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Article No. 190

Nuances, interpretations, applications and disagreement

The Bishop of Liverpool has caused a fluttering in the dovecotes by his Presidential Address to Synod a few days ago. The heading of this article is a quotation from what he said concerning the Church of England which he described as a large space with room for a variety of nuances, interpretations, applications and disagreement.  If you have not read the full address I really think you should take a few minutes to find and read it. Google “Bishop James Presidential Address,  Synod.”

The central appeal made by Bishop James at the Synod was that Christians of differing views regarding homosexuality should avoid breaking up because of their differences and to stay together to work out what is right, however long it takes.

The Bishop drew a parallel with the disagreements between Christians over the validity of war and the ongoing argument about the ‘Just War’. That disagreement has been going on for over fifteen hundred years - and there are still varying Christian views on it!  So, says the Bishop, is the situation with regard to homosexuality.

Certainly the argument about homosexuality has raged back and forth over this last decade - and it may take decades if not centuries before we get to the point where most Christians see it one way or the other.

It seems to me that the Bishop is speaking with the voice of reason. What benefit would come from the Church of England being riven in two by this disagreement? Quite apart from the powerful argument of reason, it seems to me that there is scriptural warrant for a reasonable approach by the disputing parties who should work together for the greater good. I explored this subject in my last article (number 189) but I will briefly outline it again for completeness.  

There was huge disagreement in the early church as outlined in Acts and Galatians. Paul disagreed fundamentally with the attitude taken by Peter when he visited Antioch. He felt that, while there, Peter had changed his position with regard to Gentiles simply because of a group of Jewish Christians who had arrived from Jerusalem.  

There was a faction of Jewish Christians in Jerusalem that clearly believed that it was essential for the Christian community  to hold to Jewish customs. They could not imagine how new Gentile Christians could be allowed to be part of the Christian community unless they underwent all the usual rituals that converts to the Jewish Faith normally undertook.

Peter had initially treated the Gentile Christians as equal in all ways to Jewish Christians.  Then, when he thought the Jewish Christians from Jerusalem viewed the Gentile Christians as not yet fully Christian (because they had not undergone the Jewish rites), it seemed to Paul that Peter backed away from fellowship with them.  This seemed so clearly wrong to Paul that he stood up and publicly accused Peter of hypocrisy. The outcome is not reported but clearly Paul continued to preach that faith alone was required to become a Christian.  

The matter at issue was a very important one. There was division between two different sets of Christians.  Some of the leaders of the Christian communities were wobbly on the matter.  Yet there was no schism, no break. Maybe each side concentrated on it’s own mission field (whether Jewish or Gentile) thereafter - but there is no record of any schism or refusal to have fellowship with each other.

In the Christian church at present we have a very important matter (homosexuality - and the need to include everyone in the Church irrespective of sexual orientation) and we have radical disagreement. There are differences of course between the two situations - but I think that they are similar enough for the earlier situation to be an example for us. So what does the example show us?

Clearly Paul continued in his belief that faith in Christ was the one condition of entry for Gentiles. And clearly Peter, who eventually, arrived in Rome - possibly around the same time as Paul - was advocating the same faith. Their witness was in harmony.

So the suggestion of the Bishop of Liverpool that the various parties on various sides of this debate should be prepared to work together in the wider context of the church’s mission follows biblical precedent. For my money, at this time it is not only eminently sensible but also an inspired suggestion.

Why do I think it is inspired?  It is the right suggestion about the way forward for the Church of England (and for the Anglican Communion!) at the right moment because there are clearly differing views at the present time among the Bishops of the Church of England. This call from the Bishop of Liverpool - an acknowledged evangelical - should encourage others who see the value of a middle way to join him and declare their support for this approach.

We might hope that this will be the start of a more general move to challenge extremists who want to divide the church - the sheep to the left and the goats to the right. Those who want to shut out others as being wrong!  

So we can be particularly grateful for this move by the Bishop of Liverpool, who is someone looking for a way out of the impasse. A positive suggestion that will enable a number of people to heave a sigh of relief and say -’ Amen!’

Of course there will always be some who prefer to stick rigidly to their principles and find it impossible to compromise. For them their principles are sacrosanct - of more importance than unity of heart among Christian brothers. For them what offends against their view of the bible is more important than keeping the faith alongside others who love Christ and are under his Lordship.  For them a fixed view of what the bible says and means is paramount.

Well, if that has to be then that has to be. The important thing is to try to go forward in love and friendship and to avoid ill will or strife. We need to find a middle way that will damage the fabric of the Church as little as possible.

But remember - the new knowledge of human sexuality that has been gathered over the last couple of hundred years is not going to go away. Nor is it likely to be proved wrong. Gay people are a fact of life, not an aberration. They are God’s children, not a bunch of perverts! As the world goes forward in better understanding of the human body, mind and spirit, it is going to be shown that two people of the same sex can love each other with a pure and selfless love. And they can commit their lives to each other. And that God will bless such a partnership. And that such a partnership can play a useful part in the society in which it finds itself.  

So, whether our differences come down to nuances, or to interpretations - we can still worship together because we worship the same God.  Whether we are at odds over interpretations or even if our viewpoints lead to open disagreement, there is a way for us to rise above division. That way is made possible when we stop looking at each other - or at our disagreements - and turn our eyes upon the God we worship. When we look at Him we forget our preoccupation with how wrong the other fellow is, we start to see that our unity in Him is far greater and more important than our disagreements.  

There may be some who cannot do that. We must be realistic and recognise that that may happen. Some may hold to their viewpoint as the most valuable thing they have. Indeed, it may be that for some their viewpoint completely absorbs them and they can only see the difference in viewpoints. They can only see the gap between them and the other person, not how near both are to Christ who died for us all.  We must allow for the possibility that some may find themselves unable to walk together with their brothers and sisters in Christ. And so we shall have to agree to part - but let it be in love and without rancour. Let us hope and pray that over time all will fall in  with suggestion of the Bishop of Liverpool, and others of like mind, even though they may hold differing views.

Tony Cross
March 2010

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