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