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general-assemblyHaving followed the Kirk’s debates on ordination of homosexuals (slightly at a distance) and having studied in some depth (for an MTh dissertation) the very similar discussion in my own denomination (the URC) some features of the discussion strike me forcefully:

  • I find myself in agreement with the “revisionists” on the substantive issue of whether people of homosexual orientation can be ordained without the imposition on them of celibacy
  • I find the arguments on the other (“traditionalist”) side to be far more consistent and compelling than those on the side I agree with (although I think they are also very thin and unconvincing)

Why are the arguments of the “revisionists” so very poor?

In general they neither argue clearly that there is a source of authoritative moral guidance outside the Bible nor attempt to show that the moral teaching of the Bible does not condemn homosexual practice. They HAVE to do one of these two things to have any counter to the very clear and simple position of their opponents:

  • the Bible is the highest moral authority
  • it says, in the New Testament, that homosexuality is unacceptable
  • therefore homosexuality is unacceptable

To avoid this being an unavoidable consequence one would have to show that one of the two premises is wrong. On the whole the revisionists do not even attempt this.

They find it hard to argue against the moral authority of the Bible, since to do so would fatally undermine their own position.

They sometimes attempt to deny the second proposition by arguing that what is denounced in the Pauline writings is not homosexuality as we now understand it, but this becomes highly technical and does not carry any great rhetorical force.

What they mostly do is develop a parallel argument:

  • the Bible says that love is the highest value
  • homosexual practice is an expression of love
  • it is not loving to denounce people
  • therefore we should not denounce homosexual practice

This line of argument is not without merit, especially where one actually knows particular homosexual Christians, but it does not have the clarity and rigour of the traditionalist argument, nor does it in any way refute the latter.

This means that in effect logic (the logic of premises clearly stated and conclusions drawn from them) is all on one side.

The reasons this doesn’t make more difference than it does are various:

  • the major premise about the authority of the Bible is believed more or less strongly by different people
  • there is an increasing implausibility to the proposition that homosexuality is wrong as people’s experience changes with changing social mores
  • there is a greater emotional charge to the hurt done by the denunciation for people who know well people who are impacted by it

So what can be done to move things forward? First I think we need to think more carefully about the actual nature of the authority of the Bible, especially in matters of ethics. Personally I think the Calvinist approach is a significantly less adequate one than that of the Lutheran tradition. Luther was much more serious than Calvin about the implications of the fall in ethics, in my view, in ways that were influenced by his more thoroughgoing eschatology. We should revive and develop the “two kingdoms” Lutheran ethical programme, which works far better in a post-Christendom world. This would allow us to have a proper debate about the relationship between morality and Scripture rather than either the simplistic short-circuit that ignore eschatological issues (“traditionalist”) or the half-hearted compromises of liberal moralising.

Secondly we need to return to the actual texts on this basis and have a mature conversation about them, especially in regard to ministry. What do the “household codes” really mean for us today? This would involve us doing some real thinking about the nature of ordination and the role of the minister that is urgently needed in our denominations as this role changes in ways that we have neither theologised nor defined, leaving our ministers confused and resentful in ways that are deeply damaging to our mission.

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This week I attended my last URC Education and Learning Committee as student representative. A lot of the meeting was taken up with discussion of the 2013 E&L budget and the implications on it of the current squeeze on the finances of the denomination. I felt genuinely privileged to take part in what was (in my view) an impressively mature and sensible conversation. As I have written here before I think we in the Church are generally too reluctant to take finance seriously as part of God’s gifting and vocation.

It is not this I want to write about today, however. There was a session on a proposed competency framework  which would describe what the denomination expects its ministers to be and to be able to do. In the course of this I heard again something I have heard several times recently in various URC contexts. This is the suggestion that the core of the URC’s identity is or should be that it is “Reformed”. I disagree with this and would like to say why.

What, then, would it mean to say a church was “Reformed”. I have been studying in a university (Edinburgh) at a college (New College) which could be seen as central institutions in the history of the Reformed tradition in the English speaking world and as a result my view of what it is to be Reformed is heavily shaped by a Scottish Presbyterian context, but I think it reflects the views both of theologians who call themselves Reformed and of those of other Christian traditions who have reflected on the Reformed tradition.

As a proper noun “Reformed” primarily refers to that part of Protestant tradition that derives historically from the magisterial reform of the Church in the city states of Switzerland and the western part of the Holy Roman Empire. Its two most important early centres were Basel and Strasbourg where its leaders were Zwingli and Bucer respectively. Its most decisive definition was given to it be Calvin, who lead the reform of Geneva in the next generation. It spread to the Netherlands and Scotland in this Calvinist Genevan form and was an important influence in the English Reformation where Bucer was a key figure and Cranmer can be seen as a Reformed leader.

It is distinguished from Lutheranism and can be seen as standing further from the mediaeval Catholic tradition in a number of ways:

  • it is more suspicious of hierarchy and differentiation within the Church, rejecting the spiritual authority of bishops in most cases
  • it stresses the priesthood of the whole people of God and regards its ministers as having a functional character rather than a change in fundamental nature and relationship to God
  • it rejected more completely the idea of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (communion) as involving the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ

In its classical Calvinist form it is associated with a number of ideas and practices

  • Calvin’s notorious stress on “predestination”, the idea that God alone chooses (elects) who will be saved and who will be damned with human will and action being determined entirely by God’s choice and making no positive contribution
  • the related emphasis on God’s absolute sovereignty and rule
  • a stress on “covenant” as a central theological theme
  • government of the Church by councils (Presbyteries in Scotland and churches originating in Scottish migration, elsewhere sometimes church meetings in Reformed congregational churches)

As well as being distinguished from Lutheranism the Reformed tradition is identified with it as part of the “magisterial reformation”. This refers to their common dependence on the “civil magistrate”, in modern language the government or state. The Reformed churches in its home cities were linked to the rulers of those cities by close ties. They were “established” churches that did not tolerate dissent. This was true too in Scotland and the Netherlands.

The classical statements of Reformed faith (“confessions”) written in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries generally reflect this. The Westminster Confession, the founding and definitional Presbyterian document, is quite clear that the Church should be bound by tight links to the civil authority.

This “magisterial reform” is distinguished in turn from the “radical reformation”, a distinct tendency that rejects this state establishment. The radical reformation is attached to the idea that the Church is a body called out of the world, that it is something one joins intentionally or voluntarily rather than one that one comes into automatically by being a citizen of a particular geopolitical entity. This is one reason why many of the churches derived from the radical reformation reject baptism of infants.

It is this latter distinction that leads me to question how much sense it makes to describe the URC as “Reformed”. English Congregationalism, one of the major historical sources for our current denomination, did have at one foot in the Reformed tradition, it is true. But I would suggest that its other foot was planted pretty firmly in the radical reformation.

The “independency” of the seventeenth century, those churches that rejected Presbyterianism as a form of Church government, was in part also rejecting establishment (although not all would do so, given the existence of established Congregationalist churches in the American colonies). The line between Baptist and non Baptist Congregationalists was drawn later and was not an absolute one.

One part of our history and tradition is definitely Reformed (especially the English Presbyterianism that has its roots in the movement to England of Scots in the nineteenth century) but another is not, is deeply influenced by rejection of the magisterial solution to the problem of reform. I value this radical tradition very highly and think it deeply influences our nature.

On the other hand I think being a “United” church is a new and important thing, dating in our case from 1972. If we are to stress one part of what we are as definitive I would rather it was this and not our connection to a Reformed tradition which is something we share with others in the three nations.

Not long after I last posted here on marriage a friend drew my attention to this excellent article by John Milbank. Milbank is a prominent Anglican theologian and prime mover in Radical Orthodoxy and thus an important contemporary voice. (I should perhaps add that he examined my PhD in the ’90s and was very kind and supportive to me when I contacted him 5 years ago in the course of exploring  my vocation).

In it Milbank tries to find a way to move the current debate on marriage in the Church beyond its polarisation between “traditionalists” who defend marriage as it has been understood in the Church over the last few centuries and “progressives” who seek to extend it to same sex relationships on the basis that its real theological significance is to be found in mutuality and love not in procreation and sexual complementarity.

The “political” outcome of Milbank’s argument, in the Church context, is a position that would affirm same-sex relationships (he advocates the blessing of civil partnerships) while reserving “marriage” for heterosexual couples.

In arguing for this third way he advances some (characteristically) very interesting and fruitful thoughts while also putting forward some, familiar to those who have any acquaintance with Radical Orthodoxy, that I disagree with strongly.

In short his arguments can be represented as:

  • any talk of “rights” in regard to marriage (abstracted from any system of law) are symptomatic of a liberal individualism he rejects entirely
  • the “right” to marriage (defined by international law) relates to heterosexual marriage
  • marriage is a historical reality given its meaning by societies and bound to them
  • this historical reality does not have to oppose same-sex relationships. it is not directly relevant to them
  • marriage is, in fact, a “public good” related to the formation of families and nurture of children
  • the redefinition of marriage that has already privatised it is related to a “loss of sexual difference” and the “technologisation of childbirth
  • these factors have lead to a collapse of an old understanding of marriage that was central to the structure of society
  • this is all a very bad thing and should be resisted
  • this does not exclude the possibility of a value and recognition of same-sex relationships but this should not take the form of “marriage” since this would give ground on the defence of forms of social order opposed to liberal individualism that should not be conceded

What I really like about this is that it recognises the social nature of marriage and its historical specificity as an institution and also recognises that the argument over the extension of marriage to same-sex couples cannot be isolated from thinking about what marriage now means. I like, too, that it draws attention to the crucial significance of shifts in the relationships between the sexes and the closely related issue of the new contraceptive and reproductive technologies of the last 50 or so years.

It is operating at a level of theological seriousness and profundity that puts most of what passes for discussion of this issue to shame. It is asking us to think seriously about what our Christianity means to us and what our attitudes to marriage and sexuality tell us about  what we really value and what we think God wants for us.

However there are some assumptions being made with which I have enormous problems. It is typical of Radical Orthodoxy (in my opinion) that it looks backward, that it is nostalgic. My impression of it is that it would ideally re-create Christendom, an integrated society in which the Church takes its place as a full partner of the civil authority in an order that recognises Christian values as shaping the whole of life. In this sense it is thoroughly Anglican in its conception of the relationship of Church and State and thoroughly Catholic in its affection for the old ordering of that relationship, and indeed Milbank, like his mentor Rowan Williams is pretty solidly identified with the Anglo-Catholic tradition within the Church of England.

I would prefer to argue for a notion of God’s providential rule that goes through the modern present. The current (liberal) ordering of things (including the dominance of the market as the means of organising economic life) bears the marks of the Fall but so did all previous and alternative orderings (I’ve written on this before, here and here). Thus, in this case, I agree that the “marriage” that Christendom defined is being swept away by social and technological change. “Marriage” is on the way to ceasing to exist as a lifelong bond of one man and one woman with the creation and nurture of children as its core reality (here the prevalence of cohabitation and divorce and their general social acceptability are crucial phenomena).

Sex has begun to be separated from reproduction and that separation is being completed. The family as an economic unit is less and less relevant given the equal participation of each (adult) individual in a thoroughly marketised economic life. The differences between men and women are being reconfigured and renegotiated in ways that make them fluid and unstable. All of this is seen by Milbank as disastrous, and so it is if your aim is to preserve the past.

What, though, if one found that faith in God involved, among other things, embrace of these changes as Providential? Might one decide that the task of the Church is not to defend the old definition of marriage, whether by excluding same-sex couples or by persuading them that they should conform to a (redefined) marriage?

I don’t know where this line of thought might take one and I’m not ready to say that I’m sure it’s the right direction but I am pretty sure that exploring it would help us move forward from what has become a stale and repetitious rehearsal of well-worn and clichéd party lines into a debate which would help the Church (catholic) to find a voice people outside it as well as inside it might think worth listening to.

I’ve been thinking a good deal of The Church, churches and denominations. To define these three terms:

The Church is the one we talk about if we say the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one church, holy, catholic and apostolic”. To be a Nicene Christian is to believe (amongst other things) in The Church. Some Christians believe that the communion they belong to simply IS that Church but you don’t have to believe this. Many Christians (including me) believe that The Church is divided with the institution they belong to (in my case the URC) being only one part of it.

When I talk about churches I mean the local gatherings of Christians who come to together to worship, serve and most especially share in the Eucharistic meal, the Lord’s Supper. Each of these communities is, in my view, completely The Church, constituted by Christ’s gracious presence with them when they break bread (however one interprets the nature of that presence).

The body I struggle to make sense of is the denomination, the organisational form that links together some churches in various ways and for various purposes but which is not The Church. After all The Church is one (unified) and catholic (universal and all-encompassing). No denomination combines these two characteristics, and therefore none can be The Church. In fact almost all denominations manage to be neither.

My last post (on marriage and unity) occasioned a very active discussion on the URC’s Facebook group which reminded me of that. A number of my fellow members in that denomination made it clear that they regarded my stress on unity with a good deal of distrust. They wanted a denomination in which LGBT Christians could be sure of a welcome throughout and if this meant division so be it. This shows again that we are not united and some people on both sides of our division on sexuality would find it impossible to worship in some of our local churches.

We are not The Church (we make up only a very small proportion of the Christians even in our own country) nor are we fully united in love.

So what should we make of denominations? The URC was founded in 1972 out of the union of two denominations, the Congregationalists of England and Wales and the Presbyterian Church of England (which confusingly had a few churches in Wales but was overwhelmingly Scottish in origin and ethos). Subsequently it was joined by the Churches of Christ (across England and Scotland, I’m not sure about their presence in Wales) and by the Congregationalists in Scotland (or at least a large part of them).

Its self-image and purpose as explained in the Basis of Union which occupies the place a confession would in a more confessional denomination (here) makes clear that the bringing (back) together of The Church is the prime mission and purpose of the denomination. It strives to do everything The Church would do if it had a concrete expression but it recognises that it is not The Church and cannot be so until all are brought together.

In the meantime each of its local churches is fully part of The Church, is fully a church but the denomination, failing to be The Church is, I suggest, partial and flawed, as is every other denomination.

Some denominations (the Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox) meanwhile claim to be The Church. I’ve been reading the official Roman materials on ecumenism that came out of Vatican II and subsequent reflection on it. These make clear that while the rest of us are recognised as Christian other than the Orthodox our churches are denied recognition as churches (our Eucharist is not seen as the real thing). I think they’re wrong about us. We are part of The Church, Christ is present at the Eucharist in our churches and this means that they, too, are part of The Church but aren’t it.

Some other denominations (e.g. The Church of England, The Church of Scotland) are founded on the idea that it would be possible to be The Church in a particular country. I think they’re wrong, too. A national church cannot, in my view, be The Church, since catholicity is not bound to political or ethnic limits.

This is the value of Catholicism, the truth Rome bear. However the national churches also express a truth. Catholicity embraces all parts of life, it cannot be localised to a Christian community withdrawn or set apart from those around it.

The national churches express the truth that The Church has to be deeply involved with the world it serves, to permeate all parts of it with its love, to be the praying and worshipping action of the world, not just of some people.

And so I could go on. I have come to believe that every fragment of The Church exists for some purpose, embodies some truth, is responsible for some task, has, to express it in brief, a vocation. Each of our denominations (and I am so bold as to include Roman Catholicism) has been called into being by God as part of God’s redeeming action.

None of the denominations can, in the immediate and present moment, aspire to be The Church on its own any more than any individual Christian can, in fact less so. The Church is what we all, every Christian, every local church and every denomination, participate in. It is not the sum of our parts either. It is the ground of our being church and it is also the goal to which we are being drawn.

My denomination, the United Reformed Church, has as its vocation, as I currently discern it, the task of reminding all of that ground and goal in a unity that does not now have any institutional expression other than the rather attenuated one of the ecumenical bodies. We have to give it some form of life in our being church together towards unity. That’s why I feel so strongly that it’s up to us to live with our differences not to try artificially to resolve them. That living with means suffering them as well as celebrating them. It means really hearing and really experiencing that some of our brothers and sisters think what we think, what we do, who we are, is just wrong and then loving them and ourselves anyway.

Over the last week I’ve been involved in two conversations about the relationship between the Church and the State in England. The reading for the first session of my course on “Church, State and Civil Society” was an article by Luke Bretherton suggesting that a “new establishment” was being created in England embracing a range of denominations and faiths and tending towards a subordination of all religious groups to the state and its purposes.

I also took part in a discussion on Philip Baiden’s blog on the legacy of the “Great Ejection” of 1662 in which Church of England clergy who refused to conform to the Book of Common Prayer were thrown out of their parishes and livings. The majority of those who were caught up in this were “English Presbyterians” and thus committed (unlike the Independents and Separatists who are the historical forerunners of English Congregationalism) to the idea of a national and established church.

Between them these two have reminded me how suspicious I’ve become of the Reformation idea of a “national church” and how glad I am to belong to the tradition of non-conformity or dissent.

Of course the nationalisation of the Church wasn’t an entirely new one at the Reformation. Kings had long striven to assert control of the Church within the boundaries of their jurisdiction; one thinks of the suppression of the Knights Templar at the instigation of the French King or of the martyrdom of Thomas a Beckett at the hands of Henry II. But this royal ambition was always constrained by the idea that the Church was universal and under the sovereignty of Christ.

The “magisterial Reformation” changed this by drawing the boundaries of the “church” along the same lines as those of political power. The “national church” was born in close relationship to national political power.

I can understand the historical reasons for this and I’m no advocate of Papal supremacy but I can’t see it as an unmixed blessing for Christianity. Whether the Church became an agency of the Crown, as in England, or contended with it for power, as in Scotland, it was deeply marked by the experience.

There is, of course, a deep continuity with the link between Church and Empire in Rome after Constantine, and it has become fashionable to talk about a Constantinian fall of the Church, but this isn’t really my problem with the national church.

Rather I suspect that the Church has been tempted by this formation to see itself as performing a function for the nation rather than as serving the divine kingdom. There are conservative and radical versions of this: either providing a force for cohesion, continuity and law-abidingness or a “prophetic” voice of social criticism. Both of these have their place but I think they sometimes substitute for the central task of the church.

This is the proclamation of Christ’s rule, of the coming of the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom without boundaries and recognising no national differences. A kingdom in which sin and death are vanquished rather than ameliorated or accommodated.

This is in flat contradiction to a Church coterminous with a state or a nation. The Kingdom we serve has no end and no limit.

That’s one of the strengths of Congregationalism. By saying the local congregation is a complete instance of the universal church it is able to avoid any hint of the idea so strong in the history of Scottish Presbyterianism of the holy nation. The Scots Confession (and this is one of the few times I think Barth got something completely wrong) is a much worse document than the Westminster Confession (and that itself is far from perfect) because of the greater prominence in it of the idea of Scotland as the new Israel.

The national church is an idea with some good aspects but overall is disastrously bad. I’m constantly bewildered when I come across Church of Scotland people whose idea of their ministry is dominated by service to their parish (especially in the provision of funerals and to a lesser extent weddings). Weddings in particular are first and foremost a state activity (as becomes clearer and clearer, this is a subject for another time) and ministers conduct them as agents of the state. Funerals, too, are increasingly devoid of Christian content and approximate to a ceremony of civil religion.

By focussing too much attention on these activities we run the risk of losing sight of what Jesus set out as his programme, the proclamation of the good news of the kingdom.