[The full report is accessible here. The section under discussion in this post is accessible here. In these posts I am aiming to work my way forward through A Way Forward report, posting on a new section each Monday. Pagination refers to the PDF version of the report.]
What follows is very critical of the section under consideration. I am risking offending some or all of the working party, a number of whom are friends as well as colleagues. But what is at stake for our church is too high to not address an inadequately thought through section of the report, the more so because this section sets out to be the theological underpinnings of the rest of the report.
Section 3 is titled "The dynamic nature of doctrine, the path of unity"
First part, p. 5, rightly sets the theological underpinnings of the report in our quest for fullness and contentedness of life as only fulfilled in union with God. Consequently, in respect of the particular matter at hand, the report says,
"There is a critical and present mission aspect to our discussions on the matter of same-sex relationships."
The report then turns to three "critical questions of theological import":
- What does it mean to be human in the now? (pp. 5-6)
- When we speak of 'two integrities' how can we also speak of the unity of the Church? (pp. 6-7)
- What do we mean by saying that Doctrine is dynamic? (pp. 7-8)
Frankly, I am not sure what the report is trying to say as its "key point" in response to the first question, and I am worried about what is not said.
On the one hand, I have no idea why statements are made such as "We must be open to how fresh insights may lead to change and dynamism." Why? Who says we must? Is this God's will for the church or the wishful thinking of the report writer(s)?
Then, I cannot make sense of this sentence, "Tradition is dynamic (as is discussed further below) and, as we seek to maintain our fundamental identity, this may be attained only by examining our context and its development over time." What may be attained? If it is our "fundamental identity" then surely that is already attained because we are the people of God? Or, is something different meant by "fundamental identity", and what is that?
On the other hand, it is beyond my imagination trying to understand why a section answering a question such as what it means to be human in the now says nothing about being created in God's image, redeemed by Christ through his death on the cross, enlivened by the Spirit in order to share in Christ's risen life, nor about being a disciple of Christ and finding our humanity through taking up our cross.
In other words, beyond a general recognition that "To be human in the now, is first and foremost to be in relationship with God our creator," there is no specific recognition that what it means to be human, for the Christian person, is to understand ourselves theologically. That understanding is (I suggest) more than a general recognition of relationship with God as creator. It involves a specific shaping of our identity in terms of who God is, being made in that God's image, being loved redemptively by God in Christ, and called into a consecrated life as a Spirit-filled follower of the risen Christ.
But, wait, intriguingly, when we get to the next question, about two integrities, pp. 6-7, suddenly we are presented with the foundational thought that "We believe that human beings are made in the image of God." But what then follows, "The Old Testament expressly forbids ... a weakness that has potential always to be reformed" is, well, difficult to follow. (Which, I hasten to add, may say more about me and my lack of comprehension ability, than about the report). However the question at the end of the first paragraph following the second question on p. 6 is very clear and worth asking:
"What would it be like if we as a Church committed to respect one another's difference, held with integrity, in a harmonious way?"
(Personally, I would get to that question by a different route, by talking about the church being composed of people with differences, including differences in ways of thinking and evaluating what Scripture says, what it means and what its applicability to each generation might involve, and then reminding that each member of the church has dignity as God's created and redeemed child. The question could then follow.)
The next paragraph, at the foot of p. 6 makes (in my view) two points, and each is worth making.
First, that in the cultures of these islands kaupapa [particular way of doing things] may and does differ, and (generally speaking) as we move from marae to marae, from context to context, we accept these differences and do not try to change them by forcing "them" to do things "our way." Here, contextually and culturally, is laid out precedent for our church, should it choose, to have two integrities on the matter of blessing of same sex relationships. There would be much to discuss when we discuss making that choice, such as whether the church is analogous to a series of differing contexts, no one of which rules over another, but the possibility can be discussed and considered.
Secondly, the point is made that the differing kaupapa are "second order" relative to the "first order" matter of offering manaakitanga (respectful hospitality). What matters, that is, is that guests are warmly and generously welcomed onto the marae (first order). What doesn't matter is whether, during the welcome, say, women do or do not speak as part of the powhiri (formal welcome): customs on these matters vary from marae to marae (second order). It is quite right and proper to propose this distinction between first and second order matters as a possible way forward for our church: if we can agree that blessings of same sex relationships are "second order" matters, not affecting the "first order" matters which bind us together as one church, then all should be well.
Naturally some associated questions arise! Not least we could ask whether we are agreed on what are the first order matters and what are the second order matters. With respect to same sex blessings the report may be implying at this point that they should be seen as a second order matter, but if so, is that something our church is agreed on? Was the working group itself agreed on the wording of that paragraph and the implication it appears to be making? In the end, I see no serious attempt to argue that blessing of same sex relationships is a second order issue rather than a first order issue.
The first paragraph on the next page also makes a vital point, re remaining in conversation and goes on in the second paragraph on p. 7 to develop what this conversation might mean when "two distinct views" are held "in integrity."
The third paragraph on p. 7 is a bit trickier. Making the claim that "There has never been a unity of the church that has been lost" needs, in my view, more unpacking than is given here. Yes, the church has always been diverse from the beginning, so there was, at the beginning "diversity in unity". But the church was clearly worried about breaking unity in Acts 15 yet, and this is the point of Acts 15, it did not break unity because it forged a way forward which was agreeable to the church and to the Holy Spirit. And, while we could say that the church by the end of the first century AD remained in both organic and formal unity, there were some serious breaks in unity in subsequent centuries, beginning with the dislocation between Jewish Christianity and Gentile Christianity in the second and third centuries. So, I am left wondering what the report means by, "There has never been a unity of the church that has been lost." If the report means that the church was never unified, even at the beginning, then this is a clear and distinct contradiction of the first few chapters of Acts and a superficial description of the work the church did in both Acts 6 and Acts 15 to maintain unity in the face of diversity threatening to become division. If the report means that the unity of the church has always been its character and thus it has never been lost, then this belies the historical character of the church which has suffered multiple breaks in unity.
Nevertheless, at this point in the report, one clear point is made about church unity, on which I agree wholeheartedly, "Unity is God's destiny for the church and the world."
The next paragraph also contains important thoughts about unity and its fullness in God. But it does not address the question whether "two integrities" can be counted as part of this growth or could be lamented as a sign that growth in unity has stopped for the time being.
Finally, we come to the third question, at the foot of page 7, "What do we mean by saying that Doctrine is dynamic?" I find (and others, in conversation with me, are finding) that there is a tragic irony about citing Hebrews 1:1-3a at the head of this section! Those verses speak about a form of dynamic doctrinal development (i.e. the unfolding of God's revelation through "the prophets") but that development ends with the final divine word, "in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son." The remainder of Hebrews is an exposition of what it means that the Son has come and spoken that final word, a word which transcends what God formerly spoke through Moses, David and the prophets, and fulfils what that former speaking had looked forward to. The past was shadows, the present age of the Son is final reality.
Now, it is true, and the report recognises this in the first paragraph on p. 8, that "the church has developed a deeper and richer understanding of faith". Development of doctrine in this sense, of deepening understanding of what has been spoken to us by a Son, has taken place and continues to take place. And the next paragraph offers a good account of how theology may do this particular kind of development work. But the final paragraph, at the foot of the page then, in my view, muddies the waters of the "deep pool" of development by deepening understanding.
In that final paragraph on p. 8 a series of statements are made, none of which in themselves are disagreeable, but, as a whole paragraph, I am not sure what is being said with respect to the present issue. First, note that this paragraph does not clarify what development of doctrine might mean for the doctrine of the Trinity. No one disputes that the doctrine of the Trinity might be "deepened" in the sense that as we discuss this impenetrable mystery we might learn more about (say) the communion between the Three Persons and thus deepen our understanding of what communion means for us. What is very disputable is whether development of the doctrine of the Trinity means that one day the church might add a fourth divine Person to the Godhead.
Secondly, by not clarifying that the former is possible and the latter is impossible, an impression is created that when, by analogy, we come to discuss the doctrine of marriage or the doctrine of blessing, we can "deepen" our understanding of marriage by changing it to include the never before included possibility that marriage can be between two people of the same gender, or we can "deepen" our understanding of blessing by enlarging that understanding to include blessing what is never blessed in Scripture, a sexual relationship between two people of the same gender. By not clarifying what "deepening" can mean in respect of the dynamics of doctrine, the report in this section fails in to offer a convincing argument that "deepening" our doctrinal understanding can include "changing" our understanding.
By focusing the dynamics of doctrine on "active conversation," the report offers no guidance as to what might give the church the authority to authorise the certainty of definition which is implied by producing formularies for blessings of same sex relationships. "Active conversation" as the means of evolving doctrine does not cut it at that point. Formularies state what we believe, not what the state of the conversation between divided parts of the church is.
When the church first determined the creeds it determined them in unity, not in two integrities, and that was because the church made a conciliar decision that the conversation could now stop and the doctrine be taught and recited. When later the Western church introduced the filioque clause to the Nicene Creed it set in motion a division that was not contained by two integrities but by two (still unreconciled) churches. The report, on my reading of this section, is over confident that what will be proposed in subsequent sections on the underpinnings of this section can be contained within "two integrities." I am arguing that a more careful reading of the history of theological discourse would lead to less confidence about "two integrities" and more concern at the prospect of schism - a schism that would be underpinned not merely by a few differences in theological outlook but by a canyon of difference in theological method.
In Christchurch prior to 22 February 2011 we had tens of thousands of homes which we presumed were built on adequate foundations. The earthquake that day put paid to that notion. On the one hand thousands of homes had to be demolished afterwards and on the other hand new standards for foundations emerged. I suggest this section of the report is simply inadequate for the task of laying down the theological foundations for the momentous direction the rest of the report offers to our church as a way forward. One option General Synod has in May 2016 is to request a higher standard of theological foundation for any proposal that we shift into two integrities and develop a formulary for the blessing of a same sex relationship.
What about a constructive alternative in the light of the critical review above? Is there another way forward by way of theologically underpinning the blessing of same sex relationships? I suggest there is a potential route, but it lies in exploring theology of friendship and companionship. And I don't expect more than 1 in 100 readers here to agree with me!