A few weeks ago, I drew attention to Catherine Keller’s very creative and provocative book Face of the Deep – a reflection on Genesis 1.2 (‘… the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep …’). Keller’s work is a profound and unsettling reminder that ever since the beginning there have been untamed elements which threaten to pull creation apart. And as much as we try to find in Holy Scripture an explanation for such a situation, there is, at the end of the day, none forthcoming.
The Book of Job, more than any other in holy writ, attends to the problems of suffering in the most prolonged and existential way. (One recalls, with some gratitude, what Jean-Paul Sartre made of the book.) But if one approaches that ancient book seeking answers to such problems, one will invariably be disappointed. Indeed, what one encounters there is a kind of gallows humour, what Germans call Galgenhumor. Chapter after chapter feeds a pregnant sense that at any moment now one will become more acquainted not only with Job and his comforters – Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite – but also with Terry (Jones), John (Cleese), and Michael (Palin). Even the structure of book is a kind of mocking of the deep suffering of one described in the prologue as ‘blameless and upright’, although clearly lacking some discernment in the area of supportive spouse selection. Actually, the prologue is quite outrageous. It might even be ‘the most brutal scene’ in literature – God and Satan playing poker with Job’s life and with that of his family. And the book’s epilogue is equally ridiculous: it reads like a Hollywood script, a crude and tacked-on happy ending which ‘simply ignores all the questions that the rest of the book poses’ (Susan Neiman). It all seems dishonest. It all reads like one big comedy, and it offers no consolation at all for those who wish to find meaning in suffering.
Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is, quite simply, the best commentary I know on the Book of Job. Melville has, I think, an astonishing sense of what Job is about, and he refuses the pretty ending as if the end might justify the cost of the game. He writes:
There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. However, nothing dispirits, and nothing seems worth while disputing. He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible, never mind how knobby; as an ostrich of potent digestion gobbles down bullets and gun flints. And as for small difficulties and worryings, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker. That odd sort of wayward mood I am speaking of, comes over a man only in some time of extreme tribulation; it comes in the very midst of his earnestness, so that what just before might have seemed to him a thing most momentous, now seems but a part of the general joke.
Of course, one of the ways that the Book of Job challenges the sense of life’s meaninglessness – even while adding to such – is by lifting our attention to God’s rhetorical questions recorded in the eleventh-hour chapters, an onslaught of questions which themselves seem only to add to the sense of torment that Job experiences. But what this barrage of questions does accomplish, I think, is to remind us of just how ‘inscrutable’ (to borrow St Paul’s words in Romans 11) the ways of the Lord finally are to us, an inscrutability which ought to give us considerable pause when we ponder life’s apparent meaninglessness.
A sculpture by Japanese artist Keiji Kosaka reminds us that nowhere is such inscrutability and sense of meaninglessness more apparent than in God’s work of reconciliation wherein God experiences in God’s own life the very questions of isolation and meaninglessness which threaten us, which threaten the cosmos, and which perhaps are a threat to God’s existence too – a God who seems to be in danger of being either crushed under the weight of chaos or squeezed out of the world entirely. In no way at all does the cross resolve the problem of evil. Rather, it deepens it, makes it even more confounding, more leviathanic.
The deep work of the cross – central to the church’s proclamation – remains ever a mystery to us. We proclaim it in faith, confident only of our inability to understand its totality and of the promise that accompanies its action – that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’, holding at bay those untamed elements in creation, and holding all things together.
Doll’s faces are rosier but these were children
their eyes not glass but gleaming gristle
dark lenses in whose quicksilvery glances
the sunlight quivered. These blanched lips
were warm once and bright with blood
held in a moist blob of flesh
not split and spatter’d in tousled hair.
In these shadowy tresses
red petals did not always
thus clot and blacken to a scar.
These are dead faces:
wasps’ nests are not more wanly waxen
wood embers not so greyly ashen.
They are laid out in ranks
like paper lanterns that have fallen
after a night of riot
extinct in the dry morning air.
– Herbert Read, ‘Bombing Casualties: Spain’, in Poems of Protest Old and New: A Selection of Poetry, ed. Arnold Kenseth (London: The Macmillan Company, 1968), 64.
These words were written in the 1930s, in response to a photograph accompanying a newspaper article on the Spanish Civil War. Like much of Read’s writing, they could have been written this week or, indeed, in any week since the third century BCE, when the first paper lanterns were created. This is part of their enduring power. But what most strikes me about Read’s poem is the contrast between the violence and loss described in the first three stanzas and the order and reclamation – the being ‘laid out in ranks’ – spoken of in the final one: the mocking plastering-over of violence blasphemously championed under the pretext of bringing order to chaos.
Such efforts to bring about order like this are not necessarily wasted or misguided; indeed, they are a requisite part of the responsibility laid upon us as creatures made in the image of one who is himself set against those parasites in the cosmos which threaten life. However, and to state the obvious, not all that promotes itself as doing that work is, in fact, doing that work. And so the hard and patient and ceaseless work of discernment, the drawing of a line (one not necessarily straight or entirely clear) which steers us away from those Forsyth calls ‘the facile hierophant and the sweet exalté’ and towards a world made new, transformed not by the invasion of a foreign power or by the ascension of a paladin self-made but from within the very bastille of the human condition, charged with Spirit.
A guest post by Cate Burton
In July 2014 I had the opportunity to attend the Global Institute of Theology (GIT) offered by the World Communion of Reformed Churches and hosted by the Universidad Biblica Latinoamerica in San Jose, Costa Rica. There were 30 participants from 15 different countries, as well as administration and academic staff. We came from Europe, Asia, Africa, the America’s and the Middle East. I was the only one from Oceania, Australasia and Pasifika and found myself as the unofficial representative from our part of the world.
The catch phrase which emerged from our three and a half weeks together was ‘Many Cultures, One Family.’ It was this sense of cross-cultural community which has marked me most. I am truly privileged and blessed to have experienced something of the beauty of the Universal Church (well, the Reformed part of it anyway).
On the academic side, the GIT included one core course and six elective courses, all taught in English. The theme of the core course was Transforming Church, Community and Mission, with one week of morning lectures dedicated to each of the three components. The elective courses took place in the afternoons with the first three electives held during the first week and a half while the remaining electives were held during the last week and a half. These classes were mixed according to gender and nationality with 10 students in each elective. The electives I attended were Eco Theology and Feminism and Masculinity.
The content of the core course and the elective courses has both broadened and deepened my theology. I now have a fuller understanding the theological, ecological, sociological, political and economic issues faced in other parts of the world. With this comes an increased desire to be mindful of and engaged in these issues globally, as well as encouraging the church in Aotearoa New Zealand to respond faithfully to these concerns as they present themselves in our context.
To the class room and coffee break discussions we each brought our own perspectives and experiences, and we shared these freely with one another. Contextual theology became very important for us, with many statements beginning, ‘in my context…’ and many questions being answered, ‘well, it depends on your context…’ This was freeing as well as frustrating.
There was a chapel service every morning and evening during the week, which was another opportunity for us share songs and liturgy from our own context as well as develop our own sense of corporate worship as a gathered community. One day I led worship with Rabih from Lebanon; we prayed in Te Reo Maori and we sang in Arabic. On another occasion I led with Jacoline from the Netherlands and I taught everyone how to hongi as a way of Passing the Peace. We sang in a variety of languages and we prayed the Lord’s Prayer in our mother tongues.
Once a week we visited local projects such as childcare centres for families of impoverished neighbourhoods and churches running support clinics for women with HIV and Aids. On Saturdays we would go sightseeing in San Jose or other parts of the country from the Central Valley to the Pacific Coast. On Sunday mornings we also attended local Presbyterian or Pentecostal churches, which were all in Spanish and were translated when possible.
My experience at the GIT has contributed for my formation as a disciple of Christ and as a Minister of Word and Sacrament. I will continue to be shaped by the relationships which developed and the way of life we shared together.
I am grateful to St Peters in the City for allowing me to take an extended period of leave when I was so new to my ministry role there and to the Kaimai Presbytery for endorsing my application for the Best Travel Fund which made a significant contribution to my travel costs.
Muchas gracias! Tena rawa atu koe!
The Age, 3 September 2014
For more on Australia’s seasons, check out Timothy Entwisle’s fascinating new book Sprinter and Sprummer: Australia’s Changing Seasons, or listen to him chatting about its thesis here.
‘It is true that morality has been often enough a way of ducking hard political questions by reducing them to the personal. In the so-called war against terrorism, for example, the word “evil” really means: Don’t look for a political explanation. It is a wonderfully time-saving device. If terrorists are simply Satanic, then you do not need to investigate what lies behind their atrocious acts of violence. You can ignore the plight of the Palestinian people, or of those Arabs who have suffered under squalid right-wing autocracies supported by the West for its own selfish, oil-hungry purposes.
The word “evil” transfers the question from this mundane realm to a sinisterly metaphysical one. You cannot acknowledge that the terrible crimes which terrorists commit have a purpose behind them, since to ascribe purposes to such people is to recognize them as rational creatures, however desperately wrongheaded. It is easier to caricature your enemy as a bunch of blood-crazed beasts – a deeply dangerous move, since to defeat an opponent you have first to understand him. The British tabloid press may have seen the IRA as gorillas rather than guerrillas, savages with no rationale for their actions, but British Intelligence knew better. They understood that Republican murders and massacres were not without a purpose. Indeed, to label your enemy as mad is to let him, morally speaking, off the hook, absolving him of responsibility for his crimes’.
– Terry Eagleton, After Theory (New York: Basic, 2003), 141–42.
Jason A. Goroncy, ed. Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P. T. Forsyth (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013). ISBN: 978-1-60899-070-2. 396pp.
A guest review by Kim Fabricius
Somehow, I’m ashamed to say, P. T. Forsyth flew under my radar during the three years (1979–1982) I studied at Mansfield College, Oxford. I vaguely remember hearing about this former College Pastor and ‘Barthian before Barth’ – an epithet as complimentary to Barth as it is to Forsyth – but as I’d already been nurtured in the faith by Uncle Karl, why bother with a distant relative? Then, shortly after my ordination, a retired Old Testament professor who was downsizing his library offered me some of his books. Among them was Forsyth’s The Person and Place of Jesus Christ (1909). It was seriously impressive. Forsyth’s relentless Christocentrism, theologia crucis, and kenotic soteriology were an inspiration and encouragement to my own early theological formation. Over thirty years later – far too long – it’s been a pleasure to renew my acquaintance with the great Congregationalist scholar-pastor through this generous collection of sermons and addresses. A thousand thanks to Jason Goroncy for arranging the meet, and for his superb introduction, which not only reminded me of what I’ve been missing but also, with both affection and erudition, wondrously surveys it.
Every preacher should buy this book. It won’t tell you anything about sermons – for as Forsyth insists, ‘your duty as preachers is not to preach sermons, but to preach the Gospel’ – but it will indeed draw you more deeply into the Gospel you are called to proclaim. If, that is, you pay attention and persevere. These sermons are not an easy read (though they were surely an even harder hear!). They begin with no winsome appeal, they proceed with thick thought and lengthy exploration, they range with polymathic breadth, but they have a passion and energy that sweep you along like a river in flood, and they repeatedly stun you with powerful and memorable phrases. And while the sermons are based on texts, they proceed less by exegesis and more by focussing on the res, the heart of the matter.
My marginal notes on the sermon ‘Mercy and the True and Only Justice’ and ‘The Bible Doctrine of Hell and the Unseen’ read, respectively, ‘Wow!’ and ‘Wow x 2!’. Refusing a competitive understanding of the divine love and justice (God’s love is holy love and God’s justice is his ‘love in action’); denying the endlessness of the wrath of God (‘you offer men a devil to worship’) as well as the ‘miserable doctrine of annihilation’; dismissing the ‘whole immoral’ theory of (penal) substitution and – the hermeneutical key – declaring that ‘if Christ’s cross means anything, it means the destruction of evil everywhere and for ever’: here Forsyth gestures towards (without arriving at) a doctrine of universal salvation. He also anticipates and funds, by well over a century, the so-called new evangelical universalism.
These two sermons are, for me, the diamonds in the pack, but there are many gems. ‘The Pulpit and the Age’ should be required reading for ministers thinking of answering – and for churches thinking of issuing – a ‘call’. At a time when congregations have the attention span of a mayfly and the PowerPoint image threatens to turn the spoken word into a sound bite, one hears with an ‘Ouch!’ Forsyth’s deadpan declaration: ‘I believe myself that short sermons are mostly themselves too long.’
‘Dumb Creatures and Christmas: A Little Sermon to Little Folk’ is a delightful ecological plea for recognising that Christmas is not only ‘All Children’s Day’, it is also – because in becoming creaturely flesh, the Word hallows all animate creation – ‘All Creatures’ Day’.
One more favourite: ‘The Problem of Forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer’. Here Forsyth exhibits a truly evangelical understanding of forgiveness and repentance. Not only are we reminded that God forgives us before we repent, that God’s forgiveness provides both the power to repent and the motive – thanksgiving – for forgiving, we are also astounded to learn that ‘The love of God forgave sin before we sinned, and slew the Lamb before the world was.’ Because the heart of God is cruciform, it is also omnibenevolent.
Nobody, however, is perfect. In the midst of First Wave Feminism, Forsyth can be disconcertingly patriarchal. His take on colonialism is rather blithely Kiplingesque. He addresses the moral but not the material conditions of society; he was interested in socialism, but too suspicious of it to endorse a Social Gospel. It is not good enough just to say that Forsyth was ‘a man of his times’, but notwithstanding these deficits, his theology is lucratively in the Bible-black.
Finally: it is a largely unexamined cliché that you can’t judge a book by its cover: often, I think, you can. Certainly the thoughtful aesthetic of the cover of Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History is marvellously expressive of the formidable intelligence and fine sensibility of the person whose sermons it adorns and announces. There is a photograph of Forsyth – terrific moustache! – leaning his head on his arm. The pose is conventional, but so capacious is the man’s brain that one wonders whether the head is resting on the arm, or the arm is propping up the head. And beneath the photograph – the image of a painting: a trellis of colourful crosses, a perspicuous small white cross, and a lovely blue flower with a yellow pistil. On the back cover, in fine print, we learn that the artist is Sinead Goroncy.
Fascinated by a recent film by J. T. Singh and Rob Whitworth called ‘Enter Pyongyang’, but at a loss at how to interpret it, I invited one of my students to offer a comment on it. Here’s the film, and his two reactions:
1. The below reflects a perspective of a 1.5 generation (south) Korean-New Zealander, who seeks to be authentic to both cultures as a genuine expression of who I am. Though I do not know for certain, I see myself not as an expression of a blended mixture of the two, rather as in Jesus’ mystical hypostatic communion of the two natures, somehow an hypostatic expression of the two cultures. At least, I want to explore this dimension. Technologically, the video clip is stunning and the city landscape of Pyongyang does indeed provide an insight into the country that has continued to be shrouded by interpretations of probabilities and propaganda for the last 50–60 years. I am neither an expert nor an intentional follower of North Korean politics. I am likely to be biased and tend to mistrust and to be cynical. Any talk of North Korea brings with it a historical baggage that cannot be readily put aside. But how do I perceive what Dr. Parag Khanna (Director of Hybrid Reality) is trying to do? I agree with Dr. Khanna (in his Foreword) that what the video does is a ‘multi-media contribution to transcending cliches about North Korea as a society defined by reclusiveness and destitution’. But I am concerned that he too readily interprets the video of Pyongyang to be equated with a North Korean change, in fact a change as he says is ‘an organic society that wants to be a normal country’. What does he mean by organic and normal, I wonder? Why would the tourists be strictly guided within the bounds of Pyongyang? North Korean reclusiveness and destitution must be rescued from its ahistorical cliche but these mustn’t be replaced with an agenda and naive thought of positive progress. I agree with Dr. Khanna that we mustn’t predispose ourselves to judge North Korea. Just as any other geo-political nation, North Korea is a living social dynamic. As any geo-political nation, it has a beginning but a beginning that is quite recent in history and emotionally charged with all the biases and influences of Cold War for the wider-world as well as civil war for Koreans. It would be important to recognise and change the frame of mind to see North Korea as a sovereign nation as we do ourselves. However, I doubt the approach of largely appealing to its technological advancement as the controlling framework to understand the social and political climate is a particularly helpful contribution. It requires to be watched through a critical eye and a filtering mind. Technological advancement neither necessitates nor equate to ethical progress. So, I am grateful to the people who made the video. It gives an insight to the people of Pyongyang. It is a privilege to see at least how some small number of my uncles and aunties and cousins and nephews and nieces are living in the city of Pyongyang. I am joyous that some are able to smile in that city. Especially, seeing the nephews and nieces in the skate park interacting with the camera as any kid would with curiosity and surprise brings some sense of comfort. Yet the discrepancy and paradox is too apparent to me – the grandeur of the city of Pyongyang like the rest of our cities but despite our densely populated cities how sparsely populated Pyongyang is. Some may say that is how we want our cities to be like. To have all the technological advancements yet having enough personal space. For me such is a mere utopian dream of the modernist, capitalist, individualistic western mind, which can only be made possible in a dictatorial religiously fanatic world like Pyongyang. No, I cannot see hope as some tend to in the façade of technological progress. If it is sad to see too many churches and too many red lit crosses in the night sky of most cities of South Korea, it is sad to see none in Pyongyang – the city that was once the epicenter of pneumatological cruciformation of Korea, now a sign of dictatorial religious rule of a self-made god-descent family. I only pray that the rumours of underground church still existing in North Korea is a fact, for here is the hope of change.
2. Recently, on 15 August, Korea celebrated 69th annual freedom day that we call ‘The Return of the Light’ day (광복절 – kwang bok jeol). It is a day of remembering and celebrating freedom from a half-a-century-long Japanese tyranny. I am particularly concerned of the tendency of the west to mourn the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki without celebrating Korean and, in fact, Asian freedom. Yes, the dead who have been murdered senselessly, we remember and mourn. Yes, Japan was going to lose anyway and the tragedy could have been avoided. But I see the individualistic ignorance of the many western mourners forgetful of those who suffered and still suffer from the pain of the Japanese imperial tyranny – the systematic eradication of a culture, systematic sex slavery of women, and rape of land for imperial ambitions. What does it mean for the West to mourn for Japan’s innocent without at the same time bringing Japan’s war criminals to justice? Many Asians, including Koreans, still have living victims of Japan’s atrocity. There has been no national apology officiated by the Japanese government. Yet on the same day, while Korea celebrates its freedom, Japan solemnly remembers and pays tribute to their fallen soldiers. To mourn the dead of Hiroshima (6 August) and Nagasaki (9 August) without celebrating Korea’s freedom (15 August) is injustice. To celebrate Korea’s freedom without mourning the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is injustice.
I was delighted to discover that an Australian TV show ran a wee story this week on Changi artist Des Bettany. Des’ work – which his son Keith, in an incredible labour of love, has made available on a beautiful website, The Changi POW Artwork of Des Bettany – bears witness to the enduring nature of hope and the healing power of art, and celebrates the joy which is shot through creation even under travail and which dares to announce that something more permanent than violence and the fears which give rise to such shall have the last laugh. The story that tells of the discovery of Des’ ‘book’ also speaks – of hope’s surprises.
In recent days, Professor Paul Fiddes has been in New Zealand where he has taught a course on the Trinity, and made three outstanding public presentations. I promised to make the latter available, so here they are, and that with apologies for the poor quality of the recordings:
- ‘Observation and Participation: Wisdom, the World and the Triune God’. A paper delivered at the Doing Theology in Light of the Trinity conference, held at Laidlaw College, Auckland, 21 August 2014. (pdf)
- ‘Metaphor and Mystery: Biblical Wisdom in a Late-Modern World’. A public lecture given at the University of Otago, Dunedin, 26 August 2014. (pdf)
- ‘God and Story in the Church and in Doctrine: the relationship between systematic theology and “everyday” theology’. A seminar given at the Knox Centre for Ministry & Leadership, Dunedin, 27 August 2014. (pdf)
In my perpetual hunt for liturgical resources that are theologically judicious (which means, among other things, being grounded enough in the earth as it is so as not to be spouting liturgical bullshit) – something which is not as easy a task as one might hope – I happened across this ‘Ordination Liturgy’ from the Methodist Church of Singapore:
We are not ordaining you to ministry; that happened at your baptism.
We are not ordaining you to be a caring person; you are already called to that.
We are not ordaining you to serve the Church in committees, activities, organisation; that is already implied in your membership.
We are not ordaining you to become involved in social issues, ecology, race, politics, revolution, for that is laid upon every Christian.
We are ordaining you to something smaller and less spectacular: to read and interpret those sacred stories of our community, so that they speak a word to people today; to remember and practice those rituals and rites of meaning that in their poetry address human beings at the level where change operates; to foster in community through word and sacrament that encounter with truth which will set men and women free to minister as the body of Christ.
We are ordaining you to the ministry of the word and sacraments and pastoral care. God grant you grace not to betray but uphold it, not to deny but affirm it, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Well put, Methodists!
Last night, the Centre for Theology and Public Issues and the Otago University Students’ Association Queer Support co-hosted a public event on how churches are responding to the Marriage Amendment Act that passed through the New Zealand parliament last year. A wide number of people were invited to speak at the event, five of whom said ‘Yes’. These were Kelvin Wright (Anglican Bishop of Dunedin), Greg Hughson (Methodist Minister and Otago University Chaplain), Mark Chamberlain (Roman Catholic Priest at the Church of the Holy Name and Otago University Chaplain), Bruce Hamill (Minister at Coastal Unity Presbyterian Church and Convenor of the Doctrine Core Group for the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand), and Neill Ballantyne (Queer Support Officer, OUSA).
Each were invited to respond to the following three questions:
Question 1: In general Christian Churches in New Zealand were opposed to the amending of the Marriage Act to include couples of the same gender. This passed on the 17th of April 2013. This amendment allowed for ministers to refuse to marry a couple for matters of conscience. In your experience how are the churches responding to this change and in your opinion how do you think they should respond?
Question 2: It has been said that there is a sense of inevitability that the church will become more inclusive in its attitudes towards LGBT people and sexual morality. How would you respond to this claim?
Question 3: What does the marriage equality process show about the relationship between church and society in New Zealand on issues of morality. Are the churches still able to give moral leadership to wider society or is wider society giving leadership to the church?
Kelvin did well to highlight the nature of Anglicanism as broad and determined to hold together, through its polity and eucharistic centre, irreconcilable positions on all manner of subjects, a characteristic for which it remains deeply indebted to Queen Elizabeth I. Greg documented something of the long and painful journey that New Zealand Methodists have travelled on their road to, in 2003, signing a Memorandum of Understanding which would allow diversity of opinion on the matter of marriage of LGBT persons and which made it possible for people to stand together with their differences and ‘with integrity’. Mark draw attention to the nature of all human sexuality and relationships as ‘gift’, stressed that the church must walk a difficult path of being deeply immersed in the culture while not being held captive to public opinion and to take its marching orders from the Gospel as interpreted through, and in continuity with, Scripture and the tradition. He could not, therefore, envisage a time when Rome might change its line on marriage. He did not, as far as I can remember, use the language of ‘sacrament’, although such was clearly informing his definition of marriage. Neill’s overall point last night was a good one – that the inclusive nature of the kingdom (or ‘queendom’) of God is radically at odds with the expressions of pharisaism and gate-keeperism that too often characterises those communities called to bear witness to that kingdom – but he might have found a more gracious and considerate way to make it.
The stand out response, in my view, was that by Bruce (who managed to cram a two-hour lecture into about 10 minutes!). Below is a transcript of his response:
Thanks for the privilege of being part of this forum and also for the commitment of CTPI to let theology out of the closet (so to speak) on this issue.
Let me speak about what I know a little about – the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand – my denomination. Our response as a denomination was to reaffirm a traditional definition of marriage in stark contrast to the Act. This decision came after many years of bitter conflict in our General Assemblies, first over homosexuality and leadership and more recently over same-sex marriage. At this point the conservative view is in the ascendancy and consistently gets over 60% of the vote on these matters. It looks as if this next Assembly will be no exception and I suspect there will be a move to ensure that those minister’s whose conscience calls them to reject the national church position will no longer have the possibility of ‘conscientious objection’ on this matter.
I know that the denominational response is what the ‘public’ sees. However, in my view the denominational response is unlikely to be the best response. Let me explain. In my view, churches need to respond with discernment in community – and denominational bodies are not really communities (certainly not primary communities) let alone communities of discernment. Even the way most local Presbyterian congregations are structures means that thy usually don’t function well in this way.
Before I say something about what I think the Church should have done (and why), a few comments on Question 3.
I think the response of the church to date shows at least two things about the relationship between church and society.
- It shows that the wider society has been profoundly influenced by Jesus Christ and his crucifixion, and his decision to live in solidarity, without violence, with those who were the victims of society. We cannot underestimate the influence of this story on our culture in the West.
- It also shows a willingness on the part of the church not to take the decisions of the wider society as morally authoritative. Both of these things I take to be good things.
As for moral leadership, I think this is a loaded and not particularly helpful question. You could say that both Church and Society are giving moral leadership but with a different set of morals, or in different directions. The question assumes that there are universal moral principles at stake here that all parties agree on and then someone just needs to act on or make statements on in order to give leadership. If there is no such thing then it’s not a question of who’s leading who but of who’s leading in the right direction. In other words the question of who’s leading who can only be answered in the context of a wider narrative of what the good life is. For Christians this is really about what it means to live in conformity to and communion with Christ and thus ‘with the grain of the universe’.
The irony is that, in my view, the wider society, with its willingness to make space for minority groups, seems to be more closely conformed to Christ on this matter than those who claim to be Christian.
To return to Question 1: In my view what the PCANZ should have done is not simply to reaffirm the traditional definition of marriage but should have been prompted to rethink the limits and nature of our understanding of marriage. Actually in 2012 when the PCANZ did reaffirm a traditional definition there was also a motion put to the Assembly that the Doctrine Core Group (which I convene) produce a discussion paper on the theology of marriage. The motion was rejected. It was only in February of this year that the Council of Assembly did call for a discussion document, which we have since produced.
What I want to do today is offer four reasons, from within the tradition itself, in support of a rethink.
- As a protest wing of the catholic church, we of the reformed tradition have a little motto which goes ‘the reformed church is constantly being reformed’ (we like to say it in Latin so no one understands it). I think the point is a simple one. The institutions within which the people of God live their lives are not platonic forms. There is constant pressure from the triune God for their reform. The working out of the gospel means that the church is always learning how to be the church. Reform of institutions is something we are called to do on good authority. Both Jesus and the Apostles were right into it. Think of Israel’s great institutions – the Temple, the Purity Codes and the Sabbath – none of which came of unscathed with their encounter with Jesus of Nazareth. Not to mention the way Jesus profoundly challenged the centrality of ‘Family’. I often wonder whether Jesus’ motto ‘the Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath’ might well apply to marriage. Think of Peter’s vision of unclean creatures and the way it paved the way for a rethink of ethnic identity. Look at Paul’s deconstruction of the role of the Torah (Law) in the light of Jesus’ coming. Should we exempt marriage from such reforming processes? It seems to me that the onus is clearly on the traditionalists to come up with a reason for why the incarnation makes no real difference to how we think about marriage.
- Secondly, in Christian ethics, nature and the structures of creation play a subordinate role to the ‘new creation’ in Christ (see, e.g. Gal 3.28). This is to say that Christians understand human life and action in the light of its ‘end’ (eschatologically). For us the fulfilment of creation’s purposes, the ‘kingdom of God’, has arrived in the middle of time interrupting all our practices and redirecting them towards a new form of life. The good life is an embodiment of the future made possible now. In Paul we see this as he elaborates on the close connection between the church’s relationship to Christ (which he calls ‘a profound mystery’) and the marriage relationship. A similar analogy is drawn in Hosea. And both, as Rowan Williams observes in his wonderful essay ‘The Body’s Grace’, remind us that ‘there is a good deal [in the Bible] to steer us away from assuming that reproductive sex is a norm, however important and theologically significant it may be.’ When the Bible talks of marriage it has little interest in the pragmatics of human reproduction. And so the case can be made that whatever biological assumptions have been made up until quite recently in discussion of marriage, these things don’t really get to the point of marriage as the church is learning to practice it in the light of the eschaton.
- Having said that, the ‘kingdom of God’ arises in the context of an old creation and is not divorced from biology and history. An account of marriage must in turn take into account any new understanding of creation and of human biology and psychology (and so on). Scientific disciplines help us at precisely this point. In the ancient world of the biblical writers there was little understanding that the dynamic processes of human desire might be constrained and structured according a same-sex orientation as well as a heterosexual one. This is a significant mandate for reconsidering the modes of marital expression that the kingdom of God might take among the people of God. So (1) the call to reform (2) the priority of eschatology (3) the biological context, and finally what I want to call …
- Marriage as sanctification: The biological context of the Christian life suggests to us that there are some partners, for some of us, who are apposite without being opposite. It may be that this situation ought not to bar same sex couples from marriage precisely because of the significance role that marriage can play in Christian discipleship. If indeed the bodily relatedness, the one-fleshness of marriage is a kind of icon of the trinity (the relatedness of God) and if indeed it reflects something of the mystery of Christ and his body, if indeed it is a discipline of learning to love our nearest neighbour as our self, if in short it is really about sanctification, then the conservative elements in the church may be effectively seeking (in the words of Eugene Rogers) to ‘deprive same-sex couples not so much of satisfaction as of sanctification.’ (A lot more needs to be said here of course). Because bodies matter in salvation. Because we are being saved as embodied creatures in all the particularity of our limitation, then we should seriously consider revising the limits of our doctrine of marriage. To quote Eugene Rogers again ‘no conservative I know has seriously argued that same-sex couples needs sanctification any less than opposite-sex couples’.
For these four reasons I say, it’s time for a rethink.
In conclusion (and in response to Q. 2): Is a more inclusive church inevitable? There is no inevitability this side of the eschaton. However, if we don’t define ‘church’ according to the particular institutions that claim that title, I remain hopeful (confident even) that God will raise up communities who will find ways of including LGBT people in the way of Jesus Christ.