Thought for the Day - Canon Dr Alan Billings

Recently two important social issues with moral as well as legal implications have been making headlines. First, Tony Nicklinson, who has locked-in syndrome after a stroke, sought legal protection for any doctor whom he might ask to end his life. Then second, the government said it wanted to permit gay marriage. Each of these attracted robust comment from religious leaders. I don’t want to get involved in those interventions but rather take a step back and ask what sort of contribution religion can properly make to public debates of this kind in a society that has within it people of many faiths and none.

When we were a more Christian culture it was enough for Christian leaders to offer moral guidance by reminding people of the Christian tradition – because it was from there that most people derived their moral perspective. While British society will continue to be influenced by the Christian legacy, we are also increasingly open to many other influences, religious and secular. In that situation, the Church cannot simply point to its own sacred texts or hallowed practices and think that is sufficient to settle matters. If a moral case is to be made in the public arena it will have to be made in terms that can persuade believers from other faiths as well as those without religious faith. Otherwise, the Church will simply be talking to itself.

In the future, the Church will continue to draw upon the accumulated wisdom of the Christian tradition as it has in the past, and teachings that have sustained countless generations will offer fresh insights on new moral dilemmas. But they will need to be translated into language that anyone can understand and assess.

As things are, I see two dangers – and they are linked. The first is that if the Church is quick to assert and slow to listen, it can give the impression to its own members that moral insight is never to be had outside Christianity – and that can be heard by others as strident and bigoted. It may also leave churches with inadequate means of helping people faced with new moral challenges - especially where tradition and scripture are silent.

The second danger is that because so many of our values originated with Christianity, those who walk away from religion may think they have walked away from morality as well. If religion is optional why not morality? And religious stridency may well be what drives some to that kind of a-morality or moral relativism.

Morality arises in a social context. But a social context that changes all the time. If we are to respond to those changes in ways that help us all to live our individual and collective lives better, we'll need all the wisdom we can find from wherever we can find it.

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