THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 92
The Windsor Report - Number Five
Issues for the Primates
The Church of England Newspaper today (18th February) contains an article which raises five issues that the author would like the Primates to consider. I would like to offer my comments of these various issues raised, although I don’t expect the Primates are regular readers of this column!
The first issue is that of authority. In particular - the authority of Holy Scripture. The question is asked whether we are prepared to live under the supreme authority of Holy Scripture and Archbishop Carey is quoted as having said (presumably concerning the gay issue) that the problem is not one of interpretation but of authority.
The article states that the bible speaks with one voice about homoerotic activity and that all sexual activity - heterosexual or homosexual - must take place within marriage. And that monogamous marriage is the norm for sexual relationships.
Let me first agree totally that the authority of scripture is the point at issue. It is the cornerstone for any true Christian disciple or of any true Christian church. A wrong approach to scripture is a key fault and always leads, sooner or later, to deep trouble in all sorts of ways. But what the article does not seem to recognise is that approaching scripture as sacrosanct in a literal or semi-literal way is as bad, if not worse than, bypassing the authority of scripture altogether. It is as bad to lean on biblical texts in the wrong way as it is not to rely on them at all.
Why is too slavish an approach to scripture almost worse than bypassing scripture altogether? Because it twists and obscures the true meaning behind the words. Because it tries to preserve insights received in the past as if they apply equally for all time. Because it holds out as true a Christianity that actually diverts readers away from the spirit of the text to the letter of the text. That opens up a Pandora’s box of trouble.
The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (2 Cor. 3.6) and surely we need to have regard to how we are using scripture. The Spirit always wants to show us new things through scripture - if we fasten inflexibly on old interpretations we close our minds to where the Spirit wants to take us.
The pedantic mind - the mind that wants clear instructions, clear direction as to what to believe, say or do - is afraid of uncertainty. It craves a clear direction - it wants to be told in black and white so that it does not make a mistake. At bottom I suppose there is fear behind its search for direction - fear of going wrong. Fear of making a mistake. If everything is spelled out and laid down in black and white then there is less chance of making a mistake.
I call this the black and white approach to scripture. It may not always mean strict literalism - but it always seeks direction rather than relying on the Spirit to lead and guide.
The second issue in the article is about Gospel-related matters. It suggests that opponents of the writers views are in real danger as they are going against what St Paul is calling for. The writer is suggesting that to disagree with Paul (or, to be more precise, disagreeing with what the writer thinks Paul is saying) is a serious matter ! In particular he is referring to 1 Corinthians 6. 9-10.
But who is suggesting that the gay Christian is throwing over St Paul’s direction in One Corinthians or anywhere else? Gay Christians are in accord with St Paul and concur that greedy people (along with adulterers, male prostitutes, heterosexual people who act in a homosexual way, thieves, drunkards and slanderers) will not inherit the Kingdom of God. Here we see the typical association by conservative evangelicals of gay people with sexual sin of all sorts. Instead, gay people are talking about two gay people who love each other and who have committed their lives to be together until death do them part. Greedy people and those who steal will not inherit the Kingdom of God, says Paul. I agree with him that promiscuous people who operate outside loving commitment will suffer the same fate as the greedy.
The third issue outlined in the article states that homosexuality is a pastoral issue. It says that homosexual people ‘ should be warmly welcomed into our churches’.
How nonsensical! The emphasis here must be on the word ‘should’, because the fact is that they are not welcomed in any real way into conservative evangelical churches. And every truthful conservative evangelical knows that! What do I mean by that?
To be warmly welcomed means that the person feels wanted - that they are valued for themselves just as they are. Of course we are all sinners needing amendment of life as we travel through this world. But to be welcomed we must feel that what we have to offer in the church is recognised and valued by the other members of the church. That does not apply for gay people in any conservative church I know, or have ever heard of! In most conservative evangelical churches gay people are not valued as gay Christians - only as ‘gay-people-who-can-be-changed’. They are welcomed as gay people who, although misled and confused (and, maybe, sinful or possessed) can be healed, exorcised or ‘changed’ into good law abiding Christians.
In conservative evangelical churches gay Christians are looked upon as spiritually suspect. They are not accorded any spiritual role in leadership as, of course, they are considered in error by their fellow members. Unreliable. Off the lines, sexually. Ripe for transformation by the power of the Spirit.
This part of the article is in my opinion downright dishonest. It pretends to something that just does not exist. Evangelical churches do not welcome gay Christians - they only welcome gay Christians who are prepared to be changed from being gay. How can a gay Christian play a responsible part in a conservative evangelical church when he is regarded with such suspicion, condemnation and superiority? I think it is a totally spurious statement in the article - untrue to real life and a device to pretend that such churches are inclusive when, in fact, they are very exclusive.
Indeed it seems to me that to talk of gay Christians being warmly welcomed in conservative evangelical churches is a kind of curtain drawn over a very nasty characteristic of those churches. They are often very autocratic, rigid, authoritarian and insular. They are intolerant of other people’s truth and they are condemnatory in all sorts of unconscious ways. This part of the article sticks in the gullet of anyone who knows the real position in these conservative evangelical churches.
The fourth heading in the article is that it is a witness issue. It is pointed out that the homosexual tolerance in the Christian church creates a real problem for countries where the Christians are in a minority - the instance of Islamic countries is made.
It is deduced, I assume, that the whole Anglican Communion -made up of some thirty eight different Provinces - should refrain from agreeing to any of the Provinces tolerating homosexuality.
This is really the most fatuous of the five issues raised in this article. Is the author really suggesting that we must all tiptoe on eggshells so as not to upset the sensibilities of the Islam majority in certain countries? Apart from asking whether followers of Islam observe any such reciprocal sensitivity - which of course they do not - one has to ask whether we should also stop saying that Jesus is the Son of God, because Islam holds a rather different picture of him.
This is really scraping the barrel for some sort of objection to what is proposed by those at the forefront of change in the Anglican Communion. It just doesn’t hold water.
But there is a deeper point here. Is it right that the Christian Church should be inclusive of gay Christians? If so, is it right to pretend that they are not inclusive so as not to offend people of other religions in other countries? How wrong is that morally? It cannot be right to pretend to something to avoid persecution.
The writer of the article outlining these five issues has clearly not reflected enough or thought it through. Truth must be witnessed to whatever suffering results. We may be fearful and fail to witness because of our fear - but that is different to holding out the principle that we should mask our message of inclusivity to avoid suffering.
The fifth and final issue that is highlighted in this article is the ‘Church functioning’ issue. In this section the writer reiterates the tired old argument about collegiality being the reasonable and acceptable approach for the future. He is saying in effect that no novel view in the history of the church can or should be pursued without a clear account of the theological reasons and that it should be argued first and the goodwill of the whole Communion obtained before the idea is pursued.
To have to obtain the consensus of the whole Communion - all thirty eight Provinces - before any forward movement is made is clearly a recipe for disaster. It is not how the Anglican Communion has operated hitherto. If you try to get the agreement of all the Provinces before you move forward you may as well pack up and forget it! And if you do that you forgo the living Breath of the Spirit who just doesn’t work best via Committees and by the agreement of thirty eight sets of committees and conventions in the Provinces. Rather this inspiration blows here and there, without us knowing whence he came or whither he goes.
I have given responses to all five of the issues elaborated on in the article. I can see perfectly well where the writer is coming from. I am not coming from the same standpoint. Once upon a time I stood at that place - but I believe that Spirit called me to venture forth and risk all to follow where he led. Maybe I have got it wrong. Maybe the writer of the article has got it wrong. Most likely we both have to some extent got it wrong!
But lets not get pedantic and authoritarian. Lets sit more loosely to our glorious scriptures and to our precious gospel. Let us hold Scripture especially precious - indeed, vital - but let us be open in our understanding. We need liberation from past bonds - even if some of them were forged in the Reformation. We belong to Christ, not any entrenched view of the bible.