Gerry O’Brien prefers The Advocate to the lawyers
Synod has met in November every year for as long as anyone can remember, until this year. There are issues we might wish to raise and there are questions we might wish to ask, but they will all have to wait until after Christmas. The House of Bishops will no doubt be relieved that recent traumas can lie undisturbed over the festive season and that the bloodhounds of the press will be staying away from Church House until February.
As a consolation prize, Synod members have recently received their invitations to a service to celebrate the Methodist Covenant. Typical, don’t you think? How does the Church deal with any situation – why, hold a service of course! But what are we celebrating? At least one bishop thinks we have achieved nothing of substance, and other Synod members are concerned that we have agreed on our ideal destination without giving much thought as to how we might get there. It’s a bit like choosing your holiday of a lifetime, booking the hotel of your dreams, sorting out the excursions, the car hire, the scuba diving and all that, but failing to check whether there are any available seats on the flights out and back.
Meanwhile the Primates are preparing to meet in London in October in order to discuss the issues raised by the election of Gene Robinson as the new Bishop of New Hampshire and the blessing of same-sex unions being championed in the Canadian Diocese of New Westminster and elsewhere. Many of the Primates are calling for action to be taken against those who appear to be departing so dramatically from the historic teaching of the Church, with the ultimate possibility of expulsion from the Anglican Communion.
Ruler’s rules OK
But what is the nature of our disagreement? Catholics and Evangelicals in the Church of England all accept the authority of Scripture. We agree that God’s revelation stands for all time, that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. We believe that God is eternal, that he is consistent and that he is unchanging. For instance when Jesus tells us to love our enemies, he meant it last year, he means it now and he will mean it in the future. The difficulty is that in the Bible we find principles which we have to apply. We don’t find a detailed rule book. It would be convenient to have a detailed rule book, so the Church in every age has made one up.
Basically we are all Pharisees at heart. We find the principles of God’s laws are broad in their scope and impossible for us to uphold, so we try to define some man-made rules that we can keep. Do you remember what prompted Jesus to tell the story of the Good Samaritan?
In Luke chapter 10 we read that a teacher of the law tried to trap Jesus by asking the question, ‘What must I do to receive eternal life?’ He was obviously looking for one or two simple rules, adherence to which would guarantee him his place in heaven. But Jesus responded by throwing the ball back into the teacher’s court. ‘What do the Scriptures say?’ he asked, ‘How do you interpret them?’
The man answered Jesus’ first question but not his second. He replied with a summary of the Commandments. ‘Love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind’; and ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself.’
‘You are right,’ Jesus replied. ‘Do this and you will live.’ That answer however was not good enough for the teacher of the law. He wanted to justify himself, so he asked the supplementary question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ Jesus graciously obliged him with the story of the Good Samaritan, which was probably a lot more than he had bargained for – but still didn’t give him the detailed rules he had sought.
Now I daresay we have all derided simple-minded Christians who throw proof texts about with gay abandon, as though they were the instant answer to all our dilemmas. However, it may just be that the pot is often calling the kettle black. It is surprisingly easy to define the people we do love as ‘neighbours’ and the people we don’t want to love as something else.
When we were discussing the ordination of women some years ago, we didn’t talk too much about how we understood God wanting the men and women he has made to relate to each other. We did, though, find a lot of people arguing that particular verses of the bible did not mean what they said, and that either they did not apply to the particular issue we were considering, or that they meant the opposite of what they appeared to say. There were suggestions that God had actually changed his mind between the first century and the twentieth, no doubt informed by the light of modern thinking. There were even arguments from silence, the line being that everything must be permissible unless explicitly prohibited in Scripture. General principles derived from the Bible were stretched to accommodate whatever was being proposed.
More recently we have been discussing same sex relationships and the same techniques have been employed. For instance a leaflet was circulated a couple of years ago by the Human Sexuality Action Group, which claimed the support of ‘around 40’ General Synod members.
In it the author argued that incidents in Genesis and Judges refer not to homosexuality but to homosexual gang rape. He claims that it is arguable that Paul’s castigation of homosexuality in Romans 1 applies to paedophilia and promiscuity, not homosexuality per se. Further he suggests that Paul’s argument is based on the Leviticus code applied to a practising Jew and is not being put forward as an ethic for Christians.
In conclusion he asserts that ‘it is at least clear that the Biblical references on their own do not provide a plain, coherent or logical basis for the condemnation of lesbian and gay relationships in modern Christian society.’
Well, he may have a point, but surely we have to ask whether we should approve of some practice merely on the grounds that Jesus never explicitly disapproved of it. Surely we shouldn’t expect to indulge in everything that God apparently censures, provided we can do so in a way that is slightly different from the Biblical description, so that a lawyer can argue that our desired practice falls just outside the scope of the Biblical prohibition.
It is to be hoped that the Primates will take a considered view of the whole counsel of God when they meet in October and that our Church may go forward under the authority of the Holy Spirit, rather than the authority of lawyers.
Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.