Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Shootout between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees?

Whether we are embroiled as Anglicans in debates 'conservative' v 'liberal' or Roman bishops v the Pope at their recent synod, we live out, like Groundhog Day, again and again, the theological shootout between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees. Only, sometimes we think we are Jesus when we are scribal, and sometimes the Pharisees understand Jesus better ...

As the dust settles on what is a kind of interim position reprised from a previously provisional mid-conference report anticipating a more final conclusion following next year's significant conciliar gathering in Rome, there are some things Anglicans might reflect on about the upheaval in Rome.

Some - reading across the internet - have described the synod, especially at its mid-point as an 'earthquake' and others as 'not, in the end, an earthquake.'

I think there has been an earthquake and its nuts to suggest otherwise.

The earthquake is this: a remarkable openness has been displayed which has revealed what many Christians 'on the ground' know about Roman Catholicism but which you would not know from reading official pronouncements from Rome.

That knowledge is that ordinary churchgoers and many priests are very open to the things that Rome is officially closed to: ordination of married men as priests, ordination of women as priests, communion for the divorced and remarried.

It might be going too far to say there is widespread support for same sex marriage but the notion that homosexuality is about intrinsically disordered acts does not sit well in today's world. Oh, and we could also mention the widespread ignoring by married couples of constraint on use of artificial means of contraception.

Now, following the synod, we know that many bishops openly acknowledge these things. We see a pope (elected by the cardinals, normally themselves drawn from the ranks of bishops) who wants these things openly discussed. Notably, last week, Pope Francis commanded that the clauses in the final statement which did not secure a two-thirds majority should nevertheless be published. (The final document, at this stage only in Italian, with voting, is here.) The voting shows that Rome itself, expressed through its bishops, is quite contemporary Anglican: liberals, conservatives and finding the middle way between them!

One of the things I am noticing in my reading is a kind of shootout between conservatives (wanting the letter of Roman Magisterial doctrine to be observed, maintained and promulgated) and liberals (open to finding ways, nevertheless, to welcome more fully into the life of the church those currently excluded from (e.g.) full participation in the Mass.

A significant signal of these kinds of differences lies in the change between the mid-term document and the final document re gay Christians, the former speaking of 'welcoming homosexual persons' the latter omitting that and talking about offering 'pastoral care.'

But where else do we see this kind of subtle debate going on between the letter and the spirit of the law? In the gospels, of course. The gospels intrigue me on the matter of the scribes and the Pharisees because it seems to me that, whatever the historical accuracy of the portrayal of the scribes and the Pharisees, the gospels capture an enduring issue in religion in which scriptures figure, including our own Christian faith. What do the writings say? Does what is said continue to apply? Who may authoritatively interpret what is said and adjudicate its application? Here is a group, seeking to be faithful to those writings, who tend to go with a close if not literal following of the words. There is a group, seeking to be faithful to those writings, who tend to go with an open, liberal understanding of the words, perhaps appealing to a principle which lies within the words in question, or within the scriptures as a whole.

Our challenge as Christians, whether oriented towards Rome, Canterbury, Geneva or Constantinople, is to avoid being scribes and Pharisees and to side with Jesus. Yet that is easier said than done. After all, on some scriptural matters Jesus was more close, literal in his reading than the scribes and Pharisees (notably on marriage and divorce). On other matters Jesus exposed the folly of such reading, perhaps because of the hypocrisy involved, or maybe because adherence to one set of words involved denial of another set ... see this Sunday's Matthean lectionary reading!

More in the next post ...


In working on the above post I noticed this fascinating item in which the ESV (English Standard Version, sometimes called 'Evangelical Standard Version') has nearly replaced the Jerusalem Bible as the Roman English 'lectionary' translation. The reasons given for negotiations not reaching a point where change will happen are technical etc but I am amazed that it got considered at all: the ESV is not a wonderful version for public reading of Scripture in worship! Even evangelicals (in my experience) recognise that ...


Father Ron Smith said...

Peter, you have rendered a pretty good estimation of the outcome of the recent Roman Synodical goings-on at the Vatican.

My comment on your previous thread outlines something of Pope Francis' disappointment at the conservative reaction to his invitation for the Church to 'welcome' gays and divorcees into the fellowship of the Church.

From his statement after the report of the Bishops, and from the context of the below-mentioned video conversation in the U.S. on the subject; it would seem clear that the majority of Roman Catholics in America are with their Pope in looking towards a more eirenic openness to former outsiders than the conservatives are willing to accede to. Here is the link:

Kurt said...

Maybe we will get another "wave" of former RCers who like the way we Anglicans do things...

Kurt Hill
Brooklyn, NY

liturgy said...

I find the image of earthquake very unhelpful, as I cannot see 'earthquake' used in a way that is not destructive. I also find the idea of Jesus in a shootout in conflict with my image of him.

Those two points aside, I think the insights you present, Peter, in this post are some of your best ever.

The conflict between the spirit/intention within words in conflict with taking the words literalistically; the historical unreliability of some of the details of our texts (including, then, about Jesus, and possibly the exceptions he is said to have given for divorce); the application of ideals in the context of complex reals...

I think Pope Francis' publication of the paragraphs which did not pass (which clearly reflect his own approach) within the rest of the text with only a footnoted distinction may point where at least he hopes it to be heading. This is still interim, interim in a church at least 20 times the size of Anglicanism.

Thanks & blessings


MichaelA said...

"the historical unreliability of some of the details of our texts"

Which usually just happens to mean the unreliability of the particular parts that the speaker is uncomfortable with ... Such a coincidence! ;)

MichaelA said...

A lot of people seem to be deciding that this Pope's personal views mirror their own.

On the issue of gay marriage, Francis has made his position clear already:

He presided over the wedding of 20 couples last month in St Peter's Basilica. Some had been cohabiting and one couple already had children.

His Sermon was uplifting:

“This is what marriage is all about: man and woman walking together, wherein the husband helps his wife to become ever more a woman, and wherein the woman has the task of helping her husband to become ever more a man. This is the task that you both share. “I love you, and for this love I help you to become ever more a woman”; “I love you, and for this love I help you to become ever more a man”. Here we see the reciprocity of differences.”

This also accords with his comments on the rights of children to grow up in a normal family:

"On a positive note, we must reaffirm the right of children to grow up in a family with a father and a mother capable of creating a suitable environment for the child’s development and emotional maturity.”

Peter Carrell said...

HI Michael
Good point about "mirroring" - we should be looking for the ways in which the Pope's views mirror Christ's own views within the context of Scripture!