As Defender of the [Church of England variation of the Christian] Faith, Charles presides over what, this weekend in Anglican history?
Unfortunately Uganda rears its head again, the proposed draconian law against homosexuals/homosexuality now having been passed (despite a few pundits saying it might not become law, it has), with Archbishop Stephen, Uganda’s Primate “grateful” for its passing (though he offers the gracious modifier of preferring imprisonment to execution as the severest outcome of the legislation).
Cue a certain restlessness in CofE Twitter that neither the ABC nor the ABY have spoken out against their fellow primate. My own thought is a little patience might be in order. Archbishops are busy people and should not make hasty pronouncements!
My own response, made in this past week’s eLife message to our Diocese was this:
“ Back in April 2023, the conference of Anglicans around the globe known as GAFCON, meeting in Kigali, Rwanda, made a public, damning criticism of the Church of England for its recent decision to permit prayers for same sex partnerships or marriages (a similar but not exactly the same decision as our church made in 2018). This condemnation was made with not one word said criticising an anti-LBGTQi bill before the parliament of Uganda which had received strong endorsement at Easter from Stephen Samuel Kaziimba Mugalu, the Archbishop of Uganda (and one of the leaders of GAFCON). Read Archbishop Stephen’s message here. A provision in the bill included the possible of execution as a punishment for certain offences by homosexuals. At the time of GAFCON there was a thought that the bill would never be signed into law by the President of Uganda. This week, however, we learn that the bill has become law—read more from Reuters here. We also learn that Archbishop Stephen enthusiastically supports its passing, although resiles from the death penalty being imposed—Read more here. The chances of GAFCON leaders condemning this decision by parliament, let alone its support by the Ugandan Anglican church appear to be zero. It is tragic that a significant global network of Anglicans can condemn one province of the Communion for openness to praying for same sex partnerships while tacitly, if not explicitly endorsing this inhuman legislation endorsed by another province.”.
It is (at best) a bit confusing, is it not? Gafcon’s moral high ground has always been its resolute opposition to any change to Anglican teaching on marriage/human sexuality combined with deep compassion, welcome and inclusion for all homosexuals who love Jesus and wish to follow his teaching (cf. Lambeth 1998 1.10). The inability to hold Uganda to account for the Anglican church’s fervent embrace of the now passed draconian law suggests Gafcon is not as committed to deep compassion etc as it says it is. Is Gafcon confused about its own moral theology and its application to its own member provinces?
(Nevertheless I acknowledge, courtesy of some posts on Virtue Online, that there is a certain confidence in the counter to the criticism, a sense that Uganda is right and, er, I, ++Welby, the Communion as currently constituted, etc are wrong, weak, weak, wrong: here, here, here, here.)
But, we should hastily add, confusion is a feature not only of Anglican (other, non-Gafcon examples can be adduced), but also of Christian life generally.
Recently, for instance, my eye was caught by a controversy over a book written by an Australian about confusion within evangelicalism, focused largely on North American evangelicalism, or, more specifically, what could be called Trumpian evangelicalism. But the intriguing feature of the observable controversy was over an Australian (Presbyterian) review of this book, which in turn has led to a review of the review.
In all these kinds of current stories - examples mirroring these Protestant contretemps can be found in the Catholic and Orthodox worlds - there are two aspects to what I am calling “confusion.”
One, the most worrying, is that an outsider looking in is appropriately confused about what Christianity is about.
Are we about the truth? (If so, how comes there is so much disagreement?)
Are we about love for one another? (If so, how come there is so much vitriol from one Christian (or tribal grouping of Christians) to another?
Are we about faith in God? (If so, and we each have faith in God, how come this common factor seems to have so little power to glue us together?)
Two, our internal confusion about … well, some days it seems “everything”! Let me (the blogger pleads) focus on two confusions (because I think they are important and if we were less confused on them we might be better witnesses to those who are not yet of the Christian faith).
Somehow, in these “culture wars” within the church itself, Scripture is often used as a single book, of one genre (essentially, instructions/rules), which is very clear on any matter of importance in 21st century life.
But this is not Scripture which is a collection of writings, of differing genres, which both includes some instructions/rules and a strong sense, from Jesus himself, that the church is going to need to make decisions about various matters as life goes along.
Scripture, that is, is clear on some matters (God so loved the world, love your neighbour, do not kill (as a general instruction)) and not on others (What is the nature of the love God has for “the world”, and what is “the world” that God loves, does neighbour extend to enemies (so Matthew/Luke) or get refocused on “one another” (John’s Gospel), or both (Paul’s letters)? What does “do not kill” mean for governments (may they use capital punishment as a means of ordering society?) and for Christians (may we serve as a soldier?). It is not so much that Scripture is some kind of “confusion” as that God through Scripture calls God’s people to talk to one another about how we shall live - together as church, in local communities, in national societies, as employers-and-employees, in households - and to do that talking together, well, together and not schismatically apart.
Further, Scripture treated as some kind of uniform volume from which clear guidance may be distilled with the barest of preambles, “The Bible says …,” fails to read Scripture fully and carefully as a collection of writings often in tension with each other.
In my last post I highlighted differences and connections between the Synoptic gospels and John’s Gospel. Since then I have read this important observation (by way of question) by C. F. Evans:
“Does the New Testament contain not one but two religions, the one, to be found in the synoptic gospels, Acts and some epistles, a Semitic, hebraic, historical, prophetic, messianic religion of obedience to commandments … the other, to be found in the Pauline epistles and the Johannine writings, a Hellenistic, oriental, unhistorical, mystical and sacramental cult of union with a dying and rising Lord (a particular variation of the popular pattern of religion in the Graeco-Roman world), and if so, how do these two religions belong together? To some extent these questions have haunted theology ever since.” (Explorations in Theology 2, London: SCM, 1977, p.95)
The genius of developed Christianity - the “religion” that came to approve the canon of Scripture, to settle the doctrine of the Trinity [some writing of this post is on Trinity Sunday!] - is that it bound these differences together, in one whole, and refused to separate them. The least point of this genius decision is that it invites, even instructs the people of Scripture to live with tension, to engage in conversation about what we differ on (while bound to the one God, the one Lord, the one Spirit!).
But of this approach to Scripture and its consequences for God’s people you will find precisely nothing, zero, zilch in the prognostications of … Gafcon, Archbishop Stephen, Mark Powell reviewing Constantine Campbell’s book, various Catholic pundits bewailing the demise of their church because of … their Pope, etc!
Postscript: at an extreme, misreading of the Bible leads to a very dark place - see here.
GOD (REVEALED IN JESUS CHRIST, PRESENT IN WORLD THROUGH THE HOLY SPIRIT)
In all the various perambulations of modern / post-modern Christianity, we seem - in my judgment - to (fairly) consistently misrepresent the God whom we Christians say we believe in.
Whether we are proposing “Christian nationalism” or promoting the Latin Mass as highest and best worship of God or presenting a slam dunk five or nine step argument against committed love between two people of the same sex or (for that matter) ceasing to be anxious about the state of the church because, you know, God is still at work in the world, whatever happens, we (I would argue) misrepresent God.
We misrepresent God because in our fervour for … Christian nationalism, the Latin Mass, excluding same sex partnerships from prayer, ceasing to care for the church … we imply (however unintentionally) that God is a Latin speaking Christian nationalist with a downer on homosexuals and a careless attitude towards the Body of his own beloved Son.
That is not the God revealed in Jesus Christ and attested to in Holy Scripture. Alternatively put, there is a lot we do and say (and I am no less a sinner on this score than anyone else) which is not Jesus-like. Our Aramaic speaking Lord of the church who failed to lead a nationalist uprising … you get the drift!
In our fetish for the fashion of the moment we are confused about who God is and thus about what our God calls us to be, to do and to say.
I suspect our King is not a reader of this blog!
But if perchance I am wrong, I ask our King to “defend our faith” in a mode a lot less aggressively than my fellow keyboard warriors of 2023 do.
If God calls us to anything it is to meekness and humility.