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Christian Ethics: Today's Issues

Written by Emily Essex, posted on Thursday, July 19, 2018

This Summer the Cathedral is hosting a series of six lectures covering topics in contemporary Christian Ethics. The Revd John Witheridge, an Honorary Chaplain at Christ Church Cathedral, has curated this year’s series and said: "The topics of the last two Summer Lectures series have been largely historical.  This year we turn our attention to Christian Ethics, with a focus on issues that are of particular interest and importance today." Audio recordings of the lectures are available elsewhere on the website.

Two questions present themselves to me immediately: Why should we care about these ethical issues? and Why should the Church care about them?

One possible answer to the first question is that we should care about these issues because they are unavoidable. Topics covered in the lecture series include Assisted Dying, Technology and Artificial Intelligence, and Climate Change. Climate Change is happening whether we choose to acknowledge it or not and will have a real and significant effect on human survival if we choose to do nothing about it. Technological advances are progressing at a rapid speed, and regardless of our personal choices to join twitter, invent a robot, or write a blog, society will soon be facing difficult questions about how to understand the implications of advances we make. Assisted Dying is a topic encountering a great deal of debate at the moment, with campaigners on all sides raising both new and old questions about the reaches of personal autonomy and the limits of our healthcare.

These are the key ethical issues of our day and we will not avoid them by choosing to remain uninformed. But that is not the only reason that we should care.

John Witheridge has pointed out that the questions of Ethics – how we live our lives and behave towards each other – are “an integral ingredient in Christian theology”. A choice not to think about how our behaviour affects the lives of ourselves and those around us is still a choice. As Christians we are instructed: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:4, NRSV)

The Bible is full of advice and instructions on how we are to live our lives. One of the first things I learnt about the Bible as a child were the Ten Commandments: the rules by which the Israelites were called to live. This theme of shaping our lives is threaded throughout the scriptures, and is especially prominent in the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s Gospel.

It is from this teaching discourse that the Beatitudes, which have been such a focus throughout the Diocese this year, are taken: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:7-8, NRSV) That whole passage encapsulates a vision for the Christian life that we are called to explore and embody.

Clearly, an integral part of the Christian calling is to an examination of how we behave, as individuals and communities, as we try to follow the way of Christ.

Throughout history, and still in this present time, Christians have imagined this ethical landscape in a variety of different ways. The first lecture of our series, by James Newcombe, Bishop of Carlisle, will explain why ethical thinking is so crucial to Christian theology and some of the ways in which Christians reach ethical decisions.

For now am I reminded of my second question: Why should the Church care about these issues?

We might agree that Christians are supposed to think about how their behaviours impact others, and should carefully consider their own decisions. But it’s another step from there to understanding why the Church on a larger scale should be interested in the debate.

I think the first thing we have to remember is that any institution is greater than the sum of its parts: ‘the Church’ is more than the people that make it up. It is formed of people, not bricks and mortar, but it has an identity all of its own. And the Church has big decisions of its own: How do we systematically challenge social inequality? How do we decide to allocate our resources? Our own Bishop of Oxford has recently been asking: Should the Church of England continue to invest in fossil fuel companies in the light of the Paris Agreement on climate change? Sometimes the questions that the Church faces are not the same ones that individual Christians face: not many of us are currently invested in fossil fuel companies ourselves! And so the Church, as a whole, has the same duty to explore key ethical issues as its individual Christian members.

But the final thing I want to recognise is that it is really tremendously important that the Church is the body of Christ. Whatever our problems with the Church institution, whatever the joys and sorrows that it brings us, the Church has to grapple with contemporary questions because it is the Church that is the functioning body of Christ in the world.

There is a beautiful prayer, attributed to Theresa of Avila, which has long called Christians to remember their vocation to live their lives well:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

We are all called to be Christ in the world, but as the body of Christ we – the Church – must not forget to live out this calling either.

I am delighted that Christ Church is engaging with such relevant and important topics this year. I am excited to attend and hear what these eminent speakers have to say. But I am also excited for this one place, this one member of the wider Church body, to be engaging so seriously, as a Cathedral Church of Christ, with what it means to be Christ-like in the contemporary world.



Our blog posts are written by a range of writers and reflect their personal views. Publication should not necessarily be read as endorsement by the Dean and Chapter of Christ Church.