Exaggerated Certainity

22 November 2008

I keep bumping into people who want to off-load their certainties on to me. Although it seems a habit of religious people, it is there in many facets of life. It is the expectation that you will join others in understanding and interpreting the world from inside of their stereotypes. Religious people root their certainties in their understanding of God and then use that understanding to justify why they can be certain about so many aspects of faith, order and morality. In the face of such certainty it often feels that to have a faith, but to disagree or question such certainties is to be cast as ‘wishy-washy’, liberal or lacking in faith.

Yet can the possibilities of God be packaged in such constructs? Can the God who inhabits all the complexity of humanity and the outrageous imaginative dynamics of cosmology be contained within a certainty constrained by the limitations of human experience and understanding?

During the Lambeth Conference I was able to come close to a number of Bishops who professed certainties. One of the benefits of spending an extended amount of time with them was to discover that their certainties were not nearly as clear-cut as they initially appeared. Belief is held within context and is cradled by many factors – some personal, others cultural or political, whilst others are the pragmatics of belonging to a particular grouping within the church. As I came to understand their certainties I realised that there were exaggerated by the factors of personality, affinity, culture, mission, context and history.

Exaggerated certainty can become a public expression of faith, which suggests that such certainties are far more robust than they really are. Yet upon such exaggerated certainties so much conflict and division have been founded. Today I came across a memorial near Old Amersham in Buckinghamshire erected to the p1000651memory of protestants who had been burnt to death in the sixteenth century (and for two of them their children were compelled to light the faggots). They had been executed for wanting religious liberty and the right to read the scriptures. They had become victims of exaggerated certainty, with politics and power providing the exaggeration which enabled such actions in the name of God.

Whilst we can be certain of the love of God, certain of the forgiveness which flows from that love and also certain that the God we meet in Jesus is outraged about injustice. We have to be wary of the kind of certainty which is used to justify division and conflict in the name of a God who blesses the peacemakers – certainty of this kind may well be an exaggeration which takes us away from the God who invites us to have faith enough to explore the possibilities of his love.

If resolution 1.10 is important, what about resolution 19?

9 August 2008

The more I read the final Lambeth Document, “Capturing Conversations and Reflections”, the more I rejoice that we did not go down the road of resolutions and votes. To have a ‘snapshot’ of the engagement between the Bishops is probably of far more worth, than adding to the fossilised remains of earlier conferences, which leave skeletal resolutions disconnected from the tissue of conversation lying behind them as some sort of guide to the heart and mind of the church.

Much has been made of Resolution 1.10 from the 1998 Conference, as though this is an enduring and unerring piece of truth. It has become almost a test for orthodoxy.  But if this resolution has such enduring status, then all resolutions of the Lambeth Conference must be given the same status. So what about Resolution 67 from 1908?  Very importantly it states

We desire earnestly to warn members of our Communion against contracting marriages with Roman Catholics under the conditions imposed by modern Roman canon law, especially as these conditions involve the performance of the marriage ceremony without any prayer or invocation of the divine blessing, and also a promise to have their children brought up in a religious system which they cannot themselves accept.”

I am also concerned that there is not enough campaigning with regard to Resolution 6.f from 1888:

“That the most careful regard should be had to the danger of any encroachment upon the rest which, on this day, is the right of servants as well as their masters, and of the working classes as well as their employers.”

and what has been done about Resolution 36 from 1908?

“The Conference, having regard to the uncertainty which exists as to the permanence of the practice commended by St. James (5.14), and having regard to the history of the practice which professes to be based upon that commendation, does not recommend the sanctioning of the anointing of the sick as a rite of the Church.
It does not, however, advise the prohibition of all anointing, if anointing be earnestly desired by the sick person. In all such cases the parish priest should seek the counsel of the bishop of the diocese. Care must be taken that no return be made to the later custom of anointing as a preparation for death.”

But most urgently of all, how do we reconcile Resolution 19 from 1897 with 1.10 from 1998?

“That it is important that, so far as possible, the Church should be adapted to local circumstances, and the people brought to feel in all ways that no burdens in the way of foreign customs are laid upon them, and nothing is required of them but what is of the essence of the faith, and belongs to the due order of the Catholic Church.”

As I heard the conversations between Bishops from very different context explaining how issues in sexuality affected their mission within their context, social norms and cultural inheritance – Resolution 19 sounded very modern. It addresses the crux of these matters – what is the essence of faith and of order?   The conversations of which I was part were really about ‘foreign customs’ being forced upon radically different parts of the Communion – and some of those radically different parts were contained within the same province!

So I am starting a campaign for Resolution 19 and it will become my ‘litmus test’ for orthodoxy.

Lambeth Day 16

1 August 2008

Those who have been supporting the process of Bible Study followed by an Indaba were vindicated this morning.  I sat, listened and contributed as one of 40 bishops engaging with issues in human sexuality.  As far as I could tell, everyone was able to make a contribution and the challenges facing us were clarified.  There was no ‘grandstanding’ and people were able to make their contribution without having to run the gauntlet of a plenary of 660 bishops  – which would have ensured that only a minority were heard.

In my Indaba, one thing about which there was unanimity was that our attitude to homosexual people must be positive, generous and full of Christian love.  There, however, the unanimity ended.   In my Bible Study group there had been a recognition that we are each trying to be faithful to God and to our understanding of the nature and authority of scripture. By the time we came to the Indaba I detected the underlying presumption that a ‘real Christian’ is essentially fundamentalist when it comes to using the Bible.

The discussion was however very helpful in enabling both sides to hear the problems faced by the other.  The problems are essentially both theological and cultural – but culture can be a vicious thing.  So we encountered one Bishop who shared his concern that, if the Communion was understood to be accepting of homosexual practice, then he would have no credibility amongst the people of his Diocese and he would be deposed.  It also became evident that homosexuality in many parts of the world remains taboo and so the Church cannot even raise the subject.   In many countries in the Communion homosexual practice remains illegal and again the Church cannot be seen to be accepting it.

Yet we also heard from cultures where homosexuality has become an accepted expression within the spectrum of human sexuality and so a Church which is perceived to be ‘anti-gay’ is seen to be prejudiced and hypocritical in its call for justice and peace.  One Bishop shared his concern that young adults in his congregations were looking for a Church which is inclusive and that they would leave if he went back without this issue having been resolved to enable their church to be an inclusive one.

Where is all this going?  Well, the one thing which has become apparent is that there is no general appetite for a ‘winners and losers’ outcome about this issue.  It may well be that the time is still not right for a clear way forward to be found.  That will frustrate the press (who are back here again in large numbers now that we are on to sex) and those who want a clear resolution.

Sometimes it takes a very long time for the Church to absorb the challenges which modernity thrusts at us. The discussions about homosexuality have been going on within the Communion for about 30 years – which feels a very long time. We need to remember however that the Church is still trying to accommodate the theological implications of  a Sun-centered theory of the universe which Galileo posed in about 1610, of Darwin’s theory of evolution from  the 1840s, of the double helix in the 1950s and of Lemaître’s Big Bang theory from the 1920/30s.  Perhaps we need to just allow ourselves the time needed to find a balanced way to accommodate issues in human sexuality, in the same way as we have found ways to accommodate evolutionists and creationists within the theological spectrum which is part of the Anglican identity.

The Archbishop of Burundi started the day with a memorable sermon which ended with the words “…..before the Communion was, I am.”   Whatever comes out of the Conference about these matters, in the end we have been Christ centred in all this and there has been no room for those who would wish to demonise those with whom they disagree.

Lambeth Day 15

31 July 2008

The conference ends in four days time and concern that there should be a ‘product’ from the Conference is mounting.  I find it ironic that whilst such concern comes from across the spectrum of opinion here, it includes those who are convinced that the church must not be influenced by contemporary culture.  Yet this idea that you cannot meet without a purpose and an outcome is totally driven by contemporary culture, influenced by an economy which only values an activity if it ‘feeds the bottom line’.

It is regrettable that over the years The Lambeth Conference has become associated with some kind of legislature for the Communion, with its resolutions being given the status of law….the question “do you subscribe Lambeth 1.10?” has at times taken on a McCarthyistic character.  So an expectation has developed that on Sunday evening we will be coming down the mountain (well, hill actually) on which this campus is set, with tablets under our arms having solved questions about the use and interpretation of the Bible which have challenged the church throughout its history.

In a world which falls so far short of what God intended and with so many people, each made in the image of God, not sharing in the God-given blessings of life, we need to value people of faith coming together to renew their commitment to God, to each other and to building the Kingdom of God.  We will have totally sold out to the ephemeral values of our age if we fail to celebrate the intrinsic value of worship, prayer, study and the recommitment of bishops in mission to their leadership of the church, as it works for the Kingdom of God.

The work to gather the reflections from all the Indaba Groups goes on and the panel, which has been drawn from the groups, has been working into the night drafting a communiqué which will reflect the work which has been done within those Groups.   It will provide an important record of what has taken place here – but for me, the real product has been what has occurred within the Conference, which has no cash value, but ‘feeds the bottom line’ of a Church which works in the power of the Spirit.

Lambeth Day 14

30 July 2008

“There are serious issues we are not talking about, that matter far more than homosexuality.” So said a spouse during the Bible Study organised for us all by the Spouses Conference and for which the spouse received sustained applause. The Bible Study drew on the rape of Tamar (2 Samuel 13:1-22) to guide us into addressing the reality of violence towards women and children. We were reminded that, outside of war, women and children are the main victims of violence in the world and much of that violence occurs in the home.

The story of Tamar and her rape by Amnon is seldom read in church and is not in the Sunday lectionary – indeed only about a 20 of the 1100 present had ever heard it read aloud on a Sunday. It is a powerful story and we benefited from a model of study which asked us to place the narrative alongside our own experiences. The small group in which I found myself drew many parallels between the story and our experience in ministry – it really felt a very modern story. I see people scouring the Bible to support their case against any acceptance of homosexuals, but I don’t think that I have heard anyone use this text to ask gospel questions about domestic violence and abuse.  One Bishop observed in the plenary session, “talking about homosexuality may be a way of avoiding the greater problem of heterosexual males behaving badly.”

Although trying to orchestrate the 1100 Bishops and spouses in a Bible Study was no easy task, I thought that the morning was well used and the production by the Riding Lights Company about Jesus’ dealings with women was a powerful and effective way of introducing this very sensitive subject.

Later in the day, the Archbishop, in his second presidential address, posed the question which has been on all our minds “What is Lambeth ’08 going to say?” He suggested that we need to speak form the centre, from our living in and as the body of Christ. He offered two caricatures of the two sides engaged in the debate at the Conference. I thought that they were a helpful way of increasing our understanding of each other and which may lead to a positive response to the Archbishop’s encouragement to step towards each other. He observed “If both were able to hear and to respond generously, perhaps we could have something more like a conversation of equals — even something more like a Church.”

We were encouraged to revisit the concept of ‘covenant’ as a way forward for the Communion and, in the days that are left to us, that will form much of our agenda. My own concern remains that structures can be used negatively when ideas to move the Church forward become a challenge to those who like things just as they are – but I have to admit to being open to persuasion, as where we are, is probably not going anywhere that is productive for God’s mission nor release the potential for mission which is contained within the Anglican Communion.

Lambeth Day 13

29 July 2008

This Conference is so packed with things to do that there is a temptation to skip the odd event just to create some personal space etc.  Those who took such an opportunity tonight will have rued their decision, for they have missed an extraordinarily memorable evening with Sir Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi,  – he was electric.

The Chief Rabbi’s theme was the ‘covenant’ relationship.  In a passionate and demanding address he described the two types of covenant to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures – the covenant of fate which was attested to Noah through the rainbow and the covenant of faith with Moses and Abraham.  Two memorable images have stayed particularly in my mind – that through covenant , solitude is redeemed and how a ‘contract’ leads to betterment, whereas a ‘covenant’ leads to transformation.

The whole lecture, along with the questions and answer session, was so full of nuggets of wisdom that it needs time to absorb it all – but the message came through powerfully – there needs to be a covenant of fact between all peoples of faith enabling them to move away from a violent and divisive past, to work together in the face of the challenges of poverty, hunger, disease and environmental disaster.

He urged the Anglican Communion to stay together as a sign of unity in diversity and it may well be that his theme of a covenant of fate, even if you can’t achieve a covenant of faith, may offer a way forward.  The two standing ovations which he received, at the end of his lecture and then after the questions , were spontaneous responses from a large group of faith leaders to another faith leader who had inspired us in our task.

We certainly need some encouragement.  The afternoon hearings about finding a way forward with the issues of church order and homosexuality were not exactly encouraging with fairly entrenched positions being re-stated in a hall without air-conditioning and akin to a sauna.  There were just two memorable offerings, both from evangelicals, which gave us a different path to consider.  The first was from Duncan Gray, Bishop of Mississippi, who, perhaps because he is used to the heat, was on sparkling form.  He is opposed fundamentally to the liberal agenda, but he is not prepared to divide the church, drawing on St Paul, he affirmed that in relation to the parts of ECUSA with whom he disagrees, he still contends that “I need you – for my salvation and for the salvation of the world.”

The second offering came from the Eugene Sutton, the Bishop of Maryland.  He reminded us that his forbears had been taken into slavery and shipped to America to suffer dreadfully by people with the Bible under their arms.  He cautioned us to remember that you can use the Bible to oppress.  Good stuff from a self-professed evangical who assured us that he sits under the authority of scripture.

Lambeth Day 12

28 July 2008

This morning some Bishops went to parishes in and around Canterbury to share in their Sunday worship, whilst others were at the Cathedral.  I joined that latter group and stayed to enjoy the hospitality of the Cathedral with a buffet lunch served in the precincts.  I get the feeling that we are all in need of a quieter more restful day.

We have had a week and a half of building relationships and trust, now we need to capitalise on all this as we map a way forward for the Communion.  We are here as leaders of the Communion and that means more than just being friendly.  The key question is how do we structure the Communion without creating a centralising ‘magisterium’ of teaching and order,  which would undermine the nature of the bonds which holds us together as a worldwide Communion.

Although there has been much attention on issues in human sexuality, which are of course important, in many ways these discussions have guided  us to the complex questions about the Anglican Communion and its comprehensiveness.

One of the gifts which the Anglican Communion has offered to God and to the world has been our ability to hold together a diversity of responses to the God whom we have encountered in Jesus Christ.  Diversity which has been worked out in the way in which we have made our decisions about the order of the church.  We have been a Church which has been held together by belief, as contained in the historic creeds and the historic formularies, and not by agreeing to particular statements about that faith in each generation.   This has always frustrated those who like clarity and structure to the content of faith.

There is pressure from those in the Communion who would be happier with statements or confessions of faith, but many of us are wary of such a move as that requires churches to ‘opt in’, whereas a family is something from which you choose to ‘opt out’.   So it is going to be a busy week, but my observation is that we have been well prepared for it by the worship, prayer and personal engagements which have been the substance of the Conference thus far.