Category Archives: Church Of England

Making our minds up

Why can’t Justin Welby make his mind up?

I am referring, of course, to the recent interview with Welby in GQ, in which he was asked by Alastair Campbell whether gay sex was sinful. He said, ‘I haven’t got a good answer to the question. I’ll be really honest about that. I know I haven’t got a good answer to the question. ‘ And a little later, asked whether one aspect of his answer was ‘morally a cop out’, he answered, ‘Yes. I am copping out because I am struggling with the issue.’

Inevitably, the publication of this interview generated a lot of comment. Among those who (predictably) disagreed with the substance of Welby’s comments, and those who (predictably) were disappointed that he wasn’t giving a stronger lead in one direction or another, and those who (predictably) disparaged his wisdom in agreeing to the interview in the first place, there were several responses that caught my eye. They came from people who were incredulous that Welby had not yet made up his mind.

That indicates, they suggested, a worrying lack of seriousness, of effort, of diligence; it suggests he’s not given the topic the attention one would expect – especially from someone who has ended up as Archbishop. Why has he not already made his mind up?

And – for reasons I’m about to explain – I find those reactions odd.

Now, I know Welby a bit, and have  over the past few years had opportunities to talk to him about quite a few topics, but (as far as I can recall) I have never talked to him about this one – and I have absolutely no extra information to pass on about his thinking. This post contains no revelations about the archiepiscopal mind. Indeed, it is not really about Welby at all. It’s about the state of the Church of England, and the difficulties we all face in making up our collective mind.

Ways of making up our minds

We have particular ways of making up our minds. There are things we find salient, and things that we don’t; there are things that make a difference to how we think and feel about something, and things that don’t. Some of this is conscious: we have particular ways in which we think things through. Some of it even includes explicit arguments: we have certain kinds of reasons we acknowledge, certain kinds of argumentative moves we habitually make. There are ways of talking about matters that make sense to us, and that can reinforce our position or sway us – and there are ways of talking that can’t. We have ways of making up our minds.

The problem is that in the Church of England we don’t share a single way of making up our minds. This is not a new situation; it has very deep historical roots. Nor is it by any means unique to the Church of England; it’s pervasive in church history. It is nevertheless a deep feature of our current situation. We inhabit a set of different ways of making up our minds (you could call them theological traditions, or traditions of argument, if you like – but only at the risk of making them sound more formal, explicit and organised than they typically are).

The actual picture is very messy, but a plausibly simplified version would suggest that the Church consists of several such ‘ways’ or ‘traditions’, sitting alongside one another. The considerations that are telling for members of one such way might not be for members of another; the arguments that seem natural in one seem forced or irrelevant in another – and so on. Our problem is not just that we come to differing conclusions (though we obviously do that); it’s that we reach them in such differing ways.

Crucially, there is no meta-tradition, no meta-way. That is, there is no overarching ‘way of making up our minds’ that we can appeal to when members of differing ways come to different conclusions. Our deepest disagreements can’t be resolved by our normal ways of making up our minds, because we are in part disagreeing about how we should make up our minds.

Yes, we have all sorts of things in common still – all sorts of shared ideas and practices, so that it is not at all ridiculous to say that we share a common life. But that doesn’t mean we share ways of making up our minds when faced with disagreement.

Living in between

This picture is too simple of course. I’ve spoken as if there were neat divisions into which everyone in the Church could be sorted: either you’re a member of one ‘way’ or you’re a member of another. But many people (perhaps most?) actually inhabit the grey areas between ways. They are aware of, they are schooled in, they are formed to recognise differing ways of making up their minds, and most of the time they are not pressed to see the incompatibilities between them or to worry about how to resolve questions where these different ways yield different answers. It takes a deep controversy to bring these fractures to the surface – to turn this complex inhabitation of multiple ways into a felt perplexity.

Diligent effort to make up one’s mind makes sense only within a way. It makes sense within a way to look harder and more seriously at the things that are salient, to follow the proper patterns of argument more carefully. But, in the absence of a meta-way, there is no form of diligence that can lead to resolution if one inhabits multiple ways, and have discovered that they yield divergent answers to a pressing question. The intellectually responsible reaction in such a situation is – bewilderment.

To urge someone to resolve such perplexity by an act of will, as if what is needed is simply a stiffening of sinews, might make sense if that person mostly inhabits a single way – if one way has, in effect, become that person’s home. They might then steel themselves to throw off the tendrils of the other ways that they have also inhabited – which they can now, in some situation of controversy, see, and recognise as alien to their proper ‘way’. But that relies on being pretty firmly situated within a single way. It makes no sense to demand it of someone poised between ways.

I have no idea whether Welby’s perplexity is of this form. But if it is, it would not be lack of diligence, or weakness of will, that is his problem. His perplexity would be a reflection of the deeper perplexity of the Church of England – a perplexity for which there is no simple cure.

Arguments between ways

This perplexity is reflected in various features of our arguments as a Church, many of which are frustrating and dispiriting. Some of the frustration that our arguments produce flows from our failures to acknowledge, or to know how to respond to, the diversity of our ways of making up our mind.

So, half aware that someone else’s way is not my way, I may end up arguing on what I take to be that other person’s grounds. And quite often, I will therefore end up arguing in a way that lacks integrity – in the sense that nothing really rests for me on the arguments that I have put forward. My arguments do not reflect the way I actually made up my mind about these things, so my position is not going to be disturbed by their defeat. To my opponents, I will seem to have a position supported only weakly, and when I hop to another set of borrowed arguments I will seem to be slippery, to be inconsistent and perhaps dishonest. I will certainly seem to lack seriousness: I will seem all to clearly not to be fully committed to the argumentative game that I have joined.

We carry on as if we had a shared tradition of argument, while actually lacking one. We carry on as if there were knock-down arguments (the kind of argument that will lead one’s opponent into one’s own position, if only they are diligent and serious enough to follow it), when in fact there are none. And as we do so, we become more and more convinced of each other’s obtuesness and lack of integrity –  because that is what arguing across divisions between ways typically produces.

Nil desperandum

This is, nevertheless, not a counsel of despair. There remain forms  of conversation possible in such a situation (especially if we acknowledge that this is our situation) – though they are both harder and yield fruit more slowly than the knock-down arguments possible within a shared way.  There remain ways of swaying one another, and seeking greater agreement. The answer is not simply to stop talking, or blandly to agree to differ.

More than that, there are still ways of understanding our life as a shared life, despite such disagreements as these – indeed, of recognising that the church has always been marked by this kind of disagreement. To recognise the deep differences in our ways of making up our minds does not mean declaring de facto schism.

Nevertheless, all this might make one look at the present argumentative landscape of the Church of England with weary bemusement – and it can definitely give a certain eager edge to the hope that we might, in time, learn to disagree better.