How do we make decisions? How do we make good decisions? These are not just academic questions: they have a real practical application.
I have been reflecting on the Gospel (from St Matthew, Chapter 5) from the 3rd Sunday before Lent, in which the Lord speaks of his followers as ‘salt and light’. This idea has remained with me as we have moved into Lent: the idea that Christians should neither be harsh judges of the world nor simply conform to its ways, but rather are to bring something different and positive: as distinctive as salt, as illuminatory as light. That becomes a template for our mission, as well as for how we live in the world. What might a distinctive and illuminative Christian basis be for making ethical and moral decisions?
Frank Field, the veteran former Member of Parliament for Birkenhead, offers one version of this in his recently published Politics, Poverty and Belief: A political memoir (Bloomsbury). His political life has been based on a Christian faith which sees human beings as both fallen and redeemed. We should live by altruism (‘others first’) but, being fallen, this is simply not possible, and we have to recognise our inbuilt instinct to self-interest. This self-interest will range from the moderate to the extreme: not always altogether bad, it can nonetheless be detrimental to others around us. But as redeemed beings, we also are highly capable of perceiving the wider common good, and of working towards it. Frank Field calls this moral framework ‘self-interested altruism’. That may be as close as one can get to an ethical posture that is both Christian and practical, and we see how it would enable the salt and light of our faith to be brought to bear on the life of the world.
Another starting-point would be the Judaeo-Christian principle known as ‘Natural Law’. This is entirely unfashionable in our own moment, and stands in fact in absolute opposition to the doctrine of the primacy of individual rights, relativism, and entitlement. But Natural Law is the foundation for the Christian understanding of God’s will for human conduct. It is an inbuilt sense of moral obligation, evolving over time, for sure, and indeed rooted in centuries and millennia of human experience, that tells us that there are aspects of behaviour that will increase the common human good and others that will diminish it. Further, certain things are deducible: for example, in every human society known to anthropologists it has been the universal norm for children to honour their parents, which might lead us to say that there is, within the created order, a natural disposition of love and honour from child to parent. Not every child loves their parents: we know that, sadly. But it is an observable human norm so widespread as to be seen as a universal good.
What might be developed from this, and is it transferable from the Jewish Law to Christianity and onwards into the society of today: a secular society, certainly, but one whose very secularism is still earthed in a world of Christian thought and vocabulary? To take the example given, family is central: the duties both of parents to children and children to parents. That can be extended into a responsibility to the greater community. Further, the Jewish prophets were clear that society has a particular duty of care to its weaker members, whether their vulnerability was due to physical or economic or other reasons. That too is clearly preserved in the teaching of Jesus, in the Christian tradition, and (we hope and pray) in our own society today. Most of all, Jesus gives us teaching in two particular areas: that of love, and that of the neighbour. We are to love God, and we are to love our neighbour: indeed, to love and serve one is to love and serve the other, and this is illustrated in such wonderful parables as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.
It is not easy. The Teaching of the Law puts considerable demands on us, as does the Teaching of the Prophets. Combined by Jesus, and given a new radicalism under the phrase ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’, we might conclude that the Teaching of Jesus becomes impossibly difficult. Perhaps it is meant to be. Perhaps ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’ refers to the very few good people who can bring genuine salt and real light into the life of the world. But it at least gives something to which we might aspire.
Think of those three models: Self-Interested Altruism; Natural Law; The Kingdom of Heaven. How may they help us approach the conundrums of Physician Assisted Suicide and Living in Love & Faith?
Over to you …
Scripture tells us that there is a season or a time for everything:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
A time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance …
A time to seek, and a time to lose;
A time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak … (Ecclesiastes 3: 1-7)
Again: how do we discern that time? How do we make good decisions? As Christians, we must surely do these things within the context of deep thought and prayer. This is what we sometimes call ‘discernment’: asking, and trying to identify, what it is that God is asking of us. We speak of ‘vocation’: God’s call upon our lives. It has always seemed to me that this must work equally in each of its separate phases: that is, we ask whether God is calling us to do something; whether God is asking us to continue to do something; and whether God is asking us to stop doing something: whether it is indeed a time to lay something down.
I must therefore always be asking myself: is God asking me to begin again, to continue, or to lay down?
The past few years have been a time of huge change in the life of the world and of our Island. This has been characterised particularly by the pandemic of COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdowns, out of which has arisen a less confident society, challenges to social cohesion, and an acutely steep rise in the cost of living. The pandemic has accelerated the development of technology by perhaps five years. Our Island has been immune to none of this, nor to the effects of the war in Ukraine. In addition to those global influences, we have engaged here with a number of moral and spiritual issues in public life, and indeed continue to do so.
As I look to enter my seventh year as Bishop, I see that God’s task for me has been to navigate these challenges, to maintain our ministry and faithfulness in the gospel, and, quite simply, to support our clergy, people and parishes. It is not for me to say whether I have done that; but I believe that we are in as strong and healthy a place as we can be, and that we have remained faithful and generous in God’s service. Looking to the future, I believe too that a series of appointments – clergy and lay – over the past few years has given us an increased capacity, resilience and confidence. I take no credit for those appointments: rather, God has called a number of outstanding people to this diocese, and for that I can only be thankful.
I can only be thankful, too, for anything that God’s grace may have achieved through my ministry. If I have been at all open to that grace, I can ask no more. Now, mindful of my own areas of limitation, I see that it is time for another bishop to bring a new set of gifts that will lead this diocese into the next phase of its holy and venerable life.
I therefore notify my resignation as Bishop of Sodor and Man, to take effect on 28 October 2023.
There is rarely a good time for a bishop to step down from the ministry of care for a diocese, but, continuing to discern my vocation in the light of God’s will, I believe that now is the right moment.
I give thanks too for Gail’s ministry here: as Diocesan President of the Mothers’ Union, in pastoral care of clergy spouses, as a selector for Bishops Advisory Panels at national level, and in hospitality. Perhaps arising out of all of this, Gail and I now look to enter into a relationship with God that is more contemplative, and that is rooted particularly in a deeper life of devotion to the Lord through the patronage and intercession of Our Lady, His most Holy Mother. We will keep this Diocese in our hearts and minds and souls within our life of renewed prayer, holding it constantly before God, and that is what we offer to you as our enduring gift.
I understand that another diocesan Bishop of Sodor and Man will be appointed, and our Vacancy-in-See Committee will need to be convened in order to prepare the Statement of Needs for the Crown Nominations Commission. I cannot say how long that process will take, but we can be assured that delegation of episcopal authority will provide episcopal care for our diocese during the vacancy.
I have wanted to say these things to you in person, face to face, and I thank you for listening and for receiving them. I ask you, please, not to share this on your own social media this evening, pending a letter which I shall send to all clergy, ministers, and diocesan officers tomorrow morning, with the official announcement to follow on our diocesan website.
For now, I look forward to sharing with you for another seven months in the work of God on our Island. There is still much that we can achieve between now and the end of October, and I pray that God will continue to bless us in all that we do to build His Kingdom.
In Christ, and in prayer and thanksgiving to Almighty God
9 March 2023