Doug Gay on reforming Scottish Presbyterianism

Doug Gay has been in Edinburgh giving the Chalmers Lectures. The first two of these are now available online (see below), and the third and final lecture will be given later this week (I’ll link to it once it’s available). Together, they are an informed, intelligent, lucid, timely, and hope-filled challenge not only to Scottish Presbyterianism (the prime focus of his reflections) but also to the wider church.

I am grateful to Doug for giving these courageous public lectures, and to The Church of Scotland for making them available to a wider audience. I look forward to reading his forthcoming book on the same subject, Reforming The Kirk: the Future of the Church of Scotland.

The Courage to be Baptist: A Statement on Baptist Ecclesiology and Human Sexuality

Seven Baptist theologians in the UK have penned a very good piece of constructive work, and a clear articulation of Baptist ecclesiology, in this statement ‘The Courage to be Baptist: A Statement on Baptist Ecclesiology and Human Sexuality’ [pdf].

They describe the Statement as ‘a call to Baptist churches to face our present disagreements over same-sex marriage by being faithful to a Baptist way of being church’.

The full Statement, plus some supporting documentation, can be accessed via this dedicated website.

Depression and the Gift of Christian Community

depressionA minister reflects on her living with the black dog, and on the gift that the Christian community can, at its best, be:

Depression causes a variety of bizarre symptoms … But the most horrible symptom of depression that I experience is my feeling that I am useless and worthless and that the people who love me would be better off without me. When I’m well I know how ludicrous that is, but when I’m sick it feels absolutely plausible … Worst of all for me is that when I’m depressed I cannot believe that God loves me, I can’t sense God’s presence, and I can’t pray. That for me is the biggest difference between depression and grief … In the midst of depression it feels as though I am alone.

This is when I need the Christian community most. When I can’t pray, I desperately need to know that other people are praying for me. When there’s a God-shaped hole in my life, I need the faith of the church to fill it. When I’m well I love casual, friendly, informal worship services in which we all get to chat to each other and to God, but when I’m sick I can’t worship like that. In the first month of sick leave I went to a Uniting Church that used a very formal liturgy because at that worship it didn’t matter how I felt. What mattered was what the whole church believed. All I needed to do was listen and recite words that Christians have been using for centuries. When I repeated the Apostles’ Creed with the rest of the congregation it didn’t matter that those weren’t my words. I was held by the belief of Christians throughout all of space and time who have said those words. When all I could sense was the absence of God, I had to rely on the church telling me that God was still present even when I felt alone.

Today is World Mental Health Day.

On being a ‘Church leader’

rembrandt-christ-before-caiaphas-c-1649-50

‘It is a paradox that the one thing a “Church leader” cannot very often do is to lead. He [or she] sees [their] task more as one of preservation. Not always, I agree, but often enough to make the Johannine Caiaphas intelligible not as providing a shallow excuse for anti-semitism but for understanding the ultimate tragedy of Jesus of Nazareth’.

– Mr MacKinnon

[Image: Rembrandt, ‘Christ before Caiaphas’ (c. 1649–50)]

On not singing the national anthem

Anthem 1

A friend in Tweetland (and Zuckerland) is wondering whether his kids, who are Christians and who are about to start school, should be encouraged or discouraged to sing the Australian National Anthem – ‘Advance Australia Fair’. I couldn’t resist a quick reply.

I’ve threatened my kids with homelessness and disinheritance if I ever learn that they’ve sung the Australian national anthem, or encouraged others to do so. Even standing during such, were I to hear about it, would be met with their pocket money being docked. Put simply, you can’t sing the national anthem and celebrate the Eucharist. Not only is the theological disconnect as huge (in a Pythonesque kind of way) as one could imagine, but bread and wine are simply so much more interesting than any anthem, and one should set one’s mind, heart, and voice unreservedly upon the most interesting things. The only reasonable alternative I can think of is to deliberately sing the anthem very badly, as out of tune and as out of time as one can muster, to do with it what Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd once did with a Colt Python .357 Magnum. To do otherwise is to put your salvation in doubt.

There is also the matter of the song being an appalling and anaemic piece of writing. That a school should torment its students with such horrid literature is tantamount to nothing short of abuse (something, to be sure, that the country is getting very good at). That a Christian – a Christian for God’s sake! – would let such a situation pass as if it were neither here nor there is probably best explained by the fact that most churchgoers have been made immune to such heresy though years of being fed a liturgical diet of equally squalid and giddy songs and prayers. Mornings of the Lord’s Day might be much better kept by reading Shakespeare or Robinson or Flanagan while listening to Springsteen on the couch in one’s pyjamas than by enduring such torment; unless of course one believes that such activity might function as a kind of training ground, a kind of school perhaps, for the purgatory that awaits the saints. Indeed, this might be among the best of reasons to go to church. But that an institution set apart to teach literature (as laughable as that sounds in today’s climate) should promote the singing of such vacuity is reason enough to have the entire school’s curriculum reviewed by a state parliamentary committee. Her majesty could not possibly expect anything less of her government.

On another note, I understand that the anthem’s election was the fruit of a plebiscite. Enough said.

Rowan Williams: An Interview

Rowan Williams 12In this insightful and encouraging interview, conducted with Terence Handley MacMath and first published in the Church Times, Rowan Williams ruminates on teaching, church leadership, theological education, funding, experiencing God, faith, the theological task, reporting on charities, his greatest influences, and reassuring and loved sounds. His comments – particularly those about the relationship between Christ and the world – are all the more pertinent given recently-published pieces in the mainstream media about what most of us, I suspect, have known for so long now, about Britain’s ‘disappearing Christianity’ and Christian extinction’.

My work is teaching, writing, studying, plus lots of administration and raising funds for the college, and chairing Christian Aid. Probably most of my time goes on college, and a variety of teaching events for churches and schools.

I’m currently giving a series of lectures here on the history of the doctrine of Christ, trying to tease out how thinking about Christ clarifies the relation between God and creation overall.

As Archbishop, you’re constantly responding to things, and even if you do get some writing done — as I did, a bit — it tends to be issue-focused. I like having the chance of some longer breaths for thinking through questions.

When I was in post, the urgent questions were often serious theological ones, if rather heavily disguised at times; so I found myself reflecting hard about the nature of authority in the Church, and what it meant to speak about the interdependent life of the Body of Christ. That latter point continues to be absorbing for me, and I think that this term’s lectures will have reflected that a bit — thinking about the inseparable connection between what we say about Jesus Christ, and what we say about the community that lives in him.

A bishop has to be a teacher of the faith. That is, he or she has to be someone who is animated by theology and eager to share it — animated by theology in the sense of longing to inhabit the language and world of faith with greater and greater intelligence, insight, and joy. So, yes, bishops need that animation and desire to help others make sense of their commitment.

Arguments about priestly training go round and round, don’t they? Too theoretical, too pragmatic, not enough of this, not enough of that. . . My worry is, if we focus too much on curriculum — what should the modules be? — we may somehow fail to connect things up in a big picture in which pastoral care, sacramental life, prayer, scripture, social and political perspective, and doctrine all interweave. We need to have that interconnectedness in our minds constantly, as we seek to shape future ordained ministry, because that is what provides the deepest resource for arid and frustrating times. And that is what guarantees that we have something to offer our society that’s more than simply religious uplift, moral inspiration, or nice experiences.

A lot of debate in and out of the Church is shadow-boxing, because people don’t recognise what the questions are. Of course, recognising what the questions are does not remotely guarantee that you will agree, but it helps to know what you’re disagreeing about, and stops you resorting to tribal slogans, whether secular or religious. My old friend and colleague Oliver O’Donovan is particularly good at this excavation of basic questions, and has been a great help and inspiration.

In an ideal world, government and educational establishments would recognise that theology is as significant a study as other humanities. But, given that the study of the humanities in general is so badly supported these days, I’m not holding my breath. It’s anything but an ideal world.

This means that I would plead with the Church to take seriously the need for investing in theological education at all levels — to recognise that there is a huge appetite for theology among so many laypeople, and thus a need for clergy who can respond and engage intelligently. The middle-term future may need to be one where there are more independent centres of theological study outside universities, given the erosion of resources in higher education, and I think it’s time more people started thinking about what that might entail in terms of funding.

British theology is more cosmopolitan than when I started studying it. In the Sixties, people writing about doctrine in the UK were not very enthusiastic about Continental writers (though it was different for New Testament scholars); and modern Roman Catholic theology was largely ignored. Now we read far more widely, I think, and we’re more ready to take time over the intricacies of historical arguments rather than dismiss them as tiresome and unnecessary complications.

There’s more critical interest in the history of spirituality, and more willingness to let it come into the territory of doctrine. All this is to the good. My sadness is the decline of institutional resources for theology in the UK: limited funds for research, and theology departments under threat.

It’s hard to pin down my first experience of God, but I suppose [it was] through shared worship in the Presbyterian chapel of my childhood, and a strong sense — when I was around eight, and my grandmother, who lived with us, was dying — of God’s care and providence, and the presence of the crucified Christ. Shared worship is still a major part of how I encounter God, but, from my teens, this has been balanced by a growing hunger for silence before God.

I’ve never felt any real disjunction between academic theology and faith. I’ve found that studying the development of Christian doctrine has excited me, and helped me see something of the veins and sinews of faith. My research has arisen out of my desire to understand better what we say as people of faith.

Apart from the obvious question about how we Anglicans manage the tension of living in a diverse global church — where we need a more robust theology of what interdependence does and doesn’t mean — I think my biggest concern is that we don’t have a rich enough Anglican theological consensus on the sacramental nature of the Church. That’s eucharistic ecclesiology, to put it in technical language.

Underrated theologians? John Bowker, Olivier Clément, Andrew Shanks.

Theology has a modest but vital part to play in the Church’s mission. We need to keep asking questions about how we’re using our language, so that we don’t get stuck with unexamined habits of speech, don’t assume that true formulations about God tell us everything about him, don’t forget the sheer scale of what we are daring to speak about. Theology helps with all this. And it helps clarify what we believe about human nature and destiny, which is of real importance for a world that is often deeply unsure or confused about the roots of human dignity.

Theologians don’t necessarily ask the same questions as others do, but there is a continuity, and theologians need the skill and patience to draw out those continuities. That’s why it is important that there are writers who try to work in the boundaries between academic theology and secular culture, and those who try to put the great governing themes of classical theology into plainer words. Mike Lloyd is a good example.

I was an only child. My father worked as an engineer, and my mother had lifelong health and mobility problems. They were both Christians, though reticent and sometimes uncertain about it. My wife, Jane, of course, is well-known in her own right as a teacher and writer. We have a daughter who teaches in an inner-city primary school, and a son studying drama at university. Both would still call themselves Christian, though they slip in and out of the institutional life of the Church.

The most reassuring, loved sound to me is the door opening when my wife or children come home.

Some irresponsible and hostile reporting about charities was the last thing that made me angry. Nationally and internationally, charities are expected to pick up the slack where statutory provision drops away — yet they’re subjected not just to proper demands for accountability, but often to what looks like wilfully negative and undermining reporting, focused on excessive salaries, inadequate monitoring of expenditure, intrusive fund-raising, and so on. These things all happen, and need to stop happening; but just how representative are the hostile headline stories, especially where international aid is concerned?

I’m happiest when I’m at the Pembrokeshire coast on family holidays.

Augustine has probably been the greatest theological influence above all, but also Vladimir Lossky, who was the focus of my doctoral research; Barth, Bonhoeffer, Austin Farrer, Donald MacKinnon, James Alison. I don’t know if Simone Weil is allowed to count as a theologian; I don’t always agree with her by any means, but she was a huge influence at several points. Among specific books, I remember Bonhoeffer’s prison letters; Charles Williams’s He Came Down From Heaven; Herbert McCabe, Law, Love and Language; Hans Urs von Balthasar, Elucidations.

The greatest influences in my life have been the parish priest in my teenage years; the Benedictine monk who was my spiritual director; and Jane and the children.

I pray most for patience, freedom to forgive and let go of hurt — for myself and for the whole Church and human family — and for the rescue of the vulnerable: the abused, hungry, terrified, wherever they are.

If I had to choose a companion to be locked in a church with for a few hours, I’d toss up between St Augustine, T. S. Eliot, and Bonhoeffer, from the past. In the present — family apart — Salley Vickers, Michael Symmons Roberts, or Kathleen Norris.

Pastors can’t win

Can't win

This all seems to ring true for women clergy too, for whom I’m sure that a number of further statements might be added. I’m not confident, brave, or stupid enough to speak for them, but invite their comments below.

On a more serious note, I’m really glad that pastors can’t win. Their job is, after all, meant to be impossible.

[Image: via Peter Weeks on Facebook]

Living betwixt and between muddle and ambiguity

Royal Cave, Buchan Caves Reserve. © Jason Goroncy, 2016

‘Royal Cave’, Buchan Caves Reserve. © Jason Goroncy, 2016

Over these past days, I have been reminded again that at our best, to be human, and to be human community, is to live betwixt and between muddle and ambiguity. We are, unavoidably, marked by profound inconsistencies and misdirected hopes. We are an enigma – even, and perhaps especially, to ourselves.

A few months ago, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams gave an outstanding lecture on what George Orwell can teach us about the language of terror and war. In that lecture, he drew not only upon Orwell’s work but also upon that of the Trappist monk, poet, and social activist Thomas Merton, and he argued that each in their own way were concerned with the power and the misuse of language. Williams suggested that ‘our current panics about causing “offence” are, at their best and most generous, an acknowledgement of how language can encode and enact power relations’.

Certainly, the spirit of the age in which we live is characterised by efforts to entrench unquestionable power, power that makes unwelcome voices of dissent, and which feels little or no responsibility to those who do not serve its own proximate interests.

According to Williams, our thoughts and wrestles and debates about those questions which really matter for the flourishing of life often expose ‘a deep unwillingness to have things said or shown that might profoundly challenge someone’s starting assumptions. If there is an answer to this curious contemporary neurosis, it is surely not to be found in the silencing of disagreement but rather in the education of speech: how is unwelcome truth to be told in ways that do not humiliate or disable? And the answer to that question is inseparable from learning to argue – from the actual practice of open exchange, in the most literal sense “civil” disagreement, the debate appropriate to citizens who have dignity and liberty to discuss their shared world and its organisation and who are able to learn what their words sound like in the difficult business of staying with such a debate as it unfolds’.

Isn’t that one of the reasons that we place ourselves in communities of faith? I often tell my children that one of the main reasons we go to church is so that we can learn and practice loving people that we don’t really like that much – people who irritate us, people who we find odd and who we’d never be seen dead with otherwise, people who frustrate us and hurt us and disappoint us. We belong to the church because that is how we hope to learn the truth that is required for our being truthful about ourselves and about one another. What is the Christian community if it is not a unique training ground for learning the lessons of being the kind of community that God intends for all humanity – for learning that to be truly human is to belong to and to relate to and to do life with those who are other than ourselves, those whom God has joined together?

And so we eat and drink – not only with friends, but also with strangers, with enemies and with betrayers … and with our own inner demons. For that is the context in which Christ makes himself available to us.

Baptists and life in covenant

WalkingPaul Fiddes has written a nice little reflection on the nature of covenant and how it relates to Baptist ecclesiology. Here’s a section:

It is essential to realise that this covenant is not a legal contract. The ‘way’ in which covenant partners walk can only be one of mutual trust. This is where Baptists have given an insight to the universal church which is a true gift. In the local congregation, covenanted together, all the members ‘watch over’ each other, and this ‘oversight’ happens in the church meeting as they seek to find the mind and purpose of Christ for them. At the same time, Baptists have always believed that Christ calls some of these members to exercise ‘oversight’ (or a ‘watching over’) in a spiritual leadership of the congregation. Among Baptists there is no legal provision, no church law, which regulates the relation between these two forms of ‘oversight’, the one corporate and other personal. Congregations must therefore learn to live in the bonds of trust between the people and their ministers. Oversight flows to and fro freely between the whole congregation and its spiritual leaders.

In the same way, oversight flows to and fro between the local congregation and the association of churches. The single congregation lives in a covenant made by Christ, and Christ is present among them to make his purpose known. The congregation is his body, where Christ becomes visible in the world today. This is why the congregation has ‘freedom’ to make decisions about its life and mission, and cannot be coerced or imposed upon by any church authorities outside it. The congregation is not ‘autonomous’, which means ‘making laws for itself’. Christ makes its laws, and the church has the freedom and responsibility to discern his ways.  It is free because it is ruled only by Christ.

But Christ also calls local congregations together into covenant, in association. Where churches are assembled through their representatives, there too Christ is present, there he becomes visible to the world in the body of his people, there his mind can be known through the help of the Holy Spirit. Local congregations are thus ‘interdependent’, needing each other’s spiritual gifts and understanding if they are to share in God’s mission in the world.

Yet in the covenant principle there is no legal contract, only the way of trust. In their search for the mind of Christ the local church meeting must listen to what the churches say as they seek to listen to Christ together. It must take with complete seriousness the decisions made at an association level, and will need good reason not to adopt them for itself. But in the end it has freedom to order its own life as a covenant community which stands under the rule of Christ. It needs the insights of other churches to find the mind of Christ, but then it has the freedom to test whether what is claimed to have been found is truly his mind. It might feel called to make a prophetic stand on some issue, and will stand under the judgment only of Christ as it does so.

Other churches may think that this covenantal approach of mutual trust is hopelessly impracticable, and that it would be better to regulate the relation between people and clergy, between churches and diocese or province. Baptists have learned over the years to live with the risks of trust and love. Here there is plenty of opportunity for muddles, mistakes and frustrations, but also room for all to flourish.

You can read the full piece here.

A few thoughts on that Hillsong piece …

Sausage & bacon nativity scene… in the previous post:

  1. Yes, the musos are fabulous! While I certainly could do without the singers and the dancers, that music is a gift from a place that is very familiar to God. That it is apparently quite unfamiliar to many who profess to like and practice the kind of stuff that God likes and practices is something very near tragic. A spirit of celebration and praise is near the heart of all worship characterised by the gifts and promises of one literally pushed into the world kicking, farting, and screaming.
  2. Of course, every good thing has its ape, but apes are only apes and it seems only fair that they be allowed to have some fun too.
  3. But I concur with those who note the incongruence between the message and the medium. It’s like seeing an athletic woman selling ‘health drinks’ or muesli bars; you suspect that you’re being sold bullshit. More on this in a moment (see #6).
  4. However, far from seeing this performance as something that I ought to therefore dismiss out of hand, which may be an understandable first reaction, I feel drawn to ask further questions. I want to know, for example, what happens before, and after, this song. How am I to interpret this single performance in the context of a larger event and story and witness, and of a culture largely foreign to me? Maybe it’s simply – whether partly or mostly – a piece of shallow and money-making glitz and that’s all. But I can’t even begin to form that judgement unless I have some broader context – and some other stories – in which to evaluate it, lest my judgement be held hostage to simply another set of cultural manifestations. (Some, of course, might well argue that much of that context is already provided for us in other stories that we have heard and/or experienced first hand about Hillsong’s modus operandi. But I want to know more, and I’ve long learnt that the truth ain’t the facts.)
  5. That the piece doesn’t work in the cultures with which I identify and am most familiar and conversant doesn’t mean that it’s necessary discordant with the actions of God. After all, God isn’t a Christian, let alone a male Aussie with wog parents. Hell, I’m not even sure God speaks English. Indeed, one might make the argument that the stranger and more unfamiliar and more difficult it is to understand and interpret, the closer it may be to the stuff of God. (I’m not suggesting for a moment that this is Hillsong’s motivation here.) Nathanael’s observation about the Caribbean context, and that GQ article too, raise some perennial questions for me about the relationship between gospel and culture, of the temptations to make an ideology out of the former and of making indiscriminate familiarity with the latter the precondition for the gospel’s reception.
  6. Watching the performance of this single song, online, nearly 17,000 kilometres from where it was performed, I have the same kind of confusion I experience whenever I worship in a building with a national flag in it; or an Honour Roll commemorating those who gave their lives in ‘the service of freedom’ and ‘for God, King and Country’, some of whom, it is noted (sometimes with the sign of a little cross!), ‘paid the supreme sacrifice’; or whenever I see a reference, in my ecclesiological territory, to ‘senior pastor’; or when I hear that a qualification for being a bishop (in some other ecclesiological territories) is proof of a penis; or whenever I see an innocent bunch of carnations perched on a baptismal font; or whenever congregations celebrate the Lord’s Supper not with a common cup but with those hideous little shot glasses; or when I see a funeral casket draped with the flag of a football team; or when I see church children get shuffled off out of ‘adult church’ so that they can engage in some more ‘age-appropriate’ activites; or when I visit a church worship centre in rural Thailand that is, visually speaking, entirely indistinguishable from the Buddhist temple down the road save for a presence of a small crucifix. I could go on …
  7. A hearty thank you to all who have taken up my invitation. If to embark on theology is to be unstable bearers of live questions (as Mike Higton puts it), then I welcome the invitations that this clip offers, and the conversations that it has encouraged. May both continue.

[Image: source]

‘Silent Night’, Hillsong style

In recent years, Hillsong London has marked the coming of Christmas in ways reminiscent of what lots of churches do – an evening of carol singing marketed as ‘a night that is focused on celebrating what Christmas is really about – JESUS!’

Last year’s event included this unique performance of ‘Silent Night’:

Some of us found the performance to be quite confusing, on so very many levels. This is not a bad thing. (Of course, a quick Google search reveals that there are no shortage of people who confess no such confusion at all.) When those whose experience across a wide range of ecclesiastical supermarkets together find that their hermeneutical skills are up against it, this is a time to embrace the questions.

So this post. I have my own developing thoughts, which I may post at some stage. But consider the comments box below my invitation to you, dear reader, to help me interpret what the Willy Wonka that was all about. [NB. I want this to be constructive, so vitriolic comments are likely to find my delete button.]

–––––––

Update: For those who may be interested, I’ve posted a few follow-up scribbles here.

Leonardo Boff on Papa Francisco: Iglesia en salida, ¿de dónde y hacia dónde?

Leonardo BoffIt was probably over twenty-five years ago, but I can still remember the moment when I first read Leonardo Boff. I can’t now remember if it was his Introducing Liberation Theology or his Jesus Christ Liberator, or something else. I can hardly even remember what any of his main arguments were. I can, however, remember being struck by a way of approaching the theological task itself that I had hardly ever encountered before. I wondered, is it really possible for theology to be so unenslaved to dogmatic minutiae, to bear so few signs of the overly-apologetic anxiety that so marks the discipline, to appear so unhindered by the opinions of his protagonists, to care so deeply and so courageously for the world, to so reek of Christ? I wondered, is this really theology at all? And while I did (and do) not share Boff’s mind on a number of subjects, there could be no doubting that here was a dear brother and teacher in Christ, labouring with that same bold freedom and disembarrassment and urgency and risk that I also encountered in Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison.

I relived some of those same moments again tonight when I happened across this recent statement (3 July 2015) from Boff, now 76. It is testimony to life’s celebration in the thick of fossilising death, to joy’s protesting hope amidst despair, and a summons to the Christian community to heed Pope Francis’ call to turn away from those patterns of non-cruciform power and self-service and self-preservation and religiosity that so often characterise its life and to turn towards the compassionate and thoroughly-worldly tradition of Jesus; a summons, put otherwise, to become contemporary with Christ. I thought it worth reposting:

Celebrando todavía la extraordinaria encíclica sobre “el cuidado de la Casa Común”, volvemos a reflexionar sobre una perspectiva importante del Papa Francisco, un verdadero logotipo de su comprensión de la Iglesia como “una Iglesia en salida”. Esta expresión encierra una velada crítica al modelo anterior de Iglesia que era una Iglesia “sin salida” debido a los diversos escándalos de orden moral y financiero, que forzaron a renunciar al Papa Benedicto XVI, una Iglesia que había perdido su mejor capital: la moralidad y la credibilidad de los cristianos y del mundo secular.

Pero el logotipo “Iglesia en salida” posee un significado más profundo, hecho posible porque viene de un Papa fuera de los cuadros institucionales de la vieja y cansada cristiandad europea. Esta había encerrado a la Iglesia dentro de una comprensión que la volvía prácticamente inaceptable para los modernos, rehén de tradiciones fosilizadas y con un mensaje que no mordía los problemas de los cristianos y del mundo actual. La “Iglesia en salida” quiere marcar una ruptura con aquel estado de cosas. Esta palabra “ruptura” irrita a los representantes del stablishment eclesiástico, pero no por eso deja de ser verdadera. Y entonces surge la pregunta: “salida” de dónde y hacia dónde? Veamos algunos pasos:

  • Salida de una Iglesia-fortaleza que protegía a los fieles de las libertades modernas hacia una Iglesia-hospital de campaña que atiende a toda persona que la busca, sin importar su estado moral o ideológico.
  • Salida de una Iglesia-institución absolutista, centrada en sí misma hacia una Iglesia-movimiento, abierta al diálogo universal, con otras Iglesias, religiones e ideologías.
  • Salida de una Iglesia-jerarquía, creadora de desigualdades hacia una Iglesia-pueblo de Dios, que hace de todos hermanos y hermanas: una inmensa comunidad fraternal.
  • Salida de una Iglesia-autoridad eclesiástica, distanciada de los fieles o incluso de espaldas a ellos, hacia una Iglesia-pastor que anda en medio del pueblo, con olor a oveja y misericordiosa.
  • Salida de una Iglesia-Papa de todos los cristianos y obispos que gobierna con el rígido derecho canónico hacia una Iglesia-obispo de Roma, que preside en la caridad y sólo a partir de ella se hace papa de la Iglesia universal.
  • Salida de una Iglesia-maestra de doctrinas y normas hacia una Iglesia-de prácticas sorprendentes y de encuentro afectuoso con las personas más allá de su pertenencia religiosa, moral o ideológica. Las periferias existenciales ganan centralidad.
  • Salida de una Iglesia-de poder sagrado, de pompa y circunstancia, de palacios pontificios y titulaciones de nobleza renacentista hacia una Iglesia-pobre y para los pobres, despojada de símbolos de honor, servidora y portavoz profética contra el sistema de acumulación de dinero, el ídolo que produce sufrimiento y miseria y mata a las personas.
  • Salida de la Iglesia-que habla de los pobres hacia una Iglesia-que va a los pobres, conversa con ellos, los abraza y los defiende.
  • Salida de una Iglesia-equidistante de los sistemas políticos y económicos hacia una Iglesia-que toma partido a favor de las víctimas y que llama por su nombre a los causantes de las injusticias e invita a Roma a representantes de los movimientos sociales mundiales para discutir con ellos cómo buscar alternativas.
  • Salida de una Iglesia-automagnificadora y acrítica hacia una Iglesia-de verdad sobre sí misma y contra cardenales, obispos y teólogos celosos de su status pero con cara de “vinagre o de viernes santo”, “tristes como si fuesen a su propio entierro”, una Iglesia, en fin, hecha de personas humanas.
  • Salida de una Iglesia-del orden y del rigorismo hacia una Iglesia-de la revolución de la ternura, de la misericordia y del cuidado.
  • Salida de una Iglesia-de devotos, como esos que aparecen en los programas televisivos, con curas artistas del mercado religioso, hacia una Iglesia-compromiso con la justicia social y con la liberación de los oprimidos.
  • Salida de una Iglesia-obediencia y de la reverencia hacia una Iglesia-alegría del evangelio y de esperanza todavía para este mundo.
  • Salida de una Iglesia-sin el mundo que permitió que surgiese un mundo sin Iglesia hacia una Iglesia-mundo, sensible al problema de la ecología y del futuro de la Casa Común, la madre Tierra.

Estas y otras salidas muestran que la Iglesia no se reduce solamente a una misión religiosa, acantonada en una parte privada de la realidad. Ella posee además una misión político-social en el mejor sentido de la palabra, como fuente de inspiración para las trasformaciones necesarias que rescaten a la humanidad para una civilización del amor y de la compasión, que sea menos individualista, materialista, cínica y desprovista de solidaridad.

Esta Iglesia-en-salida ha devuelto alegría y esperanza a los cristianos y reconquistado el sentimiento de ser un hogar espiritual. Por su sencillez, despojamiento y acogida con amor y ternura se ha granjeado la estima de muchas personas de otras confesiones, de simples ciudadanos del mundo e incluso de jefes de Estado que admiran la figura y las prácticas sorprendentes del Papa Francisco en favor de la paz, del diálogo entre los pueblos, de la renuncia a toda violencia y a la guerra.

Más que doctrinas y dogmas es la Tradición de Jesús, hecha de amor incondicional, de misericordia y de compasión que por él se actualiza y revela su inagotable energía humanizadora. Pues, entre otras cosas, este es el mensaje central de Jesús, aceptable por todas las personas de todos los rincones.

Seeking hospitality in Melbourne

There is a Christian missionary family (of 5), including three young children, who are currently serving in Siberia with Pioneers. They will be returning to Melbourne on furlough for six months from 11 January, and they are looking for a place (min 2 bedrooms) to stay, preferably somewhere in either Melbourne’s North, East, or South (including Mornington Peninsula) which is where their main supporter base is. They would prefer to remain in the one place so that their kids could attend the one school.

If you or someone you know may be able to help, then please get in touch with me via the Contact page

If you’re a Facebooker, then please feel free to spread the word too.

faithfulness, through a glass darkly

Through a glass darkly

To think about love as that which is sourced in God, which moves us towards healing, which is open to others, which refuses the bondage of disembodiment, which takes risks, and which carries with it certain responsibilities, is to recall that love is not too far removed from that other fruit of the Spirit that ought to characterise the Christian community; namely, faith. For the Christian community, to faith is to risk the entirety of its existence by leaning unreservedly into the Word who addresses it and who calls it away from its own life-less patterns of self-reliance and into God’s true freedom.

It is important to remember that faith is neither the ‘idolatry of certainty’ (Monika Hilder) nor the same as belief. To believe is part of faith, but faith also involves not believing, questioning, doubting, exploring, or not knowing what to believe. A faithful response to God includes the courage to explore further, to value mystery rather than carrying the burden of knowing all that is to be known. And a faithful community is one that welcomes and holds together all of these dimensions of faith – rejoicing, resting, anguishing, risking, exploring, being unstable bearers of live questions. Faith communities devoid of such dimensions are communities in danger, or worse, of not growing up at all.

It is not insignificant that the Bible has no arguments for the existence of God. It is not insignificant that the Bible offers little reason to think that faith should be facile and unambiguous. Indeed, the Bible is unfilled by comfortable and reassuring words about the life of belief and trust. It is unfilled by presentations of a God who expects or demands doubtless faith. If Abraham and Moses and Hannah and Job and Mary and Jesus and Simeon and Paul suggest any pattern, then our knowledge of God and of God’s ways is characterised not by epistemological certainty but by being found caught up in a reality planned and constrained only by mysterious love, love which appears to have little difficulty in making space for angst and struggle and disbelief, and which is at home looking through a glass darkly. Indeed, in a sense these are a kind of argument for God.

Faith is always being called into risky business. The faithful deal with shadows, partaking little of ‘the optimistic gleam of scientific progress’ (Catherine Keller). Faithful communities are therefore unavoidably characterised by some confusion, some doubt, and some ambiguity. Indeed, these are part of their gift and witness. And trusting this is a sign of their faithfulness to the One whose ways are not like ours.

[Image: David Mello]

The church as unstable community

SuspendedA little note about being Protestant: One deeply Protestant conviction is that in this world there exists nothing wholly reliable, nothing immune from absolute vulnerability. And indeed the most vulnerable of part of it is the church –­ that community ever in diaspora, that community that has been thrust into ‘an unprecedented history’, a ‘continuous risky adventure with always hazardous improvisations’ (Johannes Hoekendijk).

To be an apostolic community is to experience a profound letting go, an unmastering, a dispossession. It is to experience oneself as the unstable bearer of a live question – ‘the bearer of the question which the Gospel poses … The Church’s … task is to preserve this questioning’ – to receive and to discover forms and practices of life and language that will ‘keep alive the possibility of our hearing this disruption, and which will allow it to be felt deeper and far wider than the circle of its original impact’ (Mike Higton).

It was this kind of letting go that informed Vincent Donovan’s conviction, in his work among the Masai people in Tanzania. Donovan, a Roman Catholic priest and member of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, understood the significance of not fixing the form of the church in advance, of not predetermining what the Christian community should look like. He had that deeply gospel-informed instinct that the missio Dei involves a quest for the emergence of the Word’s community in whatever forms and whatever shapes such might take. He understood that ‘because a missionary comes from another already existing church, that is the image of church [they] will have in mind, and if [their] job is to establish a church, that is the church [they] will establish’. But ‘the missionary’s job’, as Donovan put it, ‘is to preach, not the church, but Christ. If he [or she] preaches Christ’, a ‘church may well result, may well appear, but it might not be the church [the missionary] had in mind’. (Little wonder he was not Rome’s best friend.) The missionary church must preach Christ, not the church. And the response – and the shape of that response – will be up to those who hear the message. They will have to do their own work, offer their own faithful responses to the Word they hear. The Word must have his own freedom to create or not to create whatever forms of community he chooses. And what he chooses might look entirely unfamiliar to all who have passed by his way before.

I am reminded here of Paul Tillich’s observation that ‘what makes Protestantism Protestant is the fact that it transcends its own religious and confessional character, that it cannot be identified wholly with any of its particular historical forms’. One implication of this is that pilgrim communities stay awake to the truth that their strength lies in the knowledge that they are, in principle, weak and fragile and homeless. To be Christian community is to be, as Ben Myers once put it, continuously suspended over the abyss of nonbeing, upheld solely by the voice of one before whom we stand utterly exposed, and who continually calls us into new being. It is a community, therefore, that always puts safety last. It is a community that, as another great Australian theologian put it, is ‘prepared to live without guarantees, without the guarantee of an infallible book, or infallible creeds, or an infallible church’ (Davis McCaughey). It is a community that continually risks the judgement of God’s Word, and that lives in such a way that it is entirely uninterested and uninvested in its own self-preservation. It is a community that lives faithfully with the receding horizon of postponed dreams and made free thereby to throw itself entirely into the embarrassing service of Jesus, and that not for God’s sake but solely for the sake of the world. It is a community, therefore, that is always learning how to fail, always rediscovering its uneven record. It is a community that risks even its life with God so that it might become contemporary with Christ.

Rather than understanding its vocation as the extension or propagation of its own modes of being, the church’s vocation in and relation to the world is to be determined solely by its relation to the transposing and boundary-crossing Christ, the Word of its being. It is a community that ‘strives to show, to embody, the way in which the incalculable variety of human concerns can be “at home” in and with the confession of faith in Jesus. It does not seek to impose a uniform Christian culture or a preconceived Christian solution; it aims only to keep open and expanding the frontiers of the community as gift’ (Rowan Williams).

We are talking about a community that can never be completely at home and rooted anywhere in this world, a diaspora community constantly set out on a journey, opening itself up to the future; not any future, mind you, but the future of Jesus Christ. At every step of the way, it needs the forgiveness of its sins and the encouragement of the Spirit. In difficult circumstances, it will be a community that seeks, while sighing deeply, to do its task as well as it can in the expectation of the appearance of its Lord. Precisely so does it offer its witness in the world.

The fundamentally unstable nature of the community is an insight that is shared, it seems to me, by one of the early church’s greatest theologians – Mary. Mary reminds us of the pilgrim nature of being truly human – that one undertakes the life of faith, and indeed theology, with a sense of the agony of vocation, and with profound risk. Mary also understood that the smell of divine transcendence is not only born in unexpected encounters but that it is also ‘born in the guts’, literally. In Mary, we learn that the transcendent is imminent, closer to us than is our own breath and yet more foreign to us than our imaginations dare allow. Mary understood that the life of faith is undertaken by those who feel that they are being ‘pulled into God’s history’ and who have been ‘twisted by the shock of God’s visit’. And she understood that it is a life pursued in community with others, conscious that ‘the burden of vocation is too heavy to carry alone’. Mary also reminds us that faith ‘does not just give answers. It also asks questions’. And it ‘must learn to say “I don’t know”. It must learn to hear God saying that [God] owns the time’ (Valdir Steuernagel). She reminds us that faith’s vocations are undertaken not only in the wake of certain achievements but also in the confession of their own limits and uncertainties. The community gathered around her Son is a community whose life is marked by gut-wrenching ambiguity, a community that ever lives between Holy Friday’s experience of god-abandonment in death and the mystery of an empty sepulchre. It is a community that lives – literally lives, literally comes alive – in the experience of its own unstable dying, an experience in which the invisible Christ ­­– he for whom Holy Saturday is familiar territory ­­– stands among us, carrying us, and indeed the world, more deeply into God’s own movement of love and life.

On being ecclesiastical tourists

Duane-Hansons-TouristsWhile in the mad throes of writing lectures for an upcoming course that I’ll be teaching on the church, I am grateful to be re-reading Michael Jinkins’s very fine book The Church Faces Death: Ecclesiology in a Post-Modern Context. In one little section, subtitled ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Church’, Jinkins offers a great reminder of the challenge and danger that inherently lies in teaching a course on ecclesiology. It begins:

Roland Barthes’s essay “The Blue Guide” is suggestive for those who want to learn to reflect on the speech of the church about itself. His essay considers a popular series of tourist guidebooks (called Guide Bleu in French) to various European destinations. To be precise, his essay considers the presuppositions, one might almost say the prejudices, of the guidebook, which remain unstated by the editors and reduce the particularities of a country and its inhabitants to stereotypes, cliches, and sights (or monuments) to be seen, but not observed. The complex and real “human life of a country disappears,” he writes, “to the exclusive benefit of its monuments.” And the rich diversity of human existence is boiled down to a few picture postcard images. He writes:

In Spain, for instance, the Basque is an adventurous sailor, the Levantine a lighthearted gardener, the Catalan a clever tradesman and the Cantabrian a sentimental Highlander. We find again here this disease of thinking in essences, which is at the bottom of every bourgeois mythology of man (which is why we come across it so often). The ethnic reality of Spain is thus reduced to a vast classical ballet, a nice neat commedia dell’arte, whose improbable typology serves to mask the real spectacle of conditions, classes and professions. For the Blue Guide, men exist as social entities only in trains, where they fill a “very mixed” Third Class. Apart from that, they are a mere introduction, they constitute a charming and fanciful decor, meant to surround the essential part of the country: its collection of monuments.

Is there not a corresponding danger in ecclesiology to reduce the vast diversity of church, the ambiguities of this rich human-divine reality, to a few neat (noncontradictory) patterns, types, models, paradigms, definitions, or descriptions—to notice the monumental remains and to dismiss as irrelevant (and irrelevantly messy) the actual communities of faith that shape these monuments and that move within them and make sense of them? What would it entail, what would it require of us, to notice and take seriously the particularities of church, to go beyond phenomenology to phenomengnosis, to understand the ambiguous flux of existence as itself the sign that demands to be understood in its own terms? Barthes says, later in this essay:

Generally speaking, the Blue Guide testifies to the futility of all analytical descriptions, those which reject both explanations and phenomenology: it answers in fact none of the questions which a modern traveller can ask himself while crossing a countryside which is real and which exists in time. To select only monuments suppresses at one stroke the reality of the land and that of its people, it accounts for nothing of the present, that is, nothing historical, and as a consequence, the monuments themselves become undecipherable, therefore senseless. What is seen is thus constantly in the process of vanishing, and the Guide becomes, through an operation common to all mystifications, the very opposite of what it advertises, an agent of blindness.

Banksy - Tourist InformationA tourist, perhaps on one of those packaged coach tours, can visit a foreign country only to tick off the sights (the monuments): the Eiffel Tower, Westminster Abbey, Edinburgh Castle. She envisions the people of these foreign countries she visits as stereotypes already firmly established in her head: Scot in kilt with bagpipes, Englishman with umbrella and bowler, Frenchman wearing beret, smoking cigarette, drinking wine. The tourist returns home having traveled but having only minimally encountered the countries toured and their inhabitants. The idiosyncratic, the eccentric reality of humanity, the exactness of place and time and circumstance, the life lived in ordinariness is easily ignored in the headlong rush to account for all stereotypes (thus never really knowing the people) and monuments (thus never understanding why the monuments are there or what they signify). One sees here the way in which the yearning for essence can alienate us from history; though this superficial tourist may be surrounded by “historical” monuments, she has little access to their meaning because they have been decontextualized; consequently, she is estranged from her own history of being present in that place. In the worst cases, the tourist takes her “home” on tour with her to the extent that she never enters into the foreign time and place at all—the ultimate jet lag.

The ecclesiastical tourist, likewise, can emerge from a “study of the doctrine of the Church” having never entered into church at all. While giving the impression of sailing to all the great ports of call, he may have only circumnavigated the stereotypes. What is clearly implied in such ecclesiological globetrotting is that the church is an idea, and that paying attention to the actuality of particular human communities of faith only distracts us from some divine ecclesiology, a neat analytical description that is (supposedly) forever and everywhere true.

Church: The Quest for Christian Community

One of the units that I’ll be teaching at Whitley College (University of Divinity) this coming semester (30 July–29 October) is called Church: The Quest for Christian Community. The unit can be taken at levels 2, 3, or 9, and all are welcome to enrol.

Over 12 sessions, we will consider the following broad themes:

1. The Quest for Christian Community: Approaches, Issues, Challenges
2. The Community in Kingdom and Spirit
3. The Community as the Body of Christ
4. The Community as Priesthood and People of God
5. The Community and the Missio Dei
6. The Community under water: Baptism
7. The Community at Table: Eucharist
8. The Community of the Word
9. The Community Growing in God
10. The Community at Work
11. The Community in the World
12. The Ethical Community

And here’s a little taster of what is in store:

If you are interested in joining us, or in simply finding out more about this course and others, contact Whitley College (by email or phone 03 9340 8100) for more information.

Whitley College School of Ministry: Peaceful People, Peaceful Church, Peaceful World

SOM 2015What does it mean to be agents of peace in a world of conflict?

Each year, my school, Whitley College, runs a School of Ministry. This year’s School – which is happening on 13–14 July – provides an opportunity to hear from two guest teachers who have worked in the area of peace making and peace building, and to reflect together on what it means ‘to become peaceful people, in peaceful churches, for a peaceful world’.

The two guests are Dr David R. Brubaker (Associate Professor of Organizational Studies, Eastern Mennonite University) and Dr Maung Maung Yin (The Vice Principal of Myanmar Institute of Theology and the inaugural Director of the Peace Studies Centre).

Program

Program

 

REGISTRATION FEE 

  • Full registration – $200 (Includes all meals and up to 2 nights accommodation* in the Residential College)
  • Non-residential registration – $135 (Includes all lunches and dinners)
  • Ordination Candidates – $85 (Includes all meals and up to 2 nights accommodation* in the Residential College)

* Monday and Tuesday night bed and breakfast accommodation

FURTHER INFORMATION

For further information, download the flyer here.

Please direct enquiries to Dorothy Morgan via email or phone 03 9340 8100

REGISTRATION

Please register before Monday, 6 July 2015.

Book online (requires credit card) or download the registration form.

Theologies of marriage

arnolfini-weddingA couple of years ago, the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (the denomination in which I was serving at the time) asked the church’s Doctrine Core Group to provide the church with a discussion paper on marriage. That group decided to approach the task by inviting a select and representative number to write a brief response to the following question:

‘What do you believe lies at the heart of a Christian doctrine of marriage, and what are the key biblical and theological considerations that inform your position?’

The full discussion paper can be downloaded here. It was offered in the hope that the statements therein might provoke deeper engagement with the complex issues about marriage in church and society. The contributions – of which there are seven – were published anonymously to encourage readers to hear and judge each case on its own merits. I reproduce them here, in part because the denomination in which I currently serve, the Baptist Union of Victoria, is engaged – or at least ought to be engaged! – in some theological reflection on the questions (one assumption here, among others, is that the Church, including its Baptist tribe, might have some unique things to say about marriage, things which the State can’t say) and I hope that these contributions might assist to that end.

Contribution 1

We believe the Presbyterian Church’s approach to marriage must faithfully reflect the teachings of Jesus and the Scriptures, regardless of whatever society or the State may do. The Church is not at liberty to put aside the teachings of its Head. As a denomination derived from the Reformation, we are meant to be subject not to human ideas but to Scripture. Constitutionally, the Presbyterian Church recognises the Word of God in the Scriptures as the ‘supreme rule of faith and life’. We need to take that seriously. We shouldn’t try to reinterpret the teachings of Jesus and Scripture to make them mean something else.

The 2012 General Assembly of our Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand strongly declared “that it upholds the historic Christian understanding of marriage as the loving, faithful union of a man and a woman (reflecting the complementarity of male and female created in God’s image), which is grounded in nature and in Scripture, is supremely revealed in Jesus’ teaching about marriage, and is given by God for the well-being of human society…”. General Assembly also resolved that it “does not support same-sex ‘marriage’”.

We believe the 2012 General Assembly got it right. Christian understanding of marriage reflects the profound truth that God made us both male and female in God’s own image (Genesis 1:27) – with both genders necessary to reflect the image of God. Marriage is grounded in God-given nature, in basic male-female physiology. Marriage is the good and purposeful gift of God (Genesis 2:18, 24). In marriage, God intends that male and female come together in love and mutuality, trust and faithfulness, and the two became one – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. No other type of contractual, covenantal or legal sexual relationship – no matter how loving, stable or sincere – can ever be regarded by the Christian Church as marriage in the true biblical sense.

Out of that unique male-female union, God brings new life (Genesis 1:28). We are to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”. Male-female complementarity is therefore foundational – not only to bearing the image of God, but to human flourishing. It is at the heart of what it means to be human. Right across the biblical narrative, marriage is endorsed – and is central to human life.

Jesus’ teaching on marriage reinforces the indispensable core of the Bible’s understanding of marriage: “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh” (Matthew 19:4–5). Jesus also rejects sexual immorality (Mark 7:21–22) and lust (Matthew 5:28).

Some claim there is no one model of marriage in the Scriptures. In the Old Testament, for instance, we see many examples of polygamy, a defective form of marriage which was common in Ancient Near Eastern culture. But while polygamy is tolerated in the Old Testament, it is never endorsed by God or by Scripture, and it plays no part in the teaching of Jesus or the New Testament.

The reality of marriage, in Scripture and in human experience generally, includes not only blessing but also an inevitable falling short of what God intended – sometimes in major ways such as cruelty, adultery, neglect or divorce. In our sinfulness, we all need God’s forgiveness and grace.

Some argue that marriage is just a human arrangement, a largely secular matter. Certainly, marriage is a “civil contract”, but it is also much more than that. For followers of Christ, prayerfully entering into a marital covenant and making solemn promises before God, marriage is also sacred. The sexual union of a husband and wife in marriage is more than just physical, and can also have something of a “sacramental” character.

The idea of recognising homosexual relationships as “marriage” is completely foreign to Scripture. While some disagree with what the Bible teaches, there can be no question that the Bible consistently forbids the practice of homosexuality (eg Romans 1:22–28, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10, Jude 7). Like all other sexual immorality, homosexuality reflects humanity’s fallenness.

Same-sex “marriage” finds no place in the historic Christian doctrine of marriage, or in the teaching of our Subordinate Standards. The Church’s classic Reformed standard, the Westminster Confession, devotes a whole chapter to marriage. This begins: “Marriage is to be between one man and one woman …for the mutual help of husband and wife [and] for the increase of mankind.” The Presbyterian Church’s Directory of Worship (1995) states that Christian marriage is “a commitment for life made by a woman and a man to each other, publicly witnessed before God and acknowledged by the community of faith”.

We must be guided by the resolutions of General Assembly that “God’s intention for sexual relationships, as affirmed by Jesus Christ, is loving, mutual and faithful marriage between a man and a woman, and that intimate sexual expressions outside of that context fall short of God’s standard” (1991), and that marriage is “the loving, faithful union of a man and a woman” (2012).

The Bible’s teaching on marriage is not the absolute core of the Gospel, like the Cross and Resurrection, but it is still very important. It is not optional. Three of the Ten Commandments, for instance, are related to marriage.

The Word of God is the “supreme rule” of both “faith and life”. Some argue that the Church should just proclaim salvation in Christ, and allow freedom (diversity) in all other matters of belief and life – including matters relating to marriage and morality. But such a view is a distortion of New Testament teaching. Christ is both Saviour and Lord. The gospel is not just about salvation. It is also about following Christ, and about transformation. Having received salvation by grace, we should then honour God in how we live (eg Matthew 7:17–23, Romans 6:13, 1 Corinthians 6:19–20, Ephesians 4:1, Colossians 1:10). Grace does not abrogate truth, or the call to holiness.

The Church is not able to dictate the beliefs and laws of society at large. But we must also insist that the Church cannot be dictated to by society. In all matters, including marriage, we believe the Holy Spirit calls the Church to remain authentically faithful to the teachings of Jesus and Scripture.

Contribution 2

Whatever else marriage may be, it is at its most fundamental level a relationship between two parties. It is a relationship established in virtue of God’s pronouncement that it is not good that man should be alone (Genesis 2:18). We human beings have need of companionship. According to the Genesis account (Genesis 2:18–25), marriage is a divinely instituted provision for that need. While the Genesis text indicates a complementarity in the companionship of male and female, it becomes clear as the biblical story unfolds that the need for companionship may also be met by other means, above all in the fellowship of the Body of Christ. The Church, in fact, is set forth in the New Testament as the paramount form of community in which all should expect to find, whether married or not, the unconditional love, forgiveness, and companionship to which the marriage relationship also aspires.

A secondary feature of marriage occurring between a man and a woman is the procreation of children. Genesis 1:28 and 3:16 are commonly taken as biblical warrant for this procreative function of marriage. The Old Testament, however, records numerous instances in which the fathering of children is thought to be more important than the maintenance of a monogamous relationship (eg Genesis 16:1–2, Deuteronomy 25:5–6). A husband may take additional wives or engage the childbearing services of a slave in the household in order to secure progeny. Adultery, however, is condemned (Exodus 20:14, Deuteronomy 22:22). Whether or not the arrangements seen in the Old Testament for the procreation of children outside of marriage should be approved of, they do suggest that procreation is a secondary good associated with marriage rather than its primary purpose. In accordance with the view that procreation does not belong to the essence of marriage, the absence of offspring does not undermine the good of marriage and so provides no justification for divorce (Matthew 5:32, Mark 10:6–9).

What then does constitute the good of marriage? In formulating a response to this question, it is helpful to attend to the fact that the language of marital relationships is often used in the Bible to speak of the relationship that God has established, first with Israel (eg Ezekiel 16: 8–14, Jeremiah 2:2, 31:32, Isaiah 54:5), and then with the Church (eg John 3:29, Matthew 9:15, 2 Corinthians 11:2, Revelation 19:7–9). Although it is commonly supposed that the term “marriage” applies primarily to the covenant commitment made between a man and a woman and only secondarily, by way of analogy, to the relationship God establishes with Israel and the Church, we may learn better about the essence of marriage by attending first to the marriage God establishes with his people, before then considering what this may imply for our understanding of human marriage.

The first thing to notice about the relationship between God and Israel, and between Christ and the Church is that it is a covenant not a contract. Talk of marriage as a covenant rather than a contract is derived from this divine precedent. A covenant is “a promise binding two people or two parties to love one another unconditionally.” This accounts for the steadfastness of God’s commitment to Israel in spite of Israel’s unfaithfulness (Leviticus 26:44). We observe, secondly, that the covenant God makes is grounded in love. Again, we learn best what love is by attending to the divine love, especially as it is revealed to us in and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because the true nature of love is revealed in Christ, Paul enjoins husbands to love their wives “just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). It is in this context too, that Paul speaks of a man and his wife becoming one flesh just as Christ unites the Church in his body and tenderly nourishes and cares for it (Ephesians 5:28–32).

Further explanation of what love consists of is found 1 Corinthians 13. A third characteristic of the divine covenant is that it operates according to grace rather on the basis of deserts. God loves Israel and Christ loves the Church, not because they deserve to be loved, but simply because it is love’s way to embrace the other in spite of the other’s weakness and imperfection — even in spite of the other’s sin. Marriage is an act of gracious hospitality, of unconditional openness to the other, and of self-giving. The operations of divine grace in the marriage God establishes with his people should discourage us, I think, from conceiving the marriage relationship in terms of rights. Marriage is established in virtue of the unconditional gift of oneself to the other, not on the basis of rights held over against one another.

These theological observations suggest that marriage is a covenant relationship that is motivated by love and operates according to grace. It is, furthermore, a form of human relationship that mirrors, however imperfectly, the relationship that God desires to have with us.

We should take note, however, that spousal relationships are listed in Luke 14:26 among various forms of kinship that take second place to the disciples’ relationships with Christ. Marriage between one human being and another is good, but it is not the ultimate good. The ultimate good is the fellowship with God and neighbour that is being perfected by the Spirit in the Body of Christ. Marriage, and, by extension, the life of the family, is an important and divinely instituted means by which people may be formed for the kind of relationship that is ultimately to be perfected in the communion that Christ establishes with his people. Despite their many failings, and despite the tragic dysfunction that sometimes afflicts them, marriage and family relationships remain the place, subordinate only to the Church, where we are most likely to learn the gestures of unconditional love, of forgiveness, and of grace that, under divine command and enabling, are to be extended to all.

With respect to the question of whether marriage may be entered into by partners of the same gender, it seems to me that the precedent of God’s relationship to Israel and of Christ to the Church yields insight into the nature of marriage that does not preclude such a relationship being established between partners of the same gender. It remains an open question however, whether the complementarity of male and female indicated in Genesis, should be taken as normative for the marriage relationship between two human partners. That is the question that is now before the Church.

Contribution 3

In the following paper I offer my reflections on what I believe lies at the heart of a doctrine of Christian marriage. As a woman in her mid-fifties who recently married for the first time, I have found myself engaging with this question on a very personal level. Marriage, as revealed in both Scripture and Jesus’ teaching, is initiated by God as an expression of love in community. Sacred and permanent, it offers protection and exclusivity for the expression of fidelity and conjugal love between a man and a woman. It is fundamental to my understanding of Christian marriage that it be a union between a man and a woman, as both are made in God’s image, therefore it is their complementary, but different natures, that reflect most authentically the mystery of the divine nature.

The divine nature is presented in the Scriptures as both feminine and masculine. God speaks of her conception, nurture, and birth in the continuing story of Israel. Yet God is also warrior, king, and father. God’s nature transcends gender, but by creating both male and female and joining them together as one God’s nature is “captured”, so to speak. Therefore when man and woman become one, it is their union (their becoming one) that reflects the complete/divine nature.

The physical/biological differences of men and women are obvious, but there is also a spiritual/emotional difference between them that is well attested in our churches, marriages, and relationships in general.

The “complete” nature of God, as expressed by both man and woman becoming one, finds its roots in the Genesis account of creation: Man (Adam) was created in the image of God, but finding him incomplete in/by himself, God created a specific helper/companion (ezer; Eve). Out of the one species, but creating a separate, distinctive and complementary being, God created the ideal reflection of the divine nature. Creativity, procreation, and abiding companionship all find their expression on the two beings becoming one. My reading of the creation account is that humanity was the pinnacle of creation. When the two complementary beings become one, their unity creates and perpetuates the image of the divine. I believe that it was God’s desire for the creative, spiritual and physical cycle of creation to continue through the mystery and sanctity of marriage.

Jesus also affirmed marriage as a divine institution laid down by God at the very beginning of creation. United by God two (man and woman) become one, and remain so until death (Mark 10.6–7, 9; Genesis 1.27; 2.24). The mystery of this sacred union between man and woman is that it offers a reflection of the image of God in community; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. By this I mean that God is more than one, yet the same essence. The three persons of the trinity are separate, yet one. Each person of the trinity has a different expression, but they are the same! For me that means that in the Genesis account of creation the trinity was already present, and reflected in the creation of man and woman. Therefore marriage, at its heart, is an expression of God’s love/nature lived out in action for creation to be witness to, and benefit from.

The starting point for my position on a Christian doctrine of marriage is the concept of covenant. Biblically the marriage relationship was used as a distinctive metaphor for the covenantal relationship God had with Israel (Ezekiel 16.8). Permanence, faithfulness and self-sacrificing love are the pillars of God’s covenant relationship. Marriage, as a covenant relationship between two complementary natures made in God’s image, reflects the ideal of God’s relationship of love and fidelity with his/her people.

Pauline material develops this tradition by proclaiming that the sacred and permanent status of marriage is an analogy for the relationship between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5.32). Marriage, in New Testament terms, is portrayed as the perfect example of covenantal oneness; a union created between a man and a woman by the unifying power of love.

The commitment to love unconditionally, as Christ loved the Church, implies self-sacrifice. Christ’s love led him to the cross, so biblically marriage becomes a vehicle for living out Christ’s self-sacrificing love. For me the concepts of obedience and discipleship are fundamental to my understanding of Christian marriage. God’s covenant love and Christ’s self-sacrificing love fit within a context of relationship. Marriage cannot be removed from this setting; it finds its expression only in relationship with God’s revelation (Jesus and Scripture).

The biblical vision for marriage, as a reflection of God’s love and unbreakable faithfulness, lies at the heart of my understanding of Christian marriage. Creator God created two complementary beings in his/her image to become one flesh. The purpose for such a union is, I believe, not only to offer human companionship, or produce children, but also to reveal the divine nature and character of an unseen God. Love by its very nature can only be authentically expressed in community, therefore marriage becomes the most complete expression of divine love.

Contribution 4

Being both Māori and Christian my starting point on any subject is always my beloved wharenui, Te Maungarongo. On the taraiti side of the whare is our cultural side that captures our histories, genealogies, stories, songs, proverbs and everything that constitutes being Māori. On the opposite tarawhanui side of the whare are the biblical equivalents of those same stories. The backbone of the whare is the tahuhu where both culture and Scripture come together under watchful eye of God. Neither side of the whare can be separated as they interpret and inform each other. To separate the two would divide the whare and result in cultural and biblical amnesia.

The second pair of poupou in Te Maungarongo depict Rangi and Papatuanuku the primodial parents. Opposite is the biblical equivalent of Adam and Eve. This theme of cultural and biblical equivalents facing each other is consistent throughout the whare. The tenth poupou depicts the celebrated love story of Tutanekai and Hinemoa. The Biblical equivalent opposite is the Book of Psalms as the story focuses at this level upon the sweet music of the Putourino that encouraged Hinemoa to swim Lake Rotorua to Tutanekai upon Mokoia Island. At other levels the story deals with issues of politically arranged marriage, social status, tribal responsibility of procreation and of male affection and relationship towards another male. These are real stories that we still encounter today and are not simple fables or myths.

The back and front walls of the whare tell the story of the early church. At the apex of the exterior of the whare is the ancestor, in this case Jesus, holding the cross inviting you to take up the cross. On the interior of the inside back wall is the cross of Calvary. Both crosses challenge us to view those same stories through the cross of Christ and gain a new understanding of how things are done consistent with how they are lived in the Kingdom of God.

The hermeneutical question is not which side of the whare we start from, but how do both sides of Te Maungarongo come together in us, the living embodiment of those stories. The hermeneutical starting point is me, the mokopuna. Whakapapa works backwards. It starts with me and what I bring to this story.

Marriage was a stumbling block to Māori being baptised by the early Presbyterian Māori missions with their doctrine of one man and one woman in marriage. Iwi practised polgamy and this was non-negotiable to the missionaries. The pressures of government and Church eventually saw the demise of polygamy. Today polygamy has been replaced with defacto relationships and solo-parenting that has lead to a fatherless generation of children. These people are unfairly sterotyped as beneficiaries who spend their benefit on alcohol, smokes and drugs and substitute their income with illegal activities. Yet for the majority this is totally untrue. The Bible gives the imperative to look after the least in society and names them as the widow, the orphan and the unemployed. In my context that is about 80 percent of my whanau.

The context above is the taraiti side of the whare which is brought into conversation with the biblical that has many similar stories of political arranged marriages, marriage and social status, affairs, liasons, incest, rape, unemployment, poverty, adoption and single parenting. This conversation gives me a further reference point, and what new insights I may have are lifted up to be viewed through the cross of Jesus at Calvary. Jesus dealt with similar issues of human existence and gives new understandings and insights into how things are lived in the Kingdom of God. This is Te Maungarongo that moves me in the direction of the cross where I am given a new blueprint for the future.

No story is complete without the architects of my Presbyterian whare: Rua Kenana, prophet of Maungapohatu; Tu Rakuraku of Waimana; the Rt Rev Eru Tumutara; Bishop of the Ringatu Church; and the Presbyterian missionary the Very Rev J G Laughton CMG or Hoani. These architects of Te Maungarongo provide the overarching hermeneutical princple with their covenanted relationships with Hoani providing a safe and sound Christian future for their children and grandchildren.

Rua Kenana said to Hoani: “There is your Church, the children. You have the children, leave the old people to me.”

In a similar fashion, Tu Rakuraku said to Hoani: “Leave the old world to us, you have the children so they may have a better life than what we have experienced”.

The Rt Rev Eru Tumutara said to Hoani: “Teach my children the wisdom of the world but most importantly teach them the wisdom of God.”

These covenants are translated as Ōhākī, a gift that arises from within you and is binding on all future generations and can never be broken. All three gentlemen had experienced at a personal level the poverty of the New Zealand Wars, but they saw in the Presbyterian Church an opportunity for their children to have a better life, safe from what they witnessed.

In conclusion, the hermeutical process begins with me, the mokopuna, the blueprint of the future. The hermeneutical reference points are a conversation between the pillars of Te Maungarongo, cultural, context, Scripture and Christian tradition. These are held up to the apex of the whare where I view them through the cross of Jesus Christ. The overarching principle in the hermeneutical process is Te Ōhākī, the gift that is my salvation in the new world free from anything that separates me from the love of God.

Contribution 5

Theological Method

The question of marriage, as with any theological reflection, does not come to the Church in a vacuum. Society now understands marriage as a relationship between two people, committed to each other, irrespective of sex, sexual orientation or gender identity. Marriage is seen as an intimate and yet public commitment between two adults that is recognised in law. The theological issue has arisen because on the one hand we have Assembly decisions that restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples and, on the other hand, ministers and congregations who wish to be able to celebrate marriage in the full, inclusive sense in which it is now understood.

From an ethical perspective, an evolving theology of marriage must include the voices of same-sex couples and transgendered people who wish to marry, because it is the lives of these people who will be directly affected by
the Church’s decision-making. Christian same-sex couples speak about their desire to express their love and commitment to one another in the context of their faith community. They want to belong to each other in love and to their congregations in ministry. Like couples who access civil marriage, they value the social recognition and support that comes with marriage. They also acknowledge the spiritual aspect of marriage to which law and secular society pay little attention. They are “claiming the blessing” that the Church has come to understand that marriage can be, a blessing of communion and community. And they wish to teach their children about the social and spiritual value of deep commitment to a life partner in a loving and just relationship.

Children of gay and lesbian parents are expressing the hope that their parents could marry. Approximately 24 percent of same-sex couples are raising children. Social research has overwhelmingly established that these children have outcomes that are as good or better than children raised by opposite-sex couples. The one thing that makes their lives difficult is discrimination against their families. In changing the marriage law, society has removed one source of discrimination, but the Church continues to perpetuate it.

The Bible

The Bible on its own cannot provide the answers to the question of whether the Church should allow ministers to marry same sex couples because it is simply not a question that the Bible addresses. The Biblical writers had no knowledge of the continuum of human sexual orientation. Throughout the biblical record, different kinds of unions are accepted in different places and times, evolving and changing with culture and circumstance.

New Testament teachings about marriage are included with other teachings which are generally accepted as being time and culture bound. For example prohibitions against women teaching, or braiding their hair, are found alongside the imperative that a church leader should be “the husband of one wife”. (1 Timothy 2:9 – 3:2).

Biblical marriage includes polygamy, marriage within the family, reproduction with a deceased husband’s closest relative and prohibitions against marriage with people of other faiths or ethnicities. At times these patterns were normative and at other times they were considered less relevant.

The Genesis story of Adam and Eve is often cited as evidence that marriage can only be heterosexual because Jesus cited it in Mark 10:1–12. Context is crucial. Jesus was asked a question about the lawfulness of divorce. He responded by referencing the Genesis story and saying that “what God has joined together, let no one separate”. He concluded unequivocally that remarriage after divorce is adultery. It is disingenuous to extrapolate this teaching addressed to heterosexual couples to exclude same-sex marriage. Especially when the Church has significantly reinterpreted Jesus’s clear teaching on divorce.

The History of Marriage

It is impossible to give adequate consideration here to the way marriage has evolved over the past two millennia except to note that it has changed dramatically. Until the modern period, marriage was primarily based on political alliances for the elite and economic survival for the masses. Women were regarded as property transferred from father to husband, thus connecting families for political or economic benefits.

The diverse forms of familial relationships that many people think are unprecedented changes in family life, are mostly not new at all. Human beings have been creatively constructing families for a very long time. There have been times in the past when it was more common for children to be born out of wedlock than it is now. Step-families were very common in the past because of the high rates of death and remarriage. And even same-sex marriage, though relatively rare, has been sanctioned in some cultures.

Similarly, arrangements that are presented as “traditional marriage” in popular culture have a relatively recent history. The involvement of Church or state in marriage is a more recent “tradition” in human history. For centuries of Christian tradition, a couple were considered married when privately they said to each other the words of intent: “I take you to be my husband or wife”. Neither judge nor clergy were involved.

Marriage, shaped by political or economic considerations, began to change in the 18th century, five thousand years after it first took shape in the ancient tribes and kingdoms of the Middle East. Only then did love begin to dominate marriage discourse. Marriage began to be seen as a private relationship between two people rather than as part of a system of political or economic alliances. While there have always been loving marriages, the purpose of marriage for much of human history was more mundane.

Relational Ethics

What marks us as humans is our capacity for intelligent moral judgement. We cannot base our decisions about marriage solely on appeals to Scripture, tradition/history or on an unexamined understanding of biological or psychological complementarity of the sexes. The idea of male and female duality is frequently an unexamined assumption in theological conversation about marriage. It must be considered in light of contemporary science and social theory.

The freedom given to us in Christ includes the freedom to discern God’s will and the ways that God continues to speak to us through the Spirit. In limiting human sexual expression to heterosexual marriage, the Church has lost its place in the human community of ethical discernment. The public has heard us say that heterosexual intercourse within marriage is the requirement for God’s blessing. They have not heard us say that relationships that are mutual, equal, loving, committed and grounded, are relationships that reflect God’s faithfulness and grace. Moving beyond requiring humans to choose between heterosexual marriage and celibacy would create a space for the Church to talk about what makes a relationship good and therefore to invite people into the spiritual depth and commitment that good marriage can provide.

Contribution 6

It has taken some time to canvas the views of members of the Pacific community that I am involved with, however I present a view that is shared in common by every person that has contributed to the question: “What is the Pacific Christian’s perspective of the doctrine of marriage?”

Primarily, we strongly believe that marriage is the bond between a man and a woman as blessed by Jesus Christ the head of the Church. The general belief is a call for the Presbyterian Church to hold strictly to biblical teachings about Christian marriage as a necessary step to the formation and beginning of a family.

I would like to also include extracts from the Vatican’s International Theological Commission entitled Statements on the Doctrine of Marriage which reflect the thinking of the Pacific community I am representing in this statement.

Marriage in Christ

As is easily shown in the New Testament, Jesus confirmed this institution which existed “from the very beginning”, and cured it of its previous defects (Mark 10:2–9, 10–12) by restoring all its dignity and its original requirements. He sanctified this state of life (Gaudium et Spes 48, 2) by including it within the mystery of love, which unites him as Redeemer to his Church. This is the reason why the task of regulating Christian marriage (1 Corinthians 7:10) has been entrusted to the Church.

The Apostles

The Epistles of the New Testament say that marriage should be honoured in every way (Hebrews 13:4) and, in response to certain attacks, they present it as a good work of the Creator (1 Timothy 4:1–5). Rather, they exalt matrimony among the faithful because it is included in the mystery of Covenant and love that unites Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:22–23; Gaudium et Spes 48, 2).

They ask, therefore, that marriage be contracted “in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39) and that matrimonial life be lived in accordance with the dignity of a new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17), “in Christ” (Ephesians 5:21–33), putting Christians on guard against the pagans’ habits (1 Corinthians 6:12–20; 6:9–10).

On the basis of a “right deriving from faith” and in their desire to assure its permanence, the Churches of apostolic times formulated certain moral orientations (Colossians 3:18; Titus 2:3–5; 1 Peter 3:1–7) and juridical dispositions that would help people live matrimony “according to the faith” in different human situations and conditions.

Real Symbol and Sacramental Sign

Jesus Christ disclosed in a prophetic way the reality of matrimony as it was intended by God at man’s beginnings (Genesis 1:27; 2:24; Mark 10:6, 7–8; Matthew 19:4, 5) and restored it through his death and Resurrection. For this reason Christian marriage is lived “in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39) and is also determined by elements of the saving action performed by Christ.

Already in the Old Testament the matrimonial union was a figure of the Covenant between God and the people of Israel (Hosea 2; Jeremiah 3:6–13; Ezekiel 16 and 23; Isaiah 54). In the New Testament, Christian marriage rises to a new dignity as a representation of the mystery that unites Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:21–33). Theological interpretation illuminates this analogy more profoundly: the supreme love and gift of the Lord who shed his blood and the faithful and irrevocable attachment of his Spouse the Church, become models and examples for Christian matrimony.

This resemblance is a relationship of real sharing in the Covenant of love between Christ and the Church. From its own standpoint, Christian marriage, as a real symbol and sacramental sign, represents the Church of Christ concretely in the world and, especially under its family aspect, it is called rightly the “domestic Church” (Lumen Gentium 11).

Sacrament in a Real Sense

In such a way matrimony takes on the likeness of the mystery of the union between Jesus Christ and his Church. This inclusion of Christian marriage in the economy of salvation is enough to justify the title “sacrament” in a broad sense.

But it is also at once the concrete condensation and the real actualization of this primordial sacrament. It follows from this that Christian marriage is in itself a real and true sign of salvation, which confers the grace of God. For this reason the Catholic Church numbers it among the seven sacraments (Denzinger-A Schönmetzer, 1327, 1801).

A unique bond exists between the indissolubility of marriage and its sacramentality, that is, a reciprocal, constitutive relationship. Indissolubility makes one’s grasp of the sacramental nature of Christian matrimony easier, and from the theological point of view, its sacramental nature constitutes the final grounds, although not the only grounds, for its indissolubility.

Conclusion

It is fair to say that all of the above points of view resonate with the thinking of Pacific Christians in the Presbyterian Church. However the question that is in the news items lately has been the same-sex marriage question. There is a strong “No” from the Pacific community that have responded to me on this point.

I pass on the blessings from those I represent to the doctrine committee for this important task you are charged with.

Contribution 7

I. Foundation. “For … all things have been created through him and for him” (Colossians 1.16). Jesus Christ is the one Word of God in, by and for whom humanity is constituted. He alone reveals God’s will for human life and flourishing. Consequently, marriage ought primarily to be understood christologically. The Church therefore rejects as false all efforts to ground its doctrine and ethics in sources apart from and besides this one Word of God. Such efforts threaten to turn an institution or relationship into an idol, an anti-Christ.

II. Eschatology. “ ‘… and the two will become one flesh’. This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5.31–32). Like every gift from God, marriage is good and fitting – not only for individual persons and families, but also for the flourishing of human society. But its goodness is closely associated with its provisionality – with its being bound to the creation which is passing away (eg. Luke 18.29; Matthew 19.12; 22.30) – and with it, as with celibacy, bearing prophetic witness to the coming new creation. Its ultimate meaning is eschatological and so it is called to be characterised by the transforming of old markers and the reconstituting of human relationality in the light of God’s coming. The Church therefore rejects efforts to explain the mystery of marriage solely in terms of the old creation. Furthermore, because Holy Scripture speaks of marriage in terms of Christ’s relation to the Church unbound by gender, we reject the claim that marriage’s signalling of Christ’s relationship with his bride must be gender specific.

III. Discipleship. “Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me’” (Luke 9.23). Jesus Christ calls and the Holy Spirit empowers persons to leave behind all that has the appearance of certainty, and to become his disciples. This call precedes and exists uncompetitively with all other claims that may be made. God’s provision (marriage is a “gift” rather than a “right”) of marriage during this time-between-the-times is a particular vocation given to some so that they might be trained in the way of discipleship; learn how to recognise the otherness of the other (i.e., as a being not under their power); be taught love of neighbour; celebrate the mystery of friendship; be schooled in embodied witness, repentance and virtue; practice the meaning of sacrifice, the risk of hospitality and the formation of community and be ready to accept the challenges of new life which love creates – the disciplines of denial and restraint that liberate human persons for sanctification. The Church therefore rejects as false all efforts to understand marriage (and all other human relationships) independently of the call to discipleship.

IV. Desire. “This is my body, which is given for you” (Luke 22.19). Marriage occasions a social context to commit oneself to being where one’s body is, to make one’s body available for the other – “for better, for worse … for as long as you live” (Book of Common Order) – and for desire to mean more than meeting emotional and physical needs. While it is beyond the creature’s power to make sex spiritually or sacramentally significant (indeed, all such attempts are idolatrous), it is entirely commensurate with God’s character to do so; ie. to make good on the promise that human beings are more than material. “The moral question, at this point, ought to be how much we want our sexual activity to communicate, how much we want it to display a breadth of human possibility and a sense of the body’s capacity to heal and enlarge the life of other subjects,” says Rowan Williams. The Church therefore rejects as illegitimate all expressions of desire for other persons unbridled and undirected by commitment to the relationship in which the blessing of the other is not a foremost concern.

V. Election and covenant. “How can I give you up, Ephraim?” (Hosea 11.8). Marriage serves as an analogue to, and a reflection of the electing love of God (however imperfect). Marriage exists because God loves Israel, in whom God also makes space for gentiles. This is God’s counter word to the fear many couples experience; namely, the threat to the security of their own marriages from the “other”. The Word of God brings persons into covenant communion with God and with each other, the character of which is holy, loving, and unbreakable. The Church therefore rejects all theological justification for divorce. That said, lest we turn God’s gracious provision into an ideology, the Church equally rejects all notions of indissolubility which smuggle in a metaphysic whereby divorce and remarriage are made authentic impossibilities. “Indeed, if one purpose of marriage is to serve as a sign of God’s love in the world … how can we reject the possibility that a second marriage after a divorce could serve as a sign of grace and redemption from the sin and brokenness of the past?” (Richard Hays).

VI. Responsible freedom. “You were called to freedom; do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (Galatians 5.13). Marriage is an expression of the freedom granted to God’s human creatures and to the societies they form. So, “It is lawful for all sorts of people to marry, who are able with judgement to give their consent” (The Westminster Confession of Faith). Marriage, in other words, is created not by a ceremony per se but by an act of responsible freedom. Where possible, a public ceremony – wherein the “I do” confessed by the couple and heard by a public serves as both creative and performative utterance – might also represent such an act and so ought to be the norm. Still, “there are many marriages, true though incomplete, which the Church has never blessed or the State ratified” (James K. Baxter). If a couple “cannot or will not have one another in this freedom, it is far better for them not to want to have one another at all” (Karl Barth). The Church therefore rejects all pre-determined images (whether understood in terms of roles, or contractual obligations, or any other matters decided in advance) of what any particular marriage might look like as being fundamentally at odds with the loving promise of covenant freedom in God. “Gratuitous, beyond our fathom, both binding and freeing, this love re-invades us, shifts the boundaries of our being” (Micheal O’Siadhail).

Theology for ministry

Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi, Untitled, 1972

Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi, Untitled, 1972

Alister McGrath’s very good and timely comment on the Church of England’s Resourcing Ministerial Education document echoes observations made by many others. John de Gruchy, for example, in his excellent little book, Theology and Ministry in Context and Crisis: A South African Perspective, writes:

In Germany the title ‘theologian’ refers in the first place not to the academic theologian but to the pastor. It is the primary designation within the Protestant churches of an ordained minister. Yet few priests or pastors would regard themselves as such, especially within the Anglo-Saxon world. In his book Ferment in the Ministry, the north American pastoral psychologist Seward Hiltner imagined the possible responses which ordained ministers would give to a Gallup Poll which asked the question: ‘Do you regard yourself as a theologian?’

  • 31% said, ‘Well, I am a minister, but you could hardly call me a theologian.’
  • 22% said, ‘It is true I have studied theology, but I am not really a theologian.’
  • 17% replied, ‘Brother, I sure ain’t. I’m only a simple parson, not one of those highpowered book guys.’
  • 8% admitted, ‘Well, I guess I am, in a way, but I am more interested in serving people than in theology.’
  • 7% said, ‘Where did you get that idea? And don’t do it again.’
  • 4% replied, ‘I am about twice a year, when I go back to the alumni lectures.’
  • 2% said, ‘Pardon me, I have to rush to a funeral.’
  • 1% snorted, ‘I wonder who thought up that question?’
  • 0.9% said, ‘Yes.’

Why is there this reluctance on the part of ordained ministers, to regard themselves as theologians, and, on the part of some, especially Anglo-Saxons and their heirs, why is there such antipathy towards theology? In the Germanic world the traditional tendency and temptation is precisely the opposite, to glory in the title ‘theologian’, and to create theologies remote from Christian praxis and existence in the world. Helmut Thielicke has a German audience in mind when, in his A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, he writes about the ‘pathology of the young theologian’s conceit’. Yet even in Germany the idea that the ordained minister’s self-perception is that of a theologian cannot be assumed. At Christmas in 1939 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in a letter to his former students:

How superficial and flippant, especially of theologians, to send theology to the knacker’s yard, to make out that one is not a theologian and doesn’t want to be, and in so doing to ridicule one’s own ministry and ordination and in the end to have, and to advocate, a bad theology instead of a good one!

This attitude parallels the tendency within the church generally to disparage theology in the interests of ‘practical Christianity’.

Theology has a bad name amongst many theological students and ordained ministers, not primarily because of their modesty but because they fail to grasp its vital necessity and relevance to their vocation. Indeed, they may even regard it as something detrimental to their calling and the life and mission of the church. There are theological students who regard the study of theology as an unfortunate requirement for ordination, rather than as that which should provide the focus for their work. The image of a theologian is academic, intellectual, and far-removed from the everyday tasks of the parish minister. Much of the blame for this must be laid at the door of university departments of theology, theological colleges and seminaries, and those of us who teach in them. Theology has too often been taught in ways which reduce it to idealistic abstractions, and result in its rejection as a useful, indeed, essential part of the mission of the church and therefore of the ordained ministry. After all, the value of theology taught as a series of independent academic disciplines lacking both coherence or direction and unrelated to biblical vision or faith, is not self-evident for the Christian community struggling to be faithful in the midst of the world. This situation needs to be radically transformed if theology is to become the vocation of the ordained minister, and central to the total ministry of the church, and not simply be regarded as the peculiar province of scholars.

In John T. McNeill’s magnificent A History of the Cure of Souls, there is what we might call a ‘give-away’ comment which reinforces my argument that the ordained minister, is primarily a theologian. McNeill refers to the fact that ‘Jean Daniel Benoit, the expert on Calvin’s work in the cure of souls, states boldly that the Genevan Reformer was more a pastor than theologian’, but he then continues, ‘to be exact, he was a theologian in order to be a better pastor’. Conversely, in his introduction to Karl Barth’s essays, Against the Stream, Alec Vidler has this perceptive comment about the theologian’s theologian, Karl Barth: ‘I was aware of a quality or style about him which is hard to define. It may perhaps best be called pastoral, so long as this is not understood as a limitation.’ Christian pastors are called to be theologians, and those whom we normally designate theologians may well be pastors …

The primary task of the ministry of the Word and Sacraments is to enable the upbuilding of the church in such a way that it is always pointed beyond itself to the reign of God in Jesus Christ in the midst of the world. Its task is to keep the People of God mindful of the tradition of Jesus, crucified and risen, and what this means for their lives and the praxis of the church today. Its task is to enable the church to be faithful to its identity as the People of God in the world, discerning who God is and what God requires of them. In this way the ministry of the Word and Sacraments is, literally speaking, church leadership because it provides theological direction for the mission of the People of God in the world.

The matter is also taken up directly by Karl Barth. In his Evangelical Theology, written in part to speak to ‘the present-day younger generation’ and clearly with an eye on encouraging budding preachers, Barth raises issues that remain relevant to our own time, and aims his challenge not at the feet of pastors alone but also at the feet of the entire Christian community, and of those who consider themselves to be ‘Christian’:

Since the Christian life is consciously or unconsciously also a witness, the question of truth concerns not only the community but the individual Christian. He too is responsible for the quest for truth in this witness. Therefore, every Christian as such is also called to be a theologian. How much more so those who are specially commissioned in the community, whose service is preeminently concerned with speech in the narrower sense of the term! It is always a suspicious phenomenon when leading churchmen [and churchwomen] (whether or not they are adorned with a bishop’s silver cross), along with certain fiery evangelists, preachers, or well-meaning warriors for this or that practical Christian cause, are heard to affirm, cheerfully and no doubt also a bit disdainfully, that theology is after all not their business. “I am not a theologian; I am an administrator!” a high-ranking English churchman once said to me. And just as bad is the fact that not a few preachers, after they have exchanged their student years for the routine of practical service, seem to think that they are allowed to leave theology behind them as the butterfly does its caterpillar existence, as if it were an exertion over and done with for them. This will not do at all. Christian witness must always be forged anew in the fire of the question of truth. Otherwise it can in no case and at no time be a witness that is substantial and responsible, and consequently trustworthy and forceful. Theology is no undertaking that can be blithely surrendered to others by anyone engaged in the ministry of God’s Word. It is no hobby of some especially interested and gifted individuals. A community that is awake and conscious of its commission and task in the world will of necessity be a theologically interested community. This holds true in still greater measure for those members of the community who are specially commissioned …

A little later on Barth says that all theology ought to be undertaken for the sake of the Community and its witness to the Word of God; neither of which, by the way, are served particularly well by the high levels of egotistical testosterone that characterise much academia:

Theology would be an utter failure if it should place itself in some elegant eminence where it would be concerned only with God, the world, man, and some other items, perhaps those of historical interest, instead of being theology for the community. Like the pendulum which regulates the movements of a clock, so theology is responsible for the reasonable service of the community. It reminds all its members, especially those who have greater responsibilities, how serious is their situation and task. In this way it opens for them the way to freedom and joy in their service.

(One of the things highlighted (some 17 times!) in the C of E report is the focus on so-called ‘lay’ ministry (still an ugly, clumsy, and theologically-preposterous concept. Can’t Anglicans, who might still, even in these darkened years, be the champions of theo-speak in the Anglophone world, find a better word?). Interpreted kindly, it’s a nod to the fact that the church in toto is a theological community, and an expression of the fact that theological education is on the way to being liberated from its clergy-centric shackles, even if many of the pressures for such a move have principally not been theological in nature.)

Whenever I think about the strange place of a pastor as a member and resident theologian of a theo-hermeneutical community, I remember one of my favourite passages in Jürgen Moltmann’s autobiography, A Broad Place:

With my doctorate, I at first felt a fool standing in the pulpit in front of this farming congregation. But earlier I had lived with workers and farmers in ‘the hard school of life’, and it was out of these experiences that I preached, not from my Göttingen lecture notes. This congregation taught me ‘the shared theology of all believers’, the theology of the people. Unless academic theology continually turns back to this theology of the people, it becomes abstract and irrelevant. For the fact is that theology is not just something for theological specialists; it is a task laid on the whole people of God, all congregations and every believer. I only got into difficulties when I used the same sermon for the student congregation in Bremen and the farmers in Wasserhorst. The farmers were not interested in questions about the meaning of life and were not going through any adolescent orientation crises. They trusted in God and loved the Ten Commandments. When my elders rolled their eyes, I knew that I had lost them. So they guided me and preached to me.

My own personal theology developed as I went from house to house and visited the sick. If things went well, on Monday I learnt the text for the following Sunday’s sermon, took it with me as I visited the congregation, and then knew what I had to say in my sermon. Here a ‘hermeneutical circle’ developed, not the one between textual interpretation and one’s own private interpretation, as in Bultmann, but the one between textual interpretation and the experience of a community of people, in their families, among their neighbours, and in their work. In conversations, in teaching, and in preaching I came to believe that this was a shared theology of believers and doubters, the downcast and the consoled.

So McGrath: ‘It’s the theology, stupid’.