A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
By The Rev. Canon Robert Gage
St Nicholas (Anglican) Cathedral, Newcastle upon Tyne, England
We hear that the Anglican Communion is in crisis. Two weeks ago, the primates met in Dar es Salaam. Last week, our own General Synod met. Ostensibly, the big issue at both meetings was homosexuality.
Are homosexual Christians required live celibate lives? Can they be members of the Church at all? Above all, what about homosexual clergy?
I was brought up in an era when it was ‘not nice’ to talk about such things – or even think about them. I was a serious child – probably priggish. I tried hard not to think about sex. I assumed (as a Christian) that Christians never had sex before marriage – and certainly not outside it! Looking back, I see myself – not so much as innocent, as just plain ignorant. I was probably unusual, but I was not alone.
Today, we are bombarded by sex. Advertising is partly responsible; but the revolution in sexual mores over the last forty years is due to many factors. Things have changed. It’s no good pretending we live in an earlier age, however much we might like to.
But the current Anglican row is not primarily about sex. It is (I think) about the authority of the Bible, the exercise of power – about the very idea of what a Church is. I shall come back to sex; but I want to look at these other issues for a moment.
The Bible is the Church’s book. The Church wrote the books of the New Testament. The Church chose which books to included. The Church decided to retain the Old Testament. These actions, taken in the 2nd Christian century, entailed fierce debate. There were minority groups who wouldn’t accept the majority decisions. They either disregarded them, or marched off – to form their own ‘true’ Church.
But the Church created the Bible. The Bible did not create the Church. That, for me, says something essential about the authority of Scripture.
The exercise of power – not least in interpreting Scripture – has been a problem from the beginning. Christians see Jesus Christ as head of the Church. Problems only arise when we ask how Christ’s authority is mediated to us.
Is it mediated through anyone? Some Christians think not. They see faith as something between themselves and God: a one-to-one relationship involving no one else. That view is rejected by most Christians. Frankly, it leads to chaos. We all live in communities. Augustine put it neatly. Salvation, he said, is always personal, but never individual.
In the Acts of the Apostles, we see what might be called ‘consensus communism’. Christians held all property in common, distributing to each as each had need. They always spoke with one voice: the Apostles were simply the mouthpiece for the whole community. It sounds wonderful.
Acts was written in the early 2nd century. It looks back to a golden age that never was. 'Why,' Acts asks by implication, 'are things not like that now?' But they never were like that. The New Testament reveals much controversy, even amongst the Apostles. How should Christians relate to Jews? How should they regard Jewish food laws? In view of Jesus’s impending return and ‘the end of the age’, ought Christians to marry?
The apostolic age never achieved full consensus about these matters. But church history shows there has never been an age when Christians all agreed about everything. Neverthless, we have an instinct that agreement is desirable, even necessary. We yearn for the coming Kingdom of God, and feel our disagreements must impede its arrival.
One way of reaching agreement is to impose it. But who has authority to do this? The Apostles – and their successors, the bishops? The pope, as the successor of St Peter? A Synod of some sort, reflecting the kind of consensus government seen in Acts? The local congregation? But how can a self-selected group of like-minded people claim to be The Church?
The Church of England probably accomodates diverse opinions better than any other part of Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. This is largely due to historical accident. 16th and 17th century English Christians disagreed with each other mightily! Queen Elizabeth I decided they could believe what they liked, but they had to get on with each other. She required conformity to the Book of Common Prayer. Beyond that, she said, ‘I have no wish to make windows in men’s souls.’
This Anglican way of accomodating disagreement has worked pretty well – until now. The Anglican Communion is itself a historical accident. Empire-builders took their religion – and their Prayer Book – across the world. But the Communion no longer has a common liturgy; and, despite all our talk of freedom, we live in an age that thirsts for definition and conformity. Furthermore, most people assume that those who disagree with them are ‘wrong’.
The Church consists of people who – one way or another – see Jesus Christ as God’s definitive word to his world. The Church is not a body of Christians who all agree with each other! The fact is, we can’t all agree with each other. It’s just not humanly possible! But we can get along with each other, despite our disagreements – if we want to.
Why should we want to? Because, standing side by side (with our agreements and disagreements) we all face Jesus. We form, if you will, a circle around him, rather than a line stretching away from him. And in Jesus, we can all (I think!) recognise the primacy of God’s love – God’s love for us. How people ‘unpack’ that Good News with respect to our own lives, our communities, our moment of history, will vary. We will not always agree. But we can (if we want) accept that we all serve the same Lord.
Jesus, repeating ancient Jewish wisdom, said, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ In Romans, Chapter 13, Paul says, ‘Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.’ The primacy of God’s love – revealed by Jesus, lived by Jesus – implies a lot more than the right ordering our sexual desires. Of course, it includes that. Sex is powerful. Our sexual behaviour can easily harm others; and harming others is never right.
Yet we all wrong other people – and not only by sexual behaviour. Repentance is a perennial part of Christian discipleship. But I find it hard to believe that, within the bounds of a loving relationship, God actually cares what we do sexually! I find it even harder to accept that those who find they are homosexual – whether by birth or circumstance – should have to be second-class members of Christ’s Church. They are no less ‘disabled’ than anyone else. We must make it clear – to them, and to all – that they are welcome.
Some people will, no doubt, disagree with me. I will still treat them as beloved fellow Christians. We are all in this Christian thing together. But, if the Anglican Communion as a whole starts demanding complete agreement as the necessary condition for travelling together, I fear its days may be numbered.
God needs us all. We must accept the fact that we are not all the same. It is not sinful, or outrageous, to be different – nor (honestly and prayerfully) to disagree!
The Church Times reports that one primate at Dar es Salaam equated homosexuality with paedophilia. Another said he couldn’t see why the Anglican Communion should study homosexuality if it didn’t need to study murder. [2.03.07 p. 5] On the other hand, some months ago, one westerner asked a Nigerian bishop why he tolerated polygamy in his diocese. The bishop replied, ‘But – that’s part of our culture!’
I rest my case.
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