Well, the votes are now in, and the Church of England General Synod, by only six votes in the house of laity, defeated the motion that would have approved women bishops in the old C of E. But on the issue of what the truth is about women bishops, no one, I’m afraid, is any better informed than they were before. Both sides thought they knew.
In a report this morning (which I should have bookmarked, because I now find that I cannot remember where it was) someone said, a bit contemptuously, referring to the “upcoming” vote in the Church of England General Synod about women bishops, that the truth is not determined by majority vote. Which got me to thinking, of course, because then the question arises how truth is determined in religion. On the specific question of women bishops, for example, or accepting the marriage of gay and lesbian persons, how does the church go about “discovering” the truth?
Of course, we know how truth is ordinarily determined. We search for evidence that a claim is correct. If I say it is raining outside, all you have to do is to look out the window and see. And if I respond, “Well, it’s raining somewhere in the world. Look, here’s a forecast for Matabeleland. It’s probably raining there,” you can justly say that that is not what is normally meant by saying, “It’s raining today.” So, evidence seems to be a clincher. And that goes for all sorts of evidence.
Take the meaning of words, for example. It’s hard to find hard empirical evidence that such-and-such is the meaning of the word ‘X,’ for any X, but looking it up in a dictionary usually gives a pretty good indication of what a word means, though dictionaries are sometimes wrong, especially if they haven’t kept up with common usage. In his book The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell recounts the way many words simply changed their meaning under pressure from their widespread use by the troops at the front. The word ‘lousy’, for instance, as in the expression, “The beach was lousy with tourists,” comes straight from the front lines, when soldiers, who were often ”lousy” with real lice, started using the word to describe other situations, as in “The hill was just lousy with Fritz,” speaking of a hill swarming with German soldiers. Words shift and change their meaning under the pressure of events, and the evidence that a word means something is often only determinable by seeing how it is used by a representative sampling of native speakers of the language.
But religion presents a special difficulty. How do we determine what is the truth in religion? When is it right to say, of someone who claims to be a Christian, that they are not really Christian at all? For example, in today’s Guardian, Theo Hobson questions whether or not Roger Scruton is a Christian. “Is Roger Scruton really a Christian?” he asks in his title, and he concludes that only in some Pickwickian, or, rather, pagan sense can he be called a Christian:
And yet, his approach to Christianity is so far from mine that I am not sure we belong to the same religion at all. The problem is not that he values a particular cultural expression of Christianity (who doesn’t?), but that he values it with idolatrous fervour. By so strongly identifying Christianity with one antiquated expression of it, he wilfully stands against the renewal of Christian culture. This is the grounds for my accusation: a real Christian will have some account of how the tradition can be renewed, rather than pose as the heroic last defender of one beautiful, tragically doomed cultural expression of it. That’s romantic paganism, not Christianity.
That’s a pretty heavy condemnation, but it only amounts to saying that Scruton is not a Christian in the sense in which he, Theo Hobson, is a Christian, or at least, in the sense that Hobson thinks it appropriate to be a Christian.