University Sermon 2nd May 2004 preached by Revd Dr Giles Fraser
University Church, Oxford
In the years leading up to 1519, Martin Luther experienced what might be described as both mental breakdown and theological breakthrough:
“I did not love God” he said “I hated the just God” and was indignant towards Him, if not in wicked revolt, at least in silent blasphemy.”
Martin Luther’s admission that he had come to hate the God in whom he believed sparked a theological revolution that was to transform the political geography of Europe. What was it that he hated? For Luther, service to a God who demanded human beings earn His love had become service to a heartless despot, impossible to please. Consequently, the confessional had become a private hell of never being good enough, of never earning enough merit to satisfy the unattainable demands required for salvation. This was the shadow-side of the Pelagian’s breezy moral optimism. Luther’s deep sense of the extent of human inadequacy made him appreciate that a God who dealt with human beings strictly on the basis of merit, strictly on the basis of what they deserved, was always going to be a God of punishment. Rowan Williams writes: “this experience was an experience of hell, a condition of moral and spiritual hopelessness. The God who presides over this appalling world is a God who asks the impossible and punishes savagely if it is not realised”. In the years leading up to 1519, Luther came to see his former understanding of Christianity as inherently abusive, and the psychology of the confessional as a destructive cycle whereby the abused child constantly returns to the abusive heavenly father for comfort.
In exposing this cycle of abuse Luther blew apart the theological establishment. Parallels with arguments that are now transforming the political geography of Anglicanism are remarkable. For the debate about homosexuality is a great deal more than a debate about sex. It’s a debate about the nature of God’s love for human beings that has much in common with debates that drove the Reformation. For the message the Church has given to gay Christians is the message Luther came to see as inherently abusive: God does not love you as you are – you need to be completely and fundamentally – and perhaps even impossibly – different before He will love you.
Consider the Bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster’s advice to gay Christians that they should find a way of being cured of their homosexuality. Having investigated allegations, the Crown Prosecution Service decided his comments did not amount to a prosecutable offensive – the Public Order Act of 1986 only applies to the incitement to racial hatred. Nonetheless, his remarks deserve the deepest theological censure. For gay Christians who have tried to become acceptable to God by subjecting themselves to electric shock therapy, or by being bombarded with pornography – thus to “cure” themselves of homosexuality – have been forced into precisely the sort of private hell Luther experienced in the confessional. The Bishop of Chester’s theology serves only to describe a cruel and abusive God who cares little for the emotional or spiritual welfare of His children.
Luther’s theological breakthrough was to describe a wholly non-abusive God, a God who loves His children gratuitously and not on the basis of merit. God’s love is experienced as grace, freely given: not as a demand that in order to be loved human beings must first become something impossibly different to what they already are. Luther’s articulation of this very different conception of God released Christians from bondage to a theological construction that made the Christian life seem as desperate as the life of a hamster on a wheel. Against those who would conscript this desperation into financial gain through the system of indulgences, Luther spoke of Christian freedom and the Babylonian captivity of the church. Against those who would make sexuality a part of the whole package of guilt and self-disgust, Luther would renounce his monasticism in spectacular fashion by marrying a nun. Ecclesiastical authorities can no more insist upon celibacy than they can “forbid eating, drinking, the natural movement of the bowels or growing fat” he declared.
Following Luther, generations of evangelicals described the huge joy of being released from the burden of impossible expectations. In countless hymns, the imagery is of throwing off a huge weight, thus to fall down before Jesus to accept His love. One of the best-loved of Charles Wesley’s Methodist hymns has it thus: “I woke, the dungeon flamed with light; my chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee.” The next verse begins: “No condemnation now I dread.” Being saved is evangelical language for describing the new life that opens up beyond the censure of an abusive God. The sense of finally facing the truth, the sense of admitting it to others, the sense of being accepted as one is, the sense of being released from the burden of impossible condemnation: being saved is an experience emotionally identical to coming out of the closet.
The problem, however, is that the ecclesiastical closet has become a crucial part of the structure of deceit without which a great deal of Church life could not continue. Unwilling to cope with another theological civil war, Church authorities have preferred to reinforce a culture of shame that condemns gay clergy to a subterranean existence. Of course, the church also desperately relies upon its gay clergy who make up such a high percentage of clergy in general. Roman Catholic historian Professor Eamon Duffy recently claimed “there is a real danger in the western Catholic Church that the clergy will become a profession for homosexuals”. Thus the Church’s preference for the ecclesiastical closet. And consequently, the nervous breakdown has become an almost inevitable phase of ordained ministry for gay clergy. But if the connection between the closet and Luther’s confessional is correct, what the church is afraid of turns out to be the very message that it is set up to preach: the reality of salvation.
The irony, of course, is that it is evangelicals who have so spectacularly lost the best insights of their own tradition. Where are the latter day Wilberforces or Shaftsburys? These were men who fought against tradition and, a narrow interpretation of scripture, in order to bring about liberation – most significantly perhaps the, liberation of slaves.
In America, it was evangelicals in the North, inspired by the Great Awakening, that began to agitate for the release of slaves from captivity. For Southern literalists, the North was perceived as inherently liberal, playing fast and loose with scriptures – in particular, Ephesians 6 – that were deemed crystal clear in their support for the institution of slavery. The Bishop who preached at Gene Robinson’s consecration in New Hampshire quoted one eminent divine as saying: “If the scriptures do not justify slavery, I know not what they do justify. If we err in maintaining this relation, I know not when we are right – truth then has parted her usual moorings and floated off into an ocean of uncertainty”. Sound familiar? Robert Dabney, one of Virginia’s leading Presbyterian theologians, insisted that: “The teachings of abolitionism are clearly of rationalist origin, of infidel tendency, and only sustained by reckless and licentious perversions of the meaning of the sacred text”. Those who supported slavery were, they claimed, the “traditionalists”, and those who sought a change in the historic teaching of the church were, in effect, trendy liberals more concerned with some nebulous “spirit” of scripture than with what it actually says. In one sense, the traditionalists were correct: the church had for centuries supported and defended the institution of slavery – as it had supported and defended the subjection of women: a battle, I have to say, that is still far from being fully won.
But those who argue for change are not foisting a politically correct agenda onto a reluctant ancient text. The issue is not about the nature of what it is to be gay or black or a woman: the issue is what it is to be God. And the one thing we know about God is that He seeks to call us out of darkness into light, to call us out of pain into joy, to call us out of deceit into truth, to call us out of oppression into freedom. In short, the Gospel is good news. What, I ask you, is good news about having to subject yourself to electric shock treatment or pornographic aversion therapy in order to become acceptable to God? A God who demands such of his children is not a God of good news or salvation, but a God of surveillance, a God of control, a God indifferent to the pain of his creation.
This is why there can be no compromise with those who wish to force gay Christians back into the closet, or who wish to drive them out of the closet thus to drive them out of the church. When Jeffrey John refused to hide within the ecclesiastic closet – thus sparking off global apoplexy amongst conservatives – his crime was to tell the truth. And the truth has changed things – truth has that effect. Jeffrey’s silent courage as a gay Christian suggests to me that there is some deep connection between the lyrics of one gay anthem: “I am what I am, and what I am, needs no excuses” and Martin Luther’s: “Here I stand, I can do no other.”
It is an example that more and more will follow.
Rise like lions after slumber, in unvanquishable number, shake the chains to earth like dew, which in sleep hath fallen on you, ye are many, they are few. And let the great assembly be, and declare with great solemnity, that ye are as God hath made ye, free.
Let the Reformation continue.