This is a guest post by Chris Fewings, who says he “is a not-very-faithful Anglican, glad of the welcome offered by the Church of England to drifters“. He writes at http://www.chris.fewin.gs./. He prefaces his post with the following:
“I was delighted to be offered to contribute to Lay Anglicana and so clarify my own thoughts on two current debates. I offer this reflection in the hope of learning more through dialogue.”
Some argue that disputes about same-sex relationships and women bishops are distractions from the central message of Christianity. I’m not so sure. What does the church have to offer? At its best, an invitation to humankind to explore together the witness of the one who stretched wide his arms for us on the cross. Jesus was counter-cultural in defying religious authority, undermining rigid interpretations of scripture, including women and foreigners and outcasts, and inviting us to search our hearts rather than our rule books.
In the sixties, an unmarried mother, or indeed a black person, would have been enough to have many Anglicans shuffling uneasily in the pews. Far from being counter-cultural, religious beliefs often reflect the prejudices of their time. Even Luther became rabidly anti-Semitic. Even some Quakers once owned slaves. Large organisations with an ageing leadership are often slow to respond to changes in the conscience of a nation, but why is the church particularly slow?
Because it can appeal to a higher authority, variously invoked as God, the Bible, Tradition, and in our case, the worldwide Anglican Communion. However, many scholars have brought learning, humility and reason to bear in painstakingly teasing out historical accidents from the great tradition of love incarnate, which is the best of the church in all times and all places.
So let’s imagine a little of what love might mean to us now as we seek a Christian response to a changing culture, new understandings of human nature, new legal frameworks, and the challenge of sharing a global village with sincere Christians who reject gay relationships and women’s ordination. Christians in the first century, the fourth century, the sixteenth century pondered, debated, and evolved: so will we.
First, let’s stop de-sexing the love of God. We might start with gender. Beyond the talk of Jesus’ all-male apostles (they were also all Jewish) there is the fact that Jesus was male and unmarried, and a hint that God is usually, conventionally, or mainly male. In the fourteenth century an Englishwoman of quite exceptional insight wrote that as truly as God is our father, so just as truly he is our mother. (She even wrote of Jesus as mother.) A subtle undercurrent of the motherliness of God is common to the Abrahamic faiths. But most Christians keep this insight peripheral. God can be mother occasionally perhaps, but “just as truly” is psychologically unsettling. Exploring this dimension of God is a growth point for faith.
And let’s add sexuality and passion back into the love of God. A friend wrote a book with the working title, Is God Sexy? The publisher couldn’t pre-sell the title to Christian bookshops, so it was changed. They had found the ‘Christian’ answer to the question before a page of the book was read. We’re told the Song of Songs is an allegory of the love of God. So let’s go there. Let’s read it and get stuck in, and let God seduce us.
Second, let’s refine our understanding of love as welcome. Oppressed people get damaged by power, but we’re selective about which kinds of oppressed or previously oppressed groups we welcome into church, and on what terms. Some kinds of oppression are particularly damaging because they try to preclude solidarity by isolating the victims. Those of us who now recognise that committed gay relationships were once made furtive and extremely difficult by legal and social norms need to open wide our arms, not only to individuals, but to gay couples holding hands, celebrating their love, if not in same-sex marriages then in public blessings which flaunt this divine gift of commitment to each other, this fulfilment of created sexual excitement.
Third, let’s explore the effect of oppression on the oppressor. Oppression uses power to block love, which seeks to flow. Love’s risky. It usually entails loss and pain. I block the love in me for safety, but find myself drying out, because the economy of love and loss engenders new life. Withdrawing from this economy, unacknowledged loss and pain become fossilised in me – and may turn to hate.
And lastly, let’s face the painful possibility of greater distance between churches. Facing the possibility doesn’t mean seeking it. Our starting point should be that the churches don’t own God. She’s a loose cannon as well as a lawgiver. She gives religious leaders the slip at the top of cliffs. She’s found more outside the church than in it. If your partner said to you, ‘I want to stay with you forever, so you must never let your Jewish friends in my house again’, you might want to re-think the relationship from the ground up. You would start with discussion. You might go to a counsellor. You would question your own values and priorities. But in the end you might be forced to choose.
And in that moment you would need love more than ever, the hard sort. You might be tempted to fury or hate or contempt, or you might want to exercise your power over the other, to force them into line, or push them out. But maybe in the end, for the sake of the children, or for the sake of the rest of your life, you would get on your knees and cry to Love itself for compassion to break through, like a blind man in a crowd who is sure that there’s someone out there who can transform him.
This is no time for entrenched positions. It’s a time to step out of the boat onto the waves, fixing our eyes on love, daring to learn from each other.
The illustration is a 12th century Oranta Eastern Orthodox icon (with METER THEOU “Mother of God”) monograms from the Ukraine. Via wikimedia.