Moral Leader? Holy Life?

Since the University is the only part of the year’s activity that’s started this week I’ve been spending my time thinking about how (if) I (when I’m a minister) should emulate the prophets and priests of the Old Testament alongside why some people believe that we should not ordain homosexual individuals to the ministry unless they agree either to behave like (become?) heterosexuals.

The typical argument runs something like:

    • we know homosexuality is wrong (sinful) because the bible tells us so (passages from Old and New Testaments) and we can understand this because God intended sex for procreation within marriage (more passages from Old and New Testaments backed up by arguments from nature);
    • ordained people have to live a holy life since the promise to do so is in the ordination vows;
    • living a holy life is incompatible with wrong (sinful) behaviour;
    • THEREFORE homosexual activity (and all sex outside marriage) is incompatible with ordination.
A lot of the (naturally quite heated) debate consists of people who are involuntarily sexually attracted to people of their own sex and who believe themselves “called” to ministry (our theology requires us to think that our attraction to the life of the ordained ministry is as little a decision of ours as who we feel drawn to) pointing out a perceived injustice in being told that these two callings (let’s call them both that for the sake of argument) being put in opposition by those for whom this opposition causes no problem.
This argument from justices is backed up by another set of arguments from nature (“born this way”) without either the full implications of the opposed conceptions of what counts as natural or the theological differences that are possible on the relevance of any argument from nature being explored.
This has now been going on so long and so intensively that it has become pretty clear that no argument presented by either side of the question of whether to ordain the people in question is ever going to be recognised as conclusive by those who disagree with them.
What concerns me personally, as one who is unaffected by the immediate issue, is the implication that to be a minister I have to live a “holy life”, one where sin, by implication, is absent; or at least that a certain kind or level or amount or something of sin would render me ineligible or unacceptable. It’s step 2 of the argument above that causes me real anxiety.
How do I know whether my life is holy enough? When I consider the demands placed on the Christian in the Bible I’m very aware of how far short of the ideal disciple I am. Have I sold everything I own and given it to the poor? Do I go the extra mile when demands are placed on me? Do I always and consistently put righteousness and the rule of God first and not worry about shelter, food and clothing? And given that the answers to these and a long list of other, similar questions, put me in the wrong, what is the sense in which my life is holy? (I’ve put aside the question of clerical celibacy and whether any sexual activity is inherently unholy only because it would take up the whole day to write anything coherent about it).
For all of us who are engaged in or with the ecclesial arguments about human sexuality, which have typically focussed on ordination, the question of the holy life is a pressing one.  What puzzles me is that so many of the ordained don’t seem frightened by it. If they (we) have to live and show what holiness looks like as freedom from sin that seems like a big and, frankly, impossible and terrifying responsibility.
It also seems to me to be incompatible with some things we know about the nature of Christianity. After all Paul told us that anyone who believes themselves to be without sin is under a delusion and our tradition tells us that our reconciliation to God in Christ is God’s gracious gift not our earned reward.
  1. Penelope said:


    I wonder if we confuse being holy and being sinless as the same thing. I see being holy as being set aside by God.Called to action for a purpose. I.e. Jacob/Israel being holy but certainly not sinless. I think if we worry about trying to be sinless then we would do nothing for God. maybe I am being a little simplistic….Penelope

  2. I agree with you, Penelope, being holy can’t be the same thing as being sinless since we are all sinners (see Romans 3 and 1 John 1). On the other hand we have to assume that holiness means something about purity and goodness, not just being set aside for a purpose. Israel’s holiness had something to do with keeping the Law and the business of keeping the Holy of Holies in a fit state to be the site of God’s presence (or at any rate the presence of God’s name) seems to have been pretty demanding. I’m inclined to think that holiness is about the awareness of sinfulness and of God’s gracious action in reconciling us to God’s self. Holiness is not sinlessness but awareness of grace. This makes sense for me of relationship of holiness of the ministry of word and sacrament. We need to be open to God’s grace if we are to communicate and represent it.

  3. Steve Nicklas said:

    When I was a Buddhist monk there was this very down to earth nun with a broad Yorkshire accent who was incidentally quite short and fat and therefore consequently nearly as wide as she was tall said ‘don’t try to be too Holy you’ll only get paranoid’. She was really sweet and kept repeating this whilst shaking her head. I really took what she said on board. It was a lot of pressure at times. But basically you just have to get a clear idea in your head of what vows you really must not break e.g. not killing or not steeling and do your best to aspire towards the rest your ideals and values without putting yourself under too much pressure.

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