Too many bishops have failed to challenge prevailing Western thinking on gender, sexuality and the unborn

(Photo: Getty/iStock)

I recently came across a video clip from the American public affairs channel C-Span that showed an appearance by the University of California law professor Khiara Bridges before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington DC.

Professor Bridges was asked by Senator John Cornyn, 'Do you think that a baby that is not yet born has value?' Her reply was 'I believe that a person with the capacity for pregnancy has value. They have intelligence, they have agency, they have dignity.'

Professor Bridges' reply struck me as significant because it highlights three key ideas that have become increasingly dominant in Western culture.

The first is this idea that we need to move away from a distinction between men and women. Until recently it was regarded as a given that only women can get pregnant. However, now this idea is seen as oppressive to trans men and those who define themselves as non-binary and so we have circumlocutions such as 'person with the capacity for pregnancy' which linguistically erase the distinctiveness of women.

The second is the suggestion that unborn children have no value. When asked if they do, Professor Bridges instead referred to the intelligence, agency and dignity of persons 'with the capacity for pregnancy.' The implication of her answer is that it is such persons and not unborn children that have value.

This view is the one that seems to be very widely held by the 'pro-choice' side of the abortion debate. Unlike persons 'with the capacity for pregnancy', unborn children are regarded as non-persons. They are seen as a thing, an 'it', that can be rightly disposed of at will by those who possess intelligence, agency and dignity.

The third is that the key value for human beings is the exercise of autonomy. As Carl Trueman and others have noted, it has become increasingly accepted in Western culture that what gives an individual value is their capacity to determine their own mode of existence and to act accordingly.

If we return to Professor Bridges' answer, for example, we find that what gives a 'person with the capacity for pregnancy' dignity (i.e. value) is that they have intelligence and agency. That is to say, they have the capacity for autonomous action which the unborn child lacks and as a result they have value while the unborn child does not.

From the standpoint of the Christian faith all three ideas are gravely mistaken.

Firstly, the distinction between men and women is not something that we can or should move away from. This is because God has created human beings as a dimorphic species consisting of men and women ('male and female he created them' Genesis 1:28) and the key distinction between men and women is the fact that they have bodies that are designed to perform different roles in the reproduction and nurture of children.

It is because men are men and women are women that humans can 'be fruitful and multiply' (Genesis 1:28). It therefore makes no sense to talk about a 'person with the capacity for pregnancy'. If a person can be pregnant, this is because God has created her as a woman.

Secondly, the key value for human beings is not the exercise of autonomy but the exercise of love, love for God and love for neighbour (Mark 12:28-31). Furthermore, love is not about having warm fuzzy feelings, but attaching proper value to the object of love whether that be God as the all good, all wise and all loving creator or other people as created and loved by him.

Thirdly, attaching proper value to unborn children means regarding them as people. An uborn child is not a thing or an it, but a he or a she, a person created, known and loved by God. 'Before I formed you in the womb I knew you' (Jeremiah 1:5). Consequently, the answer to the lawyer's question 'who is my neighbour? (Luke 10:29) is that the unborn child is my neighbour and must be treated as such.

Thinking further about Professor Bridge's answer led me to think about the role of bishops. I am an Anglican and in the Anglican tradition bishops are seen as highly significant to the extent that having bishops is seen by Anglicans as a non-negotiable in the search for Christian unity. From an Anglican viewpoint, Christians of other traditions such as, for instance, Presbyterians or Baptists should adopt episcopacy.

This Anglican insistence on the importance of episcopacy begs the question 'What are bishops for?' In recent years Anglicans have increasingly talked about the role of the bishop as the 'focus of unity,' meaning by this that he or she is the person with whom everyone in their diocese is in relationship and through whom those in their diocese are linked to the rest of the Church of Christ across space or time.

The problem with this view of a bishop's role is not that it is wrong but that it is truncated. Yes, a bishop is called to be a focus of unity, but also and more importantly the bishop is called to be someone one who, like the apostle Peter, is called to tend and feed the flock of Christ (John 21:15-19).

This calling has two sides to it.

First, it means that the bishop needs to ensure that, either through his or her own ministry, or through the ministry of those ordained and lay ministers whom they appoint, the faithful receive the triple ministry of word, sacrament and pastoral care that they need to grow and flourish spiritually.

Secondly, it means that the bishop needs to do all in his or her power to protect the faithful from all those ideas and practices that will do them spiritual harm. It is for this reason that in the Church of England's 1662 Ordinal a candidate to be a bishop is asked 'Be you ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God's Word; and both privately and openly to call upon and encourage others to the same?' and has to answer 'I am ready, the Lord being my helper.'

Tragically, when it comes to the three key ideas we have noted in relation to Professor Bridges' reply to the question about the value of the unborn child, all too many Anglican bishops in the Western world have failed to perform the second half of their calling adequately.

They have failed to challenge the prevailing autonomy of Western culture but have instead increasingly insisted under the mantras of 'diversity' and inclusivity' that Christians should accept and affirm people's choices about how they want to live their lives, giving this a Christian veneer by arguing that God also loves and accepts everyone just as they are (ignoring the basic Christian call to repentance and amendment of life).

They have failed to challenge the erasure of the distinction between men and women in that (a) they have accepted the idea that someone who is biologically male or female can rightly identify themselves as a member of the opposite sex or as non-binary and (b) they have also accepted the idea that it is right for men and women to have sexual intercourse and marry those of their own sex.

Finally, they have failed to take a firm stand in favour of the need to respect the humanity, and therefore the right to life, of the unborn child. Thus, if you read the statement by the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church on the recent Supreme Court ruling on abortion you will find that it opposes any restriction on the right of a woman to decide to have an abortion, but says absolutely nothing at all about the right of an unborn child to have his or her life protected.

In the Church of England the bishops will be meeting over the autumn to decide their response to the Living in Love and Faith discussions about human identity and sexuality. This gives them the opportunity to do the right thing as bishops by standing up against the ideology of human autonomy, against the erasure of the God-given distinction between men and women and also, if they want to, to affirm that a person's identity as a human being begins in the womb and that therefore the life of the unborn deserves to be respected and protected alongside the well-being of the mother. All faithful Christians should pray that the bishops will have the courage to truly act as bishops in the decisions they make about these matters.

Those who want to know more about the traditional Anglican view of the calling of Bishops might be interested in my major new study Bishops Past, Present and Future which has just been published by Gilead Books Publishing .

Martin Davie is a lay Anglican theologian and Associate Tutor in Doctrine at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.