to engage with the riches of a religious tradition, which necessarily transcend the experience of any one life, and part of that engagement is a commitment to communicate that experience. Equally there will always be some individuals with a facility and fascination that leads them to undertake such an engagement. The dilemma at the heart of the religious professional’s existence is that without personal integrity the engagement is worthless, and yet without some kind of transaction no professional existence is possible. The difficulty is to ensure that the process of payment does not totally discredit the integrity of the person. So any system of religious discipline has not only to be fair – and natural justice is not always the most obvious feature of church justice – a major concern must be that it does not destroy the integrity it seeks to preserve. Any system, which attemps to bind the mind and the mouth by oaths and professions of faith and then tries to enforce such undertakings with sanctions and rewards risks subverting the integrity of the tradition it is trying to protect. Once the impression is abroad that a person is paid to say certain things his statements will signify little more than the money and power, which purchased them, however much there may be protests to the contrary. It is probably the case that few Christian denominations have yet found a convincing answer to this problem.

There is an important distinction between what religious professionals think and say on the one hand, for which they must take entire responsibility, and what they listen to or rehearse, which they may or may not appropriate. I see few problems in using financial and institutional resources to foster continuing attention to a religious tradition. Being paid to listen, or read or recite deprives no one of their integrity. It is certainly a privilege and demands gratitude to those who have made it possible, but that does not create any further obligation beyond courtesy. The difficulties only arise when trying to control speech and thought. It is more than a century since Archbishop Frederick Temple sharply warned his fellow believers that where the conclusions are prescribed the study is precluded. The implications of Temple’s words must be to question the appropriateness of all requirements of doctrinal conformity. That represents a challenge to which most Christian institutions have preferred not to respond. Indeed the last hundred years has seen strong movements both in Evangelical Protestantism and within the Roman Catholic Communion to reinforce rather than to relinquish doctrinal requirements. Anyone who listens to the oath, which a Roman Catholic Parish priest is now required to make before he undertakes his parochial duties, must wonder what significance could be attributed to any of his future utterances. All responsibility is surrendered to higher authority. In such an instance it would surely be more appropriate simply to switch on the appropriate video, so that at least we can see who is really talking to us. It is sobering to realise that there was even more outrage over the doctrinal deviations of the bishop of Durham in the 1980s, than there had been about his predecessor sixty years before, despite the fact that in many ways David Jenkins was a more orthodox Christian theologian than Hensley Henson.

There are therefore very strong religious reasons why the requirement of doctrinal subscription as a condition for holding religious office should be questioned. Indeed I would argue that it is at the heart of the crisis in religious vocations, which afflicts so many western churches. The difficulty is that the religious professional is so obviously being rewarded or penalized for holding certain convictions, and far from safe guarding those convictions such a situation makes any real conviction difficult to discern. Paradoxically the removal of such requirements must be the first step towards recovering some respect for the religious professional. Instead there needs to be much greater clarity about the legitimate needs and requirements of religious institutions and the communities they serve, and the responsibilities of the religious professional must be balanced by a more realistic understanding of responsibilities for the religious professional. It has been cogently argued by Scott Appleby in The Ambivalence of the Sacred that civil society has a great interest in the creation of confident religious authorities, which are well grounded in the tradition they transmit. Nothing has proved more violent and divisive than fundamentalist simplifications, which flourish in largely secularised societies where religion has only survived as a sense of tribal loyalty, with little real access to the content of the religious tradition itself.

If a religious tradition is to flourish there must be some people who both understand it and can take responsibility for it. Study and communication are entirely legitimate demands to make of any religious professional, but the institutions, which make such demands, must also exercise some self-restraint. They cannot both require study and dictate conclusions – they can only do one or the other, and the plight of most western churches reveals the cost of following the second policy. The legitimate intellectual demands of religious professionals are diligent attention and scrupulous honesty. Neither of those are light demands. Doctrinal requirements are perhaps an attempt to avoid the risk inherent in authorizing any religious professional. It used to be the prime responsibility of a bishop and that understanding of the episcopate was perhaps more realistic than the modern managerial expectations. Who knows another person’s heart? Who can tell what sort of person they will become in ten or twenty or thirty years’ time? The ancient collect, which warned against "laying hands suddenly on no man", reflects continuing anxieties, but it must be doubtful whether doctrinal subscription can allay them. There is an unavoidable act of trust in authorizing religious professionals. If that trust is ill founded, subscription will only add dishonesty or hypocrisy to other disappointments.

No words or promises can guard against the possibility of religious disenchantment. It is not unlike the death of love in marriage, and any realistic legal arrangements for religious professionals must take account of it. Like divorce it is particularly difficult because the obligations originally undertaken by both parties are so far reaching and extravagant. To promise the devotion of a lifetime is no commonplace contract. To authorize a person for a lifetime is no ordinary act of trust. Religious professionals are usually people who have given a considerable part of their lives already to immersing themselves in a particular tradition. They have often mastered specialist skills that have little immediate value outside the tradition in which they are exercised. If religious bodies are to escape the suspicion that they are exploiting the innocence and inexperience of the young they cannot entirely wash their hands of those who find they cannot sustain the engagement, which once inspired them. That however is another matter from policing doctrinal orthodoxy. The danger with doctrinal subscription where there has been a process of disenchantment is that it can easily load all the responsibility on the changing convictions of the professional, while obscuring the part which the institution has contributed to that process.

The legal framework in which religious professionals live can either encourage integrity or seek to suppress it. I have emphasized its importance, because it is the precondition for any useful contribution that religious professionals can make to the community that has nurtured them, but I also recognise that among religious professionals it is especially vulnerable. They practice the art of persuasion and so they are particularly subject to the seductions of rhetoric. The pulpit is one of the few places where one can still hope to speak without interruption, and although the audience may be small it is likely to be sympathetic. A process of natural selection is at work here. Rhetoric is dangerous for many reasons. It encourages the speaker to express confidence without having to justify the tone of conviction. An audience responds to the excitement of strong contrasts, and it is usually more gratifying to appeal to shared prejudice rather than to challenge it. In these circumstances the rousing affirmation of doctrinal orthodoxy will always have its rhetorical attractions, quite apart from whatever institutional incentives may be at work to reinforce intellectual conformity. Equally, doctrinal deviance has its rhetorical rewards. The new and the shocking may offend, but they also attract attention, and that is a considerable part of their power. In this respect effective heresy is not unlike the phenomenon of Brit art. A prudent orthodoxy has always understood that it is best to ignore heresy, if that is at all possible. The removal of legal sanctions in the realm of doctrine would immediately release all parties to address the issues that divide them with rather less distraction. The orthodox would rediscover that their best weapons are patience and argument and deviance would find it more difficult and less exciting to court notoriety.

Doctrinal requirements, which bind the older and more experienced person to the simplicities of youth, may prevent a whole religious community from ever growing up, but no framework of law will avail without the honesty, courage and commitment of religious professionals themselves. They have to recognise their own responsibility for what they say, and indeed for the religious tradition they transmit. If they think elements in that tradition are mistaken or damaging they need the courage to admit that, and the health of their religious community requires no less. The most that a legal framework can contribute is to help religious communities appreciate that requirement.

Click printer button for printer-friendly version of this article
Registered charity number 1113177
© All Sea of Faith material is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence