Tuesday 30 November 2010

An Antidote to the Covenant

Cartoon by Dave Walker  http://www.cartoonchurch.com/
Over the last few weeks as controversy around the Anglican Covenant has intensified, a story has come to mind that I heard as a young teenager. 
It was told by a young Argentinean preacher called Jaun Carlos Ortiz, and it made a deep impression on me when I was a young Christian.  His book 'Disciple' made a deep impression on many Christians in the late 1970's and I still have a copy on my bookshelf.   So I clearly remember going to hear him preach on a UK tour.
The story relates to what happened whenever he used to come back from time away from home.  On his return, he used to be greeted by his children with their tennis rackets, asking him to play tennis with them.  "We have been waiting for you - we can't play tennis when you are away" they would complain.
"But why don't you play tennis with each other?" he would ask, but they both came up with excuses.  "She's hopeless - she always misses" one would say.  "He hits the ball too hard" the other would complain.
So what did he do?
He played tennis with one, and then with the other - but he couldn't help wishing that they would find a way to play with one another.
The point of his story is that we are exactly the same with God and each other.   We fall out with each other as Christians and Churches so easily.  We won't play with each other, even though God wishes we would.  So He plays with each of us, but longs for us to play together.
As I pondered this modern parable, I wondered what had become of this young insightful preacher, so I 'Googled'  his name, and found that despite a number of personal challenges and tragedies, he is a senior Pastor and teacher at The Crystal Cathedral - one of California's evangelical mega-churches.
As I dug a little deeper, I found a chapter in one of his books which spoke to me so clearly about the mess we are getting ourselves into, as we try to define who is and who is not a proper Anglican.
The Book is "Living with Jesus Today" and Chapter 14 is called "We cannot choose our brothers" 
Here are some excerpts from it:
The problem really isn't the denomination itself.  We are fooling ourselves if we believe that. We are the problem! The denomination is just another excuse for our flesh to become enmeshed in division, which it likes to do....

Most denominations begin in the same way. In a church, one group of people barks at another group, dividing over a particular issue. The other group then barks back. It takes two to fight. So we bark at one another, and division follows...

Really, we shouldn't speak of the church as divided.  You can divide the number ten into ten ones, into two fives, or into five two's. You can divide a group of five into two groups (three and two) or into five ones. You also can divide two into two ones. But you cannot divide one. The church is one, and it cannot be divided. You can only break one.   When they amputate your leg, you don't say, "They divided my body." You say, "They cut off one of my legs." So, too, the church is not divided; it is broken in pieces...

Today we are not under Christ, but under other banners. So we have a broken church that is fractured into hundreds of denominations. But Jesus does not have many churches.  The church is the bride of Christ, and He is not a polygamist. He is going to marry just one church...

The church has a tendency to be a Christian club. A club is an institution in which all of the members agree to certain principles... 

When we gather together around principles or doctrines, that's a club. Anything that is centred in a set of rules or concepts is a club. But when we gather together around a living person whose name is Jesus, we are a church...

When Jesus comes to church, He does not find joy in our doctrinal divisions.   He commands us to repent of our hatred of one another.  And when He lives within us and we are led by His Spirit, we will accept each other as members of His body not because of doctrines, but simply because He has accepted us. We will be one church because we all share one common life—the life of Christ in us.

In the current climate of the Anglican Communion, Covenant and GAFCON, perhaps this is just the challenge we need.  There are probably many things he preaches which I would not agree with today (and vice versa) but that is exactly the point.  We are one church, no matter how much we try to divide ourselves against each other.  We are one church, with one faith, with one Lord, Jesus Christ.
If only we would play tennis with each other...

(You can read the whole Chapter at Called to Be Free)

Thursday 25 November 2010

Bible says No - Part 2 - Leviticus 18

The first rule of understanding the Bible is prayer.  The second is context.

There is the story of a person who prayed and picked verses in his Bible to read at random. 
  • The first verse said,  "And Judas went and hanged himself"
  • The second was more disturbing when he read "Go thou and do likewise"
  • The third verse nearly put him off reading the Bible forever when he read the words "What are you waiting for!"
He was reading Bible verses but not putting them in context and it could led to a very nasty conclusion!

If we want to find out what the Bible is saying  to us today, we have to read it in context.  There are actually 2 contexts we need to be aware of.  The first is an awareness of the people and cultures it was first written for.  Secondly, we need to see the verses we are reading in the context of the surrounding passage and indeed Scripture as a whole.

This is especially true of controversial issues such as the verses on homosexual sex.

The first prohibition is found in Leviticus 18:22.  Among a number of sexual no-no's, it says ...

22 ‘Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.' (NIV)

This might seem clear enough,  but there are 2 issues which make it far from an 'open and shut case' The first comes as we look at what else is described as “detestable”  in Leviticus.

Leviticus 11 is a good example:
12Anything living in the water that does not have fins and scales is to be detestable to you.
So apparently, prawns, shrimps and crab are detestable and although my wife may agree with that (she hates any shell fish!) that doesn't make it an eternal law.

There are also other things which are forbidden in Leviticus which, if they applied today,  would mean that many of us are living in sin   Eg. Leviticus 19:27 commands, "‘Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard."   This is set alongside another command that prohibits eating steak cooked 'rare' (vs 26).  And yet these commands which are hard to get our heads around today, are alongside others which we would endorse wholeheartedly like "Do not degrade your daughter by making her a prostitute"! (vs  29)

There is more to reading this part of the Bible than  simply extracting single verses, if we are to understand which rules apply today and which do not - and indeed what the rules do, and do not, prohibit.  They were written in a very different culture with its own taboos and concerns, and some of the commands in Leviticus reflect that culture, while others reflect the eternal will of God.  The challenge is to discern which are which.

The second issue with Leviticus 18 is the word which the NIV Bible translates as 'detestable'.  We sometimes forget that the Bible was not written in English!  What we have is a translation, and the constant challenge in any work of translation is discerning how to best convey the fullest meaning of the words we translate.  This is not an easy task - as evidenced by  the large number of translations out there.

The Hebrew word in this case is   תעב 'to-ebah'.  The King James version translates it as 'abomination'.   In the list of sexual no-no's in Leviticus 18, 'lying with a man as with a woman' is singled out in the list as 'to-ebah'.   So what does this word mean?  And what picture would it have evoked in the Hebrews who first heard it?

The word 'to-ebah' occurs many times in the Old Testament, and is primarily associated with the worship of idols.

In Deuteronomy, there are 15 verses which use the word, and 12 of them either refer to idolatry.
One example is Dt 27:15
5Cursed be the man that maketh any graven or molten image, an abomination unto the LORD, the work of the hands of the craftsman, and putteth it in a secret place.
Another,  (Dt 23:18) links 'to-ebah' to money which came from  male temple prostitutes.

In the books of Kings and Chronicles, 'to-ebah' is used 10  times, almost all of them referring specifically to the worship of idols and again there is a link in 1 Kings 14:24 with male temple prostitutes.
23For they also built them high places, and images, and groves, on every high hill, and under every green tree. 24there were also male temple prostitutes in the land. They committed all the abominations of the nations that the LORD drove out before the people of Israel.       

So there would have been a clear and specific link in the minds of the people of Israel between 'to-ebah' and idolatry, and between homosexual sex and religious male prostitution.

The link between 'to-ebah' and idolatry is also present in Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.  The only book of the Bible where this does not apply is the book of Proverbs which uses the word 'to-ebah' in a bewildering variety of contexts.   But then the book of Proverbs is poetry, written in a different style and with different aims.  The Old Testament scholar, RN Whybray, in his commentary on Proverbs says "It cannot be too strongly emphasised  that Proverbs is an entirely different kind of book from the other OT books; indeed it is unique.  It served an entirely different purpose ...   Proverbs has one unifying characteristic: it is written entirely in poetry  ... Suffice to say that in general poetry makes up in allusiveness what it lacks in precision."  

If we set aside this poetic use of the word in Proverbs, we find that in up to 80% of the times 'to-ebah' is used, it refers to false worship or the worship of idols, and in some of those references there is a clear link made with male temple prostitution.

So why do we assume that it applies to  same-sex relationships?    Looking  at the evidence, it is much more likely  that when Leviticus condemns 'men lying with men as with a woman', it has homosexual temple prostitution to idols in mind, which is a world away from a self-giving loving committed relationship between 2 people of the same sex today.

The most frustrating thing about "Computer says No"  (the Little Britain comedy sketch which started this series)  is the fact that no explanation is given, no discussion takes place - there no analysis of why the answer is 'no'.  Both the Scriptures and LGBT people deserve so much more than that.

Next time - 1 Corinthians 6...

For the First Blog in this series - Bible says No - follow this link.
For the next Blog in the series - Bible says No - part 3 - follow this link

Thursday 18 November 2010

A Sad Loss for Humankind

Too often the T in LGBT is overlooked in the debate over sexuality.

But Transgendered men and women are just as real, just as human, and experience just as much prejudice (if not more) than lesbian, gay or bisexual people.

Today I heard of the funeral of a remarkable transgendered woman named Sonia Jardiniere.

Sonia was a leading human rights lawyer fighting (and often winning) for the rights of asylum seekers. She practised under her birth name - David Burgess, and must be one of the very few people who can claim to have successfully prosecuted a Government minister for contempt of court!

Sonia was also a Christian - an active member of St Martin in the Fields Church in Trafalgar Square, London, and a member of Changing Attitude & The Sibyls.

Tributes to her have been posted in the Guardian Newspaper, and on the LGBT Anglican Coalition website, where you can read more of her amazing story.

All I can say in response to them, is that if I could ever be just a fraction of the remarkable person that Sonia was, I would be overjoyed.

In the saddest irony, a transgendered asylum seeker has been charged with her murder.

But I am sure that her legacy will live on, just as she will live on with the God who made her and loves her.

Tuesday 9 November 2010

We pray for their return ...

So yesterday the Church Of England lost 5 Bishops as they make the journey to Rome over the issue of women Bishops...

Some may find it tempting to say "Good riddance" but that would graceless. Instead I would like to tell the story of an young Anglican Priest who left the Church of England back in 1963 to become a Roman Catholic .

He did it for theological reasons.

He was an Anglo-catholic, trained at St Stephen's House in Oxford, under Fr Arthur Couratin. And he, along with others, felt that the Church of England was in danger of betraying its Catholic heritage by moving towards unity with the Methodist Church. In doing so, any claim to Apostolic Succession would be broken and we would have priests & ministers who had not been properly ordained. In short, the Church of England would cease to be part of the' one holy catholic and apostolic church' of the creeds.

And so he left, with his wife and young baby, following the courage of their convictions.

They left their home for a room in a Roman Catholic house for defecting Anglican clergy. They received a warm and practical welcome in the Roman church, with the Converts Aid Society helping him to get a job and home to live in, and Roman Catholic priests helped them through this momentous time of change in their lives.

At that time, their Anglican baptism was not accepted in Rome, so they had to be conditionally baptised and confirmed again - and of course, as a married man, there was no possibility of being able to move to ordained ministry as a Roman Catholic priest.

So he became a teacher, initially in Roman Catholic schools, but then in a state school in Rochdale. When he got there however, he discovered something - that the Head and Deputy Head at this school were both dedicated Methodists and the Deputy was a Methodist lay preacher.

During his time there, he began to question his attitude towards Methodists and his reasons for leaving the Church of England. These Methodists were among the finest Christian he had ever met, and as a result he realised that he had been wrong. In that realisation, he felt God calling him back and he went to the Bishop who had sponsored him for ordination him to ask to be allowed back into Anglican ministry. Graciously, the Bishop welcomed him back, and there followed another 28 years of ordained ministry before retirement.

This story is not unique by any means, but it is special to me because that Anglican priest is my father, and I was the young baby in their arms as they left their Vicarage to 'go to Rome'.

Its point is to show that sometimes we can be wrong. Sometimes there are issues which seem so fundamental to our faith, that lead us to difficult decisions and drastic action. Yet in the fullness of time we realise they are mere distractions to the call to love God and our neighbour in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.

Paul knew this of course, after his momentous change of life and faith on the road to Damascus. In Philippians 3, he lists all the things that he thought were so important before his encounter with Christ - and then he says that now he counts them all as loss compared with the all surpassing greatness of knowing Christ. Not many of us will have a Damascus experience to redirect our lives, but we do meet Christ in other people every day and if we are open to see Christ in them, we too can find Christ calling us to new understanding of His work in the world.

Of course things are very different now. The issue of the day is Women Bishops, not Methodists. Anglican priests can go to Rome and be welcomed into ministry, even if they are married with a family. And now there is the promise of an Anglican Ordinariate within the Roman Catholic Church.

Now, with the resignation of five Bishops to join the new Ordinariate, there will be other clergy who are tempted to join them. My hope is that they will think twice before leaving the Church of England on such an issue - but my prayer is that even if they go, they will remain open to seeing Christ at work in the ministry of others, and through seeing Christ at work, they will one day feel the call to return.

Saturday 6 November 2010

"Bible says No ..."

(If the link above doesn't work try this link.)
I have had the first negative comment on my Blog!
Anonymous said ....... "You are an Evangelical and you presumably know your Bible yet you say homosexuality is fine ? Accept the people, sins and all, but the practice is not OK and you should know it. Goodness, there are plenty of Biblical admonitions about it. I`m not even an Evangelical and it seems crystal clear to me."
I am actually amazed that it has taken so long. When we launched Accepting Evangelicals in 2004, we immediately had a flood of the most awful emails expressing the hope that we would die a slow painful death and burn in hell. So actually, this mildly negative comment is not only long overdue, but also extremely polite and reserved.
What has not moved on, however is the mistaken belief about what the Bible does and does not say on the subject of same sex relationships.
Far from there being 'plenty of Biblical admonitions' on the subject there are only a handful of verses which talk about homosexuality, and understanding exactly what they mean or refer to is by no means straightforward. Yet the perception remains in many people's minds that this is an open and shut case.
Even Theologians who are committed to a conservative line against same sex relationships, acknowledge that there is not much in the Bible to go on. One such theologian is R.Hays, is quoted in the Church of England's official document on the subject "Some issues in human sexuality" (2003). He talks about the "Slender evidence of the New Testament" in relation to homosexuality -and he is right. It is mentioned on only 3 occasions, and only one of these contains any attempt to portray a theological explanation for why such attraction might be wrong.
The Old Testament is no better. There are only 2 clear references, both in the same section of Leviticus (18:22 and 20:13) and the second is merely a reiteration of the first for the purpose of setting down a penalty for the 'crime'. Other references in Deuteronomy are almost universally understood to be about temple prostitution whether heterosexual or (by inference) homosexual, so contribute nothing to the current debate on same-sex relationships.
Other passages - eg the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 - whilst having a sexual component to them, are not principally about homosexuality, but about rape, inhumanity, and breaking the laws of hospitality which were deeply ingrained in fabric and culture of the Middle East. Hence it was considered acceptable(even proper) for Lot to offer his daughters to be gang raped by the mob in order to protect his visitors!
On top of all this, Jesus appears to have been entirely silent on the issue, and if you are a lesbian, you can rejoice that there is even less to go on. Leviticus refers exclusively to men, and only one of the three references in the New Testament (Romans 1) includes sexual attraction between women.
So far from there being plenty of Biblical admonitions against homosexuality, the reality is that the Biblical evidence is both flimsy and fragmented. We need to delve deeper to see what exactly is being considered in those verses and to see to what extent it might apply today.
The problem is, just like the Little Britain sketch where the bank clerk says over and over again 'Computer says NO!' - there are many too many Christians who are content to roll out the same mantra time after time - 'Bible says No!' - without ever considering the evidence and what the Bible actually says.
That doesn't mean that what the Bible says is unimportant however. As an evangelical, I consider it vitally important to build my understanding of the Christian faith on the Bible.
So over the next few months, I will be using my blog to take a close look at what the Bible says on same sex relationships, and what that means today. I know, of course that I am not doing anything new here, as many have trod this road before me, but as long as there are people out there who think the same way as Mr/s Anonymous, I think it needs to be done. I just hope and pray that anyone in that position will be a little more responsive than the bank clerk in Little Britain.
To see Part 2 - follow this link