STRANGERS AND FRIENDS: A NEW EXPLORATION OF HOMOSEXUALITY AND THE BIBLE, Michael Vasey (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995) 276 pp pb, £9.99 ISBN 0 340 60814 5
I STARTED READING Vasey’s book with a certain trepidation, conscious of his determined, sometimes fierce, advocacy of the gay Christian ’cause’, and his evident conviction that he presents a forceful case from an evangelical standpoint. I have to say, however, that I finished it without being very much clearer as to what that case is, or any great sense of having been challenged in regard to my own views.
This is not to make any criticism of Vasey personally. Indeed, one value of the book is that it conveys both the author’s sincerity and his passionate sense of alienation and injustice as a person who, because he is gay, feels himself to be at odds with both the world and the church. However, I do not feel that it is a better book for this. Indeed, its highly personalized stance may be one reason why it is not a very successful book from my point of view.
A particular problem with the book is its lack of focus. Vasey has strongly criticized Thomas Schmidt’s work Straight and Narrow? which I have reviewed previously. However, unlike Schmidt, Vasey seems to have made no clear identification of his target audience or his core subject. If he was writing for evangelicals then he fails to connect, principally because the book does not live up to its subtitle. There is in fact only one chapter out of thirteen on ‘What does the Bible say?’ and it really adds nothing new to the debate. Moreover, his conclusion at this point is too weak to support the case he wishes to hang on it. Vasey admits, for example, that in all probability 1 Cor 6 contains a condemnation of some form of homosexuality, but suggests it is “likely” that the homosexuality in view “carries those connotations of slavery, idolatry and social dominance that were associated with corrupt Roman society” (p 136). However, in view of the radical shift in Christian perceptions Vasey proposes, this is simply not enough to persuade the sceptical evangelical.
Indeed, Vasey’s central thesis seems more designed to appeal to the sociologist rather than the theologian:
“[T]he conventional competitive masculinity of our culture has alienated the ‘normal’ male both from himself, from other men, and from women. On this view the men who emerge as gay, although perceived as aberrant, are involved in the recovery of a more affectionate and intimate masculinity and a consequent reconciliation with the feminine. […] [A]lthough sexual activity may be an important part of what it is to be gay, it is not in fact the heart of the gay vocation within the social process of modern society.” (P 232)
Here we see both the curious ambivalence about Vasey’s case and the passion of his stance. On the one hand, there seems to be an uncertainty throughout the book as to whether ‘gayness’ is an intrinsic condition or an effect produced by “the distorted masculinity of Western masculine culture” (p 184). Of course this thesis, even if intelligible, has nothing to say about the response to homosexuality found in scripture and therefore is either divorced from, or even undermines, Vasey’s earlier argument. On the other hand, we also see here another recurring theme in Vasey’s work, which is that of the ‘noble gay’ (cf. p 158). Being gay is a “vocation”, part of a “resistance movement” to the idolatry of the Western worship of Mammon. This outlook probably explains one of the book’s major weaknesses which is that, whilst readily criticizing Western culture, the church in general and evangelicals in particular, it consciously eschews any criticism of gay people or culture, partly on the grounds that this would supply ammunition to their opponents!
Another criticism is that Vasey’s work seems itself to betray a distorted view of the culture by which he alleges gay people feel so threatened. Gay people are said to be regarded with “horror” and “fear”. Western culture is alleged to have no place for “non-competitive intimacy between two unrelated males” (p 231). Yet one seriously wonders at the truth of certainly the first, if not both, of these statements. My experience as a University chaplain is that the only “horror” felt within my part of Western society would be towards my view that homosexual acts are wrong. And again, depending on what one means by “intimacy”, my own life as a heterosexual is far from without significant relationships with other men. Admittedly, hugging and touching do not play a part in this, which may be a weakness, but if they did this would hardly be an argument for homosexual genital acts. Indeed, one wonders again whether Vasey is saying that if such heterosexual intimacy existed, homosexuality would disappear.
Overall, Vasey’s work is not sufficiently rigorous (often seeming to clutch at straws), nor does it present anything new in terms of biblical studies or theology. It is, however, a useful work to read for its insight into what it feels like to be a gay Christian at odds with the traditional view on homosexuality. Yet the overall impression is ultimately negative. According to Vasey, neither ancient Israel nor the modern West has found a place for the gay man, and although he insists that male intimacy was once more acceptable in the church, he fails to establish that this rested on a better theology. The message of the book is that acceptance of the gay outlook by the church would help redeem society. The tone of the book, however, is that there is simply not much joy available in being gay.
John Richardson is Anglican Chaplain to the University of East London
HOLY, HOLY HOLY: Worshipping the Trinitarian God, Christopher Cocksworth, Trinity & Truth Series, Darton, Longman & Todd, London, 1997, pp xii + 244, pbk. ISBN 0-232-52187-5, £12.95
THE TRADITIONAL English folk-song, Green grow the rushes O! is a very bad guide to Trinitarian theology, for the One God in Trinity is denied if expressed as ‘One is one and all alone, and ever more shall be so’, and equally denied if the Three are designated as separated ‘rivals’ rather than persons in communion. In this book, Christopher Cocksworth, who has already given us a fine study of evangelical eucharistic theology, does no such thing but insists that we must take the Trinitarian character of Christian worship seriously, and that doxology and theology are intimately related. His book begins with an introductory chapter on the Trinity and worship; he then shows how the Trinitarian pattern of worship is rooted and expressed in the New Testament and early Church, leading into an exploration of the themes of the glory of God, the invitation of Christ, and the searching of the Spirit, concluding with a final chapter showing the close links between the Trinity, worship and mission.
It is good to read such a clear, positive, and illuminating book, which shows clearly how exciting Christian orthodoxy is, and how essential it is for Christian worship and Christian doctrine to be related. As Cocksworth expresses it:
Because God is the one to whom glory (honour, dignity, value) ultimately belongs, theological statements are doxological statements. Every statement about God, if it is true to the way God is, is an acknowledgement of God’s glory, an affirmation of his true divinity. It is an expression of praise.
The very last thing the doctrine of the Trinity is, is a remote abstraction, and it is one of the great and positive encouragements of the last two decades that the doctrine of the Trinity has once again become central to Christian faith and life. The living God who made us for himself, is Being in Communion. That is the root and reality of ecclesiology; and at the very heart of worship. it is no less the ground and reality of mission. So we read:
Worship sends us out into the world to live and speak the good news of the kingdom. Mission draws the world into the life of the Church, so that it can hear more of Christ, be touched further by his Spirit, and enter into the praise of his Father.
Not the least of its many merits is that this book is a delight to read. There are striking phrases and lucid exposition that carry the reader along in a way that enables the complex arguments of the early centuries about God’s nature to be seen as natural and compelling. It is not only because Christopher Cocksworth shares Michael Ramsey’s enthusiasm for the theme of Glory that his book recalls some of Ramsey’s characteristic emphases, it is also because he has something of the same ability to put profound theological truths simply, and that can only be because this book about the Trinitarian identity and shaping character of worship comes from the pen of one who knows that to pray is to be a theologian, and to be a theologian is to be one for whom prayer and worship are central. There are powerful echoes here of the Orthodox tradition of doing theology, a tradition with which, of course, Anglicanism has many links. And again it is worth noting that one theological emphasis that has been recovered in recent years in the West is a new appreciation of the centrality of the doctrine of theosis (deification) to the doctrine of salvation, and the calling of the Christian.
If, as has been claimed, all heresies are ultimately Trinitarian. then this study is masterly in its portrayal of the character and balance of that Trinitarian faith, set out in a way which is in the deepest sense of those words both catholic and charismatic. In writing of the Spirit and the humanity of Christ Cocksworth writes of ‘the essence of the Son’s identity – the glory of his divinity as the Son of the Father begotten in the Spirit’ becoming embodied in the humanity of Jesus, acknowledging that this close linking of the procession of the Spirit and the begetting of the Son have not traditionally been so related, but noting also that contemporary theologians like Moltmann and Weinandy have sought to express a more intrinsic relationship between the Son and the Spirit that is close to the pattern of Jesus’ life. (The nineteenth-century pentecostal theology of Edward Irving could supply some interesting material here).
I noted only two small slips (Tertullian’s adversary was Praxeas not Praxaeus, and the monastic movement was ‘ascetic’ not ‘aesthetic’), in what is an encouraging, and profound study, which takes us to the heart of our Christian faith and life, pointing us to the living out of the mystery of being in communion, receiving no less than the life of God, and being formed by the Spirit in the likeness of Christ. To live that life of grace is riches indeed, the banquet of the kingdom which God has prepared for us, rather than the thin gruel sadly so often offered.
Geoffrey Rowell is Bishop of Basingstoke
THE POST-EVANGELICAL DEBATE, Graham Cray and others, SPCK, pbk, ISBN 0-281-05108-9, £5.99
TRADITIONALIST ANGLICANS are used to being stereotyped. Opposition to the ordination of women is regarded as an indication of our views on a whole range of other issues from liturgy to capital punishment. Unfortunately for those members of the hierarchy who like to assign everyone to the appropriate pigeon hole, life in the contemporary church is not quite so straightforward. Maggi Dawn is an example of the inability of party labels to indicate what Christians actually believe. An ordinand at Ridley Hall, she tells us in The Post-evangelical Debate that while she retains her appreciation of evangelicalism, she now worships in an Anglo-Catholic church and reads widely in liberal and Catholic theology. Another contributor, Nick Mercer, traces his pilgrimage from being a Baptist minister through his involvement in the charismatic movement to ordination as an Anglican priest with a special devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham.
Mixing different theologies and styles of spirituality is very much part of the post-modern scene. But while a readiness to explore all traditions of Christianity sympathetically has its pluses, it also has its minuses. Personal preference can become the basis for all decisions; truth gets written off as a standard of judgment; and anything that interferes with our pleasures or challenges our selfishness is simply avoided.
In The Post-evangelical (published in 1995), Dave Tomlinson argued that it is time for evangelicals to shed their old rigidities, move out of the ghetto and enter post-modern culture. He urged them to be more sympathetic to co-habiting heterosexual couples and to think again about homosexuality. They needed, he claimed, to move beyond enlightenment ways of thinking that gave too much weight to realism and rationalism. Talk of biblical inerrancy belonged to the past. Evangelicals must be ready to embrace an understanding of truth that ‘is to be found less in propositional statements and moral certainties and more in symbols, ambiguities and situational judgements’.
When I read The Post-evangelical it reminded me of Honest to God. Tomlinson puts his finger on some important issues but he fails to think them through in a coherent way. Contributors to The Post-evangelical Debate highlight some of his omissions. Maggi Dawn rightly criticises his failure to look at worship, an activity she describes as ‘the crucible where real life and experience meet theology head on’. Graham Cray takes Tomlinson to task for failing to note of the contributions made to hermeneutics and biblical studies by such Anglican evangelicals as Anthony Thiselton.
What is lacking in The Post-evangelical Debate is any readiness to engage with Tomlinson’s claims for post-modernity. Despite the popularity of proponents like Richard Rorty, post-modernism has not lacked acute philosophical critics. Post-modernist excesses in science and in the study of history have come in for a good deal of ridicule. It is far from obvious that the cause of the gospel will be well served if Christian apologists allow this particular star to guide them.
Evangelicalism is certainly changing. As Maggi Dawn puts it, the church must evolve to proclaim the same message in a world that is changing all around it. Pete Ward makes the fascinating claim that young evangelicals from Generation X are no longer turned on by the plastic chairs, guitars and choruses that moved the baby boomers. They see them as boring and lacking in style. Returning to Oxford after a long absence, I have been struck by the low-key approach of the Inter-Collegiate Christian Union. Posters advertising OICCU sermons are no-where to be seen and in some colleges membership has shrunk to a handful.
In the end, the church cannot think only about matters of style. Now, as always, Christians are called to be faithful to the tradition as men and women of their time. It is not enough to tinker with externals but it is fatal to abandon the essentials. The unchanging gospel has to be re-expressed in ways that are authentic for each generation. The debate about post- evangelicalism has certainly raised some important issues. The evangelical movement cannot rest on its laurels. After the revival of Reformed theology in the fifties and the charismatic movement of the seventies and eighties, we are now at a crossroads. It is not impossible that many will allow New Age and post-modern currents to pull them along the route sketched out by Dave Tomlinson. On the other hand we could see the rise of a new generation of evangelical prophets to replace Dr Packer and John Stott. Only time will tell.
Paul Richardson, formerly Bishop of Wangaratta, has recently returned to England.
THE HEART OF CATHOLICISM: Essential Writings of the Church from St Paul to John Paul II, ed. Theodore E James Ph D, Our Sunday Visitor, Huntingdon, Indiana, distributed by Gracewing, 1997, 751pp, hbk, ISBN 0-87973-806-5, £29.99.
THIS HANDSOME volume, large and easy to read, is restorationist in style and purpose, as what is clearly the mission statement in Dr James’ General Introduction shows:
The main purpose is to show that the teachings and practices of the contemporary Catholic Church, as presented and defended by its official Magisterium and clarified by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, are essentially the same as those originally presented in the New Testament and repeated again and again in ensuing historical periods as the circumstances require
So much for the development of doctrine!
Nevertheless it is a good collection of documents: Clement of Rome, Didache, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian, Ephraim the Syrian, Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom and the Latin Fathers. There is mediaeval stuff too. Part VI, called ‘Devotional Classics’, rather strangely includes under this heading the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent.
Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore makes it into Part VII, ‘Practice of Basic Catholic Teachings’, with ‘Faith of our Fathers’, revealing, perhaps, the American provenance of the collection. Other writers from the modern period are more as one might expect: Newman, Therese of Lisieux, Chesterton and eight recent popes. Every anthology is idiosyncratic. This one is particularly so in some of its choices of translation. I should never have expected in the 1990s the scripture references to be taken from a 1914 translation of the Vulgate nor for so many of the patristic translations to be nineteenth century. The extract from Augustine’s Confessions is from a nineteenth century translation but the City of God extract is as translated by Whitney J Oakes (1948). I am uncertain as to how critical I am of the idiosyncrasies of translation. The text reads generally well and using a historical text neatly evades the debate about exclusive language which throttles so much modern translation.
Those with well-stocked book shelves or a good theology library nearby should spend their £30 on something else. Those who have very little traditional theology and devotional writing on hand could do very much worse than buying Dr James’ anthology. He was a philosophy teacher for many years and, though one might disagree with him as to the extent that the modern Catholic faith
is unchanged from New Testament times (which is not to say it is not apostolic!), here indeed is an accessible way of exploring ‘the heart of Catholicism’.
Andrew Burnham is Vice-Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.