Talking of sin

On Thursday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality the Archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a joint statement. The statement can be read through the link to the Thinking Anglicans website:

The statement, I fear, may well end up causing more heat than light.

One of the things I find interesting is the archbishops willingness to use the word sin. I am grateful for this because sin is the notion at the heart of the long running ‘debate’ around issues of human sexuality, which is a churchy term for homosexuality, for we spend little or no time ‘debating’ heterosexuality.

I was also encouraged by the archbishops willingness to locate sin in both the communal and individual spheres. The communique was right to suggest that legal sanctions against consenting adults are always wrong irrespective of sexuality. Some of the Primates in the Anglican Communion may well feel a little bruised by the reminder of their mutually agreed commitment to argue against criminal sanctions for homosexual acts, however very few in the Church of England, even those of an ultra conservative persuasion, will find the archbishops suggestion that the criminilization of homosexuality is always wrong, immoral or sinful in the least contentious.

But what about individual sin, for this is where the ‘debate’ for the Church of England becomes contentious?

Are the archbishops arguing that homosexual intimacy is always and necessarily sinful? My own reading is that they don’t quite get to this point although they are clearly seeking to appease those who hold this view. Maybe ++Justin and John’s intention is to bring the debate back to basics and simply get the Church of England focusing on a single issue: the nature and locale of sin? As the Church of England continues to wrestle with issues of human (or do I mean homo) sexuality it is possibly the case that two competing, and very possibly irreconcilable, theologies of sin inform those arguing both for change and no change in doctrine and, praxis.

Those arguing for a re-assertion of the historic position believe that same-sex relationships can never be liturgically affirmed because they are always sinful. Same sex relationships are held to be impure and, are a rejection of a divinely appointed notion of binary complementarity. Only heterosexual relationships can conform to biblical standards of purity. Heterosexual relationships entered into prior to marriage are capable of redemption, homosexual realtionships can never be redeemed. The church, under this scheme,  is therefore correct to assert that the only relationships that can be affirmed and blessed are heterosexual relationships. If the church were to introduce liturgies to affirm and bless same-sex couples the institution itself would become corrupt and even sinful. Sin  would be re-located away from the individual (although the individual would remain in a state of sin)  to the institution.

The progressive view is the polar opposite and its (our) charge is a grave one because sin is already located at the institutional level. The argument is that by denying same-sex couples who wish to have affirmed and blessed their intention to unite in  a life-long monogamous, faithful and, loving relationship the church is denying them  that which should be rightfully (and ritefully) theirs according to the standards of distributive justice.

The ‘debate’ is extremely difficult and contentious because the competing sides are informed by different virtues and both regard an erosion of their cherished virtues as deeply sinful. For one side, the conservative side,  the church is currently on the side of morality (just) whilst a group of individuals, LGBTIQ Christians and their allies are either ‘living in sin,’ or endorsing a sinful ‘life-style. For progressives the inverse is true; sin is primarily located at the institutional level.

Whilst I am truly grateful to the archbishops for raising the stakes by introducing the concept of sin my fear is that by having done so they have begun the process of bringing to the fore two possibly irreconcilable theologies.

But, maybe that was their intention?

If the Church of England is to continue as a unified church, albeit with different views regarding the morality of human sexuality, some serious theological work needs to be undertaken on the relationship between purity and justice. Perhaps the archbishops could appoint some Lambeth theologians to undertake such work for the future of the Church of England might just depend on it. A teaching document, such as the one sponsored by the archbishops, that fails to recognize and address the tension between these two theological virtues will ultimately fail to live up to its aspirations.











Speaking of culture, speaking of tradition.

It seems as though the votes taken at General Synod last weekend in respect of LGBTIQ+ issues may be indicative of a general move towards greater levels of both affirmation and inclusion in the ordinary life of the church. General Synod has, in a significant way, started to flesh out, give content to, the notion of ‘radical new inclusivity.’ This is important because if ‘radical new inclusivity’ is to be effective as a guiding motif it can only be so if it has content. A motif without content will ultimately be exposed as a cheap, meaningless, strap-line or slogan.

There has been a conservative backlash to the votes taken at synod with the same lines of argument being repeated to defend the historic position. But, interestingly, the group blamed for the acceptance of these motions has changed. The target of conservative ire is, currently not the progressives (or liberals) but the middle ground, who are blamed for misunderstanding or willfully ignoring Scripture, capitulating to culture and, jettisoning tradition.

Rob Monro has written that: ‘In previous synods, the non-aligned middle, the roughly 1/3 of synod who don’t self-identify as either conservative or radical, could usually be relied on to be social conservative, to be slow to bow to the pressures that political correctness has always brought. No longer!’

Susie Leafe’s social analysis suggests that: ‘In the space of four days, the General Synod of the Church of England have, in effect, rejected the doctrines of creation, the fall, the incarnation, and our need for conversion and sanctification Instead we have said that we are ‘perfect’ as we are, or as we see ourselves, and that the Church should affirm us and call on God to validate our choices. No wonder we do not want to proclaim Christ’s unique identity and significance for all people.’

So it is clear that a rejection of doctrine caused by an uncritical response to contemporary cultural norms and a downplaying of the importance of tradition (as the guarantor of doctrine) are to blame.

But, the problem is that LGBTIQ+ Christians, and a large number of those who stand beside them in solidarity, have been arguing for change and greater levels of inclusion for decades and, decades. It is simply not accurate to suggest that many of those who wish to see change have bowed before the throne of political correctness. In fact many LGBTIQ+ Christians have stood, over the decades, ‘proud’ against societal and, cultural norms. They have dared to be both politically and theologically incorrect. And, yes they have also challenged the church to look anew at issues such as the doctrines of creation and fall, redemption and sanctification, covenant and relationship. You could argue that they have been a prophetic voice. Perhaps the fact that the middle ground has listened not to culture, but the prophetic voice, needs to be recognised and, celebrated?

‘Tradition’ is often used to defend the status quo. The idea being that we, in the Church of England, have no right, or indeed rite, to change doctrine unilaterally. We must remember, so the line of argument goes, that we are but a branch of the ‘One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.’ Whilst it is true to affirm our status as an ‘apostolic and catholic church’ applications to tradition in order to ensure stasis in our own position and, solidarity with other branches of the church that also self-define as ‘apostolic and catholic’ don’t necessarily follow. They don’t follow for two reasons:

First, we have consistently changed doctrine for our own ends. We  only have two sacraments, the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches have seven. We ordain women as bishops, priests and, deacons, the Roman Catholics and Orthodox don’t. Our differences are both sacramental and, concerned with church order. But, both are concerned with doctrine! Doctrine only makes sense as it relates to and is enacted by rites, rituals, sacraments and , liturgies. The guardians of rites, sacraments and, liturgies are those who have official roles in the ordering of the church. Although some conservatives like to separate out doctrine and church order this cannot really work for a church whose creeds articulate that church order is coterminous with doctrine.

Secondly, doctrine in many ‘second order’ (i.e. areas that don’t relate to salvation) areas should be considered provisional. Tradition doesn’t mean acting solely as a curator of historical norms. Tradition, at least according (irony) to that most liberal of theologians Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) should be held respectively, less tradition refuses to pay us due respect:

‘Not everything that exists in the Church must for that reason be also a legitimate tradition; in other words, not every tradition that arises in the Church is a true celebration of the mystery of Christ. There is a distorting, as well as a legitimate tradition…….consequently tradition must not be considered only affirmatively but also critically.’ 

This quote is from Ratzinger’s Commentary on the Documents of Vatican ii. I am not suggesting that Ratzinger is a supporter of same-sex marriage, but I am suggesting that his understanding of tradition is accurate, and it is also worth remembering that the doctrinal changes discussed during the Vatican ii process were seismic in nature.

So let’s keep discussing the way ahead and, please let’s do so free from false understandings of the roles played by culture and, tradition.



Why I will continue to wear vestments

Synod has voted and canon law will now be changed to permit deacons and priests and, presumably, readers to dispense with vestments when celebrating the divine office. Vestments will no longer be required for weddings and, I think, funerals. The decision to dress less formally, though hopefully not casually, will need to be agreed by the PCC and, for weddings and funerals by close relatives.  I think it is a bit odd for the reader, deacon or, priest to ask the family ‘now how would you like me to dress,’ during the pre-funeral visits. It’s not a line of questioning I would be comfortable opening up.

I will continue to wear vestments. I will wear them not because I particularly like them, nor because I have a large wardrobe of them, but because I think, in my context, they are missional. They are missional, in part, because they conform to people’s image of what a priest or minster should look like. I strongly believe that in my context the wearing of vestments makes both me, and the church, more and not less accessible.

When I got ordained a very close friend of mine invited me to meet to chat about faith. My friend was a very lapsed catholic. At the time I remember saying to my friend Phil, for that is his name, that he could have talked to me about faith, bringing any questions he might have had, at any stage during the previous twenty years. His reply startled me ‘look,’ he said ‘when I arrange for someone to come round to fix the boiler I expect them to have a corgi certificate and wear a boiler suite.’ These  two things gave him a high degree of confidence. The interesting thing about Phil is that he is a pretty relaxed character. He is not hung up on formality (in fact when I took his dad’s funeral he dressed very casually) but he did have an expectation that I would dress ‘properly.’ My training, my dog collar, my vestments all contributed to me being more, and not less, accessible to laid-back Phil. I will continue to wear vestments for people like Phil.

I have heard comments recently to the effect that the wearing of vestments is correlated to notions of power and, authority. Or, more particularly, the misuse of power and authority. I think this is a false line of argument. Priestly excess is just as prevalent in chinos as it is chasubles.

Worn with humility vestments help tell the Christian story. The wearing of vestments should not be about self promotion but, rather, self-denial. For sure there are priests who love wearing all manner of dress, but the majority of priests who vest don’t own the stoles, chasubles and even copes they wear.

I own the basics: cassock, surplice, cassock alb, scarf and the cheapest stoles I could buy but, everything else I wear belongs not to me but to the churches in the benefice I serve. The only exception to this is a stole that was commissioned for me, as a gift, by the benefice based on the  hymn ‘All are welcome in this place.’ This stole tells the story of our aspirations. It is narrative in dress and by the way when I wear it in school the children get very excited.

So what I wear at the Eucharist, Evensong, or Matins is not about me, and my desire to self express but about honouring the people I serve. My vestments allow me to meet expectations, with dignity, at little personal cost. So why wouldn’t I wear them? I am a priest, and I want to look like a priest. I want to give people the opportunity to relate to me and talk to me in role. For these reasons I shall continue to vest.

And, by the way, when the bishop comes I do hope they will bring their mitre.