Thursday, 21 October 2004

a history of debate

Thinking Anglicans writer Tom Ambrose gives his first thoughts on the Windsor Report:

Reading the foreword to the report, I feel that a greater sense of perspective is needed. The Church has always faced controversy, and to single out the issue of the ordination of women as the only point of disagreement prior to issues about homosexuality is singularly unfortunate. The great hymn ‘The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord’ was written at a time of particularly bitter disagreement in the 19th century, when a split in the church seemed almost inevitable. The arguments of those days were more closely related to doctrine than any of the current problems.

The report acknowledges that the teaching of the church is based on scripture, tradition and reason. We cannot take these in isolation, and assume that the passages in the Bible which refer to homosexual activity can simply be quoted as being incontrovertible and uncontroversial. To do that would be to lapse into fundamentalism.

There are still Christians today who might think that looking for Noah’s Ark is a legitimate way of ‘proving’ scripture. Some attempt to demonstrate, in the face of overwhelming evidence, that the world was made in six days. Some people deny that evolution could take place. Their motivation is largely to demonstrate the inerrancy of scripture, and hence its right to be regarded as the only test for Christian belief and teaching.

The issues about creation are not trivial. They underlie all that we understand about God’s work, and hence have a bearing on issues regarding our redemption. Reading the scriptures in isolation is not enough, for insights are available to us today which were not known in biblical times.

Views on homosexuality have changed massively in recent years. When I was an undergraduate, a fellow student was sent down after being convicted of having sex with another man. Today, discrimination against homosexual people is outlawed in most European countries (though the churches have asked to opt out!)

But we are not going to assume that there will be uniformity across the globe in the way that societies regard what they may see as sexual offences. Where people can be put to death for adultery, sexual activity between people of the same sex will always be frowned upon.

In Britain, we expect people of all faiths to observe the law which says marriages must be monogamous. In other countries, it may be permitted for men to take more than one wife. Similarly, in countries where homosexual activity is frowned upon, it would not be understood if Christians campaigned for greater tolerance. The reaction would be as uncomprehending as the reaction might be here if Muslims demanded the right to polygamy.

In such a world, there is no going back on the decision to consecrate Gene Robinson in the USA, and no going forward in Uganda or Pakistan to the acceptance of gay clergy. The responses from ECUSA and from other parts of the Anglican Communion have underlined this. It would be naïve to assume that a consensus can be achieved. In all of this, the one redeeming feature may be that it accepts that there are differences of opinion which are genuinely held by Christian people.

Posted by Tom Ambrose on Thursday, 21 October 2004 at 11:24am BST | TrackBack
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Categorised as: Opinion

I agree it's naive (maybe grossly so) to expect consensus on the matter, especially after having read the response of +Peter Akinola
recently. I expect he feels the same sense of exasperation towards the church in the West as I feel when I read his response to this Report. Maybe +Peter Akinola needs to spend a year or so in a Western context, and we need to spend time in Nigeria or other parts of Africa, all with the aim of gaining some sensitivity to others' point of view.

Posted by: Tony Hitsman on Thursday, 21 October 2004 at 11:58am BST

Tom Ambrose's words resonate with me. As I read through the Windsor Report I was very disappointed that there is no recognition of the very real diversity of opinion on so many things that are disputed in the church today. There is an acknowledgement that the Bible itself can seem to be divisive, when, as the report puts it, "we should expect that the Bible would be a means of unity, not division." But saying this erases with one stroke all the issues having to do with biblical hermeneutics that have dominated Christian discourse for at least two centuries. Why should we expect a text to be a means of unity? Where something is open to a "bewildering range of available interpretative strategies and results" (quoting from the same paragraph as before) disagreement and division are what one would expect.

Many African bishops read the Bible in a way that many people in North America and Britain (to go no further) can no longer understand, and their opposition to actions taken in the United States and Canada presupposes such a reading. But why, given the array of interpretive strategies available to contemporary Christians, should that reading be given priority within the councils of the church? And how, given these fundamental disagreements over the reading and understanding of scripture, could we ever achieve consensus? As Tom Ambrose rightly says: "It would be naive to assume that a consensus can be achieved." That naiveté may be the undoing of the Communion.

It is hard to see what role the Lambeth Commission thinks that biblical scholarship plays or should play within the church, and perhaps that is where the Windsor Report is weakest. Speaking of "the assured results of biblical criticism" is indeed, as the Report says, harzardous. But it is beyond question that, once we have learned to read scripture in a critical-historical way, it is simply impossible to retreat into pre-modern ways of understanding it. It is impossible to get behind the bewildering array of interpretive strategies and results to a single tradition (supposing that such a thing ever existed). Of course, we need to beware lest we hear only the echo of our own voice when we read scripture, but it is not clear that, even if we do take such care, we will ever all agree. The Report tells us that the shared reading of scripture should guide "us together into an appropriately rich and diverse unity," but that vague hope is as naive as the belief that we can achieve consensus amidst the cultural divisions that now separate us.

Posted by: Archdeacon Eric MacDonald on Thursday, 21 October 2004 at 3:58pm BST

To speak of “the assured results of biblical criticism” sounds ridiculously arrogant, and rightly so. But to state "the Bible clearly says _______, and to deny it, is to deny Scripture's plain meaning" is no less so (if a more widely-practiced example of pride).

Tom, when you say "the passages in the Bible which refer to homosexual activity," I know you are not intending to make one of these dialogue-killing assertions ... but it has that effect all the same.

Once you make this leap into anachronism--inserting into the Biblical text a word which, at best, conceptually emerges in the context of fierce *modern* psycho-social _conflicts_--you inevitably set up a situation wherein the only possible interpretation is *condemnatory* (and ergo, to be pro-gay is to be anti-Biblical authority).

_I won't play that game_ (even with friends, much less antagonists).

The Bible has quite a bit to say about sex, and even more about relationships (of various sorts, including spousal). On that basis, I'm more than willing to discuss the texts themselves, their interpretation in Holy Tradition, what reasonable people might infer from them today (all leading to a Christian justification/affirmation/ *celebration* of same-sex marriage, for example).

But, inasmuch as I won't answer the leading question "When did you stop beating your wife?", neither will I respond to what the Bible _doesn't_ say: one word about "homosexuality" or "homosexuals."

[Unlike hardcore Calvinists who can't sing along w/ an unbiblical organ, or Amish who won't drive unbiblical automobiles, I expect practical, _via media_ Anglicans to be able to integrate post-Biblical developments!]

Posted by: J. C. Fisher on Friday, 22 October 2004 at 6:49am BST

I will read the report, but with a sadness bordering on exhaustion. And I'm a straight white male. I can only guess at what my fellow parishoners who have once more found themselves marginalized by this report will feel. My heart goes out to them.

I say I will read it, but I must say that it will not convince me. Frankly, I don't need a report to find my moral compass on this.

No, I will read it so that I can look for some hope, some branch to offer my brothers and sisters, some small comfort.

And I will read it to defend, for there are those out there who will use it to comfort their bigotry, to say -- finally "those people" with their "agenda" have been put in "their place". I will read it to defend against those who will use it, without reading, as a justification for their homophobia -- one of the last permitted predjudices of our era. I will read it, as one of my teachers so eloquently advised, so many years ago -- "to know the enemy". But isn't that a terrible thing? At this point, so many years later, at a time in all our lives when we so much need guidance, that I must turn once again to my high school history teacher and not my church for moral leadership?

And I will read it so I can explain it to my children, for whom, thankfully, this issue is foreign. They don't need the report to know what is right, either. As in the bible, they are wiser than the "officials" of the church. They, unlike so many of us, have been raised in a loving community where the merit of a person is judged not by their skin colour, their income level or even their choice of mate. Thankfully, they are used to adults doing stupid things, so I don't have to explain too much. We can just shrug and I can say...

I know we are Christians, but not too long ago we (not us, but our fellow North Americans) took black people as slaves. Now they are free to be equals with us. I know we are Christians, but not too long ago we kept woman from being ordained, now they are free to be equals among us. I know we are Christians, but once, not too long ago, we kept aboriginals from voting. Now they are free to vote with us as equals. I know we are Christians...

Or maybe I will talk to them about the courage of Ghandi. Of Martin Luther King. Or I will talk to them about Nelson Mandella. I will talk to them about how, in the times when these great people struggled for freedom, the people of the church often had to provide the moral compass while the organization of the church caught up, often many, many years later.

That's the easy part.

The hard part will be in explaining why this is so. Why they need the church, when it is so often a moral laggard as opposed to leader. Maybe there will be something in the report to help me explain that. A slim hope. I know we are Christian, but...

Posted by: Jim Love on Saturday, 23 October 2004 at 5:28am BST

Here is a problem though. Just because Slavery was justified once and is now not; just because the ordination of women was opposed and is now not - it does not hold that the homosexual act is the same.

I refuse to be drawn into a debate in which I am told that unless I accept the validity of a homosexual lifestyle as compatible with Christianity I am bigot. I will hold to neither label (tolerant or bigoted), despite what Giles Fraser asserts in the Church Times this week.

Posted by: Ian Matthews on Monday, 1 November 2004 at 3:26pm GMT