Sunday, 24 January 2016

"The bible says..."

The Archbishops argued, but they also washed each other's feet
and prayed for each other in their diversity.
Anglican Archbishops from all over the world met recently to discuss, among other things, disagreements over human sexuality. Since then, Christians on social media have responded either with sadness or with satisfaction at the outcome, using a variety of ways of appealing to the bible to support their view. If you are going to appeal to a source of authority for your standpoint, it is often helpful to know not just that you are using that source, but how you are using it, and what other factors might be influential too.

Everyone has sources of authority, be they values we imbibed as children, influential books, political positions, or philosophies. The person who tells you they make up their mind entirely free of any influence, doesn't know themself. From time to time, unpicking your sources of authority can be unsettling, especially if you have held a position on a subject and then find that as you look at how you have got to your position, you can honestly say that your position is weakening. We can see this if we reflect on how attitudes towards marriage have altered from one generation to another.

So, for example, it's widely accepted today, at least in the UK, that a couple who come to the Church of England with a marriage request, will normally have lived together already. Not many C of E priests I know even think of this as in any way strange. We go right ahead and welcome them, of course; me included. But 200 years ago, social mores were very different. Imagine how society (let alone the church) would have reacted then to an unmarried woman living intimately with an unmarried man. And yet the bible hasn't changed. It says various things; it doesn't mention others; and all sorts of people appeal to it for various positions. We who take moral stances and say 'the bible says.....' have sometimes forgotten that morality has its own fashions.

To realise you are a child of your generation is to realise that the things you find morally 'normal' are different from what your parents thought of as 'normal' and (more challenging) will be different from what your children will think of as 'normal'. What is actually going on? Is it that as time goes by, things are genuinely going downhill morally, OR, are things actually improving morally? Your answer to this depends a lot on your perspective. Or perhaps it's neither of the above; it's just that culture alters, and sometimes these alterations appear to be in line with God's good purposes for humankind, and sometimes they don't. 

The tricky thing (and, surprise, surprise, exactly what the Archbishops found) is that not everyone agrees on how to read the intersection between faith and culture.

This is why, on the subject of human sexuality, we need to be gentle with the consciences of those with whom we disagree. It is not a good idea to ride roughshod over someone else's conscience, because though you might be 'unshackled' yourself on a particular topic, one day you might wish that your conscience be given some leeway on another. St Paul, counselling the church over a change in attitude towards religious practice and food, asked that those with a 'stronger conscience' defer to those with a weaker one, so as not to 'lose' them, as it were (1 Corinthians 10:28-9).

When someone says 'the bible says x, y, or z', they're probably referring to a text, or group of texts, which say certain things about the situation for which they were written, and which might have a much wider application too. So there are many texts about marriage. All of them are about heterosexual marriage, and that has been taken to mean entirely opposite things: that marriage between persons of the same gender is wrong; or that since the bible doesn't mention them, gay unions can't be that wrong. Different people read 'the argument from silence' completely different ways. So it's complex. The challenge for believers (and for all people with sacred books) is always how to interpret the texts...

(See this from the archive, for instance)

And we don't interpret them alone. We interpret them with each other and (especially) alongside those with whom we don't agree. Whatever the Archbishops did or did not achieve, at least they sat down with each other to talk. 

Anglicans value Scripture highly, but reason and tradition are also important tools in interpretation, something the great Anglican Doctor of the church, Richard Hooker explored in his 16th Century work The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.

Hooker inaugurated the Anglican 'via media', the middle way between the Roman Catholic and the Puritan answer to doctrinal matters. The middle way appeals to me as a concept - I like to think it's reasonable and respectful - but is seen by some as a hopeless liberal fudge. 

Hooker's Scripture, Reason and Tradition can be seen as a three legged stool in all matters theological and ecclesiastical. No believer is outside a tradition - we all develop our beliefs and faith practices within one - and we may as well recognise the nature of our particular one, whether Conservative Evangelical, Catholic, Pentecostal, Methodist, Charismatic, Liberal, or whatever. 

A three legged stool of Scripture, Reason and Tradition is stable - a chord of three strands cannot be broken. Three is good. Fast forward a few centuries and Wesley also stressed experience, going one better and giving us the 'Wesleyan Quadrilateral': Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience'. When Christians make decisions about what God thinks on a particular topic, they could do worse than consider these four in conversation with each other.

For example, for centuries, until 1994 in fact, the Church of England officially interpreted scriptures concerning female leadership in the church as prohibitive, not even imagining that women could be priests. Many bible texts taken at face value appeared to point in this direction. Scripture and Tradition held that female ordination was absolutely no-go. And for years, that was the norm. But reasonable voices began to question it. If society was changing to embrace women in all levels of public life, and if women themselves were saying they thought God was calling them to ordination (voicing their experience) shouldn't the church think again about women's leadership? 

And that is what the Church of England did. Other Christian denominations got there faster, some have yet to arrive. It took a long time but eventually we embraced the idea, even though the bible had not changed. Yet how it was interpreted changed. In addition, the C of E, along with many other denominations, also redefined marriage to include those who might re-marry after divorce, something our Anglican forebears would have baulked at. Because society was accepting that although marriage is ideally for life, sometimes things go wrong and people want a fresh start.

Some Christians get nervous at the mention of 'society' and the re-interpretation of biblical texts. They think the church is capitulating to social pressure, being moulded by the times, etc. etc. without realising that 'society' and 'church' are a lot less separate than we imagine. If we believe that God is active throughout the world, surely it's not just through believers that good change can be brought about. (But what is good change?!)

So next time you cite a bible verse in support of an argument, ask yourself, why have I chosen this verse and not another; how has my Tradition interpreted this subject in the past; how does reason handle texts which say different things about the same topic, or nothing about the topic; and whose voices (with different experiences from mine) should be brought to this topic?

And whatever you do, avoid pointless and hurtful arguments on social media. Some people genuinely want to engage and some only want to win the argument.

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