by the Rt Revd David Walker, Bishop of Manchester
Research, mine and that of many others, shows that the deeper we go into our faith, the higher we score on a scale known as Quest Religiosity. Quest gives an indication of our willingness, and indeed desire, to live with uncertainty. It measures how much we enjoy the fact that our faith is not final and static but developing, as we continue to explore questions for which we have no simple answers.
That notion of Quest came to the front of my mind a couple of days ago whilst driving through Tucson, (I’m there with the Society of Ordained Scientists as their Episcopal Visitor). We had just switched on the car radio to listen to the late afternoon news on National Public Radio when the presenter announced the title of the programme as “All things Considered”. I joked to my Arizonan host that there was probably a rival station whose drive time broadcast went by the name “Just go with your gut”, or possibly “Stick to your prejudice”.
I didn’t listen long enough to be able to judge whether the show lived up to its name, but the aspiration seemed an honourable one – that everything should be taken into account, weighed carefully in the balance. Only then should a judgement be made. Moreover, if new evidence or additional perspectives come to light, fresh things not previously considered, then any previous judgement must be at least open to reassessment and revision. That would seem to have a lot in common with the Quest way of being, where our conclusions remain subject to revision, as we seek to live a life of “all things considered”.
I suspect that my colleagues in the Society of Ordained Scientists all score high in terms of Quest. In their various scientific endeavours, as academics, industrialists, research workers and elsewhere, they will have had to develop the desire to venture into the unknown, and to enjoy the process of discovery as much as the things eventually discovered. Part of their charism is to carry that over to what it means to be an ordained minister in one or another Christian denomination.
The mantra of “All things considered” flies in the face of that pretence to balanced journalism which consists of getting a protagonist from each of the extreme poles of a debate, giving them equal airtime, and imagining that would cover all views in between. Indeed, the Society of Ordained Scientists began because the public interaction between science and religion was being dominated by the shrillest voices of militant atheism and fundamentalist Christianity.
The call to holistic consideration also challenges the pattern of presenting, as though of equal worth, both the widespread mainstream informed consensus on some matter and a maverick position. To take a timely example, the overwhelming evidence for the human impact on climate change, and the need to address it urgently, has gone far beyond the point where the views of climate deniers, no matter how sincerely held, or how devoutly appealed to from theological grounds, should be entitled to more than a cursory mention in a footnote of the debate.
In summary, I would argue that “all things considered” means not only that the range of evidence and opinion is covered, but that two other rules are considered. Firstly, that the extremities are not allowed to shape the debate. And secondly, where views involve stretching the academic evidence to breaking point, or are held only by the smallest minorities, they must not given more weight than they merit.
This year, we will see the publication of the Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith resources. Not only have a very diverse set of perspectives have been sought, but participants from across the range have been deeply involved in producing the materials. This has helped shape a piece of work that should readily pass the first test of “all things considered”. One of my first tasks, when I look at the maturing and final versions that will ping into my Inbox in the next few months, will be to check that my two tests have also been passed.
Once the materials are launched, that will provide opportunity for the whole church to engage in the task of consideration. Indeed, it is only when all things have been able to be considered by all of us that the church will be in a position to think about the action it needs to take in the light of that process of consideration. No doubt there will be those who fillet the documents, highlighting the arguments that most strongly support their presuppositions. Others will look for whatever they disagree most strongly with, in order to damn the church and justify distancing themselves from it. But I hope and pray most of us can do rather better than that; that we can read and reflect, become part of the process of considering all things, and find much that most of us can agree on, and much else where that engagement in consideration helps us to disagree eirenically and well.
In a few days I will be back in the UK, the warmth and sunshine of the Arizona winter behind me. But I will will carry back with me in my baggage a fresh commitment to live up to the challenge of that NPR rush hour broadcast; to play my part in helping 2020 to be a year where full and careful consideration leads to wise and sound judgement, both in my church and across the issues our society faces.