Oliver O’Donovan is one of the most exciting theologians in the UK. He writes on current issues, like bioethics, just war, sexuality and the church. But his great strength, and the source of his evangelical authority, is his ability to show us how Christians in different periods of history have dealt with the very same problems that face us now. He is able to summarise the hard-won experience of Christians of different centuries, so we can see the intellectual resources available to us. He has just published a series of seven ‘Sermons on the issues of the day’ on Fulcrum. They are master-classes in Christian discernment. Sexuality and the unity of the church are the issues of the day, and the whole package of Christian wisdom will enable us to tackle these issues together and grow in truth and love as we do so.
O’Donovan tells us that it is an extraordinary privilege to be a Christian disciple, and so to be witnesses of God for the world. All of us are learning what this discipleship means. Discipleship is never likely to be easy, so we will get no glib answers here. What O’Donovan wants us to know is that Christians have met such tough issues many times before, and have developed good practices for thinking them through. To do so we have to explore the whole back catalogue of Christian discipleship. We will have to listen to alternative views, and this demands patience, but confidence in the Christian tradition will give us the patience we need. O’Donovan himself listens very seriously to what the other side is saying. He is a strong advocate of the traditions of the public square which allow a real exchange of views to take place.
Momentous issues of Christian truth and church unity have merged around the single issue of sexuality. In these sermons O’Donovan shows us from the history of ideas of nature on one hand, and of creation and redemption on the other, why this has happened. But these are not the sermons of a heterosexual telling homosexuals what to think: we are not being told that homosexuals are wrong – or right. O’Donovan is inviting us all, regardless of what side of the issue we believe ourselves to be on, to ask what is the distinctive thing about Christians who are also homosexual. What is the particular contribution to the Christian life, and witness to the world, of the struggle of the homosexual Christian? We all have something to learn about being Christian here.
One other thing before we begin. O’Donovan is an evangelical theologian. He says that we have to offer the whole gospel to our contemporaries through preaching and teaching Jesus Christ. Life with Christ and in the communion of his church is better than life without. So Christians do not need to construct their identity from scratch, so there is no reason why they should sound desperate. Christian emphasis on talking straight, in truth and love, is also good for society, because it makes for an open, we could even say, a more reasonable, society. This short-term and medium-term offering of the gospel in word and act results in a healthier society and increased opportunity to discover the huge definition of human being that the gospel sets out. Christian reasoning is evangelical. Disciplined by the gospel, the Church takes responsibility for the society to which it is sent. This witness is not always welcome, of course, but when society seems determined to close down on itself, it is the graciousness of God to a whole society.
To see what O’Donovan is saying at a glance we could look at the verse that begins each sermon.
1. Your treaty with death will be annulled…
– Liberal theology has entered a tail-spin, but God will pull his Church out of it.
2. And apart from other things there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches
– We must love the whole Body of Christ and concern ourselves with its unity.
3. Can two walk together unless they are agreed?
– The single communion that God has given us, along with its teaching, is the basis of our all discussions.
4. O that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes!
– Learning to read the bible is not easy, because the bible is teaching us the difficult business of life, lived together.
5. Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it
– We must learn from the experience of the whole history of the Church.
6. Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God
– Life is not just a matter of nature, but of looking forward to the redemption of nature.
7. He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms…
– God cares for all, and a challenge for some is a challenge for all Christians.
1. The Failure of the Liberal Paradigm
“Your treaty with death will be annulled, and your pact with Sheol will not stand” (Isaiah 29:18).
Four years ago a diocese in the USA, New Hampshire, elected as bishop someone who had divorced his wife and taken another, male, partner.
What was on trial was quite simply a proposition: a divorcee in active homosexual partnership may be a worthy chief pastor of a Christian flock.
For many in churches in the US and around the world, this came as a shock. It looked as though a single church was setting out to innovate. This bishop and his supporters protested that his action was obviously right. They suggested that it was so self-evidently right that it needed no explanation. Even though they were doing what had never been done before, these innovating churches did not set out to gain the agreement of the Church as a whole. They did not try to persuade the rest of the Communion that these changes were unexceptional. They just did not explain what they were doing or try to persuade the rest of the world of its rightness on any level. (For a different and more detailed view, see Nicholas Sagovksy ‘Anglicans and Sex’ the third of his lecture series ‘The Parting of Friends’).
This left the Church as a whole wondering, and indeed guessing. Were they trying to create a new Anglican precedent? Were they about to tell us that this is what they wanted to do? Did they want to start the long process of persuading the rest of the Church, and would they wait for it whilst the Church learned from them and got back into step with them?
These churches did not answer these questions (though ‘To Set Our Hope on Christ’ does now offer some answers). The rest of the Church was hurt and baffled by this. The innovating church professed to be amazed that the rest of the Church felt hurt. Let us assume that they were really surprised by the shock with which their act was received by other churches. Surely they are not unconcerned by this? Do they agree that it was unfortunate that their act seemed so unilateral? Are they ready to take steps to correct this impression? Until these steps are taken this failure of communication looked like a failure of communion, a lack of love.
If churches do not really need each other or owe each other anything, the Church is a voluntary association, and each congregation just a club of individuals. But this is not how it is. The Church is created by God – baptism is the act of God – and the baptism of each Christian is a gift of God to all of us. Similarly, through the eucharist each church participates in the whole Church. By this baptism into eucharistic participation in the whole Body of Christ, the communion of the church is renewed. This communion is an entity of love, and as such it is a union and a unity. It is love made visible, for the world to see. The faithfulness and mutual subordination of all Christians, and of each congregation to every other, is Christ’s act, sustained so the world can wonder at it.
Each church (and each Christian) participates in the whole Body of Christ by receiving from, and giving to, each other part of the Body of Christ. Each part owes every other part no less than everything. The whole Church, and each part of it, owes all others all the gifts it receives from Christ, whether gifts of instruction, formation and discipline.
If this is so the whole Anglican communion has to ask the innovating churches to help us to show us how to receive what they have proposed. They have to help us see how their act is an act of love. They need to give us the instruction and discipline (and receive from us the instruction and discipline) that makes us one communion.
We can all offer the Church new ways of being Christian, of course. But we have to argue for them and persuade others of their rightness. This involves showing that they are not utterly new, but that they stem from the existing corpus of Christian self-understanding in some way. They are not so much innovations as re-interpretations. The church that is proposing a new interpretation has to argue that it is the proper evangelical interpretation of Christian teaching for the particular circumstances in the particular part of the world to which this particular part of the Church is called to be a witness.
It must be the very basic presumption of all Christians that, because we belong to Christ, we belong to one another and must desire to travel together and stay in step with one another. The Communion must communicate. We owe an account of our action to every part of the Church. We must always explain what we are doing and seek to persuade others of its rightness. But for a part of the Anglican church – the part we may call liberal – this no longer seems obvious. Now this is a problem.
In the first of his sermons, Oliver O’Donovan starts by setting out some of the intellectual context for these changes. He sketches a history of theology, to show that liberal theology has recently undergone a dramatic mutation.
Liberal Christianity used to represent the Christian vocation to peace and unity, and for the national pastoral outreach of the national Church. Liberal Anglicans were the ones who insisted that the Church witnessed to the whole nation, and that it maintained churches, schools and other forms of mission in places that could not otherwise support them, and that the whole church would bear the cost of supporting all its parts. They emphasised the unity of the church in the face of those – Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics – who wanted to tug the church in opposite directions. Liberal theology was able to correct clumsy expressions of the gospel and demonstrate how they failed to account for the complications of real life. Such liberalism always took the long view.
But now liberalism seems to mean something different, even quite opposite. Contemporary liberalism seems to pitch itself against any existing expression of Christianity. It seems sure that no existing expression of the Christian faith can be allowed. Whatever have Christians believed must be presumed to be inadequate now.
Christian doctrine has met this challenge before. It suffered a century and a half of pounding from critical historical scholarship, but despite this, doctrine did not disintegrate, and it is now what it has always been, and current debate in doctrine benefits from this bruising experience. But Christian ethics has not undergone the same rigorous public examination. There was no critical historical scholarship of ethics, so contemporary Christian ethics has not learned the practices that make for real debate.
‘The present state of liberal Anglican thought appears to be in deep denial: denial about the record of the past ….’.
As a result liberal Christian ethics has little experience in drawing the lines between nature and biology on one hand, and self-control, responsibility and freedom on the other.
Now Christian ethics has suddenly begun to see new changes and challenges, but it has no established set of intellectual tools and resources with which to deal with them. It finds it difficult to show the difference between Christian and non-Christian ethical thought. The result is that liberal ethics is left with some unexamined sub-Christian or un-Christian assumptions that makes it indistinguishable from secular ethics. The result is that Christian ethics has nothing very distinct to offer the world. But contemporary theological liberals do not seem to be worried about this. They have become liberal fundamentalists, apparently intolerant of any teaching that calls itself Christian.
The bible is central. But no one denies this. Everyone believes that they are arguing from the bible. So saying ‘the bible says…’ is good, but it is not enough. We need to learn how to find a common reading of Scripture.
Many generations of Christian have wrestled together with what the bible says to them and their society. Their discussions and agreement are summarized for us by Christian doctrine. Attempting to tackle Christian life without their help and advice is like someone who, without instruction, sweeps aside the advice of better drivers and clambers behind the wheel of some large vehicle, and roars off into a public highway. Reading the bible in deliberate ignorance of how other Christians have read the bible, and then claiming that you can teach others how to be Christian, is at the very least, taking a very big chance.
Christians cannot simply disparage Christian history as ‘the past’. The past is never past to God. The Creed refers to long experience of Christians, from the beginning right up to our own time, as ‘apostolic’. It is what makes any reading of the bible evangelical, formed by the discipline of the church, and thus a reading of Christian Scripture.
Evangelical communion is never merely synchronic; it is always also diachronic, involving a communion with past Christians in receiving from them the faith they have witnessed to and handing that faith on again to further generations.
When we read scripture through the eyes of all previous generations of the Church, we will see what our non-Christian contemporaries cannot see. Then we will have something for the world that the world itself does not yet have – and this is what makes us witnesses to the world, for the world’s sake.
Baptism is the act by which God opens Scripture to us, and opens us to Scripture. It inaugurates the long, slow process of sanctification, by which we learn to read Scripture apostolically and evangelically and so, through Scripture, learn how to see the world as though for the first time, in faith, hope and love.
If we do not set out to read from the position of the worldwide and historic church, we will be reading Scripture with the same eyes as anyone else in our culture. We will not ‘get’ large parts of bible. So just like every other postmodern consumer, we will select what we recognize and like, and discard what we don’t.
In ‘The Failure of the Liberal Paradigm, O’Donovan argues that liberalism has been in too much of a hurry to learn the practices of enquiry into the truth. The result is that it does not know how to reason. It compensates by being shrill.
Liberals just seem angry that the Church is not the same as the world, that the church still exists as a distinct body, not yet entirely assimilated into the world.
the present ….[is].. standing in perpetual judgment on the past
This liberalism is certain that the present world is good and that the Church just has to be brought up to date with it. Society is on the right road and moving ahead, but the Church is spitefully lagging behind and holding everybody up. What this liberal theology identifies as new, it identifies as right. By implication, if we – some self-appointed in-group – declare it is new, then it is right, and mandatory too. You may not query what we have resolved.
Whatever is old is evil, whatever is new is good. Whatever we have seen before (or think we have seen before) we recoil from in horror, while whatever is unfamiliar is greeted like an old friend. The liberal Church seems to be suffering a kind of auto-immune reaction. It is in a hurry, and in a fury with anyone who is not in a hurry. Behind this is the belief that things are already so settled, immutable and obvious. Liberalism does not seem regard life as open, to risk and surprise. But the gospel tells us that Christ has opened us up to one another, and the Christian life points to more surprise and wonder, not less.
Where is the Liberal account of the distinct identity of the church, or of the alternative proposal that the church has to offer society?
In the interests of finding the modern world God-enchanted, it closed down on the serious deliberation with which Christians ought to weigh their stance of witness in the world.
Without a tradition of their own, liberals have nothing to live off and so are always in a crisis about how to put their case, and what arguments they can make. Rational arguments always refer to whatever the two sides agree on: they must have something in common if they are to speak to each other at all. So in order that we are able to talk to one another we must refer one another to our sources of authority, and make our traditions explicit.
Is our society losing the will to set out intellectual differences clearly? Have we all come to fear that, if we give our own view, we will offend the sensibilities of some particular group? Are we all hushing one another up? The whole public square will contract if we do this, and everyone, all particular groups, will be poorer. Disagreement does not represent a failure of love. Honesty is central for a healthy public life, so disagreement should not be hushed up. Christians must speak up, boldly, just as much as they must listen, patiently.
How do the baptised read Scripture differently from the unbaptised? O’Donovan asks this question with patience and real curiosity. It has been asked in successive discussion documents of the Anglican Communion. It is a good question. We should ask it of one another and be grateful for every opportunity to do so. It is a good and gracious act to reason together with other Christians, good for society as a whole. When we are resourced and shaped by the Christian tradition, reasoning publicly together is even an evangelical act.
2. The Care of the Churches
And apart from other things there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches (2 Corinthians 11:28)
In his second sermon, Oliver O’Donovan looks at the issue of communion, and at the discipline that maintains the unity and truth of this communion. A unity is what the Church is. This unity is the work of Christ, and so the co-work of all baptised into him.
Communion is love. The unity of the Church witnesses to the love and power of God who sustains the Church as an entity of love. Splitting represents a failure of love, and would be a public refutation of God’s power to sustain the Church as the public demonstration of his love.
We are baptised into the obedience to the authority that orders and holds together this communion of love. Baptism into Christ is baptism into life under the authority of the Body of Christ. Dividing the Communion effects to undo the baptism of each and every Christian. This is so for everyone who attempts to leave, or divide the Church, whether liberal or evangelical. The good order by which the integrity of the Communion is sustained, is expressed by the leaders authorized publicly by the Church as a whole.
But many of us, not only liberals, but evangelicals too, do not seem to regard the unity of the communion as part of our responsibility or to be concerned by the prospect of division. We have to re-learn the connections between love and unity, and between love and truth. Just unity may be represent a failure of truth, so disunity may be a failure of love. This failure is not only seen across the worldwide communion. It can been seen within many congregations, however much they declare themselves to be of a single ecclesiological flavour.
We all of us have to learn that we are baptised into the whole communion of saints, across cultures and across time. We must all acknowledge that the whole Church has authority over us. Christ has authority over us, and as part of his kindness and gentleness with us, he makes other people responsible, to him, for us.
Communion requires order and authority. Authority enables freedom – there cannot be any freedom without it.
an institutional communion … witnesses to, and safeguards, evangelical communion.
But we cannot follow authority simply because it declares itself to be authority. It has to offer us reasons for what it is doing. Otherwise whatever we do, in following authority, will be unintelligible and unreasonable, with the result that our action will not be free.
These issues of unity and authority circle around the Archbishop of Canterbury. O’Donovan tells us that Rowan Williams is a truly Christian leader because he is a real disciple, deeply formed by the whole Christian tradition. Catholic, evangelical and liberal instincts are all part of his make-up, as they must be of any Christian leader.
The survival of the church through the present Church-dividing crises, depends on the extent to which the Church is able to able to receive all the gifts represented by these various ecclesiological labels – evangelical, catholic, charismatic, liberal. The Church has to recognise, welcome and even encourage all these charisms in its leaders, and particularly of course, in the Archbishop of Canterbury. The real test of the Communion will be how it receives the leadership that Archbishop Rowan Williams gives. O’Donovan’s question to us is whether we are mature enough to follow Williams to more costly unity with discipline and truth? If we can be led, Archbishop Rowan will lead us into greater discipleship, in which we learn to hold together all the various elements – love, unity, tradition, discipline, deliberation and truth – without sacrificing some in order to secure others. That will be the test for Evangelicals in the Church of England – not the whole test perhaps, but a major part of it. If we allow our Archbishop to lead us well, the Church will positively grow and flourish, not despite the present crisis, but because of it.
Just as O’Donovan asks Liberals for their account of the distinct identity of the Church, so he asks us all for our account of the discipline and authority that sustains the unity of the Communion. It is the authority of the Communion, into which we are baptised, that frees us to be reasoning witnesses. We make decisions, and we give reasons for them. We give an account of our faith, and we give an account of our expression of our faith to one another, to be sure that we have not been preaching in vain. Ultimately, there is a link between the Word of God, and rationality and intelligibility. The gospel frees us to become truthful and articulate. It enables us to hear one another and reason with one another: it makes us a reasoning people.
Learning and discipline
Imagine we want to learn some skill that we do not have. We take the initiative to find someone who can teach us and we persuade them to be our instructor. The relationship between them and us is not oppressive because it is our desire to learn that brings this relationship into being. In this willing environment we ask our instructor to tell us how our present performance is weak and to show us how to improve it. We know we need the discipline of having our instructor at our side. Correction and discipline is not forced us – we demand it.
Teaching is always accompanied by discipline. If we are to learn it is not enough that we are simply told what to do. Along with the teaching, we have to be given the practice, the correction and the time in which we can internalize the habits of which good action is composed. As we learn good habits and instincts, we become familiar with the principles by which we can decide how to distinguish good from poor action in the future. This requires the disciplined environment in which such correction can be constructively given and received.
We do not live under some oppressive medieval hierarchy. There is no reason why Anglicans, or Evangelicals, should resent the authority of the Church. The problem is the quite the opposite: our leaders are too timid. Rather than mistrusting authority we have to persuade our leaders to stop being frightened of us, and to take their own calling, and our need, seriously.
We defer to one another because we seek from one another all the various gifts of Christ. Our leaders serve us because we ask them to. Their leadership is their act of love and service (deaconate) to us. They do not unilaterally exert authority over us: we have to persuade them to love and care for us enough to give us the leadership we need. We have to encourage them to exercise that authority, pray for them and praise them when they exercise it to good effect. Only when we want to learn, and drop our attitude of suspicion and resentment towards our own leaders, can we grow as disciples together.
Leadership is a form of service. It involves the prophetic office: it is about truth and therefore about Christian teaching; it is kingly, because it involves giving decisions and justice, and it is also priestly, because it involves suffering and absorbing the distress that comes in the course of this life together. Not to give leadership may be not be an act of love, but of failure of love, a callous act.
We should make the distinctive thing about Anglicans that we are greedy for instruction, and for the disciplined environment that makes learning possible. Let us start from the assumption that our own Church can provide that evangelical instruction and that our own bishops and leaders will do so it if we encourage them to. Then we can also ask all parts of the worldwide Church to show us whatever they can offer us from their traditions.
Evangelicals are concerned for the purity of the church and the real danger that comes when the truth is not allowed to emerge. We fear that there are non-Christians, not in the Church, but in the leadership of the Church. Can the world hear the gospel through so much ambiguity? Yes: God makes himself heard even through our misery. We, and the world, have to live with it for now. Of course it is tempting to walk away from the mess that comes with the Christian life together. But a temptation is what it is.
The problem with the notion of separation is its expressive, self-purifying character. It will not wait for God to purify his own church in his own time.
We must not leave the Church. Splitting is disaster. It is tearing apart again – re-crucifying – of Christ. We must try to find another way to see the situation. Of course we are not guaranteed to succeed.
Schisms may come, but woe to that church through whom they come!
3. Ethics and Agreement
Can two walk together unless they are agreed? (Amos 3.3)
The Christian life requires a Christian mind. Scripture, together with the whole package of Christian experience brought into existence by Scripture, give us this Christian mind. It does so slowly, and through much practice, and much humbling. Scripture enables us to judge and to decide. It not only allows us to decide for ourselves, but it allows us to grow so we may get develop a better understanding of ourselves and of what we may become. Through Scripture we become better at deciding how to live, with one another, in truth and love, in Christ.
Through practice, under the discipline of Scripture and the whole package of Christian experience, we learn to think like Christians. Thinking Christianly is simply learning how to think and how to decide. This is possible within the communion created by baptism and by our growing comprehension that by this baptism puts us together with all other Christians. We must presume agreement with them. That other Christians have something valuable to share with us must be our deepest prejudice. We are learning a common mindset. Development of the Christian mind is what Christian ethics is all about.
O’Donovan tells us that ethics is a set of ways of arriving at decisions. Ethics is not a particular department or science, like engineering or botany. It is know-how, and so it is relevant to all human life and enquiry.
Ethics is the explication of the logic of practical reason that directs our conduct, individual and collective. It terminates not in a descriptive judgment about how the world, or a slice of the world, lies, but in a practical judgment for conducting ourselves in a certain way.
Ethics is about how to decide and then how to act. It is a practical skill, although we learn it through conversation with specific forms of knowledge and theory. Scripture calls it ‘wisdom’ or ‘judgment’, the History of Ideas calls it ‘practical reason’. Perhaps we could also call it know-how or competence or even simply management. It involves common sense, instinct, knack, hunch, feel, good fit, harmony, being in tune. We may learn this skill of making decisions through Christian discipleship.
But those churches which have given up on practices of wisdom, learned through discipleship may have suffered an implosion of their powers of practical reason, the result of long habits of irresponsibility. And since theology is nothing if not a discipline of common reasoning about God and our life together, unless they recover it, their days of being churches of any kind are numbered.
We have to decide. And then we have to stick with the decision we have made. There can be no Church without this presumption that we stick with the decisions we have made. We do not presume that, as soon as a difficult case arrives, we have to change that decision, for a decision that is constantly changed is not a decision at all. We have to enforce our decision, and we have to regard previous decisions as gracious acts that allow us to grow. Only by receiving these decisions as good acts can we develop the common Christian mind by which we can reason together at all.
Structures must be equipped to exercise judgment, to draw a line, where necessary, between true and false communion. To have structures capable of doing that is to enjoy an institutional communion that witnesses to, and safeguards, evangelical communion.
Proper self-restraint and mutual restraint is a gift of God to his church. There can be no Church without it.
4. Scripture and Obedience
O that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes! (Psalm 119:5)
In his fourth sermon Oliver O’Donovan suggests that Christians must have a presumption in favour of the bible. We have to trust Scripture and obey it.
A discipline of biblical “hermeneutics” of interpretation, has no point unless we are resolved to be obedient.
But the bible always need interpretation. The bible is not an exhaustive list of explicit instructions for every eventuality we will ever encounter. It is not a dashboard navigation device that says ‘Turn left at the next lights…’. The bible forms the Christian mind that enables us to judge and to decide, for ourselves and for one another.
We leap into a whole new world of seriousness when the questions are the ultimate practical questions, questions about how we are to live the one life given us; and we leap into a whole new world of seriousness when we dare to ask these questions of God’s chosen witnesses, the writers of the documents of the Old and New Testaments.
Interpretation (of the bible) is not an end in itself. The bible is the tool of Christ for our formation. Christ is doing the interpreting and we are the ones being re-interpreted. The bible ‘sheds light forward on us.’ We have to wait for Scripture to form us in the way it wishes. We are being read and re-read, charitably and transformatively, by Christ.
As we talk the Christian life we have say both ‘Our Lord commands us to…’, and we have to say ‘the Church teaches …’. What the Church teaches comes to us in many forms: ‘Synod has ruled that…’, or ‘the bishop says…’, or ‘the vicar says…’ , or ‘the parochial church council has agreed that…’ or ‘the worship group says that…’. We have to talk about both what the Lord decides, and we have about what church leaders, synods and conventions decide.
it is through authorised persons and activities that we see the effective exercise of God’s authority in the world.
Christ kinds makes his authority audible for us, in the decisions made by the institutionally recognised leaders of the Church. Whether we are talking about the Council of Nicaea or the Windsor Report, we must presume that these decisions are good and right, for only the presumption that on the whole they are trustworthy allows us to examine and test one or two of them.
In this formation we talk things through. We ask people to explain why they hold the views they do. We listen to them and test those views, and we either find that we are persuaded of them, or that we are more persuaded of our own.
Public disagreement and controversy allow us to sort out which is the better line of thought. The public process of examining our differences has to based on mutual subordination, that is on friendship, communion, love.
We learn the Christian mind by wrestling with one or two elements of this Christian tradition. The Church must encourage this public learning and wrestling: it must not try to do without it. It is not enough to say simply ‘Scripture says…’ as though that ends the discussion. Evangelicals and Liberals share much more than they think they do.
Each thinks that conclusion has been reached from some self-evident intuition about what the times require so that the appeal to Scripture merely confirms what has already been decided.
Scripture does not take decisions away from us. It makes us the kind of people who can make good decisions. It enables us to grow up, by growing in love and truth towards one another.
Its role is to authorise us to live well, not to take authority away from us.
But by putting the bible, and the whole Christian tradition of reading the bible, on trial, we simply attempt to put ourselves above challenge. We must all allow ourselves to be examined by the bible, and by all previous generations of Christians. Their experience, summarized in Christian doctrine, puts to us the questions that we need to hear. Without this Christianly-deliberated experience, we will lose the means to think.
Wherever we locate ourselves in the sexuality debate, we must not make it impossible to talk to one another about our discipleship. Let us not be complicit in avoiding certain areas of debate. We must be able to ask questions of Christians who are homosexual, and hope to learn from the struggle of every disciple to be faithful.
The obstacle to our growth may not be, as we think, those Christians whose views of Scripture are mistaken. If we do not pay one another this attention, we will have simply two sides, ‘pro-gay’ and ‘anti-gay’, each playing the villain role for the other, with competing displays of outrage. Of course it is easier to point to an external obstacle than an internal one. But we must allow others to impose on us, for love really does mean imposing on one another. We must not flinch from the obedience to Scripture and Christian experience, or from the discovery that the teaching of the Church permits more space than we thought. So ‘we had better stumble across homosexuality, our own or other people’s, as a genuinely unknown quantity.’ We have to search through the complexities of life together for our Christian identity. When we do this ‘the authority of Scripture may begin to mean something serious to us.’
5. Hermeneutical Distance
Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it (Hebrews 2:1)
Scripture is always the answer. But it is never a sufficient answer. Scripture does not bypass our intellect by telling us what to do. It enables us to decide what to do. It gives the church the mind by which it can decide.
A shrill call for implicit obedience never substitutes for careful exploration of what it is that must be obeyed.
We must start and always remain with the bible. Whatever we find there, we must trust. But from Scripture promotes real discussion.
We must not, then, in the supposed defence of a “biblical??? ethic, try to close down moral discussions prescriptively, announcing that we already know what the Bible teaches and forbidding further examination.
We will always have to put up with ridiculous views
False prophets are, and always will be, quick to rush forward. So we must simply expect to hear abominations and absurdities put forward with implausible but brazen claims to be consistent with, or authorised by, Scripture. To this annoyance we are called, as Christ warned and as generations of the faithful have since proved
The most evangelical contribution we can do is keep a good stock of Christian memory, and draw on it to show our contemporaries that Christians have often faced such challenges. They are nothing new.
We have the resources by which the Church and the Gospel can be protected from misrepresentations of Scripture. This is what the teaching ministry of the Church does. The Church’s ministers are given:
the duty of ruling false interpretations out and ruling true interpretations in… and by confirming the mind of the church where there are well-established lines of understanding.
Our leaders, bishops and clergy, hold before us the whole tradition of good practices of interpreting the bible to the Church and the world. They are to
secure the tradition of interpreting God’s word as a critical point of reference, and so defend the identity of the community as grounded in faithfulness to the word of God.
This is what the bishops did at the last two Lambeth conferences. They did not make any change the historic teaching of the Church on the sexuality issue. The bishops were faithful. We must look forward to them remaining faithful, and ruling again and again in line with the historic teaching of the church. We must not jump the gun, decide that they are just about to become unfaithful and separate ourselves from them and the rest of the Communion.
The Anglican church is the catholic, apostolic, evangelical Church in one nation. The Anglican package is intellectually coherent and robust. Evangelical Anglicans in particular should get to know the theological statements the church has produced in recent years. The website of the Anglican Communion Office has a wide range of statements, loosely known as the Windsor or Covenant Process. They speak with authority about how the Church may remain disciplined and together under the Word of God, and so be evangelical and faithful. These documents express what we have agreed – they are our statements. We may quote from them confidently. Perhaps we should say that any Anglican leader who persistently ignores these documents, never mentions them to their congregations, and does not care to wait for the processes of consultation of which they are part, breaks the discipline of Christ and shows no love to the people of God.
Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God (Romans 8:19)
Christians have a high view of the world in which they find themselves. The world is creation, not simply ‘nature’. The world has been made, for us, by God. He intends that we be at home with one another in it. We are not a finished work, and neither is creation. Creation is good, but the fit between us and creation is not yet good. We look forward to its redemption and our redemption.
Meanwhile the Christian life is one of faith and hope. We are being transformed. Those who have nothing to hope for, believing that they already have and are all that they will ever have and be, do not look forward. For them perhaps the world appears to be simply a matter of nature and of whatever science can tell us about it and about ourselves. But the world is not simply a matter of nature, for we anticipate a nature redeemed.
So to say I am homosexual by nature is not the end of a conversation, as some assume. It is the beginning of one. Perhaps homosexuality is uniquely different from any other human impulse, but it is not obvious that it is so.
Christians who are homosexual may live chaste lives. In doing so they are not living against nature, but like the rest of us, looking forward to the redemption of our nature. Self-control is not against nature or a denial of it. Self-control is essential to being free, and therefore to our being human.
The concept of “nature” can be seen to do a fairly precise job, and to do it tolerably well. That job was to focus attention on the dual constitution of the human being as body and soul, at once a free self-directing spiritual entity and at the same time a material organism. The virtue of “living according to nature” was precisely that of harmonising the demands of these two aspects of one’s being, achieving a rational self-direction that respected the structural limits and possibilities of the bodily condition. “Natural” and “unnatural” are terms that come into play when questions arise about how we shall conduct ourselves as embodied souls and ensouled bodies
But equally saying ‘the body’ or ‘nature’ does not explain anything. We are body and soul. We are nature and freedom. Our bodies make us available to one another, but we are nevertheless whole persons. Our bodies are therefore ‘essentially social’. Love is never merely bodily, so no act of ours is solely ‘physical’.
To exercise self-restraint is not to act against ourselves, but it is to act for one another. Christians are freed by Christian discipleship and the discipline it represents. Many homosexual Christians exercise self-control and continence. They do impose misery on themselves nor is it is imposed on them. The exercise of self-restraint is intrinsic to being human. This is as uncontroversial as saying that being deliberate about what we eat, for example, makes us fitter and fell healthier, and even happier. Humans are bodies plus self-control.
Christian theology has a very high view of body, and of soul. It simply refuses to exalt one and downgrade the other, but insists that we are the unity of body and soul.
It is commonly said…that Christianity traditionally despised and ignored the body. The opposite is the truth.
It is our bodies that make us present to one another, so without them we would not communicate or be with one another in any sense. We are embodied and therefore we are free for one another, and therefore we are free to act.
It is perfectly in order to ask one another about how we experience Christian discipleship, and to talk about the difficulty and even the anguish of discipleship. It is right and proper for homosexual and heterosexual Christians to ask each other about the whole range of desires and temptation that each of them feels. Christ puts us in front of one another for this very purpose.
A vocation, which necessarily departs from the general rule, needs to be recognisable as an authentically human form of service to the human community.
It is the Christian doctrine of creation that tells us what the world is and may be. No concept of nature, or philosophy, or natural science can tell us how we are free to act. Only other humans can tell us this, and invite us to act well.
7. Good news for gay Christians –
He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms: he will carry them in his bosom and gently lead those that are with young (Isaiah 40.11)
Oliver O’Donovan has told us that the simple moral mistake of liberal Christianity consists in ‘confusing the good with the future’. But the Christian has something that the world does not yet have. Without being removed from the world, the Christian is being made different from the world, so that that he or she may become the witness of God for the world. The Christian is in the world precisely in order that the world notices this and begins to desire the relationship with God that it does not yet have. All Christian life must demonstrate this difference.
There is no Christian ethics that is not “evangelical???, i.e. good news
Whatever Christians say about life, and discipleship, about science, sociology or politics, points to that good news and to that Christian distinctiveness.
If the church speaks not as witness to God’s saving work but as a pundit or a broker of some deal, it speaks out of character
The gospel is the same for everyone. If would not be the gospel if it did not.
Homosexuality is not the determining factor in any human being’s existence; therefore it cannot be the determining factor in the way we treat a human being, and should not be the determining factor in the way a human being treats him- or herself. Gays are children of Adam and Eve, brothers and sisters of Christ. There is no other foundation laid than that. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd???; from which it follows, simpliciter and without adjustment, that he will feed gays like a shepherd, too.
Yet the gospel reaches everyone in their particular situation. Each Christian is faced by their own particular set of pressures and concerns. No Christian can rope any particular area off from the gospel. The more he or she attempts to do so, the more directly the gospel will direct itself to that very area.
The Gospel is addressed to human beings irrespective of their condition, and there is no prima facie place to dismember it into a series of gospels for discrete social sectors.
The wealthy Christian can expect the gospel to address the issue of wealth, and to ask them where they true wealth lies. The Christian who attempts to secure themselves against the future with their investment portfolio, and who determines that the gospel has nothing to say about this – that Christian has determined that the Holy Spirit interrogate them at that very point, perhaps even exclusively at that point. The person who is plagued with money worries, may have no more money after baptism than before, but as a result of the gospel see things differently, so that these worries are no longer terrors.
Christ is the same for all. But each of us has to discover how to be Christian in the particular location, amid the particular constellation of pressures and temptations it finds us.
The preaching of the Gospel can and must address distinct vocations, even though it must address them only in the second place, after it has spoken to us all as human beings, not in the first place.
All are challenged and transformed by the gospel, but not all lifestyles are equally compatible or incompatible with the gospel. The only thing we cannot do is decide is that some aspect of our life is uniquely above challenge, or that the Christian tradition may have nothing to say about it.
There is only one position compromised from the outset, and that is the position that is “revisionist??? from the outset, determined by the assumption that the church’s past reflections on the Gospel have nothing helpful to offer. Certainly, no one who sets out from that starting-point will end up in catholic communion, for catholic communion presupposes a catholic mind
We may discover for ourselves and together with the church by learning from the experience of other Christians. The Church of England has been hoping to talk about the particular vocation of the homosexual Christian at least since the 1995 St Andrew’s Day Statement. This was
an invitation to dialogue within the basic terms set by Christian faith.
It did not assume that some new version of Christian teaching was necessary for those Christians who declared that their sexuality demanded it.
It approached the discussion with the assumption that the right category for the relationships of gay people was singleness, not marriage, and that this implied doing without an exclusive, intimate and permanent relationship.
The presumption must be that marriage or singleness are the way Christians have always regarded them. But it is nonetheless an invitation to dialogue.
It is an opportunity to talk about the experience of sexual desires, and the nature or biology that makes some of us homosexual, and about what it means to say that some of us receive these desires by nature, or even from God. It is an opportunity to talk about whether this really means that nature trumps grace – that because they have received these desires by nature, homosexuals who are Christian can do nothing but pursue the fulfilment of those desires by repeatedly attempting to satiate them in whatever way they seem to demand.
Another question is how much the concept of nature can contribute to this debate. O’Donovan says that we can make good use of the concept of nature. We can say that we humans have a twofold nature – body and soul. But equally the concept of ‘nature’ does not explain anything, so explaining why some are homosexual is not something natural science can do. We are nature and freedom, body and soul. Our bodies make us available to one another, but we are always whole persons. Our bodies are therefore ‘essentially social’. Love is never merely bodily, no act of ours is solely ‘physical’. All meaningful human action involves ‘the learning of disciplines that surround the body’s bearing of itself.’ So sexual desire has always been seen as part of greater and more rounded desires. Eros never meant simply sexual desire.
Eros is precisely not sexual impulse; it is an aspect of the spiritual life of mankind, though inevitably engendering bodily experiences to accompany it since we are psychosomatic beings whose every moment is a mediation of the spiritual through the bodily.
Why is it that we moderns are so confused about the sources of our identity? We cannot decide whether we are essentially bodies, and must obey the dictates of our biology, or whether our bodies are simply vehicles which we can use or abuse, as though nothing our body does really touched us.
The modern self is a solitary and solipsistic being. It regards itself as the only real thing, and is determined not to be interrupted and inconvenienced by anything or anyone not itself. The Christian tradition calls this attitude ‘gnosticism’. This is the belief that I am solely my mind, and that I am trapped in my body, and in this world. It asserts that my mind can know the world, and other people, entirely without their aid and begin to extract itself from the limits they represent. Gnosticism is a panicked attempt to escape my past, my present situatedness, and all the plurality and ambiguity of life. It views embodiedness as entanglement and misfortune. It is a permanent temptation to believe that we are to remove ourselves from what it regards as the entangling, disgusting materiality and complications of this world and set ourselves above them.
Modernity is not a new phenomenon. It is a timeless temptation. But it is only properly identified as this by the Church disciplined by the full gospel. The whole Christian tradition is our very own corporate memory. From this bank of resources constituted of all previous Christian experience, we may select parallels to our present experience. From these parallels we can see the range of options open to us for dealing with the challenges of our situation. If we have less memory, we have fewer resources by which to understand our circumstances and fewer options for dealing with them. The grace of God provides us with these resources for the very purpose that we grow through them and are empowered by them. The Christian life and teaching is the grace of God mediated through the experience of previous generations of Christians. It allows to us grow and become a holy people, able to hold out to our society what it cannot receive from any other source.
The whole surrounding culture of modernity is a flight from embodiedness and situatedness. Without the Christian gospel mediated through the Christian life and teaching, our culture is obliged to construct for itself what it refuses to accept from God. It is under a harsh law, entirely self-imposed. Unable to receive its shaping with gratitude, it is then only able to perceive others as a threat. This appears in its belief that all previous experience is rendered redundant by time, and its insistence that we abandon our experience and we flee whatever we identify as ‘the past’.
But as long as our society is peppered with Christians, it has people to point out that we do not have to construct ourselves. Instead we may receive one another from God and thank him for the identity we receive through Christ, and which is demonstrated in the Church. Love is what communion is. We have received the love of God, so we can afford to love one another.
That we live in expectation of being transformed, and we must look to one another for the some of this formation. Therefore we are able to exercise our discernment, acquire a Christian mind and become free. In these seven sermons Oliver O’Donovan has pointed set to the basic elements of the Christian life and indicated how they relate to the practices by which we share Christ with one another, through the discover of a common mind developed through the practices of reasoning together. This practices sustain the existence of Church as a fellowship created by the love of God for us and an act of witness to the world.