Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Rev. Dr. Tim Vivian: "Kissing the Leper"

The Rev. Dr. Tim Vivian is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at California State University, Bakersfield and has authored a number of books on monasticism and the early Church Fathers. He is also an Episcopal priest, canonically resident in the Diocese of Los Angeles. He was recently appointed to serve a growing congregation in Bakersfield, which is within the Diocese of San Joaquin. Here is part of the story of that appointment, as reported in the local paper, The Bakersfield Californian:

...At a Thursday night gathering of 60 to 70 believers and clergy at First Congregational Church and hosted by Remain Episcopal in the Diocese of San Joaquin, a faith community opposed to the split, Moore received hearty applause when he announced he had appointed the Rev. Tim Vivian, a Bakersfield resident, to a “temporary pastoral position as missionary priest under my direct supervision, which puts him within the jurisdiction of the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church”...
Dr. Vivian has a long history with the Diocese of San Joaquin. Many years ago, he became quite frustrated with Bp. Schofield's refusal to allow Integrity to meet in any parish in the diocese. This led him to write an editorial which appeared in The Bakersfield Californian. In response, Bp. Schofield pulled Tim's license to serve as a priest in San Joaquin.

The following is the text of that editorial, reprinted here with Dr. Vivian's permission:


Kissing the Leper

Last Friday I sat with the lepers and outcasts. Inside St. Paul's Episcopal parish, delegates for diocesan convention were meeting, but we were outside because Bishop Schofield refused to allow us inside. Who were we? Members of Integrity, the national organization supporting gays and lesbians in the Episcopal Church. Bishop Schofield not only refused us entrance to St. Paul's, he has refused to allow Integrity to meet in any parish in the diocese; he has forbidden the clergy of the diocese to celebrate Communion for the people of Integrity.

I wish this fear and hatred of gays by many Christians were an isolated event, a simple example of theological racism, but it isn't. Among some Christians, homophobia is just one symptom; others are fear of women, fear of sexuality, fear of the poor, fear of those not like us, and fear of change.

The reasons for these fears--and the hatred that often accompanies them--are complex, but they are bound together by, and find their common expression in, a profound misunderstanding and misuse of the Bible.

With regard to homosexuality, the extreme conservative argument is simple: Homosexuality is evil, a sin, because the Bible says so. Such an argument reduces a complicated human subject to absolutes of good and evil, right or wrong. Those who make this argument conveniently--or blindly--ignore the fact that "the Bible" variously endorses polygyny, slavery, massacre, and the sequestration of women during their periods.

Put more positively, the Bible is a human document (or collection of documents), a human witness to God's being, activity, and presence. As a human witness, it is a fallible one. Since the Bible is a human witness, those who wrote it--however inspired they were--were subject to social, political, ethnic, temporal and religious biases and prejudices, just as we are today.

In ignoring all this, conservative biblicists make a serious mistake; unfortunately, in their use of the Bible they commit a worse one: false use is worse than false understanding. Biblicists mistakenly believe that the Bible is a book of dictates and rules, revealed by God. Once they have this infallible rule book in hand, like a boy scout with his handbook, they selectively decide which issues are most important. Usually for biblicists it is homosexuality or sexuality in general, abortion, and women's subordination. Biblicists are so obsessed with these issues that they usually ignore questions of social justice, poverty, homelessness, or war and peace.

It is a question of priorities, and biblicists have their priorities wrong. While more and more of our people go hungry and homeless, die from drugs and violence, and live lives without meaning, biblicists care more about who is sleeping with whom and what parts of the body are being used to do what.

Those who condemn homosexuality say they are speaking of "biblical" ethics or as a "biblical" Church . But what is this "biblical" belief as it seems to be practiced in this country?

Is it "biblical" to condemn homosexuality while at the same time keeping a patriotic and blasphemous silence (as virtually all of the churches of Kern County did) when the United States slaughtered over 100,000 Iraqis?

Is it "biblical" to oppose abortion while supporting or keeping silent about the death penalty (legalized State murder)?

Is it "biblical" to deny, in the name of scripture and tradition, the full ministry of women in the Church--as the local Episcopal Church does?

No. None of these is biblical. Some who espouse certain "biblical beliefs" are misguided: they naively and simplistically use the Bible to support non-Biblical agendas.

Others, though, who make "biblical" statements--such as certain bishops, priests, and ministers--should by their training know better. Their use of "the Bible" is at best a form of fundamentalism; at worst, it is knowingly mendacious. Such biblicism is not Christian.

Those of us who are not biblicists or fundamentalists, as we listen to their increasingly strident voices, need to remember that--despite their loud shouts--they do not represent the truth of Christianity. Their misuse of the Bible in no way damages its real message: that God is a God of love and compassion, mercy and tenderness; that God became human in order to fully know our humanity; that God loves each of us equally and completely.

The Bible--the true Bible--not only calls us to kiss, like St. Francis, the mouth of the leper. It calls us to claim the leper's mouth as our own.

The Rev. Tim Vivian


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