Friday, August 7, 2009

Would Jesus smack? A local referendum and a global Communion

Here in NZ we are in the midst of a referendum on smacking children. Our current law, recently revised, provides enough confusion to make a referendum on it worthwhile. Notwithstanding the eminent people who assert the law is not confusing, it is. The confusion begins when these eminent people tell us (for example) that we may smack our children lightly so long as it is not for the purpose of correction. In my mind I understand this to mean a child about to place their fingers in a heater might have their hand smacked away from the danger, but a child who poked their finger into their siblings eye may not have a swift correction of their crime with a smack but instead may have some innocuous response such as 'time out'.

The referendum question is about whether smacking should be a criminal offence and we have Christians arguing both sides of the issue. Far be it from me on one side of the issue to dispute with our Archbishops who are on the other side of the issue ...

Also confusing, I suggest, is that there are really two issues involved in the referendum. One issue is the presenting one, should parents be able to lightly smack their children as one form of discipline?, the other issue is the horrific spate of children's deaths in recent years through abusive actions from parents. We are a violent country. Many Kiwis do not think smacking should form any part of parental discipline and are resolutely against any law which permits it. They will vote in the referendum consistently with their belief. They would do so whether or not the other issue existed.

But there are other Kiwis who are not against smacking per se, but wish to support any action, however indirect in its effects, which influences our parents away from abusive actions towards their children. They also will answer the referendum question supportive of retaining the current law. In the end, whatever the referendum yields, we will be left with two issues: the best and most effective range of means to discipline our children, and the tendency of parents to ignore or forget the law in a moment of intense anger and strike out murderously at their children. For Christians to engage effectively with these issues, by the way, I think we need to do more than ask the question, Would Jesus smack?

I see something similar in our Communion as discussion around the globe wrestles with the issues of homosexuality, Two tracks, Communion or federation and so on. That is, we can forget that whatever we decide in 'law', we are still left with issues that do not go away.

One issue is the continuing presence of gay and lesbian people in society and the church, a presence which is an ineradicable fact of human nature, and one which is increasingly constituted not by quiet, almost invisible individuals whom we have marked with the question, "Funny thing how X has never married", but by same-sex couples visible in their social status as couples. What is the conservative church, for instance, "to do" about such couples? Nothing ... acknowledge and include them ... condemnation and exclusion ... liturgically bless them? A decision not to liturgically bless them leaves plenty of work to do on "nothing or acknowledge and include them or condemn and exclude them". Are any conservatives anywhere in Anglican Land doing that work?

Another issue is the decline of Anglican congregational numbers in the West. Aggressive talk coming out of England expressed in these sentences from Ruth Gledhill, "The liberal fightback against Anglican conservatives and the Archbishop of Canterbury has begun. Open warfare is now declared", is all very well, but does it assist the future life of the church or hasten its death? One difficulty is that this question is not easy to answer. On the one hand we live in Western societies which seem to mark the church down if and when it's policies and practices exclude people (whether in perception or reality). Connecting with society has not proved to be easy post the Enlightenment, and we may be making the chasm wider. On the other hand people who actually make the effort to participate in churches in the West have plenty of choice, and the vehicles to give expression to that choice. Why stick with the Anglican church sliding away from biblical and traditional teaching when down the road is another option, with better heating and sound systems to boot?

In other words, arguments can be made for mission being enhanced by pro-gay theology and being damaged by pro-gay theology, but in the meantime people actually going to church seem to be growing conservative churches, not progressive ones. That tendency will not change however we resolve the dilemmas of the Communion!

I could go on. Suffice to say again, I think ++Rowan's Two Tracks approach to Communion life is the best we can do at this time and in the face of issues that will remain with us.

No comments: