Friday, 10 July 2009

The Chicago Consultation: read it and weep

One of the things I’ve been reading recently is the Study Guide prepared for The Episcopal Church by the Chicago Consultation, titled Christian Holiness and Human Sexuality. It is important to be aware of this in the UK, not least because one of the contributors is our own Revd Marilyn McCord Adams, canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford and Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University.

It is also important because the document must presumably be regarded as the ‘best of’ arguments for changing the Church’s traditional teaching and practice on same-sex relationships. That is certainly the point and purpose of is contents.

However, I personally find the theological content tendentious to the point of being bizarre, particularly where it deals with the biblical material.

Thus we have an opening argument that Genesis 1:28 needs to be rescued from a caricatured version of dominion theology: “God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, ‘Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It’s yours!’” (According to the document, the text of Genesis “can certainly” be read that way.) This seems to show an almost complete unawareness of Ancient Near Eastern background and the way the text would have been read in that context. The putative modern abuse of the text is the starting, and the reference, point of the ‘exposition’ which follows.

From that shaky beginning, we go on to the suggestion that the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 27, “raises questions about models of blessing: is there only the possibility of the one blessing to the exclusion of the other or can the church bless both kinds of marriage [heterosexual and same-sex]?”

The inappropriateness of this can surely be seen by turning the question round. If this reading turns out to be wrong, does it add evidence to suggest that equal blessing is not available to same-sex relationships? One doubts whether this would be accepted at all. Yet this is presented, once again, as a model of exegesis.

The author, Wil Gafney, also suggests on the basis of Genesis 1:1-2 that God is “both masculine (‘When beginning, He, God, created…’) and feminine (‘The Spirit of God, She was hovering…’)”, and that this explains the “our image” reference of 1:26, thus solving, at a stroke, a problem that has dogged Jewish scholars for years, whilst simultaneously ignoring issues she herself must know about Hebrew grammar. To quote from my Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar, “B[iblical] H[hebrew] allocates a ‘grammatical gender’ to each noun that does not necessarily correspond to its sex in real life.” Gafney knows this. Why does she ignore it?

Meanwhile, there are apparently other issues with the Hebrew text. According to her, the Levitical prohibitions on same-sex (male) intercourse are also “not terribly clear[since]: men cannot have vaginal intercourse with other men.” That last point is true (and was, I suspect, known to the ancient Israelites), but it surely has nothing to do with our understanding of Leviticus 18:22, which actually seems entirely clear.

The same author also writes that, “Paul’s letter to the Romans did not function as scripture when it was produced and indeed, may have never been intended to do so.” Moreover, according to her, “Paul’s belief about what is natural is just that, a belief.” This distinction does not, apparently, apply to her own convictions, but it is taken somehow to address the problem. Romans, apparently, is not Scripture, Apostolic statements are just ‘beliefs’, let’s move on.

Meanwhile, on the subject of tradition, Ms McCord Adams writes that,

Where systemic evils are concerned, the way to respect tradition is to question and dispute it, to identify its theological distortions and to work to undo their institutional expressions wherever they are to be found. This is what three-leggedstool Anglicans think they are doing, when they support the ordination of women and noncelibate homosexuals and sponsor institutional blessings for same-sex partnerships.

Tradition, then, is authoritative only insofar as the modern mind considers it to be so. In other words, Tradition has less significance than modern opinion. Once again, our beliefs trump their ‘beliefs’. In fact, Tradition is nothing more than a quaint example of the way people used to think. It belongs, McCord Adams significantly notes, in the historical ‘rag-bag’ with the Thirty-Nine Articles,

... clergy in the Church of England were required to subscribe to the Thirty- Nine Articles: until 1975, to pledge not to teach anything that contradicts them; after 1975, to number them among the historic formularies that bear witness to Christian truth.

And that will soon be the way with orthodoxy generally. It will be ‘an historical witness’ to, but not a contemporary expression of, the Church’s teaching.

What is truly frightening about this document is not that it challenges the traditional teaching and understanding of the Church, but that it is so far from being something with which one can engage according to the traditional way in which the Church has done theology, or indeed the normal principles of exegesis.

By all means read it, but it is hard to know quite what to do about it.

Revd John P Richardson
9 July 2009

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  1. Simon Conway-Smith10 July 2009 at 13:48


    For me it goes wrong right from the start of the introduction, where Gary Hall states "[this] is a study guide for Episcopalians who want to understand how all Christian people can exercise their baptismal vocation in the fullness of their sexual identity."

    Surely and fundamentally, our sexual identity stems from our createdness by God. It is God that defines us, and our [sexual] response is within that context. We can't and mustn't understand and interpret God and Divine scripture based on our own sexuality, perceived entirely within ourselves.

    Another point that has always puzzled me, is why the assumption has been that if someone is not comfortable with sexual relationships with the opposite sex, that automatically makes them believe they are gay, and practice it. Nowhere do I see a positive affirment of the third state, that of absinance, as a good alternative by gay activists, whether in the church, schools, government or society in general.

  2. The best thing you can do with such pieces, is to learn from their effects. The Episcopal Church is dying of this disease. I'd like to think our death would be a little less painful if other churches can avoid the root causes of our demise.

  3. Thank you for demonstrating the lousy "theology" promoted by this "study guide." Rejection and revision of the historical teachings are rampant, but are very attractive to the modern mind. Perhaps man is just continuing in the thick necked disobedience that the Biblical stories illustrate so well.

  4. I recall very clearly when I tried to read the Communist Manifesto while at university in the 1960s. I didn't get very far, and mentioned this to a fellow student, who read history, was a very bright fellow, and went on to get a first.

    My problem, as I expressed it, was that I simply didn't believe what the manifesto said. I strongly disagreed with first line ("The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles."), which I thought was blatantly untrue, and could not accept anything in the document from then on.

    My friend told me something I had never considered before. I was, he said, making the mistake of reading the Communist Manifesto as history. I was fundamentally misunderstanding the purpose of a manifesto. This is not to faithfully represent history, or any other subject, but to persuade and recruit people to a cause. If what it says is also true, that is better, but it doesn't have to be true necessarily. The important thing is to get people to believe it, and to act upon it, whether or not it is true.

    I do not say that the attitude of those who write the document must therefore be dishonest and cynical. They may themselves believe what it says, or have persuaded themselves that they believe it. Regardless of this, the primary thing is the cause itself, with truth relegated to a secondary role.

    I suggest that this is the nature of "Christian Holiness and Human Sexuality." You would be wasting your time engaging it in an academic way, because the writers do not care about this anyway. The battle against the current tide of liberalism is not going to be won in the pages of learned journals. This is a political document, and must be opposed using political means.

  5. Topper,
    Excellent point!
    It can't be stressed enough.
    The decades long sad history of "discussions" in the Episcopal Church has been plagued by a fundamental misunderstanding.
    Conservatives thought they were discussing theology. Liberals understood that they were engaged in a fundamentally political enterprise aimed at seizing power and changing the social order. They have succeeeded completely - now they will go on to the inevitable and universal act of Leftist Revolution; they will eat their young and destroy the inovative and productive capacities of the social system they have hijacked. Before someone objects that I am using worldly categories to describe the Church, let me just say that, though the Church is more than a human society, it is certainly not less than a human society; it can be analyzed socially.

  6. As a cradle Episcopalian, 60-something, who has moved on to another part of Anglicanism, it has been painful in the extreme to see what passes for biblical "thought" in TEC. What that consists of is deciding what you want, then ignoring or misreading anything which contradicts that. The fact that this seems to be typical in most part of society today does not lessen the absurdity.

    Tennessee, USA

  7. I presume all of those posting herein against revisionist theologians or liberals as you call them and would prefer to uphold traditional readings of the texts are also campaigning to reinstate slavery? and I guess you are all pacifists and have a common purse and do not bank with usurists?

    Or is there a particular date at which tradition becomes gospel and cannot be thought through in light of such silly modern whims such as the development of historical analysis, reason or scientific discovery?

    What did the church councils that decided what texts were canon have that we do not? what divine right did origen or aquinas or barth or luther have that you and I do not also possess within our communion?

    Please do tell, (he requests rescuing some sincerity at the end...)

  8. Anonymous, I understand your frustration (really!), but my first point about the Consultation document is not that its conclusions differ from tradition, but that they are so badly argued. The handling of the biblical material is truly terrible!

    Understandings may change, but the method must be up to the proposal.

    As to how such changes might come, perhaps we need an agreement on methodology.

    Meanwhile, not everything that has been changed has necessarily been for the good. If you search this blog, you'll find I've had a quite a lot to say in support of the old strictures against usury!

  9. Richard Norris's essay, on the other hand, is more balanced and far better-argued. It's also unfinished, so the reader is free to draw his own conclusions:

  10. Rev John- granted an agreed methodology is needed as a bais for a unified conversation so we can work things out as a church- an inherently unifying process which can only work if it is actually done together. (ref: recent bible study groups at Lambeth). When this breaks down or our participation is withdrawn then our communion is rendered rather more disabled than it already is.

    For those who de facto shun a truly joint conversation by way of lousy method that exludes the possibility of others joining in then I agree- on both 'sides' this is a real frustration. But it is all over the place and neither camp- as it were- has a monopoly on getting this right.

    The characatured liberal making it up as they go along is only as irritating in this regard as the historically selective conservative who pins orthodoxy on random and yet conveniently agreeable point in time, ignores every change before and dismisses all possible future development as unbiblical,throws toys out of pram etc. (!)

    ditto on the Norris essay btw