Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Tackling the Fundy

So what's the answer to someone like Alan Craig, who was interviewed Saturday on BBC Radio 5 Live and rather held his own, and was (to secular ears at least) pretty offensive and exclusive towards Jayne Ozanne, the recent organiser of the YouGov Anglican attitudes to LGBTs survey, and married Erika and Susan? Erika and Susan would like to have been married in a Church of England church, but cannot by its rule-book.

He sounded offensive simply because he said God wants everyone to be heterosexual, with sex only within heterosexual marriage, and thus blanked out everyone who has a fulfilling relationship on any other basis. Effectively they cannot be Christian if they don't "pay the price" that Jesus charged. But in comparison he left others back in their sophistications and semi-removed arguments because he was able to be simplistic and literalist straight off the page. Jesus had said a man marries a woman and becomes one flesh for eternity. That's it; end of argument.

Just to say, back in Anglican days I was once invited to join Erika and crowd going to Leeds but declined to do so, and thus after so many years of online contact was surprised to hear that Erika had not even a residual German accent. In fact all three women sounded terribly Anglican, where you can imagine dinner parties and candles and a quick prayer at the beginning. As a northern pleb I discovered this terribly Anglican way when an agnostic and mixing with the chaplaincy briefly at the University of Essex.

The weakness of Jayne Ozanne's position is that she claims also to be evangelical but has to use 'the Jesus ethic' implied, and the supposed 'core message of the New Testament as a whole' to make her argument, but this leaves a lot in between of absent information and technique. Erika can say how damaged evangelical youth become because their individual gay discovery is rejected by people like Alan Craig, particularly in supposedly supportative fellowships that are anything but. That's an ethical argument that then needs another argument about theology and ethics. The wish to marry within Anglicanism is a disjuncture between personal biographies and the institution.

Packed into this argument, of course, is Jesus as trump card, so no one wins an argument against Jesus and Alan Craig kept quoting Jesus, or claimed to do so.

One argument against him is to state more clearly that no one claiming to be Christian is obliged to treat the Bible like the Qur'an is within Islam. Even if the Scriptures 'contain everything necessary for salvation', these can be treated with more subtle reading. The problem with this is the Rowan Williams' institutional argument, where despite all he had written previously, he discovered as Archbishop of Canterbury that the scriptures contain nothing positive regarding gay sexuality. This justified his efforts to secure an Anglican Covenant based on the institutional exclusion of gay ritual inclusion (marriage included, but much more), a Covenant which the Church of England rejected but which Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby obviously assumes was passed. (After all, this whole business that The Episcopal Church is excluded from doctrinal, ecumenical and interfaith votes as a "consequence" of inclusion is Anglican Covenant talk. Who cares what a synod votes when Anglican primates can act otherwise?)

First of all Alan Craig would be tackled on his bald statement that Jesus founded the Church. No he didn't and nor did he intend to do any such thing, not even a new synagogue. Jesus, he could be told, was a Jewish rabbi, an end-time rabbi.

Second point is that the Bible cannot be treated as reportage. The New Testament is all post-Paul and mainly in the Paul camp, and it is not reportage of Jesus but originally primary documents of the beliefs and expectations of mainly Gentile early Christians in diverse churches.

Therefore we cannot know what Jesus did actually say. However, we might assume he did say what is claimed about marriage because he will have understood and observed mosaic law.

This is where Jayne Ozanne was interesting, in that she said we now know so much more about sexuality, that it is not all male-female and she quoted the example of intersex people. She might have quoted people of one sex in body and the other in the brain. In other words: Jesus was wrong. Jesus was culturally limited.

This is the crux of it. Just as he and Paul were wrong about the last days, and the whole supernatural structure of existence, so they were wrong by being of a limited cultural world view.

So where that leads is Christianity as 'the cult of the individual', and that Jesus is followed. Alan Craig will tackle this simply: Jesus is God Incarnate and therefore, as he said, knows all about homosexuality and polygamy. He no doubt knew all about nuclear energy as well, if you asked him, given that nuclear power is rather important for the workings of the cosmos. He'd have told James Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein a thing or two as well.

It is drivel, of course. Human beings are not made by God but evolved, including all its apparent gurus. We came about because some random rock out of the sky knocked out the life support for dinosaurs - a huge extinction took place. Evolution is specific and chaotic, only systematic in its interactions. And all humans go back to a single cell organism. The argument about intersex, which is scientific, clashes against readings of scriptures, which is mythology. Mythology tells us nothing other than how cultures believed and arranged themselves, and how others imagine.

In the end, Christianity comes down to a dogma of priorities: the cult of the individual guru, the priority and sufficiency of scripture, and it leaves the compromisers like Erika, Susan and Jayne in having to become ever more sophisticated in their acceptance of these two premises and yet be fully included.

My answer is thus to deny the label Christian, and clearly I am not because for me Christianity is belief in the incarnation of God in the man Jesus. I don't believe this, nor in what this implies. I don't understand the label liberal Christian either when it comes to those others using the label in Unitarian churches or Quaker meeting houses. People can call themselves what they like of course but there is no 'ethical league table' available historically at which Jesus can be placed at the top. It doesn't work like that. Also I think there is a departure between Christianity and ethics, simply because Christianity's first loyalty is to its Christian interpreted guru and the scriptures from where much but not all comes.

So I am not surprised that someone like Alan Craig can run away with it, and give full rein to his unethical offensiveness. The rules are biased in his favour. He can be challenged of course, by other Christians, but he gets away faster and clearer while they are interpreting the starting gun.

As for young people: well change and a bit of trauma is all part of being a teenager and coming to adulthood. Transition is part of learning. We come to realise that things are not quite as we thought - more abstract, less concrete, and motives are mixed. It is their task when the fellowship is stifling to leave and find a new path. They are not in cults, and people also do leave cults. It's bad but they'll get over it. If they don't seem to be able to recover then get help and not from such Christians.

Tough about the Church of England. The days of cultural support for a Church as a Church (in the Troeltsch sense) are pretty much over. The choices are (on his categories) between being a sect or mysticism. Mysticism never priorities another guru or a book. We live in interesting times, as they say.


Erika Baker said...

What a fascinating review! And I apologise for sounding candle-lit dinner and prayers middle class! We really will need to meet up so I can prove that I'm nothing like that. Well... I like candles...

I think there are two issues here and we must be careful not to mix them up. They're to do with who our audience is.
I have based all my 10+ years of campaigning on speaking to people I know I will never convince but addressing an unheard and unseen audience/readership.
To have picked Alan's arguments to pieces, bit by bit, would not only have exceeded the time we had, but it would have completely gone over the heads of most listeners. Unless you're biblically literate it becomes a "oh yes it says, oh no it doesn't" Punch and Judy show no-one can assess. A bit like economic experts analysing statistics on radio and unless you're an expert yourself you have to find other ways of assessing who you believe to be most likely to be trustworthy.

The debate with Alan is one to have in the church.
Outside, it's more a case of coming across as integrated, adjusted, secure in your faith and still managing to keep with the church because your position is so obviously the more wholesome one. And to point out the harm Alan's view does to people. In fact, I should have made much more of that. Non-believers have a high view of God and don’t much care for the immoral version our conservatives present as truth.

Within church too, I think it's dangerous to concede all the setting of the framework to those who seek to find absolute truth about other people in 7 verses in Scripture.
We have as much right to set the framework for this conversation as they do, and we can demand answers from them just as they are demanding answers from us.

I'm finding that demanding answers about why God would be so randomly cruel to one group of people only brings fascinating results. The tenor is "we don't know, and we can see that it's damaging but we have to believe that it's ultimately good". Which is not going to convince anyone.

The task is not only to produce good theology but also to expose the weakness in the application of theirs.

Those who count in this, the ones who are still making up their minds, will listen to all arguments and then come to a conclusion. And that conclusion will be based on rational thinking as much as on what feels right. Only when the two are integrated can we truly believe something.

I am not planning to concede that wide ground of appeal to "but it says here" literalists.

Erika Baker said...

I also think that your paragraph on young people misunderstand what is happening in our many of our churches. I’m talking about people who have been brought up in a secure, wrap-around Christian environment where their whole social and family life is intertwined with their church. And these churches consistently preach against gay people. When a child then discovers that they’re not straight they feel utterly alone and ashamed. There is no-one to turn to because no-one else is out. They spend years praying to be made straight and then years hiding from God. If they have the strength to come out to their leadership team to ask for help, many are put through conversion therapy and other mental and spiritual abuse. Some are put through exorcism. They love their faith but are told they cannot be gay and Christian and that they have to choose.
They are immediately thrown out of any leadership role they may have, they are no longer allowed to play music in the worship band. Some are taken off the coffee rota.
Well-meaning friends will have serious talks with them about how they “disagree” with their “lifestyle choice”.
Growing up for these young people means drifting into self-harm, substance abuse, eating disorders, attempted and successful suicide. If their parent take them to therapists it’s Christian therapists who tell them they would be healed if they gave up being gay.

To break out from that and to emerge as a sane adult is a miracle.
To emerge with your beloved faith intact is even more of a miracle.

We have a huge responsibility here. And to just say “they’ll grow up” seriously misunderstands what is going on in these people’s lives.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

On the young people, quite obviously it is a very difficult situation they are in and you describe this well. Perhaps in the longer run there is more resilience, learning even, and learning is about change. But I'm supposing this and you are basing it more on evidence.

I think the interviewing was a good opportunity but it was hardly a forum that worked in tackling the issues. The radio presenter was better than might be hoped, often. It needs a full radio programme really and with a presenter/ referee who knows what the issues are about.

All power to your elbow, despite the fact we disagree on the basic stance.

Erika Baker said...

I think in this particular instance my basic stance is that the church has to become a safe place for lgbt people. It's nothing to do with religious belief, it's to do with justice, human rights and the outrage that a national organisation is allowed to inflict harm on people.