I have begun reading a wonderful book, Cultural Amnesia by Clive James, an England-domiciled, Australian-raised intellectual. It consists of a multitude of essays on an array of contributors to Western culture in the 20th century. Apart from the quality of its writing, it’s a wonderful book because its one of those books I can pick up at any spare moment in the day to dip into it, imbibe a little of its heady atmosphere, and then tackle the next task of ordinary life. Tucked into the middle of the book (literally, its essays are organised alphabetically) is a piece on Montesquieu. To this I will return shortly.
The conflicts in the Anglican Communion continue to flare up, not unlike the conflicts in Iraq, now in this city, then in another far away, with no one sure whether the overall trend is towards peace or complete fragmentation. Latest developments include several dioceses within The Episcopal Church (TEC) in the USA signalling their intention to leave TEC and to belong to another member church of the Anglican Communion. By contrast in recent days a significant meeting between leaders of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches has taken place in Ravenna, a meeting which suggests a strong motivation on the part of Benedict XVI to undo the Great Schism between the churches of the West and the East. It is the dream of many Anglicans that one day the worldwide church might be reunited in accordance with Jesus’ prayer for unity among his disciples (ut unum sint, John 17:11). But precisely when that day seems just a little bit closer for Catholics and Orthodox, it appears further away for Anglicans!
It is sometimes said that truth is the first casualty of war; and that is the case in respect of current Anglican strife. I note in my reading on the internet that (for example) repeatedly the perspective of conservatives is characterized as ‘anti-gay’, and the strife itself is cast as ‘all about the gay issue’. If the day of Anglican internal unity, let alone the day of external unity with other churches is ever to dawn, we need to do some hard work on truthful description of the issues which divide us.
What divides us is our understanding of authority in the Anglican Church in relation to these issues. Those who are moving the church towards acceptance of blessings of same sex partnerships and of the ordination of people living in same sex partnerships believe the church itself, by majority vote in synods, may authorise such actions. Those who are either resisting such movement or refraining from promoting such change do not believe the church has authority to authorise such actions. In the first case there is an associated belief that Scripture has not spoken authoritatively on these matters in respect of the situation in which we find ourselves today. In the second case there is an associated belief that Scripture has spoken authoritatively on these matters for today. The distinction between these two associated beliefs is important, because one of the untruths bandied about by some Anglicans is that other Anglicans disregard the ‘authority of Scripture’ or believe that synods can override the authority of Scripture.
One question I see little addressed is the question of the grounds for certainty in the minds of Anglicans. A synod which moves to make change on the basis that Scripture has not spoken authoritatively on these matters presumes some certainty in their interpretation of Scripture. Certainty, that is, that despite Scripture speaking for marriage or celibacy as divinely approved Christian lifestyles, and despite Scripture when it does explicitly address homosexuality speaking disapprovingly of same sex sexual intercourse, the church may nevertheless authorise blessings/ordinations because today’s situation is beyond the address of Scripture. It is quite proper for Anglicans to reason that the church cannot be so certain that it can authorise what is both contrary to the positive (for marriage or celibacy) and negative (Leviticus 18:22 etc) teaching of Scripture. Even if it be doubted – as some Anglicans do - that Scripture is neither so positive nor so negative, a point overlooked is that doubt that something is true does not equate to certainty that its opposite is true.
There are a couple of alternative lines of argument which need response in this kind of reflection. The first is the line which emphasises justice: to deny blessings of same sex couples and to refrain from ordaining people living in same sex partnerships is to treat people unequally, that is, gay and lesbian people disadvantageously compared with heterosexual people. The appeal to justice here is an appeal to Scripture: let justice roll down like a river, etc. But it involves an associated evaluation of Scripture that it involves internal contestation of truth, such as ‘justice’ versus ‘morality’ or ‘grace’ versus ‘law’. At once we see from the perspective of ‘authority’ the difficulty this approach throws up: who has authority to determine which part of Scripture trumps another part? Deep in our Anglican tradition we have the influence of Article XX Of the Authority of the Church ‘neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.’ For some Anglicans this is sufficient unto our day: the church does not have authority to determine which part of Scripture trumps another. For other Anglicans not so minded a question must be sharply posed: if today one part of Scripture is expounded repugnant to another, by what means tomorrow will you prevent some less congenial exposition? The appeal to justice has great power emotionally, but has less power as an argument within the logic of Anglican polity. When the church blesses and ordains it does so in the name of God and not for the sake of justice, so it must ask whether it is authorised by God to so bless and to so ordain. This brings us back to our first concern: in our discernment of Scripture do we have sufficient confidence, including a shared confidence across the body of Christ that the church may authorise what Scripture appears to forbid?
A second line of argument invokes the question of justice with a different emphasis: has the church treated issues such as slavery and the role of women in ministry in one way while addressing the issue of homosexuality in another way? In terms of ‘authority’ this line of argument might be expressed like this: the church has prohibited the keeping and trading of slaves and it has authorised the ordination of women (seemingly overriding the authority of Scripture on these matters) thus it may also authorise blessings of same sex couples and the ordination of people in same sex partnerships. This argument is a little more subtle than acknowledged by some Anglicans who dismiss it. The subtlety lies in the recognition that at points in the past the church has seemed very sure of things it now believes the opposite of: sure, for instance, that slavery was unobjectionable. Might we save ourselves the embarrassment of acknowledging 100 years hence that we have been wrong about homosexuality? Certainly these observations about the past and about the possible future are grounds for the greatest of caution in arguing that homosexuality might be a different issue from slavery and the ordination of women, but they do not constitute grounds for making no distinction and thus moving efficiently to the authorisation of blessings and ordinations.
Our first consideration is that there is a trajectory in Scripture towards freedom from slavery which implies that the church recognising its false teaching on slavery and working actively against slavery (for we must recognise that slavery continues to exist) is in harmony with Scripture rather than an overriding of the authority of Scripture. Our second consideration is that Scripture offers important depictions of women exercising leadership in Israel and in the church (think, for instance, of Deborah, Huldah, Priscilla, Phoebe, Junia, Euodia, and Syntyche). When it is widely agreed that the New Testament lays down no one blueprint for the ordering of ministry (Anglican justification of the threefold ordering of ministry has never been that it is required by Scripture; always that it is a most ancient tradition consistent with Scripture), the church has authorised the ordination of women on the grounds that doing so is consistent with these examples. This authorisation has been contested on grounds such as the ordained minister is representative of Jesus in a manner impaired if the maleness of Jesus is not reproduced in the minister or some apostolic rulings forbid women to exercise leadership or teaching (notably 1 Timothy 2:12). Here there is certainly lively debate, not least because our two largest potential partners in a great ecumenical rapprochement continue to entertain no official doubts that women may not be ordained. Those who object to my point above about the wisdom of the church not proceeding to bless same sex couples or ordain people in a same sex partnership because it cannot be certain it is authorised to do so have some encouragement in making their objection!
There is, of course, a crucial difference between the two cases. What Scripture has to say about same sex sexual behaviour is closely associated with issues of salvation and of judgement. The church which authorises the blessing of same sex couples and the ordination of people in same sex partnerships is simultaneously making two declarations: that God both blesses/ordains the person and approves same sex partnerships, not counting as an immoral action that which was formerly taught to be one. Can the church be so sure that it is right on both counts? By contrast, the ordination of women does not involve a reversal of judgement about what constitutes an immoral action.
But arguing in this way leads to a line of argument in favour of blessing/ordination in which another ‘like for like’ case is invoked. Surely, the argument might be expressed, if moral/immoral reversal considerations are brought to the table for discussion, then we must consider what the church is doing when it remarries divorced persons or accepts for ordination or continues to license for ministry people who are divorced and remarried. For, the argument could continue, is not the trajectory through the teaching of Jesus and of Paul on divorce towards the conclusion that a divorced disciple may not remarry? At this point (which demands a fuller canvas than now available for this column) we can recognise weaknesses on both sides of the argument. On the one hand the church which remarries divorced people at best has a difficult argument to develop if it maintains an objection to the blessing of same sex couples, and at worst is inconsistent. On the other hand the church which blesses same sex couples on the basis of an (arguably) shaky analogy with the remarriage of divorced people is scarcely in a position to loudly trumpet God’s backing for such blessings! And we can also recognise a pathway out of the dilemma which may not be attractive. Thus the church could cease to remarry divorced persons (cf. the continuing refusal of the Roman Catholic church to do so) in order to more consistently live under the authority of Scripture.
For my money, the church has to engage in a review of its approach to the remarriage of divorced persons, asking again on what basis it might (or might not) authorise the remarriage of divorced persons in a manner consistent not only with the authority of Scripture over the life of the church, but also with its approach to the blessing of same sex couples. Ditto, in all these considerations, the ordination of divorced-and-remarried persons, and of people in same sex partnerships.
The continuing theme through the discussion above is the importance of the church understanding ‘authority’ in the ordering of its life. There is no necessary connection between homophobia (or divorce-phobia or misogyny) and the church soberly considering the question of authority. Nor for that matter is it necessarily ‘liberal’ or ‘heterodox’ to engage these issues from the perspective of justice earthed in Scripture. Could name calling in current debates cease? It is unhelpful in the pursuit of truth!
Now what has Clive James on Montesquieu have to say to all this (if amnesia concerning my introduction has not set in)? Montesquieu (1689-1755) in his famous book The Spirit of the Laws more or less invented the concept of multiculturalism. James comments, ‘In allowing the suggestion that all cultures might be equally valuable, room had been left for supposing that they might be equally virtuous. To guard against this, he advanced the further proposition-buttressing his argument with reference to the British constitution he had studied at first hand-that beneath cultural variety there were, or should be, values that did not change. In modern terms, he was concerned that a legitimate delight in the multiplicity of cultures should not develop into an ideology, multiculturalism: an ideology that would entail the abandonment of any fixed concept of justice. Seemingly in the face of his own cultural relativism, Montesquieu declared that justice was eternal. … Proposing, at least by implication, a liberalism dependent on a hard core of principles, and not just on tolerance, Montesquieu thus made a decisive pre-emptive intervention into the debate that we are now having.’ (Clive James, Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of my Time (London: Picador, 2007), p. 502).
There is much to ponder here on a variety of fronts; but here my concern is the situation of the Anglican Communion. I understand Montesquieu, through James, to teach us that it is an illusion that a multiplicity of values can co-exist in one human group. In the end, there are eternal values. Montesquieu names ‘justice’, if that does not also imply truth is an eternal value then I humbly submit that it is so. When we know within the life of the Communion what is God’s truth and God’s justice then we know what the church may authorise. We should then also be able to recognise that we cannot disagree about the authority with which the church acts, for that authority can be nothing other than the authority of God.