Reclaiming Christian Orthodoxy

In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus asks, “Is there any one among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give them a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish will give them a snake?” [Matthew 7: 9-10] Jesus was speaking of the love of God for the needs of all the human family. He was in particular challenging the notion that the love of God is reserved for the pious and the pure, the ritually kosher and the institutionally orthodox. Just as human parents will not refuse their own children food, or love, he says, so the Lord God will not refuse those who ask for bread in the name of His Son Jesus Christ.

This, simply put, is the reason why the church is re-thinking its traditional stance on homosexuality. We have become aware in the last several years that gay and lesbian Christians have been starved and denied the spiritual food of acceptance and love they have a right to expect as baptised members of the Body of Christ. We have become aware of the suffering, hardship and rejection that is experienced by many gay and lesbian Christians throughout the world. Some are denied admission to the Holy Communion. Most are refused permission to serve in lay and ordained office. Many are persecuted by civil and ecclesiastical laws. Some are forced to become refugees. Some are tortured and murdered. [See, for example, the experience of Ugandan Christians, forced to flee rape and imprisonment as documented by Amnesty International. Look on www.changingattitude.org/news_i_c_uganda_vancouver_refugees.html]

This summer at least two dioceses in the Anglican Communion – both beginning with the word “new” – decided to do something about it. They, and we here today, believe that God is calling the church to end discrimination and prejudice based on sexual orientation. We believe that the continued exclusion of people through the misuse of Scripture, and the repetition of inherited and unexamined prejudices against minorities, is a sin against the love of God.

Our actions in Canada and in the United States have been guided by the Holy Spirit, which is the Spirit of freedom and of truth. They were taken in response to changes in the sciences and social sciences that affect our understanding of human sexuality. They were taken not in rebellion against Scripture, but in faithfulness to its constant and greater witness that God does not deny his own children the bread of compassion and justice.

Still, our actions have been denounced in some quarters as “unilateralist” and “unorthodox.” My own reading of the history of Anglicanism suggests that the first criticism is rather weak. The Anglican tradition, as a distinctive branch within the Christian family, came into existence through the unilateral actions of the Church in England in the 16th century.

Some of the solutions being proposed today by proponents of so-called “orthodoxy” – solutions which would impose for the first time the necessity of a universal consensus on the church – are the same arguments that were made by the opponents of the very English Reformation they claim to represent. (As I asked former Archbishop Carey informally one day, “If England had not acted unilaterally at the Reformation would you be here to argue for a new universalism today?” He declined to answer.)

Just as England in the 16th century proposed no new doctrine for the church, but instead claimed the right to oversee its own affairs with a degree of local autonomy, so other provinces and dioceses in the Anglican Communion today are claiming that same right to make pastoral provision for the people of God within their boundaries. This is entirely within the tradition of Anglicanism.

The reaction this has provoked in many parts of the world is of course to be expected, and it must also be respected. Most of us do understand that a change in the understanding of human sexuality and especially homosexuality is culturally and theologically difficult for some. Just as we ourselves argue for a new respect for gay and lesbian Christians, so we must ourselves show respect for those of a traditional conscience in these questions. No one here, I believe, is trying to kick anyone out of the church. That, rather, seems to be the position of some of our “orthodox” critics.

And for this reason we must challenge the claim that Christian orthodoxy is the sole property of one segment of the Christian church. We must examine the assumption that orthodoxy is dogmatically uniform and unambiguous in these matters. We are bold to say before God and the church that we too are members of the orthodox Christian faith, and that our witness is to the Triune God in whose image we too have been created.

The proponents of a narrow orthodoxy claim that God condemns homosexuality, that the witness of Scripture is unambiguously contrary to same-sex relationships, that the authority of Scripture itself is at stake in this debate, and that the church cannot have different moral standards in different parts of the world.

But we, from a broader orthodoxy, reply that God condemns no one who has been made in God’s image, that Jesus Christ has taken upon himself the condemnation of us all, homosexual and heterosexual alike, that homophobia [The Lambeth Conference of 1998 spoke of homophobia as “an irrational fear of homosexuals.” No one explained what a rational fear of homosexuals would be. I use the term to denote prejudice against and denial of the dignity of homosexual people] is one of the unexamined sins of the church today, and that no doctrine of creation which ignores homosexual persons is an adequate doctrine of creation. We reply that moral standards do in fact vary in different parts of the Christian world, and that this is a cause for deeper discussion rather than separation.

A couple of years ago we had a conference in New Westminster that brought together all the people interested in social justice in our diocese with all the people interested in evangelism. I had come back from Lambeth in 1998 deeply impressed by the way African bishops hold firmly together the twin imperatives of evangelising and social transformation, and I knew that we in the western world tend too often to separate them into different activities. Our conference speaker was an American Baptist, and he began by saying this:

You Anglicans are a mystery to us Baptists. You have bishops in your church who deny the resurrection of Jesus, and you say “hey, we’re a broad church. There’s room for everybody here.” And you have theologians who question the Virgin Birth and the gospel miracles, and you say “hey, we’re a broad church. Everybody can have their say.” And then along come gay and lesbian people asking for a blessing and you say “hey, we gotta draw the line somewhere!” At least [he said] if you’re going to break up your church, do it over something important.

This raises the question of how we distinguish primary and secondary issues in the church. To gay and lesbian Christians, of course, the experience of exclusion is a primary issue. But theologically we must treat the question more dispassionately. What are first order issues in the church? And what are second order issues?

Anglicanism’s best and most enduring effort to answer these questions is the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1888. It defines four things as first order issues for the Anglican church. They are: the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the ecumenical creeds, the divinely ordained Sacraments, and the historic episcopate.

It’s important to understand that these four pillars were originally conceived within the Anglican Communion as a framework to define membership. They arose in the late 19th century in response to the growth of the church throughout the world and the requests by autonomous churches in foreign parts for recognition as Anglican churches. They remain the only defining criteria for membership in the Communion. As the Primates said in Portugal in 2000, only “formal repudiation of the Lambeth Quadrilateral” could count as a cause for the departure of a province from the Communion. [Statement of the Primates of the Anglican Communion, Oporto, Portugal, March 28th, 2000] And no part of the church has yet done this.

No particular doctrine of human nature is contained in the Quadrilateral, neither expressly or implied. No fixed and immutable conception of human sexuality or Christian sexual ethics are named here. This is not to say that Christian ethics and behaviour are not central to Christian belief itself, for they clearly are, but it is to say that first order issues for Anglicans are higher order issues, and nothing in our tradition restricts ethical or doctrinal development where the Gospel itself comes into contact with new social conditions or changing human knowledge.

Theologically, to say that one believes in God, in the divinity of Jesus Christ, and in his sacrifice on the Cross for our salvation, is of a different order than saying one believes in restricting sexual activity to heterosexual marriage or in the blessing of same-sex unions. The existence of God is a foundational belief. Christian social ethics is derivative. And while we must not separate them – and we should never claim that moral law is merely a human construct independent of the will of God – neither should we confuse the eternal and timeless truths of the Christian faith with the historic and temporal working out of those truths in the changing conditions of human life. To do so is a fundamental category mistake.

Yet those today claiming to be “orthodox” wish to dissolve the distinction altogether. They hold that same-sex relationships is a first order issue on the same level as the very existence of God. Some bishops meeting in Kuala Lumpur announced they would be in communion only with those who subscribe to their understanding of human sexuality. Other bishops have thrown out the historic episcopate altogether by asserting powers they do not have, and are busy planting churches and licensing clergy in dioceses where they have neither authority nor jurisdiction. In the name of “orthodoxy” they create disorder and anarchy.

When asked how these actions are consistent with the church’s tradition and understanding of the episcopate, they blame homosexual Christians and their supporters, arguing that the rejection of homosexuality and the rigorous prosecution of a strict heterosexuality for everyone without exception is the litmus test for the entire edifice of Christian and biblical truth. They present us with an “orthodoxy” that is not merely contingently homophobic but necessarily homophobic, with a gospel that has become law, and with a newly structured church that is more committed to expulsion than inclusion.

One of the tragic developments in the church today is the intellectual theft of the word “orthodoxy” by conservative modernists. In fact, historic Christian orthodoxy has accommodated a variety of spiritualities, theological schools, doctrinal convictions and pastoral practices. Genuine orthodoxy includes people like Julian of Norwich, who called God “mother;” Francis of Assisi, who protested the church’s submission to money; and Desmond Tutu, who defied the fundamentalist-backed system of apartheid. Historic orthodoxy has seen centuries when marriages were never performed in the church and, if Boswell is right, periods when same-sex relationships were celebrated. [John Boswell, “Same Sex Unions In Pre-Modern Europe,” New York, Villard Books, 1994]

We have seen the demise of cherished and fiercely held doctrines like the divine right of kings and the institution of slavery, the prohibition against usury and the strictures against divorce. And we have maintained unchanged the church’s universal moral commitment to love and compassion for the despised and the rejected, to justice for the suffering and the poor, to bread for the hungry. We have continued to challenge the principalities and powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, for these imperatives are not subject to time and decay.

Orthodoxy is a broad river, not a narrow stream. Yes, every river has its banks, but river banks also change over time. Authentic Christian faith is anchored in the Holy Spirit who leads us into all truth, and the living tradition of faith under the guidance of the Spirit is always open to a new word from God.

There was a time, for example, when Christian orthodoxy seemed necessarily anti-semitic, when Jews were openly held in contempt by frequent New Testament passages that condemn them. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer prayed for the conversion of what it called “the faithless Jews, that our Lord and God would take away the veil from their hearts…graciously hear our prayers which we offer for the blindness of this people, that they, acknowledging the light of thy truth, may be delivered from their darkness.”

In a post-Holocaust world these sentiments are now understood not only to have been a misreading of Scripture, but to have led to a human catastrophe of obscene proportions. Yet in this same world, homophobia has replaced anti-semitism as the last acceptable prejudice in some parts of the church. Now, as then, authorities remain silent or actively justify discrimination and oppression in the name of their religious beliefs. Official statements and declarations – even the ones making an attempt at balance and fairness – go to great lengths to reassure traditionalists, while offering at most a sentence or two of acknowledgment to homosexual people.

Gregory Baum, a Roman catholic theologian, draws a parallel between anti-homosexual prejudice and anti-semitism. He cites the rejection of anti-semitism by the modern church as an example of authentic Christian tradition that is capable of deep renewal and change. He writes this:

When tens of thousands of homosexuals were put into concentration camps in Nazi Germany, the world did not cry out against this brutality. As the Christian church remained silent in regard to the elimination of the Jews, so it uttered no word to protect homosexuals from a similar fate. Why this indifference to murder? What is it in our culture that makes us so hardhearted in the face of the suffering of certain groups? In this case, it is undoubtedly due to the church’s teaching that homosexuality is a perversion, a sin against nature, a manifestation of evil. Even though Jesus summons us to be in solidarity with the despised, the vulnerable and the “least of them,” we are ashamed to be seen in public as friends and supporters of gays and lesbians and to defend their dignity and human rights. The murders of homosexuals on our streets accuse us of a certain complicity, just as the violent manifestations of anti-semitism do. An increasing number of Christians see here a contradiction between doctrine and love. [See “Faithfulness And Change: Moments Of Discontinuity In The Church’s Teaching;” in “The Challenge Of Tradition” John Simons, ed, Anglican Book Centre, Toronto, 1997]

Baum says that when the church perceives a contradiction between doctrine and love, a contradiction it cannot perceive until certain conditions are present in history, then it is plunged into a re-examination of truth. This process has five steps, he argues, the first being the sense of contradiction that arises us when something in the tradition strikes us as incompatible with what we know of God’s love and justice through Jesus Christ. The second step is a search for the root of the contradiction in Scripture. The third is a re-reading of Scripture and tradition to find hints for resolving the contradiction. Fourth is turning to Christian experience – in this case, the experience of gay and lesbian Christians in their life in Christ – as verification of a new perspective. And fifth is the development of a systematic theology capable of overcoming the contradiction.

Over the years, the church has done this with respect to usury, monarchy, slavery, capital punishment, the equality of women, and the termination of marriage. In each case, the Holy Spirit has guided the church through a period of difficult change and brought us to a fresh appreciation of Christian responsibility and freedom. In each case, orthodoxy has proven itself both flexible and durable, both unchanging and yet ever self-renewing in its power and faithfulness.

None of this involves rejection of the authority of Scripture. On the contrary, the same Spirit that inspired the writers of the Bible inspires the church in its reading of the Bible. The Holy Spirit that breathes through the text, breathes through the church. Charles Hefling writes:

To perceive the Spirit’s work, the work of the Spirit is needed, and while every biblical word may become a sacrament of the Word, no biblical word always or automatically does convey the Word to every reader or every worshipping community. Prayer and study, the exercise of discernment and reason, play their part as interpreters, in weighing the scripture, are themselves weighed. The process is reciprocal, unavoidable, and unending. [See “The Authority of the Bible in Today’s Church,” Seabury Western, 1993]

To place ourselves under the authority of Scripture, therefore, is to enter a dialogical circle in which both church and text encounter each other with new questions and new insights in a continuous and never-ending circle of interrogation and revelation. In this process we learn new things both about ourselves and about the sacred text.

So, for example, we have learned from liberation theologians and base communities of the poor that God speaks a particular word of freedom and empowerment in Scripture to the marginalized and oppressed peoples of the earth. And we have learned from women that certain texts in Scripture have been used by men to control and dominate, to justify male superiority and give it the appearance of divine sanction. Phyllis Trible has called these “texts of terror” in which humiliation, subjugation, rape and murder seem to be justified by biblical authority. These texts of terror, these oppressive texts, have been used against gay and lesbian people too, and we must confidently say to the church and to the world today that they are not the word of God.

In a statement of interpretive principles prepared for the Diocese of New York last year a group of biblical scholars said this:

Faithful interpretation requires the Church to use the gifts of “memory, reason and skill” to find the sense of the scriptural text and to locate it in its time and place. The Church must then seek the text’s present significance in light of the whole economy of salvation. Chief among the guiding principles by which the Church interprets the sacred texts is the congruence of its interpretation with Christ’s Summary of the Law and the New Commandment, and the creeds. [See “Let The Reader Understand . . . A Statement Of Interpretative Principles By Which We Understand The Holy Scriptures,” Diocese of New York, 2002]

The New Commandment they speak of is that text in John’s Gospel. “A new commandment I give you,” says Jesus, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” [John 13:34] Love, according to these scholars, is to be the guiding principle by which we interpret Scripture. Not the sentimental love of modern society, but the costly love of Jesus, the sacrificial love that is lifted up on the cross for the life of the whole world.

The authority of Scripture lies in Christ himself. This is the orthodox position. For he is the love of God made flesh. “He is the reflection of God’s glory and imprint of God’s very being”. [Hebrews 1:3] Whatever reveals Christ in Scripture is authoritative for the church. Whatever is not of Christ, not consistent with the love of God shown in the crucified and risen Lord, is not authoritative and cannot be made into doctrine necessary for salvation.

The hatred, contempt and vilification of God’s gay and lesbian children that claims the name of orthodoxy today is not condoned nor blessed by Jesus Christ. It has more to do with those forces of religious fearfulness that crucified Jesus than with the love for which he gave up his life. The problem faced by gay and lesbian Christians, and those who stand with you, is not that we are victims of tradition, but rather casualties of those who have not grasped tradition deeply enough.

One of the elements of our tradition, of course, is sexual abstinence. There has always been a recognition in Christianity of those specially called to the single or celibate life. The voluntary renunciation of sexual activity is a particular gift of self-offering and service that some individuals are called to make, and it can be a deep expression of love and faithfulness. There is also a place for periods of voluntary sexual abstention in marriage itself. These things are rightly honoured in Christian tradition.

Unfortunately, celibacy has not always been voluntary. It has been imposed on people who have no calling to it, and required of people who cannot bear it. Far from being a blessing, in these situations it becomes a curse which denies normal, healthy human intimacy to people who are in every other way faithful servants of God. When people fail in it, as they often do, the response of the Church has been to blame the individual, when it would have been better to question the teaching. Imposed celibacy is a contradiction in terms.

Anglicanism, to its credit has never imposed celibacy on its clergy. Our clergy are free to marry and enjoy all the freedoms and responsibilities of human intimacy. This is enshrined in the 39 Articles, no less! [Article XXXII] It’s as if we have recognised from the beginning that ordination does not require renunciation of sexual life. Some individuals may have such a calling, it is true, but they are few in number. Anglicans have instinctively recognised that human beings are sexual beings and so we have accorded the clergy the same marital privileges as the laity.

Except, that is, for gay and lesbian clergy. Here we meet the cruel double standard. Homosexual people alone must accept imposed celibacy. Homosexual Christians alone are denied the full expression of intimacy with their partners because only for them does the church now insist on the pro-creative theory of sex. Only for them does the church still require renunciation of the sexual life.

This double standard denies and diminishes the humanity of gay and lesbian people. It is an aspect of homophobia. The fact is, both homosexuals and heterosexuals alike are people with the same legitimate yearnings, desires, hopes and dreams for stable, faithful and lifelong intimacy; we are different only in the object of our attraction; we share the same fundamental humanity, the same sinfulness, the same image of God given to us all in creation; we have the same Saviour and Lord who accepts us and loves us unconditionally.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu asks:

Why should we not want homosexual persons to give expression to their sexuality in loving acts? Why don’t we use the same criteria to judge same-sex relationships that we use to judge whether heterosexual relationships are wholesome or not? I am left deeply disturbed by these inconsistencies, and I know the Lord of the Church would not be where his Church is in this matter. [See his Foreword in “We Were Baptized Too: Claiming God’s Grace For Lesbians And Gays,” Marilyn Bennett Alexander and James Preston, Westminster John Knox Press, 1996]

Where, then, is the courage of the church? Where is our tradition of reasoned faithfulness, our ancient compassion mandated by Christ himself and bequeathed to the church by the Spirit? Will the church continue to call for costly sacrifice by its gay and lesbian members through the renunciation of their full humanity, but not take upon itself the costly sacrifice of witnessing to God’s love in homophobic societies or to other world religions? Why are Christians willing to live or die for the uniqueness of Jesus Christ but unwilling to proclaim the true depth of his uniquely unconditional love to people of other faiths? Why are we accused of conformity with secular trends in western society, while conformity with inherited prejudice and the standards of other religions goes unchallenged? It is time, as the Bishop of Oxford has so forcefully argued, to turn the argument back on those who are raising the voices of panic.

In their book “We Were Baptized Too” Marilyn Alexander and James Preston speak words of encouragement to the church. Three words, first to gay and lesbian Christians, second to the faithful hardworking clergy of the church, and third to the ordinary members:

Gay and lesbian Christians, we can walk through the storm. Though the walk may be long and rocky, and our burdens heavy, we can walk together. We can be a sign to the Church that has forgotten what it means to trust, what it means to love, and what it means to do justice.

Pastor, you may think that the storms of homophobia brewing out there in your congregation may be too threatening to enter. You hear the thunder and you see the lightning, but can you stand in the doorway and watch the opportunity to walk with the liberating Christ pass you by? Yes, your walk will not be easy nor your burden light, but you are not alone. Come out into the rain; remember your trust in God; remember Christ’s embodied stand for justice.

Church member, have you been silent about your loved one who has been turned away, rejected, despised in the name of Christ? Forget your umbrella, it won’t do you any good in this storm, but come on out where you can see the rainbow in the distance. The winds are blowing, the hail is beating, and it is a long way to the car, but can you do any less than to go to the House of Unconditional Love? Tell the stories, cast out the shame, love God’s children, and seek justice. [Ibid, p. 88-89]

We are asking for bread, not for a stone. We are asking to be heard as a voice of hope and a voice of love. Let us give thanks that the Lord Jesus Christ in his mercy has accepted us, and pray that one day we may be accepted by the church that bears his name.

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