Marriage isn't Adiaphora, but N.T.Wright (in this case) is

N.T.Wright took on the question of adiaphora in his final address to his diocesan synod. The Living Church reported it out with the headline, "N.T. Wright: Marriage Isn’t Adiaphora."

ἀδιάφορα, or adiaphora to us heathens who don't speak or use Greek, has to do with things indifferent.

What could possibly make Bishop Wright believe that marriage itself, the concept of marriage, marriage between two persons of the opposite sex or even two persons of the same sex IS a matter of indifference? Ah, but Bishop Wright did not say that anyway. Look at the actual address HERE.

What he said is enclosed in the following comment. It is the only time he mentions marriage in his address. For your reading pleasure I have marked the phrase in red.

"And that, too, is why recent events in America are placing an ever greater strain on the Anglican Communion. The Archbishop of Canterbury is, I believe, in the process of writing a pastoral letter to all the churches, and I don’t want to pre-empt what he will say. But the point is this. Unlike the situation with children and Communion; unlike the situation with the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate;
in the case of sexual relations outside the marriage of a man and a woman, the church as a whole, in all its global meetings not least the Lambeth Conference, has solidly and consistently reaffirmed the clear and unambiguous teaching of the New Testament. But the substantive issue isn’t the point here. The point is that the Church as a whole has never declared these matters to be adiaphora. This isn’t something a Bishop, a parish, a diocese, or a province can declare on its own authority. You can’t simply say that you have decided that this is something we can all agree to differ on. Nobody can just ‘declare’ that. The step from mandatory to optional can never itself be a local option, and the Church as a whole has declared that the case for that step has not been made. By all means let us have the debate. But, as before, it must be a proper theological debate, not a postmodern exchange of prejudices.

Actually, if you want to know about the present state of the church in America you ought to watch the video of last Saturday’s service in Los Angeles, which is readily available on the web. ( http://www.standfirminfaith.com/?/sf/page/26102 )The problems, shall we say, are not about one issue only. But my point for today is this. In November the newly elected General Synod will be asked to approve the Anglican Covenant, which has been through a long and thorough process of drafting, debate, redrafting, polishing and refining. Synod will be asked to send the Covenant to the Dioceses for approval, and all being well it should be with you, the Synod of this Diocese, by the end of the year, and you will be asked to think wisely and clearly about it. No doubt it isn’t perfect. But it is designed, not (as some have suggested) to close down debate or squash people into a corner, but precisely to create the appropriate space for appropriate debate in which issues of all sorts can be handled without pre-emptive strikes on the one hand or closed-minded defensiveness on the other. The Covenant is designed to recognise and work with the principle of adiaphora; and that requires that it should create a framework within which the church can be the church even as it wrestles with difficult issues, and through which the church can be united even as it is battered by forces that threaten to tear it apart. Some of the voices raised against the Covenant today are, in my judgment, voices raised against the biblical vision of how unity is accomplished and sustained, the vision which enables us to discern what is adiaphora and what is not. I hope and pray that this diocese at least will appreciate where the real issues lie, and think and live wisely and cheerfully in relation to them."

Now aside from the snotty comments about "the current state of the church in America," and "postmodern exchange of prejudices" this whole section of the address is taken up with two things - (i) the notion that sex outside marriage is immoral and sex inside marriage is at least morally salvageable, and (ii) the Anglican Covenant is about determining just what and what is not a matter of indifference.

Bishop N.T.Wright does not say "Marriage isn't Adiaphora." He says the question of the morality of sex outside marriage is not adiaphora. Sex outside of marriage is a matter of moral importance and that the church has been consistent in insisting that only in marriage is sexual activity to be condoned. He suggests that if and only if the whole church comes to some decision other than this can we change the local church's stance. We are bound by patience and unity to withhold local option because the decision that something is a matter of indifference is a matter of importance. Got it? It means we are screwed. (The 'we' here, dear friends, is everyone I've ever met.)

I dream...It is the Sabbath. I find a tick on my arm. I stretch out to remove it. But wait. Is this a matter of indifference, or is it morally wrong since there seems to be work involved? I'd better consult my rabbi, and he the council, and the books. After all it may be a matter of indifference, but the decision that it is a matter of indifference is not a matter of indifference. I mean, we've got to be clear that no one gives a damn about me and this tick. My hand falls. The tick has a field day.

I dream...is marriage a matter of indifference? Not hardly. But suppose (and I dream) there is no opportunity to marry legally and as the state and church allow? Is marriage what makes the difference, or is it the pledge of self to other that is the matter of importance? Perhaps marriage is not the only "state" in which two persons can be both sexual with one another and moral. Perhaps marriage is a matter of indifference, but commitment is not.

Still, there it is: Bishop Wright says the morality of sex outside marriage is not adiaphora. It is not a thing of indifference. Right. But marriage, dear friends, is not held as a thing of indifference either by those who are allowed to be married and those who are not allowed. Marriage is understood by most to be a matter of considerable importance and worthy of our best thinking and praying.

And, the Living Church got the reference wrong anyway.

But Bishop Wright go it wrong as well. He believes that the matter of determining what is adiaphora is itself never a matter of adiaphora - that while some things may be of no moral consequence, the determination of such adiaphora IS a matter of consequence.

Surely picking my nose in public is adiaphora. I don't have to wait for the councils of the church to rule on the matter. It is a perhaps gross and often silly bit of stuff. I suppose that if there was a law that ruled that behavior immoral and out of bounds and likely to land me in prison the matter of the moral character of nose picking would rise from indifference to difference. But then the matter is not about nose picking but about laws that put us away for odd behavior.

Well, so it goes. I think the bishop has presented us with a no win situation. Either an action is a matter of moral indifference or it is not, which would lead us to assume that some actions can be taken without consulting the community or persons setting moral standards. We would think that some actions are on the face of it indifferent. But that is not the case because whether or not some action is a matter of indifference, deciding one way or another remains a matter of moral concern. Thus indifferent or not all actions must first be screened by the moral authority. Therefore nothing is beyond the possible censure of the moral authority. There is then no occasion where moral reasoning and moral authority are not required.

And in Anglican Land the good Bishop Wright would have us believe that until some world wide body (say the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion or the Primates or whatever) determines otherwise, sex outside marriage is sin and sex between persons of the same sex is sin and there it is.

What a mess. I know no one who thinks that marriage or sexual activity or commitment or even play is without moral dimension. Nothing of all this is a matter of indifference. But that is a far cry from his reasoning about some level of subsidiarity that plays backward - only the stupid and frivolous matters can be dealt with locally, all others require more and more backwash into the higher realms of decision making. He had better watch out. It is at the local level, the ground level, that moral change (for good or bad) takes place.

It is a highly local and incarnate thing to love and to love well. All other moral mutterings are increasingly distant from the incarnate matter of loving well, and they become increasingly adiaphora.

The adiaphora argument is really really bad news, right up there with subsidiarity.

It turns out that what Bishop Wright has to say here is a matter of indifference.


  1. Remember when writing with your left hand was considered antisocial at best -- "He's just showing off" "She's trying to be different." Turns out Lefties are wired that way. How one writes is a matter of indifference -- unless control freaks make an issue of it.

  2. Somebody's book sales must be sliding!

    Maybe he's getting in a last, vicious swipe with a hind claw before settling into an academic environment in which his mediocrity will become readily apparent.

  3. Sir, surely +Durham is not being unreasonable in his point, if I may re-phrasse, that if the AC consistently says it will not accept X, then one or two provinces unilaterally going ahead with X does not make X good, holy or acceptable.....even in the AC.

    Stress comes from the desire of some to both go against "the mind of the Communion" but also to stay in it.....stress for all sides, sadly

  4. Discovering the difference or indifference of something may be straightforward or it may be not; or it may be straightforward to some but not to others; or ... well, one can keep going with quite a few observations about adiaphora, as you do Mark!

    I think you are missing the point: what +Wright says is unexceptional to many Anglicans around the world who 'get' the point he is making, agree with it, and are eager to see the Instruments of Unity signal their agreement.

    Yes, what +Wright says can be questioned (your post), poked fun at (comments here), and dismissed. But doing that highlights the chasm in the Communion between those who find no problem with what he says and those who do.

    Ascribing to Wrightian Anglicans (if I may so call conservatives!) some kind of status as fools, know nothings, or simply stupid people, or even the slightly kinder 'mediocre' may help the non-Wrightians feel better, but I suggest that doing so will change little.

    If the chasm is to be bridged then a different tone to your criticism of bishops such as +Wright could help. A little more appreciation of the importance of traditional Christian teaching on marriage?

    But if the chasm is not to be bridged, well, none of this really matters: what Wright thinks, what you think, what any commenter here, including me thinks.

    Do you want the chasm to be bridged?

  5. Peter Carrell....I do not ascribe to Wright or Anglicans of his sort status as fools, etc, and it certainly would not change anything. I do poke fun occasionally. (I will receive my reward I am sure.)

    I do ( I believe) understand the argument and years ago when the issue of subsidiarity was raised in the context of the Windsor Report I spoke out against it. Subsidiarity and the "level" on which adiaphora status is determined are all linked together. Big issues require higher level discussion, determining if something is a big issue is a big issue, etc.

    Its early here on the East Coast of America and perhaps I am feeling a bit confessional, but perhaps part of my reaction is knowing just how slow and careful and finally unjust was the process of determining that people of color were not different in kind from white anglo-saxon protestants. It was a big deal and we were advised to go slow - in the church and elsewhere - and the blowback is that many of us are forever marked by racism as a result either as a contributor or as someone subject to racism in action. The church did not fair well in that prolonged struggle and frankly has not overcome even yet. In the years leading up to the turn from racism we would not have been well served by Anglicans elsewhere who were more or less in parallel situations of colonial racism.

    As I suggest at the close of this blog I think the real changes do not happen up and out there, they happen in the practice of folk who step out and stand on a local incarnational level.

    Of course you are right in that all the other efforts have their important place. That is why I think the Anglican Communion is an important community of folk and I have served the Anglican Communion's efforts in may ways over the years. I want to see it prosper and work. It is a place to bring our concerns and proposals for change, but it is not the place where those changes will take place or be played out.

    You ask at the last, "Do you want the chasm to be bridged?" I do, very much so. And, I might add I think you ar likely to be one of those bridge builders long after I have moved on to the rocker on the front porch. I appreciate your writing and comments more than you can know and see you as a rising star voice in the world of blogs and beyond.

    I am here ready and eager for the task, and I know you are.

    Some things are only dealt with by prayer and I suspect this is one.


  6. Priscilla Cardinale27/5/10 7:15 AM

    Mark, as always, is Christ-like and pastoral in his response to Peter Carrell. I would like to ask Mr. Carrell this: what is your admonishment to those on “your side” of this debate?

    Yes, we poke fun and dismiss our opponents on more than a few occasions. But isn’t this a 2-way street? What about the filth that is posted regularly on SFIF, T19, and other “conservative” blogs? Do THEY want the chasm bridged? Have you gone there and urged them to tone down their rhetoric in the spirit of bridging the chasm and if so what was the reaction you received?

    It seems that any response made by “our side” is immediately seen as an attack while anything said by the conservatives is immediately taken to be honest and heartfelt and dominant by virtue of majority rule no matter how negative, cruel, or debasing their words.

    I found it interesting too that no one has addressed the good bishops near-racist offhand comment about the “problems” with the LA consecration. I can guess that he doesn’t approve at all of the multicultural nature of the service which reflects the diversity of that diocese. The fact that this is seen as problematic is problematic to me in and of itself.

    I fill follow Mark’s lead here and offer it all in prayer.

  7. Surely Wright is not a fool. Disingenuous polemicist maybe.

    I think Mark’s post is right on. If Wright is to be taken seriously, however, one has to say that the Anglican Communion is not the Church Universal. How can the Anglican Communion decide important (or even unimportant) issues of morality? Surely the Roman Catholics are part of the Church. Also the Orthodox. Even the Baptists, for God’s sake. Don’t we all have to agree?

    Not only is this not going to happen, but it is a good thing that this is not going to happen. To begin with, Wright ignores the way change happens in human society. Look at the issue of civil rights in the U.S. Congress did not have a change of heart, pass a law, and make everything right. (Wright?). Instead, change first happened on the ground—not only protesting, but actual lawbreaking. Without it, change might never have come about.

    But back to the Anglican Communion, which has been invested by conservatives with rather more significance than it deserves. Either there is reason to have multiple Christian churches in the world or there isn’t. Considering the origin of Anglicanism, we seem to believe that there is. Anglicanism has never claimed to be the One True Church, as well it should not. If this is the case, however, why is the Anglican Communion any more holy, empowered, or whatever, than any other church or any of its members? Why is it always assumed that diversity is bad? The diversity among Christian churches allows Christ’s Church to speak to people of different cultures and different psychological makeups. If, for example, the only church in the world was that off the Southern Baptists, I would be a heathen.

    N.T. Wright is the respectable face of a despicable movement.

  8. What an interesting post and comments. I wonder if the words quoted from Bp. Wright's address were in the nature of a trial balloon for the Archbisihop of Canterbury's pastoral letter. Perhaps not, though, as his conclusion sounds rather definite. But could it be that we have, at the very least, a hint of what is to come in the pastoral letter from Canterbury?

    I would not wish to anticipate the contents of the ABC's pastoral letter, but, in the light of past experience, my guess (and I speak only for myself) is that the letter may not be good news for the Episcopal Church.

  9. Hello Commenters,

    I am heartened that Mark is committed to bridging the chasm (if possible ... it may not be possible). Thank you for kind words.

    My observation about conservatives being looked upon as fools etc is an observation re quite a lot of sweeping judgments made across the internet. But that works both ways, as Priscilla points out. I agree: there is terrible stuff on SF etc. One reason why I like engaging here is that I know Mark is not only a voice worth listening to, he is also a voice at the 'top' of TEC. I do not think that can be said of the staffers as SF!!

    And, Lionel, yes, conservatives may be investing too much in the Communion. Diversity is not a bad thing in itself. But there is a question whether it is a good thing when it results in division!

  10. The only remarkable thing about this speech is that Wright actually managed visited his diocese long enough to deliver it.

    And, Peter, I also wonder whether you ever go to such bona fide hate sites as Virtue and wring your hands over the ugliness of it all, or do you save that for your visits to this place?

  11. The diversity isn't the cause of the division, but the insistence that diversity is wrong. The chasm was already there - part of the diversity - and the bridge across it was burned . . . by so-called "conservatives."

    I also believe Wright is no fool, but neither is he a great thinker. A theologian speaks very little and writes less - perhaps dogmatician or church lawyer would be an appropriate term for Wright. It doesn't take especial brilliance to simply restate arguments that have been increasingly unconvincing for over a century.

  12. I commented on Wright's (IMO, inane at BEST) piece over at Thinking Anglicans.

    I don't have the stomach to do so again.

  13. Funny how +Durham is written off as "the respectable face" of something (implying a minority view?).....and the revisionist self-belief shines through......... But what is the Communion disagrees? Does it have a say? What if Wright is pretty mainstream? Crazy ideas?

  14. Hello nlnh,
    I wonder if I might voice a little unfairness when you say, "And, Peter, I also wonder whether you ever go to such bona fide hate sites as Virtue and wring your hands over the ugliness of it all, or do you save that for your visits to this place?"?

    The unfairness is this: when I visit this site I do not wring my hands over the ugliness of it all. Yes, I comment here. But personally I do not think I am wringing my hands. And I cannot recall anything ugly here, unlike certain other sites being named in this thread.

    Commenting here does seem to be an exercise in two way dialogue. That is a good thing, is it not!

  15. Not crazy ideas, Observer - irrelevant.


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.