Why the church needs its revisionists.

‘Sticks and stones may break your bones but words can never harm you.’

A well meaning phrase, delivered with ‘pastoral intent,’ but as a propositional statement woefully inaccurate; words do hurt.

Words hurt in a variety of ways: they hurt when used in an obviously discriminatory and abusive fashion and, they also hurt when used critically to assert our positions on a given issue whilst at the same time ‘dissing’ the positions taken by another individual or group.

Words have both positive and negative connotations. The meaning ascribed to a particular word or descriptor is, in part, dependent on the person using the word or phrase.

As fallen human beings we tend to both know which words and phrases wind up those with whom we are in (hopefully good) disagreement whilst, at the same time, also being suspicious of the underlying message being given when a particular word or phrase is used to describe ourselves by someone who takes a different perspective.

Members of the Church tend to be pretty good at word games!

To describe someone as either conservative or liberal can imply a perception of fundamentalism or disregard of tradition. Orthodox is often used to suggest a sense of being right or correct (beyond challenge) on a given issue.

Of course when words are used in this way they are deprived of their richness, or their purposeful ambiguity.

Take the word tradition (and its derivatives). Tradition can be used in an exclusive and static sense and taken to mean nothing more than the retaining of preexisting thoughts and patterns of behavior.  Ardent traditionalists, rightly, argue that wisdom and the good gifts of an institution, such as the church, have been passed down through the ages and therefore should not only be cherished but also protected.

However, tradition can also mean, yes accepting that which has been passed down through the generations, whilst at the same time critiquing the past. So tradition can also be taken to imply discernment and sifting.

But maybe if you are like me ‘a progressive’ in relation to issues of sexuality and gender the word that aggravates most of all is ‘revisionist?’ I have always taken it to mean, in its accusatory sense, the notion of a willful disregarding of the data which define Christian orthodoxy (and of course many do use it in this sense).

And so, I was intrigued to see someone who takes a contrary view on the theology of sexuality (though not on gender) describing ‘revisionist’ as simply this:

‘Revisionists are people who ask for change.’ 

If this is an apt description the questions then become why are they (the revisionists) asking for change? What are the guiding impulses that are driving the creation of a new or revised vision?  What theological resources can be used to assess the questions being asked of the church by the revisionists?

I suspect that the impulse driving a revisionist critique of the status quo is normally the perception of a state of injustice.

If we take ++Justin’s welcome affirmation that the church has caused pain and harm to members of the LGBTI community and rephrase it in revisionist terms it might read as follows:

‘I would like to apologize for the injustice experienced by members of the LGBTI community in the Church.’

Pain and harm are therefore located, as consequences, in a larger moral discourse at the heart of which resides the notions of injustice and justice. And, (as a revisionist) I take it as a ‘fundamental article of faith’ that the church should always resolve to counter injustice, as the monks of Taize chant ‘the kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.’ 

And so I am grateful for the revisionists throughout the ages who have called on the church to change its theology in relation to gender (and gender applied to priesthood and episcopacy), race and all manner of other issues.

The Church needs it revisionists.

Of course revisionists may not always be correct in their analysis (but perhaps on the big issues they tend to be?), but the Church does need men and women of faith who consistently challenge the church to assess its doctrine, theology and teaching through the lens of justice.

To be a revisionist need not imply a disregard of tradition. I would self identify as a traditionalist and a revisionist. My affirmation of the creed, my belief in the efficacy of the sacraments, my rejection of any liberal theologies of the resurrection, my understanding of the apostolic tradition, and the communion of saints, would all mark me out as a traditionalist.

I am a traditionalist and a revisionist, or put another way an orthodox progressive because I believe that the church’s treatment of various groups of people has, and continues to, fall short of that which is demanded by justice.

As a traditionalist and a revisionist my primary concern is asking whether groups of people previously excluded from full participation in the life of the church, expressed through its traditions, could now be legitimately invited into a greater level of participation in the traditions of the church.

The Church needs its revisionist thinkers. 








2 thoughts on “Why the church needs its revisionists.

  1. Of course, the words we use are very important, especially in a pastoral context. It’s very difficult to convince someone of your love and concern when inappropriate, and very public, language has been used. It’s also sometimes too convenient to categorise people. People very often defy categorisation and that adds to the richness of any relationship. The church’s treatment of women and LGBTI people is still one that needs ‘revision’. So revisionists are very important. Having said that, I think the church’s drawing in of people depends on traditional values of justice, mercy, grace and discipline.

  2. Be careful what you wish for! There might be an overwhelmingly good case for dispensing with creeds at the very least. Orthodoxy has no value in itself. If we’re serious about Church as an exploration/celebration of eternal realities, we can’t merely welcome revisionists if they happen to support our cause. The question is whether an orthodox position, whatever it is, needs revising. Justice is one lense; philosophical consistency, theological relevance and common sense are others. These and more offer insights that current orthodoxy rejects out of hand, not least with the creeds. That’s no welcome for revisionists.

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