Facing up to division in faith

3rd after Trinity, 6th July 2003

Romans 14: 1-17
Paul's plea to the Church

The question of what is and what is not central to our faith, what must be believed and what is less significant, what is absolutely deadly in the line of sin, and what we can get away with with a bit of humility and repentance, is something with which the church has struggled for a very long time - since its outset in fact, as this evening's reading from Paul's letter to the Romans bears witness.

It is a very interesting and rarely read passage which demonstrates pretty clearly that even in those early days of the Christian Church there was a hierarchy of truth. Consequently, there was from the outset a need for discernment, an expectation that - at least to a point - there was a right and proper diversity of belief and practice. That, as you will realise only too well, is not irrelevant to the situation that today faces the Anglican Communion - and, let it be said, all other churches as well.

Today, the question of choice in the matter of one's diet might not really feature very high on anyone's agenda in the search for orthodoxy. For the early church, it was somewhat more significant. Although vegetarianism was not a major issue, the question of what might or might not be eaten was important within Judaism - for Paul to describe the 'stronger brethren' as being those who eat anything was quite revolutionary; similarly those who no longer saw any great need to keep the special 'holy days'. This was a dramatic distancing of the nascent Christian community from the traditions and rules of the past.

So this passage we have heard does deal to an extent with second order issues, but we should not underestimate the response from those growing up, still within the Jewish faith. This was new and uncomfortable teaching; but still for Paul it simply was not the heart of things, and he cried out, 'Let us each stop passing judgment therefore on one another and decide instead that none of us will place obstacles in any brother's way, or anything that can bring him down.'

Paul's plea related to the divisions of today

That is a powerful plea from St Paul to the Church and a plea that is not irrelevant to what appears to be happening today; but of course, that depends a bit on whether the issue that is causing such division today is of first or second order. And therein lies the problem - I fear we are as deeply divided over that question as over the issue itself. It seems as though everyone accepts that there are different orders of issues - if they did not, then we could none of us legitimately appeal to scripture to support our case, because for every reference to homosexuality, there are dozens of other references to modes of behaviour and practise that are today completely ignored. The most obvious case of this is in the book Leviticus, a collection of moral and legal codes from a variety of dates, some very ancient, which address a very wide range of rules from diet to infections, and including a range of social laws and penalties. Among this collection, there are two quite clearly condemnatory references to homosexuality. That cannot be denied. But those references sit amongst many other laws that today are recognised to be irrelevant. So the question is by what authority do we discard some of scripture and retain other parts?

The authority of Scripture an issue

The authority of scripture has been and remains a question around which there is also deep division. For the church, however, I would suggest that this is of a much more fundamental nature than this or that code of morality, because without agreement on this, there can be no authoritative agreement on the teachings contained within its covers.

By what authority are boundaries of belief drawn up?

But of course the issue is even more complicated than this, because there is also a further fundamental question about how authority is exercised within the church. Who can define the boundaries of our beliefs, if boundaries there need to be? How are we to approach truth?

We could from here go on a journey through history to examine this more closely down the centuries. How did the early church manage, with its small and often persecuted communities spread out around the Mediterranean region? What happened once power was focussed in one place, Rome? How did other centres of power - Alexandria, Constantinople, Jerusalem react? What happens when those in power abuse their position as to an extent happened in the medieval church; or what when political and ecclesiastical power clash or become confused, as happened in the lead up to the Protestant Reformation and its aftermath as well? What happens when the Church seeks to impose its codes and laws on civil society? How do we reconcile the deep divisions between say, the Roman Catholic understanding of authority and the Baptist understanding? It would be an interesting survey and a challenging one too. It would also be relevant to the current controversy in which we are embroiled. But since I fear none of these historical situations have given us any clear answers as to how authority should be exercised, except in the negative sense - 'I am quite sure we should not be behaving like that' - there is probably little to be gained from going down that road.

Authority in the Anglican tradition

The Anglican Communion struggles more than most in its search for a structure of authority. That is for a number of reasons. There are two main ones. Firstly, Anglicanism has, for better or for worse, bred very independently minded people - and that is at every level. It has encouraged open exploration of faith. It has invited people to ask the hard questions and not to expect easy answers. Today, that is very unfashionable. I understand why it is unfashionable. In a world that has advanced so mind-blowingly fast in its knowledge, but which still understands very little more than it did 150 years ago, many people are anxious, fearful even, about the meaning of it all. How refreshing and reassuring then, if the Christian Faith (or any other faith for that matter) could fill the vacuum. And we are being tempted down that road - invited to ask whatever questions we like, the answers complete and beautifully honed. There is no more need to worry, God has it under control - so everyone can smile for the camera. And if anyone is tempted to ask 'By what authority', the answer is straightforward, 'It is simple Bible Christianity.' So responsibility is transferred away from either the teacher or the hearer, because the answers are from the mouth of Jesus himself, or at least St Paul. (There are many examples of this style of teaching, of which the Alpha Course is the most successful.) We should be reassured. But are we?

In 1997, a significant report - which became known as the Virginia Report - was produced by the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission. It was on Anglican Structures of Authority. In the first chapter, it says this:

When Christians find themselves passionately engaged in the midst of complex and explosive situations, how do they avoid alienation from those who by baptism are their brothers and sisters in Christ, who are embraced in the communion of God the Holy Trinity, but who disagree? How do they stay in communion with God and each other; how do they behave towards each other in the face of disagreement and conflict? What are the limits of diversity if the Gospel imperative of unity and communion are to be maintained?... There is merit in the Anglican approach of listening to others, of holding each other in the highest degree of communion possible, with tolerance for deeply held differences of conviction and practice.

This is the heart of Anglicanism. We have no 'deposit of faith', we have no document setting the boundaries of our beliefs. We proceed on our journey together on the basis of our common prayer, our communion together that recognizes not uniformity in every aspect of our faith, but a common inheritance that ties us together in bonds of friendship and love. "To practice the grace of walking together without coercive constraints is the special vocation of Anglicanism in our pluralistic world." wrote Dr Paul Avis, a leading ecumenist, a while ago.

The Communion is changing

But the Anglican Communion is changing. And that is the second key reason why we are struggling together at the moment. For a long time we have been content to walk together through the darkness and the light. It has been uncomfortable and untidy - perhaps even at times apparently incoherent. But it has not been wrong. Until recently we have rejoiced in our diversity. We have recognised, as my former boss used to say quite regularly, that we are still becoming a communion, and therefore we are in the realms of provisionality. We believe that we belong together, we want to learn from one another, and we resist either a pulling apart into independence or a chaining together under some centralised authority. We have been willing to take risks in our search for the truth of Christ. Risk-taking calls for humility, a readiness to listen and learn, to embrace disagreement and debate. But today, seduced by the opportunity for renewed power in the world, we are being drawn away from faith towards the arrogance of certainty, and the demand for compliance with a set of values and beliefs that are being arbitrarily drawn up according to a particular way of interpreting scripture. And with the arrogance of certainty goes the death of mystery, and with the death of mystery goes the possibility that God can work change in us.

If we are to begin to face the mystery of God - a mystery which can encompass the vastness of the universes, the depths of wickedness, the burning intimacies and promises of love and persons, then we must share in the risks of God - risks which include the possibilities of suffering, sin, and getting things wrong. The power of love is not having everything cut and dried, with reserve force to push the divine plan through. Such power could leave no room for the freedom which true love requires,

So wrote Bishop David Jenkins, a prophetic voice of our times whose words seem to become more and more perceptive as the years have passed.

The ambiguities of real-life faith

And that is where we must leave these things that at this time we do not understand, and through which we cannot see. What is the cause of conflict in our lives and our belief is the cause of an outpouring of love from God; what threatens to break up and destroy through our blindness is caught up and redeemed in the mysterious glory of God's creation. I do not know the answers to the questions with which we are being challenged today; but I am sure that what is happening is very far from being a Godly process of discernment. That we disagree, and disagree profoundly, is a fact of life; but at no point in its history has the church catholic required that all are agreed on every point. What we, within the Anglican tradition, are required to do is to walk, to talk and to pray together as we seek to discern God's will in a broken church that reflects a broken world; and we do so because we trust and believe that this is where God is - in the conflict.

To quote David Jenkins again, in his enthronement sermon:

I face you therefore as an ambiguous, compromised person, entering upon an ambiguous office in an uncertain church in the midst of a threatened and threatening world. I dare to do this, and I, even with fear and trembling, rejoice to do this, because this is where God is to be found. In the midst that is of the ambiguities, the compromises, the uncertainties, the questions and the threats of our daily and ordinary worlds.

Andrew Deuchar

St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 12th July 2003