Deciding not to decide ….

Just had a characteristically challenging meeting with my MTh dissertation supervisor professor Oliver O’Donovan. My proposed dissertation topic can be briefly summarised as “Why the URC is right not to try to decide whether it’s OK to ordain active homosexuals to ministry but to carry on doing so anyway”, which on the face of it looks like a pretty feeble and unsustainable course of action.

The URC decided in 2007 that it was simply impossible for us to arrive at a consensus view on this question, which is terribly divisive for us as it is for many mainstream protestant denominations (witness the ongoing fights in the Church of Scotland and the Church of England. The URC’s current position is defined by the “commitment” agreed at 2007 general assembly (which can be found in the assembly report) “to stay together, to work and pray together, to treat one another with respect, and to seek God’s gifts of unity, harmony, wisdom and deeper understanding”.

In the meantime the denomination has pointedly refused to declare that homosexual practice is a barrier to ordination (or the contrary) and ordains people in homosexual relationships and affirms the calling of such people to churches who choose to call them, while holding back from any policy that would condemn or exclude churches that refuse so to call.

This enables the minority within the denomination who believe that such ordinations and calls are unacceptable to (just about) hang on in there. It is clear to me that at least some of these people would prefer, really, to depart but are restrained from doing so by the impossibility of their taking any of its resources (buildings especially) with them. In the meantime, though, my impression is that (many of) the dissident minority are able to function as (more or less) full participants.

The most vocal and committed people on both “sides” of the key question of ordination regard the current position as an unhappy compromise. Those who think that the scriptural record rules out homosexual clergy and that we are bound by that record and those who believe that affirming the call of homosexual individuals is a matter of principle both see the current position as putting the URC on the wrong side of the question (they “only” disagree on which is the wrong side).

I want to argue that they are wrong in what they agree about. I believe that we should take the 2007 commitment seriously and really try to “work and pray together, to treat one another with respect, and to seek God’s gifts of unity, harmony, wisdom and deeper understanding”. This means, for the moment, giving up the struggle to “win” the URC to either unambiguously affirming or denouncing the ordination of homosexuals while continuing to allow those who wish to call them to do so. It also means really listening to the views of those with whom we disagree and attempting to understand them well enough for both we and they to be hurt and changed by the effort.

At this moment the whole Church is deeply and bitterly divided and the arguments have been so well rehearsed that there is no realistic short term prospect of widespread agreement. We in the URC could come to consensus only be defining a range of acceptable views and excluding those who fell outside that range, which would of necessity be considerably narrower than that within our denomination at present.

Such definition and exclusion is not always wrong. It is part of the history of the Church that periodically a demarcation has been made between orthodoxy and heresy and heretics have been excluded from the Church. Without such a mechanism Christianity could not maintain itself as a distinctive and integral entity.

However it is not clear that a denomination like the URC has the authority to declare something unacceptable that has not been so declared by the whole Church (here I have in  mind refusal to ordain people disqualified by sexual practice). If the minority are not heretical how would we justify throwing or driving them out? If we took explicit positions we don’t need to take and this made the denomination so inhospitable to the minority that they had no conscientious choice but to leave (even if they were wrong, which I believe them to be) how could we square this with our founding basis as a church united and committed to unity;

The United Reformed Church has been formed in obedience to the call to repent of what has been amiss in the past and to be reconciled. It sees its formation and growth as a part of what God is doing to make his people one, and as a united church will take, wherever possible and with all speed, further steps towards the unity of all God’s people. (from the 1972 Basis of Union)

To consciously make any group not clearly heretical from the point of view of the universal Church leave the URC seems to me to be a falling short of what we, as the bearers of ecumenical project, are called to be and to show. This does involve difficulty and pain for those whose ministry, perhaps their very being, is called into question by the dissident minority. This is undeniable and it would be wrong to accommodate the minority to the extent that our homosexual brothers and sisters were driven out of the denomination. But we shouldn’t forget that the dissidents, too, suffer from the current situation.

My suggestion is that the pain felt by all concerned, those who feel trapped in a church that does things they believe to be Biblically forbidden, those who feel undermined by the lack of explicit recognition, and those of us distressed by the failure to reach agreement, all this pain may be the price we pay for bearing witness to the hope that all Christians can be brought to unity.

Our ecumenical commitment allied to our small and diminishing size means that our continuation in separate existence has to be justified by some distinctive contribution our denomination makes. I would argue that what is most distinctive about us is that we are a united church committed to further unity. There is almost nothing else about us that marks us out, other perhaps than our opposition to too close a connection between church and state.

However, as Professor O’Donovan pointed out, this can’t imply a suspension or evasion of the substantive question. Our continuing in unity only witnesses to the quest for unity if it involves seeking ” God’s gifts of … harmony, wisdom and deeper understanding” as well as treating one another with respect. Honestly striving to understand and engage with one another’s positions without striving, for the moment, to arrive at a resolution of our difficulties is likely to be a more painful and difficult course of action than seeking to create a space in which we encounter nobody with whom we seriously disagree but there is no other course that offers the hope that a resolution will be possible or that witnesses to our vocation to be the visible sign of the future unity of God’s people.

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