Why this Issue?
by Edith HumphreyJune 30, 2003
In the past seven years or so, I have been a
reluctant participant in a debate that has now heated to the boiling point in the Anglican communion – this is, of course, the question of
same-sex erotic behaviour, and whether it is to be accepted, even “blessed,” within the Church. I have written elsewhere regarding the
clarity of Scripture and ongoing Church Tradition on this issue, and have indicated why the Scriptural proscription of homoerotic practice is
not arbitrary, but for the good of God’s human creatures, whom he loves.
Throughout my participation in the
discussion, I have, like many, been uneasy, especially because it has become increasingly clear that this is the contemporary rock upon which
the Anglican Communion will founder. Frequently I have remarked that our war over sexuality is only that bit of the iceberg that can be seen
above the water, and that there are far more foundational disputes that have led to this parting of the ways. Why,
I have questioned, did we not recognize the current divide over more central or creedal issues, such as the uniqueness and divinity of Jesus the
Christ? Why, for example, in my own ACC, did quantifiable dissent not erupt over Michael Ingham’s Mansions
of the Spirit, when it was published in 1997, or in ECUSA, over the ongoing spate of books by John Spong? Conflict
over a “purely” theological issue would not be open to the charge of “phobia” and could not be as easily interpreted by the mean-minded
as an example of uncharitable exclusion of the “other” by those who seek orthodoxy.
Yet, here we are, with a presenting issue not
of our own choosing. Even the Queen of England has recognized this week that this may well be the point over which our communion will formally divide.
Our much-vaunted resilient willow tree (the Anglican middle way) may not possess the elasticity to weather this storm. Nor should
it, many might add. We find ourselves in the dilemma of Tevye, who at the climax of Fiddler on the
Roof, concludes that “there is no other hand” – identity has its limits.
Why this issue?
Perhaps the reasons are not so circumstantial or so trivial, after all. Here is a question that is
connected to grave and important principles, just as the tip of the iceberg suggests what lies beneath to the mature seafaring eye. Think, for a
moment, about human sexuality. It connects us to the rest of the animate world, to the created order which God has commanded to “be fruitful
and to multiply.” Sexuality expresses our embodied condition, and so signifies the mode in
which God has placed us within his cosmos. This body we share with creation, and by it we are afforded a priestly or “bridge” position in order to nurture the rest of creation.
(The English “pontiff” comes from the Latin pons.) But God has also revealed that our human sexuality somehow links us with that God’s
own self, since marriage is a mysterion showing forth the relationship between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:32).
Unlike Gnosticism, the Christian Way does not
teach that what is done in the body is irrelevant, or that what is “spiritual” is more important than what is “physical.”
On the contrary, our salvation comes to us through the Incarnation of the Son, who takes on our frail human flesh, as Jesus is born of a
woman, at just the right time, as he dies our death, and is raised to new life. So, then, Paul warns the
Corinthians that what is done in the body is utterly significant – “Shun fornication! Every sin that
a human commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. Or do you not know
that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?
For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:18-20).
Why this issue?
Because what we think and say and do about our sexuality is intimately connected to who we are – who we are in the created order, who
we are in society, who we are with our spouses and friends, who we are ecclesially, and who we are in the new creation which God has brought
into being and which he will complete through the work of the Holy Spirit. It is no doubt because of the
inter-relatedness of this issue that it brings forth visceral reactions, for good or for ill. Those who have difficulty thinking seriously about
the intricacies of Trinitarian relationships are galvanized to consider this present question. In so
doing, they find themselves on the brink of multiple very serious questions. To ask, as a Christian,
about homoeroticism, leads ineluctably to a many-directioned quest, with numerous areas of inquiry:
That these issues are all involved becomes clear when we analyze the rhetoric of those who tackle this question. So, for example, Michael Prowse, in his recent defense of Canon Jeffrey John (now in line to be Bishop of Reading), calls the opponents to John’s candidacy “mostly Anglo-Catholics and evangelical fundamentalists” -- even though fundamentalism, with is particular contours, is hardly a common phenomenon in this communion! Prowse is, of course, using the term “fundamentalist” in order to suggest an approach to Scripture and the gospel that differs from his own, but also to elicit a dismissive emotional response from his readership. He is correct that the response to same-sex eroticism is connected with views of the Scripture and of authority in the Church. What he fails to recognize is that the so-called “progressivist” has specific “fundamentals” as well, when he or she interprets “the gospel” and affords the covenant sign of the rainbow a new meaning. “Liberal” voices can be as “fundamentalist” and “exclusivist” as others.
Prowse brings his Financial Times article to this climax:
“The anti-gays have good reason to want to stop Canon John. They know the pomp and pageantry of a formal consecration at Westminster Abbey this autumn will send the world a powerful message. Rowan Williams, the liberal Archbishop of Canterbury, will be giving gay relationships the British establishment's formal blessing. But the time is right; and if it causes another split in the Church, that is a price he should be prepared to pay. Justice demands it.”
We should, of course, be absorbed with the cause of justice, and of love. God is, after all, at pains to “bless” his wayward creation, so that we recover that state of “original justice” that God conferred upon us at creation, and that humanity has not possessed since the initial ingratitude of the first couple. True shalom includes a state where there is no disruption in communion between God and humanity, male and female, people and people, and in which every person has in proper balance the spirit, mind, heart and bodily functions. Despite this vision of a fulfilled and reconciled cosmos, the Bible is frank about our situation. The shalom of God has been disturbed, and requires restoration. Moreover, God, in his love, wants to take us beyond the restoration of that original image of the divine, so that we might participate in his very nature (2 Peter 1:4) – to this end, God the Son has assumed human flesh! What will the recovery of “original justice” and the ultimate glorification of humanity mean? It will mean the bringing together of heart, spirit, mind and will, and the reconciliation of all under the Lordship of Christ.
Indeed, Jesus came to bring shalom, but his initial coming into the world also brought schism: “And there was a division … because of him” (John 7:43). Let us pray, now that the chasm is gaping before us, that God will bring this to our good. As darkness deepens, and as some who are now with us put themselves in impaired communion with the historic church, may many others turn decisively towards the light, live in continuing repentance and joy, and reclaim their identity in the Church of the apostles and martyrs. Why this issue? Because in this debate, the entire present body of Christ's is called to recognize and celebrate God’s will for humanity. In these painful times, all of us are called to respond -- those who are theologically literate and those who are pragmatic in nature, those who focus on ideas and those who yearn for justice, those who accentuate the spirit and those who give thanks for the flesh. Christians are of course called to be rounded, and not simply one-issue people. However, the challenge of C. S. Lewis is appropriate to today: let us not be brandishing fire-extinguishers while the ship is sinking. The water (and the iceberg) must be seen for what they are.