Richard Harries, now Lord Harries of Pentregarth, is well known as the long-serving former Bishop of Oxford and as a noted Christian apologist. His latest offering seeks to provide an introduction to Christian moral thinking. He presses all the usual buttons: all our decisions have a moral dimension; moral obligations construed solely in terms of law are "infantile"; but "autonomous" ethical theories are inadequate because they "all assume a prior recognition or insight into what is of worth", which faith alone can most properly supply.
Christian ethics is defined as one of "recognition and response": "There is a fundamental recognition of the graciousness of God and a desire to respond to this in a worthy way." And the Christian response is focused on the disclosure of God in Jesus, his life as well as his ethical teaching. What Jesus's teaching might involve is explored in the subsequent chapters concerned with sex, money, power and fame. Specifically emphasised is the tension in living "between the time of Christ's rising and the coming of God's Kingdom in its fullness", and the "dilemmas" that result.
It has to be said that there is almost nothing that is new in this book. It has a pleasing, discursive style and draws on a fund of literary and pastoral anecdotes, but it falls short as an academic work. It may be objected that there must be a place for Christian apologetics - for a reasoned exposition of the Christian faith written in accessible language - and so there is. But the best apologists, such as the incomparable C.S. Lewis, were philosophically rigorous and made attempts to understand and present alternative positions. Harries, in contrast, glosses over issues and argues (if "argue" is the right word) by a mixture of anecdote and reflection.
On sex, for example, he maintains that "the ideal of two people committing themselves to one another for life is not something imposed by the Church on reluctant lovers. It is what lovers actually want to do". Well, this obscures the fact that the Church has (and continues) to offer either celibacy or heterosexual monogamy as the only moral choice. And it evades the difficult truth that churches have sought to impose this choice by law, as well as classifying other options as sinful or "intrinsically disordered". It is true that the Church of England has welcomed divorce reform (rather late in the day), but the Roman Catholic Church still regards divorce (of a "true" Christian marriage) as an impossibility.
Again, Harries (in his slight four-page discussion of homosexuality) insists that "the strident voices of some church leaders ... do not seem to be representative of the Church as a whole", and he cites in support a survey that showed that 84 per cent of religious people disagree that homosexuality is always unacceptable. But that doesn't alter the fact that the official teaching of almost all mainstream churches is strenuously hostile to any same-sex practice. However much one may agree that same-sex relationships can reflect "God's faithful love for humanity", this cannot absolve an apologist from carefully and dispassionately examining the Christian roots of homophobia - indeed not only homophobia, but also erotophobia, since many classical teachers regarded sexual desire as impure, unworthy or evil.
This may seem an ungracious response to a liberal-minded, humane work, but apologists have to grapple with the beam in the Church's own eye if they are to begin to convince.
Andrew Linzey is a member of the faculty of theology, University of Oxford, and author of Creatures of the Same God
The Re-Enchantment of Morality: Wisdom for a Troubled World
By Richard Harries
Published 1 January 2008