Approaching the Lambeth Conference
Preacher: Canon Richard Lea, Canon Emeritus
17 June 2007, 10:30 (Trinity 2)
t’s a great joy for me to return to this pulpit after a long absence, and I’m very grateful to Dean Adrian for inviting me.
The world-wide fellowship of the Anglican Communion is approaching the ten- yearly gathering of the Lambeth Conference, and there’s a great danger that this conference will be a time of unprecedented schism. It’s perhaps the greatest danger ever to have confronted our Communion in modern times.
What threatens our unity isn’t disagreement over a fundamental doctrine of faith, but the question of whether or not it’s right to ordain homosexuals as priests and bishops.
This may not be a subject which you care to contemplate very much. Nobody does, really. But it’s one on which feelings run high, and which usually produces more heat than light. But whether we like it or not, it presents a very serious threat to us. And it’s perhaps because we don’t much care to contemplate it, or discuss it, that many intelligent Christian people remain in some degree of confusion and indecision about it. And they’re confused not least because the leaders of the Church are themselves divided.
I spent the last eight years before I retired, in the Oxford diocese, and it was there that this issue blew up, when the Bishop of Oxford wanted to appoint a distinguished homosexual priest to one of his suffragan sees, and was obliged to climb down, largely because of opposition from conservative evangelicals.
Many church people, if not all church people, lament, that this has become the Big Issue in the Church of England. We want to talk about the gospel, but the media are only interested in gay priests and bishops.
I wonder whether St Paul felt the same in the context of the circumcision controversy. I wonder whether he sometimes felt that whenever he tried to talk about Jesus Christ, the Jews turned the subject to circumcision, because they were infuriated by his refusal to circumcise Gentile converts?
In our reading this morning from Galatians, Paul sets out his theory that we’re justified not by obeying the law of Moses, but through our faith in Jesus Christ. ‘If justification comes through the Law, says Paul, then Christ died for nothing.’
Paul had taken an extremely bold and controversial stance in telling his new Gentile converts that circumcision was not necessary for them. It was bold and controversial because the bible – the Hebrew scriptures – said the very opposite. Circumcision was the mark of the covenant, ordained by the Lord himself through his servant Moses. What right had Paul to oppose something that was clearly stated in holy writ, and had always been observed? The Jews weren’t going to let him get away with it.
As a well-educated Jew himself, Paul was fully aware of the force of their argument. He knew that he needed a very powerful reason for arguing as he did. And the reason he came up with was the doctrine that has come to be called ‘justification by faith’. It was your faith that justified you in the eyes of God, rather than your obedience to the Law of Moses, as the Jews had always believed.
Now this was an extremely dangerous and risky operation. We can see from his letters that some of his less intelligent converts needed reminding that they did not have licence to do whatever they liked. This was why he felt it necessary to remind them that the laws of the land had to be obeyed, and that those in authority should be regarded as having been put there by God. In fact he went a little further in that direction than most of us would be happy with. But for the sake of his Gentile converts, Paul was adamant that circumcision was not necessary.
There was also one other aspect of the Law which he specifically challenged, though with less vehemence. This was the matter of food regulations. The Jews would only eat food that was ritually clean. Why should Gentiles be subject to these restrictions, if they became Christians? These restrictions, Paul argued, did not apply to Gentiles. Nevertheless, he urged Gentiles to be sensitive to the feelings of Jews, and not to wave their freedom in the faces of those who were upset by it.
On the one hand, therefore, Paul was prepared to take a bold stance against the Law, even against what was clearly stated in the bible. But on the other hand, he was anxious to keep the peace as far as he possibly could.
In the Anglican Communion, we have already applied these principles to the ordination of women. We’ve agreed that the objections to leadership roles by women in both the Old and New Testaments (even the objections made by Paul himself) are culturally conditioned, and no longer apply to our situation. We have therefore agreed to ordain women. But we also accept that some Christians are not happy with this, and so we have made special arrangements for them.
Now we are asking ourselves whether these same principles can be applied in the sexuality debate. Are we justified in going against the clear injunctions of holy writ in this matter, on the grounds that times have changed, that we have moved on from the moral attitudes which prevailed when the bible was written?
What the bible actually objects to is homosexual promiscuity and rape. It doesn’t actually deal with homosexuality in the more gentle terms of our current debate – namely as an innate tendency, not chosen by the person concerned. Are homosexuals to be restricted to total chastity?
The Anglican debate, of course, is actually about ordination. But few, I think, can doubt that the big issue is the ethics of homosexuality itself. For if there’s nothing wrong with it, then by definition, there’s nothing wrong with ordaining homosexuals.
The question I find particularly interesting is: how do we make decisions like this? If we are not going to be guided by what the bible expressly states – as Paul wasn’t over circumcision, as Wilberforce wasn’t over slavery, as the General Synod wasn’t over the ordination of women – how do we decide what is right? That’s not an easy question. But its an important one.
We all acknowledge that moral attitudes change over time. It cannot be denied. There are many things in the Old Testament, for example, that we read today with horror. We simply do not share all the moral attitudes of people who lived centuries ago.
Paul himself has shown us that biblical texts, however clear they may appear to be, nevertheless have to be tempered with judgement. Just as he felt that the circumcision of his Gentile converts had not really been anticipated in the Law of Moses, so many people today feel that the homosexual orientation of able, gifted, decent, law-abiding Christians seeking ordination, should not stand in their way. We need to consider holy scripture as a whole, rather than individual texts in isolation. In particular, we need to see the way in which the general teaching of Jesus is governed, and where his general emphasis lies – the love of enemies, the forgiveness without limit, the reluctance to condemn, the seeking out of those who are discriminated against, such as lepers and Samaritans.
All this suggests that revelation is a gradual process. God may or may not change in himself, but our understanding of God certainly does change over time. We’re not therefore necessarily to be governed by an understanding of God’s will that prevailed many centuries ago, even if it is recorded in holy writ.
There can be no doubt that ethical viewpoints change even in the short term. Just look at way in which we’re trying to cure ourselves of the discrimination which has existed in our society in recent times against all kinds of people – against women, against Catholics, Jews, coloured people, lunatics, and so on. Many attitudes that were quite acceptable and common in my youth, are not acceptable today. And vice versa. In some matters, we are more permissive than our forefathers; in others less. We move on.
But we don’t all move at the same pace. And therein lies the problem, especially in times like the present, where change happens so fast. The world- wide Anglican Communion is a hugely diverse family. It contains many cultures and strands, all with different stories behind them. Certainly we’re all moving, but its not easy for us to move together. And the world-wide Church, of course, is even more diverse than the Anglican Communion. We Anglicans went ahead with the ordination of women in the hope and belief that it would eventually be seen as right by those who opposed it at the time.
In the same spirit, many hope, I certainly hope, that the Church will one day cease altogether from its discrimination against homosexuals. There a many homosexual priests, and probably also bishops in our Church. But because of this discrimination, they have to keep quiet about it. This isn’t a satisfactory situation, either for them, or for the Church as a whole. Today, the Church of England wants to be seen as much more sympathetic towards gay people than it used to be. But it’s still nervous about appointing those who are openly gay to be priests or bishops.
There can be little doubt, however, about the direction in which the Church is slowly moving. Some simply oppose and refuse to acknowledge this movement for as long as they can. But the response of the wise will be to go with it.
The lesson of history is that our values evolve gradually over time, whether we like it or not. And the lesson of holy scripture, perhaps to our surprise, is the same.