It is often said that Anglicanism can be compared to a three-legged stool, each of whose legs bears an equal importance in supporting that rich and diverse mix that makes up Anglican faith and practice.
One leg is that of scripture – emphasising the centrality of the bible and Anglicanism’s Protestant heritage. One leg is that of tradition – emphasising the historical continuity of the faith with those who first set down the limits to orthodoxy in the early Christian centuries. The third leg is that of reason – emphasising the advances in understanding of ourselves and our world brought about through the sciences, literary and historical studies, and all that has flowed from what we call the Enlightenment.
A year or so ago I was in conversation with a senior Anglican cleric, who made it clear he had little time for the place of reason in religious thought. He (an Evangelical) saw the bible as the only sure guide to how Christians should think and act. Tradition could be useful in helping to prevent what he regarded as undesirable changes (we happened – almost inevitably – to be discussing human sexuality). But reason was little more than opinion, blowing in the wind, changing from one year (or generation) to another, dependent on secular fashions and culture.
If the three-legged stool that is Anglicanism wobbles around like a drunk in a midnight choir (to quote Leonard Cohen), it’s hardly surprising when the place of reason is so downgraded. If it were not for reason, after all, Anglicanism would still be opposed to Darwinian evolution, and would still be committed to a literalist reading of the bible, in spite of what biblical scholars have been telling us for the last 150 years.
Within Anglicanism – and the Church of England especially – it is reason which has often provided the driving force for change. New information, new insights, have often provided the spur to go back to read the bible afresh, to look again at what past traditional wisdom has to offer, and to see the need for often more nuanced approach to pastoral practice. Attitudes within the Church to divorce, abortion and contraception are all 20th century examples of recognising a need to adapt to new knowledge not available to the early Christian Fathers, and not dealt with in the context of a modern society in the pages of the bible.
Yet the Church is only one place today when the importance of reason to our common health and well-being is under threat. The ‘post-factual’ world we are said to inhabit means there is no longer a significant basis for agreement on anything. Facts are replaced by opinions; ‘experts’ no longer have much currency; judges cannot be trusted to interpret the law without allowing political prejudices to take over. People vote not on the basis of thought-through policies, but out of resentment, discrimination and fear. No wonder the Archbishop of Canterbury, in a recent speech in the House of Lords, described the need for a new national narrative, based on values and reason. And all the while we separate ourselves off into groups on social media linked by clicking on ‘like’, and increasingly rarely encountering anyone whose opinion differs from our own. Even our universities are criticised when they allow people of different views a space to argue their case – we are in danger of raising a generation who simply do not have the mental tools to argue and debate with those who think differently.
So after the Brexit and Trump disasters of 2016, my hope for the New Year is a re-emergence of reason, both in the Church and in wider society. Without it we shall fall prey to every demagogue and every politician or tabloid newspaper who wishes to exploit our worst feelings and instincts. In the days when each Sunday in the liturgical year had a given theme, there was one Sunday whose theme was ‘The Mind of Christ’. Let’s use our minds in 2017, as something given to us by God, and put reason back at the heart of what we do.