Whether we are embroiled as Anglicans in debates 'conservative' v 'liberal' or Roman bishops v the Pope at their recent synod, we live out, like Groundhog Day, again and again, the theological shootout between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees. Only, sometimes we think we are Jesus when we are scribal, and sometimes the Pharisees understand Jesus better ...
As the dust settles on what is a kind of interim position reprised from a previously provisional mid-conference report anticipating a more final conclusion following next year's significant conciliar gathering in Rome, there are some things Anglicans might reflect on about the upheaval in Rome.
Some - reading across the internet - have described the synod, especially at its mid-point as an 'earthquake' and others as 'not, in the end, an earthquake.'
I think there has been an earthquake and its nuts to suggest otherwise.
The earthquake is this: a remarkable openness has been displayed which has revealed what many Christians 'on the ground' know about Roman Catholicism but which you would not know from reading official pronouncements from Rome.
That knowledge is that ordinary churchgoers and many priests are very open to the things that Rome is officially closed to: ordination of married men as priests, ordination of women as priests, communion for the divorced and remarried.
It might be going too far to say there is widespread support for same sex marriage but the notion that homosexuality is about intrinsically disordered acts does not sit well in today's world. Oh, and we could also mention the widespread ignoring by married couples of constraint on use of artificial means of contraception.
Now, following the synod, we know that many bishops openly acknowledge these things. We see a pope (elected by the cardinals, normally themselves drawn from the ranks of bishops) who wants these things openly discussed. Notably, last week, Pope Francis commanded that the clauses in the final statement which did not secure a two-thirds majority should nevertheless be published. (The final document, at this stage only in Italian, with voting, is here.) The voting shows that Rome itself, expressed through its bishops, is quite contemporary Anglican: liberals, conservatives and finding the middle way between them!
One of the things I am noticing in my reading is a kind of shootout between conservatives (wanting the letter of Roman Magisterial doctrine to be observed, maintained and promulgated) and liberals (open to finding ways, nevertheless, to welcome more fully into the life of the church those currently excluded from (e.g.) full participation in the Mass.
A significant signal of these kinds of differences lies in the change between the mid-term document and the final document re gay Christians, the former speaking of 'welcoming homosexual persons' the latter omitting that and talking about offering 'pastoral care.'
But where else do we see this kind of subtle debate going on between the letter and the spirit of the law? In the gospels, of course. The gospels intrigue me on the matter of the scribes and the Pharisees because it seems to me that, whatever the historical accuracy of the portrayal of the scribes and the Pharisees, the gospels capture an enduring issue in religion in which scriptures figure, including our own Christian faith. What do the writings say? Does what is said continue to apply? Who may authoritatively interpret what is said and adjudicate its application? Here is a group, seeking to be faithful to those writings, who tend to go with a close if not literal following of the words. There is a group, seeking to be faithful to those writings, who tend to go with an open, liberal understanding of the words, perhaps appealing to a principle which lies within the words in question, or within the scriptures as a whole.
Our challenge as Christians, whether oriented towards Rome, Canterbury, Geneva or Constantinople, is to avoid being scribes and Pharisees and to side with Jesus. Yet that is easier said than done. After all, on some scriptural matters Jesus was more close, literal in his reading than the scribes and Pharisees (notably on marriage and divorce). On other matters Jesus exposed the folly of such reading, perhaps because of the hypocrisy involved, or maybe because adherence to one set of words involved denial of another set ... see this Sunday's Matthean lectionary reading!
More in the next post ...
In working on the above post I noticed this fascinating item in which the ESV (English Standard Version, sometimes called 'Evangelical Standard Version') has nearly replaced the Jerusalem Bible as the Roman English 'lectionary' translation. The reasons given for negotiations not reaching a point where change will happen are technical etc but I am amazed that it got considered at all: the ESV is not a wonderful version for public reading of Scripture in worship! Even evangelicals (in my experience) recognise that ...