Moral diversity in the church

I recently picked up a collection of essays from the library called Gays and the Future of Anglicanism, edited by Andrew Linzey and Richard Kirker. The essays cover a broad range of topics responding to the Church of England’s Windsor Report, which censured the American Episcopal Church and a diocese within the Canadian Anglican church for proceeding with the consecration of an openly gay bishop and the blessing of same-sex unions respectively.

Among the essays that I found most helpful were those addressing the question of what constitutes legitimate diversity in the church on moral issues, in particular, essays by Keith Ward, Rowan Greer, and Linzey himself.

Ward argues that Anglicanism, unlike, say, Roman Catholicism, doesn’t have a mechanism for pronouncing definitively on contested moral questions. He then takes the Fourth Commandment (Sabbath observance) as an example of where the church has allowed widely divergent interpretations to exist side-by-side. What constitutes adherence to the Fourth Commandment is determined by context as well as reading the intention of “spirit” of the law. Hardly anyone would insist that Christians not “work, leave home, gather wood, or light a fire” on the Sabbath. Alternatively, one could follow Calvin and (arguably) St. Paul and say that for Christians there is no specially mandated day for observing it, since the law has been abrogated for them. However, Ward says, what you often end up with in practice is a kind of hodge-podge or halfway observance, where Christians are discouraged from working but not required to fulfill the other parts of the commandment. At the end of the day, he says, how we observe the Sabbath should be determined by the intent of the commandment, namely, to honor and remember God in all we do.

Analogously, Ward contends that the apparent biblical prohibitions on sexual relations between members of the same sex likewise have to be judged both in their original context and in light of the fact that Christ is “the end of the law.” Appealing to the OT prohibitions, for instance, is undermined by the fact that Christians (and Jews) routinely mitigate or outright ignore parts of the law. Likewise, he argues, for some of St. Paul’s statements. To take them as legalistic commands is to misunderstand the teaching of the gospel. “If Paul teaches that the whole law has been set aside by Christ, then appeal to the law to back up a moral view has been rendered impossible. To appeal to the moral beliefs of Paul, who taught that we should not be bound by any written words, would hardly make sense” (p. 25).

But lest this lead to relativism, Ward says that we have been given a way of testing our actions: “That criterion is love of neighbor, concern for their wellbeing. Such neighbor-love is to be modelled on the example of Jesus, which asks for self-giving, humble, unreserved and unlimited concern for the good of others” (p. 25). Ward concludes, then, that “when safeguarded by a stress on the need for loyalty and total commitment in relationships, and by an insistence that sexual practice should express and be subordinated to mutual personal love, a sexual relation between two people of the same sex who are by nature attracted to one another is acceptable and natural” (p. 26).

Nevertheless, Ward allows that Christians can in good faith disagree about this. Interpreting and applying the Bible is a complex matter over which sincere and well-informed Christans can and will disagree. He proposes that a diverstiy of viewpoints existing in one church has been, and should continue to be, a hallmark of Anglicanism. He suggests that one way of embodying that diversity is the existence of inclusive churches “whose vision of human relationships as related in Christ includes those living in same-sex partnerships” (p. 29), and that there is no reason that pastors or bishops likewise situated shouldn’t minister to such churches.

Rowan Greer looks at the diversity of viewpoints in light of traditional Anglican views on the authority of the Bible and church polity. He begins his essay by noting two opinions he holds with confidence:

First, what could be called the traditional view [of sexuality] no longer compels widespread assent, not only with respect to homosexuality, but also in reference to issues such as the remarriage of divorced persons, heterosexual cohabitation outside marriage, and childless marriages of those capable of bearing children. It does not seem to me reasonable to treat the gay issue in isolation of other aspects of human sexuality. Second, granted that moral norms should not be severed from doctrinal considerations, I find it difficult to think of them as quite the same, and remain unconvinced that a particular view of human sexuality must be held necessary to salvation. (p. 101)

Greer goes on to consider how the appeal to “scriptural authority” can be misleading because Anglicanism at least has never had a settled view of how scriptural authority functions. He canvasses the views of early Anglican divines like Richard Hooker, Joseph Hall, and William Chillingworth and notes that “even in early Anglicanism it is impossible any one clear understanding of biblical authority” (p. 105). Similarly with the other two legs of what he calls “that shibboleth of contemporary Anglicanism, ‘scripture, tradition, and reason” (p. 105).

He then discusses what he considers to be a fairly persuasive view of biblical authority – that of an inspired witness or response to revelation – which he associates with figures like S.T. Coleridge, F.D. Maurice, Charles Gore, and William Temple. The upshot is that “the repudiation of infallibility is characteristic of Anglicanism and that this carries with it the conclusion that all human authority is fallible” (p. 109). Consequently, Greer argues that proposals to create a more centralized Anglican communion with quasi-legal mechanisms for enforcing unanimity on controversial issues is a mistake and constitutes taking the easy way out.

Andrew Linzey’s essay “In Defense of Diversity” makes the point that it’s inconsistent to demand uniformity on one moral issue like homosexuality, while allowing for wide diversity on issues of at least as great, if not greater, moral import:

Like many church reports, [the Windsor Report] likes to think that there is greater uniformity than acutally exists. It scolds ECUSA and the Diocese of New Westminster for failing to observe the “standard” of Anglican teaching, but omits to mention that it is, like all such “teaching,” based on Lambeth resolutions, wholly advisory at best. Nowhere is this clearer than on the issue of war and violence. Successive Lambeth Conferences of 1930, 1948, 1968, and 1978 declared that “war as a method of settling international disputes is incompatible with the teaching and example of Our Lord Jesus.” But this hasn’t stopped individual churches authorizing priests to serve in the armed forces as chaplains, even though they are required to wear military uniform and are subject to service discipline. And neither has it stopped individual Christians and ordained ministers making up their own minds about the rights and wrongs of particular wars, and participating in the ones they believe to be just. (pp. 176-7)

Linzey’s point is not that any moral position is as good as any other, but rather that sincere Christians can legitimately reach different conclusions on particular issues in good faith. “We must give up as infantile the notion that all Christians have to morally agree on every issue. … Unity and communion would have been better served by a frank and honest recognition that disagreement is not in itself a sign of infidelity to Christ, or the demands of truth, or the fellowship that Anglicans can, at best, have within the church” (p. 178).

Indeed, Linzey says, though some may dream of a “pure” church where everyone agrees on all moral issues of importance, such a church would in fact be a sect. And, whatever the value of sects, that isn’t historically what Anglican churches have tried to be. The “Elizabethan settlement” that gave rise to Anglicanism as we know it was in part a reaction against the sectarianism of the Puritans, who sought just such a “pure” church.

I’m not sure how persuasive these arguments would be to someone who wasn’t already at least sympathetic to the “liberal” view on same-sex relationships in the church (though I think a case could be made that it’s also a deeply “conservative” view, but that’s a topic for another post…). However, it seems to me that a diversity of opinion on important issues isn’t going away and I’m convinced that it’s a mistake to make one’s position on this particular issue the litmus test for “genuine” Christianity.

For better or worse, there is no unified Christian view on many of the perplexing issues of the day. One unfortunate tendency of Protestantism has been to splinter in the face of disagreement, whereas Catholicism has tended to try and enforce unity from the top down. But, as Keith Ward puts it, “If there is to be any hope of Christian unity in the world, Christians will have to learn to embrace diversity of interpretations, doctrines and ways of life, while always seeking to relate those diverse patterns to the disclosure of the divine nature in the biblical records of the person of Jesus, and in the creative power of the Holy Spirit” (p. 29).

There are other essays in this volume worth discussing, which I may get to in future posts, but as a whole I think it’s a worthwhile read for Christians, not just Anglicans or pseudo-Anglicans like me, concerned with the splintering of our churches.

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One thought on “Moral diversity in the church

  1. Pingback: Sexuality, status confessionis, and the ELCA « A Thinking Reed

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