Sunday, 25 March 2012

Gene Robinson and the religion of the Spirit

Listening to Bishop Gene Robinson being interviewed on Radio 4 yesterday brought home to me once again how much the present conflicts in the Anglican church have in some respects very traditional historical parameters.
During the interview, Bishop Robinson spoke, with great eloquence, of how moves to the acceptance of lesbianism, gayness, bisexuality and transexuality are leadings of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, he quoted the Bible to back up what he was saying, referring to Jesus’ words in John 16:
I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.
As the defeat of the covenant (for it surely will be defeated) raises further the expectations of revisionists (already on a ‘high’ because of the increasing willingness of radicals in the hierarchy to speak up for their cause and the silence of the orthodox in response), we should make no mistake about the significance of what Robinson is saying.
For all its literal dressing up in Anglican clothing, Robinson, and those of the same persuasion are following the route of Quakerism.
Let us not forget that in its day, Quakerism was a vibrant expression of many aspects of Christian faith. Quakers were at the forefront of social reforms which put the mainstream churches to shame and literally left their mark on the English landscape, to say nothing of their impact elsewhere.
Yet Quakerism today can hardly claim to be an orthodox expression of Christianity. And the roots of this are in the origin of Quakerism itself, which put the ‘Spirit’ above the ‘Word’. George Fox, one of the most influential figures in the movement, was also fond of quoting the Scriptures, in this case 2 Corinthians 3:6:
... the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
Thus Fox also was a man of the Spirit, but as those who know the context will be aware, the ‘letter’ to which that quote refers is the Scriptures. Thus there was a tension inherent in Quakerism from the outset — the Bible was part of the tradition, but the dynamic was the ‘inner light’ in the individual.
The history of Quakerism may, to some extent, be seen as a testimony to the power of the Christian tradition, even where the roots of that tradition have been so fundamentally damaged. But nevertheless, Quakerism today is the refuge of ‘unbelievers’ as far as orthodoxy is concerned.
The other thing to bear in mind is that this weakness did not make itself felt in the first decades of Quakerism — indeed, it took hundreds of years truly to make its effects known. But the trajectory was there from the outset.
Therefore let us be clear. Those who use Scripture as a jumping off point for ‘the Spirit’ are on a dangerous path already. The saying, “The inner light is the shortest route to the outer darkness” has been attributed to G K Chesterton. That may or may not be true. Equally, it may be that the actual route taken is quite long, and passes through some pleasant scenery.
But history warns us the outcome is the same.
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  1. One man's 'orthodoxy' may, of course, turn out to be another man's 'heresy'. I think Anglicans need to be very careful when they reserve the term 'orthodox' for their own sectarian beliefs.

  2. A friend of mine, an Orthodox priest, once said to me that he loathes hearing the confessions of young men in particular as they tend to jaw on about masturbation. After a suitable number of sentences have passed on the subject my friend will then tell them that he wants to hear about other ‘sins’. Another priest notes then when asking for forgiveness, it should be a case of ‘Sorry Lord, I’ve failed again, help me to do better next time.’ As anything else is just self-justification.

    I mention these instances because I think sometimes the issue of human sexuality eclipses the call to conversion of life given at our Baptism. On the one hand there is the self-justification of trying to excuse ‘sin’; but there is also the self-justification of taking a disproportionate interest in the morality of others at the expense of our own. As I have noted elsewhere, there is a uneven (and even misplaced) effort on the part of some of our conservative brethren when it comes to matters gay. Yes, this can be justified, from an orthodox perspective, but is it appropriate and relative to the ‘problem’? I have before noted how curious it is that there are petitions and lobbying groups set up when it comes to same-sex marriage. Many of these state that marriage and family life will be undermined by SSM; yet the irony is that marriage and family life have been under attack for many years. Where were the petitions when these changes were happening – yes I know there were some around, but not to the same extent and organisation as we have seen recently with regard to gay issues in general and SSM in particular.

    What I am saying is that even-handedness and proportionality are important because if they are ignored then conservative Christianity loses its integrity (cf. Matt 23:23). Moreover sorties into the realms of sexuality often display signs of heresy, when they bastardise psychological theories and cherry pick the bits that malign the homosexual and augment a Christian perspective; these amalgams of psycho-babble and Christian theology frequently undermine the notion of ‘self’ evident in orthodox theology. But in the main it is the use of half-truths, salaciousness, downright lies and innuendo that frequently charge our conservative brethren with hypocrisy and a reflexive self-righteousness.

    If we move to other areas of human life, all of us make compromises and take our Scripture with a pinch of salt. There are few Christians who would put their money where their mouths are when it comes to illness, finance, insurance etc. Few, if diagnosed with cancer, will refuse treatment in preference to prayer (despite Mk 16:17); or would have any qualms about receiving interest on their savings (ignoring Ps 15:15) and despite Matt 6:25-34, many strive to wear their Sunday best to church and have their houses and chattels insured.

    This may seem like nitpicking, but, I don’t think it is. Christians, even conservative Christians, happily make compromises with Scripture to suit their own ends. The very fact homosexuality, by its nature, affects the few, is rather telling, when it is those for whom it is not a personal issue, who make the most noise about the topic. For twenty odd years I was a conservative Christian. Yet in 2003 I came to a decision – a decision I prayed about endlessly – and that was I could not change the person I am (and this is despite prayers, fasts and having more hands laid on me than a magistrate’s Bible and dabbling in the heresies of TFT etc). Now, nine years on, I am a much happier and whole person – something many of my conservative friends have commented on. I live with my SS partner in a life amazing for its ordinariness. I reasoned that we know the Bible doesn’t have all the answers for many issues in life – and therefore reason has to take over. In my case reason led me (despite terrible emotional upheaval initially) to accept that some people are gay... Get over it!

    1. So Peter because it feels right to you it must be right with God?

      We are not called to be disciples of Jesus just disciples of our own heart.

      Oh good that is OK then.


  3. My policy at this point is that whenever I hear anyone, either on the "right" or the "left", say that "the Spirit is doing a new thing," I run as fast as possible in the opposite direction. It is striking to me how often today's Evangelicals, influenced heavily by charismaticism, turn to that old trope. Perhaps this doesn't happen quite as much in the UK, but it certainly does in the US. Just one of the many reasons why even supposedly conservative Anglicans have little interest in the classic prayer book liturgies. The prayer book leaves very little room for the Spirit to do a new thing, precisely because the old thing that the Spirit was already doing, speaking through God's Word, killing us in our sin but uniting us to new life in the cross of Christ, is the only thing that we actually need.

    Fr. Jonathan, Philadelphia, USA

  4. Peter, the one cautionary note I would add is that peace and contentment in life is no sign that we have found God's way. Those who "live on, growing old and increasing in power" who "see their children established around them,
    their offspring before their eyes" whose "homes are safe and free from fear" in Job are "the wicked".

    Those who understand what Job is saying, will also understand why this terrifies him (Job 21:6).

  5. Revd John

    Thankfully I don’t make mention of ‘peace and contentment’ - so see no need to worry on that score. As someone who has lived the contemplative life and worked in palliative care, I can assure you I’d be rather worried if I did feel ‘peace and contentment’ – I am always aware of my own mortality! Tho’ according to that omniscient organ, concerning all things gay, homosexuals are supposed to spend their days fretting and worried - implying that living the celibate or ‘healed’ life, would lead to ‘peace and contentment’ ( – hence by your reasoning here, it would be better to remain in a state of anxiety, as that is proof God’s way is being followed :). Thanks for your reply, but I am more interested in any comments you have on the wider topics I have touched upon. For instance I would find it very hard to consider anyone a Christian who aligned his or herself with Anglican Mainstream for the reasons I have noted above (i.e. its disproportionality and wilful emphasis on the ‘sins’ of the few while ignoring those of the many!). This current obsession with all things gay on the part of many a certain flavour of conservative Christian is certainly not proportional – moreover I think it is safe to say all Christians make some compromise with Scripture to suit their own ends at some point or other in their lives... I suppose the point is, what is a ‘leading of the Spirit’ and what self-interest veiled in piety?


    1. Peter

      You say

      There are few Christians who would put their money where their mouths are when it comes to illness, finance, insurance etc. Few, if diagnosed with cancer, will refuse treatment in preference to prayer (despite Mk 16:17); or would have any qualms about receiving interest on their savings (ignoring Ps 15:15) and despite Matt 6:25-34, many strive to wear their Sunday best to church and have their houses and chattels insured.

      I agree we need to look at these areas also. The greed of the banks and the indebtedness of families makes me think we need to adopt Biblical principles here also

      Good point.


  6. It is ironic that the supposedly same Holy Spirit is telling others - in no uncertain terms- to live a life of celibacy - the way of love and holiness, and not the way of the flesh. So who is actually hearing from God? Surely you must go back to the scriptures because the Holy Spirit will not speak anything contrary to Scripture. Who is loving the Father and Jesus in following His commands - to be in these relationships or remaining celibate? I would like to know how Bishop Gene knows he is not hearing from a deceiving Spirit. But perhaps in his theology there are none.

    Anglican Mainstream - one could argue- merely reflect society's obsession with sex, abortion, alcohol abuse and drug abuse. However it is easy to be insensitive to peoples when information is being disseminated via the web or a conference rather than in a pastoral setting. However their work also seems to address not only 2 consenting adults but how we actually instruct children and the lives they are encouraged to live. This of course applies to all morality education in school that ignores that the Lord acually lives. They do however also publicise the work of restorative ministries.
    We dont have groups of adulters approaching churches saying this is good, so it is not surprising that the churches respond in what the feel a biblical manner to active homosexual relations and gay marriage in church.

  7. Peter Denshaw - I have to ask what heresy do you think TFT are guilty of? Their position is one of celibacy. They do not pray for healing, yet members are free to do so. If anything, they considered these desires as simply one more broken desire - that the Holy Spirit deals with as part of life long descipleship and serving Him. Of course this gets right up some people's noses, because it implies that they are not Holy - but that is how these people feel lead. TFT do not suggest or imply that you will receive heterosexual desires, though they would not say it is impossible to He who turned water into wine and walked on water (unlike some other parts of the church)- I imagine He has a great many other things he wants to deal with first - like teaching you to love other people rather than yourself . They feel called to holiness - what is heretical about that? I heard recently that 30% of the church is single. It seems Jesus is happy for a large number of heterosexual people to be in that position - some for a temporary period and others for life, yet if you read the press you might get the impression that we had been deprived of the very reason we live. For the Christian to live is Christ, not sex. Jesus when he talked about marriage - spoke of two states a eunuch and a married person. There are a great many heterosexual eunuch in the church - many have not chosen this - yet the Lord is content that we (and I do include myself in that) enjoy Him more and dedicate ourselves more to Him. And that is our love for Him. We have not been deprived of love, rather we have an opportunity to arrange our lives so as to love Him - who is love even more - by dedicating our lives to Him. The Lord does comfort you somewhat if you seek Him - that has certainly been my experience. Or do you think that the comforter does not comfort in your trials?

  8. "I would find it very hard to consider anyone a Christian who aligned his or herself with Anglican Mainstream". That's me out of the kingdom, then.