I stand by my claim yesterday that there is no shock or surprise in an 85 year old man announcing that he is retiring. Those who proffer the fact that in 600 years no other pope has retired from office as reason for using 'surprise' or 'shock' in journalistic reports about Pope Benedict's announcement yesterday are still slack hacks. A quiet keeping up to date with Vatican news in recent months would have informed any reader that the Pope's health was failing (or at least 'fading') and that retirement was a prospect being considered. Universally the pope's announcement is being greeted with the word 'humility', recognising that this announcement demonstrates the pope is not so enamoured with himself that he cannot see the greater good of the church. I too salute Benedict's humility. Not least because it is in keeping with the teaching of the apostle Paul in the chapters from Romans I am meandering my way through. Benedict does not want to cause any believer to stumble (14:13, 21).
When we get to Romans 14:14 we reach a striking point of theological severity, to which I am probably unable to do justice. Having instructed on the way forward for the divided Romans, "Let us therefore ... resolve ..." (14:13), Paul states a theological principle in order to clarify what is and is not the issue in their division.
The principle is this:
"I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean" (14:14).
The point of stating it is elucidated in the verses which follow. What is dividing the Romans is not the reality that (in this case) some foods are clean and unclean. (If it were so, then a simple statement from the apostle of what was clean food and what was unclean food should overcome the division). Rather, what is dividing the Romans is the differing attitudes in their minds to food because some cannot grasp that all foods are clean and operate with a distinction between clean and unclean, while others can so grasp. Paul consequently asks for the believers to respect these differing attitudes.
But what about the principle? Is this not an extraordinary statement because of the word 'nothing'? Obviously the first thing in Paul's mind in this context is food. There is no food which is not clean. But given that Paul has not confined his vision in Romans 14 to food, the theological principle in 14:14 is not confined to food. It is precisely the same principle that Paul enunciates in 1 Timothy 4:4-5, "For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by God's word and prayer." But the context of 1 Timothy's statement in 4:3, "They [false teachers] forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth." That is, the theological principle in Romans 14:14 is extensive, and relates to all aspects of created life, to food and to sex.
Thus I disagree with those here who have suggested that Romans 14 and 15 are not wholly gerrmane to current Anglican controversies. The question we are debating over homosexuality is in fact a question of cleanness and goodness: is there any circumstance in which sex between two men or between two women is 'clean' or 'good' in the same way that sex between a man and a woman is clean and good in the context of marriage, that is, not to be forbidden and to be received with thanksgiving.
Conversely, our present debates, related to Paul's developing argument in Romans 14 and 15, are complicated. There is nothing in Paul's writings (least of all in Romans or 1 Timothy) which suggests that he can be corralled as a supporter voting for 'everything is clean' to include (say) a faithful, loving same sex partnership. So Paul, confronted with the possibility of change to our church's legislation in 2014, might suggest to us that 1 Corinthians 5-6 are the relevant teaching to apply, not Romans 14-15. That is, where matters are not covered by the principle in Romans 14:14, the larger teaching through these chapters is not applicable. Yet (suppose for a moment) that 'nothing is unclean in itself' includes any faithful, loving, permanent sexual partnership, then Romans 14 and 15 is precisely applicable as teaching for a church divided by attitudes in the minds of believers.
As I understand the character of the deepest division in our church, at least as represented at our recent Hermeneutical Hui, it is the division over what may be called clean or good, over what may be received with thanksgiving and what may not.
On one side are those who are certain that a same sex partnership characterised by marriage-like character - faithful, permanent, stable, loving - is clean and good, and thus blessable in the name of God.
On another side are those who are certain that this is not so, perhaps, in terms of 1 Timothy, because we cannot see where such a relationship is 'sanctified by God's word.' Yet a further side is represented by Bishop Victoria's paper which I understand to be an argument (in terms of the passages I am referring to here) that what is clean is "marriage" and thus what is required for the church to move forward is theological agreement that "marriage" includes any two people in a covenanted relationship. That is, the first two sides are characterised by "certainty" as to what is the case, and this side is characterised by "uncertainty" but with a resolve to work towards a "new" certainty.
At least one question we then have, in this stage of deep theological division, is the question of how we walk in love (see Romans 14:15), avoiding injuring our brother or sister and not being the cause of the ruin of one for whom Christ died.