CEEC Consultation on Sexuality & Scripture Feb 2015

Belatedly realising that I never posted some of the stuff I wrote about the CEEC consultation I attended in 2015. For context: the CEEC is the Church of England Evangelical Council. It’s a representative body for Evangelical Anglicans. Prior to the Shared Conversations process, they wanted to give key leaders a chance to reflect together on the issues. So they called together some theologians and activists (from all sides) to meet with them and reflect together on a report they had commissioned by Martin Davie that reviewed recent literature on the subject. I’ll discuss the report itself in another post. I was invited as a theologian.

CEEC consultation

I told a friend just before I went to the CEEC day that the whole thing was being conducted under Chatham House rules, meaning that we couldn’t say who said what, so probably all I’d be able to tell him about it was “we met, we talked, there were disagreements, no-one changed their mind”. Well, that’s true, as far as it goes. More happened than that rather cynical summary suggests, however.

I’d gone with some personal wariness. I’m an evangelical who holds to what was described in the report as the ‘traditionalist’ position on the Biblical texts concerning same-sex relationships (though not, as I discovered from reading the report, on all of them – there are some texts on which my reading now apparently counts as ‘revisionist’). However, I’ve become increasing concerned about the way in which a traditionalist interpretation of certain texts is being used in contemporary discussions, and I’ve been convinced that in many cases evangelicalism has been guilty of a sort of institutional homophobia. This puts me somewhere in the awkward middle ground of the debate, which everyone has a vested interest in saying isn’t a credible place to stand, and so I went convinced that the more people found out about my position the less people on either side would like me.

On top of this, I had gone having spent the day before reading through the CEEC report that we were supposed to be discussing together. This is by Martin Davie, and shortly to be published. I’ll go through this rather problematic report in another post, because it warrants a bit more attention than I can give it here, but in brief it’s a review of all significant writings (by all sides) on the biblical passages that are key to the debate on homosexuality in the period between the publication of ‘Some Issues in Human Sexuality’ and the recent ‘Pilling Report’. The report follows a tight brief set by the CEEC, to determine whether in that period any new research had suggested that a conservative reading of the texts was less well founded than it had been before. The report concludes that no such significant new research has emerged, and therefore a conservative reading of the texts has not been seriously challenged. It is, in short, a document written with the purpose of showing that the Pilling Report has changed nothing.

In the event, the day was not dominated by discussion of the report. There were three responses to the report, which critiqued it in different ways, and there was plenty of space for discussion around the wider debate. The day was designed to create space for reflection, to help people to listen to each other, and to consider where the debate might be going. The provocative question was asked: is the pain we feel the pain of divorce, or of childbirth? Are we on the verge of a parting of the ways or of a new birth?

I met with some wonderful people, and found compassion and thoughtfulness on both sides of the debate. In the end, though, my feeling was that the anger I’d feared simply wasn’t there. Most of the participants, on both ‘sides’, were old hands who had hashed this out many times before. They weren’t going to change their positions, and had come determined to play nice. A few spats aside, they avoided unproductive squabbling. It was the others, who didn’t quite fit this pattern, who intruiged me. There were evangelicals who wanted to claim a revisionist position themselves. There were those who wanted to acknowledge the validity of a revisionist position they didn’t hold to themselves. There were those willing to concede that the way the debate had been framed in the past and continued to be framed now was unhelpful. And increasingly, discussion was being framed in terms of endgames. What sort of structures (if any) might allow continued disagreement with integrity? What sort of developments would mean those holding to a traditional position might have to leave the church?

Overall, though, I was left with a sense of hope for the future.

‘In the essentials unity…’

Earlier this month, IVCF (the US version of UCCF) asked its employees to sign up to a new statement on sexuality, saying that they agreed to both believe and behave in accordance with its guidelines. This might seem fairly run-of-the-mill these days. After all, the conservative stance of the CU movement is not exactly news. Certainly it’s not something that has made a big impact over here as far as I can tell. I only really paid attention because of my previous involvement in IFES (the international umbrella body for both IVCF and UCCF).

Two things here have given me pause, however. The first is that, as highlighted in this Sojourners article, the demand for staff to both behave and believe is a new departure for IVCF (and indeed any CU movement). They have never before demanded affirmations of belief on anything but the Doctrinal Basis. In effect, this move elevates an ethical issue to the status of core doctrine. It is no longer permissible to recognise this as an area where (although the organisation has a declared view that it would expect its employees to support) it is legitimate for doubts to be held and questions asked in private. There is no legitimate space for debate on the subject. Even to entertain that the stated position may not command your wholehearted support is to suggest you cannot remain within the organisation. It is put on a par with faith in Jesus as saviour and Lord, the Bible as source of authority etc. Sexuality is the only area of ethical teaching treated in this way. Partly, it must be assumed, because it is inconceivable that any other ethical issue would command this level of unanimity amongst conservative evangelicals. It is sexuality’s totemic position within the cultural wars of the West that has elevated it to an issue that can be placed on the level of shibboleth of orthodoxy. This raises the question: is this a helpful development? The doctrinal basis was originally produced within a context where it was vital to ensure that the leadership of the CU were not theologically liberal but sat unquestionably within the mainstream of Conservative Evangelicalism. By definition, then, any change to it (even one like this that is a de facto rather than actual one) signals a change in what is considered to be the mainstream of conservative evangelicalism.

The second thing that gives me pause is the nature of the Christian Union movement. I grew up in the CU movement. I worked for the Christian Union movement. I believe in it. It’s made me who I am. At its best, it represents Christians from many different churches who can agree on the essentials of their faith, coming together and setting aside the things that divide them for the sake of the gospel. It’s about saying ‘yes we believe different things, and have different ideas about what Christian discipleship and church order look like, and we have good reasons for that, but none of that is as important as sharing the good news’. It’s a profoundly inclusive stance, way more so than that of many of the liberal Anglicans who look down their noses at it. In the Ukraine, we had Orthodox, Baptists (registered and unregistered), and Adventists all working together as brothers and sisters in Christ. The point is that it’s not a church. It’s a missionary organisation. It doesn’t have to demand unity on things that it would be inconceivable for a church not to take a stance on (like sacraments), and encourages tolerance and mutual respect between disciples following very different paths (such as those who are teetotal and those who are not). What it has to do is have a shared understanding of what the gospel is that we are sharing. As long as there exists a shared understanding of that, the rest is details: things that can be taught by whichever church you settle in.

It’s a profound commitment to the principle I alluded to in the title: ‘In the essentials unity, in the non-essentials liberty, in all things charity’. It’s a saying attributed to a 17th century German Lutheran: Rupertus Meldenius, writing in the midst of the Thirty Years War. The import is clear and profoundly Christian: our commitment to love one another should, amongst other things, express itself in our desire to restrict as much as possible the list of ‘essentials’ we demand unity to. If we accept that, then we should always be concerned when it is felt necessary to increase that list of ‘essentials’. Particularly when, as seems to be being argued here, it is not believed that any change in understanding is implied: this is a position that has been clearly understood for some time as the ‘default position’ of the organisation. What is changing is that now it is deemed to be essential to hold to it as an article of faith. The fact that this has caused some employees to leave because of their inability to comply with it demonstrates that whatever the rhetoric this represents a real shift. IVCF no longer welcomes those who harbour questions in their heart on this issue, even if they are willing to abide by the organisation’s guidelines.

The Tax Collector and the Pharisee

These days I tend to preach from notes rather than writing sermons out in full. However, seeing as I did write this one out, I figure I may as well put it on here:

Luke 18: 9-14 The Pharisee & The Tax Collector

There’s a difference between what we see on the outside and what God sees on the inside. A lot of the time we forget that, and it gets us into all sorts of trouble. It’s far far too easy to judge other people on the basis of what they look like and how they dress, on the basis of our prejudices, on the basis of gossip we’ve heard about them, on the basis of a few meetings when maybe we caught them on a bad day, on the basis of the things we’ve known about them up to now, forgetting that they could be or do something new in the future. We can never truly see into people’s hearts. We can never know what they’re really thinking, what is going on deep inside them. Our gospel reading today is centred on that difference, between what we see on the outside and what God sees on the inside.

This a story that Jesus tells about two men going to the Temple (the place that was there for people to come before God to have their sins forgiven) and praying. We’ve probably heard the story before. But to really hear it the way Jesus’ followers heard it we need to understand a bit about the way they would think of these two men.

One is a Pharisee. We know about Pharisees mainly as the people who Jesus often criticised and who eventually turned against him. However, this wasn’t the way that Jesus’ listeners would have thought about them. Pharisees were well known as the most devout, most righteous, people. A Pharisee followed the law exactly, taking extra care to live as they should, and to keep themselves pure. To tell a story with a Pharisee in it meant having a character who was the stereotypical ‘good man’.

One is a Tax Collector. We may think we know what tax collectors are like. Penny-pinching bureaucrats, perhaps. But that’s not what a 1st century Jew would think. We have to remember that this is an occupied country. The taxes are the taxes the Roman invaders force the Jews to pay. So a tax collector is a Jew doing the Roman’s dirty work for them. They were collaborators. They were hated and resented. Most took advantage of their position to demand more money from people than they really owed – keeping it to line their own pockets – and they were notoriously corrupt. To tell a story with a tax collector in it meant having a character who was compromised and corrupt, the stereotypical ‘bad man’.

So, when Jesus tells a story about a Pharisee and a Tax Collector coming to the Temple to pray, we already know that one of these men is making every effort to live a good life, and the other one is living the life of a sell-out.

Jesus starts by describing the Pharisee praying. He stands apart, keeping himself apart from the other people coming to the Temples, and he addresses God boldly. This is a man who feels at home in the Temple, who is accustomed to praying. The right words come easily to him. He knows he is a cut above these other ordinary worshippers who play at holiness on a Sabbath. He lives and breathes a holy life 24/7.

However, as we hear the Pharisee’s prayer, we might start to feel a little uneasy about it. This is apparently a prayer thanking God for all God has done for him. But the more that the Pharisee prays, the more it sounds like he’s just self-righteously boasting about all the things he’s done: how he fasts and gives money to the poor. More than that, it seems like he’s convincing himself about how good he is by putting down other people. The Pharisee shows a contempt for the other people who have come to the Temple. He dismisses them as greedy, exploiting others and unable to be faithful to their commitments. And he fixes on the Tax Collector as the embodiment of all this. The Pharisee convinces himself that he is living a good and holy life by comparing himself to what he imagines the Tax Collector to be like.

The Tax Collector, he is sure, is a genuinely bad person, greedy, corrupt, exploiting others and selling out his people to the Romans. He, by comparison, is true to God, to the law and to his people. He does nothing to hurt those around him and gives regularly to help others. And he controls himself and his desires.

So far, Jesus’ listeners might be a bit uneasy about the tone of the Pharisee’s prayer, but no-one would doubt that he is in fact right. The Pharisee is indisputably trying to live a good life, and the Tax Collector is irredeemably compromised. But here comes the twist: Jesus says that this good man is not the person who is forgiven by God as they come to the Temple. Instead, it’s the tax collector. And he lets us see what this tax collector, the man the Pharisee has just written off, is praying. Because the Tax Collector’s prayer shows just how wrong the Pharisee is.

Unlike the Pharisee, the Tax Collector does not feel at home in the Temple. He does not see himself as better than everyone else, with more right to be there. In fact, he stands far off. He just creeps through the door. He doesn’t see himself as worthy of standing alongside the rest of the people there. He doesn’t address God boldly, he doesn’t even dare to lift his head. He hardly has words to say. The Pharisee had a long and eloquent prayer. This man just stands there beating his breast and calling for God to have mercy on him. He makes no comparisons at all. He doesn’t look at anyone else and try to figure out if he is better or worse than them. The tax collector could have done that: ‘Maybe I’ve done some things wrong, but at least I don’t ponce around making out I’m holier than everyone else, like that Pharisee.’ He doesn’t. He doesn’t try to pretend that he’s a good person, and doesn’t try to put others down as a way of proving it. He’s honest with God and with himself.

The story doesn’t say what happens next -that he goes out and stops being a tax collector. Or that he stops cheating people. I’m sure he did do something significant next, because no-one can pray a prayer like that and not be changed by it. But all the story is concerned with is what happens in his heart: this moment when he recognises that he is not who he should be, and asks God to help him. Because that’s the most significant part – the moment when you decide you have to change and be someone different. Once that has happened, you can’t be the same again.

The Pharisee, who on the surface seemed to be the good person, has refused to allow himself to have that sort of moment. Rather than be honest with himself and God he’s trying to convince God and himself that he’s a good person who doesn’t need to change anything about himself by putting down those around him. The worse he can make them out to be, the better he feels about himself.

This is the twist in the story: the person everyone would think was a saint turns out to be a sinner, and the one everyone including himself thought was a sinner turns out to be the model for being a saint. The one who exalts himself is humbled and the one who humbles himself is exalted. Because God does not judge people the same way we do. He does not write people off because of the sort of life they’ve lived in the past, and doesn’t make comparisons. He looks at what’s in our hearts right now. Every day can be a new start with him. Every moment can be the one where everything changes. All we have to do is grasp it.

Good Friday meditations: Purple Robes, Nails, Curtain

I placed the appropriate items on a table at the front before each meditation. Still not convinced that the last one works very well.

 

Purple robes

He didn’t seem to pay much attention to his trial. He didn’t make a defence, didn’t take the chance to argue his case. Maybe he knew it was pointless.  The outcome had already been decided before he arrived. False witnesses had been arranged, and a rigged jury heard a prejudiced case. It suited the religious authorities to have him condemned as a blasphemer. No amount of arguing could change that. It suited Herod to refuse to accept jurisdiction and send him to Pilate. It suited Pilate to bury his conscience and give the high priests what they wanted rather than risk his career over his principles and a maverick holy man whose followers had all deserted him.

It had all already been decided. The trial was simply assuaging the need to make the decision to kill Jesus appear justified. Make it feel less personal. Push it through the system and it ends up being the Romans who do your dirty work for you. If it turned out that Jesus still had a following among the people, the high priests could still say it wasn’t them that killed him.

It had all already been decided. So they really had no reason to treat this dead man as if he had any dignity left. He became the butt of the barracks jokes in every cell he was sent to. The Temple guard, Herod’s soldiers, the Roman army. The more religiously-minded blindfolded him and asked him to prophecy who would hit him. The more political dressed him in a purple robe and crown of thorns and bowed down to him as king. The less creative just beat him. They were only doing what the worthier folk upstairs had already done: parading him as a helpless fool, passing sentence without bothering to hear any evidence. In the end, the soldiers took him more seriously than anyone else. He’d been hailed king of the Jews when he entered Jerusalem, but no-one crowned him or dressed him in purple until he got to those barracks. These were the royal robes he chose: not the robes of a conquering king, but the humiliation placed on one who comes to die for his people.

 

Nails

He was a carpenter. Hammer, wood, nails. These were the tools of his trade. Growing up as the son of a carpenter they would have always been part of his life. Carrying wood around was what carpenters did. But this was different. It’s a different matter to carry a length of wood knowing that you’re going to be nailed to it and left to die. Seeing these familiar tools given a grim new meaning was the least of his sufferings, but it might have felt one of the keenest of betrayals. Hammer, wood, nails. The stuff of his childhood, the means of his livelihood. Now twisted into instruments of execution in the hands of craftsmen of a far darker trade than carpentry.

Did he find himself remembering his childhood as he hung there? Did he wonder how much his parents had known or guessed about his destiny as their son had fetched nails for his father, or been taught how to hammer them true? When he left his father’s trade behind him to follow a calling to a ministry everyone struggled to understand, his family thought he’d gone mad. But perhaps his mother always knew that he was not destined to be a carpenter forever. She had heard angels speak to her about her child, received gifts from wise men who had travelled far to see him, seen him question rabbis in the Temple as a child. Perhaps she had known something too of the suffering ahead of him. He had spoken to his disciples about it, would he not have prepared her? And perhaps she still remembered the words spoken over him as a baby in the Temple, that his life would be a sword to pierce her heart. At the last Jesus asked his closest friend to care for her mother, knowing that whatever she had prepared herself for, this was immeasurably worse.

But how strange that the very calling that had taken him away from his inheritance should bring him back to the carpenter’s tools when it reached its climax. That it was with hammer, wood and nails that he should finally finish his Father’s work.

 

Curtain

They hung there in the Temple, dominating the whole far side of this massive cathedral-like space. A vast length of fabric, falling from ceiling to floor. When Solomon built the first Temple, he had the curtain made of yarn and fine linen, dyed blue, purple and crimson, with cherubim worked into it. It was so impressive that the description was written in the book of Chronicles, where it passed into scripture to be read and remembered forever. The curtain divided the main hall of the Temple, the Holy place, from the inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies. It was the furthest point that most worshippers would ever see – a veil that separated the mundane world from the presence of God. It had to be impressive, dyed in the rich colours worn by royalty. Only the high priest could go beyond the curtain into the holy of holies, and then only one day in the year.

Neither this Temple nor the one that came after still stood. The Temple Jesus knew was that built by Herod, a symbol of his power, and an attempt to get the Jews to accept him as their King. This was the Temple the high priests thought Jesus planned to tear down and rebuild. It wasn’t yet finished. Throughout Jesus’ lifetime the Temple was a building site. Work had started over 40 years earlier, but it wouldn’t be completed for another 30. It was built on a grand scale, with no expense spared, and the curtain still hung there, a marker of the limits of human knowledge and standing before God. Until the day Jesus died.

The curtain was ripped in two, from top to bottom. The holy of holies was opened up for the first time since it was built. The altar of the presence was unveiled. The people were able to look right into the place where God dwelt. There was no need for separation any more. All because on the cross, the Temple that was Jesus’ body had been torn down.