Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Now hear this: Gene Robinson and the voice of God

Having just listened to Gene Robinson being interviewed on Radio 4, I am struck by the fact that the division in the Anglican Communion over sexuality is, at heart, very simple.

It has been said, jokingly, that if you talk to God a lot, you’re a saint; if God talks to you a lot, you’re mad. In reality, though, all Christians believe God speaks to them: the question is how.

The Church of England, faced with the extreme wing of the Reformation, once wrote an anathema in this regard into its Articles of Religion:

“... they are not to be hearkened unto, who ... do boast themselves continually of the Spirit, of whom they say they have learned such things as they teach, although the same be most evidently repugnant to the Holy Scripture.” (Article 19, 1553 edition)

And although this section was subsequently edited out, the English version of the Articles keeps the Church firmly founded in an understanding that Scripture is God’s Word, capital G, capital W (see Articles 19, 21, 24, 26, 34, 37). A truly Anglican understanding would be that shared by the early Church: that God not only speaks to us through Scripture; he speaks Scripture to us.

However, it is widely acknowledged that God ‘speaks’ to us in other ways than Scripture. We can thus also ‘listen’ to God in a variety of ways. The problem comes, as is currently the case with human sexuality, when one person says, “God has told me to do this,” and another says, “God has told me he could not possibly have told you to do that.”

How are we to decide? (It is clearly no solution to say that God has spoken to both parties, unless we believe God has a serious problem.)

Gene Robinson evidently asks his spiritual adviser to help him discern whether he has heard God accurately. But this simply pushes the problem back one level: how do we know the spiritual adviser has heard accurately God’s message to give to Gene about the message he thinks he has received?

It might seem that we face an unresolvable dilemma. It might also seem that it doesn’t matter! A well-known Liberal theologian once said to a gathering of clergy that Charismatics are Liberals. Might it be truer to say that Liberals are Charismatics? Being open to God speaking is surely better than being deaf to God’s voice? And if, as the Anglican Primate of All Ireland recently said, it is “the work of the Spirit: to overthrow conventional expectations and to announce new vistas of perception and truth,” surely we had better hear what the Spirit says to the churches?

But that brings us back to the Articles of the Church and the zeal of the Radical Reformation. The Church generally has recognized a difference between the ‘voice’ of God experienced by the individual and the Word of God given as Scripture. And the difference is precisely in the use of words.

When Gene Robinson says that God has spoken to him, he does not seem to imply that he heard words. Even if he may say, “God said I should be a bishop,” he does not mean there was anything other than an impression that this was God wanted.

By contrast, when we read anything in Scripture, we have actual words — words that, as such, are the same for everyone.

And in saying this, we must dismiss two possible objections. One is that the issue of Scriptural authority and ongoing revelation must be regarded as open and unsettled. It is not, and if we argue that it is, then we must admit that we wish to redefine the Anglican Church rather than abide in continuity with it. The second is that the meaning of the word is hopelessly indefinite. Whilst there is certainly ‘room for interpretation’, there are nevertheless constraints on the meaning we may find in a text. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” may or may not imply a Six-day Creationist view, but it certainly does not imply the world is here because a giant banana said so.

This does not, in itself, settle the question of whether or not Gene Robinson has heard God speak. It does, however, settle the question of how, as Anglicans, we should decide whether Gene Robinson has heard God speak. It comes back to God’s Word, which Scripture is. If we can show from there that Gene Robinson should be a bishop, the matter is settled. If we can show he should not, the matter is settled. If we are not sure, we know what we have to do. But if we decide on the basis of contemporary ‘voices’ experienced by the individual and subject to no objective scrutiny, then chaos is inevitable, for in the end, it is ‘my word’ against his.

Revd John P Richardson
28 August 2007

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  1. Thank you for your timely comments. Our Sunday school class is reading "When Jesus Came To Harvard: Making Moral Choices Today" by Harvey Gallagher Cox, and the subject of our first class should have been how do we (Episcopalians) approach moral questions, and which beliefs are at our core when it comes down to day to day moral issues? The hypothetical situation was raised about how a parent would handle it when their son admits he is homosexual and wants to marry the man next door. As people in the class responded, it seemed that they were trapped by secular relativism and were also trying to avoid the WWJD approach. I am afraid that I shocked the class by suggesting that there was something missing in the discussion. "What about prayer and involving God in the process?" I asked. Faced with a negative response from the crowd, I was not brave enough to ask to look to scripture as well. I am afraid that this is the mindset of the majority of TEC. We are afraid to bring God into the equation. We are leery of people who say they have been given a message from God (look at what happened to Joan of Arc). Also, those people who do get tapped on the shoulder by God don't want to hear that when God does say something to them, He may be saying the opposite to someone else. Thanks for the blog, I can now see part of Bishop Robinson's values, maybe he feels he is on a mission from God. That should be an invitation for us to be allowed to bring God, Jesus, and the Scriptures into the debate.

  2. Three comments on this:

    Robinson's remarks make a mockery of John Sentamu's (bizarre) claim that TEC is fundamentally orthodox. As Tim Chester points out in chapter 1 of "Delighting in the Trinity", having the Spirit speak independently of the written word- in this case, contradicting it- ultimately leads to Trinitarian heresy, because it separates the first and second persons of the trinity.

    Second, on this subject the thing that everyone must read is "Word and Supplement" by Timothy Ward (either OUP or CUP- reviewed by me in Churchman a couple of years ago). This is Tim's write up of his PhD thesis on the sufficiency of scripture. Tim points out that a sufficient scripture (and he carefully defines in what sense scripture is sufficient)is the only way that the church can distinguish the voice of God from other voices, and thus avoid idolatry. The claims of Robinson and others in TEC that God has spoken to them are an implicit denial of sufficiency; TEC is (contra Sentamu) idolatrous.

    Third, I remember an article by someone in the States on this subject, claiming that ECUSA (as then was) was basically gnostic. I'll see if I can dig it out.

    Steve Walton (MArbury, Cheshire)
    (John is this OK to identify myself? I'm not the Steve Walton at London Bible College!)

  3. Sorry, that should have read "second and third persons".

    Steve Walton