on 7 December 2013
I read this survey book in a month that saw the announcing of a Vatican survey along some similar lines. Both made me think of the Don Camillo story where he kneels before the crucifix with some pastoral issue and asks the Lord whether he should `consult public opinion'. `Don't bother', the Lord says, `just look what it did to me!' Finding consensus on any matter is important but so is the courage to stand against what is deceptive however popular that may be. Linda Woodhead, as a Professor of Politics, Philosophy and Religion, is well equipped to facilitate the public conversations recorded in this book documenting how personal life choices connect with religious faith and practice. I found it painful reading.
`Does the embryo have a soul?' `Do we live in an over-sexualised society?' `Is it right for religions to treat men and women differently?' `What is a `traditional family' and do we need it?' `Do Christians really oppose same-sex marriage?' `Should we legislate to permit assisted dying?' `Why do God?' Seven questions are addressed by a dozen or so public figures most of whom would not be counted as among what the survey describes as the ``moral minority' in Britain - 8.5% of the population - who take their authority from scripture or religious leaders, rather than relying on their own judgement like the majority of religious and non-religious people in this country'. The consensus of thinking in the book is with the latter i.e. with renegotiated Christian ethics. I agreed with a quote from Austin Ivereigh of the lobby group Catholic Voices that such surveys may best show `how little exposed even practising religious people are to the teachings of their church'.
More positively it was good to read Giles Fraser's traditionalist sentiments on assisted dying, countering Lord Falconer: `I don't think you have a right over your own body'. Also Jenny Taylor's discovering in Christianity `a tradition that taught me that the body is something very honourable, and very good... and how character becomes stronger through sexual continence. That creates stronger societies. It is the seed, the germ of civilisation'. Steve Chalke's explanation of his change to accepting same sex marriage through seeing the homophobia within Evangelicalism is powerful, even if it reduces marriage to an institution mainly serving our being `made for intimacy'. John Milbank is one of few convincing traditionalists interviewed in the book. He argues same-sex marriage is undemocratic in denying people the right to a `biological identity... emerging from a human interpersonal identity... getting rid of the idea that the sexual partnership mirrors the partnership between Christ the bridegroom and the church as bride... to admit gay marriage in the church would be to undo Christian doctrine'. The last chapter has Delia Smith engaging `pro-faith atheist' Alastair Campbell on God with her bottom line `goodness will always win through'.
`Religion and Personal Life' paints a picture of a post-Christian society in which religious allegiance has little impact on sexual morality unless people are Muslim or Baptist. Linda Woodhead sees it as problematic for the Church of England `to be completely adrift from what most English people believe', and there is the rub, especially for New Directions readers who would see her bound to the faith of the universal church through the ages. There is a catechetical problem, to put it mildly, for such age old and proven faith is not getting communicated and owned in Britain today. This book is a wake-up call to those of us who value traditional faith and see its boundaries as empowering and not crippling to engage more in the public square.