Five resolutions on the theological implications of new genetic capabilities appear on the lengthy agenda to be addressed by church leaders at the General Convention. As a continuation of the Episcopal Church’s attention to bioethical issues, these are likely to stimulate lively debate.
“New genetic knowledge raises theological issues,” said David H. Smith, chair of the New Genetics Task Force, part of the Committee on Science, Technology and Faith created by an act of General Convention in 2000.
The realization that humans now can manipulate DNA, the basic blueprint of cellular life, is driving Episcopalians to ponder both the immediate and the long-range impact of this new potential. Responsibility for providing moral guidance and pastoral care becomes ever more complicated and vital.
What position, for example, should thoughtful Episcopalians and others take on genetic testing of adults, children and human embryos and fetuses? What is a reasoned response to possibilities for enhanced life offered by stem-cell research. What is a spiritually informed stance regarding genetic modification of the world food supply? Above all, where is the hand of God in animal and plant life that we now can influence at the molecular level?
Since the 1970s, the church has engaged in a slow dance with what some would call “playing God.” Smith and 13 task force colleagues, including Cynthia Cohen, Ellen Wright Clayton, Bruce Jennings and LeRoy B. Walters, call for a more measured — if not always unified — view. Acknowledging that the possibility of irresponsible behavior exists, they assert that work within a God-centered context is the most reasonable approach to life-affirming progress in the new genetics.
Task force work was intense, said Smith, who this year retires as director of the Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions at Indiana University. He and Cohen did the recruiting.
Drew upon experts
“Our task force includes persons who are among the half dozen most knowledgeable in the country on these issues,” said Smith, author of “Health and Medicine in the Anglican Tradition.” Cohen, a philosopher and lawyer, is senior research fellow at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., and editor and author of books and articles on bioethics.
“We began with brainstorming about what issues we should talk about,” Smith explained. “We did not want to rehash old ground, speak in bland generalities or offer ideas so remote from the community and life of the church as to be unhelpful.”
Although their original charge did not include production of a book, Smith said the project grew during four “intense” meetings and “lots and lots” of file sharing over the Internet. The book, “A Christian Response to our Genetic Powers,” published by Rowman and Littlefield, is being published for distribution during convention.
“Don’t expect a single point of view to pervade chapters written by members,” Smith cautioned. “The book is polyphony rather than unison singing.”
Resolutions drafted by the task force should stimulate lively discussion. They include ethical guidelines for gene transfer and germline intervention; caring for children in the face of the new genetics; the church’s role in counseling and education on biomedical ethics; and approving research on human stem cells.
While the task force pondered human genetics, the Science, Technology and Faith committee addressed issues of food supply and safety with conferences on genetic engineering and food supply, on robotics and nanotechnology, and roundtables on ways to better engender public understanding and more discussion of these issues. Websites were created to foster ongoing dialogue.
One resolution addresses serious concerns about the safety of food in the rush to manage food production from seed to market.
The work of both the task force and the committee follows the often indistinct line separating fact and faith, a juxtaposition that has engaged the best minds for centuries.
Rather than offer definitive answers, both groups seek to establish sound and godly concepts within which to approach these issues.
Robert J. Schneider, a scholar, teacher and member of the committee, said that what seems startling, even revolutionary today, will assume its rightful and more modest place as science continues exploring the unknown.
In an essay posted to at www.berea.edu/SpecialProject/scienceandfaith/essays.asp, Schneider writes: “Our knowledge of God’s universe remains incomplete; the sum of human knowledge about the natural world is always increasing; the full and final description and portrait of the universe has yet to be constructed; the end of the operations of science remains beyond human vision.”
Complexity and ambiguity are not sufficient reasons for the Episcopal church to shelve consideration of genetic issues, Smith said. “Somehow, the church must find a way to continue to stay au courant with these issues so as intelligently to teach, speak and provide pastoral care.”
For more, visit: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/ens/2003-138.html