Words will break cement

I want to reflect on the idea of Christian protest. So don’t be misled by what immediately follows. I use it as a paradigm.

Last week, a kind friend lent me a book entitled ‘The Anglican Community and Homosexuality’ (2008). One of its contributors is Bishop John Holder, who writes on sexuality in the Old Testament. The book enjoins us all to “listen” – that is, listen to God and one another particularly in relation to the “experiences of homosexual persons”. For Bishop Holder, then, there was nothing remarkably new in his address to the Intimate Conviction Conference 2017 in Jamaica, which I’ve been quoting from; well, except in this. At the Conference, Bishop Holder argued that Biblical texts could not be used to support penal laws against homosexuals. This was in line with the Communiqué of the Anglican Primates, which Archbishop Holder helped draft, following their meeting at Canterbury in 2016, and which declared: “The Primates re-affirmed their rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted couples.” That went unnoticed here, as also did the Joint Statement of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York last year to the same effect. At the same time, the Primates resolved (probably unlawfully) to ban the US Episcopal Church in various ways for its stand on marriage doctrine for a period of three years. How wonderful, then, that this didn’t stop Meghan and Harry having Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, deliver the most marvellous sermon on love at their wedding. Was that ‘protest’?

As you may remember, the former US Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, obviously a proponent of same sex marriage, was supposed to be the Diocesan guest here at its Annual Service some years ago. Last year, Bishop James Tengatenga, formerly Anglican Bishop of Southern Malawi, and now an advocate of LGBT rights, came and, with Archbishop Holder, held a news conference. There, the Archbishop confronted those “of the faith” who ridiculed and condemned members of the LGBT community. Their position, he said, entailed a misreading and misinterpretation of the Bible. It was sad, he said, that some Christians “give the impression that [LGBT people] are children of the devil and not children of God”. Wasn’t that a form of polite protest?

I don’t think anyone can misread Bishop Holder’s position – well, save in one respect. Is he saying that the LGBT life-style is, or is not, sinful in itself? The answer to that question is invariably fudged, and I suppose that one reason is simple enough. Leaving aside the Biblical texts, if we say that sex before marriage is sinful in itself, which I guess the puritans still do, how can the LGBT lifestyle be other than sinful, and this without remission for, for them, the Church mostly rejects the very idea of marriage. Unmarried men and women can marry and put themselves right with God. LGBT folk can’t – so that ends it.

Now, you can imagine the call to arms we’d witness if we read ‘Archbishop says LGBT-ism not sinful – rejects Biblical texts.’ That’s essentially what I said at the Pride March. But would he, as a world Church leader, be justified in saying such a thing even if he believed it? Or, to turn it around, was it enough for him, if that were his belief, merely to enjoin listening, discussion, ‘walking together’ and tolerance with those with whom no discussion, as he knew very well, was possible? To what extent, if at all, would it be right for him to ‘rock the boat’? Did Jesus do that? Oh sure, it would be OK for me to do it with no like responsibilities, but for him, an Archbishop? But then, aren’t church leaders supposed to ‘lead’? If we say, ‘well, he leads from the back’ what of those at the front who get their faces re-arranged for truth’s sake?

In other words, how far can Christian protest go? Don’t we, given who we are, have a duty to protest against injustice in the name of truth no matter who we upset on the way, and no matter the extent we deride traditional Christian understandings? And if we do protest, is it enough to enjoin mere discussion and respect with the optimistic hope that in years to come, with a new generation, things may change? Would that be dishonest? Or cowardly?

There are two other ‘cop-outs’, I think. One is the priest who speaks only in generalities and hopes his congregation will make the leap to specifics. That way he protects himself from criticism. So if he says, ‘The role of the church is not to judge others because of their way of life’, surely we want to know who, judges and judged, he has in mind – if only to stop the complacent rejoinder ‘He can’t possibly mean me, can he?’ The other, is the standard line, much favoured by Bishop Holder, that we mustn’t foist alien Christian values, typically of the former colonial power, on Caribbean peoples despite the surfeit of insensitivity and bigotry they exhibit. All that achieves is protection from reproach and the hand of blessing on flat earthers. Was that Jesus’ way? If not, why is it ours?

Go safely, then – until the next time.

Protest from the boundary: “To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men” (Abraham Lincoln).

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