Sexuality & Divorce in the Contemporary Church

Many people who keep up with me will know that, in my new role as candidate for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, I am in the process (it will surely be a life long process) of trying to think more deeply about issues surrounding human sexuality.

Talking about this recently with a fellow seminarian (actually, a friend in the Lutheran program here at my seminary) I was confronted with a really good point.

Many conservative types (such as myself) who perhaps have a more “traditional” opinion regarding homosexuality become quite silent when the topic of divorce comes up. My friend suggested (though I don’t think I agree with him) that the Scriptures are more clear on this issue than on homosexuality.

What is true, however, is that Jesus explicitly addresses divorce, and not homosexuality, in the gospel narratives (Matt 19). Why is this important? Because, as another friend pointed out, Anglicanism has always followed “the catholic tradition” of seeing the Gospels as having a certain priority over other parts of the Christian Bible, and this view is embodied in our liturgy. For the classic statement of this by Origen, see here.

Joel at Living Text has a post on divorce which I find quite compelling.

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Bishops’ Statement on Episcopal Polity

Some encouraging news from the world of the Episcopal Church.

Dr. Phil Turner, Dr. Ephraim Radner (member of the Covenant Design Group), and Dr. Christopher Seitz, along with about fifteen bishops in the Episcopal Church (including our own +Don Wimberly) have issued a statement which insists that the diocese (with its bishop and standing committee) is the “chief organ of unity” in the church. By “church” here the document intends the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion, and the historic church catholic. This is the view, for example of St. Ignatius, who saw the unity of the church in the bishop, surrounded by the bishop’s presbyters. (One source on which the paper is based is a letter from ++Rowan, written several months ago.)

As I have written elsewhere, this view is utterly consistent not just with the proposed Covenant, but also with the Windsor Report itself (together with the documents and the ecclesiology on which it is based).

Why is this important? And why now?

Because one of the things which the Epicopal Church General Convention will be dealing with this summer (even if by way of avoidance of the issue) is the proposed Anglican Covenant. Many bishops and leaders in the church have already predicted a rejection of the covenant by the General Convention. The argument of this paper, though, is that if this happens, individual bishops / dioceses will have the right to voluntarily affirm the covenant to Canturbury and the rest of the Communion.

One interesting point made in the paper is that, since membership in the Anglican Communion appears in the Preamble to the Episcopal Church’s constitution, a breach of that membership (something which a rejection of the covenant could bring about) would amount to a nullification of the church’s constitution itself.

Please pray for the Church, pray “for the peace of Jerusalem.”

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Liturgical View of Scripture: Conclusion

For the introduction to this series, go here.

What is the point of all this? Maybe it is this. Have you ever wondered why it is only modern “protestant types” (liberal and evangelical: really two sides of the same coin, in that they both reject all of the above) who get all hot & bothered over biblical “contradictions?” It is not a coincidence.

“Catholic types” (read: historical traditions who have always known that Scripture is a time bound practice in the bosom of the church) don’t really get too hung up about it, and for good reason.

Another way of saying all of this is that Scripture is mediated through the church and her liturgy. And if that is the case, then the messy details which might seem like an outsider to be earth shattering differences, are in fact part of a larger conversation and development.

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Liturgical View of Scripture (IV): Scripture Itself

Intro to series. Part I. Part II. Part III.

Finally, NT Scripture itself teaches that there is another stream of “revelation” or “teaching” or something that comes to the church (this is ecclesiology) from God other than just Scripture: see the following:
•    2 Thess 2:15. Here the verbal and written apostolic instruction is subsumed under the heading of the ‘traditions’, suggesting not a two source revelation paradigm, but rather one source –  God, who uses two unified means, namely written and oral which are harmonious rather than contradictory.
•    Luke 1:1-4. Here we find the oral tradition (v.2) preceding Scripture as a source of catechesis (the word used in v.4).
•    John 20:30 and 21:25.
•    There is Paul in I Cor 11:23: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you….”
•    There is 2 Tim 2:2: “Entrust the things which you heard from me to faithful men.”

Conclusion to this series.

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Liturgical View of Scripture (III): History

Intro to this series. Part I. Part II.

Now for some history.

Another anecdote. In a liturgy class here we were discussing the Didache. Modern scholarship now dates it at 100 CE. Now, what is interesting about the Didache (among other things) is that the Eucharistic liturgy it gives us is in certain very important ways continuous with the way that the church (many branches of it) continued to celebrate the Eucharist down through the centuries. The Didache has the same shape or structure (in important respects) as both the Eastern Orthodox Church has always had as well as the Roman Catholic Church. It is this shape or structure which is then recovered in the 19th and 20th century “liturgical renewal movement” (eg, Dom Gregory Dix) and then imported back into many Protestant churches (including Anglicanism).

The preceding paragraph allows us to say that the liturgy of the church predates (at least much of) the NT documents. We know that if they were worshiping in a particular way in the year 100, then (because liturgy is inherently conservative) they were worshipping that way in the year AD 60.

Hence, liturgy is older than Scripture. Now what, exactly, does that “prove?” I am not quite sure, but this realization has had the effect on me of opening my mind to the possibility that Scripture is something which somehow belongs “within” the liturgy. And I think one could develop this in many ways, including the very liturgy of the didache which is consistent with “the Great tradition” (alluded to above) in which the reading of the Scriptures is decidedly a liturgical act or a liturgical reality. Hence the liturgy provides the context for Scripture.

Now we finally come to the Paschal Mystery, or “the death and resurrection of Christ.” What is the liturgy? One could say that it simply is the Paschal Mystery. It is the death and resurrection of Christ ritually enacted (important phrase) in so many ways and on so many levels. This is true for the Anaphora of the Eucharist; it is true for the rite of Holy Baptism; it is true for the Great Vigil of Easter, out of which and around which developed the entire liturgical year. (BTW, we know about that from another of these ancient historical documents: the reconstructed liturgy of the Roman presbyter Hippolytus.)

Next article: Part IV.

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Liturgical View of Scripture (II): (Philosophy of) Time

Intro to this series

Previous article (part I)

Here is another reason why the differences in Scripture aren’t such a huge deal: time. This is one of Rowan William’s main Leitworts. The church is in the process of a grand conversation which is leading somewhere. It is leading, ultimately, to the new heavens and the new earth.

Conversations take time. This fits perfectly with my Vosian understanding of Pauline eschatology. Conservatives look at this posture within Anglicanism and call it “neverending indeterminacy” because they want something given, something spatialized, something fixed, static and stable, some kind of original autographa. Over and against that, what liturgical traditions are really showing is that our life (which is liturgical), that is, our reading of Scripture, takes place in a temporality which is analogous to the temporality of the biblical narrative (as Rowan Williams argues here).

If you want to understand the deep theology of liturgy, you must see that it is about God’s actions taking place in and through time (which Plato says is a moving image of eternity).

This, too — liturgical theology — is ecclesiology.

Next article (part III)

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Liturgical View of Scripture (I): Communion of Saints

Here is the introduction to this series.

Here is Part II.

I have spoken to some friends about how the liturgy has transformed my attitude toward a feminist person at my seminary. Experiencing this person (let’s call her “Jane”) in the liturgy, interacting with her in the liturgy, prompted the realization that, although she may hold many views which I find objectionable, she is a member of the body of Christ, and is clearly worshipping Jesus. I think that this is a powerful anecdote which begins to show how liturgy can transform the way we deal or cope with biblical messiness and interbiblical “conflict” (what some people call “contradictions in the Bible”).

I am drawing an analogy here between myself & Jane, on the one hand, and, say, Joshua and Judges (vis a vis the conquest), or the Old Testament’s portrayal of harem warfare, or whatever biblical conflict (“contradiction”) you like. By the way, one implication here is that it is not the case that “Israel has misreprented YHWH” (say, in the affirmation and committing of harem warfare) but rather that we, the people of God, have (possibly) misrepresented YHWH. Huge difference there, one which (in some ways) is less traumatic or fatal or disturbing. (By the way, and I hope to come back to this at some point, Anglicanism has never affirmed that Scripture is inerrant…. For that matter, I don’t think that classical Presbyterianism has either, at least until our isolated modern denominations did so, has it?)

But because of this analogy, because Jane and I are not just in the same family as each other (and — within the liturgy — we find a way to live peacefully with our differences) but also in the same family as whoever it was who “wrote” or spoke or passed down the Old Testament (on principle I don’t use the phrase “Hebrew Bible” anymore except in limited situations. That phrase contradicts one of my basic points here.), these differences are worth discussing and struggling with, but they don’t cause some crisis in the church. They neither prompt us nervously to rush to Scripture’s defense, nor do they prompt us to jettison Scripture as something which is hopelessly flawed.

This, by the way, is ecclesiology.

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Liturgical View of Scripture: Intro

This little series is an attempt to flesh out my understanding of Scripture. It is like my own personal “doctrine of Scripture.” It might be called “a liturgical understanding of Scripture,” and I think it is right down the center of classical Anglicanism (including Cranmer and Hooker), but postmodernized (that is, perhaps, filtered through the theology of Rowan Williams and Radical Orthodoxy).

I am trying to challenge (what I perceive as) some basic ways that modern Protestant Christians (including biblical scholars), both more conservative ones such as those associated with Westminster Theological Seminary, as well as more revisionist ones such as Bart Ehrman, are thinking about the Bible. I think this approach helps to explain the anxiety over “inter-biblical conflict” which causes, on the one hand, Westminster Seminary types defensively to freak out over “liberal” views of the Bible, and, on the other hand, the (proto-) Bart Ehrman types to want to jettison Scripture (at least in terms of a norm or rule for the Christian faith and life).

Here’s my  outline:

  1. Communion of Saints
  2. Philosophy (time)
  3. History
  4. Scripture Itself (NT)

For the first article in this series, go here.

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“The Body’s Grace:” ++Rowan on Human Sexuality

I just read Rowan’s article “The Body’s Grace.” I am glad I did. It is a wonderful article in almost every respect. I had already read — and profited from — Michel Foucault on human sexuality as always-already socially constructed, and so Rowan’s points about “the hermeneutics of sexual desire” (my term) made complete sense.

When built upon by Christian anthropology (specifically, our theological understanding of body), this is powerful stuff, and compellingly shows why (among other reasons) we don’t agree with (the supposed view of) Rome of procreation as sex’s sole purpose.

However, none of that theology actually challenged the “default posture” in my thinking about human sexuality (ie, same sex erotic desire).

The one sentence that did so challenge, me, however, was: “In a church that accepts the legitimacy of contraception, the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely … on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous biblical texts….”

OK, I have blogged on Richard Hays’ (Duke Divinity School NT scholar) work on homosexuality here.

Hays addresses, very profoundly, the relevant Biblical material on homosexual relations, and I find it very compelling. He comes down at a place that is, I think, utterly responsible and charitable, and yet pretty “traditional,” especially by the standards of The Episcopal Church. (BTW, I am 99% sure that NT Wright basically agrees with Hays’ on this issue completely.)

Hays, who takes the authority of Scripture quite seriously (as does historic Anglicanism), ends up saying that, on the basis of Scripture, the church ought not to be ordaining practicing homosexuals to the presbyterate and the episcopate.

Apparently Rowan sees this as fundamentalist. I have spent many years thinking about fundamentalism, and it is not clear to me that this is the case.

I would love to discuss these biblical texts — and how and why they do or don’t matter — in greater depth.

Having said all this, however, here are three ways in which Rowan challenged me:

  • He forced me to go back to the three NT texts (other than Rom 1) which are regularly brought out for the traditional position (Acts 15:28-29;I Cor 6:9-11; I Tim 1:10). I can now see that the Acts passage (with its use of pornea) is probably irrelevant to this issue.
  • He forced me to think more deeply about our Reformed understanding that “Scripture interprets Scripture.” In this understanding, we elucidate relatively obscure passages by use of relatively clear ones. My question is now: “Which are the clear doctrines: the three passages listed above, or all the biblical contexts Rowan brings out in his article (what God’s instructions to Hosea imply about human sexual desire, risk, and reciprocity; Paul’s instructions on giving our bodies to the other; etc.)?
  • While it is pretty clear to me that Hays’ work in this area is not fundamentalist, I do need to consider whether it is abstract. His material on his friend Gary, however, strongly suggests to me that it is not. (But I want to make sure.)
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Ecclesial Revision in the Book of Acts

In our study of the book of Acts (which meets on Sunday afternoons at St. Mark’s in Austin) we have waded through many details. We have “gotten down and dirty” and delved into the gritty particulars of the story.

Because we have engaged in this hard work, I think we are now in a position to begin to discern some larger patterns in the narrative (what Alfred North Whitehead called “a simplicity on the far side of complexity”).  One of these patterns which we have seen and discussed repeatedly is the outward expansion of the Jesus movement from Jerusalem, through “Judea and Samaria” (1:8), to Rome, a city which embodies “the ends of the earth” or the outer reaches of the realm of the Gentiles or the “Greeks.”

Presupposed by this theme is the more basic one of “Jewish versus Gentile,” which, again, we have discussed deeply and widely.

But these two themes (outward expansion to the ends of the earth and the cultural tensions between Jew and Greek) are connected to a third: revision of the predecessor religion of the people of the God of the Jewish Scriptures.

The church today is full of people who advocate revision of various kinds. (One thinks of the issue of “open communion” as well as the ordination / consecration of openly homosexual presbyters and bishops.)

There are, however, two kinds of revisionists (at least potentially or in theory): there are those who, in their advocacy for change, are motivated by and rely upon sources external to the tradition (for example, the values of our Western, secular, post-Enlightenment culture) and those who are motivated by and rely upon sources within the tradition of Christianity or, within that, of Anglicanism.

While it does seem to me that revisionists of the first kind are fundamentally misguided right from the start, it nevertheless remains the case that there is a place for revision within the Christian tradition. In fact, the case can be stated much more strongly: the religion of the New Covenant in Christ is itself a drastic, radical, and shocking revision of something prior.  The process of this revision, in fact, lies at the heart of the story told in the book of the Acts of the Apostles.

Given this, it seems that a revisionist can rightly analogize from the revision narrated in Acts to other revisions which might be needed today. (Henry de Lubac, in fact, thinks this way in chapter VII  of his Catholicism. See here.) This would be the second kind of revision, motivated by and relying upon sources inherent to the tradition. Unlike secular revision, this kind should be respected and deeply engaged with.

The book of Acts, in fact, provides us with a set of criteria for revision in the Church. How did it come about that the Gentiles were included in the New Covenant of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures without having to become Jewish (ie, without having to be circumcised and having to observe the other ceremonial and cultic practices of the Jewish people such as festival keeping and various food laws)?

There are several factors which hold in the narrative, and which the text is at pains to emphasize, in the developments narrated in Acts:

1.    Confirmation by the larger body.
2.    Confrontation by undeniable phenomena (ie, Gentiles speaking in tongues).
3.    Scandalous, uncontrollable surprise.

These three factors will be elaborated upon in upcoming posts.

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