|What kind of church?|
|Written by Peter Johnston|
|Tuesday, 30 August 2011 20:40|
Those of us in the OneKirk working group finalised some of the arrangements for a conference day that we're going to hold later in October with a tantalising question as the key theme for the day: What kind of church?
There is a lot of talk going around the Church of Scotland at the moment that, at heart, is about the kind of church we belong to, and what kind of church we believe God's Spirit is leading us to build. Some of this chatter relates directly to the decision of the General Assembly this year to direct a theological commission to look, with an inclusive steer, at how the CofS might incorporate lesbian and gay ministers in committed partnerships to serve the church fully through ordained ministry. But it would be wrong to think that this is the only cause for some of the talk about the kind of church we belong to that has been spilling over into the newspapers over the last months.
There is more to it than just this one particular issue, though the recognition of ministers in same-sex relationships does bring to the forefront some of the other issues that lie behind it. [There's more...]
Foremost among these is the question of how we understand and read Scripture. One of the workshops at the 'What kind of church?' conference will be devoted to how we make sense of the Bible today.
One of my biggest bugbears, I confess, is the use in any conversation of the phrase 'the plain teaching of Scripture'. If it was so plain, then why don't we all agree? For the person who utters this phrase, they cannot understand why I wouldn't agree with them, of course. And the usual recourse is to claim that I, and others who do not agree with their point of view, are dismissing the teaching of the Scripture. This is clearly not true, but it is the only possible explanation for them.
Sometimes I also hear this same thing said from people with whom I would agree on most things. I read about a minister in Dumbarton, Rev Daniel Cheyne, a couple of weeks ago who says a lot of things I agree with in relation to how some of the ancient texts in the Bible are being mis-used in the argument to prevent gay and lesbian ministers to serve in the church when they have a partner. But, I cringed when this same minister said "Let’s move away from those ancient texts that cause nothing but misunderstanding and deeply rooted prejudice."
I can understand his frustration and desire that we don't get hung up on these texts, but to move away from them is not for me the right answer.
Always, I have argued that it is in better understanding the Scriptures that we are able to discern God's voice through them. Dismissing the Scriptures is not an option, grappling with them, trying to understand the context in which they were written, trying to seek the original meaning the authors intended, understanding the different genres within the Scriptures, trying to determine how the listeners who first heard these varied scriptures passage would have understood them, and so on are all a part of this process of trying to determine then how God speaks to us today through these passages.
The Bible is such a gloriously complex collection of writings that any assertion to understand 'the plain teaching' of it seems to contain a blissful ignorance of the nature of this book as it has come down to us over thousands of years. Its central role in testifying to our faith means it is surely our responsibility to take it seriously and not to resort to empty statements that we believe we know what God is saying to us through it without very carefully consideration.
There is no person that comes to the Scriptures as a blank vessel. Each and every one of us approaches the Scriptures with a set of assumptions and prior beliefs, with family and church baggage. How much we acknowledge this, I suspect, can be directly correlated with the use of 'the plain teaching of Scripture'. The more you acknowledge that none of us read the Scripture in a vacuum, the less likely you are to use that phrase.
This is, for me, self evident when we look at some of the debate about what the Scripture says in relation to homosexuality. Endlessly I am referred to 'the plain teaching of Scripture' as it relates to a handful of passage that, I am told, clearly show that God abhors homosexuality, to the point of even demanding the death penalty.
For a truly horrifying and extreme example of this, I refer you to an address from Rev Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church. Many of you will remember the documentary of a few years ago when Louis Theroux visited his church - I mentioned it during the sermon the Sunday after and I remember the many discussions that were held following the service. I hesitated to put a link to this video on the blog, but I am relying on the fact that any younger visitors won't have made it thus far. My apologies in advance if you find the video disturbing. I would dearly wish to say this is a joke, but alas it is not. This is the church that pickets the funerals of US soldiers.
I was made aware recently that members of Westboro Baptist Church were planning to picket outside Queen's Cross Church in Aberdeen, where Scott Rennie is minister, and that they have not been granted visas to enter Scotland, hence the outpouring of bile from Rev Phelps towards our politicians.
When we explore in more depth the Scripture passages that are usually quoted in discussions about homosexuality we find ourselves subsumed in holiness codes, in legal minutiae, in a culture under threat desperately trying to defend itself from outsiders, in questions of hospitality rules, of idolatry, of abusive relationships, of male prostitution, and so on. None of which relates to a loving, committed relationship as we would know it today. People would have had no understanding of this back then. Indeed a real understanding of a homosexual orientation was only defined very recently, not much more than a hundred years ago. Where we go wrong is when we take our modern understanding and then force that back onto texts that were speaking about something completely different. We force Paul's teaching on idolatry in Romans to actually be about same-sex relationships. We force the Sodom and Gommorah story of gang rape to be about loving, consensual relationships.
The book I mentioned on Sunday by Peter J. Gomes, The Good Book, puts it very strongly:
What is at stake is not simply the authority of scripture, as conservative opponents to homosexual legitimization like to say, but the authority of the culture of interpretation by which these people read scripture in such a way as to lend legitimacy to their doctrinaire prejudices. Thus the battle for the Bible, of which homosexuality is the last front, is really the battle for the prevailing culutre, of which the Bible itself is a mere trophy and icon. Such a cadre of cultural conservatives would rather defend their ideology in the name of the authority of scripture than concede that their self-serving reading of that scripture might just be wrong, and that both the Bible and the God who inspires it may be more gracious, just, and inclusive than they can presently afford to be.
The biblical writers never contemplated a form of homosexuality in which loving, monogamous, and faithful persons sought to live out the implications of the gospel with as much fidelity to it as any heterosexual believer. All they knew of homsexuality was prostitution, pederasty, lasciviousness, and exploitation. These vices, as we know, are not unknown among heterosexuals, and to define contemporary homosexuals only in these terms is a cultural slander of the highest order, reflecting not so much prejudice, which it surely does, but what the Roman Catholic Church calls "invincible ignorance," which all of the Christian piety and charity in the world can do little to conceal. The "problem," of course, is not the Bible, it is the Christians who read it.
Of what kind of church are we a part? It is a fascinating question that should stir us to think carefully, to study well, to talk with each other, to pray devotedly. My hope, and that of the others with whom the event has been planned, is that the conference day in October will help people to explore these questions in a thoughtful, provocative, safe and, ultimately, positive way.