Friday, 6 January 2012

Epiphany and epiphanies

I’m speaking tonight, the Feast of the Epiphany, not in church but to a gathering of scientists and theologians interested in the interface between those two subjects. It’s really important, and outfits such as the Faraday Institute here in Cambridge do great work keeping the dialogue going and developing public understanding in an often polarised discussion.

Some of the themes that come up are the perennial big ones of origins and ends. In between are other issues of identity and — particularly at the moment — sexuality. The idea of Epiphany gives us a particularly helpful way in to what is a difficult topic. Epiphanies are showings. In the theological and literary tradition they are where two stories intersect, where the things of this world are shot through with the things of the beyond, and they are often the turning point of the story. James Joyce’s Dubliners was for instance explicitly conceived as a sequence of fifteen such events.

In them we are taken into the territory of wonder and mystery, and new meaning emerges. Accompanying people to their threshold is a key part of the work of the church — and whether it is through worship, or the sacraments, or the scriptures, or silence, or the awe of the universe, we see time again that as they encounter the Other their lives are transformed for good. Research too, in my experience, may be 99% perspiration but usually hinges on the 1% of inspiration, the sudden insight, often out of the blue, that sets its direction.

Closed doors are the enemy of epiphanies, the blockers of transformative insight. So my second suggestion, as we address the vexed issues of sexuality and identity, is that we can make common cause across the science-religion divide to keep the doors open, to oppose fundamentalist positions which close down the questions, and then close down the answers. And more positively (since just opposing fundamentalism breeds a sort of fundamentalist liberalism of its own) to sponsor new spaces in which such open discussion can take place.

It’s not an easy path to tread. One of my first experiences as a bishop was the so-called Indaba process at the Lambeth Conference, which deliberately tried to create such dialogue — and was roundly attacked from all sides for not coming down on any of them. Discussion is something an Institute such as the Faraday does rather well, but issues to do with homosexuality may prove challenging even for its members whose churchmanship is varied: so how might we go about it?

Both theologians and scientists have something to bring to the table here to create a dialogue that could just possibly draw in others too. On the theology side Reasoning, in which people of various faiths expound their scriptures together, might prove a useful model for explorative exposition. When the Lambeth Bishops picketed Parliament I was given a copy of the Poverty and Justice Bible, with all the relevant verses highlighted. Far more than any to do with sexuality. So, for instance, how do biblical teachings on justice and sexuality speak to each other?

Then from the science side, we have been quite fleet-footed in relating the Biblical accounts of Creation to our scientific theories about the origins of the universe. Could we read across some of that sophistication to build up an equal expertise in dealing with a verse such as “male and female he created them”? And just what is the current science anyway about male and female? I for one, even though I am relatively conservative on this issue and happy to live within the Church’s guidelines, see it as essential that genuine scientific insights are factored into and not out of our theology.

So — are there ways in which all of us could use our experience and positions to underpin a more creative debate in the church than the one I fear we may end up having? I pray for epiphanies!

David Thomson
Bishop of Huntingdon

Posted by David Thomson on Friday, 6 January 2012 at 4:56pm GMT | TrackBack
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Dear Bishop...Nice posting. But I have to go to this simple point: we long ago gave up using the bible for a history, geology, archeology, cosmology or biology text. Why would we persist in using it as a behavioral sciences text? The scientists in that area will tell you--as they do in all others--that we "don't know" so much more than we "do know." Why do we continue to misuse the bible by continuing to distort what it actually *is*?

Posted by: Daniel Berry, NYC on Friday, 6 January 2012 at 6:36pm GMT

"I am ... happy to live within the Church’s guidelines" Bishop of Huntingdon

I'm sure he is, given that those guidelines don't affect him personally at all - unless he's one of the 13 gay bishops we hear so much about from Changing Attitude.

Posted by: Laurence C. on Friday, 6 January 2012 at 9:19pm GMT

I must confess, I rather liked the Bishop's talk to the assembled scientists/religious people at the Cambridge meeting. I think that, though he confessed to a 'conservative' viewpoint of gender and sexuality issues, he did at least admit to the need for a proper opportunity for convergence between religious and scientific views to be investigated. This is so much better than the blanket 'No-No' approach of the LGBT-challenged oppositionists.

I am inclined towards the biblical approach of: He who is not against us, is with us. Half-full, rather than half-empty.

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Friday, 6 January 2012 at 11:18pm GMT

I actually have a fairly conservative view of sexuality issues, myself. I mean that I believe stable, permanent, public bonds between couples to be necessary for the health of society and the well-being of future generations.

That is (to my mind) a reason for supporting the exchange of full, public vows in church between same-sex couples. They can then draw on religious and community support when the hard times come (as they come to all couples). Social stability will be enhanced along with their own personal well-being.

However, I have to confess that the concept of "marriage" still carries a flavor, to me, of the the requirement that the woman subordinate herself to the man. (As in "I have to resign from my position because my husband thinks I'm not home enough," the kind of thing I still hear, quite often, among older women.)

It was always my hope that gay and lesbian partnerships might represent the Aristotelian ideal of friendships between equals, rather than being just one more version of the dominant-subordinate marriage pattern.

This may just be my age showing.

Posted by: Charlotte on Saturday, 7 January 2012 at 5:05pm GMT

I love this line: "I [...] see it as essential that genuine scientific insights are factored into and not out of our theology." I see this as one of the true strengths of our Anglican tradition.

Posted by: Maida on Saturday, 7 January 2012 at 7:33pm GMT

Surely Daniel, the bible is God's message of love to the world - charting the gathering together of a people and then preparing them to receive the fullness of his truth in Christ. I don't see any opposition to science here. Scripture does not attempt to explain scientific facts. It presents us with the path to salvation.

Posted by: William on Saturday, 7 January 2012 at 9:39pm GMT

William, I agree with you. The Bible was written by real people in history - inspired real people, but real people - so it's hardly surprising that what they say is couched in the concepts and understandings if their time. In fact that more we learn about their cultures' concepts and understandings the more we understand what the inspired writers were saying (and what they were not saying).

However, I don't think that any *scientific* discovery has *ever* changed our understanding of the Scriptures regarding God's moral and ethical standards, so I doubt that there is any chance that they will on sexual behaviour either. I'd be interested to hear if anyone can think of one!!

Posted by: revdave on Sunday, 8 January 2012 at 11:47pm GMT

you're absolutely right.
And allowing same sex couples to marry and to affirm their committment to a live long exclusive and faithful relationship with their partner will precisely honour God's moral and ethical standards.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Monday, 9 January 2012 at 8:25am GMT

Erika, unfortunately that is no more the case than a life-long exclusive and faithful sexual relationship between adult siblings (of either gender).

Posted by: revdave on Monday, 9 January 2012 at 2:09pm GMT


love the "unfortunately"!
You are, of course, entitled to your view.
But it is time that everyone recognises that there is a huge body of very good pro-gay theology around and simply denials are no longer good enough.
Sound theology engaging with the arguments made is what's needed - and what appears to be sadly lacking. Maybe because there isn't any.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Monday, 9 January 2012 at 7:30pm GMT

What Erica said. How I admire your patience, fortitude, clarity and kindness.

I am greatly *lacking in them when encountering the opinions of revdave et al. You give me hope !


*I seem to be becoming an old curmugeon ! *

Posted by: Laurence Roberts on Tuesday, 10 January 2012 at 12:33pm GMT


There is a growing body of pro-gay theology, but it's not very good Christian theology. At least not if your starting point is the canonical authority of teachings of Christ and His Apostles.

Theologians down the centuries have justified all sorts of things that later turned out to be incorrect. But the question for a disciple of Jesus is simply "what did Jesus and the Apostles teach, and why?"

Jesus taught the (almost) permanence of male-female marriage, the sinfulness of divorce, the sinfulness of sex outside marriage, and that even lust is to be rejected. The Apostles were equally tough on sexual behaviour:- teaching that sex makes a man and woman one, even if it's just a one-off, ordering that someone in an incestuous relationship be "handed over to satan", condemning pagan cultures for their same-sex sexual behaviours, and including same-sex sex in sin lists (in several books of the New Testament).

I know that this is *very* problematic nowadays. We live in a society that insists that, as long as we don't hurt anyone, we should follow our feelings. But that is not the approach taken by Christ or by His Apostles.

ps It wouldn't surprise me if quite a few radical theologians end up in the same position that radical feminist theologians did 20 years ago - rejecting Christian theology and constructing one of their own, to suit their beliefs.

Posted by: revdave on Monday, 16 January 2012 at 3:00pm GMT
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