This is a paper I prepared in the mid 1990s when serving as a member of the (Delaware) Diocesan Council. It was in the context of an early discussion about the appropriateness of allowing blessings of same gender relationships in parishes where there would be support for the principle and for the individuals concerned.
Although it is almost ten years since I wrote it, I feel that it is still relevant for our current situation. Indeed during that time, instead of the question being reasonably and calmly debated, new levels of polemic and rhetoric have dominated the discussion.
Because of the length of the piece, I intend to publish it in three parts:
(A) – see below – this week and (B) & (C) in the following two weeks.
The issues involved in this question have been researched and debated now for decades, and so it is unlikely that anything startlingly new can be produced. Nevertheless, it is important for the pastoral, legislative and intellectual leaders of the diocese to review the material. The object of the notes that follow is to draw attention to some of the salient religious and theological factors that must be addressed before practical and legislative action be attempted. These notes will draw attention to the following concerns:
A) A consideration of the nature of religion and its relationship to Christian practice and theology.
B) The nature of doctrine and an examination of how (if so be the case) it develops and changes.
C) Theology and the Bible in changing world-views, with special reference to the Anglican Communion’s record in this matter.
A Religion & Theology
Clearly, religion is, even in this so-called secular age, still a central human activity. Reasonably reliable statistics repeatedly tell us that the USA is one of the most religious of the western industrialized nations with a vast majority of those polled affirm some kind of belief in God (or, perhaps, god).
The word ‘religion’ comes from a Latin word that was used to describe the required attitude of a human being to the unseen forces of the world. Peter Brown, Professor of History at Princeton, in a recent book about the emergence of Christianity in the Roman Empire writes, “The gods were there. They were invisible and ageless neighbors of the human race.....Religio, the apposite worship of each god, stressed ...social cohesion and the passing on of tradition in families, local communities, and through the memories of proud cities and nations bathed in centuries of history.” (The Rise of Western Christendom, p. 20).
Only One God
In contrast to this, the early Christian message of salvation centered on belief in one God, not many, and it cut across precisely those old rituals and immemorial customs that were the very stuff of ancient religion. From the conversion of Constantine in 312 for many centuries, there was no doubt in people’s minds that true religion meant Christianity, and, what is more, a particular form of Christianity, Catholicism centered on the ancient city of Rome.
When one says “peoples’ minds”, however, it is important to remember that this really refers to a fairly small elitist group of governors, officials and committed congregations. It does not include the vast numbers of peasants, slaves and ordinary towns-folk of the Empire. As late as the seventh century, in sermon after sermon, Bishops were bemoaning the continuing power of paganism, what today we might call “contemporary culture”. Still, by the end of the first millennium, Europe thought of itself as more or less a Christian continent and true religion meant being in line with the mother church in Rome.
Emergence of National Churches
The long dominance of western Catholicism was challenged by the movements of the Reformation, and by the end of the century, Europe had many groups and National Churches each claiming to have a true (and superior) version of Christianity.
In the light of anthropological study and a more accurate appraisal of world religions it is commonly held that religion in some form or other seems to have been universal in human behaviour. Barbara Smith-Morgan in an interview in Science & Spirit said recently, “I believe that as a species we are religious by nature, just as we are musical by nature; that’s in the genes, I think”. Now this suggests a very interesting paradox. If such a definition of religion is correct, it means that religion is essentially a human activity; it is something we do to achieve some end. We produce music to dance to, to give us joy and so on. We develop our religion to give us a feeling of security in a hostile world.
We do not need to go all the way with Karl Barth, who had some striking things to say about the understanding of religion as essentially a human activity. As usual Barth gives us a paradox. Religion “is unbelief....it is the one great concern of godless man”. And again, “Religion is never true in itself and as such....If by the concept of “true religion” we mean truth which belongs to religion in itself, it is just as unattainable as a “good man”. On the other hand, religion can be redeemed and sanctified; “like justified man, true religion is a creature of grace”. (Church Dogmatics, quoted in McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, p. 323)
Paradoxically, Barth is suggesting it may mean that “true religion” is to be free of ‘religion’. Certainly, religion does not seem to be a very good influence in many parts of the world. In its name, people in Ireland have been killing each other for centuries. In the Middle East religion lies behind terrible and bloody conflicts, and the genocide in Bosnia and Kosovo was fueled by religion.
'Religion' in the USA
If we turn to the USA, a rather different, but not necessarily reassuring scene emerges. The US is known as the most religious of all the western industrialized nations. The brands of religion abound; quite outside what are called the “main-line” churches, all kinds of groups and cults spring up, and in recent years, this diffuse, undifferentiated kind of religion has produced a whole industry dedicated to angels and what is loosely called “spirituality”.
In spite of the great diversity of the religious scene in the USA, several characteristics stand out.
Firstly, religion tends to be full of cheer, promising comfort, success and immediate answer to prayer. This seems to be a pattern in what might be called our national religiosity, and it stands in stark contrast to some of the stern words of the gospel tradition.
Secondly, religion tends to be conservative, and connected much more with cultural/political norms than with a theological understanding of God’s gracious action towards fallen humanity. It is arguable, for instance that the fierce homophobia of fundamentalist Christianity (and, for that matter, Judaism and Islam) is much more the result of religious positions than of truly theological ones based on a comprehensive understanding of God, God’s nature and God’s dealing with humanity.
Thirdly, this generalized ‘religiosity’ is as pervasive as it is, on the whole, unexamined.
In the light of this, as we wrestle with what is consonant with God’s will for us in the question at hand we need to be on our guard that “religious” attitudes to homosexuality do not block out new understandings of the gracious action of God for us.
Hot Line to God
Another characteristic of much religion in the USA today is that its adherents are usually very clear indeed what it is that God wants, and, perhaps, even more tellingly what God does not want. The whole New Testament tradition should remind us that this religious attitude was very much implicated in the death of Jesus. All too often, religion is something we do to influence God (or fate or the gods or whatever is the name of the ‘unseen’ forces in our culture). This is not at all what the bible talks about: from first to last the biblical story tells what God does to and for us; it does not speak of our finding God, but of God finding us, and, above all, it never suggests that the call that God sends us will necessarily be the one we expect.
To be continued