Sunday, July 4, 2010

Saying What You Mean and Meaning What You Say

Blogs and the like are picking up on the Telegraph story that enigmatic Very Rev Dr Jeffrey John may be in line to become the next Bishop of Southwark. (See my post below). John, recall, is enigmatic because he is in a civil partnership with another man, is currently celibate, though once was not.

Christopher Johnson at MCJ waxes on a bit about this. E.g. "What sanctions should be applied against Lambeth Palace? After all, the Americans were sanctioned; why should the British be treated differently? More importantly, if sanctions are applied, who will apply them? The Archbishop of Canterbury? Shall Dr. Williams penalize his own church for taking an action that he probably supports?".

I suspect he will not be the only thinking Anglican who thinks this represents a call to conservative action:

"If Jeff John gets a pointy hat and Rowan Williams doesn’t interfere, the ball is back in the Anglican conservative court. What do they do with it? One would hope that they would be intelligent enough to realize that such an action would destroy any reason to remain “officially” Anglican.

One supposes, for example, that conservative die-hards will separate the Archbishop of Canterbury from the church he heads. That is, Rowan Williams is both the head of the Church of England, with which we have no connection, and the head of the Anglican Communion, something we revere. So the fact that the Church of England consecrated an unrepentant sinner as a bishop is irrelevant."

But the conservative case, all along, has been that there is a difference between orientation and practice. The former involves no moral judgment (whether to accept or to reject as conforming to God's law). The latter involves moral judgment.

If John is celibate there is no moral issue relative to the Windsor Report, Lambeth 1.10, or even Scripture itself. There may be a theological issue (does John uphold the teaching of Scripture in accordance with Lambeth 1.10?) but if that were determined to be a negative against John being a bishop then ... well, I do not think we are going to see mass sackings of bishops who do not agree with 1.10.

So, contra Christopher Johnson, I do not see the problem for conservatives. If we mean what we say and say what we mean, then we make no pre-judgments against celibate homosexuals.

If we mean what we say and say what we mean then we should treat John as saying what he means and meaning what he says when he says he is celibate. All will be well.

Incidentally, far from such a situation muddying the waters around ++Rowan's treatment of TEC reps to Communion committees following the Glasspool consecration, it would clarify an important issue: orientation is one thing, practice is another.

++Rowan looks like he is acting consistently.

Will conservatives act consistently also?

I hope cool headed appreciation of the situation will prevail over any temptation to follow prejudice.


Anonymous said...

Hi Peter,

I think there is a problem for conservatives with the possible appointment, for he is in a civil partnership with another man. It is not simply a case of assessing the candidates sexual ethics in individualistic terms (distinguishing orientation from practice, as you contend). He may be celibate, but he is still in a relationship that is not recognised (or is at very least highly controversial) by the Church's standards. He may believe he has a clear conscience but, because it is an unordered relationship (in the Church's terms), it makes him a most unsuitable and divisive candidate for the public office of bishop.

Malcolm Falloon

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Malcolm,

It could be worth expanding on what is meant by a relationship that is not recognised by the church.

I assume that two men in a celibate but committed relationship are good friends, and the church (as far as I know) recognises and celebrates friendships.

There are other grounds on which Dr John may be unsuitable viz a viz divisiveness (such as 'anti-orthodox' theology), but I would wonder whether his particular friendship should be one of those grounds. That sets quite a demanding standard for some of our brothers and sisters, e.g. it is tough to say that one must be both celibate and not have a particular friendship!

Anonymous said...

In response Peter,

Civil Partnership is a secular ordering of relationships that goes beyond family and friendship obligations. It is surely affirming more than that two people are friends. Because of the exemplary nature of ordination, it is important that the both the public and private dimension of a relationship are consonant. The public dimension is just as (or more) important than the privatized individual ethic that our culture exalts. I realise that it is difficult for a state church to object on the basis of something that the state itself has sanction, but that is not the situation here in New Zealand.

Malcolm Falloon

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Malcolm
If there is something in the nature of sin about being in a publicly committed but celibate relationship with one other person, then a person in a such a relationship will struggle to live out the exemplary demands of ordination.

It is not quite clear to me what sin is involved; and if sin is involved, I think the world at large could struggle to be persuaded by the church's explanation! However I am personally open to becoming clear about this ... incidentally I see as I write that Dr John has now been rejected as a candidate for Southwark!?

Anonymous said...

"It is not quite clear to me what sin is involved; and if sin is involved, I think the world at large could struggle to be persuaded by the church's explanation!"

'Twas ever thus. Civil partnerships are functionally indistinguishable from same-sex marriage.That is how the world sees them. Why would a Christian in the role of exemplary leadership to the Christian community want to contract one?
Could you imagine a Christian priest making a 'no-sex' pact of cohabitation with a woman?
Actually, they did (in the 4th century) - and they were banned by church canon. (If I can find the details, I'll post.)

Al Mynors

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Al,
From a distance it is difficult for me to comment on whether civil partnerships are functionally indistinguishable from marriages in the UK. But a partnership which is now quite famously celibate might be distinguishable?

I am not sure how much relevance the past has here: we are talking about a new age in which gay and lesbian Christians are struggling to find ways to be Christian, gay/lesbian, and loving to those who love them. As a conservative Christian I want to appreciate the potential value of a celibate civil partnership or union as a possible way through the maze of living in the complexities of life which gay and lesbian Christians must face in ways that I have been untroubled by as a happily married man for more decades of my adult life than I have been single.

What are you offering gay or lesbian Christians by way of support and care for the complexities of seeking to be faithful to Christ and honest about their sexual identity?

Anonymous said...

Peter, 'civil partnership' is just the Britsh term for what is called a 'civil union' in the US and NZ - but with the exception that only same sex couple can contract a 'civil partnership'.
If the essence of a cvil partnership was mutual support and the conferral of next of kin rights, and inheritance and pension rights, it was never explained why siblings were denied this right.
A Christian's 'sexual identity' is found in Christ, not our affections, as the St Andrew's Day Statement noted back in 1995.
Christians, especially leaders, need to avoid the appearance of sin as well as the 'occasions of sin', as the old Catholic manuals used to call them. The idea of making life-long vows to someone I was sexually attracted to but didn't plan sleeping with seems a wee bit idealistic, no?
Al Mynors

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Al,
It may be idealistic, but it may also have a history in the church (some evidence of some blessings of friendship relationships between men in the middle ages).

My question would still be whether it is unreasonable of the church in this day and age to insist that a celibate civil partnership is nevertheless not worthy of a person holding office in the church.

I cannot sit entirely happily with the thought that my 'sexual identity' is in Christ and nothing more than that. Being married is a certain identity marker; and it is not without relationship to being 'in Christ' because of the honour bestowed on marriage in Scripture.

Anonymous said...

No, Peter, 'adelphopoieseis' was not a 'civil partnership' and Boswell has been convincingly refuted.
Having your identity in Christ has is not a limitation, except in the sense that it limits you to life and grace, not sin and death.
Reminds me of a conversation I had once with a sometime seminarian who later dropped out and died of Aids. When I (gently) critiqued an opinion of his as unbiblical (he was then in the process of rejecting his rather thin charismatic evangelicalism and asserting his homosexual feelings), he retorted that 'we don't want to be tied to Scripture.' I replied that the point of Scripture was to UNTIE us.
Al Mynors

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Al,
I agree on this: Scripture is meant to untie us!