THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 21
Deepening the dialogue
In the Church Times dated 23rd August 2002 there is a report of the Working Party of twelve Bishops, which was set up by Archbishop Carey after the Lambeth Conference to explore the situation regarding homosexuality post-Lambeth. Not unsurprisingly they were not able to reach a common mind regarding a single pattern of holy living for homosexual people. They also reported that they discovered they had different perceptions of the relationship of the authority of scripture to that of reason and tradition and contemporary experience!
I wonder whether anyone will be surprised at any of these conclusions! Entirely predicable – the Working Party is as split down the middle as the churches are. When an irresistible force meets an immoveable object – bang!
Apparently they also discovered the importance of restraining their desire to persuade the others to agree with their position! Which is as well! Archbishop Carey has since said that the job of the Working Party was not to resolve disagreements but to ‘deepen dialogue’.
So there we are. Everybody wants to avoid the subject of homosexuality. They could not (or would not) even come up with fudge, which is the time-honoured way out of such situations. Perhaps that is as well, in view of the position in the Anglican Communion world wide.
So where do we go from here?
The only way forward suggested by Archbishop Carey seems to be to be this attempt to ‘deepen dialogue’. But what are they going to talk about next? How to interpret the bible? Whether the bible is ‘true’? Whether the bible is infallible, inerrant and inspired? Or perhaps they are going to talk about the nature of sexuality and the need to take account of the emerging picture of the part sexuality plays in the life of a human being? Or perhaps about the place of sexuality in society – for example in Britain – today? Or, perhaps, why it is that so many priests of various sections of the churches have been uncovered as engaging in paedophile activity. What does this say about human nature, and about the way we run our churches?
Surely we are going to have to come to ‘the problem of homosexuality’ from a different angle. Either that or we are going to have to wait for several decades until church opinion catches up with enlightened public attitudes. In the end, that may be the only solution.
Surely all of this leads us to see an incredibly important fact about churches today. Does it not throw into relief that the problem is deeper than any one single issue? I would say that the characteristic of the churches is that they prefer to cling to the old rather than venture out into the new. This is a wider issue than homosexuality.
There are some very fine Christian voices challenging the church out there – just today there is a report about the Bishop of Oxford’s new book in which he attacks a ‘hierarchical and chauvinist’ view of God. ‘All images of God have continually to be qualified…. And masculine imagery about God is no exception’ he says. Can anyone seriously disagree with that? Yes – look at the Letters to the Editor in the next issue!
So who does disagree and on what grounds? Well, they do disagree and I suspect that the grounds are simply that the Bishop is disturbing the status quo. Challenging long held views. And some people then feel less secure and more vulnerable.
So how does this relate to the problem of the churches attitude to homosexuality? What we are talking about both as regards homosexuality and as regards new ways of expressing religious language is ‘change’. That is the problem. Change is seen as a disturbance and even as a threat to what we are accustomed to.
We are up against having to think new thoughts in new ways for new purposes. And we don’t like it. We resist it. In fact we fight it. Fight it tooth and nail. This is very human and natural. There is nothing new in it. It is how human beings are.
Once a person recognizes this inbuilt resistance to change that is in all of us, we recognize it as the key to many of the disputes that go on in church circles - and outside them!
So what is to be done? Do we, as suggested, have to wait until several decades have passed before we can see acceptance of ‘new’ ideas? There are other ways forward in the meantime, although we all recognize that time is probably the main factor which is needed to bring about a new attitude to these matters.
What are some of the alternative ways forward?
Firstly, there is the need for clarification of the role of the bible in all of this. It is vital that the general Christian public recognize what the bible is and what it is not. The bible is God’s Word – written down for us over centuries. But each generation has to interpret that Word – and our interpretations last for our generation only ! They have to be tested by each succeeding generation to see whether they still apply or whether we have moved on in our understanding.
Only when Christians get a right view of the bible can they start to let go of the old and outmoded ideas about God and morality.
Secondly, gay Christians have to demonstrate their commitment to Christ – their sanctity of life – their holiness, to put not too fine a point on it. Until Christian gay people are seen as living good lives committed to their church (where possible) and to the general good, the caricatures will prevail. Their holiness of life has to outshine the ungodliness of the non-Christian gay community – which is of course parallel to the heterosexual non-Christian community in its materialism, hedonism, and it’s profligacy.
Thirdly, gay Christians have to exercise great restraint when provoked by other Christians. When they are marginalized as ‘disordered’, ‘exorcised’, talked down to, they have to set an example by their lives – Galatians 5.22 in essence!
Fourthly. Gay Christians have to voice their beliefs and thoughts and ideas. They have to exercise their creativity – that God-given attribute which we all share with God. They have to make their voices heard in whatever ways lay open to them. Hence this column!
Fifthly, gay Christians have to explain in plain language how they see the various bible verses that are considered by some (but not by a majority, thank goodness!) as relevant to the subject of homosexuality. This is already done on many web sites. But perhaps it needs to be aired in the Christian magazines and books too.
Finally, Gay Christians have to be men and women of prayer. Activism will never achieve the final victory. Only prayer. Only closeness to God. Only the quiet, day-by-day obedience to the Holy Spirit. That, above all else, is what we need. In the end the battle is the Lord’s, not ours. We are just foot soldiers. He will bring about the change in Christian opinion in due course, in his good time. We must be content with that. It may mean hectic activity on our part – or it may mean sitting back and just waiting. Whatever it takes, the vital thing for us all is that we obey the Holy Spirit.
Two provisos. Firstly the Bishops and others in charge of church communities need to recognize that many gay Christians are deep in the closet in their churches. This is because if their sexuality were known they would be ostracized and excluded. They would no longer be given positions of authority and leadership. Certainly from Evangelical Churches. In many churches the intolerance (and feeling of oppression) is total. How can they be tempted out?
Secondly, we all, and especially we gay Christians, need to recognize that different people are called in different ways. I shall never go on a Gay Pride March and I am unsure what good, if any, they do. However, I must allow my fellow gay Christians to go their own way doing what they see as right. It is between them and God. We must all learn to live and let live.
I long to deepen the dialogue with fellow Christians – but not when they start from the position that I am perverted. I would love to reason out the various texts and principles – but not when I am regarded even before I start as someone ‘disordered’. I long to discuss my moral duty with my Vicar – but not when he might prefer to exorcise me! Only a lead from the very top of the Churches can change the atmosphere. It is a little more love we need.