The Moral Compass has location.

In a now infamous radio show the Archbishop of Canterbury said several things for which he has been taken to task (I have highlighted several sentences):

" I think as I said at the beginning of the programme, on a similar question, one of the things I recognise very much from the work I do, is what we say here is heard around the world. And, people really worry about what we say here, because for historic reasons we’re linked, not just the Anglican community but particularly that, but we’re linked to churches all round the world. And so, before we make a major change in how we understand what we should do, we have to listen to people, and go through a process of consultation and talking to people, and listening very carefully and praying, and without predetermined outcomes. Well, why can’t we just do it now? Because, the impact of that on Christians in countries far from here, like South Sudan, like Nigeria and other places, would be absolutely catastrophic, and we have to love them as much as we love the people who are here. And, at the same time, we have to listen incredibly carefully to the LGBT communities here, and listen to what they’re saying, and we have to look at the tradition of the church, and the teaching of the church, and the teaching of scripture, which is definitive in the end, before we come to a conclusion. But, we’re not in a position just to suddenly say, okay our position in this country has changed, we are one of the great international groups that there is in this world, we are massively, majority, not in England.

JO: I mean, okay, a gay Christian listening to you there, may have heard the message that he or she can’t marry their partner in their church because of the conniptions it would give to some African, dare we say, less enlightened people in Africa.

JW: Well, I don’t think we dare say less enlightened actually, I think that’s a neo colonial approach and it’s one I really object to. I think it’s not about them having conniptions and getting irate, that’s nothing to do with it. It’s about the fact that I’ve stood by a grave side in Africa of a group of Christians who’d been attacked because of something that had happened far far away in America, and they were attacked by other people because of that and a lot of them had been killed. And, I was in the South Sudan a few weeks ago, and the church leaders there were saying, please don’t change what you’re doing because then we couldn’t accept your help, and we need your help desperately. And, we have to listen carefully to that, and we also have to listen incredibly carefully to gay people here, who want to get married, and also to recognise that any homophobic behaviour here causes enormous suffering, particularly to gay teenagers, something I’m particularly conscious of at the moment, and we have to listen to that very carefully and work out what we do. All I’m saying is it’s really not a simple issue, there’s a huge danger in trotting out simple solutions to really complicated issues which have huge effects on people’s lives."

I've been thinking on all this and offer the following fairly untidy comments concerning the Moral Compass:

John Donne wrote, "No man is an island," and that is as true as it gets. Everything relates to everything, and everyone to everyone.

Still, every human being is located somewhere, and many of our locations are separated from others by great distances, both physical and metaphysical. More importantly, the physical locations in which we find ourselves also effect the force with which our influence is felt on others, and theirs on us, and distance - physical and metaphysical - matter.

There is some truth to the saying "all politics is local" and its corollary "all church is local." We interact with others with diminishing effect over space and time. Meeting, greeting and eating is all best done in location.

Apparently the Archbishop of Canterbury thinks otherwise. In an interview with The Anglican Journal in Canada he said,

"We need to learn to live as a global church in a local context and never to imagine that we're just a local church. There is no such thing."

The Archbishop believes (as far as I can tell) that the Anglican Communion is a global church with local branch offices. Well, that's his opinion of the matter. But it is not shared by all of us. Some of us believe the Anglican Communion is a fellowship of churches (all local and specific) living out our locations mindful of a global metaphysical reality, the church of Jesus Christ, aka the church catholic, and mindful also of a subset of that church, namely those local and specific churches historically and theologically linked to the Church of England.

We need to learn to live as a global church in a local context and never to imagine that we're just a local church. There is no such thing.

The moral compass may indeed implicate all of us in each others lives, but I believe it places greater responsibility on the near at hand. The priest or the scribe that go by, not helping the one who fell among thieves, may be doing so because some one else "out there" would not condone their actions or see them as impure, but that has less standing morally than the "local" situation in which the one who fell among thieves was in need of help.

And, although it may be argued that violence inflicted on someone on others near at hand may be a product of fears, frustrations, angers or xenophobic response to something done "out there", that is no moral out, because the matter is local - violence is up front and personal. People kill other people in location, and that has moral consequences that far outweigh the possibilities of distant "causes." There may be emotional concerns that modify the level of condemnation of violent action, but the local facts-on-the-ground outweigh them.

We sometimes think we know that. But then of course we have our fall back position, which is that we excuse our violence precisely on those fears and hope it gets us off the hook.

Shooting a black youth because of fear of black youth doesn't erase the fact that the moral compass points to the immediate act in its local context, where it is not a killing, but murder. But people get away with murder all the time by claiming that the moral compass points to some larger issue than the murder itself. The justifications for murder are many, but they all point away from the local reality, which is that one person killed another with murder in mind.

So it is not surprising that those who are reported by the Archbishop of Canterbury to have killed the Christians in some village in South Sudan would blame it on Americans, somehow believing that Christianity is a western disease and that it is a carrier of cultural liberality, and that local Christians are going to infect their neighbors with immorality. Not surprising, but wrong.

Murder is a local event, and those who killed the Christians in that village are murders. Not Americans, not Christians, not some distant thunderers, but real individual people who ought to be called to account.

Of course, if Christians in South Sudan are an infection in the local context, if they are indeed free in Christ Jesus and that freedom is a challenge to local custom and moral life, then local reaction can take violent form.

But supposedly these Christians were killed not because they were immoral but because Christians in America are immoral and by implication all Christians are.

That is why, on one level, the Archbishop is rght. What we do has effect, whether or not we like it or even consider it rational, elsewhere in the world.

The Archbishop believes that many commentators took his radio remarks out of context. In the interview with the Anglican Journal he was asked,

" Q: Were you in fact blaming the death of Christians in parts of Africa on the acceptance of gay marriage in America?

A: I was careful not to be too specific because that would pin down where that happened and that would put the community back at risk. I wouldn't use the word “blame”— that's a misuse of words in the context. One of the things that's most depressing about the response to that interview is that almost nobody listened to what I said; they mostly imagined what they thought I said...It was not only imagination, it was a million miles away from what I said.

Q: So what exactly were you saying?

A: What I was saying is that when we take actions in one part of the church, particularly actions that are controversial, that they are heard and felt not only in that part of the church but around the world...And, this is not mere consequentialism; I'm not saying that because there will be consequences to taking action, that we shouldn't take action. What I'm saying is that love for our neighbour, love for one another, compels us to consider carefully how that love is expressed, both in our own context and globally. We never speak the essential point that, as a church, we never speak only in our local situation. Our voice carries around the world. Now that will be more true in some places than in others. It depends on your links. We need to learn to live as a global church in a local context and never to imagine that we're just a local church. There is no such thing."

And yet (as I am sure the ABC would agree) this does not excuse murder, local and specific, unless, of course, you believe Christians are a carrier of a disease that can only be stopped by killing the carrier. This is a short slippery slope to a special hell, where (evil) murder becomes (good) killing because safety requires the extermination of a whole class of people. This way to a brave new world of extermination schemes.

My first thought then is this: Why didn't the Archbishop say, "and I protested vigorously that these killings were murder and that the perpetrators ought to be brought to justice"? That is, why didn't the ABC move the conversation back to the murderers as the primary cause of the murder?

Well, perhaps in private, away from the crowd, he did. But what we have here is an unchallened report of an event (murder) whose justification was that American Christians (who must be just another version of these dead Christians here) are a blight on the moral universe.

And interestingly the ABC, in the Anglican Journal interview, never denied the question raised, namely "Were you in fact blaming the death of Christians in parts of Africa on the acceptance of gay marriage in America?" He noted that "blame" was not an appropriate word to use here.

Well, what he said in the radio interview was, "I’ve stood by a grave side in Africa of a group of Christians who’d been attacked because of something that had happened far far away in America, and they were attacked by other people because of that and a lot of them had been killed."

The ABC is right. He didn't use the word blame. Instead he said, "Christians...attacked because of something that had happened far far away in America...attacked by other people because of that and a lot of them had been killed."

He made the cause -effect connection, and left it to the hearer to interpret and place blame where the listener might wish to place blame.

Well, there it is.

The notion that what we do "here" (wherever our location is) is potentially catastrophic for people elsewhere (say Southern Sudan or Nigeria) is perfectly valid, and those who suffer as a result of our actions have every reason to be ticked off. That's why colonialism and neocolonialism is so insidious. We in the North and West seem perfectly capable of bringing catastrophe in all manner of ways, not the least of which is by way of claims of moral superiority. We will pay dearly for our arrogance, as well we should.

And yet Christians world wide are continually charged with liberality, and why not? After all we Christians do indeed challenge every local moral system in the world, including those systems of the Church as well. Beating up on Christians, killing them, driving them away, and so on happens in many different circumstances and locations and often for the same reason: locally and specifically Christians challenge every system that limits the scope of the law of love.

There it is.

We do indeed need to be morally accountable for the way in which we spread our particular sensibilities, particularly remembering that some of them are very new to us as well and not as well practiced as we assume. And yet we do give offense because Christ at his most welcoming will welcome the enemies of any society as well as the friends.

The question remains: Why didn't the Archbishop of Canterbury think it important to challenge the notion that because of something that had happened far far away in America ... they were attacked by other people ... and a lot of them had been killed". Why didn't he say, "murdered?" Why didn't he say, "The murders claim it is because in America Christians have allowed same sex marriage and the ordination of gay people, but that is no excuse for murder. Murder is murder, period."

Well, he didn't.

And then we get the following: "I was in the South Sudan a few weeks ago, and the church leaders there were saying, please don’t change what you’re doing because then we couldn’t accept your help, and we need your help desperately." Now the argument turns to a kind of inverted threat.

The argument is that if the Church of England were to acting in what they perceive as immoral ways those in need couldn't accept help, and that help is desperately needed, so don't bless same sex relationships or appoint gay bishops.

What a weird argument. I suppose we must begin by acknowledging that the Church of England does a great deal of good in the world. Help is desperately needed, and the CofE and the Anglican Communion as a whole is good at responding. So there is a desire to help and the hope that such help will be recieved.

Again, the moral compass is mostly directed to immediate engagement among real people, up close and personal. If there is no way to distinguish between the value of the aid and the moral stance of the giver then most aid has to be rejected.

There are good reasons to reject aid, but if receiving help is dependent on the moral uprightness of the giver we are all in trouble. But we are really in trouble if we try to cobble together our credentials as moral persons to the money or aid we give.

I can't even begin to go down that road. But I must say I wish the Archbishop of Canterbury would. I wish he would say more about what he thinks of a plea that his church not make a particular decision so that those needing help could receive that help from "moral friends". Maybe we should make it clear that there is no "clean" aid. Every bit of help in the world comes from fallen and sinful folk, indeed some help is a direct result of the desire to do compensatory good deeds. The moral economy of aid is a difficult area to discuss.

But I am convinced that help, like church, like politics, is mostly local. And those of us who would help from afar need to engage locally so that our help is help given to friends - people we know on the ground, locally, and for real.

The Archbishop has a wildly difficult job. He is the primate of the Church of England and an instrument of unity for the churches in the Anglican Communion. He will be hounded by all sides for as long as he holds the job. What I think we need from him is for him to lead his own Church in a way that reflects pastoral care locally, in such a way that people elsewhere will say, "See how he loves the people and the church in England" and Christians elsewhere will think, "perhaps we too can love people and Church where we are with as much grace."

The Archbishop of Canterbury is first the lead bishop of the Church of England. It is all about location. The church as manifest is always local. I suppose the moral compass for the leader of the Anglican Communion is no longer local, but the Anglican Communion is not a church and the Archbishop has no mandate to be the moral compass for this wild and wooly group of churches, save the moral compass that comes by example.

I think the Archbishop could do well at that - leadership by example. There the moral compass has entirely local and specific location - the mind of Christ working in us, each individually, and from us to the whole body of the Church spiritual.


  1. Mark

    What about the magi whose decision to bypass Herod on the way back home resulted in the deaths of the Holy Innocents?

    When did Jesus ever say "Let's make sure we don't get anybody angry"?

    The fact that the Archbishop appeared to excuse the murderers and not hold them accountable for their actions coupled with his fear of sounding like a colonialist and the fact that the attitude of many central African Christians is the direct result of how they were evangelized by true colonialists shows that co-dependency is alive and well in the Anglican Communion.

    The truth is that homophobes will always find excuses for murdering gays no matter what we do; just as a drunk will always find an excuse to drink.

  2. Thanks for being here when we need you, Mark. Justin Welby is not the pope of Anglicanism, and there no such entity as a global Anglican church. So far as I can remember, the term world-wide Anglican church began to be used in connection with the attempt to force the odious Anglican Covenant on the fellowship of churches in the Anglican Communion, and we see how that turned out. Somehow, some way, the message needs to be conveyed to the archbishop that not everyone agrees with his view of the nature of the entity we call the Anglican Communion.

  3. Amen, amen. The ARchbishop of Canterbury is a codependent. Dagerously so (as codependency often is deadly). No hard math here, the man need help.

  4. You remind me of one bright point, Mimi, which is that the "Covenant" is clearly as dead as the Dodo.

  5. Bob McCloskey11/4/14 9:52 AM

    Thank you Mark. Your detailed, erudite and intelligent critique of the ABC's words and behavior are what many of us have been waiting for. I hope that it gets wide reading, perhaps even by the ABC - but I doubt that.


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.