Shared Con­ver­sa­tions: the way ahead?

The Church of England - - FRONT PAGE - By the Rev Dr An­gus Ritchie

The im­age of two bish­ops em­brac­ing – one the first woman to be or­dained bishop in the Church of Eng­land, the other a man who op­poses the or­di­na­tion of women to the priest­hood – was em­blem­atic of a very Angli­can ap­proach to dis­agree­ment. Con­trary to the stereo­type, the Church of Eng­land does not sim­ply split the dif­fer­ence be­tween op­pos­ing po­si­tions. It in­creas­ingly has to find struc­tures that ac­com­mo­date a more pro­found di­ver­gence of opin­ions.

Why is there deep and painful dis­agree­ment, not only on the or­di­na­tion of women but on the Church’s at­ti­tude to same-sex re­la­tion­ships? And does the way the Church has man­aged to live with dis­agree­ment on the first is­sue pro­vide any clues as to how we might move for­ward on the lat­ter? The depth of dis­agree­ment On both is­sues, the depth of dis­agree­ment flows from the dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tives that Chris­tians use to in­ter­pret his­tory. One of the uni­fy­ing bi­b­li­cal nar­ra­tives we have is that of dis­obe­di­ence – the story of hu­man re­bel­lion against God, and of the ways in which the dis­tinc­tive val­ues of the Gospel are chal­lenged by the pre­vail­ing cul­ture in ev­ery gen­er­a­tion. An­other is the nar­ra­tive of lib­er­a­tion – the story of the work of God to free peo­ple from un­just op­pres­sion, which runs through Scrip­ture and the his­tory of the Church, from the free­ing of He­brew slaves in Egypt through to the fight against apartheid and other forms of racial seg­re­ga­tion in our own age.

Chris­tians from across the the­o­log­i­cal spec­trum use both nar­ra­tives to un­der­stand our own times.

The last few decades have seen changes Chris­tians of all tra­di­tions are rightly re­sist­ing – to­wards an in­creas­ingly con­sumerist and he­do­nis­tic so­ci­ety, where the val­ues of faith­ful­ness and obe­di­ence are eroded by a ‘me-first’ at­ti­tude to both eco­nomics and to sex (both of which are key ar­eas of bi­b­li­cal teach­ing).

For some, any move to al­low sex­ual re­la­tion­ships out­side of het­ero­sex­ual mar­riage is seen as part of that ero­sion of bi­b­li­cal val­ues. They see the push to ac­cept same-sex re­la­tion­ships as a fur­ther un­fold­ing of the nar­ra­tive of dis­obe­di­ence, as Bri­tain be­comes a more secular na­tion.

Like­wise, Chris­tians from across the the­o­log­i­cal spec­trum ac­knowl­edge the pres­ence and power of God in the fight against slav­ery and seg­re­ga­tion, apartheid and other forms of racism – de­spite the mis­use of Scrip­ture to jus­tify th­ese prac­tices. For some, equal­ity for women in the church and for same-sex cou­ples rep­re­sents a fur­ther un­fold­ing of that same nar­ra­tive of lib­er­a­tion.

Wher­ever we stand on women bish­ops or same-sex re­la­tion­ships, Angli­cans agree on far more than we usu­ally re­al­ize. We all worry about the grow­ing con­sumerism and he­donism in our so­ci­ety, but we do not imag­ine that the so­lu­tion is sim­ply to turn the clock back (whether to the 1950s or the 1980s). Like­wise, we all cel­e­brate the lib­er­a­tion of groups who have been un­justly op­pressed with­out as­sum­ing that ‘sex­ual lib­er­a­tion’ is sim­ply syn­ony­mous with sex­ual lib­er­al­iza­tion.

That is why it is so un­help­ful to think about the dis­agree­ment within the Church as one be­tween ‘lib­er­als’ and ‘con­ser­va­tives’, as if one group wants to soft-pedal Chris­tian teach­ing and the other to hold fast to it. Each group be­lieves its po­si­tion to be the one most faith­ful to the Gospel – to its call to coun­ter­cul­tural obe­di­ence and to the lib­er­a­tion of the op­pressed. Does the set­tle­ment on women bish­ops of­fer a way for­ward? Of course, the anal­ogy be­tween bless­ing same-sex re­la­tion­ships and the or­di­na­tion of women to the epis­co­pate falls down in one cru­cial re­spect. The Church didn’t have any women bish­ops un­til Synod voted to con­se­crate them. But we al­ready have a great many clergy in same-sex re­la­tion­ships.

Quite un­der­stand­ably, op­po­nents of same-sex re­la­tion­ships of­ten ask: Didn’t gay clergy know the rules

be­fore they went for­ward for or­di­na­tion? Surely they ought to be obe­di­ent un­til they can per­suade the Church to change the rules?

The re­al­ity is more nu­anced. ‘The Church’ is not a monolithic in­sti­tu­tion with a monolithic ‘line’ on this or any other is­sue. What­ever its of­fi­cial doc­u­ments may say, peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence ‘the Church’ through in­ter­act­ing with ac­tual hu­man be­ings. Which is where it gets more com­pli­cated.

For, depend­ing on their church tra­di­tion and the cul­ture of their dio­cese, gay or­di­nands may well have been en­cour­aged by all of the key author­ity fig­ures they had to deal with (in­clud­ing their Vicar, the staff at the­o­log­i­cal col­lege and even per­haps their Bishop) to be­come priests with­out be­com­ing celi­bate. In cer­tain sec­tions of the Church, the of­fi­cial line has been qui­etly ig­nored for years.

This gen­tle and gen­teel form of civil dis­obe­di­ence is en­demic in the Church of Eng­land. If we are frank, we must rec­og­nize that sim­i­lar forms of rule-break­ing go on in all its the­o­log­i­cal tra­di­tions. (The Church’s rules on liturgy are just one case in point. Nearly ev­ery re­vi­sion has been about ad­just­ing the reg­u­la­tions to keep up with prac­tice.)

To­day’s re­al­ity is that of a grow­ing num­ber of clergy, with grow­ing bold­ness, de­fy­ing the of­fi­cial teach­ing on same-sex re­la­tion­ships. The sta­tus quo – an im­pos­si­ble façade of unity around rules that are openly ig­nored – is no longer sus­tain­able. The Church looks both hyp­o­crit­i­cal and ridicu­lous. De­spite the ex­cel­lent work be­ing done on other so­cial is­sues, whether from the Bench of Bish­ops or in our poor­est neigh­bour­hoods (where the Church em­bod­ies both prac­ti­cal com­pas­sion and a prophetic call for so­cial jus­tice), in­creas­ing num­bers of Bri­tain’s young peo­ple see us as a neg­a­tive force. So what should we do? Even if you think it de­sir­able, is there any chance the Church of Eng­land could unite around its ex­ist­ing dis­ci­plines on same-sex re­la­tion­ships? I sug­gest that, wher­ever you stand on the rights or wrongs of gay re­la­tion­ships, the an­swer to this ques­tion is a re­sound­ing ‘no’. Given that the Church of Eng­land has failed to en­force th­ese rules in past decades (when evan­gel­i­cal opin­ion and the views of the pre­vail­ing cul­ture were both more uni­formly hos­tile), it is in­con­ceiv­able that it will en­force them now.

If that judge­ment is cor­rect, we must ask our­selves a fur­ther ques­tion. It is the ques­tion the Church has an­swered with re­gard to women bish­ops, and which we an­swered with re­spect to the re­mar­riage of di­vorcees some decades ago. Can we find a way of living to­gether in one Body that pre­serves the in­tegrity of op­po­nents as well as sup­port­ers of change? On those is­sues our an­swer was – af­ter much ag­o­niz­ing and agony – a re­sound­ing ‘yes’.

To ac­com­mo­date two in­tegri­ties is not to triv­i­al­ize the is­sue in ques­tion. The pow­er­ful sym­bol of the em­brace be­tween Bishop Libby and Philip is pre­cisely that they man­age to sus­tain the bonds of Chris­tian char­ity across such painful dis­agree­ment. Each could so eas­ily feel ex­cluded by the min­istry of the other.

For Bishop Libby there is an ‘in­tegrity’ in the Church of Eng­land that does not re­gard her as a validly or­dained priest, let alone a bishop. For Bishop Philip the dom­i­nant ‘in­tegrity’ in the Church of Eng­land has de­parted from the full­ness of the Catholic faith. Yet they choose to re­main in one Body to­gether, and to re­sist par­o­dy­ing each other’s gen­uinely held con­vic­tions as ei­ther ‘heresy’ or ‘bigotry’.

Seek­ing unity in the midst of deep dis­agree­ment is not some mod­ern idea. The same prin­ci­ple – that the Church may need im­per­fect rules if it is to stay to­gether – is at the heart of St Paul’s ar­gu­ment in 1 Corinthi­ans 8. It may be ac­cept­able to eat food sac­ri­ficed to idols, but not if it is a cause of scan­dal. The con­vic­tions and sen­si­bil­i­ties of oth­ers need to be taken into ac­count if we are to build a com­mon life.

Of course, this is par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult when each group sees a scan­dal (one of dis­obe­di­ence and the other of op­pres­sion) in the is­sue un­der dis­cus­sion. But it seems to be the only pos­si­ble way for­ward for the Church of Eng­land to­day. Con­clu­sion The chal­lenge for op­po­nents of such a set­tle­ment on same-sex re­la­tion­ship – wher­ever they stand on the sub­stan­tive is­sue – is twofold.

Firstly, they have to ex­plain why we can live to­gether amid dis­agree­ment on both the re­mar­riage of di­vorcees and the the or­di­na­tion of women to the epis­co­pate, but not on the bless­ing of same-sex re­la­tion­ships. From the point of view of faith­ful­ness to Scrip­ture and the Catholic faith, it is very hard to see why the first two is­sues are ones where we can cope with di­ver­sity and the is­sue of same-sex re­la­tion­ships is not.

But, se­condly, they have to map a re­al­is­tic path from the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion to their pre­ferred out­come. Once again it is very hard to see a way out of an in­tol­er­a­ble sta­tus quo that does not some­how mir­ror our res­o­lu­tion of th­ese other is­sues.

We need to be clear-sighted, both about our cur­rent sit­u­a­tion and about the ways in which our Church might real­is­ti­cally move for­ward. To­day we find our­selves in a sit­u­a­tion of in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized dis­hon­esty.

It causes a huge amount of dis­trust and heartache to all par­ties. It is do­ing an in­creas­ing amount of dam­age to our wit­ness to the Gospel.

I would sug­gest that the choice if not be­tween two in­tegri­ties and one in­tegrity. It is a choice be­tween en­abling two in­tegri­ties and per­pet­u­at­ing a sta­tus quo that has not in­tegrity at all.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.