Article Title:Is Anybody Listening?
Author or Credit:Richard Randerson; Taonga
Published on:14th March 2005 - 12:00 pm
Story ID:658
Text:Richard Randerson IS ANYBODY LISTENING? Reflections on the Windsor report, by Richard Randerson I first felt the difference in Australia. Our diocese of Canberra and Goulburn bordered the diocese of Sydney. Paths crossed at inter-diocesan gatherings or at General Synod. There were many in Sydney who held their faith with terrifying certainty, and so expressed it to others. The terror was two-fold : first, the concept that Christian faith is containable within precisely defined doctrines, and second that such doctrines may be used to measure others as right or wrong, Christian or non-Christian, in or out. Faith is expressed primarily in relationship with the living God, not in dogma which may assist the relationship, but not contain it. Doctrinal certainty can fall far short of the fullness of divine truth. But a different spirit was evident at regular meetings of the New South Wales bishops with the then Archbishop of Sydney, Harry Goodhew. There we talked together, ate together and worshipped together for two days at a time. Harry was a gentle evangelical in whom there was no guile, a man of deep convictions who yet held them in a way that was open to the convictions of others. The meetings of the bishops were occasions where trust was engendered and fruitful exchanges took place across widely differing viewpoints. My experience of meetings of the New Zealand bishops is similar. There is a desire to share, to listen, to trust, to respect. That same spirit is present in the Windsor Report. The Report counsels dialogue and trust in order to deepen the world-wide communion we share as Anglicans. It encourages a willingness to sit lightly to entrenched viewpoints so we might hear and understand the experiences and convictions of others. The language is that of covenant and trust, of family and shared faith, of listening and learning. My own view on the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire is well known. On Face to Face with Kim Hill a year ago I stated that I supported his election, believing he would have been chosen because the synod perceived he had the pastoral and spiritual qualities essential to leadership. Bishops are not chosen lightly. A synodical election provides the closest scrutiny of every facet of a candidate for office. At the same time I said my view was a personal one. As a bishop of the Church I accept the policies and decisions of the Church, and live by them. It is in order for a bishop to have a view on controversial matters, although in the present climate there is pressure on bishops not to express a view in case it alienates one section of the Church or another. No one can expect a bishop to have the same view on every subject as every member of the diocese. What one can expect is that a bishop will respect the convictions of every person, and ensure that all are included. I do. I have not come easily to the view that a homosexual relationship that bears the marks of love, commitment and permanence can be acceptable in the eyes of God. Nor has it resulted primarily from study of the Bible, although I believe this view is consistent with Scripture. The point of conviction for me arises from the friendship and collegiality I have shared with gay and lesbian church members, lay and ordained, over many years and in many places. Their experience of Christ, and their commitment in the Christian way, is no different from anyone else's. To say they are not part of us is a terrifying judgment which is not ours to make. The Church globally and locally has several times affirmed their full membership of the Body of Christ. It is the same point of conviction that Peter came to as he addressed Cornelius and the Gentiles (Acts 10). As Peter spoke of Jesus the Holy Spirit fell on those listening, and Peter called for water that they might be baptised. Those previously outside the circle of believers were now inside. Rules of admission, such as circumcision, were waived. The English theologian, James Alison, has said the rules came to be seen as part of a cultural law, a collapsing taboo. The response to my interview with Kim Hill was overwhelmingly appreciative. Messages came from all over New Zealand, from inside and outside the Church, from young and old. A few disagreed with my viewpoint, but most saw it as principled rather than permissive. One of the issues in this debate, as in many others, is whether the Bible is a rule-book with an answer for every issue in every age, or whether one must plumb more deeply to discern unchanging biblical principles that then require interpretation in the context of contemporary issues. Some of the most moving responses were from parents who approached me quietly and said : “Thank you for what you said. My son (daughter) is gay (lesbian), and we have always felt condemned by the Church on that account”. The Church, of course, does not condemn gay or lesbian people, but there is a sense of judgment and exclusion, especially if they are living in a same-sex relationship, no matter how deep or long-lasting that relationship might be. In the current debate much is made of Resolution 1.10 of the Lambeth Conference 1998, which was affirmed by 85% of the bishops in plenary session. Clause (d) of the resolution is the one that “rejects homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture”, and hence it is often said that 85% of the bishops endorse that viewpoint. On the surface the conclusion is reasonable, until one takes into account the fact that clause (d) was a new clause added in plenary to the original motion. Only 65% of the bishops voted for its inclusion, the remainder feeling either that homosexual practice was compatible with Scripture, or that Scripture was inconclusive on the subject. The amended motion was then put as a whole and gained the 85% support. But it was difficult to vote against the motion because clause (b) stated that the Conference “upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union”, and clause (c) said “we commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons (and assure them they are) full members of the Body of Christ”. Who were the 35% of the bishops (280 out of 800) who opposed clause (d)? The vote was by show of hands so no names were recorded, but the bishops at Lambeth 1998 divided almost equally into western (400 bishops) and non-western (400 bishops). It is reasonable to assume that if the bulk of the non-western bishops supported clause (d), the majority of the western bishops (up to 280 out of 400) opposed it. The numbers are generalised estimates, but show two things : a third of the bishops of the Anglican Communion believe that Scripture does not conclusively reject homosexual practice, and second, that maybe as many as 70% of the bishops of western nations are of that view. It raises the question of whether the differences may be more cultural than biblical. Is it realistic to expect uniformity of culture in a radically diverse global community? ECUSA Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold welcomes the Windsor Report, but notes that “in the Episcopal Church we are seeking to live the Gospel in a society where homosexuality is openly discussed and increasingly acknowledged in all areas or our public life. For at least 30 years our Church has been listening to the experience and reflecting upon the witness of homosexual persons in our congregations. There are those among us who perceive the fruit of the Spirit deeply present in the lives of gay and lesbian people and in their relationships. However, other equally faithful persons among us regard same gender relationships as contrary to scripture. Consequently, we continue to struggle with questions regarding sexuality”. Comparison with Anglican practice re the ordination of women is instructive. Lambeth 1978 agreed that different provinces might proceed to ordain women as priests. The matter was considered to be one of adiaphora – matters on which different practices might be accepted without dividing the Communion. One estimate is that around half of the Anglican provinces still do not ordain women. The words of St Paul on women in leadership are far more precise and restrictive than they are on homosexuality, yet the Communion lives with the former but divides on the latter. The Windsor Report did not set out to address the question of homosexuality. Its perspectives on the nature of communion amongst Anglicans worldwide are both informative and encouraging. Its extensive attention to the way in which we interpret Scripture offers much to reflect on. Its recommendations about healing the divisions that have been caused, and developing more robust processes of consultation for the future, are warmly conducive to nourishing the ties that bind the global Anglican family together. The Windsor Report provides food for a journey, but the journey itself is one that remains to be taken, and is one we must take together. Three features of the road ahead stand out. First, we should take to heart the Windsor call for listening, respect and reaching out to those whose views differ from us. I do not have difficulty with people whose views differ from mine. Over 40 years of ordained ministry I rejoice in some wonderful conversations with others in which, while our emphasis in faith and ministry has differed, yet there has been a breadth of understanding whereby each of us has been able to include the other. What hits me in the gut is an encounter with someone who, after posing a few dogmatic shibboleths, consigns me to the rank of non-believer. If I have ever so acted to others, I apologise for it, and would hope to be called on it should I ever act in that way. I am willing to meet with any person or group in the interests of furthering dialogue. Second, we need to take the journey seriously and without delay. The Windsor Report could be used as a recipe for holding the status quo indefinitely. Nothing is to change until consensus is reached. No steps are taken towards consensus. The whole issue is consigned to the back-burner. Such a response would be a denial of the spirit of Windsor. That spirit is not one of stalemate, but of dialogue and resolution, complex though that process might be. There is already frustration that the Communion has only addressed the task spasmodically. There have been some excellent commissions and reports, but now a clear focus and strategy is called for. It is already 26 years since Lambeth 1978 called for “a deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality, which would take seriously both the teaching of scripture and the results of scientific and medical research.” Lambeth 1988 reaffirmed that call. Lambeth 1998 said it again. The Windsor Report 2004 likewise makes the call. To bury the issue leaves many people wounded on the sidelines. Fear of engagement is holding us back. We need the courage and the faith to set out on the road. The third major feature of the journey is dialogue about Scripture. Is the Bible a rule-book? Or is it a taonga whereby we encounter the living God and are filled with the spirit of God so that we may discern God's will in the fast-changing circumstances of our time? Scripture itself has many examples of the re-writing of past insights in the light of new revelation. Jesus frequently re-interpreted the Law when it had atrophied and fossilised, and dealt death instead of life. James Alison, in commenting on Peter's encounter with Cornelius, writes : “In a very short space of time in Luke's story-telling we have gone from something rather like ‘You are no part of our narrative' through ‘You can be part of our narrative, but only on our terms' to ‘Heavens, we are part of the same narrative, which isn't the one either of us thought it was and it isn't on the terms set by either of us'” (On Being Liked, p.ix). His words do not support a process of unreflective endorsement of any new thing that comes along. It rather describes a process at the heart of Christian pilgrimage. God is constantly re-writing our narratives in ways we would never expect, and in ways that are often uncomfortable. The spirit of God is active in scripture, in worship and in prayer, in the people and events of our day, and in our relationships with one another. If Windsor is to bear fruit that lasts it will only be if we do not shirk the challenge it offers to journey together, and by the grace of God arrive at a truth which may lie beyond where any of us has yet got to. EDITOR'S NOTE: This article, which originally appeared in the December issue of "Taonga" - the national Anglican newspaper - represents Bishop Randerson's personal views and not those of the Anglican Church. Richard Randerson; Taonga - 14th March 2005    
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