Saturday, 23 June 2007

Is sexuality a communion-breaking issue?

Ed: Here is the dilemma of the Anglican Communion in a nutshell. On one side are people like Archbishops Hutchinson and Ndungane, and on the other those like Jim Packer. Dividing them, and us, is whether anything people say or do regarding same-sex relationships can be a reason for division in the Church.

Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, at the opening service of General Synod in the Cathedral Church of St. John in Winnipeg:

[...] Certainly one of the most difficult items for our discernment will be the question of how to proceed on the issue of same-gender relationships. Related to it are other questions. One is the deeper question of how Anglicans receive and understand Scriptures in the light of modern scholarship and contemporary experience. Another is how our decisions will impact our sister churches in the Anglican Communion. And beside that is a question as to the nature of the Communion, and the appropriate relationship between provincial autonomy and global interdependence.

Another way of putting that is, how do we wish authority to be exercised or limited within our family of churches? And perhaps most important, how will our decisions witness to the Good News of God in Jesus Christ for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters within the Church and outside it. There are of course many other questions to consider in the hard work of discernment over this issue. We are taught that the first principle of moral theology is obedience to conscience, and I ask each of you to embrace that principle, and with it the ethic of respect for the conscience of those who disagree with your own. The second principle of moral theology is to inform your conscience to bring it, if possible, into line with the teaching of the Church. And here careful listening using the Anglican approach of Scripture, Tradition and Reason will be helpful.

At the end of the day, when decisions are made, they will not be unanimous. Differences will remain, but the unanimous opinion of the Theological Commission (and of many other sources) is that the question of same-gender blessings should not be a communion breaking issue. So the alternative to that is that in keeping with a long Anglican tradition, we make room at the table for those whose views we do not share. For the table is the Lord's and not our own. And it is He who invites us to share the life that is offered there for the sins of the whole world. [...] Read more

Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane at the Sung Eucharist at Westminster Abbey, 17th June:

[...] There are areas of life where we have made great changes – not to Scripture itself, but to how we understand it. For example, it is entirely clear that slavery is accepted within the pages of the Bible. Even St Paul says 'Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called. Where you a slave when you were called? Don't be concerned about it!' 1 Cor 7:20.21. It is wonderful that this year you have celebrated two centuries since the abolition of slavery. Tragically, today there are terrible new forms of slavery, and I am very honoured that the United Nations has invited me to host an international conference on tackling human trafficking later this year.

We have changed our position on lending money at interest – though I must say I am often rather less convinced that we were right!

We have changed our position on contraception. And we have changed our position on the role of women in the Church. Even where we disagree on this, we find ways to agree to disagree.

But we have NOT changed our position on Jesus, and I do not see that we could, and still call ourselves Christians. If anyone wants to pick a fight with me about my faith, let it be on the grounds of my relationship with Jesus, and my belief in who he is: the belief to which Scripture attests and the creeds affirm.

Jesus remains the eternal Word made flesh. Jesus remains the second person of the Trinity, pre-existent from before all time, taking on human form. Jesus remains fully God and fully human – the double homoousios to which the Nicene creed affirms. Jesus remains the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, who breaks the chains of death. No-one else can do this. Jesus remains the crucified one who was raised to new life. In twenty-first century scientific terms, we do not know how to describe his risen body – but we do know he was raised, and we do know he ascended, and we do know he sits at the Father's right hand, where he ever makes intercession for us.

Jesus Christ remains the same, yesterday, today and for ever!

So, even though some of the church is in turmoil over issues of human sexuality, that should never become the touchstone of orthodox belief. Read more

Jim Packer, responding to the Canadian St Michael Report in Spring last year:

[...] The Report equates core doctrine with what is affirmed in Anglican foundation documents and argues that blessing same-sex unions, whatever else it is, is not a violation of core doctrine, but is an adiaphoron, a secondary matter, which does not warrant any breach of church communion. But the reasoning on which this conclusion is based is not the whole story, though it is indeed part of it. However, a sounder, profounder concept of what in the past has been called heresy is: any belief or practice that negates any part of the New Testament gospel of Jesus Christ, understood as the divinely revealed truth that shows our sinful race the way of salvation from sin and sin's consequences. This concept covers not only doctrines of the Creeds and Anglican foundation documents, but also the practice of faith in Christ, repentance, obedience, life in the Spirit, and personal holiness, according to the Scriptures.

Paul in 1 Corinthians 6 lists behavioral habits that, if not repented of and forsaken, keep people out of God's kingdom, and male homosexuality is explicitly included in the list (vss. 9-11). Paul goes on to celebrate the power of the Holy Spirit sanctifying persons at Corinth who had previously lived in the ways he has mentioned. It seems undeniable that he would have viewed blessing same-sex unions as sanctifying sin, and thus as a denial of an essential ingredient in the gospel, namely repentance of all one's sins and forsaking of them. And the gospel as such is surely the church's core doctrine.

The gravity of the homosexual lifestyle as Paul views it warrants the description of it when found in the church as practical heresy; which raises the question, whether the suspending of full communion pro tem is not warranted and indeed needed as a disciplinary measure, aimed at bringing offenders to repentance. The Report fails to face this issue of conscience and wisdom, which arises from straightforward biblical exegesis and for some is very real and pressing. Read more


Revd John P Richardson said...

Excuse me blogging my own blog, but isn't the logic of Ndungane's position that slavery is still a Christian option - ie not a communion-breaking issue?

Comments, anyone?

Revd John P Richardson said...

Also, doesn't Ngundane's argument also suggest (going from the example of usury) that the Church might be able to reverse all these decisions - on slavery, women, contraception, etc?

Blair said...

Evening John,

to be honest my answer to both your questions is no. I think with all the examples he gives, Ndungane is simply stating that the church has changed its position without splitting. My historical knowledge is minimal so i wouldn't know whether, at the time of the anti-slavery campaign, there was a risk that this would split the church (or a branch of it). Ndungane doesn't make explicit how his examples relate to each other, so I don't think one can say that he is suggesting all these changes are reversible simply because he (like you, interestingly) has doubts about the change regarding usury. Given the lack of explicit links I guess I'm reading it as a list of separate examples - Ndungane's one (implied) thread linking them seems to me to be that the church has changed its position on all these matters without splitting and so perhaps the same is possible where homosexuality is concerned.

Would like to turn to J I Packer's article if i may. He says that "male homosexuality is explicitly included" in Paul's list in 1 Cor 6. I would suggest that the reference there is only to anal sex between men (and will try explaining this if you insist!) - Dr Packer does not say how this can be expanded to refer to all male homosexuality. He then says "it seems undeniable that he [Paul] would have viewed blessing same-sex unions as sanctifying sin". Again Dr Packer does not explain how he draws this out of 1 Cor 6 - he refers to "same-sex unions" when his cited text in Paul does not even mention sex acts between women. In the next paragraph Dr Packer speaks of "The gravity of the homosexual lifestyle as Paul views it...", and again does not explain how this is drawn from 1 Cor. The "straightforward biblical exegesis" may be less straightforward than Dr Packer suggests - without full explanations his response to the St Michael report seems weak here. Well, I would say that, wouldn't I, but still...

in friendship, Blair

Revd John P Richardson said...

Hi Blair. I think Ndungane's argument is structurally much weaker than he himself supposes.

The argument rests on a series of logical comparisons, each of which is taken to have a bearing on the issue of homosexualism (shorthand for the practice, not the inclination).

His implicit conclusion is thus: "The Church admittedly once believed 'a' about homosexuality but may be about to change to believing 'b'. This, however, doesn't matter enough to break communion as the Church has been through several examples before of changing from 'a' to 'b' on other issues."

Unfortunately, this is full of holes. First, the example of slavery is, in fact, one of a 'communion breaking' issue. Leaving aside the difference between the acceptance of slavery and its endorsement (his example from 1 Corinthians 7 is dubious), it is certainly the case that, during the build up to the abolition of the slave trade, there were those in the church willing to argue that slavery was allowable. However, there is surely no-one today who would argue that the church can embrace two positions on slavery - for and against - in a non-communion breaking way. He cannot therefore marshall this to support what he argues about homosexuality.

Secondly, his suggestion that the example of usury may represent a mistake on the church's part certainly sets it off against the slavery example, and shows how the latter simply doesn't fit with what he is trying to show. In the words of Perry Mason's old opponent, the slavery example is "incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial".

Clearly, though, he does believe that the usury decision is reversible, so if he wants to hold onto it as being a parallel to the slavery example, then that, too, must be reversible, at least in principle.

At the end of his list of examples, he says, "Even where we disagree on this, we find ways to agree to disagree." But I would reiterate, that is certainly not true of slavery.

There is also the problem, acknowledged regarding usury, but not recognized regarding contraception, that unintended harm has resulted from at least one, and arguably two, of these 'reversals'. The debate over contraception is complex, given that it began in a climate where the church was opposing the eugenics movement (see K A Toblin, The American Religious Debate Over Birth Control, 1907-1937). The eventual cautious acceptance by the Church of contraception within marriage was overwhelmed by a tidal wave of spreading immorality in society, fuelled by the assumption that contraception was readily available and effective. We must not forget that the Roman Catholic church has not changed its views on this, and may be justified in feeling it was right! (Nor, of course, has it changed its view on the ordination of women.)

Ndungane's 'chain' of changes, therefore, is composed of several weak links - a tendentious assertion about slavery, which does not fit in with his overall thesis, a dubious decision on usury, a limited decision on contraception and the ordination of women.

At very least he should drop slavery from the list. It weakens, rather than reinforces, his conclusion.

However, it is then important to ask whether homosexualism can be compared to usury, contraception and the ordination of women.

The Bible's strictures against usury, if read as being based on moral principles, would say the comparison holds. However, if you believe, as I do, that charging interest is in principle immoral, then you cannot simply take an 'agree to disagree' approach. Rather, you must constantly draw people's attention to the problem and urge them to change.

Moreover, if (for the sake of argument) the Church ever found itself in the position where it agreed that usury was indeed immoral, and that a mistake was made over this in the past, this would, like slavery, become increasingly a 'no turning back', communion-breaking, issue.

As to the ordination of women, you've only got to hang around on the Fulcrum website for a while to see that for folks there, this is virtually 'communion breaking'. It is only through the most gritted of teeth that my own position on this is 'accepted' as Christian, gospel-based and godly.

Ndungane's conclusion is, I think, wishful thinking. And his attempt to say, "All that matters is what we believe about Jesus" is a red-herring. People wouldn't have said that in Wilberforce's time, and I don't believe they can say that now.

Too tired to tackle the next bit!

Blair said...

Evening John,

I know this is going back a bit, but thought I'd offer a comment or two anyway.

I think you're right about what Ndungane's implicit argument is (your third para). I'm not about to offer any vigorous defence of his argument, partly because you've convinced me on several points about its weaknesses, and also because, linked to that, I think that his piece is like Jim Packer's in one respect (if few others!) - there simply aren't enough explicit links or full explanations to make it 'tight' enough.

But, as I say, some comments. You've convinced me on the points about slavery and usury - maybe I should have answered 'yes' to your original questions, as 'slavery being a Christian option' is an arguable, if (I'm sure) unintended, consequence of Archbishop Ndungane's implied position. I guess the basic problem with comparing the slavery issue to the gay issue, if you'll excuse the shorthand, is that there's now universal agreement that slavery is not 'a Christian option', whereas of course there's no such agreement on homosexuality. And therefore, I suppose, to make the comparison could be seen as assuming or pre-empting the outcome of the current 'debate' on matters gay - it could be seen as assuming it's inevitable that the church will universally agree to bless same-sex partnerships. If that is valid I can see how it offends those who hold the position you do, John, and how it's no help to the 'debate'.

Would be interested to hear more about both the contraception and usury debates (eg why you believe that charging interest is in principle immoral), though I understand it's time-consuming to write on here! I note you mention that the Catholic church has not changed its views on contraception - officially this is of course true, but in practice the teaching is (I think it's fair to say) ignored by so many of the Catholic laity, so what then? If a teaching does not have the 'interior assent' (is that the phrase?) of the faithful, can it really be said to be 'in force'? I realise that doesn't constitute a change of view. But if I'm understanding it rightly, if the Vatican changed its view on contraception, some of its other teachings on sex would have to change too. If artificial contraception, and thus a 'break' between the procreative and unitive aspects of sex (sorry about the jargon) were accepted, a central plank of the Catholic argument against same-sex sex would be removed. This 'domino effect' may be a reason for the Vatican to resist a change on contraception...

Interested in your penultimate paragraph's comment about Fulcrum people and ordaining women. How do we decide what is 'communion breaking' - surely it must be on more than the basis of, 'disagreement on a very contentious matter', so can someone posting on Fulcrum (or anywhere) simply decide that a given issue is a communion-breaking one? Surely this is something that can only be discerned as a church (except perhaps in extremis, eg Bonhoeffer's time)?

Well, even if that last paragraph's some way off the mark, I'd be interested to hear (if you're willing) why you think that the gay issue is a first-order one - I know this is harking back to the article you posted on 9th January when I first started posting on this blog... But, given the comments I made on J I Packer's article, I don't see how one could argue that it's a first-order issue solely from 1 Corinthians 6. I note that your last comment on that January post, which i admit I didn't reply to, says that sex "is basically a biological process leading to reproduction" and that therefore "same-sex activity involves a dis-orientation of a biological impulse". But the problem with this surely is contraception - the Anglican church accepts some 'dis-orientation of [the] biological impulse' for committed straight couples, so why not, given your argument in that final comment (dated Feb 13th), accept sex between committed gay couples?

I'm sure you'll agree this post is quite long enough!

in friendship, Blair