There are unmistakeable signs that the Christian West is in trouble. This is due partly to secularisation but even more to the fragmentation within and among Christian Churches on matters of fundamental morality.
This scandalous division makes the churches appear uncertain and unreliable as guides to ethical behaviour. Church leaders are often challenged to be relevant in contemporary society by addressing the issues facing people and offering considered ethical advice. What happens too often is that different leaders give different advice, often contradictory, leaving people uncertain and insecure.
Churches are divided on fundamental moral issues to do with human life and human sexuality, cloning, the use of human embryos to produce stem cells and, perhaps the most shocking of all, the fate of unborn babies diagnosed with disabilities. If there is any defenceless group that deserves protection it is surely that group.
The ecumenical movement formed to lead Christian churches to the unity that Christ prayed for has been gathering strength for close to a century now. This welcome movement has produced some good results in sorting through many of the theological matters that have led historically to bitter divisions and often bloodshed. Serious studies have led to a growth in mutual respect and a better understanding of the reasons that lead to differences in theology.
In some cases, as with justification, it has led to closer agreement on the fundamental underlying principles. The most noticeable progress has been the desire among Christians from different churches to pray together and to collaborate in worthy social programs for the poor, for refugees, for addicts and for ethnic minorities deprived of basic human rights. So far it is a story of moderate success.
At the same time, the relatively new divisions among churches on basic moral positions have had most unfortunate consequences. The divisions have undermined the credibility of the churches. If one church condemns the use of human embryos for experimentation and another approves of it, who can judge the truth of the matter? All cannot be right.
If the same spirit that inspires Scripture and guides the Church that Jesus founded produces contradictory outcomes, who can trust the churches?
This disunity on matters for which the people have a right to proper guidance forces them to make choices, without the benefit of objective moral principles. Choice is the exercise of the gift of God, called free will. We have a responsibility to use it for good.
However, it is not the determinate of right and wrong as the secular ethic would have us believe. Rejecting any moral order beyond ourselves, the secularists say that we must reflect on important issues facing us, draw on our personal moral code, weigh up the consequences and then decide what is right for us. Without reference to an objective moral order that comes from the Creator, choice is subjective, personal and fallible.
Yet it is invoked to decide not just choices about dress, or where to live, but matters of life and death like abortion or euthanasia. The failure of churches to speak with a united voice on matters of conscience encourages people to make their own, often tragic, choices with no external frame of reference to help them.
In the early days of the ecumenical movement most of the issues were theological, like justification and redemption, the necessity of Baptism, the Resurrection, authority in the Church, the Eucharist, sacramentality and the inerrancy of Scripture.
Today the issues are moral - marriage and divorce, homosexual unions, human sexuality, living together before marriage, contraception, abortion, cloning, the humanity of embryos and their use in research, prenatal screening, genetic manipulation and other emerging issues. These are fruitful areas for ecumenical discussion.
The pity is that the divisions among churches on these issues are widening, not decreasing. The urgency to speak with a clear common Christian voice on these matters is hard to overstate.
Another unfortunate outcome of our disunity on moral issues is the lack of energy for evangelisation. Unless one is certain of one's position on crucial issues it is hard to attract others to follow. No one heeds an uncertain trumpet. The strength of the new evangelical groups is that they sidestep the mainstream churches to proclaim a message that is clear and demanding.
They offer a clearcut antidote to life's problems. They do not confuse their liseners with talk about all opinions and points of view being valid. Their answer is presented as God's answer, without apology. Look at the numbers that flock to them because they have been left for so long like sheep without a shepherd.
The mainstream churches will need to look again at the Christian moral traditions they have inherited and agreed on in the main until the cracks appeared early last century. Those traditional moral positions include the inviolability of all human life born or unborn, the dignity of every human person, the divine origin of marriage infused by grace through Christ, the links between human sexuality and love and procreation, and the right of every person, disabled or not, to a life of dignity and respect.
The world needs something better than it is getting today from many of those who claim to speak for Christ. I hope churches will make the search for unity on moral matters their New Year's resolution. Otherwise we cannot show convincing leadership in these confused times.
This is the text of Archbishop Barry Hickey's 2005 New Year message which was first published in the Perth 'Record'.