THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 104
In harmony together or split?
All the churches in the world are facing - or will shortly face - the problem about what to do with their members who are gay. The problem arose in a clearly defined form a decade ago and some of those churches kicked the problem to working groups, committees or some such body. Now the reports have come rolling in. The Church of England, as we all know so well, is totally enmeshed in the problem and totally at a loss on how to go forward. Many conservative evangelicals are implacably opposed to any accommodation of gays in church life, and the body of the church and the liberal wing are disposed to allow them some space.
The latest Church to surface in its struggles to resolve the now worldwide problem is the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Apparently proposals have been put to the denomination’s assembly with a plea that the church work on together, despite their differences.
And what is happening about it? The conservative network has been distributing pamphlets contending that there is no basis in Scripture for gay relationships. And - yes you have guessed it - a coalition of Lutheran groups seeking full inclusion of gays has been lining the hallways leading to the daily meetings of the Assembly holding poster sized photographs of their gay children or their same-sex partners to highlight the personal stories behind the deliberations.
Some sort of decision will be made by weekend, but the plea to the Assembly is that they should not squander this ‘great gift of unity’.
The struggle goes on!
Can any outcome worldwide be discerned? Well yes, I think the outcome can be fairly safely predicted in general terms.
Is it not clear that this issue will in fact divide some fellowships and churches to the point of separation across the Christian world? Indeed, it has already done so. There will be those who insist on ‘purity’ in their faith and will therefore exclude gays. There will be those who look to the inclusive love of God and so will include gays. And in the middle there will be churches that tolerate the diversity of Christian opinion on the matter.
Which group do you want your church to be in?
The churches that rigidly insist on excluding gays will, I fear, continue on their rigid way. There have always been churches like that. They have a part to play. As a group on the edge of the mainstream of Christians they keep reminding us that there is a historic faith, that the bible and the traditions of Christians are important. That our faith can become diluted or even polluted by mistake, ignorance ands heresy. That we must not treat scripture lightly as it is, indeed, the foundation document of our faith. Where they will perhaps miss out is that they will be a little out of date. They will not have realised that what is being discovered and revealed in the world year by year is also of God and that we have, as Christians, to incorporate that knowledge and understanding into our faith. That does not mean diluting the faith nor polluting the faith. It means we learn more of our wonderful Lord and the incredible complexity of his world and how he works through it.
If we fail to do that - and get stuck in the past - then we become less and less listened to by those around us. We are bypassed because it becomes obvious to everyone that we are no longer questing for truth, but have settled down into a rigid pattern of past truth. However true something was several hundred years ago it needs to be subjected to the scrutiny of the Spirit right now.
The churches that welcome gays will of course have to be careful. If their ready acceptance of gays betokens a disregard for the inner truth of the bible then they are set on a perilous course. If they are cavalier about what the bible says to us about the eternal truths and values, then sooner or later they will come a nasty cropper or evaporate into nothing.
There is always a danger that a church will eagerly take up some aspect of our faith or major on some feature of Christian living. Such a church may well prove not be stable. It is not listening to the Spirit, but rather to the spirit of the age. Sooner or later these churches usually become indistinguishable from the world around them.
If we find ourselves dismissing the bible in any way or downgrading it’s significance then it is a danger sign. The bible is our touchstone - but a bible that has to be read with the help of the Holy Spirit, not a bible that is word perfect in some magical way.
I have looked at the various attitudes to the bible a number of times in these articles. Throughout I have held that it can never be said enough times that the bible is our unique source document and as such is our lifeline.
Now for the third category of church. Not the conservative nor the ultra adaptable modern church, but all those churches in the middle. Those churches where, probably, most of the people in the pews have neither been consulted about their views on gay Christians nor, for that matter, do they probably have strong views either way on the subject.
Guessing - going by anecdotal evidence only - I would suggest that most ‘ordinary’ Christians take the line that they accept that some people just are gay and that they should be allowed to do their own thing - and I think that most would not want to evict them from either the church (as ordinary lay people) nor from the eldership/priesthood. It is the quality of their life that most Christians would look at. They are known within their own church community and their fellow Christians will make up their mind about them as people.
So I would guess that the vast majority of Christians, while maybe slightly uneasy about gay people (after all it is only decades since homosexuality was legalised!) would not go with the exclusionist crowd.
That brings me back to my title. In these three broad groups of churches - what is the attitude towards the gravity of this issue? Is it a schism-making matter? Should we divide our fellowships over it? Must we go our separate ways?
Some of those in the conservative evangelical churches will possibly want to divide. For these people the sacrosanct words of the bible are interpreted in a certain way and the validity of a new approach is so dubious for them that they will probably wish to separate. They will see no alternative to hiving off those who 'believe’ in the bible from those who 'adapt to society‘. Maybe they have to separate like this. If so, they should go with our blessing. They are acting from conviction - just like James and his representative from Jerusalem (Galatians 2) who did not agree with eating with Gentiles.
Those in the ultra modern, ultra-accepting mode will not want to separate. Why should they! They see gay Christians as just another sort of Christian - and in this we would agree with them. So they will have no patience with their brethren who want to separate on the grounds of purity of doctrine and practice. In fact they may even feel somewhat condescending about their more conservative brethren, whom they may see as fuddy duddy and out of date.
But the vast majority in the middle - those who do not find the issue all that vital - may well regret the idea that the church is going to divide. They see schism as a failure. Some regard it as contrary to the essence of Christian teaching. They regard a splitting off as sad.
Is it sad that some churches are splitting up like this? Historically, even the Church of England itself can be viewed as a branch that split off the Roman Catholic Church. The pattern has been with us for centuries. The Methodists divided (though they are together again now). And as for the Pentecostals - well, there are hundreds if not thousands of different varieties of the Church.
Does all of this matter? Is it a sorrow and pain to God that we Christians act in this way? Is this true ‘disunity’?
In this matter I am somewhat of a radical as I firmly believe that a multitude of different groups of Christians is not only entirely natural - I think it is actually a good thing!
Take a single factor: worship. There are some Protestants who abhor all the trappings you get in some Anglican churches. They do not want stained glass windows, a liturgy, a choir, pews, vestments. But for some Anglicans these are immensely important for their worship. An enormous difference. The Quakers do without any ritual of any sort. We are all different. Why should be forced into one mould? One size does most definitely not fit all!
Think of the cultural differences across the world. Some Christians are so different from British Christians that about the only thing you would recognise if you went to their worship would be the cross sitting in the centre! Is that wrong? Are we all supposed to want the same cultural symbols as those in the middle of Africa? Have we all got to be the same? Of course not!
The proponents of ‘lets all be one’ go back, I think, to Christ’s prayer in John 17: May they be one as we are one. And they interpret that as the idea that we should only have one church worldwide. I see this as a misunderstanding of what Christ was praying. It also ignores the cultural differences between the races of the world.
What is necessary is that we are one in the Spirit. What we have to do is be united in love. Only as we reflect the life and teaching of Jesus Christ shall we even recognise each other. Not by the vestments we wear or the words we intone. It is by their fruits that ye shall know them. Look to see what sort of life a man if living and then you will know whether he is a Christian or not. Diversity is acceptable in every way except in our love and commitment to Christ.
So I say to all those who feel they must separate in order to be ‘pure’ - go with my blessing. May the Lord lead and guide you. May he show you the way forward. You go with my blessing. And to those who remain behind I would say - right, now we must get on with living according to the light the Spirit has shown us - let us live out the love of Christ in as inclusive a way as he did.