Friday, 13 February 2004

Inclusive Church: sermon

Here is the sermon preached at St Matthew’s Westminster on 10 February 2004. The occasion was the service arranged by on the night before the General Synod debate on Some Issues in Human Sexuality.

The preacher was The Reverend Canon Marilyn McCord Adams, Regius Professor of Divinity, University of Oxford.

Text continues below…

“Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit!”

Mary and Joseph were engaged. Joseph had contracted, already held title to exclusive reproductive rights. Then and there, it would have been legitimate for Mary and Joseph to have sexual relations before she came to live in his house permanently. There would have been nothing scandalous about her becoming pregnant with his child. But if she were found to be expecting a child Joseph knew not to be his, how could that spell anything but adultery - a crime that meant public disgrace, even stoning to death. Joseph was a righteous man, evidently not cruel or vindictive, willing to temper justice with mercy. He had decided to divorce her quietly, when in a dream, that liminal space where close encounters with strange kinds are possible, an angel figure ground-shifted the situation for him. What if Mary’s irregular, illegal sexual predicament signalled, not sin, but holiness? What if Mary were pregnant, not with someone else’s bastard, but with Spiritual opportunity, not only for herself and for Joseph, but for the wider community, the nation, and the world?

“Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife!”

Joseph wakes up and acts without hesitation. In Matthew’s Gospel, where the disciples characteristically understand but lack faith, Joseph does them one better. With only the vaguest understanding how this could be or why, Joseph has faith, takes Mary to wife, legitimates her child, emigrates to Egypt, returns to the safety of the Galilean margins, all to give holiness a chance.

“Joseph, do not be afraid!”

Tomorrow, the Synod of our Church will receive, discuss, perhaps debate Some Issues in Human Sexuality, a discussion document from the House of Bishops, which attempts a broader theological and biblical context before turning to current controversies about homosexuality, bisexuality, and transsexualism. In many ways, the book is informative and reflective of considerable thought and learning. It helps by articulating many issues and arguments, and is especially good at clarifying the reasons of many in our Church who oppose blessing same-sex couplings and ordaining non-celibate homosexuals. The letter of the document serves up substance to chew on. But on my reading, its spirit is an ill wind.

“Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife!”

In its historical section, Some Issues recalls what our Church dared in the past. Despite dominical New Testament sayings to the contrary, Synod approved the remarriage of divorced persons in church and lifted the bar against their subsequent ordination. In 1958 and 1968, Lambeth reversed its 1908 ban on contraception. Even though abortion is the taking of an innocent human life, the Church responded to public opinion and supported legalization in 1967. Nevertheless, Some Issues warns, despite relatively rapid, socially and pastorally driven changes on these points, “gay and lesbian relationships may be one area on which the Church should hold fast to its original teaching” lest “serious mistakes” about “crucial moral issues” be made. Chapters that begin as explanatory slide into the defensive demand that “revisionists” establish their case - about the interpretation of Scripture and the psycho-socio-biological roots of homosexuality - beyond reasonable doubt. The burden of proof weighs down so heavily on those who would say “yes” to bless and to ordain, the contrary case from Scripture and tradition presented as so open and shut, that defenders of the status quo feel no urgency about coming to understand fresh arguments and novel methodologies on the other side. Unless and until risk is eliminated, the Church of England shouldn’t budge!

“Joseph, Joseph, why are you so afraid to take Mary as your wife?”

Joseph didn’t have the luxury of delay. Mary was pregnant; all too soon the baby would be born and need care and protection. The Gospels record how the ambiguity about Jesus never went away. All through His ministry, reactions were polarized - was Jesus Son of God, King of Israel? Or was He an agent of the devil? Joseph put faith first in advance of understanding. So also with human sexuality, faith that God is feisty - that God has it in mind to keep on insinuating holiness into places where we least expect it - has to precede if we are ever to have ears to hear, eyes to see, and hearts to understand.

We know how many in our Church, in the Anglican Communion, would beg to differ. But we who regard gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Christians, not as the latest problems on the sexuality syllabus, but as spiritual treasures for the whole community, cannot afford to equivocate or temporize. We must act to maintain safe spaces within the Church where they may be celebrated, housed, nurtured, and cared for. We must support them in their life in Christ, when invited accompany them on their spiritual journeys, bear wide and public witness to how we have experienced their partnerships as sacraments of God’s love in a broken and divided world.

Yet, to seasoned gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Christians, offers of compassion and pastoral care may sound patronizing. Frankly, in our current crises, it is the Church that has need of their expertise. At least since the sixties, popular consensus to traditional institutions and sexual mores has radically eroded. Instead of pointing accusing fingers backward, blaming Enlightenment individualism for current lifestyle diversity, we need to answer our call to dig down deeper into what God and we together might want to mean, what Good News we might be able to proclaim through human sexuality today. It is not a matter of fixing the roof and repainting the stucco, but of building up again from the foundation stone, from that skandalon, the rock of Christ.

Exegeting texts and formulating theories makes a contribution. (God knows how much I value them! I am a philosophical theologian; they comprise a large part of my job!) Certainly, the Church as an institution has responsibility for discerning guidelines, holding up ideals and sacramental signs. But for those who can “pass,” more or less fit in, it is possible to hide behind conventional role definitions and religious regulations and never come out to God or to ourselves as sexual persons at all! By contrast, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Christians have learned - necessity forced them - to bring their sexual urges, hopes, and fears, their revulsions and frustrations into the centre of their prayer lives. Because they have not super-spiritualized but won through to an embodied faithfulness before God, these veterans can be our guides in this wilderness, block access to false short cuts, alert us to snakes and scorpions and quicksand, teach us how to recognize the manna and squeeze water from a rock.

“Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife!”

If there were enough safe spaces in our Church, we could receive instruction from gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Christians another way. For many have maintained dual citizenship, sharing work and worship with straights while inhabiting subcultures where many experiments in human sexuality have been tried. Even where all things are lawful, not all things are helpful. If our Church were safe enough, if our non-straight brothers and sisters could really be confident that we listened not to judge but to learn, they might come out of the closet, let us profit from their experience. They might teach us to recognize multiple dimensions of intimacy, fidelity, equality and inequality, sameness and difference; force us to complicate our picture of what happens when they are kept together or teased apart. Reflection on subcultural models might loosen up our thinking, stir our imagination, help our Church revitalize its institutions of heterosexual marriage and celibacy as well.

“Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife!”

Looming large in all this is the relation between Christ and culture, between the Holy Spirit and human social - and yes, that includes religious - institutions. Some Issues admits that the Church has followed society - in permitting divorce, the remarriage of divorced persons, and abortion - but the bulk of the document insists that Scripture and tradition are and ought to be the valid norms. The Bible shows God meeting individuals over the centuries in dramatically different social systems - from Bedouin tribes to hilltop kingdoms to hellenized cities of the Roman Empire. Divine election of patriarchs, of David and Solomon, did not challenge polygamy or royal harems, but prospered chosen peoples within their social horizons, even though God had something bigger in mind. By contrast, the Gospels represent Jesus shaking the foundations of synagogue and temple. St Paul and other disciples precipitate a schism in Judaism by contradicting the traditions of the elders, by worshipping a Messiah that Deuteronomic scripture would write off as a false prophet, ritually cursed because crucified. On my read, Some Issues does not come close to being radical - down-to-the-roots - enough to help European and North American society win through to a fresh integration of sexual norms, because it is so preoccupied defending its pre-established conclusions. After all of that hard analytical work to nail things down, our Church needs to take a nap with Joseph, walk to Emmaus with the disciples, give the Holy Spirit space to do some figure-ground shifting. The Body of Christ is pregnant with holy opportunity. We shouldn’t want to abort it!

“Joseph, Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife!”

Posted by Simon Sarmiento on Friday, 13 February 2004 at 4:29pm GMT | TrackBack
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Categorised as: InclusiveChurch | Sermons

You have done a good job of obfuscating the problem. But that seems to be the skill of "Philosophers" these days. Gay sex is sin and that is all there is to it. If you take no stands then you stand for nothing and that is why the Angelican Church is failing in this world. Look to the African leadership and you will see the right course to take. You, obviously, have not look to the Bible.

Posted by: David B. McIver on Friday, 13 February 2004 at 11:45pm GMT

In this respect I agree with Canon Professor Adams: the Church needs radically to address our sexuality in terms of a whole-cloth anthropology and ethic of Christian living that is rooted (there's the radical bit) in the witness of holy Scripture to the living Jesus and reasonably interpreted through catholic Tradition, an enterprise that wholly depends on God the Holy Spirit's guidance and direction. But narrowly defining this as Canon Adams would - "what Good News we might be able to proclaim through human sexuality today", or by a priori ruling out any conclusions or new construction that would look anything like "traditional...sexual mores", is to miss the mark entirely and to capitulate to the usual Western infatuations with chronological superiority and individualism (a concern which she dismisses out of hand). I do not believe that the good Canon Professor is ready to accept the possibility that "answer[ing] our call to dig down deeper into what God and we together might want to mean" (might "want to mean"?) would mean celibacy in singleness and chastity in marriage between one man and one woman. To the extent that she rejects that possibility out of hand, her calls for anything radical, for rebuilding again from the skandalon that is Christ crucified, are just so much sloganeering.

Posted by: Todd Granger on Saturday, 14 February 2004 at 1:46pm GMT

Professor Adams points out the fly in the ointment for conservatives who like having their freedom with their sexuality while righeously denying gay people theirs.We have accepted the divorce culture without a peep, and on abortion we favor legalisation of the slaughter of the innocents. It is well to see that the actions of ECUSA are an outrage against scripture and tradition, But repentance for what heterosexuals have done in defiance of scripture and tradition is also required.

Posted by: Hugh Comer on Saturday, 14 February 2004 at 3:23pm GMT

All who are acquainted with Adam's work are not surprised by her sermon. And she is certainly correct that the present challenge of homosexuality (and other sexualities) demand that we dig deeper into God's Word and the Holy Tradition. It is insufficient simply to cite biblical texts. Thus I find myself turning to Pope John Paul II's writings on his "theology of the body"--or perhaps more accurately I'm turning to his expositors (e.g., Christopher West), since the Pope is not an easy read. Perhaps we Episcopalians really need to rethink many things and reconsider the intrinsic connection of the unitive and procreative aspects of sexual union. Perhaps.

Posted by: Al on Saturday, 14 February 2004 at 3:50pm GMT

Regretably, those who support the sexual identity movement, are able to point to the hypocrisy in the Anglican experience -- the progress of personal sexual freedom as a right --although a good deal of it has run counter to 2000 years of teaching. Each of the Church's decisions cited by Mother Adams has tended to move us further away from God. This is juxtaposed against our enormous sense of self in the West. We adore our cleverness, our sense of sophistication, and worship our "science." However, human nature, human experience, human impulse, and human biology will never change. These are real and enduring parts of each of us, no matter our religion, race, gender, class, or nationality.

Some people find the realization that we are just human boring, which is why I believe they are always searching for the next new thing. They require constant animation and stimulation to feel engaged.

I suppose also that if one comes from a background where homosexuals, blacks, women and others were hated and reviled, one must become a liberator to prove one's bona fides as a Christian in our social context. This is not a human rights issue.

Posted by: Cristina on Sunday, 15 February 2004 at 9:38am GMT

The pathetic aspect about these debates on this boring sexual sideshow that is taking the church's time from more important matters is that people keep quoting the Bible to condemn homosexuality. Independently of which side is taken people just don't seem to understand that you can find Biblical support, yes support, for things such as polygamy, adultery, terrorism, genocide, infanticide.....should I go on? The point is that Bible is a culturally conditioned document - which doesn't make it any less holy or any less the word of God - but it does make us responsible for wrestling with the tough issues of our times the way our ancestors did in biblical times. There is nothing wrong with the church trying to come to terms with contemporary times, abandoning views that seem outdated - even if they were held correct in previous times. That is what the church has always done - all the religions have done it. Find whatever social sins you want to find today - you will find our ancestors had them and others. Let us have compassion and love for one another and for this holy and gracious time we are living in.

Posted by: Rodolfo Guzman on Sunday, 15 February 2004 at 7:18pm GMT

It is hard for me to know, more than with a kind of personal preference definition, what exactly is meant by 'homo' or 'hetero' sexual. I understand something of what is not meant, but there is no means of evaluating love between same sex couples any more than there is between married or 'straight' couples. In earlier times, men and women as well were capable of opportunistic sexualities which offered liberation or just plain physical release. Now in the Church we are confronted with a demand for Equality of Sexual Status which seems an ethical slippery slope which we have no means of properly assessing ahead of time. Why can we not say what is patently obvious - that we are not at present competent to decide these issues ? We wait upon the Holy Spirit, not the Diocese of New Hampshire.

Posted by: Jay Wilson on Saturday, 28 February 2004 at 5:22pm GMT


Read "the article": in *New Directions*

Posted by: M Stewart on Tuesday, 23 March 2004 at 1:39am GMT