THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 96
A schism-making divide?
A schism-making divide?
This week an article in the Church Times (surely the best of the Anglican weeklies!) talks of the inevitability of a split in the Anglican Communion.. The writer sees the two sides as irreconcilable and asserts - probably rightly - that there is a breakdown of any openness to even talk together of their differences.
This is understandable and those who have read previous articles on this web site will remember that I made this suggestion this many months ago. The convictions run very deep on both sides. On the one side homosexuality is seen as a grave sin and altogether evil. On the other the demonizing and excluding of gay people simply because of what appears to be natural to them is seen as deeply unchristian. It is the depth of such differences that lead one to see the present situation as schism-making.
Being an evangelical by origin as well as tradition (though perhaps ‘charismatic’ is a more appropriate label these days), I can understand the visceral hatred of homosexuality by some evangelicals. This is deeply ingrained and makes it very hard indeed for them to come to terms with gay sexuality. Indeed, one might even question whether such conservative evangelicals could ever completely overcome the feelings of revulsion that well up from their childhood and religious conditioning.
The period though which we are passing however is best understood as a passing phase. By that I mean that in a few decades from now the situation will be very different. Young people, now being brought up in todays society, will be much more accepting of gay people and of the whole modern understanding of sexuality. Of course some young people will be taught that homosexuality is wrong - but that will always happen in some religious families. But, increasingly, modern youth will have been brought up in a society where many if not most people see being gay as normal. They will not have to fight against an ingrained revulsion at the very thought of two men or two women expressing their love sexually for each other. They will not be aghast at the idea of two people of the same sex loving each other with a love similar to that of two heterosexuals.
So we are in a time warp. It exists for all those brought up in the old ‘gay equals sin’ atmosphere, and it will last for a few decades more yet. The attitude of ‘gay equals sin’ will gradually disappear, as the new understanding of human sexuality and human behaviour spreads through education. There will always be a rump of die-hard conservative Christians who refuse to accept homosexuality, just as there is a similar rump of Christians today who refuse to accept the principle of evolution. They still think everything was created complete in the year 4004 B.C. Some legislatures in the United States are even today being urged to rule against the exclusive teaching of evolution in schools. ‘Creationism’ is prevalent among Christians in these States. There are always some folks who stick their toes in and refuse to budge, even in the light of eminently reasonable arguments. That is their prerogative and I will defend their right to so believe to the last drop of my blood! That does not mean that I have to believe what they believe - nor that I must refrain from disagreeing with them whenever necessary!
We must add into the mix the complication of different cultures. There is no doubt that a good deal of the opposition of African Christians is rooted in their culture. Just as my ideas are rooted in my culture. This is the way humans are at this stage of our development. Homosexuality is illegal in their countries and they are living alongside another religion that is militantly anti-homosexual. Not an easy situation! If other sections of their Church in the West are seen to be accepting of homosexuality they will be condemned as immoral. They have our sympathies. But, having listened to their views, I cannot agree with them. I prefer my interpretation of the situation!
In this interim period - can we put the period as from around 1975 to 2025? - a period of around fifty years - many if not most gay Christians have to fight a battle within their own consciences, because they have been brought up in a society where many still condemn homosexuality as wrong ands sinful.
This has been the subject of a previous article. The conflict we currently have to face between what we know (in our minds) and what we feel (in our consciences). Naturally this internal conflict was even harder at the beginning of this fifty year period, when opposition to gay people was at its strongest. It has become progressively easier as the seventies became the eighties and nineties. Young people today do not have the same hang ups as those several decades older. Society has changed and is changing, and now even the law has been changed to accommodate the new understanding of homosexuality. By 2025 I imagine that most Christians will accept being gay as a perfectly normal state for a minority of people.
However, that last statement cannot be relied upon! It may take longer! For example, the Roman Catholic Church at present considers homosexuality as a disordered state, based on their whole attitude towards sexuality. And there is always the fight-back of conservative evangelicals as evident in the U.S.A. at the present time.
There may always be a section of Christians who will not accept homosexuality. A rump of protesters. In a similar way there were Christians who, early last century, saw dancing and alcohol as the devil’s instruments for the debasement of society. Other Christians at that time felt that playing card games was wrong. And many Christians thought that all such activities were sacrilegious if engaged upon on a Sunday!
All through history this has been the pattern. Christians of a certain generation would see evil and decadence in some new form of activity or pleasure. They declare it to be morally reprehensible and dictate that it should not to be indulged in by Christians. It is shunned by many Christians at first. Then, eventually, it comes to be accepted by most Christians, as a more balanced and normal view of the activity is adopted.
Likewise of course the opposite process also happened. Practices accepted by everyone - including the Christian community - as perfectly normal and acceptable, would be recognized as wrong and morally indefensible. The Christians however would not necessarily be in the forefront of discerning this. Many Christians would go on defending and practising what was increasingly seen as morally wrong.
Take slavery - accepted by everyone at one time as a fact of life and entirely acceptable, until the conscience of the nation was roused by a reforming group. Yet the ideas of that group were attacked by some Christians who pointed out that the practice had been going on for centuries, was backed by the bible and was vital to the economy of the country. Eventually the reforming group got their Bill through Parliament and everyone began to recognise that slavery was inhuman and totally at odds with all that Christ taught. Another illustration would be apartheid in South Africa, where Christians believed in an iniquitous doctrine and later had to recant.
So here we have two vivid examples of how misled even Christians can be about moral issues. We can believe with all our heart that the way we read the gospels is the only true interpretation - and we can be completely wrong! And that applies to both anti-gay and pro-gay camps in the present situation!
A broad church is very important because we need each other - the Body of Christ - plus the passage of time and the light shed on the subject by prayer, the back and forth of discussion between opposing Christian viewpoints, and the growth of humility by all concerned! We need time - perhaps decades - to discern what the Spirit is saying and where he is leading us, and what new light he wants to shed on the application of the gospel to human society.
It is for this reason that schism is regrettable. What does schism imply? Surely it is basically an attitude of self-righteousness on the part of those initiating the separation? It is an attitude that says ‘I am right and you are wrong. And you are so wrong that I can no longer tolerate you in the same church. So we must divide and go our separate ways.’
But is that a Christ-like attitude? Is this what Christ wants in his Kingdom? Or does he show us that maintaining our fellowship is more important? No wonder that the Archbishop of Canterbury said in a recent television interview that his role as head of the Communion must be to preserve unity at all costs.
Christ surely knew what was brewing in the heart of Judas. Yet he did not separate him from the rest, nor exclude him from the fellowship. At the Last Supper he told Judas to do what he had to do quickly. Is that the attitude of schism?
Taking prayer of Christ in John 17. He prays (verse 11) that we all might be one even as he is one with his Father. What does that mean? In what way was Christ one with his Father when he was on earth? He was divine man - fully God and fully man. As much God as man could be without not being man anymore. He was perfectly in tune with the Father. Yet sometimes even he confessed ignorance (Matt 24.36) and on such occasions he was content to leave matters in his Father’s hands. There was a degree of oneness with his Father that he wants us to mirror. He wants us to rely on the Father as he relied when he was a man walking this earth. He wants us to trust and rely on God wholly and, when we cannot see the way ahead clearly, to simply trust.
If we divide on matters of doctrine or morality is that trusting or is it taking matters into our own hands? In effect is it not saying to God ‘ I don’t think you are managing this very well, so I will take drastic remedial action myself’.
A broad church tolerates diversity. The Church of England has had plenty of diversity in the past! We have also moved on from many ideas and beliefs that were held in the past - for example take our present ideas about hell. We have diversity and always will have - and that is part of our richness. That reflects the nature of human beings. What matters is not our standpoint on this or that particular issue, but rather our determination that those outside the church will say of us: ‘how these Christians love one another!’ To break fellowship with others who love Christ and know the saving power of his resurrection is surely a serious sin against the Holy Spirit.
To separate - either by breaking away or by forming an exclusive church within a church - seems to me to be the antithesis of Christ’s attitude. To fall into the ‘us and them’ attitude is to lose the plot. After the death of John Wesley there was disagreement in the Methodist Church which divided into three separate churches (Wesleyan, Primitive and United), but then in 1932 the three churches united and everyone saw immediately how right that was. Are we to go in the opposite direction in the Anglican Communion? If we are it will be because cultural differences across the world have become too much for us - but it will be a sad day. Let’s hope and pray that we can be big enough to live together, even with our differences. Indeed, we must have the attitude that God is wanting to show us something through what is now happening and that we all have yet to truly learn what that something is.