Two weeks ago, as some of you may remember, I preached about the impending schism in the Anglican church, over same-sex blessings. I won’t repeat what I said then – you can look it up for yourselves online. But just for a little context, let me repeat my main points.
I talked about how the recent decision of the General Synod had led to a stern response from the Church of England Evangelical Council – and some actions on their part which are likely to lead to a permanent schism. The core issue, I suggested, is the view that different Christians hold about the authority of Scripture. I said that there are some who hold the Bible in very high regard, and call it ‘the Word of God’. There are others, like me, who believe the Bible to be an important collection of Scriptures, inspired by God and the story of God, useful for teaching and instruction, but ultimately pointing towards the true Word of God, Jesus. I went on to suggest that Jesus is our ultimate authority on all matters of doctrine – and that if Jesus was silent on a particular, specific issues (like permanent, faithful, same-sex unions) we would be wise to turn to his more general principles of love, forgiveness, and tolerance – ‘charity’ in other words.
So far so good. No-one who heard that sermon here in church seemed to have any difficulty with it. At least no-one tackled me at the door, afterwards, and told me that I was mistaken. But the same could not be said of when that sermon hit the internet, a few hours later. Since then, the sermon has been viewed about 3,000 times, and I have been pilloried by a very vocal and angry sub-section of the Christian church. I have been called a heretic, and godless. I have been repeatedly commanded to repent of my apostate views. Multiple single phrases of Scripture have been posted on my YouTube page, intended to imply that I am a wolf in sheep’s clothing, an unworthy teacher, and an enemy of Christ. It’s been quite a challenging fortnight – I can tell you!
It is clear that I have touched a raw nerve among a certain section of the wider church who cling persistently to the idea that the Bible is the sovereign, immutable, inerrant Word of God. Why this may be, I’m not certain. No doubt there are a number of reasons – and each person who has so pointedly struck out at me will have their own reasons for doing so. For some, it may be a semi-autistic need for certainty – and an inability to live in the grey theological world of mystery, between black and white immoveable statements about the things of God. Others may be hiding a unconscious belief in patriarchy, or they perhaps have misogynistic tendancies – since the Bible clearly defines the superiority of men over women (for all practical purposes). If we no longer consider the Bible to be the Word of God, this means radically re-evaluating our views about male headship of churches and the family – and that’s a challenge to some people. Some, no doubt, hold their firm views as a result of the teaching they have received from loved and respected pastors – without ever having tested such teaching against the wider wisdom of the church, through the discipline of theology. Some people are intellectually lazy, and are quite happy to have others do their thinking for them.
The saddest part of the debate for me is that lack of historical knowledge among my detractors. They do not seem to realise, for example, that the status of Scripture has been a real and live debate in the Christian church throughout its history. The early church councils and synods wrestled with it, constantly – including centuries-long debates about which books should be considered ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the Bible. Those debates have continued right through the church’s history – and even today, different version of the Bible, with different books included or excluded, are published by different sections of the church.
With regard to same-sex unions, my detractors are ignorant of something called ‘adelphopoesis’ – or ‘brothering’. That was a formal liturgical ceremony in which two people of the same sex could be legally and formally joined together as ‘brothers’ (nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more). It was a common ceremony up until the Reformation, and shows that historically, the church was rather more tolerant of same-sex unions than many, today, suppose.
Today, we are invited by the Lectionary to consider St Ambrose. He was a Bishop of Milan, in the 4th century, who was prominent in the battle against a heresy known as Arianism. Arianism was a theological view held by many clergy and bishops of the time. It was centered on a discussion about the divinity of Christ. Essentially, Arians believed that Jesus was the son of God, begotten by God, but not God himself. He was not, in other words, a member of the Trinity – but rather, a created being, through whom God then brought the world into being. Arianism is strongly reflected in Islam, in which Jesus is highly venerated, but not treated as God. Muslims reject the concept of the Trinity.
It was – and remains - an important distinction – especially in discussions around the exact purpose of the Crucifixion. If one believes that God himself went to the Cross to redeem us, that’s a rather different picture from the idea of God sending his son to the Cross. If it is God who hung on the cross, taking upon himself the sins of the world, then we know that we have a God who loves us literally to death. But if God only sends his son, as a ransom for sin, then God is open to the accusation of being some kind of distant deity, and angry judge who needs appeasing, and at worst a cosmic child-abuser.
These were vital issues for the early church. They argued about it constantly. Various edicts were issued by Bishops and Emperors for the burning of books on Arianism, and even the execution of anyone found in possession of such materials. And it is a debate which still rumbles on in theology today – especially (as I’ve already mentioned) in the treatment of the divinity of Christ by Islam, but also by Unitarian Christians.
Doing theology seriously, you see, requires us to live in the grey world of mystery. As I’ve often stated, our tiny brains are simply not up to fully comprehending the mystery and majesty of God. Any of us, at any time, might consider that we’ve reached firm and unassailable knowledge about God. We may be utterly certain that we are right about, for example, the authority of the Bible. Or we might imagine that we have completely comprehended God’s opinion about same-sex unions, or the divinity of Christ, or the efficacy of prayer. But serious students of God, who’ve read the history of the church, and thought hard about the theological questions of the ages, soon come to the conclusion that all our supposed knowledge is provisional. At any moment, the Holy Spirit is likely to shake us out of our certainty, rattle our complacency, and knock down the ivory towers of certainty that we love to battle over.
We can never stop peeling back the layers of knowledge about God. That’s part of the great beauty, and also the deep frustration of theology – once called the Queen of the Sciences. And its why, despite the slings and arrows hurled at me by people lucky enough to be completely certain they are right, I will continue to call myself an honest and continual seeker after Truth. And I hope you will continue to seek that Truth with me. Amen.