Skip to comments.Strangers in a Strange Land
Posted on 08/11/2005 12:24:52 PM PDT by sionnsar
There are many around the world who have expressed surprise and dismay that nearly all of the Anglican bishops in the United Kingdom's House of Lords recently voted in favour of legislation designed to allow gay people to enter into non-religious civil partnerships which are clearly analogous to marriage.
To many outside the UK it seems bizarre that Christian bishops could vote for something that seems to them so, well, un-Christian. The powerful Anglican archbishop of Nigeria is furious, and reports are circulating that he is contemplating proposals for the Anglican Communion to discipline the Church of England, its historical 'mother-church'. It is part of a wider debate about sexuality and church order that the Anglican Communion, the world's third largest Christian denomination, may not survive intact.
In addition to the two archbishops of the Church of England (Canterbury and York) there are over 100 other bishops in the Church of England's 43 dioceses. The archbishops and 24 senior bishops have seats in the House of Lords, the upper house of the British Parliament, very approximately akin to the Senate of the USA. They therefore have the right to debate and vote on proposed legislation for the British nation.
The cultural mood of much of Europe, particularly northern Europe, is deeply, virulently and increasingly secular. Great Britain - especially England and Wales - is absolutely involved in that massive post WW2 cultural shift. In the UK the process of cultural secularization is reflected and fuelled by the various broadcast and print media. Religious belief attracts ever more open contempt from those who form or pander to public opinion. Any notion that people of faith (including theologians or the leaders of faith communities) might have something valuable, important, or even useful to say to society at large is met with a greater degree of hostility every year. The long standing calls to reform the House of Lords are well underway, and concrete government plans to remove the bishops are in the pipeline.
In Europe, the age of Christendom is truly ended; even to many committed Anglican Christians, the participation of bishops in government or parliament seems at best anachronistic and at worst a real conflict of interest. The direction and thrust of civic legislation is all to do with individual freedom and personal choice, with no reference to God or religious faith except as a personal leisure pursuit.
Many clergy - and bishops - of the Church of England, being English, share this outlook. Insofar as they accept a role for bishops in Parliament, it is certainly not to impose Christian moral strictures into legislation for society at large. Such an approach would be considered by most to be an outrageous abuse of power. Rather, the general expectation is that the bishops will speak and vote to protect the rights of the under-privileged and to represent the concerns of the religious community, not just for the Church of England, but for all people of faith in general. Many bishops seek to show that they are not partisan in either a political or religious sense.
In practical terms the most direct use which parliament makes of the bishops is their appointment to parliamentary working parties which report on matters perceived to be of a particularly difficult or controversial ethical nature. Their participation is helpful because, for the most part, they are the among the very few parliamentarians with any education in or working knowledge of the discipline of ethics.
So when those bishops vote, they vote not according to what they see as right for a Christian community, but according to what they see as fair for a diverse secular community in which Christians should not be (or be seen to be) bullies or busybodies. In this they understand themselves as fulfilling the vocation of the Church of England to serve the people of England, irrespective of religious faith or discipline.
About one million people attend worship at Church of England churches on any particular Sunday (out of England's total population of 50 million), though if one counts all those who show up for an ordinary Sunday service at least once per month there are more like two million, and those who show up for an ordinary Sunday service at least once a year probably number about 4 million (my wild guess, extrapolated from experience of eight years' parish ministry in England). Recent statistical studies have shown that it is not simply the total number of churchgoers that is declining, but also the number of times any one churchgoer might attend an act of worship in the course of a year. About another million people attend Roman Catholic worship on any one Sunday, and about another million attend worship in churches of the many other Christian denominations. Probably another million people in England attend worship according to some non-Christian faith tradition each week.
Which is all to say that religious faith and practice, while it is in a state of serious, even desperate challenge, is hardly yet moribund. The big change is that people live their faith within the framework of a culture which is ever more irreligious. Personal Christian belief is held within a paradigm of public secularism.
Therefore, in sharp contrast to Christian discourse in the USA, the churches will be very active and outspoken in the fields of secular justice, such as poverty (domestic and global), the environment, international trade, the arms industry, and civil rights. This is surely a good thing; Rick Warren, minister of California's Saddleback Church and author of the important and influential books Purpose Driven Life and Purpose Driven Church has acknowledged that American Christians have been far too reticent in these fields of public, secular justice.
Yet British Christians are much more muted in fields of personal morality than their American siblings, because in the UK these are further outside the socially acceptable range of political debate for religious voices. In a political system which has known no formal separation of Church and State (indeed, there is a formal unity of Church and State) friction has been largely avoided by the tacit withdrawal of Christians from active, vocal, committed political involvement in matters of personal morality. There is little clarity of understanding of where a Christian activist should stand on matters such as abortion or sexuality, because these are seen by society as a whole as being first and foremost matters of civil rights in which Christians should either support the oppressed or keep their noses out of other people's secular business. Those Christians who do speak to these issues do not receive a sympathetic reporting in the media, and indeed, their voices are often too shrill to be effective in public debate as it is usually conducted in the UK.
Clergy, of course, are Christian activists. Church of England clergy, unlike their Roman Catholic counterparts, are not subjected to clear centralized instructions about official social policies to endorse or attack, because part of the Anglican self understanding is that such instructions are inappropriate. Anglican clergy have a wide latitude to develop their thinking, theology and preaching according to their conscience. When it comes to the intimate demands of discipleship, there is little agreement about what is right or proper, and so no clear 'Anglican' position exists. The criticism, of course, is that priests should develop their conscience according to their theology, not vice versa.
Many American conservatives castigate much of what results as tepid liberalism. But there is nothing tepid about the ministry of most Anglican clergy in England, for whom faith and ministry are lived as a constant, severely sacrificial grind to serve wider society, ungrateful, secular and contemptuous though it may be. Priests and bishops are drawn from and inevitably reflect the mores and attitudes of that wider society, even as they struggle, because of their faith in Jesus Christ, to ameliorate its injustices. They mostly believe all people to have an absolute right to the supportive ministries of the Church of England, no matter what their faith or worship habits happen to be. Clergy do not want to judge, and certainly do not want to be perceived as judgmental; they generally just slog away in their ministry to defend the rights and the dignity of people who are overlooked, forsaken or despised by the godless society at large - the grieving, the poor, the immigrant, and the unusual (including, in most places, the homosexual). They do this with little pay, little thanks, and little practical support (and mostly in the rain!).
Ordinary churchgoers rejoice quietly when new people come to church, as much because most church communities bump along at a barely viable rate and any new hands on the financial deck are appreciated. The Church of England's local communities are responsible for the colossal financial and bureaucratic burden of thousands upon thousands of beautiful Medieval, Georgian and Victorian buildings. The Great Commission is not rejected, but is hardly embraced. This is not because people do not want to share their faith, but because they do not know how best to do it, or even feel that they have the social right to do it. Back breaking work for the church mostly involves keeping the roof on and the low stipends paid.
There are signs, though, that British Christians are seeking a greater clarity of moral direction, and a more vibrant engagement with the social issues of the day by the Christian community as a whole. Church attendance has even increased slightly in recent years. It is much too early, though, to say whether various recent polls and statistics are evidence of a new direction or a brief respite.
The bishops in the House of Lords voted as would have been expected. The surprise for most of them is that anyone might have expected them to vote differently. They did their duty to see that the legislation was fair and that some safeguards were in place. They were helpful and conciliatory. That is, after all, the main public function of the Church of England, and it is exhausting.
Any info on the author's background? He writes with a clinical detachment consistent with the secularized clergy that he is writing about. There certainly appears to be no acknowledgement of the transformational power of faith. Is this a form of secular clerical apologetics?
Have American Chritians been "far too reticent" on questions of "secular justice"? Not according to the Left (including the mainstream news media) who fulminate daily against the influence of the Religious Right in politics.
Of course, religious people in this country tend to see abortion as a bigger problem than the pet causes of the Left such as "the environment, international trade, the arms industry," etc. So the author's real complaint is not that we are too reticient but that we have chosen the wrong side.
"Greg Griffith: You hold what I believe to be a unique position in the diocese: Adamant in your advocacy of including homosexuals in the full sacramental life of the church, but equally adamant that General Convention seriously erred in 2003. Can you explain your position in more detail?
Tim Jones: The context for my position is one of having been in the past fairly active in support of gay rights. I have marched in public demonstrations for gay rights, and have written and spoken in the past against the homophobia which gay and lesbian people have to endure in society generally, and often from the Christian church in particular.
I am dismayed by the actions of General Convention. This is for three main reasons, though this by no means constitutes a comprehensive account of my thinking:
First, ECUSA betrayed the trust of our fellow Christians. At the Lambeth Council of 1998 it was agreed not to proceed with any divisive actions concerning human sexuality, to give the Communion a breathing space, time to reflect and pray together about the issues involved and their implications. GC2003 cuts right across those prayers and conversations. The bishops of ECUSA agreed to do one thing, and then did the opposite. It makes any future conversations with fellow Christians anywhere very difficult - why should ECUSA be believed or trusted? Just because we believe we are right about something does not mean we can do what we like.
Second, we have got the cart before the horse; to confirm a non-celibate homosexual person as a bishop bypasses the legitimate debate about the Church's teaching on sex and marriage. The implication of that bypass is that the Church's teaching is not very important, even irrelevant. That is a terrible mistake. From my point of view this diminishes the future possibilities for gay people. Even if we, the Church, one day discern our way to celebrating marriage for gay couples, we have now undermined its importance - indeed, the importance of marriage for all of us, gay or straight. We have said that Church doctrine and discipline doesn't really matter."
So, we can conclude that any issues of Biblical Truth are not important. Rather, it's all about whether the process was followed. No wonder that church attendance is down to virtually nothing in Europe!
I think you have cut to the heart of the matter.
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