Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Wading In

The Times reports that the Dean of St Albans will be nominated as one of the candidates for the vacant Bishopric of Bangor here in the Church in Wales.

It's both a something-and-nothing story, and a something-and-something story, because Jeffrey John is famous to many for being nearly the Bishop of Reading. Till Oxford Diocese asked Rowan to step in and overrule because JJ is gay. Gay and celibate. Gay and celibate - and in a civil partnership with another male priest, which to most people reads as "gay marriage".

On what gounds is this a "something-and-nothing story"?

Well, everyone in the Church in Wales knows that Barry, our Archbishop, would be only too delighted if a decent gay candidate were put up for one of the forthcoming episcopal appointments in the Province. JJ is about the best known name for this - so, on that level, this hardly comes as a surprise. And also, many names will be nominated. Being nominated for consideration is a long way from being elected. There will be other good candidates nominated. Please, let's not all start hyperventilating.

So. This is my blog. I'm writing with opinions. What do I think should be done?

What do I think of the situation?

Of the issue?

Here I come, wading in. To the murkiest waters known to modern Christendom. God knows how we got here. But here we are.

So many issues are at play - ethics, attitudes to Scripture in general, to the Law in particular, the role of innovators in the Church and the wider family of the Church, honesty, truth, love, reason and reasonableness...

So I am going to say it as I see it. I hate politics in the Church - the politics of hidden agendas, of smiles on the front of faces whilst knives are being sharpened behind backs ready to be used ASAP. I honestly think the gay issue in the church is more about the perennially ungodly fight between liberals and evangelicals than about the issue itself. I mean, as an issue, it merits hardly any Scripture space yet it seems that all of the Bible hangs upon it if I listen to some friends. Poppycock. If we can't speak truthfully we don't deserve to be heard. And because evangelicals are always so well played by liberals, we get angry and try to play by sniping and sneaky tricks in return. It won't do. It really won't.

So it doesn't matter?

I didn't say that. I said - perspective, please.

And grace, because we are talking about real people here, and real people matter more to God than doctrines. He didn't send his Son to die for doctrinal purity, but for you and me. And a woman at a well. And Mary Magdalene. And Saul the destroyer. And John Newton, slave trader. And several million others - some of whom said thank you, some of whom said no.

If he died for a man who was a murderer (as Newton surely was) then I think that loving a man who sleeps with another man oughtn't be beyond his ability.

Ah! But Newton changed! Of course: this is the heart of the issue. The Gospel of God's redeeming love is for everyone, and we are to make it available to all - but it is not simply characterised by the words "there's a welcome here for you!" That great love welcomes, for sure - and then changes, transforms, makes new. Conforms us to the image of his Son.

Except - and forgive me my question here - how many faults do you have? How many ways do you need conforming to the image of Jesus? So even if we accept that a sexuality that is not the majority sexuality is sinful, (by which I mean sinful in the technical, Pauline sense of being part of the brokeness of a world living in a broken relationship with God, and not simply 'bad') then why should we presume that this would be the first thing on God's agenda to resolve in a man or a woman's life? I mean, their relationship with their parents gets far more Scripture time you know, and might conceivably rate higher...

"Right is right and wrong is wrong," you might want to say, and I am happy for you. Happy that your life is so clear, but unfortunately for many people life is less clear, and though my job as a pastor is to draw each person in front of me closer to Jesus - I actually have to start where they are.

Jesus had this knack, in Philip Yancey's phrase of being the "sinless friend of sinners". Again, 'sinner' is not a pejorative, it's simply a word that means someone whose life has a gap between them and God. There is no gap for Jesus; he bridges that gap for us. And we as the church are called to live out that life -

Oh my, what a calling.

And aiming at ritual purity on the one hand, and a complete assimilation into and acceptance of culture on the other both fail as following the model. We need something of both.

Which is why I am an Anglican, and it brings me to my second point.

I am an evangelical. But I fully accept that as an evangelical, my faith needs to be critiqued. In listening to the critique - both from liberals and from total non-Christians - I am thrown back upon the Scriptures and upon my relationship with my Lord and made to know Him better. It is one of the riches of being an Anglican than you have to live with others who are different to you, even when you are so righht, and they so wrong.

As such, I have already written of my distaste for Gafcon. Not for its aims, but for its utterly un-Anglican understanding of Church: we'll take away our ball if you won't play by our rules. And now we have a potential situation in the Church In Wales where an episcopal election might put us out of the mainstream of the Anglican Communion. Some of my associates will be using 'belonging to the Anglican Communion' as a reason why JJ should not be considered. Their arguments would have sounded better if they hadn't heaped praise on Gafcon earlier this summer. And yes, I told them so. You can't have separatism on one hand and then abandon it all mealy-mouthes and contrite when it suits. It looks like hypocrisy. It sounds like hypocrisy. It might even be...

Yet some of us genuinely hold to this argument. A bishop is a figure of unity in the church, not a parading figure-head of the latest issue at hand. Please, I would beg that JJ not be brought back here - he may be excellent, but he also comes with far, far too much baggage, and would place the Church in Wales in an invidious position that most of us do not want.

Gun to head: yes, I think it's OK to be gay and to be ordained - but the only sexual activity the Bible allows clergy is heterosexual, monogamous marriage. So single & straight, or gay, if you want to be ordained - fine: celibacy is a hallowed expression of sexuality that should be embraced and not feared.

Gun to head: a potential Bishop with a civil partner is pushing the limits on what it means to be celibate, no matter what else he says. It sounds Clinton-esque. That's not a great place for a Bishop to be.

* * *

Ethics is complex. It's as simple as that.

As far as this current spur to writing goes, because I believe in the Church, because I believe in honesty, because I believe in the best person not being ethically compromised, because I believe in politics not pushing for something that will fail to pastor many, and because I believe the Bible to be our rule of faith (and I haven't even begun to talk about that here - but see Ricky's other blog for some pointers - though beware, we have been chatting over many postings and many comments, so that is just a scratching of the surface!) I think JJ would not be a good candidate for a bishopric in the Church in Wales.

And I can think of many people who would be good. So I am praying that one of those men will be elected. And I am praying for one especially. Because when you see what might be, it is right to answer back not with condemnation but with holiness. I don't know JJ. I would not want to see him appointed - I fear it would harm the Church I love. And I can think of someone who would bless the Church I love; so I am praying to bless.

When faced with such circumstances this is our response: not to shout loud and condemn. How is that godly? But to pray and to bless and to ask God to have mercy.

Who knows? Perhaps He will.


MMP said...

Sigh...and God alone knows we all stand in need of his mercy.

Anonymous said...

I had a long and fruitfull discussion with an American-homosexual-Anglican, who's arguments in favour of "gay-ness" in the Church persuaded me of two things.

Firstly, my arguments were better.

Secondly, I was far too proud about it.

It was in part due to him that I became an Anglican.

Because we are a broad Church, there will always be differences of opinion over different things. The problem being -as you mention- Bishops should be a symbol of unity, they should represent what we hold in common. Not the devisive issues that make us not love our brothers.