Friday, October 19, 2007

Taking Seriously the Possibility of Grave Social Sin

The Reverend Canon Dr. Joseph Cassidy, Principal of St Chad's College at Durham University, England, has written an essay that is an absolute must read. Although he identifies his "own theological and ethical instincts" as being "decidedly conservative on most issues," Canon Cassidy wonders why, given the importance of comprehensiveness, humility and openness within Anglicanism, we cannot allow the Episcopal Church to push the boundaries of inclusiveness:

...So here's what puzzles me: Given all this openness, why can't we allow or even authorise the Episcopal Church to experiment with including gay lay-people, gay deacons, gay priests and, yes, gay bishops? Why can't we allow the Episcopal Church to experiment with same-sex/quasi-nuptual blessings? Why can't we ask the Episcopal Church to undertake, on behalf of the rest of the Church, a ministry of discernment within and alongside the various gay and lesbian communities? Why can't we enable the Episcopal Church to push their idea of baptismal inclusiveness to the hilt to see whether it enhances holiness? Why can't we do that? What is the real risk of doing so and what is the real risk of not doing so?

In one sense, the answer is obvious: we can't because many Anglicans in many provinces think the question is closed; others think the timing isn't right; others think more theological reflection needs to occur before testing things in the field; others (hopefully only a few) write off the whole thing derisively as a pandering to modernity.

I take seriously what the Episcopal Church is trying to do. Unlike some, I do not believe that the Episcopal Church are a bunch of uncritical liberals, glibly and mindlessly embracing contemporary values as if they were obvious Christian values. My own theological and ethical instincts are decidedly conservative on most issues, but I do see the Episcopal Church taking a costly road, which admittedly is capable of jolting the foundations, and which would inevitably cause friction. I cannot but see a serious attempt to act with integrity. And that goes for all sides.

In one sense, I'm not surprised that this is occurring in the US, but I wouldn't put it down to Episcopalian American liberalism. Rather, in a culture still barely coming to grips with a long and horribly-recent history of slavery, racial segregation, and racism, it should be impossible for the Church not to wonder whether we're doing it again - only this time to another group identified as different in a different sort of way. That's not American hubris, but real humility, an awareness of the possibility of grave sin. Because, if there's any chance whatsoever that we're doing it yet again, then not to take it seriously, not to take the possibility that we, the Church, might be caught in a long, deep cycle of social sin - well that's dangerous to the soul, a real sin of omission, one that can be profoundly destructive to a great many people. In any event, taking it seriously means testing it, testing the direction the Episcopal Church is moving in to see whether it is 'of the Lord'...
What will be the reaction from those who are convinced that there is no possibility that actions of TEC are "of the Lord"? The bible. Here's Canon Cassidy's response:

...On some issues, though admittedly on only a few (say slavery, usury, the subservience of women to men, perhaps even capital punishment some day), we have departed from clear ethical prescriptions or clear permissive stances in both the New and Old Testaments. We did so for good reason, and we did so by appealing to other scripturally-based principles; but if we are to hold to the inerrancy of Scripture, it is essential, though far from easy, to distinguish between those affirmations whose truth is revealed for the sake of our salvation and those other matters that reflect the then-current faith of the people of Israel or of the early Church as it as developing. Once a single exception is made, then the possibility of further exceptions must be considered. Of course, if individuals aren't willing to grant the need to exercise such hermeneutical judgement, then the conversation is liable to falter before it begins...
He continues with a discussion of "ethical experimentation":

...I think it necessary to say explicitly that ethical experimentation is not imperiling people's souls. To think otherwise is to challenge our Creator, who made us fallible and far less than omniscient. We must explore and discover and create a moral universe, because morality is all about agency: morality is not 'out there' waiting to be discovered. Morality isn't codified in the way nature operates (natural law is about something quite different and is fundamentally about reasonableness, not normative patterns in nature). Giving credit to Aristotle, the good is what good people do. The challenge is to remain true to the dynamism of Christian discipleship, to stay on the road, rather than to stop along the way. And that means testing boundaries; it means sometimes re-receiving the received in a different way from the past...
Canon Cassidy also emphasizes something we have recently discussed here; the importance of building relationships:

...In all this, I am reminded of Stanley Hauerwas's article in Sanctify them in the Truth, where he challenges us to begin to think about such issues not with theology, but through friendship; and, in this case, through close, soul-to-soul friendships with gay people. This is an eminently experimental, and an uncommonly generous, approach. Unless we're willing to do that, unless we get a chance really to see the good that is claimed to occur in gay relationships, we're lacking some important hard data for doing serious theology. It's one thing, for instance, to debate whether it's right to practise medicine on the Sabbath, whether such things shouldn't be done on another day; but it's quite another thing to witness the joy of healing on the Sabbath, and then to wonder about the rules. And Hauerwas suggests that, when you are close friends with gay people, you might experience stories that sound strangely familiar, stories of being lost, of having felt excluded from God's grace, of self-hatred and disgust; stories of all these being transformed by unearned love; stories that sound tellingly like the Christian story; stories that suggest that we might all be part of the same story and so belong together. And you may also discover that, in hearing these stories, the Christian community is built-up, strengthened, nourished - which, for Hauerwas, is key for the discernment of whether homosexual relationships are good: Do they build up the community? And this question can't be answered in an a priori, abstract manner - not with serious Christian brothers and sisters claiming conflicting data. At the very least, such experiences ought to give one pause; and if they give one pause, the theological journey begins - you've got some real data to do a bit of theology. And the theological journey isn't a matter solely for those in favour of full inclusion; it's not just up to the Episcopal Church to prove their case, as Windsor seemed to imply. No, the theological challenge is for everyone: how do we account for these data? Perhaps the theological challenge is principally for those against: How do you account for these conflicting data? These data cannot be dismissed; they can be explained differently, but not dismissed. In the laboratory, conflicting, unexpected data are often the beginning of a discovery. True, experience does not lead ineluctably to understanding. Without asking the right questions, without having the right sort of hunches, without realising the significance of parts of our experience, no understanding emerges. No doubt these experiences of alleged grace can be understood in different ways, as I said, but they cannot be dismissed without risking calling something gracious something evil. And Jesus rather famously warned us about that. In fact, Jesus was himself a victim of precisely that sort of attitude....
He then confronts an issue that has been at the heart of many of the frustrations that have recently been given voice here at Jake's place; the matter of who is making the decisions:

...if you say further that, because of such disagreements, bishops need to be chosen from the heterosexual or celibate end of the things so that they can be symbols of unity, then you need to address gay people not by having bishops talk to bishops about gay people, but address gay people more directly - that is, if we're honest about gay people being part of the church.

I say this because the only good reason I can think of for asking the Episcopal Church to hold back, or to turn back, is if gay members of that church authorise their church to do so, by saying that they are willing as a group to suffer continued exclusion, at least for the time-being. In other words, unless we excommunicate sexually active gay people, they are part of our church: it is not up to us to exclude them from such things as episcopal governance, for they are us -- unless we have classes of membership, say a class for the more righteous and a class for the less righteous. But if we don't segregate people in such ways, it would be for them to decide sacrificially to exclude themselves as the cost of being part of a worldwide communion that cannot or will not change any time soon - if that's the right thing...

...We can only put that question to gay Christians with integrity if the rest of the Church is willing to act as sacrificially as we are calling others to act - which means, I think, that the Church has to be willing to abide by the answer gay people will give to such a request - an invitation to everyone to exercise real spiritual freedom, to reach for real holiness, to act as though we all had profound trust in our God who wants us, who requires us, to work our way through tough ethical issues. I say this because it may be supremely difficult for those who have been excluded to sanctify their continued exclusion by accepting this as a cross to be borne, as God's will for them for the time-being. Because that's what we're asking. If the Church has got it wrong, we, the Church, are asking those whom we have victimised to let us victimise them a bit (or a lot) longer for the sake of the Church; and we're saying that this is Christ's will for the time-being. And, strange as it may sound, as followers of the crucified and risen Jesus, this may well be what is being asked of them, of us. But they need to be asked...
Do take a few minutes to read the complete essay. What did you find noteworthy?

Thanks to Paul for pointing to this.

J.

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