John Richardson looks at Baker and Kuala Lumpur and finds the similarities and dissimilarities startling
LIKE IT OR NOT, homosexuality is going to be on the agenda at the Lambeth Conference in 1998. Activist groups like Outrage and the LGCM will make sure of it. There should be no complaint from them, therefore, that articles on the subject continue to appear in various journals. The difficulty is that, though the call is for `dialogue’, neither side can truly accept a compromise. Inevitably, therefore, any contrary opinion expressed seems to reject not only the ideas but the very persons with whom it disagrees.
It thus needs to be said repeatedly that no Christian can claim the moral `high ground’ over others, particularly in matters of sexuality. The fact that I personally have not been publicly exposed to shame in this area is due in varying measures to grace, nature and the lack of `mind reading’ technology, not to my innocence or moral superiority. Yet a common guilt does not render discourse about sin impossible, provided we address sin not in order to accuse but rather to bear one another’s burdens and to serve by our mutual exhortations to holiness.
Persuasion, not force
Of course, some readers will already be seething over the implication that homosexuality is `sinful’, but unless they are willing to check their anger, the dialogue they call for will be impossible. Theirs will be a `no quarter’ campaign of politics and direct action (`outing’ and the ballot box) with only one acceptable result. Not merely their minds but their hearts are closed to those who hold contrary opinions.
However, if they argue that their opponents are equally intransigent they need to reflect that until very recently not only the church but the whole of Western society held a contrary view to the one on which they now insist. And in the church at least, persuasion rather than force or mental inertia should be the instrument of change. Placards and protests may frighten people into silence, but they will not prove them wrong. Nor will it do for the homosexual lobby to write off disagreement as judgmentalism or `homophobia’. For myself, I would be naturally more inclined to tell my homosexual friends to `get on with it’. That I don’t, arises out of conviction, not bigotry.
The two statements
Within this framework then, we may compare two responses to the issue of homosexuality which have appeared in the last few weeks. One is the Kuala Lumpur Statement, originating from the second `Anglican Encounter in the South’ which drew together bishops and other delegates from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania.1 The other is the recent lecture by John Baker, the former bishop of Salisbury and co-author of Issues in Human Sexuality2
Four things are particularly striking about the Kuala Lumpur Statement. First, it is a model of brevity, containing only twelve sections. Second, its source of authority is the Bible, which is quoted or referred to in eight of those sections. Third, it regards the message of the Bible as essentially clear. Fourth, it makes a direct attack on Anglican churches in the Northern hemisphere.
On sexual sin generally, the statement declares that “Jesus’ teaching about lust in the Sermon on the Mount … makes it clear that sexual sin is a real danger and temptation to us all.” However, it continues, “We are convinced that this includes homosexual practices”. Thus it concludes,
We are deeply concerned that the setting aside of biblical teaching in such actions as the ordination of practising homosexuals and the blessing of same-sex unions call into question the authority of the Holy Scriptures. This is totally unacceptable to us. This leads us to express concern about our mutual accountability and interdependence within our Anglican Communion. As provinces and dioceses we need to learn how to seek each other’s counsel and wisdom in a spirit of true unity, and to reach a common mind, before embarking on radical changes to Church discipline and moral teaching.
The problem of authority
Such an approach is both similar to, and yet in striking contrast with, that taken by John Baker. Like the Kuala Lumpur statement, he admits that the position of “biblical Judaism” on homosexuality is clear. However he regards this position as (“through no fault of its own”, p 7) mistaken and therefore lacking in authority. He adds,
That argument will, I admit, carry no weight with those who believe that every word of Scripture is inerrantly valid for all time. But we cannot now, with any respect for God or truth take this as our basis for making worthy use of the Bible. (p 7)
His remarks about biblical hermeneutics are, of course, themselves simplistic. But the key issue in this debate is indeed the matter of authority and its relationship to Scripture. Baker’s own authority lies in “the mind of Christ formed in us by listening to each other openly under the guidance of the Holy Spirit” (p 14) – a position seemingly close to that expressed in the Kuala Lumpur Statement above. However, his is a mind of Christ and a guiding Spirit cut loose from Scripture, which will make it impossible to listen to others (such as Third World bishops) whose standpoint differs.
Indeed, this raises intriguing questions as to the nature of Baker’s spirituality. Ultimately, he is on the left wing of the Reformation with the radical charismatics who believe in a Holy Spirit who can actually contradict Scripture. Even his Christ is not the Christ of the Bible – who would surely qualify in Baker’s eyes as an hopeless inerrantist. Baker and those who agree with him (such as Richard Kirker of the LGCM who asserts, “I am confident … the Holy Spirit is leading … in the direction advanced by Bishop Baker“3), need to show from whence they derive their confidence in this Spirit and this Christ. Presumably not from the Bible! The problem is that Baker wants to stand within the biblical tradition where it suits him (such as on “the Ten Commandments”, p 8) whilst, by his own admission, radically departing from it where it doesn’t.
The end result is bad theology. Baker’s position is, in essence, quite simple. Homosexuality is a `given’ of nature:
I see no point in theological controversy as to whether homosexuality is contrary to the will of God in creation […] What the believer surely must say today is that God thought a universe of the kind we have worth creating. Our question, therefore, can be simplified: how do we use homosexuality to good and godly purpose?
Homosexual relationships can be a source of the same love and joy as found in heterosexual relationships. Therefore, “The fruit of the Spirit has grown in that soil” (p 11) and our response should therefore be to commend, not condemn.
Theology, not fashion
But Baker’s argument lacks logic, not least in his conclusion that the existence of virtue obviates criticism of the context in which that virtue is nurtured. It is generally agreed, for example, that in the Second World War the same comradeship and heroism were displayed by individuals on all sides. Nevertheless, no one would argue that the Luftwaffe was morally equivalent to the RAF. To assess such cases we need to look at wider issues than the mere existence of virtue – indeed at precisely those issues addressed by “theological controversy”.4
We thus return to the clarity of the Kuala Lumpur Statement which draws, as it were, a line in the sand. Opponents cannot circumvent this by declaring that any appeal to biblical authority is inherently naive. Within the church, attempts to present an alternative must themselves show how they remain theologically coherent. Baker has not achieved this – nor will any amount of protest. Maurice Sinclair, the bishop of the Southern Cone, reminds us in an article of his own that cultural distortions of the gospel are not the exclusive preserve of other times and places than the contemporary West. At the moment, fashion may favour the homosexual lobby, but few inroads have been made on conventional Christianity.
John Richardson is Chaplain to the University of East London.
1. The Kuala Lumpur Statement
2. J A Baker
3. Church Times 16 May 1997, p 3
4. An excellent example of this can be found in Barry Webb’s essay, `Homosexuality in Scripture’, in Explorations 8: Theological and Pastoral Responses to Homosexuality (Adelaide: Openbook, 1994) pp 65-103 — OffRoad 1.9k unregistered