Report on Bioethics Consultation in Washington, DC

June 8th, 1999
June 8, 1999

In June Bishop Griswold called together a consultation of scientists, ethicists and others on bioethical issues. His purpose was to encourage informed conversation on the topic among these persons and then throughout the church. In the interest of furthering the conversation, the report of the bioethics consultation is posted here.

At the invitation of the Most Rev. Frank Griswold, Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church, a group of Episcopal theologians, ethicists, and scientists met with those engaged in various forms of pastoral ministry in order to learn about the new developments in genetics and to discuss the theological, ethical, and pastoral implications of such developments as cloning and genetic manipulation and engineering. The meeting took place at the College of Preachers in Washington on the 8th and 9th of June 1999. It was sponsored by the College of Preachers and the Anglican Theological Review. Approximately 45 people attended the two sessions. The invited theologians, ethicists, scientists, and pastors, who met on the first day of the consultation, included:

 

The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold: Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church
Dr. Cynthia Cohen: The Kennedy Center
Professor Cynthia Crysdale: Catholic University
Professor David Cunningham: Seabury-Western Theological Seminary
The Rev. Dr. James Griffiss: Anglican Theological Review
The Rev. Dr. Jan C. Heller: St. Joseph's Healthcare System, Atlanta, GA
The Rev. Professor Stephen Holmgrem: Nashotah House Seminary
The Very Rev. James Lemler: Seabury-Western Theological Seminary
The Rev. Dr. Sandra Levy: St. Mark's Church, Richmond, VA
Professor Charles Mathewes: University of Virginia
Dr. David H. Smith: The Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions at Indiana University
Professor Charles Taliaferro: St. Olaf College
Professor Kathryn Tanner: The Divinity School, University of Chicago
Dr. Leroy Walters: Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University
The Rev. Canon Erica Wood: The College of Preachers
The Rev. Professor Ellen Wondra: Bexley Hall

The first day of the consultation was based upon a paper by Professor David Smith, "Creation, Preservation, and All the Blessings..."; and it included responses from Ellen Wondra (theology), Charles Taliaferro (philosophical ethics), LeRoy Walters (scientific background), and James Lemler (pastoral concerns). On the second day, the conversation was continued with a larger number of people involved in pastoral ministry and clinical and hospital work. Bishop Griswold was an active participant on both days, and he presided at the Eucharist at the close of each session. The paper, responses, and other commentaries from the consultation will be published in the Fall 1999 issue of the Anglican Theological Review.*

We met not just in our professional capacities, but as members of the church, and, as a result, we were concerned to discover what are our obligations, concerns, and capacities beyond the bare political and scientific issues of bio-ethics. As people of Christian faith, our guiding questions were: What resources do we have in the Christian tradition in order to meet the challenges of the scientific advances in this area? What resources do we need, and what must we appropriate from others and develop from our own theological tradition as Christians and Episcopalians in order to meet those challenges?

We found that our conversations generated a number of fruitful ideas and themes for further exploration and development. First, we all recognized the need for much more conversation of the sort we undertook and the need for those conversations to extend beyond those who participated in this consultation because of their interest in genetics. We came to believe, that all issues which have ethical and religious implications require and deserve the attention of all "thoughtful Christian people", and that such conversations should be available for them. There was, thus, a common belief that the Episcopal Church as a whole would do well to create and sustain some sort of regular forum for such conversations in addition to the formal and legislative meetings of General Convention. We value also the Presiding Bishop's conviction that the encouragement of such conversations is a significant work of the Presiding Bishop in his capacity as a teacher and chief pastor of the church.

Furthermore, there was a strong opinion that the church has not only a formal obligation to address these issues, but that it should recognize and articulate the particular contributions that it can bring to the issues by reflecting upon and responding to the challenges with which advances in science and technology confront us. There was the conviction, in particular, that the Episcopal Church's insistence on the centrality of worship, prayer, and communal council (as well as counsel) should be brought to bear on these issues. Indeed, some bioethicists and those involved in scientific research have noted that many problems in medicine and scientific research are due to the avoidance of conversation with religious communities with the result that they rely upon rigid structures in inappropriate situations and to inappropriate degrees. The church's consistent emphasis upon the importance of conversation, both among the people of God and between them and God in prayer and worship, can work radically to undercut "the idolatry of system" in which abstract principles will be valued over people. This is especially true for Anglicans with our long tradition of casuistry in moral theology.

We recognized also that along with worship, community, and prayer, we have the inexhaustible well of the Bible, which offers obvious sources for understanding and teaching. In our conversations, we were reminded of the way in which the biblical stories of Moses and Jesus bear in them important themes about incorporation into the Body and how Pauline theology speaks of grafting the Gentiles into the tree of Israel, along with those other stories and events about the new things God is doing, which have relevance for many of the questions raised by genetic programming. Those themes will need to be reflected upon and developed by biblical scholars, pastors, and theologians in conversation with scientists.

Finally, and as a consequence of our concern in the consultation to identify and begin to explore the resources the church can bring to these issues, we identified three areas of concern which must be clearly distinguished and developed: the ethical, the socio-political, and the more broadly theological and philosophical.

  1. We identified ethical issues intrinsic to the exercise of the technologies themselves. There are questions about the obligation to know and the appropriateness of the exercise of our knowledge. When is it right to employ genetic testing? Who should know the results? Is genetic alteration ever acceptable, and if so, under what circumstances? These questions raise important and pressing theological issues by raising questions about control. Is the increase of human control or, better, apparent control, always and everywhere an unmitigated good? Can we, who claim to be people of faith, be tempted to believe that our belief in God as creator, redeemer, and sustainer gets replaced by our control and thus make idols of ourselves and our power? How do we relate God's power to our own?
     
  2. We noted also the sociocultural, political, and economic issues relating to the place of this technology in our wider world and what the development of this technology suggests about how we understand social life. We had to ask, Why are we spending this much money on these technologies--and why are we, who are participating in this consultation, with media representatives present and much ballyhooing on our part, focused on these, rather "sexy", issues, when there exist enormous, albeit less media-attractive, concerns that we ignore--concerns such as public healthcare, the distribution of basic medical care, etc.? Why do bioethical concerns about genetic engineering warrant such attention, while the other concerns go understudied, and in all likelihood, ignored by the church? These questions raise issues revolving around the nature of Christian responsibility to the neighbor, and more deeply--extending back in the Jewish and Christian tradition--the question of just who exactly is our neighbor?
     
  3. The final cluster of issues which we discussed resists easy labelling. It relates to our theological understanding of the idea of "nature" as a general category through which we understand the created order--and, through that idea, to our understanding of God. For in the new technologies of genetic manipulation what seems most at issue is the very idea of the "nature of things", "human nature", "the nature of God", and the like, something which is expressed by our worries about "playing God", changing the way things were created to be, "trying to fool Mother Nature". Genetic technology as it is developing means that we human beings will have a way to alter nature at its most basic level and, especially, "human nature". The ethicist Paul Ramsey in Fabricated Man, his study of the problem, puts it well: "those who come after us may no longer be like us." Nature now, in light of scientific advances, seems increasingly dynamic and mutable, if not straightforwardly malleable or controllable. Such a new sense of "nature" raises a broader cultural issue, not only for Christians, but for all people: the anxiety we feel about the rapidity of change and the plasticity of existence--all can and is changing. There seems to be a loss of absolute boundaries and values.

As we discussed this area of anxiety and worry, however, we began to ask ourselves a basic theological question: Human beings may want to insist on limits, but in fact are there not deep transgressions of what we like to think of as limits at the heart of the Good News of God in Christ? The Incarnation, even as it was formulated classically, is all about God's refusing to recognize a static, fixed sphere separate from God's own space. The Gospel accounts of the Resurrection certainly call us into a radically new understanding of what we like to think is the natural order of things. And our participation in the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist can only lead us into a deeper awareness of change and the dynamic quality of natures--the "natures" of water, bread, and wine, as well as our own sinful natures. As Christians who live into the Mystery of Christ, we at least must recognize, whatever subsequent ethical and moral judgments we may make, that God is not a watchtower God, a deistic God, but the God who in Christ and by the Spirit transforms "nature" and redeems even our sinful natures.

So, we reached no final solutions or answers through our two day conversations, but we did begin to see more clearly that the anxieties and questions which these scientific developments, like those which have challenged us in the past, may require us to reflect more deeply upon the Mystery of God and of God's creation. We can only hope that our community of worship and prayer which we call the Episcopal Church will continue in these reflections.

Erica Wood
Warden of the College of Preachers

Charles Mathewes
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
University of Virginia

James E. Griffiss
Editor, Anglican Theological Review
Canon Theologian to the Presiding Bishop

*Reports of the consultation are available in the Fall 1999 issue of Anglican Theological Review, a quarterly publication available at a cost of $15 per issue.

Copies can be obtained from:

Anglican Theological Review
600 Haven Street
Evanston, IL 60201
Tel: 847/328-9624 Email: atr@nwu.edu

The Most Reverend Frank T. Griswold
XXV Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA