Thursday, 7 February 2008

Sorry Seems to Be Something or Other

There is some discussion whether the Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, has changed his position regarding the homosexuality issue in Anglicanism. There is also some discussion about it being good to hear a bishop to say sorry for a wrongdoing, and whether he has said it to the right people. Is the Bishop of Liverpool having his own version of a Steve Chalke moment? Steve Chalke shifted away from a Conservative Evangelical position on the atonement, and so departed from former friends.

Now there is a cynic in me, and I'm going to let him out and have a run around. He is let out, but by my side at the moment.

In some institutional settings, we cannot be too extreme. It won't do. Maybe this is true for Steve Chalke, with this big Oasis Trust muscling in what seems to many to be the part privatisation of schools and the resurgent interest of organised religion in schooling children. There is such resistance when the boss of Dixons (motors) provides money and then the stupidity of creationism creeps in to lessons. Really, you just have to be more respectable than this experience so far if private money is going to have a future on a bigger scale.

The Bishop of Liverpool has issued an examination of homosexuality in a chapter in a book called A Fallible Church edited by Kenneth Stevenson (2008), published by Darton, Longman and Todd. The chapter also appears on the Liverpool Diocese website called Making Space for Truth and Grace.

Before I let my cynical insider loose around the track I want to focus on what he has been telling me (he is always around; I just try to keep him under control). So let's do this closely. This is the first choice passage:

It is better to deal with difficult ethical and doctrinal questions - in this case, sexuality - in a conversation between people who already know, trust and respect each other than through megaphone diplomacy between strangers across the oceans.

This is important, because it affirms Anglican relationships that might be recognisable recently from all this Covenant output - before it, around it and now. It is a sort of Archbishop of Canterbury-like affirmation of conversation and patient listening and so on.

In opposition to media reductionism, conversation means you start seeing the other side of the argument, says James Jones, and this conversing and seeing he has been doing in a tripartite way with Anglicans. Whilst an ethical decision may need to be taken, there are vantage points and contexts (and indeed, later on, contextual settings). It is in the Bible, this included difference of viewpoint (in the context of circumcision and maintaining the Law of Moses rather than Grace):

What I find of special significance for how Christians handle controversy is that Luke describes these detractors as "believers". Even though the doctrine they were proposing undermined the doctrine of grace and of justification through faith the author included them within the body of believers.

There is parallel in tradition too:

As in the Council of Jerusalem and the controversy over doctrine and practice so today in the Anglican Communion there may be impaired mission, impaired ministry, impaired friendship but as to "communion" that is only and forever in and through Christ alone.

So all are believers despite strong disagreements. There is then the discussion on sexuality itself, which is today's big issue. He wants four sides to this:

  • Biblical emphasis on marriage
  • Biblical examples of love between two people of the same gender: Jesus and his beloved and then David and Jonathan
  • Anglican canonical obedience "in all things lawful and honest" which means if not thought honest then you rightly dissent
  • Disunity saps the energy of the church

He goes into detail including the listening part of Lambeth 1998 1:10 and a Theology of Friendship: here including David and Jonathan, and Jesus and his beloved.

But not only were they emotionally bound to each other they expressed their love physically. Jonathan stripped off his clothes and dressed David in his own robe and armour. With the candour of the Eastern World that exposes the reserve of Western culture they kissed each other and wept openly with each other. The fact that they were both married did not inhibit them in emotional and physical displays of love for each other. This intimate relationship was sealed before God. It was not just a spiritual bond it became covenantal for "Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul" (1 Samuel 18:3).

Interesting, this: a "Theology of Friendship" - but it gets physical, and it is love, and it is covenantal - as James Jones says. Then there is Jesus and his beloved John:

We find the two at one with each other during the supper when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. The beloved disciple is found reclining next to Jesus. Translations are not adequate to the text. Two different phrases are used in verses 23 and 25. One of them says literally that John was leaning against the bosom, breast, chest of Jesus (kolpos).

No English word or phrase fully captures the closeness of the liaison. What is significant is that the word used in John 13:23 is found only on one other occasion in the Gospel of John. In John 1:18 the word is used to describe the intimate relationship between "God the only Son" and the Father. "No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son who is close to the Father's heart (kolpos) who has made him known".

Again this is a depth of love that goes far. It is all biblical, and thus claims to fall within the Evangelical orbit, never mind how others (e.g. liberals) treat these texts positively. Of course the usual Evangelical cry is that there are no positive words in the Bible about homosexual relationships. Well there are, as James Jones points displays.

James Jones does not say that he picked up these reflections as a result of dialogue. He had these reflections and then entered into dialogue with Anglican partners. One wonders what dialogue brought to him. Interesting.

But he did go in to dialogue with a history, and one aspect he regreted: he was one of those who was part of the mad scramble of nine bishops who used the media and objected publically to the appointment of Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading. He had not consulted first with the two provinces' Archbishops (should he have done). He still thinks the objection itself was right, as the appointment had no broad support, but he has apologised for his method to the Archbishops and the House of Bishops in a private session. He does not say whether he apologised or not to the man who should receive one, Jeffrey John, though he regrets adding to the pain and distress of Dr. John and his partner.

He sees how the sexuality debate is culturally contexted in various parts of the world - either defensive in the face of Islam or for inclusion as in civil rights.

This is quite revelatory:

I worry about the Windsor proposals not because I doubt the courage and integrity of those who are working on them but because I fear that they will take us in the direction of narrowing the space and of closing down the debate on this and any future issue where Christians find themselves in conversation with their culture on some new moral development or dilemma.

He even worries about the Windsor proposals! These are almost "gospel" to the current Archbishop of Canterbury. The debate among Anglicans has sounded graceless, says James Jones, and so unlike Jesus, who was full of grace:

And when in John 8 he was asked to judge an adulterer he said "Neither do I condemn you" before adding "Go away and sin no more".

James Jones wishes to add:

I am not here equating homosexuality with adultery...

This is far reaching, isn't it? Adultery is clearly wrong, and homosexuality cannot be equated with adultery. It is looking quite revolutionary in terms of this evangelical's approach to this debate. He thinks the debaters are particularly dependent on the grace of those badly affected in this debate (gay people) and yet he is optimistic for the future of Anglicanism.

Right. So we have this weaving in and out of Anglicanism and the biblical evidence and what indeed could be a shift in Bishop James Jones's view - such would indeed be a Steve Chalke moment.

Well it could be, but it needn't be. There is apology for bad method, but it was wrong to appoint Jeffrey John as he had no general support at the time. Yes but this was a celibate gay man with a partner, so this is no change in position, just one of those "wrong time" arguments that slow everything down. A wrong time argument is a bureaucratic or institution argument. It is an argument about oppositions and what people think.

It is good to say sorry when it is meant, and I'm sure he regards the whole Jeffrey John episode as grubby: it has done the Church of England and its Archbishop and immense amount of damage and done nothing to tackle the main pressing dispute.

This is all institutional, through and through. And, despite the season just begun, I am letting my cynic have a run around the track. Off you go, pussy.

Bishop James Jones was previously the Bishop of Hull, and I lived in Hull then. We had had a bishop who really was the bishop for the area, but with James Jones you could not get anything other than a sense that he was a man in a hurry. He went into the media world to publicise matters not because, it seemed, he was wholly pastoral, but because he wanted to be noticed. Very soon, he was gone, and upward. Hull then received another bishop, who was noticed and then quietly got on with his work.

I'm sorry too, but I just cannot help thinking that now the Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, has done an Enoch Powell and walked off into his own sunset, somewhere over at GAFCON fantasy-land, that there is a strong smell of coffee about and James Jones's nostrils are twitching.

In the Canterbury Communion, conversation is becoming all the more important, and so is patience but not forever. The almost total policy of the present Archbishop - the Covenant and all that - is falling into contradiction. The Lambeth Conference could be condemned for doing nothing, or nothing much. Of course being dictatorial or like it cannot be the Anglican way.

There may though have to be a new balance at the top - some sort of evangelical, perhaps, but one who listens and who can reach right out of the evangelical camp. Someties one hears that there needs to be a media-savvy, acceptable evangelical, a talker to the people, a warm, broad-based personality to rescue the institution after such massive and overwhelming difficulties and drift that could still yet deeply scar the Church of England via the Anglican Communion contradictions and the coming efforts of GAFCON.

A final point. Someone who would never refer to these texts above like James Jones has is the Principal of Wycliffe Hall. Richard Turnbull has got rid of Open Evangelicals more conservative than evidenced by these musings of James Jones. Liberal evangelicals hamstring the definition of evangelical, says Richard Turnbull. And yet who is in ultimate oversight of this chaos in a college, and its Principal from the Taliban wing of Anglicanism? Bishop James Jones himself and his Council. This is nothing but very odd. It is very odd indeed, and very institutional.

And now my cynical demon can come back in after his run around the track, and become buried again, just to ooze his puss out among the other liquid secretions as he does normally.

1 comment:

winnowing said...

This passage here that you quote:

"there may be impaired mission, impaired ministry, impaired friendship but as to "communion" that is only and forever in and through Christ alone,"

is probably the most important. Here the bishop takes a stand against what I have told my more conservative friends is simply a Donatist revival. We are bound through and in God, not our own holiness. The Church has long fought the idea that somehow the holiness of the hierarchy somehow affected the validity of the sacraments. And really, isn't this battle against Donatism an affirmation of the deeply held Protestant belief of salvation sola gratia?