Thursday, 4 March 2010
The idea of the slippery slope may not hold up to formal logic (it is technically a logical fallacy to argue from it in a debate), but it does hold a revered place in folk wisdom...and, it seems, among the Lords Spiritual of the Church of England (i.e., those bishops who sit in the House of Lords, the house of review in the British parliament).
In a landmark decision, the House of Lords has passed an amendment to the UK Equality Bill which will, for the first time in the UK, allow same-sex marriages according to church rites. At present, it seems to be only the Quakers, the Unitarians and some liberal Jewish synagogues that are proposing to act on the new legislation, but some C of E bishops are concerned that the UK is now on a slippery slope which will lead to Anglican clergy who refuse to celebrate such unions being sued or charged under the law.
As the UK Daily Telegraph reports:
Traditionalist bishops and peers fear that vicars could be taken to court and accused of discrimination if they turn down requests to hold civil partnerships on religious premises.
Their concerns have been raised following a landmark vote by peers that will allow the ceremonies for same-sex couples to be held in places of worship for the first time. (Click on the post title to read the whole report.)
The formal fallacy in the slippery slope argument is its surrender to the intuitive sense that an argument or principle, once admitted, will proceed inevitably to its final and maximal expression. In other words, advocates of the slippery slope do not allow for a position holding the middle ground to halt the momentum of the original argument.
Be that as it may, we happen to think that the Lords Spiritual may well be proven correct in this matter. The present British government does not have a great record of holding the middle ground in matters of equality before the law, particularly in the face of vociferous activists. It is, perhaps, the most anti-Christian government in Britain's history.
In the meantime, as we await developments, you may like to ponder these words of wisdom from Charles Porterfield Krauth, a 19th century Lutheran theologian and sometime professor of moral philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. Krauth is speaking of the church, not society, but mutatis mutandis his words could equally as well apply to society and its doctrines of morality and the role of government in legislating them.
When error is admitted into the Church, it will be found that the stages in its progress are always three. It begins by asking toleration. Its friends say to the majority: You need not be afraid of us; we are few and weak; let us alone, we shall not disturb the faith of others. The Church has her standards of doctrine; of course we shall never interfere with them; we only ask for ourselves to be spared interference with our private opinions.
Indulged in for this time, error goes on to assert equal rights. Truth and error are balancing forces. The Church shall do nothing which looks like deciding between them; that would be partiality. It is bigotry to assert any superior right for the truth. We are to agree to differ, and any favoring of the truth, because it is truth, is partisanship. What the friends of truth and error hold in common is fundamental. Anything on which they differ is ipso facto non-essential. Anybody who makes account of such a thing is a disturber of the peace of the Church. Truth and error are two coordinate powers, and the great secret of church-statesmanship is to preserve the balance between them.
From this point error soon goes on to its natural end, which is to assert supremacy. Truth started with tolerating; it comes to be merely tolerated, and that only for a time. Error claims a preference for its judgments on all disputed points. It puts men into positions, not as at first in spite of their departure from the Church’s faith, but in consequence of it. Their repudiation is that they repudiate that faith, and position is given them to teach others to repudiate it, and to make them skillful in combating it.
Charles Porterfield Krauth, The Conservative Reformation (Philadelphia, 1871) p.195ff.