Sunday, March 9, 2008

Conservatism versus conservatism (2)

If I occasionally disagree with conservative evangelical Anglicans it does not mean I find myself heading with enthusiasm to conservative Roman Catholicism (as some do). On the one hand RCism is not as uniform in its thinking as some drawn to it assume. Check this great post on what a German Archbishop thinks of Protestant churches (big tick) but note how his superior unwittingly amuses us with his explanation of this theological deviancy. On the other hand there is a conservatism within the RC church which invites some searching criticism, brilliantly captured by Giles Fraser via Tony Benn, because it defines the way of Jesus with an inflexible line on a map which seems to be drawn more by human hands than the hand of God.

The beauty of Anglicanism continues to be its heritage in the great tradition of Christianity married to a freedom and flexibility to make appropriate adaptation to the times and the surrounding culture. This is not without its dangers, for example that we might become enthralled by love for relevance. But that danger is easy to fend off if we stick to Scripture - reading, as Barth suggested, the Bible and the newspaper together! After all, if relevance is a danger, irrelevance is a potential disaster!

In working out what the shape of (conservative) evangelical Anglicanism might be in the twenty-first century - I do not think we can escape the question of relevance. In our mission we relate to the world as it is, even if a goal of mission is to transform the way the world is. In my previous post I touched on the immense challenge and opportunity which change in the role and standing of women presents to the church. In this post I want to begin to take account of the similarly immense challenge and opportunity which change to human sexuality presents to the church. This challenge essentially is that humanity in the Western world, at least, has accepted a wide variety of possibilities as acceptable styles of conducting sexual relationships: singleness and marriage remain options, but to them are added de facto relationships or 'partnerships', civil unions, 'sex in the city'-type casual serial flings, polygamy (cf. acceptance of immigrants in such relationships, and the 'Big Love' TV serial about Mormon polygamists), polyamory, and that's not even beginning on the homosexual versions of such possibilities! The opportunity includes studying Scripture afresh on these matters and reaching out with the love of God to those who have been hurt by the inadequacy of different styles.

Here is one set of questions. Let's suppose we can agree that in the kingdom of God on earth people are either single or married, and divorces do not happen. But how does the church of God minister to the reality around us? Can it uniformly find ministers who are either single or married and never divorced-and-remarried? If it cannot is it possible that our reasonable expectation should be that ministers will reflect a significant part of the reality? (OK we can probably quickly draw some lines around no polygamy, polyamory, or sex in the city-typ casual serial flings, but that leaves quite a bit that does not fit the kingdom ideal).

Let me put it another way: conservatives in particular have some high standards around the conduct of sexual relationships (i.e. be single or be married) and, with the notable exception of a number of remarried divorcees among conservative ministry leaders, generally uphold those standards, but can we expect those standards to be applied across the whole of the Anglican Church?

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