In this talk from last year Rhys spoke of his work on the Doctrine Commission of General Synod, and its intersection with his own Christian walk.
What a privilege to have been asked to address the New Cranmer Breakfast. Apart from the year that I have been overseas, I think I have been to all of these since 1997. Were there any before then? Not just a privilege to speak but also to be in the company of friends and colleagues on the front line of ministry in Melbourne – synod for me is as much working out how to support you as it is voting and tweeting!
Of course I have been asked to speak about my work on the Doctrine Commission over the last couple of years, and perhaps I will sneak in some reflections on the Liturgy Commission as well for good measure. In both those forums it is an honour to represent Melbourne evangelicals, and in both forums I learn so much. Faculty at Ridley College find it hard to understand when I say that these Commissions are some of the best PD in my year. Where else do I sit down for a week and talk theology, and interact with the other side of the church and their assumptions and Biblical interpretation and ethics? Of course on the Liturgy Commission we don’t just do liturgy, but talk culture and language and theology and history, though not without some sharp moments along the way as we come across an impasse. I am the newest member of the Doctrine Commission and found myself in the middle of a book project already planned. My chapter on whether to bless same sex relationships was not on the original plan, and I had to argue that it was central to the debates in our church. I was told it was not part of the agenda, clearly proven wrong.
My chapter on whether to bless same sex relationships has tried to prosecute one point, namely that blessing in the Biblical story line is not pastoral support but is a theological recommendation. Blessing assumes alignment with the purposes of the creation, and being assured of God’s help to human beings to achieve that goal. It is profoundly eschatological. It is about promoting the good, the true and the beautiful, the great ends of human existence in God’s world. And when human beings have sinned, blessing is contrasted with cursing, the removal of God’s help and assurance, with the reminder that God doesn’t necessarily have to use us to achieve his purposes. Blessing is a theological recommendation: what is blessed must be constrained theologically as something that is part of God’s plans for all humankind. We use the language of blessing commonly to mean emotional support or personal encouragement, which is fine. Words morph in their semantic range over long periods, but when anchored in the Scriptural story line the word blessing is much more tightly defined.
Blessing is a theological recommendation not just pastoral affirmation.
Of course some of my liberal friends would argue that same sex intimacy is part of God’s good purposes for the world and that we have wrongly understood the Bible. Or some would argue that the Bible clearly speaks against same sex intimacy, but that the Bible is wrong. Both options I reject. It seems to me to require special pleading in both instances to come to those conclusions. The Bible is clear in speaking against same sex intimacy and in affirming marriage as between a man and a woman, to the exclusion of all others, with covenantal shape.
My chapter also speaks about Anglican liturgical norms, as we pray our doctrine. We must therefore exercise caution before putting something like blessing same sex relationships on paper, as it were, because in our church liturgy ends up taking on a status more than first intended. And Anglicans in their liturgy have been cautious in blessing anyway – the term is not used as much as we might think. Some wedding services do not contain the word, showing that it is not the essence of marriage. Blessing most often occurs in the Communion service, and I note that the blessing at the end of the service is to be paired with the absolution earlier in the service and the consecration of the elements at a later stage. Blessing assumes that we have repented of our sins, are enjoying unimpeded fellowship with the Lord, and are being sent out to take our part in God’s purposes for the world. It is not a stand along element. The priest alone does all three. Blessing assumes faith and repentance. Blessing assumes God has theological intentions for the world. Blessing reassures us that God has our back even when we are scattered in the world during the week. Blessing is not merely pastoral affirmation but a theological recommendation. We can’t get beyond this, though I note that recently one of my colleagues on the Doctrine Commission in the public media has presented the language of blessing in substantially different terms.
My chapter also tries to outline some pastoral responses to the thorny questions of pastoral care of same sex attracted members of the congregation, or of family members of members of the congregation. It wasn’t actually my brief, but it wasn’t going to appear elsewhere in the book, and given that I was denying blessing as merely pastoral affirmation, I think I needed to include it. The paragraphs on pastoral care remind us to welcome wherever we can though the language of inclusion should be used judiciously. We must be careful to use language wisely, not to react with fear to what we might find morally or aesthetically uncomfortable, to train the congregation to pursue honesty and accountability in matters of sexuality more generally, and to ask any same sex attracted individual how they might best be encouraged in their struggle against sin. Anyway, it is estimated that two and a half times as many same sex attracted people attend conservative churches than liberal ones, so it can’t easily be assumed that conservative churches are not friendly towards those whose identity is not straight. Legislating for same sex rights has not dealt with all the pastoral needs of those who identify as gay. Issues in pastoral care are deeper than simple affirmation.
And this is not just theory. As a same sex attracted man, I am passionate about making sure that another voice is heard in contemporary debates. When the bishops received our report, they gave the feedback that the book would have been strengthened had there been a voice for the LGBTI community included, which grieved me. Mine was that voice, though I did not include in my chapter my own testimony. I have been sharing my story with family and friends for forty years, but have always felt that I would be healthier and happier getting on with life and ministry with questions of sexuality on the back burner. From the moment when I became a Christian at 13, long before I knew any Anglicans, from Sydney or from Melbourne, I came to the conclusion from reading the Scriptures that same sex intimacy was not part of God’s plan for my flourishing, and that he had a better path. And my strategy to keep things on the back burner was chiefly successful. I overthink things, so I figured having to talk about sexuality in the church would take its toll. But things have changed in society, such that now it takes more effort not to say anything when embroiled in debates in church and society than to say something. I want to be able to care for people who want to remain faithful to the Biblical revelation and to cheer for them from the sidelines. I want to provide a model of what it means to be happy in celibacy: godliness with contentment is great gain, as I pray over each week. I want to be authentic with my students who prize authenticity in their leaders above almost all else. Their reactions over the last six month as I have confided in those whom I mentor has been extraordinarily gracious and supportive. Above all I want to praise God that I am fearfully and wonderfully made, and to know new depths in that claim.
Beyond the question of the theological account of homosexuality, the issues of same sex identity are significant amongst evangelicals. There are within our constituency disagreements on questions of identity despite common cause in promoting a traditional view of marriage. My own view is that same sex desire doesn’t define me, though it profoundly shapes me. Individual desires are neutral until we act on them, as James says: “When that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin” (2:15). We debate whether the word “gay” can be used of Christians, probably a hotter debate in the US than here. I personally do not use the word “gay,” as I have never been in a same sex intimate relationship, have never been part of the gay scene, never aspired to an identity outside of my identity as a son of God, beloved of the Father, cleansed by the Son, empowered by the Spirit. These are the categories I most cherish, though I suspect I won’t now be able to control how others choose to describe me. We were called upon in bold terms in Synod last year to stop speaking in terms of same sex attraction and instead to use the language of being gay, which I found highly imperialistic.
I am free to choose whatever language I want, and so should we as evangelicals too.
Evangelicals are supposed to be the judgmental ones, according to the media and common perceptions. And we should watch our tone in public debates, and think through how our views are being received. But I find it extraordinary that over many years sharing my story, and more recently writing hand-written letters to perhaps one hundred friends and colleagues, that there has never been even one moment of disdain or lovelessness. My evangelical friends have been without exception the epitome of kindness, support, love and care. Now it might be that I have chosen my friends well, or that Melbourne evangelicals aren’t known for their fundamentalist credentials. But I want to affirm those my dear friends who have gone out of their way to love me. I decided to make this statement here during Synod and at the New Cranmer breakfast as a way of thanking you in this safe space for your concern. It has not gone unnoticed, brothers and sisters. The Ridley Faculty and staff have proven to be a community of great moral integrity and pastoral concern. There is a lot of love at Ridley, which is what the Lord thinks we should be best known for anyway.
But I don’t want to make this speech about me. Our church is in great crisis. Like a cancer it has snuck up on us, growing slowly over many years. This debate on same sex relationships has split the church almost everywhere in the Anglican world. Though it is about sexuality on the surface, the deeper issue is Biblical authority and hermeneutics, or perhaps deeper still about the nature of sin and salvation. Some of my colleagues on the Doctrine Commission want to make the doctrine of the Trinity the only issue that would split the church, for to disagree about the Creeds is to tear at our common unity. I understand this position as far as it goes. But we have to remember that the doctrine of the Trinity is not just an elegant statement about theology, but was designed to defend the deity of the Son and the deity of the Spirit. These are the true first order issues. Our commitment as trinitarian Christians is not merely to the term homoousios, but to Jesus Christ as Lord of our life, as Lord of the church. His atoning death and powerful resurrection are good news for the world, including those who are same sex attracted. No wonder that Paul can say that “Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practise homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor 6:9-11). Sin and salvation are terms which define how we enter the Kingdom of God, such is the seriousness of this moment. So what should we do?
Whenever I have been embroiled in debates in the past, or concerned about the state of the church, which is after all, just about every day, my personal strategy has been to redouble my efforts to raise up new leaders for the church. When I studied at Ridley and faced the pain of theological reflection with other ordinands who I disagreed with on just about every point, I responded every Monday night for about twenty years to go up to Queen’s College and mentor a few students. In one way it felt such a powerless way of responding to heresy in the church, with so few results, in the short term at least. But I could come home each Monday night praying that the next generation of leaders in Melbourne would have more theological acumen, more love for the Lord, more skills for service, than others I was meeting. What should we do positively? Engage in Synod debates respectfully of course.
But more than this: we need to redouble our efforts to spot future leaders of the church. I am afraid to say that the largest parishes of Melbourne have not done well on this score in the last ten years, nor often the smaller ones. If we want to reform our church, the chief strategy must be to identify, encourage, sponsor, support and send your best to Ridley.
Which of our churches is paying the fees of prospective ordinands, or giving them a living allowance? Which of our parishes is giving financial support to Ridley when they don’t have students to send to us?
Which of our clergy are intentionally and regularly mentoring an individual to train them for future service?
Which of our churches when they send someone to Ridley immediately begins looking out for someone to send next year? Who will pastor our grandchildren? They are in your creche or youth group or on your parish council now. Synod debates certainly – leadership succession absolutely! Ridley is one of Melbourne’s great evangelical institutions, perhaps even the most effective strategy for multiplying Gospel witness in this city and beyond. I must call upon you to make every effort to cultivate leadership aspirants in your parish for the sake of the church.
How wonderful that our difficult debates on sexuality are really an opportunity to take stock, think again about theology, and to plan with new clarity for the renewal of our diocese and the national church beyond! May God bless our efforts this day for gospel unity and gospel witness and gospel advance!
COLLECT (FOR THE WEEK OF MY BIRTHDAY):
in your wisdom you have so ordered our earthly life
that we must walk by faith and not by sight:
Give us such trust in your fatherly care
that in the face of all perplexities
we may give proof of our faith
by the courage of our lives;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen