THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 112
The difference between fudge and compromise
The discord in the Anglican Communion and the uncertain outcome is truly distressing to many people. Not only is the disagreement painful, but it also seems so long drawn out! There certainly appears to be no prospect of any resolution of the matter before the next Lambeth Conference (if it takes place) in 2008. And so much is happening week by week that it is hard to keep up to date! Yet what an opportunity! What an exhilarating time to be alive as an Anglican! At long last deep seated differences are surfacing and being tackled.
Being tackled? Is that what we call the flat statements of intent and the discord that is only too obvious these days between different sections of the Anglican Church!? Well, yes. The very fact that the issues have come into the open is a triumph in itself. That they are being addressed, even if it is to restate opposition, is another advance.
In the past we have not had the courage to face honestly what is now troubling many minds. The difference between gay and straight, between conservative and liberal, between ‘bible as literal truth and bible as guide’ - all these differences have been either hidden or been placed in separate compartments so that there was no public clash between them.
So now that the issues have been raised we are at last being honest about our differences. That is good news, not bad. It is good news because we have become more honest and more open about it all. And that means that we have all to go back and reexamine what we really believe and try to assess how important that is to us. We have also had to face the question: are we prepared to live alongside other Christians who don’t think like us?
So this emerging of difference into the broad daylight has been a good thing. Not something to be regretted. Not something to moan about or decry as unchristian. No, it is wholly good and we shall all come out of it clearer and more certain of our beliefs, whatever they are.
Of course it has to be said that perhaps these matters have edged one step further into the light than some of us would want - they have come under the media spotlight. That is not bad in itself - at least it reminds the ninety percent of the population who live daily in complete oblivion of what the churches are doing - but it is bad when the reporting gets it wrong. And the media does get it wrong a lot of the time. Not necessarily the religious correspondents of the broadsheets, but the tabloid and other reporters often look for the sensational headline, and the effect of these, splashed across a few hundred thousand papers delivered daily, must be negative. However, at the end of the day bad reporting is not in itself a fatal disease and we must learn to disregard that negative aspect of the situation - far more important issues are at stake.
So we are at least being honest about our disagreements. - that is good. Personally I did not support the classic ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach. It left a taste of deceit in one’s mouth, although of course many a gay person has lived and still lives their life out on this basis. After all, why should they advise people of their sexual orientation if they don’t wish to? Whose business is it, anyway!
So now the disagreements are in the open . At last! Because there was a time when all one could hear was Christians saying that there were far more important things than homosexuality to be busy about. There were the poor and the homeless and the distressed. But that was always simply a way of avoiding the issue. This issue has to be faced and dealt with by churches - society has reached a point where it needs to know what Christians think and believe about this issue.
But what exactly is the issue that has to be dealt with by churches?
The subject has become a rather slippery customer. Is it the acceptability of homosexuality among Christians? (and do we mean orientation or practice, or both - and what practice are we talking about?) or is it something deeper - such as ‘do we accept the authority of the bible’ - or maybe it is even more complex than that, involving perhaps East/West tensions and anti-American feelings?
Lets try to disentangle the various issues and sort out where we are with them.
The first issue is about homosexuality itself. I think it is generally accepted nowadays - at least in the West - that there is such a thing as sexual orientation and that homosexuality is a genuine condition that stems from a combination of genes and hormones, upbringing and culture.
But having accepted it as ‘normal’ does that mean we approve of it? There’s the rub! We are working through the legacy of the past decades and centuries when homosexuality was often treated as a grievous perversion - something to be stamped out, treated seriously and punished.
So on this issue the general public needs to be given time until their attitudes can come into line with reality. Social attitudes always take a time to catch up. It may be another fifty years before homosexuality is accepted as normal by almost everybody just as we accept people being a different colour today.
The second issue to be sorted out is the question of biblical authority. Here we are up against a very vague problem, because there are all shades of belief about the bible. Some treat it as the Word of God and believe that we must follow unquestioningly its plain teachings. Others hold that we must interpret all we read to make it applicable for today. Some may hold mainly to just the New Testament but others insist that it is the whole bible that we must follow as closely as we can.
This subject comes into view dragging a very large baggage train in its wake. In fact baggage stretching back to the Reformation several hundred years ago. For now lets just note that there are many Christians who ‘believe’ in the bible without taking such a literal stance towards what it says . They prefer to concentrate on what Christ taught and how he lived, died and rose again in order to decide what it right in this day and age. They are sensitive to the Holy Spirit guiding and interpreting the biblical text and they look to Christ as the Word of God.
The third issue that comes in this packet labelled ‘The gay problem’ is the matter of tensions between different parts of the world. There is no doubt that the United States of America is largely hated and its culture resisted in many parts of the world. It is often perceived as a dominant nation that is throwing its weight about without regards to the rights of other nations and their peoples. It is seen as lacking in empathy or even understanding of complex situations abroad, and many millions of people quite simply see it as the enemy.
When we talk of East and West we perhaps need to define our terms a little more clearly. The East/West divide can be taken to mean rich versus the poor countries. Or the developed against the undeveloped countries (much the same list!) or the Western Civilization countries against those with a wholly different religious and cultural basis, such as in Africa or Asia.
That there is an East/West split is undoubted, although it is a difference that many suspect the American politicians and leaders are unaware of, or at least pay too little attention to. In more concrete terms it can be seen in some of the statements coming out of Africa (especially Nigeria) that are critical of ‘the West’.
So there we have it. The issue of homosexuality has brought all these issues to the forefront of people’s minds and we are faced with how we proceed from here.
Well lets say straightaway that we must go on being fearlessly honest with each other. We must not on any account try to stuff the problem into the cupboard and pretend it isn’t there any more. The genie will not go back in the bottle. There are other pressing issues - but this issue is very important and is also pressing!
Secondly we have to be wary of going along with a fudge. A fudge just won't do any more! What is a fudge? It is when we confuse the issue to such an extent that it is not longer easy to decide an answer. In a fudge, the issue is not truly faced, nor is it finally dealt with. That just won't do any more.
So, if not a fudge, what then? Well, we are surely left with a choice: either we part and go our different ways or we find an acceptable compromise. But what compromise could ever be acceptable to those who describe Christians on the other side of the divide as bestial?
But what I am suggesting is not a compromise either. A compromise is where each side gives in to some extent in order to reach agreement with the other side. Such giving in is a compromise, because it is ground lost. I am not suggesting that. I am advocating neither a fudge nor a compromise. There is a better way. A way that enables both sides to hold onto their views of truth and yet work together with those with whom they radically disagree, until such time as all reach agreement. Unfortunately the Windsor Report failed to outline this alternative approach. In this solution, each side has the right hold to its own opinions until the time arrives when all parties can amicably agree about what is the right way forward.
In fact we have a model of such an approach very near to hand. Not in the Anglican Church, which seems set on forcing a discriminatory system on thirty eight national churches in order to attempt to achieve a false unity. That is, a unity that is only surface deep, and beneath which there is rank disagreement and intolerance.
What is this example? It is to be found in the deliberations of the Methodist Church in this country. While I am no expert on Methodism, it appears that, as in other churches, the matter has been studied and discussed for many years. Eventually a Report was agreed at the Derby Conference in 1993 and this adopted six resolutions which might be summarised as follows:
1. sex is God’s gift, and carries responsibilities
2. promiscuity is wrong
3. no person should be disbarred from church because of sexual orientation.
4. chastity outside marriage and fidelity within it
5. these decisions by Conference shall not be used to discipline anyone.
6. Conference recognises, affirms and celebrates the participation and ministry of lesbians ands gay men in Church, and calls for Methodists to combat repression and discrimination, to work for justice and human rights and to give dignity and worth to people whatever their sexual orientation.
This subject was revisited by Conference in 2005 and the matter was referred back for a further report. The 2005 Report showed that the Methodist Church, while still seeking the way forward, wished to remain an open, welcoming and inclusive body which did not turn people away because of their sexual orientation. The next report came before Conference in June 2006 and, interestingly, it focused on the concept of pilgrimage. The authors of the report affirmed that all members of the church were on pilgrimage together and that pilgrimage was about travelling along with other people who share the same underlying faith but who have differing experiences and perspectives. And they said that as we travel together we can learn from one another.
Could anything be simpler yet closer to the spirit of Jesus? Does it not strike you as parallel with the action of washing the feet of his disciples feet by Christ? An attitude of toleration and mutual respect, no matter how deeply they differed in their experiences or perspectives? And there is this idea of learning from each other - a humility that again reflects the Christ.
Am I being over simplistic suggesting that this approach is the one that could lead us through the present morass of problems? If this model were held up to all thirty eight national churches in the Anglican Communion would it not help them to find a way through their problems of discord and disagreement?
The important thing to note is that this is not a fudge. There is no hiddeness or deceit here. The disagreement is fully in the open. Nor is it a compromise, for neither side loses ground. All those involved hold to their original beliefs, but we all agree that we disagree. We can even pinpoint the exact issues on which we disagree - but still we agree to travel on together along the pathway marked out for us by God until we come to a common mind about the matter. Is that not a positive way forward? And could not every national church in the Communion easily adopt it as a viable way forward?
Such a course would hope that one day the church as a whole would come to a united conclusion about homosexuality. As is the way with the Spirit, he leads us to face the real problem - our refusal to travel together - and will only give us the answer to the other problem - what to do about homosexuality - when we are ready for it.
The beauty about this solution is that all of us can start right now, where we are today, implementing this attitude. We don’t have to wait for the other man. All of us can begin today to travel alongside those with whom we disagree, preserving the unity of the journey in humility and openness to the Holy Spirit. If some will no longer walk with us, then that is their decision, but as for us, we will join with other pilgrims in praising God and tolerating quite wide differences of all types between us. Nothing must get in the way of walking together the path of love and toleration and humility that God has set before us.
If the leaders of the national churches were to unite in this message that would encourage all who have shown some reluctance to let go of preformed ideas about the way forward! But even if they don’t adopt this approach, we can. And we can do it today. Nationally and personally. We can start right now! We can start to be more inclusive and more tolerant - but only by the grace which God so willingly supplies.