"There are clear guidelines in the Bible about contentious issues," declares the Rt Rev. Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham in a magazine interview today. "We ought to expect to have demands made on our patience and our charity but not on our consciences, and we have been forgetting this in our eagerness to push this or the other agenda." The Bishop is talking about the ongoing dispute about women bishops in the Church of England. I’m not sure his second sentence, whatever its Biblical justification, would have cut much ice in some of the other major confrontations of Church history – "But Herr Luther, this idea that Papal indulgences are wrong is making unacceptable demands on the consciences of people who think they’re right!" – and it probably falls within the realm of public statements made by bishops in a vain effort to calm the parties to a dispute down but which they know full well will be ignored. The Bishop might as well have said "Why can’t everyone just, like, love each other?" for all the good it will probably do.
The first sentence, though, is more interesting. It appears to be very much in the evangelical tradition of "Bible-based Christianity"; regarding the Bible as the ultimate source of authority in matters spiritual and, indeed, temporal, and, contrary to what the Bishop seems to believe, on examination his comments actually rather undermine this belief. In the first place, the Bible clearly contains rather a lot of material in which the approach of people to contentious issues is anything but respectful to the consciences of others and in which they blatantly push their own agenda. Elijah, for example, clearly gave not a fig for the consciences of devout worshippers of Baal. The Old Testament prophets generally weren’t much interested in anyone’s agenda but their own. St Paul’s approach to contentious issues appears to have been to write long letters to people telling them that the other side were wrong and he was right, as well as being a great guy all around. Of course, you might say that all those people were inspired by God to say and do what they did, but no doubt most of those on both sides in the women bishops’ debate think they are too, and it’s not clear that they are acting on any better or worse evidence of this. Unless, of course, you are a Biblical literalist, in which case you presumably believe that God literally spoke to some of the Biblical characters and have your own explanations as to why he doesn’t seem to do that so much these days.
The Bishop also rather ignores the point that the Bible is full of clear guidelines that Christians, for a variety of good reasons, have decided not to bother with – like the entire Jewish ritual law, which was abandoned at such an early stage that the issue is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. Other rules, such as the Commandment not to kill, have been "interpreted" (i.e. limited in scope) because, at any given point in history and in every society, most people will agree that there are some reasons justifying killing others. Actually, then, this ends up as another illustration of why "Bible-based Christianity" is an illogical position. Its appeal, manifested in the popularity of the more conservative kind of evangelical Christianity, is the promise of clear-cut, black-and-white rules that you can apply to the moral dilemmas of your life. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. There is no book of rules to tell you how to live it, least of all one composed several thousand years ago, mostly not by the people represented as having written it.
I’m afraid this is the major reason why the chief effect of conservative evangelicalism on me is to simulate eyeball – rolling to an extent that may concern my optician. "Oh, no, here they come again. It’s the people who like only one thing better than having someone else tell them what to do – making absolutely sure that you’ve been told as well."