|Anglican Social Theology: Renewing the Vision Today London: SCM Press, 2014 ISBN 978-0-3340-5188-6. pp. xvii + 111. £16.99 pbk.|
Jeremy Fletcher reviews ‘Covenant and Calling: Towards a Theology of Same-Sex Relationships’
Robert Song is Professor of Theological Ethics at Durham University. He was an adviser to the Church of England House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality, chaired by Joe Pilling, and therefore had a role in that group’s report, which he signed. Song says that the group ‘provided the context in which the thoughts in this book germinated’.
Covenant and Calling is fully aware of the wider context: that the Pilling Report contained its own ‘Dissenting Statement’ from the Bishop of Birkenhead; that it could only outline an indication of the processes to come, and could not make clear and unambiguous statements about same-sex relationships; that different views on same-sex relationships choose very different foundations on which to construct their arguments; and that such varying views rarely contain the tools for reconciliation to be achieved.
Others will be able to review Covenant and Calling using their expertise in biblical interpretation, in theological ethics, in systematic theology and in the study of eschatology. All of these are required fully to engage with what is a deceptively slim volume. My starting point is as a jobbing vicar who exercises a pastoral ministry recognisable to most Anglican parish clergy. My practical engagement with theological ethics is at the level of the remarriage of the divorced and what to do with the faithful Christian same-sex couple for whom the most natural thing in the world is to come to church following their civil partnership.
From this perspective, Covenant and Calling offers very little specific help, and it does not pretend to. It does not offer a magic bullet which will instantly transform what will be dreadfully painful ‘facilitated conversations’, soon to begin. Neither will it unite the Primates of the Anglican Communion joyfully around a solution to the intractable problem that in one province not to bless same-sex unions is an offence to the gospel, and in another province to bless them gives the same offence.
But … it does offer a starting point which may offer some common ground to those who are in disagreement. Song does not begin with the battleground of Scriptural texts, nor the claims of contemporary culture, nor an anthropological analysis of the role of marriage in society, but with eschatology. If, as Luke 20, Matthew 22 and Mark 12 state, there is no marriage or giving in marriage in the age to come, then how is our status as those ‘in Christ’ affected by the present experience of our future hope? As Song puts it “a created world of which marriage and the birth of children are crucial defining features will be fulfilled in a resurrected world in which neither is present” (p. 16). “The coming of Christ resituates marriage” (p. 23)
Song deliberately takes a conservative view on the temporal ‘goods’ of marriage, notably that, as a creation ordinance, marriage is defined by, or at least ‘open to’ procreation, and therefore has an inextricable relationship with differentiation of gender. He also recognises celibacy as an eschatological calling for some. What he proposes is a third possibility, equal in status to both marriage and celibacy: ‘covenant partnership’ which echoes the ‘goods’ of marriage insofar as they express the values of or future calling, but does not require procreation, since in the realm where there is no death there needs to be no birth. Song’s contention is that, just as most recognise that not every marriage requires procreation for its validity, so there can be a new set of faithful covenanted relationships which do not need to be defined as marriage in order to express our future calling and our present experience of the Trinity.
Crucially this does not need the situation of same-sex couples to be its starting point, in that deliberately childless marriages are of the same category. But it is clearly a framework which can see the faithful and permanent love of a non-procreating couple as an expression of the love of God, and that sexual expression not leading to procreation can be a physical expression of that covenant relationship. This would apply as much to same-sex as to heterosexual couples.
Song approaches this from various angles, including a view of Scripture which does not shy away from a ‘conventional’ reading of the six or so main texts, but allows for a recognition of a ‘direction of travel’ in the Bible which might allow for a reframing of relationships in the way he proposes. In that regard his treatment of Biblical interpretation and the issues of slavery and just war theory were very instructive to this ethical amateur.
Covenant and Calling has no direct answers to aid the Vicar responding to a same-sex couple who would like to marry. Rather, stepping back, it asks for a “major reimagination of the churches’ relations to the culture”, and guards against both an “endorsement of current trends” and a “reactionary response which condemns the sexual revolution out of hand” (p. 97). Robert Song offers some tools for engaging in this debate which I have not been offered before, and does so in a way which takes Scripture, tradition and contemporary society seriously, while seeking to transcend them all in an eschatological perspective I had not seen articulated in quite this way.
Song himself says that much of the approach is “tentative”, not least how to relate covenant partnerships to existing modes of civil partnership and marriage, and whether these can be expressed legally and liturgically. But there is enough here for those at the sharp edge of the debates to gather around, and at least to express their common understandings of the nature of their disagreements. And there is a future hope around which to gather too, for in the end all our understandings based in the experience of the created order will be taken up into the new age, and everything will be transformed.
Stanley Hauerwas’s blurb for the book talks about Robert Song opening up “a new space for discussions and questions”. It was certainly new for me, and was a welcome relief from the Prime Minister’s Question Time nature of much of the current debate. For that I’m grateful. Whether it will help in the next two years of facilitated conversations remains to be seen. And I’ll be fascinated to read what those coming from a conservative position make of it all.
Should you read it? Yes.
Jeremy Fletcher is the Vicar of Beverley Minster in the diocese of York.
The Revd Dr Charlotte Methuen has written a review of Bishop Alan Wilson’s book More Perfect Union. Dr Methuen is Senior Lecturer in Church History and Head of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Glasgow.
Alan Wilson, More Perfect Union (London: DLT 2014). Pp. xx + 172. £9.99 (paperback).
In this short book, Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham, presents the case for extending marriage to include same-sex couples. Written in the heat of the debate about the Church of England’s response to the legal introduction of marriage for same-sex couples in England in 2014, Wilson’s book brings together a host of arguments and data which should prove thought-provoking even to those who disagree with his conclusions.
Wilson opens with an autobiographical note: selected to be Bishop of Buckingham in 2003, his consecration service was originally to be shared with Jeffrey John, who had been appointed Bishop of Reading. Wilson recounts his sense of bemusement as John, a gay man living in a celibate partnership, was pressured to withdraw from the appointment. Over the years that followed, Wilson became more uncomfortable with the inconsistent position being taken by the Church of England. He began to recognise that what God wants for gay people “is no more than he wanted for all people – flourishing faith, hope and love, lived out individually and in community” (p. xvi). For Wilson “allowing gay people to marry became … an issue of justice and equality.” Consequently, he affirms, “rejoicing with gay people who marry … no longer seemed to me a concession to secular modernity, but sharing the good news of the kingdom” (p. xvii). That around 80% of the messages he received as he began to explore these issues were supportive, suggests, Wilson remarks that, “the vast majority of people seemed to be travelling along a road like mine, including a sizeable number of Evangelical Christians” (p. xvii). This book is in many ways the account of that journey.
In Chapter 1, “Gay and straight in Church and State”, Wilson traces the legal status of gay people in the last 50 years, and the way that the Church of England has and (mostly) has not responded to the increasingly widespread recognition of same-sex relationships. These developments have taken place in wider context of rapid changes to patterns of relationships: in the early twenty-first century, people are marrying later than was the custom in previous generations, and they do so “to seal and not to form permanent relationships” (p. 15). That is (although Wilson does not make this point explicitly), the vast majority of couples who marry are already living together, and many have children. Marriage has come to be seen as the affirmation of a relationship, rather than marking a beginning.
Wilson next turns to the question “Unnatural?” Considering the accusation that same-sex relationships are unnatural, Wilson observes that concepts of the natural have changed radically over the centuries. Paul, for instance, “disapproved of ‘unnatural’ practices like men growing their hair, or women cutting it (1 Corinthians 11:14–15)”; in the twentieth century, women were long prevented from running the marathon on the grounds that “their bodies were not made for such exertions” (pp. 20-21). Moreover, modern biology has revealed unexpected complexities in the definition of gender and sexual difference; the definition of sexual orientation is even more complicated. For Wilson, the important recognition is that all people have (as the 1928 wedding liturgy puts it), “natural instincts and affections implanted by God [which] need to be hallowed and directed aright.” Relationships, he suggests, “are judged better by their fruit than by their configuration” (p. 34).
“Equality or bust,” chapter 3, considers the question of the definition of marriage. Is it really the case that extending marriage to include same-sex couples would represent a profound – and indeed impossible – redefinition of the fundamental meaning of marriage? Wilson argues that in reality, marriage “has been radically and continuously redefined down the ages by the lived experience of married people” (p. 40). Moreover, this category, he suggests, has in the past included same-sex couples. Consequently, “portentous assertions that monogamy between a man and a woman has been the anthropological gold standard from the dawn of time are simply false” (p. 40). Wilson argues also that equality of treatment is fundamental to the biblical message: “St Paul tells the Romans… that ‘God shows no partiality’” (p. 51).
Wilson turns next to the biblical witness. In “Scripture 101” he considers how to read the biblical text, pointing out that the Bible was long used to defend practices which are now seen as wrong, such as slavery or the use of corporal punishment for children. Addressing “Things gays are liable to read in the Bible,” he considers the six biblical passages which might be held to speak to homosexuality (these, as he remarks, comprise 0.002% of the verses of the Bible, compared to around 10% of Bible verses which refer to matters of economic justice – p. 62). These verses, Wilson concludes, do not address homosexuality in the modern understanding of the word, but are concerned with men who take on the role of women in that they allow themselves to be penetrated during a sexual encounter. The single text which may refer to same-sex relations between women, Romans 1:26-27, could (although Wilson does not say so) equally be interpreted to imply that women were sleeping with men in ways deemed unnatural. Wilson does remark on the “complete absence in the New Testament of any of the extensive standard assortment of Greek words that would have been used naturally to describe the enormous amount of same-sex activity that went on in ancient cities” (p. 80). He concludes: “The discipline that enable Christians to hear the word of God according to the love of God is .. obedience to the New Testament injunction to discern the spirits and make love our aim” (p. 81).
Considering “Biblical marriage”, Wilson points out that the Hebrew Scriptures contain “at least seven different definitions of marriage” (p. 84), most of which see marriage as a property transaction between two men, with a woman as the property. In the New Testament, “Jesus teaches that marriage is a provisional institution with roots in creation. … It is a way of arranging other matters of this age, like property, inheritance and dynastic legitimacy, all of them less important than the kingdom” (p. 89). It is emphatically not for all, and celibacy is clearly a favoured option. In the Pauline epistles, subordination of the wife is accepted as the norm, although men are urged to love their wives, and Paul certainly sees marriage as a mutual relationship. Marriage in the New Testament comes also to function as a metaphor for the relationship between Christ and the church, just as in the Old Testament the relationship between God and Israel had been described in terms either of marriage or of harlotry. Here, none of the realities often cited as fundamental to marriage – gender difference, the ability to conceive children, or a particular understanding of sexual intercourse – can be held to apply.
In chapter 7, Wilson addresses “The irresistible rise of Christian marriage”, which he sees as involving four phases: marriage as a “pre-endtime encumbrance” (33-100 CE), as a “secular institution” (100-1200), as an “indissoluble sacrament” (since 1300 and still an ideal, although now “largely an empty shell”), and as a “partnership of equals” (since 1650 and increasingly seen as the ideal). Chapter 8, “Geopolitics and mission”, counters the argument that the persecution of Christians elsewhere should mitigate against arguments for equality in the North and West: “We know … that the Nigerian terrorist movement Boko Haram disapproves intensely of young women being educated… Would closing down [educational opportunities for women in the West] really moderate Boko Haram’s behaviour?” (p. 133). Wilson here also considers the meaning of unity for the Church, concluding that “Honest disagreement that takes everyone as seriously as everyone else can transcend any particular culture and offer hope to a world in sore and increasing need of reconciliation and healing” (p. 146).
In a final chapter, “The law of the land, and that’s great”, Wilson discusses possible ways forward for the Church of England in the face of the introduction of same sex marriage. Wilson sees this move as an opportunity for the Church: “Marriages that are good news reflect equality in diversity and a genuine reciprocity, their own personal and distinctive complementarity, that is bigger than the imposition of crude gender stereotypes, Such marriages offer a special opportunity for those within them to reflect the vales of the kingdom of God in which all are equal” (pp. 163-4).
This is an important book. Wilson admits from the outset that it “is not, in any sense, an academic tome” (p. xvi). There is a wealth of evidence here, some of which would have benefitted from brief references or indication of further reading. Wilson is keen to emphasise the shifting meaning of words, but takes 1 Tim 5’s “widows” in a modern sense, as women whose husbands have died, neglecting the meaning of women who choose to live without men; this flattens the meaning of that text and in my view warps his interpretation. I would have like more reflection on developments between the Pauline letters and the (almost certainly pseudepigraphical) Pastoral epistles, which seem to represent a rather different understanding of the role of women than that offered by Paul. The style suggests that this is a book written in haste, and it certainly speaks to the moment. But that is necessary, and right: and it is much to be applauded that a bishop of the Church of England has chosen to speak out on the question of equal marriage.
|Anglican Social Theology: Renewing the Vision Today London: Church House Publishing, 2014 ISBN 978-0-715-14440-4. pp.240. £19.99 pbk.|
Anglican Social Theology gives an overview of the theological traditions and ideas underlying the Church of England’s involvement in the public affairs of the nation since the late 1930s. Interesting essays on the legacy associated with Archbishop William Temple, and on more recent “post-liberal” ideas, are joined by helpful insights and reflections from evangelical and Roman Catholic perspectives.
It is “offered as a resource for parishes and church members who are responding in numerous practical ways to widening social divisions and other problems in contemporary society.” It “looks to develop strong theological foundations for social action initiatives by churches”.
I myself badly need the book and I’m very grateful for it, though I cannot pretend to understand all of it. I need the book because I need to discover and develop “strong theological foundations for social action”.
Any new Bishop of Liverpool stands on giants’ shoulders and from that perspective sees the horizon slipping and sliding. I see David Sheppard who spoke courageously for the urban poor in his own speeches and books and through “Faith in the City” which he inspired. I see James Jones who was asked by the Government to chair the Hillsborough Independent Panel because he was seen as a leader in and beyond the community of faith, and to have the wisdom and credibility to do the job well.
But the horizon is slipping and sliding. “Faith in the City” was addressed by the Church to the nation, in the secure belief that the two had a language in common and a platform of mutual respect on which to stand. It assumed an unruffled process by which groups of clever, (mostly) middle-aged (mostly) men would meet together in a room and by thinking carefully about things would come to agreement, and would make progress together for everyone’s benefit. That way of working is described in this book as the “Royal Commission” approach.
But “Faith in the City” was not received with agreement. It offended many in power. It was contentious and controversial and it made and continues to make an enormous difference to the Church’s self-understanding, and on the ground to help people through CUF and its offshoots, and through other practical initiatives. For many in the Thatcher years the Church was seen as a credible voice of opposition, sometimes perhaps the only voice of opposition. However that road was ending and “Faith in the City” was its terminus.
The only Church of England report to have sold as many copies as “Faith in the City” is “Mission-Shaped Church” on which I worked with Bishop James Jones. I believe the report is vital to the future of a Church that can make a difference; but it was addressed by the Church to the Church as a means of getting to grips with a changing England. Like “Faith in the City” it was contended and controversial, but only within the Church. And when Bishop James made his own enormous contribution to the Liverpool region, it was not as the patron of a church report. The Hillsborough Panel was, inevitably and rightly, far more specific and far more emotional than a Royal Commission. It was, and is, a matter of public justice in public view. Years of denial and evasion have been exposed, and the patience and perseverance of the families of the 96 who died has been vindicated. This has been a harrowing process and the Church has been at the heart of it; but it was not a Church initiative and if it had been, it would not have done what it has.
And now the horizon is slipping and sliding more and more wildly. The gyroscope of our public theology has badly slipped. The Church’s public credibility is deeply contended within and outside the Christian community. We don’t have to look far for the evidence. The Pilling report sought to stand in that old tradition of calm, magisterial reflection on difficult issues, as the Church more widely tried to do in the national debate over same-sex marriage. Readers of “Thinking Anglicans” will remember the result.
What will be next for the Church? A disaster, or a genuinely engaged conversation with surprising outcomes? Avoiding the disaster will need a rare and a key resource — good public theology, ordinary theology, designed for and understandable by ordinary Christians.
Anglican Social Theology offers a toolbox with which to make that resource. But it does not offer the resource itself. Its tone is set too high. It is introverted, academic and erudite, sometimes eye-wateringly so.
But to make such a resource; there’s a task for the Church’s theologians. Because polemic and shouting may be necessary but they are not sufficient. It is thinking together about God — corporate theology — that gives the mind a place to stand, and from that place to reflect wisely on what’s happening around. Otherwise the Church has nothing to say outside its own circle, and our internal culture wars become exchanges of insult, or clashes of popular prejudice between Daily Mail people who happen to be Christians and Guardian people who happen to be Christians.
Among the martyrs of the Hitler years were the sophisticated Bonhöffer and the simple church worker Franz Jägerstätter. Whether it was high-modern Lutheran theology or a penny Catholic catechism, both had resources to use, a place for their mind to stand. I hope that Anglican Social Theology will help us develop similar resources for our generation. On its own it is not enough and does not pretend to be. But even so I need it, and maybe you do too.
One final word. For me the most helpful chapter is that exploring “post-liberal” social thought and written by John Hughes, a wonderful young thinker and priest whose tragic death a few months ago has robbed the Church of a future leader of real stature. He will be deeply and greatly missed. I hope that any future edition of this book will be dedicated to him.
Last week’s Church Times had a feature article by William Whyte entitled The Church: ‘appalling, yet wonderful’.
Diarmaid MacCulloch has just completed a sweeping history of Christianity. William Whyte dragged him from his indexing to talk about it. A History of Christianity: The first three thousand years (Allen Lane, £30 (CT Bookshop £27) is published on 24 September.
The Guardian published a review of the book, written by Rowan Williams last Saturday. See A History of Christianity by Diarmaid MacCulloch.
The Economist also published a review, under the heading The greatest story, or the trickiest?
The BBC television series can be previewed here.
God’s Own Country
Power and the Religious Right in the USA
by Stephen Bates
Hodder and Stoughton July 2008 £9.99
Since Sarah Palin was nominated as the Republican vice-presidential candidate, newspaper articles about her religious views have poured off the presses. See for example, these from Salon: The pastor who clashed with Palin by David Talbot, or Sarah Palin, anointed by God by Alex Koppelman or Sarah Palin, faith-based mayor by Sarah Posner.
To most Britons, it seems quite extraordinary that a person holding such views could be a serious candidate for national office. But to anyone who had read Stephen Bates’ book God’s Own Country when it first came out in 2007 it would not be a surprise. It had good reviews in the Church Times, the Guardian, and the Independent.
The book was republished in paperback in the UK in July this year, with the subtitle changed to more accurately describe the content, just in time for the American election campaign. Inexplicably, the US edition is not due until February 2009, neatly missing what must surely be a major marketing opportunity. However, it can readily be obtained now from Amazon UK.
Although Sarah Palin does not appear in the book, John McCain is mentioned three times. Jim Wallis of Sojourners is quoted as saying:
“John McCain is taking a risk dealing with these people: he has to get the Republican nomination and unless he gets these people’s endorsement from the Religious Right, he has no chance.”
Well, with Palin on the ticket, that endorsement for McCain, which earlier looked quite remote, now appears likely.
The book is aimed primarily at UK readers, and covers a lot of US historical background which one hopes would not be new material for Americans. The purpose is described by Bates himself like this:
There is a tendency here, in the secular UK, to write off American religiosity as alien and monolithic when, of course, it is far from that; and to see all US religious people as crazed fundamentalists, when they are not that either…. What I am hoping to show in this book is that US religion’s relationship with politics did not start with George W. Bush… These motivations have shaped the USA from the beginning and have very deep roots in the American psyche.
In fifteen chapters and nearly 400 pages, Bates therefore has plenty of ground to cover. He keeps the reader’s interest by writing as a journalist rather than as an academic. As with his earlier A Church at War this makes the book a much more enjoyable read.
The Pilgrim Fathers, The Great Awakening, William Jennings Bryan, Mother Angelica, Father Charles Coughlin, Aimee Semple McPherson, Joel Osteen, Judge Roy Moore, Ken Ham, Tim LaHaye, TD Jakes, and many other religious personalities are all included. The religious aspects of recent presidential campaigns (Clinton, Bush) are also covered.
As background to the current US election campaign, it is the ideal, even an essential, introduction to the religious dimension of American politics. Which as the nomination of Sarah Palin demonstrates, will be a crucial factor in the race for the White House this time round as well.
In last week’s Church Times Bishop Kenneth Stevenson reviewed the book to which I contributed a chapter, Rebuilding Communion: Who pays the price? From the Lambeth Conference 1988 to the Lambeth Conference 2008 and beyond Peter Francis, editor.
The review was published under the headline Telling it like it is.
Read more about the book here.
Bishop Stevenson writes:
IT MUST be hard to be gay and Anglican at the moment. After a largely hidden history, Anglican gays now find themselves the subject of open discussion, caused partly by a greater general readiness to talk about issues of sexuality, and partly by activists in the gay community speaking up for their rights. Sadly, the majority of them feel excluded from this discussion, and some of them even echo what some Jews used to say in Nazi Germany — “Don’t champion us, because it will only make things more difficult for us.”
A turning-point in England was the General Synod in February last year, when gay members fearlessly spoke up for themselves in a chamber that had not hitherto heard from them in that way.
This timely little book opens with an essay by Simon Sarmiento chronicling events, resolutions, and decisions about homosexuality in the Anglican Communion over the past decade. His personal views are clear, but the facts he describes are indisputable. There is a hardening of the line in many places, with some obvious exceptions.
There follow six essays from different continents, telling personal stories about what it is like to be gay and Anglican — the African perspective is particularly significant. And a third section is made up of six further short contributions, including one from Martyn Percy on Anglican history and attitudes, and one from Michael Ingham, arguing in favour of something that is still too far for many sympathisers: the same-sex blessing.
This book needs to be read far beyond the confines of the gay community. In some ways, it provides a worldwide Anglican counterpoint to those speeches at last year’s Synod. Those who are deaf, or over-ready to condemn, need at least to recognise the historic pain that this increasingly vocal minority brings to the discussion table. Whatever our views, we should all be ready to condemn homophobia, as Cardinal Hume used to remind us.
I voted for Lambeth 1.10 on that desultory Wednesday afternoon in 1998, and I have regretted it ever since. As these essays show, it has become far too blunt an instrument; moreover, the “listening process” for which it calls should have been well under way by the time Archbishop Rowan Williams arrived at Canterbury.
Here’s hoping that we can be helped to locate exactly where our disagreements lie, and to find an authentically Anglican way through them.
The Scottish Episcopal Church has itself issued a press release Statement regarding today’s media reports - 23rd March 2005.
There has today been wide reporting of a statement issued by the College of Bishops in response to the Anglican Communion’s Windsor Report and the meeting of the Anglican Primates in February. Press interest has focused on one small part of the overall statement.
The statement was in fact issued on 4 March. It acknowledges the difficulties currently faced by the Anglican Communion and expresses the Bishops’ commitment to work to preserve the unity of the Communion. In particular, the Bishops commit themselves to facilitating discussion “across difference”, recognising that within the Scottish Episcopal Church there are both those of gay and lesbian orientation and those whose theology and stance would be critical of attitudes to sexuality other than abstinence outside marriage. The Bishops “rejoice in both” and express the hope that the energy of both groups can be harnessed to serve the Church and the proclamation of the gospel.
In referring to the fact that there is no current bar to ordination for someone who might be in a close relationship with a member of the same sex, the Bishops were simply stating the present position as it applies in Scotland where, unlike some other provinces, no motion discouraging such ordinations has ever been passed by our General Synod. Consequently, the statement earlier this month does not represent any change in policy on the part of the Bishops.
The Glasgow Herald continues with Split in Anglican community over gay priests.
The Scotsman has Evangelicals warn of ‘battle for Church’s soul’ in gay row.
Cedric Pulford of ENI filed Anglican bishops in Scotland say gays not barred from priesthood.
Jonathan Petre in the Telegraph has Scottish bishops declare support for gay priests.
Ruth Gledhill in The Times has Scottish bishops risk split by supporting gay priests and there is a second article ‘I feel proud of my Church today’.
The CEN reported Scots on collision course with Communion.
Big hat tip to KH for finding this:
Summer Season: Reformation - Europe’s House Divided, by Diarmaid MacCulloch
The transcript of an Australian radio interview with Diarmaid MacCulloch, author of a multi-award-winning biography of ‘Thomas Cranmer, A Life’, who was Archbishop of Canterbury under King Henry VIII. Now he’s written an equally distinguished history of the Reformation, or as he says, ‘Reformations’ plural.
This programme was first broadcast on 31 March 2004 and apparently rebroadcast on 12 January 2005.
Stephen Plant’s article can be read in full here: How to face moral problems in a fluid world.
An extract is below the fold.
Nick Ralph writes:
I thought this was a tremendously helpful insight into our ethical decision-making as Christians. We need to be reminded that what we are often trying to negotiate is not easy. Whether conservative or liberal, there are often no Biblical verses which will immediately supply an answer to complex issues in a modern world. All we can do then, as this article suggests, is to rehearse, and dance perhaps like Sydney Carter’s Lord of the dance, trying to learn the way the steps work so that we can improvise new steps in the ethical theatre in which we now play. I cannot help but find it appealing and wonder if it might perhaps help us, at least to understand each other better, in the plays we are currently trying to interpret.
Excerpt from Stephen Plant’s Credo article:
In a book published this week a Cambridge vicar offers a fresh way to characterise what Christians are doing when they try to make sense of their moral life. Samuel Wells’s Improvisation: the Drama of Christian ethics (SPCK), draws parallels between what is happening when actors improvise a drama, and what is happening when Christians act out their faith. Dramatic improvisation is not, Sam Wells says, nearly as simple as it looks. Even if improvising actors are literally making it up as they go along, it has taken hard work in traditions of acting and hours of rehearsal to reach a point where they can act in ways appropriate to the dramatic circumstances. Practice forms actors in the habits that make improvisation possible and helps to build the mutual trust without which improvisation cannot work.
When Christians pray, worship, read the Bible or share the sacraments they are, suggests Sam Wells, forming character habits that help them to discern the will of God when fresh circumstances, such as difficult moral issues, present themselves. This isn’t the same as always being original. If improvisation always required originality it would feel as dreadful as the pressure always to be funny at parties. Christians, too, are not trying to be original but to act in the space between God ’s act of creation and God’s promise of redemption with habits of character formed by their years of life together.
A skill that Christians learn, like improvising actors, is when to block a suggestion made by another actor and when to accept it by incorporating it into the evolving story. A nervous improviser is likely to block suggested lines that seem to lead her away from the previously agreed plot outline. A more accomplished improviser can accept a new lead and transform its risk into an opportunity to enrich the drama without losing the story’s thread. Christians, Sam Wells suggests, are tempted to conceive their lives in terms of givens from which they dare not deviate, instead of gifts that they can accept and transform into opportunities within the drama of God’s story of love for the world.
Imagining the Christian life as an improvisation acted by characters shaped by Bible reading, worship and sacrament is exhilarating, but is it true? Sam Wells is sensitive to the accusation that “improvisation” is too trivial and ephemeral an activity adequately to describe the serious business of Christian life, and encourages Christians to resist being more solemn than God. But I share with Milan Kundera’s narrator a need for some heaviness to save me from “the unbearable lightness of being”. Kundera’s narrator wonders if heaviness is truly deplorable and lightness splendid? He is horrified that “we live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold” because “what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself?” Wells is right that Christians have to work hard at their spontaneity. Kundera is right that unremitting lightness is unbearable. It is only some combination of these two insights that will keep us from the bleak, pointless mumblings of characters who act in Becket or Pinter plays, and draw us instead into the drama of God.
This is the title of the new book published last week by Church House Publishing. The book, prepared by a committee of four bishops, is commended to the Church for study by the House of Bishops of the Church of England. I commented briefly about it when it was published.
The key thing to understand about this book is that it is a study guide, it does not set out to be an expression of any new opinions, by bishops or by anybody else. Rather, it aims to state a full range of existing opinions on the subject, so that they can all be studied.
Here is the official publishers blurb for the book.
Here is the Church Times digest of the book.
You can download the front matter and Chapter 1 of the book from the CHP website as a pdf file. You can also download the first two chapters of the short accompanying booklet, A Companion to Some Issues in Human Sexuality, with study material for individuals and groups.
Today the Church Times carried this comment on the book by Giles Fraser, Let’s be realistic about sex.
Thinking Anglicans hopes to publish other comments and reflections on the book when people have had time to read it.
Damian Thompson reviews Rowan Williams by Rupert Shortt
The only half-crown item in a sixpenny bazaar
Last week the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England published a report entitled Being Human and with the long explanatory subtitle “A Christian understanding of personhood illustrated with reference to power, money, sex and time”.
It doesn’t seem to be readable on the web, but there is a summary on this week’s Church Times website and the report can be bought from Church House Publishing or, as they say, from any good bookshop.
From the summaries I have seen so far this looks like an important contribution as to how we understand ourselves. I plan to get a copy soon, and will add my further thoughts here.