Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Gene Robinson - a theological 'Rip Van Winkle'?

The latest pronouncements of Bishop Gene Robinson on the Bible and homosexuality suggest to my mind that he is a kind of theological ‘Rip Van Winkle’.

Van Winkle, a character created by Washington Irving, was a lazy American of Dutch descent living near the Catskill mountains, who wandered off one day to get away from his nagging wife. Meeting with the ghosts of Henry Hudson and his crew, he drank a magical elixir and fell asleep for twenty years. When he awoke, his wife had died and his children had grown up. More importantly, but unknown to him, the American War of Independence had been and gone, and so Van Winkle got into trouble when he declared himself a loyal subject of King George III.

Van Winkle’s problems stemmed from acting as if history were not history, and from being ignorant of facts of which everyone else was aware.

In the same way, there are those in the Church who act as if an awareness of the tension between Old Testament Law and New Testament gospel were new — indeed, as if the Church had never held the Council at Jerusalem described in Acts 15, or as if Paul had never written Galatians 3:19.

Robinson is thus reported to have observed that the Old Testament forbids eating pork and wearing clothes woven from two kinds of cloth, as well as homosexual acts, as if he is the first to notice it and as if it is a knock-down argument. Nor is this the first time he has done so. When he visited these shores in July last year, he was using the same arguments then.

The trouble is, many of those listening to him are just as much ‘Rip Van Winkles’ as he seems to be, and therefore may easily be impressed. It reminds me of the tragic story of triple-jumper Jonathan Edwards’ loss of faith, which seems to have begun when someone observed that Paul’s Damascus Road experience might have been the result of an epileptic fit. I don’t know where that suggestion first originated, but it has been around long enough to have grown a long white beard of its own. Yet for some people, the novelty of a suggestion seems to increase its veracity.

So there will be those whose response to Bishop Robinson’s pronouncements will be amazement at his wisdom, not bewilderment about where he’s been for the last twenty-plus years.

The fact that the Articles of the Anglican Church, from which Robinson’s TEC sprang, have already dealt with this issue, will be unknown to them. So will be the efforts of Martin Luther in the same direction. Instead, they will be listening to these ‘revelations’ in complete ignorance of the fact that there is nothing new being said.

Yet I can’t help wondering if Robinson is quite as naive as he sounds (or if he is, how he got to be a bishop). Can it be he has never worked out that if a passage says we should not steal, or lie, or deceive others, or mock the disabled, or pervert justice, or seek revenge, and that we should not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material, as Leviticus 19 does, we cannot dismiss the last instruction out of hand without similarly questioning the former? Or does he conceal from his hearers that these same instructions are also in the passages he wants us to ignore?

Whatever the case, Robinson must surely have worked out an approach to this which goes beyond the kind of mockery once disgracefully displayed by a Canon of our church in the Chelmsford Diocesan Synod when addressing the same topic. It was in response to this that I wrote my own What God has made clean — what became known as the ‘gay prawn’ book, now sadly out of print in this country, but still available in Australia (cheaper from Koorong!).

The task of a bishop, in common with the task of all clergy, is to teach what is in accordance with sound doctrine. Even if one believes what the Church has not for 2,000 years, that should surely require something more profound than playing to the ignorance of the audience — unless one has indeed not understood these things oneself.

Revd John P Richardson
1 April 2009

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  1. The reality, as you may well know, is that most audiences are ignorant and need reminding that all of us make decisions about how we interpret Scripture. One of my conservative colleagues pointed out that as a pacifist I interpret Jesus' teaching about violence literally. I think Bp. Robinson's point, and it is not as you point anything new, is that we interpret Scripture in our own contexts and make reasoned decisions about which parts of Torah we will take as prescriptive for us. That is the hard work which some try to avoid by taking Scripture out of context.

  2. Dear John,

    About 2 years ago, I bought a copy of the 'gay prawn' book based on someone else's recommendation. I was looking for a book that dealt with the issue based on a biblical-theological manner, rather than the much later moral-civil-ceremonial division that was imposed long after the New Testament writers.

    It is excellent, and just what I was looking for - a book that not only deals faithfully with the relevant passages, but carefully describes the Christian's relationship to the Law of Moses in a lucid manner. I cannot recommend your book enough.

    It's funny, I've always wanted to comment on this book here on your blog. Well, you've finally given me an opportunity to do so.

    Thanks for writing it.

    Derek Smith,

  3. Dear Fr Daniel,

    As always, I appreciate your comments. I think my problem with the way Gene Robinson presents through reports of his speeches, etc, is not that he has a way of dealing with different passages of the Law, but that the way comes across as entirely inadequate and likely to undermine people's whole grasp of the Law and its place in God's plans and purposes.

    It also does overlook the Church's own work in this regard, and therefore is what I would term 'hyper-Protestant'.

    In short, he has a methodology, but it is a bad one, just like the Canon I mentioned in my post.

    There are, indeed, others whose method is just as bad in 'decontextualizing', but two bads don't make a good.

  4. Dear Derek,

    I'm glad you liked the book. Do you think it should still be in print?

  5. Is it still for sale in Oz? Or the States? Thanks, Clifford Swartz (Christ Church NYC)

  6. John,

    Yes - I do think it should still be in print, for the very reasons I outlined above. The Law discussion is particularly useful.

    I trust the Lord is blessing you in Essex - I'm Colchester-born and Maldon-raised!


  7. I am more interested in 'how' you can minister to the homosexual community in view of your post about scripture, it is not about what we interpret as 'correct' but more about how we reach out to this community, just as Jesus reached out to the outcast's of His time with His love. Holding such a firm interpretation may only create larger walls to climb over to reach the homosexuals with the Gospel message. I am not worried about who has the correct interpretation but rather who shows the compassion and love of Christ to such a community. Surely the Gospel is strong enough to withstand any odd thoughts about scripture and can continue regardless if one person disagrees with another?
    Steve Hearn - Artist
    Langdon Hills

  8. These articles are very saddening to one who left the shores of the UK in the 70's to live in Sydney. There to become a Christian. Now to read of the state of the Anglican church in England is quite devastating. This is a great blogspot even though the content of the articles is heartbreaking. Sydney will most probably face similar situations on the future. Thanks for the hint about the sugar lumps!

  9. Anonymous, sounds like you got the best of both worlds - a Christian and Sydney. Any chance of telling us who you are? I had to remind myself about the sugar lumps reference!