Theologians in court

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So in the past weeks, at least two Canadian theologians have had their day in court. No, they weren’t fighting an unjust traffic ticket, but were serving as expert witnesses in some fairly high profile civil suits.

First, Prof. John Stackhouse, Jr., of Regent College (Vancouver, BC) has been called as an expert witness before the BC Supreme Court on the matter of a property dispute within the Anglican diocese of New Westminster. The complainants are members of four congregations, including three priests, who left the Anglican communion in protest of the local bishop’s blessing of same-sex marriage. They are arguing that they have the right to retain the property of the churches.

Interestingly, Stackhouse was called as a “neutral expert witness.” But according to the reporting at the Dicoese of New Westminster’s website, his testimony was called into question:

[T]he diocese’s lawyer however questioned [Stackhouse’s] objectivity by introducing a web blog that Stackhouse agreed he had written. It stated that Bishop Michael Ingham, bishop of the Diocese of New Westminster, was “heretic and schismatic” and wrote about “churches that resist Ingham’s crypto-Hinduism.”

On the stand the professor said that he had written the blog but only used “strictly descriptive terms.”

[This comment about John’s blog shows something pretty important about how “public” this blogging practice really is. It makes me realize just how careful I need to be about what I write here at Theommentary. Who knows…something I write today could come back and bite me tomorrow or two decades from now.]

The Diocese trial is scheduled to last until June 12. You can also see some of Stackhouse’s preliminary comments about it on his own blog.

A second theologian called before the Quebec Superior Court is Prof. Douglas Farrow of McGill University. (Readers will recall that Farrow is my own Doktorvater). Farrow has testified as an expert witness on behalf of Loyola High School, a private Catholic boys’ school, which has asked to be exempted from the Quebec province’s new required ethics and religious culture course. As the Loyola website asks, “Can the ‘pursuit of the common good’ and the ‘recognition of others’ be taught from a Catholic perspective or does it have to be secular?” To answer their own question, Loyola and the vast majority of the parents of Loyola students see the course as running counter to their own Catholic worldview. A Montreal Gazette article reports Farrow as saying,

“Should a Catholic institution . . . be forced to change the way it does things to fit someone else’s world view?” he asked. “In the Catholic world view, it’s not possible to be Catholic for 22 hours a day, then hold another world view for the other two hours.”

I happen to be heartened and encouraged that theologians like Stackhouse and Farrow have agreed to serve in this very public way as theologians. But I wonder what you think? Do you think that theologians like Stackhouse and Farrow are getting mixed up in matters that they ought not to? Does their service in this way “taint” them as theologians? Or is their service a natural and vital extension of their calling as theologians?

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8 thoughts on “Theologians in court

  1. Of course it taints them. But I am heartened to know that the courts still think it’s our duty to participate – to get our hands dirty – in real life. We are human, afterall, not some distant machine. I was intrigued to hear that Stackhouse was supposed to offer a non-biased opinion. But of course he’s biased – that’s why he’s not Anglican! Ah, I think this is great stuff. Thanks for posting it.

  2. I put the word “taint” in quotes because I didn’t want to specify anything at all. Some might see theologian’s involvement at a political/legal level as somehow inappropriate to their calling, i.e., such involvement “taints” their role. Other might not see it in this light at all. I am genuinely open to comment and different perspectives.

  3. Dustin

    I’d be interested in hearing from someone who thinks that involvement in a court case as an expert witness could “taint” their role as a “theologian.” In my mind, I can’t image how you could taint to any great degree a role that, as a matter of course, risks slipping into idolatry and blaspheme. Better put, the task of theologians is only miraculously kept from dwelling constantly in idolatry and blasphemy, and as such is already as tainted as it could be! 🙂

  4. David, allow me to approach this from a different angle. As a pastor, I preach publicly once a week. (We meet in a school and teachers and janitors have been know to feel it necessary to walk through our meeting space, hearing sound bites of music, prayers and sermons.) Further, I post the audio of the sermons on the church web page. I also blog although infrequently at the present time. Do I have to be careful what I say or write (you mentioned concern regarding blogging), of course, but I can’t stop communicating publicly and still fulfill my calling.

    As a theologian, you must communicate your thoughts, research and insights for your work to be in the service of the Church (to appeal to Barth). If you let the fear of how what you write today may be perceived tomorrow, keep you from writing what is on your heart, you cease to do the very work you are called to. Obviously, I am not speaking of slander or the like, rather thoughtful gracious reflections.

    As far as a theologian acting as a witness, why not. Professionals in other fields do it and yes, their past effects their suitability as a witness and the act of being a witness may unjustly inform how someone in the future may view them. That comes with the territory. Are they tainted? I guess that depends on who is judging it. To be sure it may not turn out well. I do recall a few apostles who went to jail and worse. I guess they were tainted. The real shame would be if those who can speak choose to remain silent.

  5. John Stackhouse

    Just for the record, “neutral, unbiased,” and the like were the words of opposing counsel in cross-examination. They are not from some “handbook on expert witnesses” or some statute, so far as I know. Experts do not have to be such: they have to be expert. And how many experts are unbiased? (None.) How many are neutral on matters pertaining to their expertise? (None.)

    But since I am not an Anglican, much less aligned with one side or the other within Anglicanism, I am “neutral” in that key political sense. Indeed, the blog post in question actually shows me to disagree with both sides on one or another matter. My point, which opposing counsel did not want me to say very much about, is that what I wrote in the blog I am prepared to defend in court as a truly expert judgment.

    So David is right: Be careful what you blog!

  6. Thanks for the clarification, John. I had a hard time finding any mainstream media sources (other than the Diocese’s own website or virtueonline.com) covering this (should I be surprised?). I’ll be certainly watching to see what the result will be.

  7. Greg

    I think it is awesome that society still has enough respect for theologians to use them as experts in legal matters. As for getting ‘tainted’…life taints everybody every day, but it is the duty of every believer, including theologians, to uphold justice according to Biblical spiritual principles whenever opportunities arise. As GMAC said, we get our hands dirty – in real life. Theology without application is vanity – Eccl 1:12-18. Thanks for the ‘real time’ stories David.

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