THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 155
A tidal wave of shocks around the world - good!
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The action of the Episcopal Church in America in appointing a gay bishop has indeed sent shock waves around the Christian world. Many traditionalist church people felt shock waves of unbelief because the action of the American Church seemed so contrary to what they had been brought up to believe was true and correct. Many Christians however were shocked and then gratified that at last some church somewhere had actually gone the extra distance to embrace gay people into the bosom of the church.
Many Christians found their surprise turning into disbelief and even anger. Many other Christians felt the liberating action was inspired by the Holy Spirit and felt that here at last there was a group of Christians who were grappling with one of the deep injustices that existed in the world: the exclusion from normal acceptance of gay people.
As those who disagreed with the action began to recover from their shock they fell back on the reasons why they believed that homosexuality was evil. They said this was how they had always interpreted the bible. They quoted church tradition through the ages. They used the words that had been used for centuries - perversion, sodomites, abnormal, sickness and suchlike. The other group of Christians however said that the bold step that had been taken was truly inclusive of everyone. If gay people could be accepted and included in the church just like everyone else, then truly the church was moving away from its old and limiting prejudices.
Both lots of Christians recognised that this move by the American Anglican Church would create huge difficulties. Just as the move from slavery had created huge problems. Great discussions, fierce argument, entrenched views. That a whole church - the Episcopal Church in America - could take this step seemed for some to be almost too good to be true. And, of course, it was! Very soon there were some church leaders in America who objected to making a gay Christian Priest a bishop so vehemently that it was obvious that either they or the Church would have to change radically, or they would have to leave the church.
They tried hard to change the decision of their church - without success. So they started to plan to leave. The question was how. To aid them, other traditional Anglican churches in other countries began to offer them pastoral oversight (which is quite against the rules!) They said the American congregations could opt to leave the oversight of their American bishop and transfer to the oversight of bishops from these other Anglican churches. Sometimes these outside Anglican churches were relatively near America - as were the South American ones - but sometimes they were offered oversight from a good distance away - for example, from Anglican Churches on the African continent.
This defecting of congregations has been regretted by the American leadership of the Episcopal Church. They thought they had provided sufficient assurances to these congregations to enable them to know that their objections to homosexuality would be respected. They insisted that if a congregation decided to leave the Episcopal Church at least they left behind their church property. That would allow the Episcopal Church to go on with its ministry in that district of America. It was their property, and there are always some members of the local congregation who do not want to move away from the Episcopal Church. But those congregants that were leaving did not want to part with the property which they had been worshipping in for some time - maybe for over a hundred years! So some departing congregations have tried to carry legal possession with them on their way out of the Episcopal Church. This has resulted in the cases being taken to the Courts - a legal wrangle has resulted and the outcome is not yet certain. Does the right to the property reside in the local organisation (the Church or diocese) or does it reside in the Episcopal Church overall?
All this is not the usual way that churches behave! Some Christians would say that it is not seemly! It contravenes basic New Testament teaching (1 Cor.6. 7), yet the “bible-believing” churches have persisted in trying to have their cake (leave the Episcopal Church) and to eat it (take the property with them). The point of law will be settled in due course, but the picture graphically shows the low state that Christendom has fallen into. Or does it?
Do the skirmishes and disagreements and accusations against each other of the various parties deny the power of Christ? Or does it rather show yet again and very plainly the basic nature of man (and woman)? Should we be surprised at what has happened? Is it not yet another replay of what has been happening all through the centuries as a new understanding of the gospel dawns and starts to affect first some and then the whole of Christendom?
Should we be surprised at what has happened? Did not similar things happen when slavery was first seen by some enlightened Christians to be an affront to the love of God? Have we not seen similar opposition - albeit less virulent - to the impertinent idea that women are to be ranked as equal with and interchangeable with men in positions in the church? Can any big step of reform ever happen slowly and quietly? And are there not always and in each generation some big steps that Christians are challenged to take? And is not the response of some Christians always the same? They say that the change does not fit in with traditional. That it is not in accord with biblical norms. That it upsets what went before. Do we not recognise this reaction?
It is the reaction of anyone who is suddenly challenged to get out of the rut they are in. The comfortable groove of custom. The reassuring knowledge that these things - whatever is being referred to - have been handed down from generation to generation since time immemorial. But where in the bible does it ever say that tradition is sacrosanct?
Look at the actions and preaching of some of the early disciples. They were in a revolutionary mood. They gave not a tinker’s cuss for the traditions of all the scribes and elders. They deliberately - and with great courage - stepped outside the accustomed and hallowed faith of their fathers.
If one reads the New Testament carefully - and if one stops relying on traditional interpretations - then it is obvious that the disciples in Jerusalem had to work through a major crisis. What was the problem? It was that the disciples were trying to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Jews. But the Jews were in a groove - they believed that the Law was their salvation and they could no more throw it over than they could jump over the moon. So how did these Jews reconcile their ongoing beliefs with the new gospel of Jesus Christ? Because the two did not mix. If you went on believing that the law was your salvation then you were not relying on the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. It must have been a very difficult time for the disciples. Not for them was there the ‘easy’ way out that Paul had found for the gentiles. Paul had said for the non-Jews that it was by faith alone. They did not need to be circumcised or follow the Jewish rules and regulations. They were to stand free in Christ. Free from all the tradition that hampered those who were still in the Jewish groove.
A few decades after the crucifixion the Jerusalem Christians were scattered to the four winds at the sack of the city. The temple - that most essential item in their tradition - was destroyed. The old religion was broken and it took some time before some of the Jews were able to reform their beliefs and their religion. Early Jerusalem disciples who still depended on the Law were forced out of their groove by events.
And so today also. The invitation is open to every Christian everywhere. Respond to the Holy Spirit and recognise the groove that the churches have been in these past hundreds of years. Recognise that our new understanding of human beings and their sexuality means we have to re-evaluate our approach as Christians to sexual matters. Foremost among these is our attitude to people who are homosexual. Not of their own choice, but that way made. Christians have suddenly seen that to shut these people out, to vilify them, to exclude them is wrong. As wrong as trying to pretend that women should be excluded from church office. As wrong as it would be to support slavery all over again.
The title to this article is taken from something said by the former Archbishop of Canterbury. The Most Rev. George Carey was speaking in Houston this week and seemed to me to be saying that adherence to tradition was the way forward in the present Anglican crisis. Well, senior clerics might well take that position. I dare say that leaders in the Sanhedrin took a similar line. Yes, we have a crisis. Yes, it is worldwide. Yes, many Christians are being shocked out of their accustomed acceptance of Christian tradition to come in to line with the world as we now know it. For heaven’s sake lets not crawl back into our comfortable groove and curl up and stuff cotton wool in our ears. Lets strike through to the heart of the matter. Did Christ die for all? Were his arms on the cross open to embrace all human beings? Can we trust the Holy Spirit to convict us of sin in our lives as we travel through life? Or have we to take refuge in tradition and old rules? Christ always walks just ahead of us. That is what following means. We are called to follow by living a gospel of love. Let’s do it!