Tuesday, 26 January 2016

On Affirming Marriage as a Lifelong Union

Canon Dr Angus Ritchie, like others, claims that
To remarry divorcees and to conduct same-sex marriages both go against the Primates' Communique, which affirms that marriage must be “between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union.”
This implies that the Church of England’s practice, which allows remarriage of divorcees in some circumstances, and its official doctrine as expressed in Canon B 30
The Church of England affirms, according to our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.
Like others, Angus Ritchie is coy about spelling out what if anything is to be done about this contradiction. 
  • Does it matter whether or not the Church acts in accordance with its beliefs?
  • If so, should the Church  revert to its more rigorous practice of not allowing divorcees to get married in church?
  • Or should the Church adapt doctrine to practice and abandon the doctrine that marriage is a lifelong union?

(Ritchie's general argument suggest to me that he would not be content with blatant contradiction between doctrine and practice and his endorsement of Jeffrey John's Permanent, Faithful, Stable suggests that he does not want to abandon the idea that marriage involves "faithful, lifelong union" but I am not aware of any efforts on his part to revert to a less liberal marriage practice in relation to divorcees.)

The claim that the practice of remarriage of divorcees is incompatible with the view that marriage is a lifelong union is presented as self-evident. But it can hardly be said to be self-evident. Why?
Because for at least one and a half millennia the Eastern Churches strongly affirmed that marriage is a lifelong union, while allowing for the possibility (and permissibility in some circumstances) of divorce with right of remarriage, appealing to Origen and Basil among others.

Because even within the Western Church this was rarely undisputed. There was a period of about 400 years from the Decretum of Gratian onwards during which (Christian!) marriage was held to be indissoluble without much contradiction but the issue was re-opened during the Reformation period. The Reformers abandoned the principle of absolute indissolubility for theological and pastoral reasons and “believed that in doing so, they were recalling the Church to the Scriptural teaching on marriage and divorce.” (Atkinson)

Because in spite of the fact that the Church of England adopted the most stringent practice in all of Christendom, as far as mainstream churches are concerned anyway, a division of opinion on this matter has been characteristic of Anglican history.

All are (were?) agreed that God’s will for marriage is for it to be a permanent and lifelong union. The debate concerns whether the claim that marriage must be “between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union” expresses God’s design which can however be broken or whether a valid marriage once entered into on these terms is a “lifelong union” in the sense that it can ever be broken in God’s sight, whatever the civil authorities declare.

The claim that remarriage of divorcees invariably goes against the view that marriage is a lifelong union seems to presumes not only the view usually attributed to the Roman Catholic Church that sacramental marriage forms a bond which is only severed at death but also extends this principle to all marriages, whether they involve Christians or not. (See here a statement on why marriage that involves someone who is not baptised can be fully valid and even conducted in church without being sacramental according to Roman Catholic church law.)

In short, the assumption behind the claim that remarriage of divorcees goes against an affirmation that marriage must be “between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union” is highly controversial. To present the claim as self-evident betrays either an astonishing ignorance of other Christian views on the matter or a breathtakingly arrogant confidence that other views can be dismissed without even being mentioned.

An incumbent within the Church of England should not remain in such ignorance. For the benefit of anyone needing a crash-course in the discussion preceding the change in practice within the Church of England I have excerpted David Atkinson’s To Have and to Hold: The Marriage Covenant and the Discipline of Divorce (St James’s Place, London: Collins, 1979) in notes from chapter 1 (areas of disagreement), chapter 2 (historical sketch), chapter 3 (marriage as covenant), chapter 4 (background and biblical evidence), chapter 5 here (principles for a Christian view of divorce) and here (applications of these principles), and chapter 6 (the pastoral problem of divorce and remarriage). A more recent, very learned but not Anglican discussion can be found at http://www.divorce-remarriage.com/.

Quick summary:

(1) Some believe that no (Christian) marriage ever comes to an end in this life. This is the position usually identified with the Roman Catholic Church.
(2) Some believe that there are two ways in which a marriage can end, through death or through sin. This is the position of the Orthodox churches and of the Protestant Reformers.
(3) Some believe that there are many which in a marriage can end other than death and sin. Thi seems to be the most widespread view in Western society outside the church.

The phrase "lifelong union" means different things to different people.

  • For those affirming (1) it describes an inescapable fact about marriage. 
  • For those affirming (2) it says something about what marriage intrinsically is according to God's design which is however breakable, a bit like saying a house is a space with walls and roof does not imply that the roof cannot fall down.
  • For those affirming 3) the phrase expresses at best an aspiration rather than something that marriage intrinsically is.




To Have and to Hold: Divorce and Remarriage, Pastoralia

The final chapter of David Atkinson’s To Have and to Hold: The Marriage Covenant and the Discipline of Divorce (St James’s Place, London: Collins, 1979) explores the pastoral problems of divorce and remarriage. See previous notes from chapter 1 (areas of disagreement), chapter 2 (historical sketch), chapter 3 (marriage as covenant), chapter 4 (background and biblical evidence), chapter 5 here (principles for a Christian view of divorce) and here (applications of these principles).

Atkinson notes that “divorce is often a symptom of a far deeper problem in contemporary society – for Christians as for others – than simply the personal failure of a particular couple within their marriage relationship” (p. 181) The problem is not addressed by simply making divorce as difficult as possible. “The pastoral problem for the Church...is how to foster and encourage the personal qualities which make for covenant-faithfulness and commitment, even within the pressures of contemporary society.” (p. 183)

“As Michael Pollitt rightly comments: ‘education for and within marriage is a much more urgent matter than the question of the remarriage of divorced people.’” (p. 184) Furthermore, without dismissing the role of other agencies, “it is the duty of the Church to be an agent of reconciliation” where there is a threat to a marriage. (p. 186) “Whatever the practical steps needed, the Church has a duty to make itself known, and inspire confidence in its value, as the agency within which the reconciling grace of God can become a reality in the strained relationships of marriage breakdown. And it must work towards establishing as a regular procedure, the use of that agency as a first resort by married couples at times of marital distress.” (p. 187)

When marriages are broken: “For too long the primary stance of the Church to people who have been divorced has been one of condemnation or rejection...The Christian community needs to learn how to express compassion towards the divorced person as ‘victim’ [not only agent of divorce].” (p. 188)

“Part of the pastoral question for the Church is to ask how best it can be an agency of support and acceptance to the victims of divorce. And the second pastoral question is how best the Church can aid the divorced person, and his or her family, in finding ‘the Father’s will’ for their future.” (p. 188) Atkinson elaborates this in terms of guilt and feelings of guilt, receiving and extending forgiveness, and “for some, but surely not all, the covenanted obligation of sexual exclusiveness may lead them to view their future life as divorcee as a calling to celibacy” (p. 189).

“The moral question of the propriety of repeating lifelong vows is not as central as some argue.” (p. 189) While failure to uphold a vow reduces one’s moral credibility, it does not preclude the genuine possibility to make another life-long vow with utter sincerity.

“Whereas, therefore, the moral question concerning the right of remarriage may be fairly clear, the pastoral question as to the Church’s role in such remarriage, in particular whether or not it should give its blessing to any particular remarriage, is much more complex. The Church has other needs to consider than only those of the couple concerned; it is here that the tension between the Church’s prophetic and pastoral callings can be most acute.” (p. 190)

“The practice of refusing to marry any divorced person with the Church’s blessing seems unfortunately to witness only to the fact that Church law must always come before personal need. And yet, of course, indiscriminate remarriage on demand would seem to speak of a God of cheap grace who is blind to sin. If the Church is to give its blessing to some who seek remarriage after divorce, it needs first to be sure that it is pastorally possible to operate a consistent, fair and adequate discrimination...The only feasible criteria on which the Church can decide whether or not it is appropriate to give its blessing concern not degrees of guilt, but present attitude.” (p. 191)

“The Church’s blessing for any marriage should be reserved only for those who share its view of marriage, and the condition (with respect to the couple) on which the Church’s blessing on second marriage should be decided, is penitence for past sin and a genuine desire to seek God’s grace for a new marriage which accords with his pattern.” (p. 191)


After exploring three options, Atkinson concludes: “Assuming that after pastoral consultation, the parish priest and the couple believe in conscience that it is appropriate to have a church service for their marriage – and, to aid the priest in his decision, a diocesan panel may well be a helpful advisory aid – it would appear that neither the Marriage Service as it stands, nor a Service of Blessing following civil marriage, gives adequate witness to the view that God’s will for marriage is for permanence, that divorce is sin, but that sin can be forgiven. The most satisfactory option appears to be a procedure which combines adequate pastoral preparation with a liturgical service which itself gives appropriate witness to the Church’s prophetic and pastoral roles. A form of service is needed, in which the marriage itself is included, which can act in a discriminatory way by expressing both God’s will for marriage and penitence for the sin of divorce. If both such facts are publicly declared in the liturgy itself, the important distinctions in the Church’s witness between first and second marriages can be maintained.” (p. 194)

To Have and to Hold: Divorce and Remarriage, Applications

In the fifth chapter of To Have and to Hold: The Marriage Covenant and the Discipline of Divorce (St James’s Place, London: Collins, 1979), David Atkinson articulates six principles “as basis for a Christian view of divorce in our contemporary society.” (p. 143, elaborated upon on the following pages)

“In attempting to apply these principles to our contemporary situation, three particular issues call for further comment.” (p. 151)

(a) Divorce is a moral act, not the result of ‘misfortune’

Atkinson critiques the Root Report, Marriage, Divorce and the Church (SPCK, 1972). “In contrast to the Eastern Orthodox insistence that the ‘permission for divorce in no way denies the tragic and sinful nature of every marriage breakdown’ [citing the Report, p. 121], the Root report (and indeed much of the way ‘irretrievable breakdown’ is currently understood) appears to transfer all question of blame for divorce away from the partners and to the ‘marriage’ as though (as D. Field comments) ‘the institution of marriage can be made into some kind of third party scapegoat on which all guilt can be laid’.” (p. 152)

He adds the observations that covenant breaches can be serious or relatively trivial and that “persistent and unrepentant sin is one thing; the action which, though of itself not morally good may none the less be right in the circumstances (like bearing arms in war), is quite another.” (p. 153).
This means that “although legally and socially in institutional terms all ‘divorcees’ are identical in that they were once married but are married no longer (and indeed the Church needs to recognize all civil decrees, even those granted on what from a theological standpoint it may regard as trivial grounds, as de facto divorces), in theological and pastoral terms this identity of ‘divorcees’ is not adequate.” (p. 153)

(b) Divorce as the ‘lesser evil’

“To initiate civil divorce procedure as the ‘lesser evil’ may sometimes be a responsible choice, but only with the recognition of sin, with sorrow and repentance.” (from the Summary, p. 174)

(c) Divorce: the legal procedures

“The legal procedures of the 1969 legislation in this country do not seem to fulfil the intentions of the authors of the Anglican Report Putting Asunder (1966) on which (largely) they were based. The present legal situation and court procedures are in fact making divorce easier and the maintenance of marriage harder.” (from the Summary, p. 174)

The issue of nullity is discussed on pp. 162-171. “Although some are urging the Church of England to follow the Church of Rome in exploring the possibilities of annulment in some cases of marital breakdown, it is sounder theologically and clearer in practice to recognize divorce, and to require the handling of even those ‘marriages’ which theologically may be deemed nullities to be the responsibility of civil courts.” (p. 175).

“Finally, what about the moral issues involved in the question of remarriage after divorce?
The possibility, indeed likelihood, of remarriage after divorce is presupposed in both Old and New Testaments, although, as we have seen, a second marriage falls under the cloud of the broken covenant of the first.” (p. 171)

“Our view is that it is not only remarriage which closes the door to all possibility of reconciliation and renewal. When that door has finally been shut by a determination of the will of either partner, there can be a freedom to remarry. But only if the door has been shut. Any children of the first marriage (almost invariably the chief casualties of divorce) are also of paramount importance, and the fulfilment of outstanding covenant obligations of parenthood towards them is another of the moral issues affecting the decision concerning remarriage.” (p. 172)

Atkinson also notes the importance of exploring and, if need be, addressing pastorally and maybe therapeutically “the question of personal ability to make and sustain committed relationships” (p. 172). Furthermore, one would need to judge “that the overall personal good of remarriage in a particular case would justify the threat that a second union would make to the social institution of marriage.” (p. 173).


See also notes from chapter 1 (areas of disagreement), chapter 2 (historical sketch), chapter 3 (marriage as covenant), chapter 4 (background and biblical evidence), and chapter 6 (pastoral questions).

To Have and to Hold: Divorce and Remarriage, Principles

David Atkinson, in the fifth chapter of To Have and to Hold: The Marriage Covenant and the Discipline of Divorce (St James’s Place, London: Collins, 1979), articulates six principles “as basis for a Christian view of divorce in our contemporary society.”

(a) In the teaching of Jesus we must reject any antithesis between an ‘ethic of law’ and an ‘ethic of disposition’: both belong together within ‘covenant ethics’.

(b) The ‘Father’s will’ for marriage has a general validity for all [people]. The ethical teaching of Jesus removes all limitation from the sphere of validity of divine law.

(c) The Messianic ‘gift of righteousness’ provides the possibility for the fulfilment of the Father’s will.

(d) We must be careful not to interpret the teaching of Jesus as a new law code by which the Father’s will is achieved.

(e) The New Testament speaks both of the Father’s will and of his concessions because of sin.

(f) We are not, therefore, to place the covenant ethic of the law of love which fulfils the Father’s will over against the juridical sphere of civil legislation.

Drawing these points together in the context of our discussion of divorce, therefore, we conclude that civil divorce legislation needs first to provide a context in which covenant love in the marriage relationship can flourish and be maintained: in which the harvest of the Spirit can grow (and therefore should provide sufficient barriers to easy divorce that divorce is never a first option, but always the tragic last resort); second, to provide for the maximising of support and aid in reconciliation for the hard times; and third, to regulate the ways in which marriage covenant may be terminated in line with the principles of order and justice.” (pp. 143-151)

Two further citations in the context of discussing the penultimate principle:

“By referring to creation (‘from the beginning it was not so’; Matt. 19:4; Mark 10:6), and by bringing divorce under the heading of the seventh commandment (Matt. 5:32), Jesus proclaims the Father’s will for marriage. By not rejecting the Mosaic ruling to regulate divorce, but regarding it as a concession because of ‘hardness of heart’ (Matt. 19:8), though none the less part of the law of God (the giving of a certificate was a ‘commandment’, Mark 10:5), and by his own words (‘Every one who divorces...’; ‘Let no man put asunder’), Jesus recognizes that the Father’s will may be thwarted by sin and that social regulation of divorce therefore becomes necessary.
                St Paul likewise distinguished between the will of God for permanence and the need for specific rulings if that will was not adhered to. The affirmation of the law of God for marriage cannot therefore be taken to imply that there is no place for legislation to regulate divorce within a sinful world.” (pp. 147-148)

“It has been the consistent view of theologians of the Reformed tradition (exemplified most clearly in Reformation times, perhaps, by Peter Martyr), that Christian thinking on the subject of divorce needs to hold two principles firmly together: the permanence of the marriage covenant in principle and divorce as a tragic, but real, exception. The essential moral force of Jesus’ affirmation of the will of God for marriage implies the following principles. First, that the permanence of marriage is not merely an ideal. Marriage is in fact a covenant in which permanence is not only possible, but indeed is part of the very meaning of what covenant is about. Secondly, divorce must therefore always be seen as sin or the result of sin, involving social evil as well as personal tragedy.” (p. 148)


A second set of notes from this chapter on the applications of these principles is here .See also notes from chapter 1 (areas of disagreement), chapter 2 (historical sketch), chapter 3 (marriage as covenant), chapter 4 (background and biblical evidence) and chapter 6 (pastoral questions).

To Have and to Hold: Marriage and Divorce

The summary of chapter 4 which examines the background and exegesis of the biblical material in David Atkinson, To Have and to Hold: The Marriage Covenant and the Discipline of Divorce (St James’s Place, London: Collins, 1979) reads as follows:
  1. The Pentateuchal laws on premarital intercourse, incest and adultery were framed to preserve the view that in marriage, a man and wife are united in what is intended to be an exclusive lifelong union.
  2. The legislation of Deut. 24:1-4 is the recognition of a permission (not prescription) for divorce, and gives legal conditions designed to reduce hasty divorce and minimize cruelty to the divorced wife. It thus recognizes the fact of marriage breakdown, and acknowledges the need for societal legislation to regulate divorce.
  3. Post-exilic writers reaffirm the divine intention for the permanence of marriage.
  4. Divorce is never encouraged or commanded in the Old Testament.
  5. The Synoptic divorce material reflects the Pharisaic dispute about the interpretation of the Pentateuchal legislation. In Jesus’ day, the death penalty for adultery was not enforced. Gentile readers under Roman law would, like Jews, have assumed that divorce following adultery was legally required.
  6. In the Synoptic material, Jesus reaffirms the divine law for the permanence of marriage, and brings divorce-with-remarriage under the seventh commandment against adultery.
  7. Matthew’s porneia clause (meaning ‘unlawful sexual intercourse’) are most satisfactorily seen as expounding the significance of Deut. 24 in the context of Jesus’ day, and as indicating the continuing need for societal legislation to regulate divorce because of ‘the hardness of men’s hearts’.
  8. The primary emphasis in Jesus’ teaching, however, is that in the will of God for marriage divorce has no place, and to initiate the ‘putting away’ of one’s spouse infringes the commandment against adultery.
  9. In the teaching of Paul, we find the same two emphases: the law of God for the permanence of marriage, and the recognition that there are circumstances [in] which it is important to legislate for exceptions.
  10. Both Testaments indicate that when divorce occurs (however wrongly), right of remarriage is presupposed; in other words, when a marriage has been broken, divorce dissolves the marriage ‘bond’ and covenant; the Bible does not know legal separation without the possibility of remarriage.
See also notes from chapter 1, chapter 2chapter 3, chapter 5 here and here, and chapter 6.

To Have and to Hold: The Marriage Covenant

Notes from David Atkinson, To Have and to Hold: The Marriage Covenant and the Discipline of Divorce (St James’s Place, London: Collins, 1979), see first post and notes from his historical sketch.

“The centre of the meaning of marriage (not what it is for, nor how it is made, but what it means) is the expression of a bond of moral troth (that is, covenant faithfulness) in which two people marry each other before God, and pledge to each other loyalty, trust, devotion and reliability.” (p. 85)

“Within a marriage covenant faithfulness will mean at least the following four things (following Smedes).”
  • faithfulness to a vow
  • faithfulness to a calling
  • faithfulness to a person
  • faithfulness to a relationship (pp. 85-87)
“If marriage is understood in covenant terms, then the possibility of divorce must be discussed as the possibility of breaking covenant. The covenant structure of marriage lends weight to the view, discussed earlier, that marriage is not a metaphysical status which cannot be destroyed; it is rather a moral commitment [to a permanent relationship] which should be honoured.” (p. 91)

“To understand divorce as a moral (rather than a metaphysical) question, however, allows us to consider whether and in what circumstances such a moral obligation as is undertaken in marriage may be overridden by other moral duties, and whether and in what circumstances, divorce may be considered the lesser evil.” (p. 92)

I have written up further notes from chapter 4 (background and biblical evidence), chapter 5 here (principles for a Christian view of divorce) and here (applications of these principles), and chapter 6 (pastoral questions).

To Have and to Hold: Historical Sketch

Notes from the historical sketch in David Atkinson, To Have and to Hold: The Marriage Covenant and the Discipline of Divorce (St James’s Place, London: Collins, 1979), see previous post. Emphases added. I have written up further notes from chapter 3 (marriage as covenant), chapter 4 (background and biblical evidence), chapter 5 here (principles for a Christian view of divorce) and here (applications of these principles), and chapter 6 (pastoral questions).

 “the evidence from the earliest centuries is open to difference in interpretation...even in Augustine, one of the clearest early exponents of the indissolubility of the marriage bond, the question arises especially (only?) for Christians, and is primarily one of moral impermissibility rather than one of ontological impossibility...

What is less open to difference of interpretation is the evidence that after the beginning of the sixth century there was a divergence between the Greek and Latin Churches on the possibility and therefore permissibility of divorce with right of remarriage...Some commentators regard this as a continuation of the position of some of the Fathers (Origen, Basil in particular) for whom the remarriage of divorced persons can be said to be justifiable in some cases as the lesser of two evils, although contrary to the Scriptural ideal for marriage. Others...who interpret Origen, Basil and others as in fact upholding the divine law of the indissolubility of marriage, regard the practice of the Eastern Church from the sixth century as an increasingly lax and inexcusable departure from this law.” (p. 43)

“As we have noted...at the time of the Fathers marriage was a bond of permanent moral obligation. By the time of the medieval schoolmen, indissolubility had come to mean in addition an ontological vinculum which could not be broken – at least in respect of consummated marriages of baptized believers. One can point to some relaxations of the absoluteness of this law in the intervening centuries, but the reforms of Hildegard at Cluny ended these concessions and (to quote Winnett),
The Decretum of Gratian, compiled shortly before the middle of the twelfth century, laid down that a consummated marriage admitted of no dissolution. The marriage bond could not be severed by adultery, and still less by other causes. Though separation for adultery was permitted, remarriage was forbidden. From the time of Gratian to the Reformation, the doctrine of indissolubility in the Western Church, at least in respect of the consummated marriage of Christians.
Marriages contracted by unbelievers were in certain cases capable of dissolution. Innocent III had at the end of the twelfth century embodied the ‘Pauline Privilege’ into the canonical legislation of the Church.” (pp. 44-45)

The continental Reformers abandoned the principle of absolute indissolubility upheld by the Western Churches during the Middle Ages for both theological and pastoral reasons. “And they believed that in doing so, they were recalling the Church to the Scriptural teaching on marriage and divorce. This is not to say that they abandoned the divine ideal of permanence in marriage, nor indeed failed to insist on it as a moral obligation...Rather, they upheld that ideal and that obligation very strongly. They did, however, allow that while the marriage bond should not be dissolved, there were Scriptural grounds on which dissolution should be legitimate though not mandatory, and the right of remarriage upheld. (Only a very few regarded divorce as mandatory in these circumstances.).” (p. 50).

“We can summarize the position of the Continental Reformers as best exemplified by Peter Martyr, therefore, in four main points. First, they upheld and proclaimed the divine ideal and moral obligation of the permanence of marriage. Second, they were united in holding the lawfulness of divorce a vinculo for adultery and malicious desertion (and a few extended the grounds to include cruelty (Luther), and even disease (Bucer)). Third, they believed that the jurisdiction of marriage discipline and divorce provisions should be in the hands of the State. Fourth, they believed that when a divorce was lawfully granted, this was coupled with right of remarriage.” (p. 57). [1] 

“Archbishop Cranmer’s attitude closely resembled that of Peter Martyr. The Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum, Cranmer’s proposed revised Canon Law which never reached Statute, permitted divorce with right of remarriage for adultery, malicious desertion, prolonged absence without news, attempts against the partner’s life, cruelty.” (p. 64)

Both [G. H.] Joyce [Christian Marriage (Sheed and Ward, 1948)] and much more fully [A. R.] Winnett [Divorce and Remarriage in Anglicanism (Macmillan 1958) and Divorce and the Church (A. R. Mowbray, 1968)] document the position from the end of the sixteenth century: ‘The Church of England officially committed to the old standards of law and practice concerning marriage, but side by side with this the opinion held by many influential Churchmen that adultery dissolved the marriage bond and that the innocent husband was free to remarry, an opinion which in a number of instances found expression in practice’ (by Special Acts of Parliament). That division of opinion on the question of absolute indissolubility has been characteristic of Anglican history ever since. Indeed, the Lambeth Conference of 1888 expressly noted that division [in Resolution 4(a)].” (p. 62)


[1] The study by H. J. Selderhuis, Marriage and Divorce in the Thought of Martin Bucer (Kirksville, Miss.: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1999) examines one of the most significant contributions of that time, putting it in context and including a discussion of reaction to Bucer’s ideas at the time.

To Have and to Hold: Conflicting Trends

Notes from David Atkinson, To Have and to Hold: The Marriage Covenant and the Discipline of Divorce (St James’s Place, London: Collins, 1979), a study “commissioned by the Latimer House Council to be a contribution to the current debate in the Church of England on the remarriage of divorced persons in church” (author’s note) at a time that the Church of England still banned remarriage after divorce, when a former partner was still living.

“Behind today’s pastoral questions lies a whole history of debate. The three central areas of difference are

(a) Alternative views about the nature of marriage. All are agreed that God’s will for marriage is that marriage ‘is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side...’ [Canon B 30] The debate concerns whether a valid marriage once entered into on these terms can ever be broken in God’s sight. Is marriage ‘indissoluble’ in fact?

(b) Alternative views about divorce. All are agreed that divorce is a grievous departure from God’s will for marriage. But if a marriage cannot in fact be dissolved in God’s eyes, whatever the courts of the land may declare, how is the Church to view divorcees? If, however, marriage can in some circumstances be dissolved, what – before God – counts as marriage breakdown?

(c) Alternative views about the function of the Church. All are agreed that the Church shall witness to God’s truth both of his will for the permanence of marriage, and of the Gospel of grace and forgiveness. The difficulties come in trying to maintain the proper balance between its prophetic and pastoral responsibilities in its liturgical and disciplinary practice, against the background of differing views of ministry and sacraments.” (p. 11, emphasis added)

I have written up further notes from chapter 2 (historical sketch), chapter 3 (marriage as covenant), chapter 4 (background and biblical evidence), chapter 5 here (principles for a Christian view of divorce) and here (applications of these principles), and chapter 6 (pastoral questions).

Sunday, 24 January 2016

1 Corinthians 14:34-35

From the January 2016 parish magazine, preparing for the arrival of Monken Hadley's first female curate, following an introduction and comments on 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in the previous issue.

Does Paul wish women to be silent in the church on the grounds that it is “shameful for a woman to speak in church”? This can hardly be the case, as in chapter 11 Paul refers to both men (verse 4) and women (verse 5) praying and prophesying in public. This is a short note outlining some ways of reading 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.

Paul initially spent eighteen months in Corinth sharing the good news about Jesus Christ, teaching, pasturing, and making disciples. What we call “1 Corinthians” was not Paul’s first correspondence with the church after he had moved on from Corinth to proclaim the good news elsewhere (1 Corinthians 5:9 refers to an earlier letter). It is a letter written in response to news from Chloe’s household that there were quarrels within the church (1 Corinthians 1:11). On a whole range of issues the apostle has stern words with the church.

One issue was disorderly and wrong-headed worship, namely teaching and leading prayer being done in attire that communicated social status and independence, drawing attention away from the glory of God (11:2-16), the Eucharist being celebrated in a way which sets the rich apart and shames the poor (11:17-34), and God’s gifts, with a particular focus on gifts related to speaking, being used for self-promotion (chapters 12-14).

The various abuses have in common a greater concern for oneself than for the other. It is in this context that we need to read the final passage dealing with worship (14:26-40). “God is a God not of disorder but of peace” (verse 33) and “all things should be done decently and in order” (verse 40).

If one of Paul’s concerns had been to differentiate roles within the church long gender lines, the apostle would have done a spectacularly bad job, given that he begins the discussion with having both men and women pray and prophesy (11:2-16), then makes nothing at all of different roles for men and women in his discussion of the Eucharist (11:17-34), and finally fails to note any distinction in the way men and women are to employ spiritual gifts and responsibilities (12:1-14:25).  It would be odd if only in the conclusion of his discussion on orderly worship the apostle were to discover an interest in limiting the ministries that women can exercise within the church.

In fact, it seems that the apostle’s concern remains firmly with things being done in such good order that everyone will benefit. So, when he concludes this discussion by asking, “What should be done then, my friends?” (14:26), Paul answers his own question by emphasising not the need for everyone to remain in their place but for each one who has something to contribute to bear in mind the aim of building up the church in faith and to this effect the apostle offers the following guidelines.

  1. There is to be no use of foreign languages without interpretation;
  2. not too many people should speak at any one meeting and their contributions need to be evaluated;
  3. if someone has a new insight to offer, the first speaker should be prepared to stop speaking and to listen.
Finally, the controversial passage, verses 33c-35:
As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

It is not plausible that Paul suddenly contradicts himself by insisting that women should be completely silent in church. To avoid a contradiction with, e.g., what Paul says in 11:5 and 14:31, as well as the way he commends women elsewhere, we must assume that Paul did not instruct women never to say a word in church.

As one commentator asks, “How can women like Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2–3), Prisca (Rom. 16:3; 1 Cor. 16:19), Mary (Rom. 16:6), Junia (Rom. 16:7) and Tryphaena and Tryphosa (Rom. 16:12) function as co-workers in the churches if they cannot speak in those churches? How can Phoebe fulfill her role of deacon (Rom. 16:1–2) if she cannot speak out in the assembly? How can a woman like Nympha, who is influential enough to host a house church (Col. 4:15), have been required to remain silent in her own home (cf. also Prisca, the wife of Aquila, 16:19)?” (As there were no church buildings then most acts of worship would have taken place in private homes which created an ambivalence about behaviour that is appropriate in private or public settings.)

There are very few people, if any, who would argue that women must not speak in church. But some believe that Paul seeks to limit the speaking of women. When he prohibits speaking does Paul mean to prohibit teaching or leading prayers? The problem with this interpretation is twofold. One is, as we have observed, that women seem to be engaging in these activities in previous chapters (e.g., prophesying). The other is that the verses specifically identify the reason for speaking as a “desire to know” and offer as an alternative that they should “ask their husbands at home”.

Various reading strategies which give more credit to the integrity of the apostle have been proposed. One is quoting his opponents in these verses as he seems to do elsewhere in the letter. Our typographic conventions for marking quoted speech were not available in his time and his first readers would of course have known better what was said in letters to Paul. We only have his reply.

Another proposal is that Paul was concerned to reduce the number of interruptions from women asking questions or chatting because they did not understand what was being said. (Being less involved in public life, many women would have had less facility with the standard Greek used in public gatherings than the local dialects used at home.)

A third proposal is that Paul is asking wives (the Greek for “wives” and “women” is the same) to refrain from evaluating a prophetic word when the prophet that is being cross-examined is their own husband. This would explain that the apostle instructs these women to ask their husbands at home, without saying anything about what single women or widows were to do.

None of these proposals is entirely without problems but either of the last two proposals would place the instruction in a similar category to the preceding list of guidelines for regulating worship life. I am inclined to believe that Paul is indeed addressing a situation in which wives defy convention by publicly embarrassing their husbands through speaking.

David E. Garland sums up what I believe is going on in these verses: “Paul disallows speech in the assembly that would suggest that a wife is being insubordinate toward her husband, whether it is an interruption or a challenge to a prophetic utterance. The delicate relationship between husband and wife is imperiled by the wife’s public questioning, correcting, or challenging.” He asks these women to hold their tongue, not to be forever silent in church. Whether the opposite case, of men publicly asking questions about prophecies uttered by their wives, was simply not an issue or was not perceived to threaten the marriage relationship in the same way is impossible to tell. In my understanding Paul is not as traditional about hierarchical relationships within marriage, as he is sometimes made out to be. But neither does he seem to have huge problems with the typically non-egalitarian arrangements of his time. The apostle is arguably more concerned with mutual love and submission (esteeming the other higher than oneself) within marriage than with the question whether the roles of husbands and wives are different or the same.

From all we know, women played a more prominent role in Christian communities than in many Jewish synagogues and pagan temples. But there were some pagan cults in which women exercised very prominent roles and Paul may have feared that in promoting the ministry of women the church could be “mistaken for one of the orgiastic, secret, oriental cults that undermined public order and decency” (Schüssler Fiorenza). To forestall this impression the apostle commends the practice of “all the churches of the saints” – they don’t promote lawlessness and insubordination of wives. The church should not be a place where chaos rules or people are shamed. For this reason, it is right that prophets and wives should be able to hold their tongues.

PS: I decided against including a fuller range of options in the parish magazine article but in a blog post I should add two other proposals, as Ian Paul rightly pointed out to me. Many view these verses as a non-Pauline interpolation by a copyist. Gordon Fee has maybe made the best case for this. Others see these verses as an extended quotation of a view which Paul rejects. This was most recently argued again by Lucy Peppiatt, Women and Worship in Corinth: Paul's Rhetorical Arguments in 1 Corinthians (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015). She discusses her book here.

Among the commentaries, other than Gordon Fee's, I would like to single out  Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Carlisle: Paternoster, 2000; see pages 1146-1162) and Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (PNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Nottingham: Apollos, 2010; see pages 718-730). The latter point out that many at the time considered personal interactions in public between married women and men other than their husbands scandalous and point out that in our context "it would be more scandalous to prohibit women from speaking with men than it is to allow men and women to speak freely with each other as long as our sense of propriety is not offended" (p. 730).

1 Timothy 2

From the December 2015 parish magazine, preparing for the arrival of Monken Hadley's first female curate.

Introduction
There has been a long tradition in the church for positions of church leadership and teaching to be restricted to ordained men – or so it seems. In fact, looking more closely one discovers women preaching and teaching throughout church history. The Roman Catholic Church which still does not ordain women as priests nevertheless officially recognises several women as “doctors of the church” including Theresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena and Hildegard of Bingen. The Church of England no longer reserves any ordained roles to men but it makes space for Christians, including church leaders, who believe that the Church cannot or should not ordain women into positions of church leadership. For some the concern is that a decision to ordain women should not have been taken by the Church of England apart from the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Others believe that God has explicitly prohibited women from teaching and exercising leadership over men within the church. If that were so, we should of course heed God’s command. But I believe this is based on a misreading of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.

1 Timothy 2:11-15 and Women Preaching
The view that allowing women to preach in church is contrary to the Scriptures is based on two passages. This article explains why I do not think 1 Timothy 2:11-15, the more relevant of the two passages, should be read this way.

A first and maybe the most important observation is that women are engaged in teaching within the early church. To begin with, there is circumstantial evidence for this such as the commendation of Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2. Phoebe is the first listed in this intriguing chapter. She was the one to whom Paul entrusted his letter to the Romans; she would have been the one available to answer any questions the Romans had about the content of the letter. The next verse greets Priscilla and Aquila. The unconventional order in which the names are given hints at Priscilla’s importance. We read about their ministry, e.g., in Acts 18:26
[Apollos] began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately.
The role of teaching this new and fiery convert was shared by the wife and husband team. This is not surprising because in no place where the Holy Spirit’s gifts are mentioned is there any hint that they are different for men and women. The gifts are used for the benefit of all, e.g. in 1 Corinthians 14:26
What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.
The variety of contributions were offered in good order; not in ways suggestive of other motifs. Hence Paul’s instruction in the same letter (1 Corinthians 11:5)
any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved.
There is no space here to discuss what lies behind the prohibition but it confirms that women were engaged in prophesying and in Biblical understanding prophesying clearly involves an element of teaching.

This means that 1 Timothy 2:11-12 does not offer a reminder of general Christian practice but is a new, a fresh injunction which apparently limits what women had been doing in this and other churches:
Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.
Expecting women as well as men to learn was common; the emphasis is on the learning to be done “in silence with full submission” which does not mean never opening one’s mouth. The more common sense of the word translated “silence” is “being at peace, enjoying solitude and tranquillity” (e.g., 2 Thessalonians 3:12) and being silent while somebody else was speaking (e.g., Acts 22:3). The phrase here characterises the learning as one that accepts the authority of teachers. This seems to have been absent and because of the absence of proper learning there is now a complete prohibition of teaching.

But there must be special reasons for the prohibition here, given that it does not reflect general practice. Maybe another letter to Timothy offers us a hint of the background (2 Timothy 3:6-7):
For among them are those who make their way into households and captivate silly women, overwhelmed by their sins and swayed by all kinds of desires, who are always being instructed and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth.
There were also false teachers who were male and Paul instructs Timothy up very early on in the letter to shut up those men (1 Timothy 1:3 and see subsequent verses; cf. 1 Timothy 6:3). But it seems women were affected by a particular aspect of the false teaching which Paul addresses here. A similar singling out, in this case of a single female teacher, is found in Revelation 2:20.
I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols.
The reason why Paul prohibits women in 1 Timothy 2 to teach and “have authority” over men (the precise meaning of “have authority” is hotly disputed) is given in the following verses. But Paul’s appeal to Genesis is often misunderstood as if it were evidence that Paul saw the prohibition as universal. This relies on treating 1 Timothy 2:13-15 as offering three reasons:
For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
On this –mistaken– reading Paul says that women must not teach men firstly because Adam’s temporal priority shows that men should be pre-eminent and such pre-eminence is, presumably, threatened where women offer authoritative teaching to men, secondly, because the woman was deceived which, presumably, reveals that it is in women’s nature to be more easily deceived, and, thirdly, because women’s role in salvation is to bear children and this is, presumably, hindered when they start to teach men with authority.

But Paul does not say any of that. It may have been true in his world that women, being generally less well educated, were more easily deceived but he does not say so. Nor does he explicitly claim that Adam being created prior to Eve in itself indicates male superiority although this line of thought was pursued in Judaism. The apostle briefly re-tells the story in Genesis and I believe he does so because he saw revealing parallels to what was happening in the church in Ephesus whose situation is addressed here.

The woman in Genesis 2 acted autonomously, without reference to Adam standing next to her, and there was probably “a trend towards emancipation behind the women’s aspirations to teach” (as Howard Marshall observes).

The significance of Adam was formed first lies in this that Adam had received the command not to eat from the tree of good and evil. This appears to lie behind Paul’s statement that Adam was not deceived. Adam ate in the full know­ledge of transgressing a divine command. Arguably, the woman was deceived because she had not heard the divine command first hand which made it harder to resist the contradictory teaching she was offered by the serpent, and especially so with Adam standing next to her and keeping silent.

There is nothing in the text to suggest that her sex made Eve more liable to error and sin or less qualified to teach in the church, as some would argue. (E.g., Tom Schreiner believes that the gentler and kinder nature of women inhibits them from identifying doctrinal error and confronting false teaching.) It was rather the fact that she was a relative late-comer who listened to false teaching without respecting the one who had first received God’s command.

It was presumably a similar set of circumstances in Ephesus which concerned Paul. There were false teachers (serpents) who contra­dicted the teaching that had been received by the apostles. Some women were only too happy to listen to this teaching which promised a life that was less encumbered by family responsibilities. Arrogating upon themselves the role of teachers, they seem to have disdained the role of women as mothers, cf. the reference to liars forbidding marriage in 1 Timothy 4:3.

On the contrary, Paul says, salvation is not be found in autonomy and it is possible for a woman to be saved through child­bearing. Not of course as if giving birth is itself a way to salvation (although the reference to childbirth in Genesis and the salvation brought into the world through Mary giving birth to Jesus are relevant background). This would completely contradict what the apostle writes everywhere else. No, it remains necessary for the women to continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty (which would be true for men as well).

For cultural and historical reasons, many more men were suited to becoming elders (presbyters, bishops) in the early church than women and job descriptions and qualifications were not written in gender-inclusive language, so we read in 1 Timothy 3:2 that an overseer (Bishop, Rector, lead pastor) must be “the husband of one wife” which is to say “married to only one spouse” or maybe “married only once”. I do not think that the church ever interpreted this to mean that clergy must be male and married. In fact, the apostle could easily have started off his list by saying, “Now a bishop must be male...” and we may ask why he did not do so, if, as it is alleged, excluding women from office was his concern in the preceding verses. He would have had the same opportunity in the letter to Titus but the fact is that nowhere in the New Testament do we read that clergy have to be male. 

An important principle of good biblical interpretation is that each passage is understood as part of the whole. This is what I have attempted to do here. I want to conclude by affirming Article 20 of the Thirty-Nine Articles:
it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.
Ordaining women alongside men “contrary to God’s Word written” in order to conform to the norms of our wider society or “contemporary standards” would be arrogant and wrong. But what might look at first like a “common sense” interpretation of 1 Timothy 2 as a prohibition on women exercising authority by teaching Scripture in church has in fact significant problems in its reading of verses 13-15 and sits uneasily with other passages in Scripture. It should be abandoned in favour of a reading which agrees better with the narrative in Genesis and other parts of the New Testament.


Saturday, 23 January 2016

Agreeing and Disagreeing with Angus Ritchie, Part Two

This is the second post reflecting on agreeing to disagree within the Church of England by exploring a contribution by Canon Dr Angus Ritchie. (The first responds to a published in 2015.) His recent piece commends itself not least because Ritchie recognises flaws in Martyn Percy’s reasoning which to those on the other side of the argument are patently obvious which is why it is all the more remarkable that so few of those who like Percy’s conclusions show embarrassment about the way he got there.

Ritchie’s own piece, however, seems to suffer from a conflation of two different questions. One question is how one goes about deciding about remarriage after divorce, the ordination of women, or the blessing of same-sex relationships. The other is how one goes about deciding on which of these controversies one is able to agree to disagree and which are fellowship-breaking. 

Unless I have misread it, the structure of Ritchie’s argument appears to assume two parallel lines, a “traditionalist” one (refusing to contemplate remarriage after divorce, the ordination of women to the priesthood, or the blessing of same-sex relationships) and a “progressive” one (affirming all three). To the latter, the argument suggests “you progressed on the first two, there is no reason not to do so on the third”. To the former, it suggests “you tolerate disagreement on the first two, there is no reason not to do so on the third (because the hermeneutics involved are the same).” The other, probably more fundamental and fatal, mistake is the assumption that the hermeneutics which lead Ritchie (and others) to affirm or tolerate, e.g., remarriage after divorce are the same across the board within the Church of England. But just as Ritchie can come to roughly the same conclusion as Martyn Percy but through a different route, so many who would agree with Ritchie on one or the other of these questions do so for fundamentally different reasons from his.

The problem is crystallized in the claim that “the ethical perspective, and the hermeneutic of Scripture, which the Anglican Communion has accepted in the case of remarrying divorcees and of ordaining women to the priesthood and episcopate would itself seem to lead towards the acceptability of the blessing of LGBT Christians’ relationships.” The use of the direct article and the singular, as if there was only one ethical perspective and one hermeneutic of Scripture even among Anglicans who accept the remarriage of divorcees and the ordination of women to the priesthood, marks the critical error which deconstructs pretty much all that follows.

Ritchie contrasts two approaches to “how the Scriptures are to be read,” the concordance approach (bad) and the contextualized approach (good, and allegedly what most Anglicans have adopted).
Over the years I have come to know a diverse range of readers of the Scriptures, given a good amount of thought to hermeneutics, and encountered a number of hermeneutical approaches, including the two Angus Ritchie outlines.

I see two problems: (1) The opponents to remarriage after divorce and to the ordination of women that I know by and large do not follow “the concordance approach,” even allowing that Ritchie’s characterisation is an over-simplification. To be fair, Ritchie does not necessarily assume that because “the concordance approach” (in his view) invariably leads to a traditionalist  position, therefore whoever holds a traditionalist position must follow “the concordance approach” but given that he argues that his “contextualized” approach should lead to a progressive take on these issues, it remains unclear whether he knows that there are (a great many) people who with a more sophisticated hermeneutical approach nevertheless fail to come to his preferred conclusions.

(2) While it is likely true that what Ritchie describes as “the contextualized approach” is widespread among Anglicans, it is not the approach of many of the Anglicans I know who come to the same conclusions as Ritchie on one or two (or even three) of these questions, including Ian Paul (mentioned in the essay) and myself.

Ritchie apparently believes that, short of making it up as you go along and setting aside Scripture as and when desired, there is only one conceivable way to get from “there” (past prohibitions on remarriage after divorce, restriction of the priesthood to me) to “here” (accepting or at least tolerating remarriage after divorce and the ordination of women to the priesthood), namely “a deeper understanding of the practice being condemned” and “a prayerful exploration of the contemporary issue” (with experience, reason and tradition as sources [!] of authority).

I do not know of a single, evangelical defence of remarriage after divorce which works from the assumption that while Jesus condemned remarriage we should lift this condemnation because the practice of divorce is different today. No, not one. See http://www.divorce-remarriage.com/.

Actually, the key issue here is not different practices of divorce (first century versus today) but different understandings of marriage. While the church in East and West has agreed for two millennia that marriage is “between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union,” the belief developed within the West (only) that the marriage bond cannot be broken other than through death. It is this latter belief which is not warranted from the Scriptures and indeed faces serious obstacles within Scripture (e.g., 1 Corinthians 7:15). Anglicans who affirm that marriage is lifelong but allow for remarriage after divorce in exceptional circumstances may do so for the reasons outlined by Angus Ritchie but alternatively they may simply have come to accept that the Eastern understanding of marriage is correct.

Similarly, it may be obvious to Ritchie that to ordain women “goes directly against a New Testament injunction,” as it is probably obvious to many who belong to Reform, but I rather doubt that it is to any of the GAFCON Primates who allow for the ordination of women, which is to say that I would be surprised if many of the GAFCON Primates in favour of the ordination of women to the priesthood got to this conclusion via the same route on which Ritchie travels. Why is this important? Because it allows us to see that the agreeing to disagree among members of GAFCON  has a different basis from the one Ritchie alleges. It is the failure to see these distinctions which leaves Ritchie unable to see why Anglicans may be able to agree to disagree on this issue without being logically committed to agree to disagree about accepting the blessing of same-sex partnerships.


In short, there are those who affirm the normative role of Scripture and that Scripture needs to be read reasonably (with attention to language and context among other things) and with the help of tradition. Their hermeneutic demands that any text of Scripture is read in the light of the whole of Scripture and that no part is read in a way which would contradict another part. Disagreements in this group are exegetical more than hermeneutical and this is why they are often able to agree to disagree, at least as long as they have confidence that the disagreement really is about the exegesis of specific texts rather than more fundamental. They would find it hard to agree to disagree with people who claim that a practice “goes directly against a New Testament injunction” but may be accepted or even promoted anyway in the light of other sources of authority. 

Agreeing and Disagreeing with Angus Ritchie

This is probably the first of two posts reflecting on living with disagreements within the Church of England with the help of Canon Dr Angus Ritchie.

Canon Dr Angus Ritchie observes that “the depth of disagreement flows from the different narratives that Christians use to interpret history,” the narrative of disobedience (the story of human rebellion against God) and the narrative of liberation (the work of God to free people from unjust oppression). He notes
“The last few decades have seen changes Christians of all traditions are rightly resisting – towards an increasingly consumerist and hedonistic society, where the values of faithfulness and obedience are eroded by a ‘me-first’ attitude to both economics and to sex (both of which are key areas of biblical teaching). For some, any move to allow sexual relationships outside of heterosexual marriage is seen as part of that erosion of biblical values. They see the push to accept same-sex relationships as a further unfolding of the narrative of disobedience, as Britain becomes a more secular nation. Likewise, Christians from across the theological spectrum acknowledge the presence and power of God in the fight against slavery and segregation, apartheid and other forms of racism – despite the misuse of Scripture to justify these practices. For some, equality for women in the church and for same-sex couples represents a further unfolding of that same narrative of liberation... Each group believes its position to be the one most faithful to the Gospel – to its call to counter-cultural obedience and to the liberation of the oppressed.”
The remainder of this piece published in April 2015 in effect argues that the CofE has no other choice but to accept two integrities on the question of non-celibate gay relationships because there is no chance that we will come to a common mind on this question and no chance of the CofE enforcing its current rules. And our living with disagreements on the remarriage of divorcees and on the ordination of women to the priesthood proves that we can do it. (The appeal to 1 Corinthians 8 is misplaced, as the solution there is abstinence.)
“The challenge for opponents of such a settlement on same-sex relationship – wherever they stand on the substantive issue – is twofold. Firstly, they have to explain why we can live together amid disagreement on both the remarriage of divorcees and the ordination of women to the episcopate, but not on the blessing of same-sex relationships. From the point of view of faithfulness to Scripture and the Catholic faith, it is very hard to see why the first two issues are ones where we can cope with diversity and the issue of same-sex relationships is not. But, secondly, they have to map a realistic path from the current situation to their preferred outcome.”
A first response: These are helpful observations and thoughts but they overlook the issue of trust (and breakdown of trust) and assume too readily that our settlements on remarriage after divorce and on the ordination of women are a success. The jury seems to be still out on this and many opponents of a settlement on same-sex relationships could point out how hard it is to oppose one or the other without being vilified. The slippery slope argument is usually no argument at all but the fear that respecting the traditional view moves quickly towards tolerating, then marginalising, vilifying and finally excluding the traditional view is not altogether without basis. Indeed, even today the traditional call to sexual abstinence outside diverse-sex marriage is considered intrinsically homophobic by most proponents of same-sex partnerships or marriages and it seems therefore unlikely that any agreeing to disagree on their part would be anything other than short-term political rather than principled.

So, as for the challenge. Firstly,  some opponents may feel that they had their fingers burned enough and that having to live with a damaged hand and a broken foot is not reason enough to accept a chest infection as well. I would not really want to put it like that but that there are disagreements which we know we must tolerate and others which we feel we cannot is obvious. If that were not the case, we would be either forming our own independent church in which we all agree or belong to the Roman Catholic church because no disagreement was or is worth splitting away from the main body. 

Would tolerating the blessing of sexual activity outside marriage as traditionally understood fall in a different category from tolerating remarriage after divorce or the ordination of women to the priesthood? I am not best placed to address this, being on the “progressive” side here. I can live with the former two settlements because I can respect the “conservative” view as an expression of Christian discipleship. Being on the “conservative” side on the third question, I would find it much harder to accept the “progressive” view as a genuine, even if misguided, expression of Christian discipleship. This is related to the fact that unlike sexual activity outside marriage I do not see remarriage after divorce or the ordination of women prohibited for Christians in Scripture. Angus Ritchie seems to believe that what is prohibited in Scripture in all three cases is not what we encounter today. If that were the case, he would be right to query why one can disagree on two but not the third of those questions. What he overlooks is that those who accept or at least tolerate the current settlements on remarriage after divorce and on the ordination of women to the priesthood do not necessarily do so for his reasons and following his hermeneutic.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Referring to God

The question whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God is being discussed ad nausea on the blogosphere at the moment. Much of it is rehearsing some fairly obvious points, some of it is sloganeering. Only a few posts explore the logical issues involved, e.g. Ed Feser on the one side, and Bill Vallicella on the other. One seems to be missing is a discussion of the premises involved. Indeed a good many commenters show zero awareness of the possibility that there might be an issue here. God is not an object to which we can unambiguously point and then agree or disagree about its features. Bill Vallicella asks,
What makes my use of 'God' (i) have a referent at all and (ii) have the precise referent it has?
This is the question. To what am I pointing when I say "God"? If I answer the question by way of a philosophical definition of divinity (Godhead), the rest is easy. I only have to establish whether the God worshipped by Christians and the God worshipped by Muslims agree with my definition of Godhead. If they both do, Muslims and Christians are worshipping the same God. If not, they don't.

If I answer the question by way of theology ("what are the essential things I have to say about God to make proper reference to him?"), the argument proceeds along the same lines. In fact, the distinction between a philosophical and a theological approach may be one of convenience because the two usually lead to opposite conclusions. But they do seem to me genuinely different at a deeper level in that the former seeks to abstract without reference to any specific religious tradition, while the latter believes this to be impossible or inadvisable.

Those pursuing a more philosophical approach might define "God" in the words of David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God, 7, as follows:
the infinite fullness of being, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, from whom all things come and upon whom all things depend for every moment of their existence, without whom nothing at all could exist.
It follows that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, as do possibly Hindus and other polytheists who acknowledge one Godhead distinct from specific deities that in monotheistic traditions would more likely be referred to as angels rather than gods.

Those pursuing a more theological approach will tend towards the opposite conclusion. Christian theologians speak of God as being both one and (in another sense) three and both essentially so. If they reject the claim that God is essentially one and only accidentally (in another sense) three, they are likely to reject the claim that Muslims worship the same God, as Muslims do not worship the Trinity. Muslim theologians speak of God as the one whose eternal word is revealed in the Quran and to the extent that they consider "and Muhammed is his prophet" an essential part of defining "God", they must reject the claim that Christians worship the same God.

A third approach would be to define "God" biographically or, more accurately, by way of a history of revelation. In the context of the present discussion one might often find a reference to Abraham. God is "the God of Abraham," i.e. the one who revealed himself to Abraham. In and of itself such a reference to Abraham is not helping the discussion as much as many seem to think. Christians believe that Abraham worshipped the Trinity. Many, maybe most, Christians would qualify this by adding that Abraham had no clear conception of the Trinitarian nature of God. What is often overlooked that if it is true that Abraham had no access to Nicene-Constantinopolitan theology, neither did he have access to classical theist philosophy and the claim that Abraham worshipped the capital-B-Being is no less proper as well as problematic than the claim that he worshipped the Trinity.

Abraham, we believe, got to know God. His descendants received that knowledge and with further revelation a deeper knowledge of God was gained. Biography serves as an analogy here. God of course did not change but perception of him grew. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob became the God who led Israel out of Egypt, YHWH who revealed himself through the Torah given to Moses, and climatically the one who raised Jesus from the dead.

Such a biographical approach is closer to the theological approach but without necessarily leading to the same conclusion. Say, by way of a rough analogy, A and B got to know G from childhood. B lost touch with G in adulthood. C got to know G only from adulthood (but of course learns about G's childhood in the process of making further acquaintance). D hears about G but never gets to meet him. Do they all refer to the same person?

A (the historical community of Jews who follow Christ) and C (Christians who joined the church from outside the synagogue) clearly do. B (the community of Jews who reject Christ) seems to refer to the same person as well but less reliably so, as their conception is based on childhood memories without a proper awareness of G's adult life. D arguably also refers to the same person at least in intent, although the link to the referent is more tenuous than with B to the extent that hear-say is different from memory. Lacking a genuine, contemporary acquaintance, neither B nor D can be said to be on speaking terms with G. (This is where some commenters focus on the word "worship".)

The analogy is merely meant to sketch the line of reasoning that would follow from an approach that identifies reference by way of tradition rather than philosophical postulate or theological thesis.

Which of these approaches is right or best? The interesting thing is that most commenters seem to assume that theirs is self-evidently the only approach there can be.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

New Year Advice for Clergy

Five Helps for the New Year were given one year by Bishop Michael Ramsey to his clergy. They do not seem to have been published. The Rev'd Dr Ross Fishburn reports that while he was doing doctoral research Bishop Grant passed on a file to him which contained a sheet with these notes:
1. Thank God. Often and always. Thank him carefully and wonderingly for your continuing privileges and for every experience of his goodness. Thankfulness is a soil in which pride does not easily grow.
2. Take care about confession of your sins. As time passes the habit of being critical about people and things grows more than each of us realize. ...[He then gently commends the practice of sacramental confession].
3. Be ready to accept humiliations. They can hurt terribly but they can help to keep you humble. [Whether trivial or big, accept them he says.] All these can be so many chances to be a little nearer to our Lord. There is nothing to fear, if you are near to the Lord and in his hands.
4. Do not worry about status. There is only one status that Our Lord bids us be concerned with, and that is our proximity to Him. "If a man serve me, let him follow me, and where I am there also shall my servant be". (John 12:26) That is our status; to be near our Lord wherever He may ask us to go with him.
5. Use your sense of humour. Laugh at things, laugh at the absurdities of life, laugh at yourself.
Through the year people will thank God for you. And let the reason for their thankfulness be not just that you were a person whom they liked or loved but because you made God real to them.