Thursday, 27 September 2012

The Essential History of Christianity: Christological Pluralism?

I've just received the first pre-publication copy of my new book, 'The Essential History of Christianity'. It summarises the key developments in christian history in under 150 pages, and doing so nearly killed me! I hope it is useful, and (naturally) highly recommend it to anyone starting theology or history courses, and as a Christmas present for everyone you know!

But the more I read it - and I've had to re-read it several times over the past few months, as copy editing and proof stages passed - the more I think that this paragraph from the introduction is  key:

'The history of Christianity can seem a dauntingly large one. It covers 2000 years – more, if its roots and Judaic pre-history are to be adequately accounted for. It covers virtually every corner of the world, and not simply sequentially but in a complex and overlapping sequence of movements, retreats and conflicts. And, as it has been received into different cultures and periods, it has been defracted – like a rainbow in a prism – into a dazzling spectrum of different shades. As a result, there is never a time at which we can point to one, monolithic grouping and say ‘look – there is Christianity as it originally was; now let’s see what happened to it’. Right from the beginning, the movements inspired by Jesus were disparate in geography, outlook, cultural and religious background, social class and nationality. Theological differences in emphasis and in substance were the inevitable result. This seems to have been a logical result of a religion which began, so its adherents believe, with the incarnation (literally, the ‘en-fleshing’) of God in one particular time and place. This is a religion whose main doctrine has never – contrary to much popular opinion – been contained between the covers of a book, but in the lived experience of a human, historical person. It follows logically and inevitably that there is no one ‘correct’ form of Christianity, but as many different relationships to that person as there are people in relationship with him.'

I wonder whether this perspective offers a hint towards a way forward in the seemingly intractable disputes between 'evangelicals' and 'liberals' in the church today? My 'liberalism' is not based on the philosophical liberalism of the nineteenth century. In fact, the more I read about that, the more I feel that 'liberalism', with those connotations, is a bad discriptor of my position - though I like the associations of freedom and generosity, so will be sorry to say goodbye to the word. But my 'liberalism' is fundamentally Christocentric. I am a liberal because I am a Christian, not one despite the other. And that passage - which I found the easiest to write in the whole book - sums up why. 

So I wonder if we need a new term, a new label? I wondered about 'Christocentric liberalism', but I fear that the word liberal may be so tarred with old brushes that it is better abandoned. So how about 'Christocentric pluralism'? The belief that, precisely because  we believe in Jesus, we find that we must embrace a plurality of ways of approaching God, and must accept that we cannot prescribe one correct way of being a Christian? That precisely because  of the incarnation, we must accept the huge diversity of faith and lifestyle and personality that exists, even where we don't like it? 

And yes, that does mean accepting the existence of those who disagree with this approach! The line that there is 'nothing so illiberal as a liberal'  is rather tired, but it is true that this Christocentric pluralist approach requires an acceptance that the range of views represented in this diversity will include fundamentalism. It doesn't, though, mean we have to agree with fundamentalists or others - simply recognise that their views may well be formed by their own particular circumstances and relationship with Christ, and so are deserving of respect (that word again!).

In summary - that because we are Christians, defined by our unique relationship with the person of Jesus, we must recognise that others will inevitably have a different relationship with God. 

What do you think?

Sunday, 23 September 2012

The Appleby Amendment

I was quoted by the Northern Echo this week as  having hailed the 'brilliance' of  Janet and John Appleby's amendment to the now-notorious Clause 5.1.c. That's not quite what I said, though I did use the word brilliance...(and to be fair, the Echo did also include an extended version of my remarks).

What I said was that the amendment wasn't really what either those of us most in favour of womens ordination, or most opposed to it, wanted. We all agreed some years ago that a single clause measure was preferable for clarity and theological coherence. However, there does appear to be a growing consensus that this current compromise will do for most people.

I've had several conversations with some of those who oppose women's ordination on principle. All have said that, though they probably won't feel able to endorse women's ordination by voting yes in November, this current compromise package would be acceptable to them assuming it goes through. In other words, they could live with it.

I've also had several conversations with some of the strongest advocates for women's equal ministry. Some of them, too, will struggle to vote for this, as the compromise package is such a major compromise from our original dream of a simple statement that men and women are both called and gifted by God. But most are saying that - though they feel bitterly frustrated and angry at being expected to make further compromises - they feel they could vote yes, if only because the whole sorry debacle has demonstrated clearly just how much the House of Bishops needs women members. In other words, we can live with it.

So why did I use the word 'brilliance'? I think the brilliance of the wording the Applebys have come up with lies in that word 'respect'. This cuts to the heart of the issue for most opponents, who fear that their position, and they, will not be treated with respect. And it allays some of our worst fears, because respect does not imply endorsement. I can respect your views, and you, without agreeing with you on something. I can act towards you and treat your views with respect without endorsing your views. And I can reasonably expect you to do the same with me and my views.

This legislation is not a perfect package by any means. It is still, in my view, theological nonsense to allow someone to choose their bishop based on whether they agree with them. The notion that ordaining a woman, or holding certain views on women's ordination, can impair someone's communion with their male bishop to the extent that they 'need' an alternative is anathema to me. But that is the legislation that the dioceses have accepted, and seems to be the best we can achieve in this generation. That is very sad.

Still, allowing myself a wistful sigh for what might have been, I think this legislation offers us the best hope for the future that is realistically achievable now. I will be very surprised if it doesn't go through in November.

Oddly, I feel little emotion at the prospect of it succeeding or failing. The legislation is too flawed for its passing to be cause for a great deal of joy. And if it fails, then I imagine a single clause measure will be what comes next: because if the compromise is rejected, what is the point of compromising?

I'll save my excitement for the consecration of the first woman as a bishop in the Church of England. I am confident that she and her colleagues will demonstrate that there was no need for all this fear and talk of legislative safeguards, because they will be truly brilliant.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Reflections on Mark 7

I was asked to preach today at Shotley St.John, in Northumberland, on the subject of women bishops and where we are now. The gospel reading was just so apposite....

Jesus said to his accusers, the religious elite of his day, 'Isaiah prophesied rightly about you, "in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrine". You abandon the commandment of God, and hold fast to human doctrine'.

This is an accusation any of us who engage in trying to get the church to change its mind about things are very familiar with. I am tediously familiar with being told that I am simply trying to get the church to do what the world says is right. That I am working for secular concepts of justice and equality rather than obeying the Bible. That the church shouldn't follow modern trends as they are just human precepts rather than true doctrine. That, in other words, by believing that women can be called by God to ordained ministry I am guilty of abandoning the commandment of God and holding to human values.

Such criticisms are made of any attempts to change the way the church does things, or what it believes. Historically, exactly the same sorts of things were said about allowing the remarriage of divorcees; allowing contraception; and so on. Whatever the particular issue at hand, such criticisms of religious change assume that things we have done for a long time are more likely to be right than new things. They assume that change equals corruption. And they are based on an assumption that the religious establishment - the Church, or Temple tradition - is more Godly than the secular world and must not be contaminated by it.

But what Jesus says here, of course, is almost precisely the opposite. In todays gospel reading, Human tradition and human precepts means religious traditions, religious rules, cultic ideals. Building on the long tradition of Old Testament prophets, Jesus directly opposes the idea that long established religious traditions and practices are necessarily good things, or what God wants.

The prophets repeatedly emphasised that God wants real change of hearts and minds, rather than correct worship. This real change would be demonstrated in lives lived according to the principles of justice, equality and mercy. The prophets are passionate about justice being a - perhaps the  - fundamental teaching. Even if women's ordination were simply about justice - and I think it is about far more than that - we could never say that that was opposed to the teaching of the Bible.

Jesus himself is of course the best example of dramatic change occurring within a religious tradition. The gospels show him repeatedly coming up against the religious establishment of his day, challenging their most cherished beliefs, practices and places. We get so used to thinking of the Pharisees as the bad guys that it is easy to forget how offended we would be by someone doing similar things today, in our churches. I imagine the outrage caused in Moscow's Orthodox cathedral by Pussy Riots punk prayer against President Putin was probably quite similar to the outrage Jesus would have caused over turning the money changers tables in the Temple.

One of the many interesting things about this passage is the principle that Jesus uses to critique the Pharisees' values. Twice, he refers them to God's commandments. 'you abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition; you have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!'

In modern religious argument, the whole Bible is sometimes meant when people talk about Gods commandments. But here, Jesus is very specifically referring to the 10 commandments. His particular point is that the Pharisees have developed a tradition of giving to the temple at the expense of looking after their elderly parents. They are breaking the commandment to honour your father and mother, in order to feel good about their own religiosity. Applying Jesus' technique more generally would suggest that a key question to ask of any tradition is whether it contradicts any of the 10 commandments.

And I would suggest that a tradition of male - only clergy, and of privileging men above women more generally, does exactly that.

The 10 commandments don't say anything explicitly about gender. That in itself is interesting. Except in the commandment not to covet your neighbours wife - where coveting their husband is not mentioned - all the commandments are quite remarkably gender-neutral. We are to honour our father and mother - no gender hierarchy is even hinted at there. All are to rest on the sabbath day, including our sons and daughters, and both male and female servants or slaves.

But perhaps the most relevant commandment is that forbidding the making of idols. Nothing shall be made into an idol for ourselves, we are told very firmly indeed. Yet I would argue that much, if not all, of the opposition to women as clergy and as bishops rests upon an unacknowledged idolisation of maleness. Historically, maleness has been given God-like status. God has been consistently imagined as being male, and by extension, men have been assumed to be more God-like than women. One writer put it very succinctly several decades ago when she came up with the phrase 'If God is male, the male is God'.

And the male ideal that is seen as being most God-like has generally been a particular kind of male - adult, not a child; strong and healthy, not weak or disabled or ill; heterosexual, not castrated, and at various points in history either celibate (showing strong mastery over his bodily urges), or married with children (demonstrating fertility and maturity). Not only have women traditionally been seen as further from God than such men, but men have been judged and graded in holiness against this particular ideal. As we are inspired by the Paralympics, it is worth reflecting on this - are Paralympics less godlike than 'unimpaired' human beings? Of course not. Yet for millennia, religious tradition would have said, Of course.

About 10 years ago I knew a young man in his early twenties, a friend of a friend, going through the process of selection to become a Roman Catholic priest. One month, he noticed a lump in a testicle, and luckily went to see his GP. Testicular cancer was quickly diagnosed, and the testicle swiftly removed. Fortunately, further tests showed that it had been caught in good time and had not spread. A week or so later, he had his next appointment with his mentor, and told him all this. As you can imagine, for a young man to face a diagnosis of cancer, and loose a testicle, within the space of a few weeks had been a pretty significant experience, and he wanted to talk it through. But his mentor, on hearing the story, had only one question - 'did they remove one testicle, or both? Because if you've been castrated you can't be ordained in the Catholic church.'

When we talk about women's ordination, and the consecration of women as bishops, people express all sorts of hopes and fears. Some hope that women will change everything, others that they will change nothing. But one thing that I think will be very significant is the simple symbolism of having both men and women sharing in all our ministries, symbolising very strongly that we believe that God made all humanity, male and female, in God's own image. Regardless of all the many gifts that women will bring to the House of Bishops, one of the most important things will be to challenge, simply by their presence, this idolisation of a particular type of adult maleness as more God like than other gender identity.