By Jordan Hylden
I came that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.
— John 10:10
The late Bishop Thomas Shaw, formerly Bishop of Massachusetts and a respected voice for justice, delivered a sermon on abortion while still a monastic at the Society of Saint John the Evangelist that took as its text the above verse. He opened by expressing his unease at attempting the topic, first because he was a celibate male, and second because he was aware of the highly charged nature of the subject and did not want anyone to feel judged by his remarks.
Yet, he continued, the sheer numbers of abortions each year means that it should be a topic of great pastoral concern, both for the unborn and for the millions of mothers and fathers whose lives are touched by abortion. And so he continued, beginning with a story.
“A while ago,” he said, “a young woman came to me after she had had an abortion. She is intelligent, well-educated, and comes from a compassionate family. She was fond of, but not deeply committed enough to marry, the father of the child, and hardly at a point in her education when she could leave school to support a child, let alone give up the advantages and personal fulfillment her education would give to her. Her parents, the father of the child, her friends, and professional counselors at her school advised her with a certain kind of logic to have an abortion.
She did. Some months later she came to see me feeling guilty, confused and not a little betrayed. She did not like what she had done. She talked for a long time about how she knew a life had been taken from her and that, at some level almost too deep to talk about, she had been wrong. Yet she also said, even knowing the way she feels now, she would probably make the same choice as before. “What else could I do?”, she asked. I couldn’t answer her. For I knew that, at her age and under those circumstances, I would have done what she had done.
“This is a terrifying view of reality,” Fr. Shaw said. For we live in a world in which “most everyone around us” would “encourage us to take life instead of creating it, bringing it forth and sustaining it.” “It was at this point,” he went on, “that I realized that this wasn’t simply her problem or the problem of the father or her parents,” but everyone’s problem. For we are all implicated in creating a world in which that young woman felt as though she had no other option.
The new world that we see coming into being with Jesus, however — the kingdom of God — is very different. “Everything we know of the earthly ministry of Jesus affirms life in every form,” Fr. Shaw went on. He healed the sick and cast out demons wherever he went. “Anything that smacked of death, of partial life, of the desecration of the image and likeness of God born in men and women, Jesus went after to destroy, to cast out, so that the little life that remained could be brought forward, enhanced, and encouraged. … Jesus never discriminated against one life in order to save another, except in the case of his own. He went to his death to make life possible; not only life beyond death, but life here, now, incarnate.”
Since Roe v. Wade was overturned, I have seen many statements citing resolutions of General Convention, saying that while the Episcopal Church teaches that “the beginning of new human life” is a “sacred” gift of God, such that “we emphatically oppose abortion as a means of birth control, family planning, sex selection, or any reason of mere convenience,” the church nevertheless opposes “any legislation on the part of the national or state governments which would abridge or deny the right of individuals to reach informed decisions in this matter and to act upon them.” Moreover, I have seen that many Episcopal leaders, such as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, are “grieved” by the Dobbs ruling. But what about Episcopalians who are not grieved, but instead rejoice that many unborn lives will now be saved? Does their position also have a place in church teaching? As one of those Episcopalians, I believe that it does, and I wish to say three things on its behalf: first, about how to understand what “the church teaches”; second, about how the pro-life position is grounded in Scripture, tradition, and reason; and third, what Christ now calls us to do together in support of those most impacted by the Dobbs decision, whether we rejoice or grieve at its result.
1. The nature of Anglican moral teaching
First, we must remember that the Episcopal Church does not teach in the same way as some other more centralized bodies such as the Roman Catholic Church. The 1948 Lambeth Conference produced an influential paper arguing that Anglicans possess “a dispersed rather than a centralized authority having many elements which combine, interact with, and check each other.” In practice, this “dispersed authority” means that it will sometimes be more difficult to pin down what Anglican teaching is, compared with Roman Catholic teaching.
This was taken up by a careful 2014 document produced by the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue in the US (ARC-USA), Ecclesiology and Moral Discernment. Each Anglican church, they write, “has an authorized Book of Common Prayer and other governing documents that order its common life, all of which contain explicit moral teaching.” Hence “the normative teachings of the Episcopal Church remain embedded in its Constitution, Canons, and Book of Common Prayer.” While “these documents are, by nature, fairly restrained in their address of specific moral teachings, leaving many issues unaddressed,” that is by design according to the classic Anglican pattern. While the prayer book provides clear teaching (for instance) “that murder, theft, adultery, and false witness are wrong,” the Episcopal Church’s core documents “do not offer definite, authoritative moral teaching about contraception or abortion.” Instead, various conventions and councils “have at various times rejected or embraced conflicting judgments, which, in turn, have been themselves acceded to or contested by individuals, parishes, and dioceses of the church. Over time, a plurality of practices and teachings emerge. In these cases, specific teaching is limited and not normative or authoritative in that it does not demand assent.”
While frustrating at times, this classical Anglican pattern developed for good reason. The great Episcopalian poet W.H. Auden was fond of saying that “orthodoxy is reticence,” and this is illuminative of Anglican practice. To be sure, as Bp. Steven Sykes pointed out in his classic text The Integrity of Anglicanism, we do possess clear teachings about creedal affirmations of Christian faith, the authority of Scripture as the “rule and ultimate standard of faith,” and the first principles of the moral law (such as the Ten Commandments, and Christ’s summary of the Law). But when it comes to speaking normatively for the whole church, we are sometimes hesitant to draw further doctrinal inferences or to make concrete moral applications. We do not, for instance, spell out certain matters concerning the doctrines of salvation or the sacraments that the Roman Catholic Church and the Westminster Confession, variously, do. The same can be said for contraception, or for how the civil law ought to treat the practice of abortion.
We are hesitant, for it will often be the case that “orthodoxy is reticence” — knowing when to stop in our pronouncements, humbly leaving room for the Spirit to lead us together in a way that is now difficult given the sadly divided nature of the universal Church. Instead, we place a high value on the Spirit’s work to form consciences through Holy Scripture read and proclaimed, and through the grace bestowed by the sacraments in the rhythm of habitual worship, common prayer.
This is not to say that there should be no clear moral teaching from the minister’s pulpit or the bishop’s chair. Quite the contrary, there should be. To proclaim the Word of God, the saving gospel of Jesus Christ, we are not hesitant or reticent in any way! There may be times when Anglicans in council should offer clear moral teaching on controverted matters. Yet when moral teaching is offered, it should sometimes be offered in this humble, reticent spirit, in view of the fact that on controverted questions there will often be congregations and Christians that differ in good faith.
To sum up, it is true that one can point to many General Convention resolutions that oppose abortion as a moral matter in the majority of cases, but advocate that it remain available as a legal matter. But the Episcopal Church does not characteristically teach by way of General Convention resolution. Instead, it presents us with core normative teachings embodied in our prayer book, constitution, and canons. I expect there will be many Episcopalians that differ in good faith on the vexed question of abortion and the civil law. That is to be expected and welcomed, even as we may seek to persuade one another to see things differently.
If you find yourself (as I do) disagreeing with Episcopal Church leadership on the matter of abortion and civil law, in my view you are not controverting Episcopal Church “teaching.” In this case as in many others, “orthodoxy is reticence.” We can and should speak up and act — boldly, even prophetically! — for what we believe “respecting the dignity of every human being” requires, but in so doing we will not always be speaking on behalf of the whole church. To cite another beloved Anglican phrase: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, diversity; in all things, charity.”
2. Abortion as a moral and legal question
The early Christian church opposed abortion, in contrast to the surrounding Roman culture in which both abortion and infanticide were accepted and commonplace, especially for female infants and others deemed inferior (See, e.g., the Didache, and the Epistle of Barnabas, widely read first century Christian texts that rule out abortion for followers of Jesus). This opposition is shared to this day by the great majority of Christians worldwide, including the Roman Catholic Church. At the 1930 Lambeth Conference, the gathered Anglican bishops of the world reiterated this teaching. In 2005, the Church of England produced a briefing paper summarizing their church’s approach: “strong opposition to abortion with a recognition that there can be — strictly limited — conditions under which it may be morally preferable to any available alternative,” defined as when the mother’s life or health is grave danger or when some birth defect renders the fetus unable to survive outside the womb. As we have seen, successive General Conventions of the Episcopal Church have recognized the sacred value of all human life, and as a moral matter have opposed abortion as a means of birth control, family planning, or sex selection.
As a moral matter, Fr. Shaw points us to the life and teaching of Jesus, who everywhere affirmed life. Following her Lord, the universal Church has always affirmed the sacred value of all human life from womb to tomb, especially life at its most vulnerable, marginalized, and dependent. Christian ministries of justice and mercy have always sought out the poor, weak, and oppressed, seeking to bring them to wholeness of life and health. Catholics often speak of the “seamless garment” of Christian ethics, in which this concern for all human life, especially the neediest, leads us to follow Christ to care for the unborn as well as the frightened mother who does not know how she will care for her child. We should be led there, just as we are led to follow Christ to care for “the least of these” wherever we find them — little children in fear of gun violence, refugees, those suffering from abuse, the aged and dying, the sick, the needy. In broad strokes, this has been the Christian vision from the beginning, and it has led Christians to found hospitals, schools, food banks, refugee resettlement ministries, and countless other works of justice and mercy.
As a legal matter, I find it compelling that as a general rule, all children should be welcomed into life and protected by the rule of law. This is consistent, to my mind, with any other law that protects human life from violence, especially when that life is vulnerable. I cannot see any point at which human life transitions from being unworthy to worthy of legal protection. This is, finally, where I differ from various General Convention resolutions: if in our Baptismal Covenant we promise to respect the “dignity of every human being,” especially the most vulnerable, I cannot see why we would not want unborn life protected by law, just as we advocate for on behalf of refugees or those on death row. As Fr. Shaw went on to say in his sermon, it is hard to deny that the child in the womb is a human life. If it is, then the unborn child possesses every bit as much dignity and sacred worth as any human being created in God’s image — simply “on the basis of his or her creation,” rather than bestowed at viability or some other time.
To be sure, there are hard cases that many wrestle with, such as rape, incest, when the mother’s life would be placed in grave danger, or when the unborn child will not survive outside the womb. It is reasonable for the civil law to allow for discernment in such tragic cases, and I struggle with where some legal lines should be drawn — although I do think it clear that the law should not prohibit abortion when the mother’s life or health is at grave risk, and I do not think it immoral to seek abortion in a tragic circumstance such as an ectopic pregnancy.
Yet the vast majority of abortions are not sought in such hard cases. Rather, they are often sought in other hard cases, such as the situation the young woman found herself in from Fr. Shaw’s sermon. In my home state, Louisiana, 60 percent of pregnancies are unintended, and many of them will be to young unmarried women living at or near poverty. Often, working mothers worry about how they will continue working to support their families after giving birth, if paid parental leave is not available. My mother has a friend who drove a grain truck, and had to go back to driving a truck only two (unpaid) weeks after giving birth!
This is the point at which our moral intuitions about the sacred value of all human life run up against what seem to be the limits of the possible. Leah Libresco Sargent, a pro-life Catholic, put it this way:
Abortion is really the price of admission to society we demand of women. … We don’t support women when they’re pregnant, even with wanted pregnancies. … You can look around and say, our culture has no room for the vulnerable. It doesn’t have room for babies who are vulnerable and it doesn’t have room for women who are vulnerable. … It’s one more mark of a sexist society that we take the burdens we put on the vulnerable, then lay them heavily on women and demand an act of violence to have equal access to society.
Is abortion inevitable? As Fr. Shaw put it so well, we are all implicated by the sad fact that so many young women feel as though abortion for them is a tragic necessity, that they are more or less forced into it. Those of us who rejoice at the Dobbs decision can and arguably should grieve at the burdens that many young women, especially women of color, feel as though they have no choice but to bear alone. What then are we called to do, as followers of Jesus, to give more women the freedom to choose life?
3. Welcoming all, bearing one another’s burdens
We Episcopalians have long seen it as central to our Christian calling to welcome everyone in Christ’s name, especially the stranger, the outcast, and the vulnerable. When we are at our best, by God’s grace, that is what we do. Yet when we do, we face a challenging call: for by God’s grace the stranger will no longer remain a stranger, but become a fellow member of God’s household, an heir of the kingdom of God. They become part of Christ’s body, a brother or sister for whom we are called to “bear one another’s burdens for the sake of Christ.” And what are the burdens of young mothers like the one who walked into Fr. Shaw’s office? What makes it seem impossible to imagine bearing a child they were not ready to have?
For many, they are financial. As the father of three, I know firsthand how very expensive children can be! I read a story of one couple that reluctantly, sadly, decided to seek an abortion because after combing through their budget, they just could not see how they could afford another mouth to feed. As Bp. Curry has rightly noted, this burden falls disproportionately on minorities, like the large African-American population in my home state, Louisiana. In my view, pro-life politicians should turn now to pass policies that seek to make having families affordable, like the plans proposed by both Republicans and Democrats to send monthly payments to families with children, or to expand paid parental leave. As Leah Libresco Sargent points out, the dog-eat-dog world of American commerce has long been unwelcoming to mothers and small children, rendering abortion the terrible price of entry required of women for equal treatment in the workplace. But we can, we must, imagine and create a better world. Christians of good faith may differ on policy judgments, but the goal should be clear: Helping young parents to provide well for their children, so that abortion is never seen as a tragic necessity.
Policies aside, in every community there are (or should be!) ways to support new parents in need. Here in Lafayette, Louisiana, there are several non-profits that provide necessities like diapers, baby clothes, and formula, in addition to other kinds of support. In Dallas, where I recently lived, my wife was involved in one such ministry that focused on addressing the disparities in health care and maternal mortality suffered by the African-American community. As the father of a six-week-old, I was blessed recently by my church with a baby shower and a meal train; and even though we are otherwise well provided for, it was very welcome! All of our churches can ask ourselves: How can we extend our blessings outward to the neediest families in our community? How can we ease the path (hard no matter what) to parenthood, so that the pathway is open to choosing life?
For just as many, the hardships are communal, familial, and emotional. If you are happily wed and come from a supportive extended family, embedded in a close-knit church and community, the burdens of parenthood are much more bearable. Simply being able to hand off the baby to get a little sleep can make a world of difference. Having a church friend or family member nearby to come over and tidy up the house, run errands, or just offer a sympathetic ear is a big deal to a new parent.
But in the frayed families and communities in which so many Americans live, this is far from the case. A young single mother’s question becomes: “How can I possibly raise this child alone?” That is a great sadness, for no one should ever have to bear their burdens alone. We were created by God to depend on one another, in unending chains of giving and receiving. Little children, the aged and infirm, the sick: all depend upon the loving care of others for their very lives, and all of us depend upon someone for much of our lives! The myth of autonomy and self-reliance that American culture so cherishes is quite at odds with the Christian vision, and it is perhaps this that is most deeply at stake in the question of abortion. But in Christ’s body, the church, we are given new brothers and sisters when our biological families are broken, new friends and family when ours let us down, every casserole and friendly chat a tangible sign of Christ’s love that never lets us go. In Christ’s body, no one should bear their burdens alone.
As the church, our challenge then becomes: How can we share the warm communal ties and support that we cherish in our own congregations with the new parents around us who feel alone and adrift? How can we open up our families and churches to young mothers who have no one to walk with them in parenthood?
No doubt there are many Episcopalians who, like Bishop Curry, were “grieved” by the Dobbs decision. Like Bp. Curry, I want to “acknowledge the pain, fear, and hurt that so many feel right now,” and hope that “as a church, we will stand with those who will feel the effects of this decision.”
But unlike Bp. Curry, I celebrated the Dobbs decision. As I see it, this too is a position supported by my church’s teaching, even though it is not voiced as often as I would like. And I feel as though a great weight of injustice has been lifted from our country. I rejoice that there will be thousands upon thousands of children who will now breathe free in the good creation prepared for them by their heavenly Father. One day, not very long from now, we will meet them, see their faces, learn their names, hear their laughter in the park or the swimming pool, even though we may not know they were saved from abortion. We will be called to welcome them in Christ’s name, too. But there remains a long way to go until all children are truly welcomed into life, and until all mothers are supported as they should be in their sacred callings. I know that I have felt convicted not only to say more, but do more, on their behalf, and I intend to seek out ways to do so here at home, in my church, community, and state.
We do not have to agree on Dobbs to agree that we are called now to support those mothers and children. Whether we are grieved by or celebrate the overturning of Roe, there is much that we can do together as a church to support life, to welcome life, bearing the burdens of parenthood with new parents who might not know how they could make it on their own. Abortion implicates us all, and choosing life takes us all. I pray that we may together walk the way of sacrificial love taken by Jesus, who “came that we might have life, and have it more abundantly.”
 M. Thomas Shaw, Cowley Sermons: On Waging Peace, On Childbearing, On Giving Shelter (Cambridge, MA: Society of St. John the Evangelist, 1982).
 General Convention resolutions from 1967, 1976, and 1994.
 Report IV, “The Anglican Communion” of Lambeth Conference, 1948.
 Abortion: A Briefing Paper (Church of England, 2005). See also this collection of C of E statements..
Thank you! Well said.