Three and a half years ago I published a comment here berating the government for failing to take into account the needs of Christians and criticising the bishops of the Church of England for failing to recognise they needed to move from blocking a social change to ensuring it was implemented in a manner which would leave the Church on the moral high ground.
Today, I repeat my call for damage limitation not, this time, between the Church and its host culture, but now within the structures of the Church itself. Will we be able to rise to the challenge, or will we fail again?
When I look back I see a Church which was confident in the Victory of Christ, sure it was moving forward, singing both a traditional and a modern hymnody which centred around the coming of God’s kingdom. Now, when I look forward, I see a Church far less confident, hemmed in by political controversies, conscious of poorly-handled past scandals, under pressure from without and within over some of its core values. Where will we go now? Forward or backward? It should be forward, but the way ahead looks rough, and most of the hymns and songs (for we hardly dare call them hymns any more) look inward to our own personal experience of God, as if anything beyond our own personal subjectivity is no longer our concern or his.
We need to wake up to the fact that is not true.
I came to this page with the thought of making some comment about the resignation of Benedict XVI, but there really is nothing I can add. The action speaks for itself, and what the rest of us make of it is of little consequence.
So I apologise if you came here expecting to read a warm tribute or a critical assessment. What could I possibly write that would offer any insight? What could I possibly know?
May God bless all who serve him.
At the beginning of 2013, the position of the Church in England looks increasingly precarious, and over issues in themselves so trivial not to deserve much time. Yet I predict much of the public reputation of Christianity in this country and others will turn on these issues in the years ahead.
Already, the vote of the Church of England’s General Synod for female bishops failing to reach the necessary two-thirds majority has caused an outcry, as if it amounted to a final and binding rejection of the concept, rather than simply an indication that the checks built into the system, to prevent anything being done without sufficient consensus, work as intended. The issue will return. More thought will be put into it. If enough “weaker brethren” come to agree it will pass into praxis.
Of course, there are issues raised here; issues about functions and individualism. The delay means some women might now be too close to retirement before the law is changed and so miss out on their opportunity to wear a mitre, but then it is not the function of the episcopate to confer honour on individuals. The collective ministry of the C of E will continue whoever takes the rôle. Then again, members of the Synod represent dioceses but vote as individuals. The difference between the votes in the dioceses and those of their representatives at General Synod suggests on this issue the reps are not particularly representative of those they represent. That has caused consternation in some quarters. Is the system broken, or is this indicative of a deeper malaise?
The issue has ecumenical implications. Rome has declared it impossible for a woman to exercise priestly or episcopal ministry. Many free churches and other Anglican churches already have both. It is one of those differences we will have to work through, if the World will let us. The World? Sic, the World thinks it can command the Church’s ethics.
Which brings us to the issue which is about to descend on churches across the world, already has in some places, and imminently so in England. I refer, of course, to the desire to separate sex from marriage.
Scripture introduces marriage as the natural consequence of creating humanity in two sexes (Gen 2.24) and Jesus affirms this definition in his discourse with the Pharisees about the subject (Matt 19.4f, Mk 10.6). Moreover, he concludes, marriage is not under human authority but divine (“What God has joined man [must/should] not separate”). For Christians, therefore, this definition is God-given and inviolable. Theologians see it as both an image of the Triune nature of the Godhead and the ongoing concern God has for humanity, because these are also essentially about permanent commitment to unity across a divide, which is the essential nature of marriage. Space does not permit me to go into the Biblical authority for that view here, but it is not insignificant.
God has arranged that individual humans, as couples of opposite sex, can enter this union of community across difference and experience it for themselves, and the Church, in its many different forms, sees their doing so as a witness to the transforming power of God. For the Catholics, its symbolism warrants listing it as a sacrament. For the Anglican Communion it is “an honourable estate, instituted of God” and for others it is a covenant which men and women can enter.
Yet the UK Government has taken upon itself the blasphemous task of attacking God’s authority over this divine institution and purporting to redefine it for its own purposes in an imagined search for equality, an equality which imposes their arrogant definition on an entire nation, including its Christians, through law and centralised registration. They then compound the error by proposing to legislate against the national church acting fairly under this novel definition, so in the eyes of those who accept it we will be forced to appear arbitrarily discriminatory. First they redefine our language so we cannot communicate our message, then they single us out for legislation to make us look unfair and unreasonable, and they dare to call it equality.
How did we get into this mess? Partly, it began with another Government which used laws to persecute and vilify identifiable groups, and then moved on to mass murder. After a very hard war to defeat it the world reacted in disgust but, instead of identifying the methods which enabled the Nazis to dupe their population into co-operating in their crimes, politicians found it easier to dissociate themselves by making laws to protect the specific groups targetted. Hence, modern politicians see nothing wrong in employing the same techniques of deception, half truths, misrepresentation and vilification so long as it is in protection of the kinds of groups the Nazis targetted. The result is a public which distrusts politicians intensely and an atmosphere in which only those who can demonstrate a strident liberalism are tolerated. Against that is a backlash from the far right which perpetuates a sense of threat on both sides. This atmosphere makes rational debate difficult, to say the least, and governments are likely to legislate on the basis of beliefs and assumptions because they fear the consequences of falling even further out of favour with whatever support they still have.
However, the other major cause is the failure of the Church to unite against this poisonous politicking and stand up for good sense, reason and truth. We cannot evade responsibility for what has come about, because we have contributed through our own ineffectiveness. We have found it too easy to go along with society’s tendencies in the (not entirely mistaken) belief we could use them as a point of contact to engage people in our discourse. So we have colluded with excessive trends in cultural fashion. We have allowed our emphasis to be distorted by false popular beliefs. We have not challenged believers who go beyond their Scriptural obligations to society and family and begin to make idols out of family or career instead of seeing these things as mere servants of the Gospel. We have not challenged the popular belief that individual love is the basis of marriage rather than the unity of humanity across the sexes before God, because it seemed harmless. We have failed to see the importance of keeping our message clear and have dismissed those who tried as pedants, and now the lack of clarity has led the World to misunderstand the very essence of our teaching and see the problem in terms we find entirely alien. It is our own fault and now things have gone so far it is hard to see how we can be understood.
Yet we must make ourselves understood now, or it will become even more difficult in the future, and we owe it to God and to future generations to keep the Gospel available to them.
What, then, can we do? Firstly, we have to work together. Because time is short it is not possible for us to undertake a detailed study to achieve a cross-church consensus. All we can do, then, is support each other’s need to define our own doctrine and not have it imposed de facto by an Act of Parliament, and therefore support each other in making representations. Those representations need to be aimed at enabling the Government to understand the issues, namely:
I have already suggested a possible solution to my local bishop, but so far have received no response. It might be the bishops of the C of E still believe they can dissuade the Government, although given the repeated public statements the Government has made I am not convinced. If we cannot turn them away from their course we must surely find a way to preserve our independence in declaring our doctrine as we understand it and avoid having it imposed by secular forces.
It is only by mutual support we will be able to bring the Government and general public to understand the import of what is proposed and to appreciate the need to find an honourable way out. It is only by mutual support we will be able to convince the World that the Church seeks its ethics from a higher authority and needs room to do so.
The GAFCON Final Statement might bring relief to those who feared it would announce a schism within the Anglican Communion, but it is still not an unproblematic document.
While there is much in it to be applauded – commitment to the Scriptures and historic formularies of the Church of England, zeal for the Truth, recognition of ecclesiastical structures – there is also an unproven allegation in its analysis and two clauses in the Jerusalem Declaration which are inconsistent with each other.
The unproven allegation is the first of the three “undeniable facts” in its section on the Global Anglican Context. The claim is that there is “acceptance and promotion within the provinces of the Anglican Communion of a different ‘gospel’ (cf. Galatians 1:6-8) which is contrary to the apostolic gospel.” This would be disturbing news, were it true, but to be “another gospel” as intended by St Paul in his letter to the Galatians a teaching would have to substitute an alternative basis for Salvation to the cross of Christ and faith in him. I know of no province which has done that. I cannot imagine that anyone doing so would get very far in any province of the Communion.
What we do have in the global West/North is a host culture which has rejected the Gospel and substituted a message of happiness through consumption of goods and services, ignoring the fact of death and seeking to conceal the natural conditions which limit human choice. The Church has not been very strong at resisting that culture, or very discerning in which parts of it are benign and can be used to proclaim the Gospel, and which parts are inimical and to be opposed. Moreover, it has failed to set before this culture a convincing alternative vision of progress based on the Gospel, pre-occupied instead with considering which changes it should embrace and which it should oppose. Neither liberals nor conservatives in that debate have addressed adequately the underlying false promises of this consumerist culture, or found a way to move beyond them.
The failure of the North American provinces to abide by the consensus of the Communion is disturbing and distressing, not least, I should imagine, for those caught up in it, but it will not be helped by misrepresenting it as something it is not.
The inconsistency is between clauses 4 and 13 of the Jerusalem Declaration. Article of Religion 26 states:
“Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving of the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.
“Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that enquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally being found guilty, by just judgement be deposed.”
It is hard to see how clause 13 can be reconciled with that, and therefore how it can be reconciled with clause 4. The neo-Donatism of clause 13 is clearly rejected by the Thirty Nine Articles. “Leaders who have denied the orthodox faith in word or deed” (Jerusalem Declaration 13) may lose moral authority, but they cannot lose canonical authority until and unless “finally being found guilty, by just judgement” they are deposed.
It is hard to see how anyone knowing of this self-contradiction could sign this document in good faith.
The Anglican Communion needs not just to invoke the Thirty Nine Articles. It also needs to read them.
The latest Encyclical from Pope Benedict XIV should give us great cause for optimism. Not only is it a clearly argued and worthy piece of theology in its own right, but it also contains some encouraging small developments for those reading it from outside the fold to which it is, strictly speaking, addressed. I count three of these.
The first is a question of identity. The word Catholic appears only once in the entire document, and then it is a historical reference in an overview of Biblical interpretation over the centuries. Rather, Benedict refers to his faith and that of the Church as the “Christian faith” (para 1) or “Biblical faith’ (2). These terms, coming as they do at the beginning of the document, are hard to miss. Could it be that the ghetto mentality which I still discern in some of my Catholic friends is here being challenged by the highest authority? Is the Church’s identity not to be considered Catholic as opposed to the rest of us, but Christian along with the rest of us? If Christians are in a ghetto, and there is much in the Encyclical relating to our marginalisation by society, is it now together?
The second is the account of Purgatory (paras 45-47). This has been a source of disagreement between Protestants and Catholics since the Reformation. Here, it receives an interesting treatment. The first time it is mentioned as a historical development. The second, it has acquired quotation marks (at least, in the English translation). Between these the emphasis is decidedly on I Corinthians 3.12-15 and the symbolic. There is no defence of the concept itself, other than as a symbol. This is curious. It is as if Purgatory pertains less to the Deposit of Faith than to temporal expression of something deeper in human nature and God’s dealings with us. Could it be due for review along with Limbo? That would be welcomed by many Protestants if true.
The third is the treatment of Mary in the last two paragraphs. Again, here the emphasis is on Mary’s symbolism rather than on Marian dogma. She is an exemplar, as a woman who saw the whole Christian episode develop before her eyes, who endured enormous suffering through what she saw and remained faithful. Though vaguely devotional, the language here is capable of interpretation as a meditation on Mary’s experience. There seems to be real effort to retain some sense of awe at her position without overbalancing into something akin to worship which would offend Protestant sensibilities. Is this an attempt to find a new Marian recognition which seeks to avoid the kind of Mariolatry which obscures rather than illumines the Gospel, while not falling into the almost non-recognition of Mary’s unique position which is more characteristic of Protestant spirituality?
I may be wrong to see in this Encyclical language chosen to minister to tender consciences, deliberately admissible of a range of interpretation, expressing clearly what is known whilst taking care not to constrain what is not. However, if I am not, we could be seeing a new beginning in Christian relations, even a new approach to Universal Primacy. If these three points are indeed the intention here, then there is real cause for hope indeed.
To judge for yourself, click here.
There was a time when taking offence was a cause of great consternation to all, but those times have gone. Now offence is a political weapon. Taking offence is an offensive action in the war of words.
So it is that many, who have never read the text of the Bishop of Romes recent address to the University of Munich, are nonetheless quick to complain and condemn him for it. He has been burnt in effigy. An apology has been demanded. A British MP has accused him of insensitivity; and all for something he did not say.
The facts are rather more prosaic than the mischievous reports being circulated by those seeking to harm Christian-Muslim relations and stir up religious hatred. What the Roman primate actually did was to cite an early Christian-Muslim dialogue in order to examine the two perspectives from which different cultures approach issues. He did quote the challenge made by the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus to his Persian partner that Mohammed had brought nothing new except what was evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached but he also described that remark as startling brusqueness and expressing himself so forcefully. This hardly suggests an endorsement of the view he was citing.
What these two mediaeval protagonists understood, and modern politicians seem not to want to face, is that mutuality is only achieved by an honest exchange of ideas, in which questions are genuinely raised and answered. Censoring debate, conversely, leads only to misunderstanding and mistrust and results in alienation, something our present time knows only too well. It is all part of getting the facts, something todays leaders seem to think an unnecessary burden on their time when there are rabbles to be roused in support of ill-conceived causes by a little judicious ignorance.
If those in a position to influence public opinion stopped to get the facts before speaking out, the world might not be in quite the mess it is.
If many fear Cardinal Ratzingers solid conservatism will prove a barrier to ecumenism, it was perhaps for that very reason that the new Pope Benedict XVI underlined the primacy of the Ecumenical venture in his first sermon. At least, let us hope so.
For as I have frequently written before, I believe Rome really is the key to the whole process, and their doctrinal position on their ecclesiological rôle is the key obstacle to mutual acceptance between them and other Christians.
Before the conclave met, the then Cardinal warned of the danger of innovation. However, it is likely he really had in mind not creative but soundly-based theology so much as giving way to secular sources of opinion. That is something with which I would wholheartedly agree. It is the function of the Christian Church to lead in matters of ethics, not to follow the morals of a fallen world, even by resisting them. That is, let us hope, what the new Pope meant by co-operating to achieve authentic social development which respects the dignity of every human being
However, if he is serious about achieving the visible unity of all Christians, he is probably the best equipped pope to do it, for he is an expert theologian and will well appreciate the kind of issues raised on this website. He will know, as others do not, the need for careful evaluation of doctrine and the implications of adopting any position. He would be expected to strengthen therefore the theological teams involved in ecumenical dialogue and to ensure they are overseen by scholars capable of appreciating what comes out, and he will be well qualified himself to provide the final oversight on behalf of his church.
So I am encouraged by the choice. The prospects for a successful outcome are not just good. They are certain, because what Christ prayed for cannot be hidden for ever. It is only a matter of how long we must wait.
It was a beautiful summers evening with orange strips of cloud contrasted against a peacock-blue sky. I was passing a garden hedge when I heard a sudden commotion. A blackbird flew out of the proximity of a cat and perched on top of the hedge shrieking noisily at the animal. I looked a little more closely and saw a young bird with brown fluffy feathers being chased round the garden as it fluttered helplessly unable, at this most important time, to master the art of getting airborne.
Then the unexpected happened. The cat, apparently discomforted by the birds screeching and my disapproving stare, broke off the chase and slunk into the garden next door and from there into and across the road. The blackbird followed and landed in the road behind it for a few moments before moving to a vantage point in a nearby tree, all the time continuing to vocalise its protest.
I was impressed twiceover by these events: firstly, that a small bird could have the courage to resist a predator many times its size, and even confront it on the ground as it withdrew, secondly, by the effect of moral force in the face of apparently unbeatable power. I had made no threatening gesture toward the cat, nor could I while it remained on private property. The bird was making a lot of noise, but was otherwise powerless to intervene. Yet, between us, something persuaded a cat to ignore its natural instincts and leave the scene. Opinion had won the day.
Opinion is a powerful force. Even dictators who have no constitutional need for public approval still seek it, whether by controlling what can be known or by making the occasional public-relations gesture. Allied to opinion is truth. Whatever is done to hide that, constant examination and re-appraisal of evidence tends to ensure it will come out in the end.
I take great comfort from that. Maybe there is something of it in Jesus promise that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth. Perhaps it is part of the way God orders the universe. When so much seems ranged against us it is comforting to know that if we are on the side of Gods truth we are also on the side of his victory.
We need to know that, especially when we see what is stacked up against us at the moment. Paradigm shifts in the Western world are challenging our previous understandings of sexual morality, and these are in turn causing divergences of practice so great they threaten to split the church, and are the pretext for splits in some areas. Then other churches use these splits and threats of splits as excuses for withdrawing from dialogue. This dialogue is itself conducted at such great distance, by proxy, from the churches represented, that it is sometimes hard to see whom the participants represent, other than their own private viewpoints. None of this appears well.
However, appearances can be deceptive and, in this case, almost certainly are. For however bad things appear, the truth is that God is still working and his truth is still there whether we can see it or not. We are on the winning side and, like that blackbird, must not give up. There are several reasons things are not as bad as they seem.
First of all, the Church is not ours but Gods and, however much we pretend otherwise, we cannot put asunder what he has joined. Likewise, the truth is also Gods, however much our antics obscure it, and he will bring it to light when he is ready whether we like it or not. Thirdly, we need to recognise that a few people behaving badly does not compromise the whole Church. It is a nonsense to claim we are out of communion with part of the Church because its clergy, even its bishops do something of which we disapprove or believe God disapproves. We are all sinners and we all have beams in our eyes, and we should accept that others around us will sin, sometimes very publicly, and we have to be strong enough to withstand that. Of course, we cannot compel people to remain in public fellowship with us, but we simply have to accept their position and seek to bring them back.
Fourthly, we need to answer the question of which faction is involved in a dialogue by providing a clear audit trail. Dialogue by proxy is insufficient. We need involved dialogue in which every memeber has a stake and an opportunity to contribute and comment should they wish. Official Church governing bodies have a rôle in ratifying any final agreements, but it is inefficient and unnecessarily slow to expect them to provide the supervisory function in the Ecumenical process on a day-to-day basis. That function would be far better catered for by providing a structure through which ideas could be tested within a communion before they became incorporated in any official or quasi-official statement. It is obviously absurd that ARCIC (for example) can publish a statement on some subject and wait five years for the two churches to offer comments, and then take another five years to come up with an alternative, which then waits another five years for comments... Clearly, such a process will take decades and may lead to the acceptance of something less than satisfactory simply from weariness. A much more involved process is needed where the churches are involved totally in a dialogue, and a consensus can emerge within them and between them simply from the prayerful involvement and reflection of all.
Finally, we must not let the world dictate our agenda. We have to recognise that the world is wrong about many things and we should not therefore be following its follies. Rather, we should be seeking to find and proclaim the truth, and prepared to stand up for that truth against the worlds opposition. Nor can we simply defend a status quo. That way is simply to drag our feet as the world pulls us reluctantly along behind it. No, we must do our own thinking, examining the scriptures and interacting with our tradition in prayer and dependence on the Holy Spirit, and put before the world an alternative vision of progress, so we will have the moral high ground which comes from taking an argument forward. Sometimes we will find controversy in doing so, even among ourselves, but we will at least be able to claim to be progressive, rather than regressive, though not in the direction the world might wish to take. Then we will be bearing witness to the truth as we are led into it. Then we will be living in the victory we have.
So let us not be daunted by the task ahead, for if God can give a blackbird the courage to see off a cat, we should not be afraid to stand in the victory we believe he has achieved and to trust him to prosper his own work as we set out to do it.
The recent Church of England General Synod motion on the ARCIC II report The Gift of Authority has exposed a weakness in the entire Anglican approach to Ecumenical dialogue. For how could it be that our representatives agreed with their opposite numbers from another church a position a major constituent church of their own communion could not accept? One is left to ponder just whom the Anglican members of ARCIC represent.
The problem is not quite new. It became apparent last autumn when controversy following events in New Hampshire, and the possible threat of schism, led Rt Revd Crispian Hollis, Chairman of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales, (as quoted in Church Times) to observe In such conversations we need to know, on the level of Church, who we are talking to, and the Anglicans themselves need to be able to speak in such a way that they are confident of being representative of the whole Anglican Communion.
If we were minded to be combative we could respond that last time round it had been the Roman Catholic members of ARCIC who had agreed a statement which failed to measure up to the Vaticans requirements, but that would not be constructive. Our responsibility is to remove the beam in our own eye, and only then will we see clearly to remove the mote in our partners eyes. If others can make improvements in their systems, let them do so, but we must improve our own where such improvement can be seen to be needed.
Certainly, it is needed here. Bishop Hollis has proved truly prophetic in his analysis of our problem and we should consider it carefully. Ecumenism is not a matter for a few theologians alone. It must involve the whole Church, so we should not be surprised to find proper representation essential to the process. This doesnt just mean finding delegates to inter-church dialogues who are truly representative. On the contrary, Anglican comprehensiveness means such true representatives are unlikely to be found. Rather, in the involvement of the whole Church we must achieve a structure where the inter-church dialogue is supported and informed by an intra-church one.
Such internal dialogues are essential in ensuring the cutting-edge theology at the inter-confessional level remains connected to the understanding of faith in the local congregations, while still allowing radical ideas to emerge and be considered. They also provide more heads to work on the trickier problems; we cannot assume God will not use an ordinary peasant in Guatemala or Bangladesh to solve a problem which has eluded scholarly minds for decades. He does that sort of thing, but the peasant needs a means of hearing about the problem and communicating a proposed solution if that is to work.
Critique on The Gift of Authority
It is now over two years since I started trying to open an ecclesiological dialogue with Rome. In this age of modern communications it would be easy, I felt sure, to identify the right people and commence a vigorous and informative debate which would reveal the truth on which we could all agree in love and common sense.
Having done most of my previous theology in academic circles where it was taken for granted that the aim was to challenge existing thought and establish where the truth might lie, and all would naturally co-operate to that end, it never occurred to me there would be any difficulty. People might not see my arguments, or they might come up with irrefutable counter-arguments which would compel me to rethink, but we would naturally carry on until the process reached a conclusion
Sadly, what pertains in academia is not the same in cash-strapped churches trying to stretch their members funds as far as possible. They use specific people to carry out specific tasks. There, a theoretical question is not seen as an essential sine qua non. It is simply nobodys department to answer it, while everyone concentrates on the immediate and urgent tasks which must be done by deadlines. The result is that my enquiries just vanish into a void from which I frequently receive no reply.
The void may be deepened by other factors, such as the possibility that open exploration of ecclesiology in particular could lead to potential embarrassment if ideas emerged which went against an orthodox consensus, or the fact that the average Christian, even the average ordained minister, could easily get out of their depth with things too wonderful (Job 42.3). It is easy to see, at a personal level, the deterrent to getting involved.
However, at the corporate level, it is equally obvious that we must get involved, and if there is a deterrent at the personal level there is a need to ensure that this is overcome at the level of the organised Church. For Christ sent his disciples into the world, among other things, to teach, certainly to make disciples (cf Matt 28.19-20) and St Peter urged us always to be ready to answer anyone requiring a reason for the hope we have (I Pet 3.15). A church that has no time to explain these things, or to help someone understand the implications, or to discuss the consequences, is a church with no time to fulfil its essential rôle. It is a church with no time either to teach, or to understand its mission. The salt would indeed have lost its savour (cf Matt 5.13).
For this reason, I hope very much that the debate will go ahead, that time will be found, and that new understandings will emerge as a result.
The Anglican communion seems to be under permanent threat of schism. I am not sure how real this threat is, or whether the press just likes to make a crisis out of the ongoing drama of Church life. However, there seems to be no shortage of clerics and even bishops willing to take the bait. As a result, many anglicans on all continents seem to feel the unity of the Communion and the truth of the Gospel to be at risk.
However, given the huge diversity which must exist in such a large body, and the follies of human experience which afflict the Church as much as they affect nations and states, it is too easy to get matters out of proportion.
Diversity means difference, and difference is bound to lead to disapproval, and it naturally follows that someone somewhere, even someone in authority, will do something I do not like. In fact, they may well do something I hate, even something I hate so much I cannot accept it reflects the same Gospel as I proclaim. Does that really mean we cannot co-exist?
The flip-side of the Gospel is that we are all sinners (Rom 3.23f), albeit redeemed sinners. It follows that we will sin. We will sin privately, in secret, and we will sin publicly and bring our Lord into disrepute. That is nothing new. It has been so throughout Church history. Of course, we should do our best to avoid it, but it will still happen, and some will do it openly, deliberately, even denying its nature. That is what sinners do.
Traditional Anglican ecclesiology has accepted that such things go on and, whilst they are obviously to be discouraged and even opposed, they do not affect the fundamental nature of the Church. The new and worrying tendency is not unbelieving or immorral clerics they have always been there but the schismatic tendency which imagines responsibility for the sins of others which can only be avoided by denying fellowship, not just in the (alleged) sin, but in the Gospel of Christ. Nor is it simply the perpetrators who are shunned. It is anyone who will not shun them also. This attitude denies everything the Anglican Communion has always stood for, and is a lamentable triumph of individual prejudice over the Church.
Getting things back in proportion, what we have in the appointment of Gene Robinson as bishop-elect of New Hampshire is, at best, an argument about morality, and at worst, the appointment to high office of what Common Prayer calls an open and notorious evil liver (Holy Communion, opening rubric, 2nd paragraph). That may be unwise. It may be discreditable. It is typically American, in failing to respect the rest of the world. It may, itself, be a sinful act, but how does it unchurch an entire province?
As adults, we have to recognise the freedom of others, even when they behave badly. We cannot make them conform. It may be natural, in such circumstances to take our ball home and refuse to play, but is it helpful? What we are facing here is a loss of control, not just of our host society, which we should not have controlled in the first place, but of our own understanding, as a godless culture begins to impose its norms upon us. We want to resist; see it as our duty to do so, but we have lost the plot. The Church is not here to resist, but to proclaim the truth (cf Matt 28.19f), not here to cower but to triumph (Matt 16,18, Rom 8.37, I Cor 15.57).
As a result of these paradigm shifts in the world around us, the Church has lost confidence in its understanding of sexual desire and conduct. Some have reacted defensively, seeking to maintain the view which is threatened by the change. Others have sought to embrace the new attitudes. What we need is to come to an understanding, and to help the world come to an understanding, of where the truth lies in all this. We need to see that God is in control, that change is not simply an evil steamroller which will crush us all if we do not stop it, but something that can move in any direction and needs steering into a better way. By finding and proclaiming the truth the Church can make a contribution and give a lead, but to do so we need to stop defending and start debating, openly and honestly, what these things might mean. Of course, because we do not control the world, it is unlikely we will see things go our way, (some might argue that we definitely wont) but at least we will know what we think and why, and be able to stand up for it with a clear conscience.
Reflections on Recent Tensions in the Anglican Communion
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