January 30, 2008

Why We Talk

Fellow blogger The Country Parson sent me a thoughtful note on the series of articles I've been writing on the sexuality debate. I'm posting it here as well as in the comment section, along with a response, because I think it is helpful to explain why I am pursuing this discussion, and why I am doing so in this way.


Thanks for your thoughtful response. I regularly read your postings and appreciate the sagacity with which they are offered. I suspect, but do not know, that my position, like many of my colleagues, is quite different because I care for a congregation that could have split and didn't. It meant entering into conversation with the "other side" with lots of questions, few answers and plenty of patience to hear people out. Some, of course, did leave, a few in white hot temper. But most stayed, and I bet that most priests in most places have faced pretty much the same in their own ways. So keep it us. Your arguments are worthy and sound. They can be a part of the cutting edge of a new direction, but they cannot do the heavy lifting required to bring the greater church along after them. That requires another kind of effort.

Your brother in Christ,

I want to thank CP for his thoughts on this. I by no means want to suggest that I would cut off dialogue with any even of the most conservative among us.

At the last General Convention I had an extended, semi-public, late-night, and to a large extent alcohol-fueled, discussion with a leading English Evangelical. He came on very strong, and so did I. Yet there was no animus or animosity in the conversation, but rather conviction on both sides, and I did not let him off the hook or allow him to give in to easy slogans or rest unchallenged in his "orthodoxy." In fact, I met him on his own Evangelical ground, and towards the end of the evening he was in tears of gratitude for my not having simply given up on him but pressing the conversation. He said he had never encountered an American Episcopalian willing to actually debate or even discuss the issue at the level of seriousness it required. I heard the next day from another English Evangelical who was present at this discussion (mostly silent and on the sidelines but observing keenly) that this had been a profoundly important experience for his colleague.

It is with the same kind of seriousness — and a soupçon of humor here and there, in, I hope, the best Anglican tradition! — that I am attempting to lay out the argument here, in part by taking the Scripture with the seriousness it deserves, and the very close reading it requires. That Matt Kennedy is taking my efforts seriously and responding in kind (though perhaps with less humor; but that's another matter!) is, I take it, a good sign. There are even points on which we agree, it seems. And both Matt and I will receive nods of approval from those who agree with us on the points on which we disagree, and who are already more or less convinced of the rightness of their point of view. Others, less convinced, may be swayed one way or the other, in part because the conversation is serious and raises issues that have too often been passed by in more general discussions.

I do understand the parochial situation --- and it is not all that different from my own. I do not focus on these issues in my preaching and pastoral work, but neither do I make them a secret. My congregation has more basic concerns about life and morality — and I think rightly so; for like CS Lewis (through whose writings I came to my adult reconversion to Christianity) I do not feel that the sexuality is the most important locus of morality. Following Lewis, and as I said to the Anglican Evangelical, taking a position of judgment against sisters and brothers represents perhaps a far greater sin in the eyes of God than the sins against which one rails. The presumption of judgment, of taking the role of judge rather than as fellow defendant, is a poison which is racking the body of the church --- as it has from the days of Christ himself and the apostles. The object of this judgment, in our day, is homosexuality, rather than in former times questions of circumcision, food offered to idols, gentile status, vernacular liturgy, episcopal authority, Trinitarian doctrine, the common cup, and any of the many points upon which members of Christ's Church have attempted to distinguish themselves from other members of the same body. In this series of articles I am trying to raise awareness of the ambiguities and uncertainties that could render strict judgment on this issue less secure — to hold open the door of humility and charity that might allow some who seem very certain of the sins of others to understand that they might be mistaken.

Tobias Haller BSG

January 29, 2008

Thought for 1.29.08

Their teachings aren’t really docetic; they just appear to be.

Tobias Haller BSG

January 28, 2008

09. Scripture (2): Perplexity and Guidance

The Argument

In spite of claims and calls to order our life in accord with the Bible, no one on earth actually does so — at least not completely. Scripture contains contradictions, or at the very least tensions, between various commandments; there are corrections, revisions, expansions, and terminations; there are commandments no one can follow because of changes in circumstance and history; there are commandments few would defend in our day, or fallen to disuse, which were norms in former times. In short, all people pick and choose which commandments they accord authoritative status, either for themselves or others.

Many criteria are offered for the choices made, but the criteria can be as arbitrary or perplexing as the laws and customs to which they are supposed to give order. My purpose in this essay is to explore some of these criteria and put them into some order, in particular an order drawn from the sacred text itself rather than imposed upon it.

The dilemma

Scripture says a great many things about a great many topics. But what it meant to those who first recorded it and what it means for us is of great importance, if we are to be serious in our claim to see in Scripture not only the revelation of historical faith, but a present guide to holy living. There are subjects about which Scripture says little or nothing explicit, which we feel to be very important (abortion, for example); there are topics about which it says a good deal but about which we are scarcely concerned today (the consumption of meat that has not been completely purged of blood.) Acts which Scripture forbids or demands with lapidary clarity are commonly committed or neglected today with scant hint of impropriety. There is at work some less than clearly defined process by which Scripture is put to use in framing a way to live what the believer holds to be a “biblical” life, in spite of these inconsistencies in practice.

This exposes one of the weaknesses of a so-called Divine Command ethic (one species of deontological ethics). This is particularly problematical for those who wish to see Scripture and its commands to be the Word of God in a literal and particular sense, for it immediately becomes a question of which divine commands will be obeyed. For no one “lives by the Scripture” in all its detailed instructions, even if one might attempt to live according to the general principles embodied in those details. This was revealed recently by A.J. Jacobs, in his clearly titled The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. He found, for example, that there are any number of biblical commandments with which compliance was virtually if not actually impossible. As he noted in a recent radio interview, the closest he could come to carrying out the mandate to hold slaves was to have an intern! Thus something the text said in ancient times and circumstances to others had to be adapted in order to be fulfilled by Jacobs now.

The effective impossibility of attaining perfection in or by following the Law was a primary issue for Saint Paul in his Letter to the Romans. (Those who use the first chapter of Romans as a proof text have underestimated the significance of this aspect of Paul’s argument.) Still, Scripture as a whole serves as a resource to the church, which, in making use of that resource, accords certain portions a higher and more authoritative status on the basis of their coherence with the needs of those to whom the text has been delivered, as it were, second hand — since none of us is the recipient of direct revelation, but only the inherited revelation committed to the church.

And that revelation, fixed as it is in a written text, itself a rich collection of various documents composed at different times, to different ends, by different people and for different hearers, will have to be engaged by the faithful of the church in each generation, who will find themselves facing the task of receiving the revelation, and resolving the contradictions and tensions manifest in the Scripture itself.

Wait... Contradictions? ... in Scripture?

Many, particularly the more conservative among us, would like to believe there are no contradictions or tensions in Scripture. After all, if it is the Word of God, how could God contradict himself?

The truth of the matter is that even such as are most ready to deplore making “one sentence of Scripture repugnant to another” will do exactly that when faced with a dilemma. For example, Cranmer and his company found it convenient, under significant monarchial pressure, to hold that the mandate of Deuteronomy 25:5 (that when a man’s brother dies childless he is to take the widow as his wife — something the monarch had done with the express permission of the pope) was to be overturned in favor of the prohibition in Leviticus 18:16 (in accord with the monarch’s troubled conscience and the failure of his brother’s widow to produce a male heir.)

One can indulge in Anglican Fudge as much as one likes — and Cranmer and Company may be credited with the first recipe for this rich, chewy ambiguity. But there is no use pretending that these texts are not in tension with one another, that they were at pains to resolve the tension, and that other solutions would have been possible (i.e., taking the Levirate law as a specific exception to the general rule on incest, eminently applicable in this monarch’s case, as the pope had agreed, since inheritance was at issue — but, of course, that isn’t the finding the monarch wanted; and as Upton Sinclair observed, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”)

Our task is to make decisions on how we are to address these tensions, in order to make proper choices about how to live; one hopes, free from pressure from political considerations — lest, like the deer in the proverbial headlights we never reach the cooling springs of grace but end up on the grill and windshield of judgment. It is up to us — as the church — to use the tools at our disposal to find our way to discern the applicability of the many commandments with which Scripture presents us.

The basic tool: Reason

In this interaction with the church, through the Holy Spirit, the Scripture comes alive in every generation. Every society and culture (and church) that embraces the Scripture thus also exercises a form of selective critique of that Scripture, even while seeking to a greater or lesser degree to conform to the view of Scripture thus organized and understood.

Richard Hooker attested that the Scripture is neither self-authenticating nor self-interpreting: it must be approached through and by means of Reason — which is more than deductive reason (though it includes it) and involves notions we would understand as “common sense” or “rationality.”

Unto the word of God... we do not add reason as a supplement of any maim or defect therein, but as a necessary instrument, without which we could not reap by the Scripture’s perfection that fruit and benefit which it yieldeth... If knowledge were possible without discourse of natural reason, why should none be found capable thereof but only men; nor men till such time as they come unto ripe and full ability to work by reasonable understanding? Laws III.8.10f

Hooker also recognized both the misapplication of proof texts (which are often mis-translated or removed from the textual and contextual position that might help a more accurate understanding)and the sweeping generalizations which make Scripture appear to say more than it does. Such claims do no credit either to the claimants or to Scripture. As Hooker noted,

...As incredible praises given unto men do often abate and impair the credit of their deserved commendation, so we must likewise take great heed, lest in attributing unto Scripture more than it can have, the incredibility of that do cause even those things which indeed it hath most abundantly to be less reverently esteemed. II.8

So a sifting process is at work, by which any given culture or society or person, even while embracing the Bible as a whole, also separates out portions of it based on various modes of division and distinction. This process can be conscious and reasonable, but it can also happen under the influence of culture or external events.

The “Classical” Anglican Distinction

The traditional Anglican distinction between moral, civil, and ceremonial laws, while having the virtue of a logical reading (as some of the commandments are clearly related to ceremony, and others clearly to morals, and still others to civil matters) does not bear close examination if one is to take the next Anglican step and say that Christians are not bound to follow the civil and ceremonial laws, but only the moral ones. For, while Jesus and the Apostolic Church, as recorded in Scripture, did specifically set aside certain ceremonial and civil laws, and the course of history made certain of the Hebrew laws incapable of enforcement or compliance (the destruction of the Temple rendering all of the laws pertaining to Temple worship beyond compliance), the Hebrew Law itself does not distinguish between these various sorts of commandments on this basis; all commandments alike are to be obeyed; there is no suggestion that some are “moral” and others “merely” ceremonial.

So the “classical Anglican” distinction, in this case, does not well serve — in particular because some of the very matters under discussion in our present debates arguably involve ritual, civil and ceremonial dimensions as much as they do moral ones.

For example, even though Hooker explicitly refers to the Decalogue as “the moral law” I very much doubt a contemporary moralist would see idolatry as a moral issue; I would imagine that even in the height of the missionary efforts of the nineteenth century, few would have held that Hindus were immoral on the basis of their iconography, even if held to be mistaken in their beliefs. Idolatry, to our minds, is not a moral issue but a doctrinal one. This distinction obviously cannot be made within the context of the Decalogue, the Prophets, or Romans 1: idolatry is, in fact, the root of all immorality! Similarly, if we take a few steps more into the Decalogue: few would consider sabbath-breaking a major moral issue today, though they may well have done so in the nineteenth century, in spite of the fact that, in one sense, Christians have been deliberate sabbath-breakers from the day it was decided to observe the Lord’s Day rather than the Sabbath. For Hooker it was, of course, still a moral issue:

The moral law requiring therefore a seventh part throughout the age of the whole world to be that way employed, although with us the day be changed in regard of a new revolution begun by our Saviour Christ, yet the same proportion of time continueth which was before, because in reference to the benefit of creation and now much more of renovation thereunto added by him which was Prince of the world to come, we are bound to account the sanctification of one day in seven a duty which God’s immutable law doth exact for ever. (V.70.9)

Need I add that in the Jewish law, treating the sabbath as any other day was a capital offense, and merely doing work on it entailed excision from the holy people (Exodus 31:14); the text is abundantly clear, yet few would consider violation of either Saturday or Sunday to be serious moral failings in our time. In short, this distinction between moral and non-moral appears not to be a very profitable avenue, if we are to attempt to deal with the text itself, rather than the suppositions about, “What is really moral?” — which, depending on the answer, tends to beg the question — it is a moral question because I think it so to be.

A better way

There are — in the text itself — various distinctions between and among the various laws, and I would like to begin by highlighting some of these divisions, and suggest that these categories are actually useful in determining the character and applicability of the texts commonly raised in the present discussion.

Some might accuse me of a “deconstructionist” approach in this — by which they mean something like “breaking it down to undermine its authority.” On the contrary, I am proposing a careful and objective analysis (in examination of the various parts) in order to come to a better and more accurate understanding of the whole Scripture and of its authoritative claim upon us, and to explore reasonable grounds upon which we might justifiably say of a portion of Scripture, “This no longer applies,” or “This applies only to certain circumstances.”

Law and Narrative

The first distinction is between matters expressed as laws, as opposed to principles derived from historical or prophetic passages. Hooker addressed this distinction in the debates of his time:

I wish they did well observe, with whom nothing is more familiar than to plead in these causes, “the law of God,” “the word of the Lord;” who notwithstanding when they come to allege what word and what law they mean, their common ordinary practice is to quote by-speeches in some historical narration or other, and to urge them as if they were written in most precise exact form of law... When that which the word of God doth but deliver historically, we construe without any warrant as if it were legally meant, and so urge it further than we can prove that it was intended; do we not add to the laws of God, and make them in number seem more than they are? III.5

Thus there is a clear distinction between, for example, the explicit and narrow legal restriction on male same-sexuality in Leviticus 18/20, as opposed to the narrative in Genesis 19. The former is expressed in an “exact form of law” including an explicit penalty; but the latter is a page out of history, recounting something no doubt to be condemned (whether rape or murder). So while the former remains a matter for legal discernment, the latter is irrelevant to our concerns, as no one is suggesting that rape or murder are under discussion.

Who is this that speaks?

A second factor in determining the relevance of a commandment lies in the source of the commandment: is it reported to come from the hand of God, from Moses, from Jesus, or from Paul, for example. Hooker was also well aware of this distinction, and used it to contrast the Ten Commandments with the rest of the Law. (In this passage Hooker also catalogues some of the other distinctions which I will address below.)

The positive laws which Moses gave, they were given for the greatest part with restraint to the land of Jewry... Which laws he plainly distinguished afterward from the laws of the Two Tables which were moral... Of the Ten Commandments, it followeth immediately, “These words the Lord spake unto all your multitude in the mount...” (Deut 5.22) But concerning other laws, the people give their consent to receive them at the hands of Moses (Deut 5.27)... From this latter kind the former are distinguished in many things. They were not both at one time delivered, neither both of one sort, nor to one end. The former uttered by the voice of God..., written with the finger of God,... termed by the name of Covenant,... given to be kept without either mention of time how long, or place where. On the other side, the latter given after, and neither given by God himself, nor given unto the whole multitude immediately from God, but unto Moses...; the latter termed Ceremonies, Judgments, Ordinances, but no where Covenants; finally, the observation of the latter restrained unto the land where God would establish them to inhabit. III.11.6

Jesus also made a distinction between commandments of God and those delivered by Moses, suggesting that the latter may not have been entirely in keeping with God’s will, when he set aside the Mosaic allowance for divorce (Deut 24:1) in favor of what he regarded as the divine order towards indissoluble marriage.

The legal code of Deuteronomy is book-ended with citations that indicate its contents derive from God: These are the statutes and ordinances that you must diligently observe in the land that the LORD, the God of your ancestors, has given you to occupy all the days that you live on the earth... Moses and the elders of Israel charged all the people as follows: Keep the entire commandment that I am commanding you today. (Deuteronomy 12:1; 27:1) The same sort of general description applies in Leviticus, which often takes of the refrain of the need to keep all of the statutes and ordinances delivered by Moses. (Lev 20:22, 25:18)

Yet Jesus clearly distinguished between these collections of Law and the commandments of the Decalogue: when the young man asked him how he might inherit eternal life, Jesus cited only Decalogue commandments. (Mark 10:19, Luke 18:20 — though in Matthew’s version at 19:19 he added the Law on love of neighbor from Leviticus 19:18).

I by no means wish to suggest that because Jesus emphasized the Decalogue over the other laws, and set aside a number of the latter laws explicitly (more on this below) that all of these laws are no longer to be observed. I am merely observing here that this places these laws in a category in which we are able to review them for their applicability, in keeping with the general principle which Jesus affirmed as his own touchstone for moral action: loving one’s neighbor as oneself. This is the explicit conclusion reached in Jesus’ discussion with the lawyers concerning what is most important in the Law. (Luke 10:27-28; Mark 12:33-34)

In this case, we would examine the law from Leviticus 18:22 (clearly given by Moses and not part of the Decalogue) in connection with the possibility that one could “love one’s neighbor as oneself” even if violating this law. It seems evident that this is a possibility.

Tobias Haller BSG

The next section of this series will continue to explore some of the various ways in which different portions of Scripture call for different readings.

UPDATE: This will be the last post in the series, as Church Publishing Incorporated has offered to publish these essays, revised and expanded, in a new book called Reasonable and Holy, due out early in 2009.

Further Update: This post and the preceding, expanded and supplemented with much additional material, including three entirely new chapters, form part of Reasonable and Holy, published by Seabury Books and available on order from Church Publishing Incorporated.

January 17, 2008

The Uninhibited Bishop

As can be read widely elsewhere, Bishop Duncan has been put on notice for alleged abandonment of the communion of this church (that is, The Episcopal Church) but has not been inhibited pending a decision by the House of Bishops on whether or not he should remain among their number. The inhibition requires the consent of the three senior acting bishops, and Bishop Wimberly has offered a rationale for his choice not to grant his consent. This appears to be based largely on the fact that the Diocese of Pittsburgh, unlike that of San Joaquin, has not yet taken a final untoward step towards disaffiliation from the Episcopal Church. As I observe at the Episcopal Café, however, I think this represents a confusion in Bishop Wimberly's mind concerning the nature of abandonment of communion by a bishop.

There is nothing about dioceses or their actions in the canon on abandonment of communion by a bishop. The canon is about the individual and his or her actions (or inactions) that might lead one to think that he or she has abandoned the communion of The Episcopal Church by renunciation of its Doctrine, Discipline and Worship. This cause for action need not involve the vote of a diocesan convention; indeed, I would think a bishop who advised or fostered schism and accused the hierarchy of apostasy to have renounced the good order of the church even if the diocesan convention repudiated the advice and accusation. Abandonment does not require re-affiliation; although that is a second cause for action. In the first case, though, it is about the claim no longer to be accountable to the authorities which one had vowed to obey; not necessarily the alignment with a new authority. And the diocese has nothing to do with it.

I hope Bishop Wimberly might reconsider his decision and find for inhibition, because I remain concerned that the movement to depose Bishop Duncan without his being first inhibited is not entirely in keeping with the wording of the canon, which to my unexpert (though keen) eye appears to say that only an inhibited bishop may be subject to deposition by the House. As I noted in a comment on an earlier post:

The canon ... appears to me to require the inhibition period: "shall then inhibit the said bishop until such time as the House of Bishops shall investigate..." Section 2 speaks again of the distinct "certification and Inhibition" being delivered to "the inhibited Bishop" who then has two months to issue a response. [I emphasize here the canonical importance of the word "and."] So the two month period appears to require the inhibition, which can be terminated by the PB and a majority of the three senior bishops, and then "Otherwise" (that is, no satisfactory response being made and the Inhibition remaining in effect) the PB presents the matter to the House of Bishops. So it appears to me that the inhibition is a required step in the process.

Of course, I could be wrong. But I strongly urge Bishop Wimberly to reconsider his refusal to consent, so that this matter may proceed properly and with due consideration for the damage the uninhibited bishop of Pittsburgh might do in the next several months.

Tobias Haller BSG

January 14, 2008

08. Scripture and its Witness

Just as I was about to continue my reflections on sexuality, in an examination of the place of Scripture in these discussions, I saw that Dr. Robert Gagnon has re-issued, with slight modifications, one of his many essays on this topic. As he is widely considered the “gold standard” spokesperson for the anti-homosexuality position, it would be helpful to take a look at how he addresses this issue from a Scriptural perspective.

It soon becomes apparent that Gagnon is seeking to frame a larger argument rather than merely citing the usual proof texts (as well as a few not-so-usual ones): a kind of Grand Unified Theory of sexuality that will cover all of the various offenses. It is a laudable goal, and Gagnon is not the first to attempt it. There are, however, two problems with his approach.

The first is that his general attitude can be summarized as, “Why does the Scripture condemn homosexuality?” This is, obviously, rather begging the question; he naturally believes the proof texts already have made his case, which he has laid out in exhaustive detail. But in the broadest sense they have not: for the Scripture does not “condemn homosexuality,” or even “homosexual behavior” in a general sense. As I have already noted in previous sections of this series (and will return to again) the primary missing factor in a “general condemnation of homosexuality” in the Law of Moses is the lack of any reference whatever to female same-sexuality, and the fact that the one verse alleged to address this in Romans more likely refers to something else. So Scriptures (definitely the Hebrew Scriptures and very likely the New Testament) neither condemn nor penalize “homosexuality.” Rather, the Law of Moses explicitly refers to one male homosexual act, and Paul may be alluding to this in a few places. (I will return to these Pauline allusions in a subsequent section of this reflection.)

The second problem is that Gagnon ultimately bases his argument not on the Law of Moses or on Romans, but on his reading of Genesis — which he holds to be determinative in establishing God’s plan for human sexuality. Gagnon sees everything else through that lens, relating Leviticus (and Romans itself) back to Genesis at every opportunity. What he derives from Genesis in this process is the understanding that “difference” and “complementarity” are key to licit sexuality. In addition to applying this to homosexuality, in the article I reference above he seeks to draw the incest prohibitions in Leviticus under this same rubric — that is, incest is illicit because the partners are not different enough from each other.

Responses to this view

This argument suffers in the critical challenge that biblical scholars raise concerning the sources for the various scriptural passages and their differing literary style and intent. But responses to Gagnon’s basic premise need not rely on the apparatus of higher criticism.

The first response to his theory is that it does not fit all (or even much) of the evidence. If, for example, difference were the defining requirement for licit sexuality, female homosexuality would also have been ruled out in the Law of Moses. It isn’t. If difference were of primary importance, exogamy would be the preferred marriage structure under Jewish law. It isn’t. One might go further and observe that if difference were in itself the basis for licitness, then bestiality would be permissible — after all what could be more different? Needless to say, it isn’t.

A second response is to note a greater difficulty with Gagnon’s thesis, based on his understanding of his fundamental text: for the creation account in Genesis 2 simply does not emphasize Eve’s difference from Adam, but her likeness to him: she is flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone. Adam rejects the animals as suitable partners (which though made from earth as Adam was, are fundamentally unlike him, and thus unsuitable) and chooses instead the woman who is made from his own substance, the one most like himself. That this is the correct reading is shown by Jesus’ use of this passage as the cornerstone for his doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage: what God has joined together (capable of proper joining not because different from each other, but because of the same flesh and bone) is not to be put asunder. The couple become one flesh because they already share that flesh. That is what Genesis says, and that is how Jesus applies it.

So Gagnon’s attempt to find out a “reason” for the prohibition on a male same-sex act (not all homosexuality, as he claims) fails. A Grand Unified Theory that will explain why some sexual acts are forbidden under Jewish law while others are permitted is perhaps possible; but we can rule out Gagnon’s theory on these two grounds.

Other theories

Better efforts at this involve either the concept of a divine command which is to be obeyed quite apart from any reason for it (a view favored in classical rabbinic Judaism), or the more anthropological approach (favored in present-day Jewish reflection on the subject) which sees the various laws as deriving from social constructions in a particular society or set of societies, constructions which may explain and unify some of the various laws, or at least demonstrate the process by which they came to be. Thus the incest law (and its mandated violation in the case of a childless widow) is not based on a concept of sameness or difference, but on concerns — both in prohibition and in mandate — about kinship and inheritance and avoiding the entanglement of multiple relationships.

Another important aspect of the sexual laws in general, is that far from representing a recognizable moral framework (in which all people are treated as essentially equal moral actors), the Mosaic sexual and marriage laws are strikingly asymmetric with regard to men and women: not only in the lack of the prohibition on female homosexuality, but (for example) on the question of adultery. Under the Law of Moses a man can only violate someone else’s marriage; a woman only her own. That is, a man could have licit relationships with a harlot, or take a concubine or a second wife, but was by no means permitted to have intercourse with another man’s wife. Similarly, the Law considers it a serious crime for a man to remarry his divorced wife if she has married another man in the interim. (Deut 24:1-4). I doubt anyone today would give such a rule any notice — they might even encourage it as a restoration of the original marriage — yet the Law opposes it in very harsh terms. Again, it would appear that the primary concern is not moral but has to do with kinship and inheritance rights — seen almost exclusively in terms of preserving the integrity of the male line and security of the father’s identity: with a related purpose to preserve the holy land and the inheritance it has become at the hand of God. Hence, most of these laws (as well as many others) refer to the land and its sanctity as a possession to be handed down everlastingly.

So if a Grand Unified Theory is to be sought, it more likely lies in the direction of understanding the sexual and marriage laws in relation to the separateness of Israel from the nations, their distinction in being deliberately unlike those nations, charged with preserving the holiness of the land and inheritance rights. Biblical scholars such as Jacob Milgrom (Leviticus, the Anchor Bible) have written extensively in this quest; and this approach does have the virtue of explaining much more than Gagnon’s employment of Genesis as a touchstone.

Applying these theories

This may help also to explain why female homosexuality is not mentioned in the Law. If Gagnon’s basic thesis were correct (that Genesis offers the key to understanding human sexuality, based on the union of differences) then both male and female same-sexuality would be equally prohibited, just as incest and bestiality are forbidden to men and women alike, and all in the same chapters of Leviticus (18 and 20) dealing with a male homosexual act. What does the Law actually say and what can we learn from it in seeking an explanation for the omission?

There is only one explicit reference to any form of same-sexuality in the Law: the act is described at Leviticus 18:22 and the penalty at Leviticus 20:13. It first says, “With a male do not lay the layings of a woman.” One might say more simply, “Do not (sexually) treat a male like a woman.” The wording of the second passage is slightly different: “A man who lays a male the layings of a woman” followed by the penalty for both. In both cases the word to‘ebah (abomination) is used to categorize the offense. I will address this word in a later section of this series. For the present, I want to ask, in keeping with the discussion, why there is no prohibition (or punishment) for a woman who “treats (sexually) a female like a man.”

I think the reason is quite simple, and it tells us a good deal about how the Hebrew culture saw sex, which supplements the notion of male primacy and inheritance. Put simply, sex is about something males “do” and females “allow.” The wording of the bestiality prohibition is indicative of this way of seeing things, in which men “lay” or “bed” an animal, but women “stand” or “lie down” before an animal to “present” themselves to it. (The vocabulary is different for men and women, reflecting the difference between what a man or a woman would do with an animal.) So the lack of an equivalent prohibition on female same-sexuality is based in part on the inability (from the Hebrew perspective) of a woman to act as a man towards another woman.

This also explains why later rabbinic law holds that a woman who engaged in sexual relations with a woman outside of marriage (a matter not addressed by Scripture) was not judged to have committed adultery, but rather was punished for disobedience:

Although this practice is forbidden [in the oral tradition], no flogging is imposed, since there is no specific negative commandment against it [in the Torah], nor is there any intercourse at all... Consequently, [women who do this] are not forbidden to the priesthood on account of harlotry, nor is a woman prohibited to her husband on account of it, since there is no harlotry in it. However, a flogging for disobedience (mardut) should be given, since they have performed a forbidden act. A man should be strict with his wife in this matter... (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah 'Issurei Bi'ah 21:8)

So it would seem that there are ways to understand the asymmetry in the Law within its own context and without appeal to Genesis: as Maimonides puts it, lesbian sex isn’t sex (“there is no intercourse”), because sex requires a male.

In conclusion

This, of course, leaves us with what appears to be a clear biblical prohibition on at least one form of male homosexual activity, and a stern punishment for it. Obviously the church no longer demands the latter as much as some in it deplore the former. But is this a proper attitude to take towards this text, and the other texts which cast same-sex behavior in negative terms? In the next segment of this series I will address how we might best engage this and other texts, and the Scripture as a whole.

Tobias Haller BSG

The reflections continue in 09. Scripture (2): Perplexity and Guidance.

Further Update: This post and the following, expanded and supplemented with much additional material, including three entirely new chapters, form part of Reasonable and Holy, published by Seabury Books and available on order from Church Publishing Incorporated.

January 12, 2008

Discord and Dissension: The Early Years

One of the prevailing myths of Christianity is that the Church was more or less of one mind until the Reformation. Like unto this, the Reformation myth is that the Scripture itself is a seamless garment, and it is bad form to point out or make anything of the contradictions or tensions within it.

However, neither myth will serve us well in addressing reality: the reality of our present tensions and disagreements. On the contrary, it is helpful to make use of the disagreements in the apostolic Church, attested to in Scripture, and hold them up as a mirror in which we may helpfully see our present controversies reflected, and take heart that the Church survived.

One can point to the tensions between Peter and Paul, or Paul and John Mark as obvious points of disagreement, leading to sharp words and separation in mission. (Paul does seem to have been at the center of a good bit of dissension, doesn’t he?)

Obviously the greatest controversy of those days concerned the place of Gentiles in the Church, and what was to be required of Gentile converts. After much ad hoc and informal argument and a few tussles, a Council was called. After hearing reports, and consultation, the Council reached a decision and issued a Communiqué: (1) Gentiles allowed; (2) circumcision not required; (3) a list of required moratoria on a number of practices, including eating meat offered to idols, enacted.

One might have thought that would settle it; but no. The Scripture attests that the circumcision party continued to demand more than the Council required. Saint Paul stood in strong opposition to the conservatives in this regard, in particular in his correspondence with the Galatians. But on the Council’s decision on food offered to idols, Paul took what might best be called a revisionist view when he wrote to the Corinthians. It really ought not be forbidden, he said, but in the interest of harmony why not oblige? Don’t let such unimportant things as food (you and I know they are unimportant) disrupt the Church.

This kind of accommodation was seen by others as both disrespectful of the Council, and really quite contrary to what that Council intended: that eating meat offered to idols was a serious matter, and no trifle. John the Divine may have had Paul or someone like him in mind when he excoriated the people in Pergamum for tolerating those among them who held “to the teaching of Balaam” and “ate food sacrificed to idols.”

And so the conflict went, until the issue of food offered to idols finally disappeared in a generally Pauline direction — although it seemed important at the time, in the long run it really wasn’t a core doctrine after all.

Does any of this sound familiar — I don’t mean from your knowledge of Scripture but from the current goings-on in the Anglican Communion? It seems that Councils (or Conferences) never have settled the dissension they are designed to address, at least not completely. There will still be hardliners at one extreme and progressives at the other.

But the good news is that the Church muddles through. The hot issues of each age do eventually burn themselves out, and the ashes are blown away by the wind of the Spirit.

Tobias Haller BSG

Shedding Ones Inhibitions

Well, the awaited Inhibition has been issued against +John-David Schofield and a response has appeared from the Diocese of San Joaquin reported* by Kendall Harmon. This response, among other things, asserts that

Bishop Schofield is currently a member of both the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church and the House of Bishops of the Southern Cone, a position not prohibited by either house.

On the contrary, House of Bishops General Rule XXIV includes this:

...[A]ny Bishop of this Church who removed from the jurisdiction of this Church to the jurisdiction of a Church in the Anglican Communion may be continued in relationship to this House as an honorary member.... No vote shall be accorded the honorary member.

So, the question is, has John David removed himself from the jurisdiction of The Episcopal Church? An answer was shortly forthcoming (on January 11, 2008) from the Southern Cone Head himself, again reported by the inestimable Canon Harmon:

As of December the 8th, 2007 Bishop John-David Schofield is not under the authority or jurisdiction of The Episcopal Church or the Presiding Bishop. He is, therefore, not answerable to their national canon law but is a member of the House of Bishops of the Southern Cone and under our authority.

Un fuerte abrazo.

--The Most Rev. Greg Venables, Archbishop of the Southern Cone

John-David needs to make up his mind. Either he is a member of The Episcopal Church or not. It seems his present ecclesiastical superior (whoever he thinks that might be in either case) thinks not. It is up to him to clarify whether he is still in communion with The Episcopal Church, or has abandoned it. He cannot continue to play the game of Humpty-Dumpty in which things mean what he claims they mean.

Tobias Haller BSG

*Update: Canon Harmon has removed the first referenced statement from San Joaquin in light of the "correction" issued later. A more accurate term would be "contradiction." In the interests of reality checking, here is the text of the original notice from San Joaquin:

The Episcopal Church's assertion that Bishop Schofield has abandoned the communion of this Church is an admission that TEC rejects the historical Anglican faith which is why The Diocese of San Joaquin appealed to the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone of South America for emergency and temporary protection. The majority of the other provinces of the Anglican Communion hold to the traditional faith. It is the primary duty of bishops to guard the faith and Bp Schofield has been continually discriminated against for having done so while Bishops and Archbishops around the world have affirmed not only his stance but the move to the Southern Cone. Bishop Schofield is currently a member of both the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church and the House of Bishops of the Southern Cone, a position not prohibited by either house. Governing documents of TEC do not prohibit relationships between different members of the Anglican Communion, rather they encourage it. TEC's action demonstrates that there is an enormous difference between their church and most of the Anglican Communion Again, this action is a demonstration that TEC is walking apart from the faith and its expression of morality held by the rest of the Anglican Communion.

The Episcopal Church's own identity is dependent upon its relationship with the whole Anglican Communion. TEC should consider whether it is imperiling that relationship by taking such punitive actions.

How is it that over 60 million Anglicans world wide can be wrong while a few hundred thousand in the American Church can claim to be right?

And here is the "correction" (which goes on to include the statement by "Greg" of the Southern Cone of America):

As a point of clarification, there is no confusion on the part of the Bishop of San Joaquin or the clergy, people, leadership, and convention of the Diocese of San Joaquin of their status. The claims of the Episcopal Church to have oversight or jurisdiction are not correct. The fact is that neither the Diocese nor Bishop John-David Schofield are part of The Episcopal Church. The Bishop is a member of the House of Bishops of the Southern Cone as of December 8th, 2007. The Diocese is a part of the Southern Cone. Neither the Presiding Bishop or the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church have any further jurisdiction. Bishop Schofield is no longer a member of the House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church.

January 10, 2008

Labrador Retriever

Bishop Cyrus Pitman of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador is acting as a true shepherd in calling all his clergy together to determine their desire to remain loyal to the ordination vows they took, or to follow the self-styled prophets of the True Faith into schism. In a news story in the Toronto Star, an American schismatic opines that such "loyalty pressure" will begin to be felt everywhere. One would have thought, given the ecclesiastical nature of the vows (with explicit reference to obedience to real live leadership rather than the dictates of one's own private judgment) that no "pressure" would be necessary. But times have changed, and as in the days of the Judges, people often simply do what they think best.

Some will say, But isn't that what Canada and the US did in not following the dictates of Lambeth and the Primates? The difference, of course, is that no one has taken vows to follow the advice and counsel of either Lambeth or the Primates as a body. These bodies usurp and presume an authority they do not have.

Needless to say, it is also the duty of a bishop to gather, not to scatter, the flock; and certainly not to woo the clergy and laity into schism. This struck me in particular due to this from the first reading in the Daily Office this morning:

Jeremiah 23:1-4 Woe be unto the pastors that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! saith the LORD. Therefore thus saith the LORD God of Israel against the pastors that feed my people; Ye have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and have not visited them: behold, I will visit upon you the evil of your doings, saith the LORD. And I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all countries whither I have driven them, and will bring them again to their folds; and they shall be fruitful and increase. And I will set up shepherds over them which shall feed them: and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall they be lacking, saith the LORD.

Thank God some bishops, such as Cyrus Pitman, know how to act like bishops: to preserve unity by calling people together.

Tobias Haller BSG

January 8, 2008

Communion and Church

It became apparent in comments on two of my previous posts that one of our difficulties in carrying on reasonable discussion lies in the different meanings given to words we are wont to use quite a bit. These are church and communion. In both cases the words are used in an ideal and a real sense — and this creates some of the difficulties I outlined in an earlier essay on that subject.

Thus people can speak of the church as the Body of Christ, of which all the baptized are members; but we can also speak of the various churches and even the “national or particular churches” — to say nothing of our parish churches! I can speak of the communion-in-Christ that belongs, indelibly, to every Christian; while at the same time acknowledging that theological or doctrinal divisions can lead to ruptures in the day-to-day communion of one Christian body with another.

I was being quite consciously (and perhaps uncharacteristically) idealistic when, in that previous post, I noted that communion in Christ (based on baptism) is inviolable. That does not mean that I do not recognize the existence of the breaches between believers. What it does mean is that I hold it as an article of faith that our divisions are secondary to our unity. Our ecclesiastical unity is recoverable precisely because our divisions, however deeply felt, are superficial wounds: no part of the body is completely cut off, however tenuous the connection with the whole. It is not just that one part of the body ought not say to any other, “I have no need of you,” but that one part of the body really can not make that judgment. (1 Cor 12:21) However disagreeable we may become, we are stuck with each other. Divorce is not allowed.

Just as the lapsed or even the apostate are not rebaptized upon their return to the life of faith, so to, I firmly believe, our divisions can be healed without recourse to a fundamental re-invention. What we are called upon to do, in the spirit of the Lambeth Quadrilateral, is to focus upon the elements of our identity that we recognize in each other, and celebrate them as a basis for unity even if we continue to disagree about secondary concerns.

Obviously there are doctrinal differences among Anglicans of different traditions, and even greater differences between Anglicans in general and Roman Catholics or Presbyterians or Methodists in general. These differences are real, and I by no means wish to minimize them more than is necessary. What I do want to do is put them in their proper perspective and focus upon the articles of faith that we share and affirm — among which is the principal of the dignity of baptism as incorporation in the mystical body of Christ, the Church.

I would like to suggest a term for this Church of shreds and patches, which, like it or not is the Church of which we all are members. In the spirit of the Church Militant, the Church Expectant, and the Church Triumphant, I would like to suggest we recognize that we are the Church Dissonant. And, through God’s grace, may we work to decrease the dissonance and promote harmony.

Tobias Haller BSG

January 5, 2008

Following yonder Star...

Saturday Seasonal Satire

We three kings of Orient are,
and we’ve traveled awfully far,
wending, walking, ranging, riding
following that darn star.
O—oh! Gosh my feet hurt, and my bum,
saddle-sore and nearly numb;
blisters bleeding,
Got some aspirin? Give me some!

Aspirin’s mine, I’ll give you a few,
take with water, take only two;
it’ll stop your back from aching
as it’s supposed to do.
O—oh! How far is it that we’ve gone,
daylight’s coming, almost dawn,
travel’s dreary
when I’m weary,
pardon, while I stretch and yawn.

Coffee’s mine, I’ll give you a sip,
percolated, pressed or drip.
Sorry I can’t do espres-
so — no macchina on this trip.
O—oh! How I miss my latte tall,
cappucino large or small,
I’m insistent
it’s not instant,
better brewed or not at all!

Wait, I see a sign up ahead,
and I’m glad ’cause I’m almost dead,
green the logo, it’s no no-go,
yonder I see a Star-
bu—ucks! Goad the camel and the mare,
quickly now we’re almost there.
Call a priest or
a barista
either one, I just don’t care.

Tobias Haller

December 30, 2007

January 4, 2008

An Informal Poll

The Church Times is taking an informal poll on whether the proposed Anglican Covenant is the best way to achieve unity. I invite you to go to the article, and then to cast your vote by clicking on the tiny "here" towards the bottom of the article.

I make no secret of being opposed to the specifics of the proposed Anglican Covenant; though not opposed in principle to a covenant based on ministry and mission and with no "pre-nuptial" provision for dissolution of communion. The current proposal is still light on the former and heavy on the latter.

If what is really wanted is simply a mechanism for dealing with conflicts and disagreements when they arise, I think it would be easier simply to codify the already existing powers that the autonomous provinces possess. That is, for example in the present conflict,

  • No other province (indeed, no other individual diocese) need permit Bishop Robinson (or any other Bishop) the exercise of Episcopal function within its borders.
  • Provinces are not forced to have any more to do with each other than they choose to do.
  • Individual parishes within dioceses, and dioceses within their provinces ought to respect the legitimate authority of their superior synods, and not seek to become independent from them.
  • Nor should bishops from outside a province interfere in the internal affairs of that province. (The response from the C of E noted that as far as England was concerned this was not only illegal, but probably immoral and fattening as well.)
So, as I see it, the long and the short of it is this. Cut the high-falutin' language (the C of E already saw the wisdom in dispensing with the decorative scriptural citations at the head of each section) and focus on the concepts that
  • Communion in Christ based on baptism is irrevocable;
  • Our call is to mission (unity of all people in Christ) and ministry (you know: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting and healing the sick, comforting those who mourn; in short, loving our neighbors as ourselves and doing unto others as we would be done by.) and
  • Affirm the fact that a covenant is not something to be broken when tensions arise, but the means by which we remain together "for better or for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health" -- and that these principles apply first and foremost to the church, that holy and sacred mystery.
Tobias Haller BSG

January 2, 2008

The Voice of Reason... er, England

I was just reading through the Church of England’s response to the Draft Anglican Covenant, and was pleased to see that in a number of respects they raised some of the same red flags that I had. Among these is a sensitivity to the extent that the Primates or other Instruments have authority to intervene in the internal affairs of individual provinces. (The Church of England report on one hand seems to think this might be appropriate in extraordinary circumstances, but notes on the other that it simply wouldn’t do were England itself to become the object of such tender mercies. It depends upon whose unicorn and lion are being gored, I take it.)

However, there are a few truly odd sections in this response. The one that most surprised me was the objection to the language of section 2 paragraph 3

that it [the member Church] holds and duly administers the two sacraments ordained by Christ himself — Baptism and the Supper of the Lord — ministered with the unfailing use of Christ’s words of institution, and of the elements ordained by him

in raising the specter of the old battles over the number of the sacraments. But this clause is straight out of the Lambeth Quadrilateral; and hardly likely to create a fuss now if it hasn’t for 120 years!

Of greater concern is the pernicious doctrine alluded to in the first comment on the Preamble:

Are the churches of the Anglican communion, properly so called, the thirty eight national bodies that belong to the Communion or are they the dioceses of the Communion gathered round their diocesan bishops? This is not just a theoretical ecclesiological question, but also a practical one since it raises the question of whether the bodies that should subscribe to the Covenant are the national bodies or the dioceses. This issue does not require a revision of the text, but it is something that needs to be addressed.

You bet it does. This notion that the individual dioceses of a national church somehow relate directly to the Primate of All England is also suggested by His Nibs Himself in his letter to Bishop Howe. This novelty (apart from the invitations to Lambeth, which are of course the domain of the Archbishop) appears to have arisen as kind of Alexandrine Gordian Knot solution to the problem of “Windsor” bishops within “non-Windsor” churches — allowing them to remain somehow part of the Transcendental Anglican Communion even while the church of which they are a part is excluded or demoted.

This is indeed not just a theoretical question, but a very practical one, and it utterly undermines the concept of provincial identity (to say nothing of autonomy!). Let me say this just once more: while the sacramental fullness of the church subsists in the community of the faithful gathered around its bishop, the basic unit of the church is not the diocese, but the Province. The former is a matter of sacramental theology; the latter concerns church polity. And ignoring this distinction between the two is creating a great deal of confusion. If dioceses are free to affiliate without regard to their participation in a Province, why should not the diocese of London, for example, bypass its participation in the Province of Canterbury and affiliate with the Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East? Shall we end up with an Anglican Communion that is a patchwork of embassies on foreign ground?

This uneven performance even by the Church of England strengthens my misapprehensions about the Covenant Process as a solution to our presenting problem. While I am committed to seeing it through, I urge further caution and postponement of any final action on this matter at the upcoming Lambeth Conference. Let us work through this without rushing to Law as a solution when Charity seems weak. As I noted in a comment to the Diocese of NY response to the Covenant last spring:

How does a Covenant solve the problem? If folks are unwilling to abide by informal agreements, can they be expected to abide by a contract? The old idea that Philip Turner once advanced (vows empower people to keep them) is on the basis of prima facie evidence quite false. And speaking as a pastor, it would be unconscionable to advise an engaged couple who were having difficulties in their relationship to “go ahead and get married” — as if that would solve, rather than multiply, their problems.

Tobias Haller BSG

Thoughts for 1.2.08

Assumptions unchallenged soon become beliefs; habits indulged become customs, then traditions. Testimony not given or not heard lies bleeding at the roadside.

Tobias Haller

January 1, 2008

Where Is that Covenant?

Over at a blog called "Covenant" participant Dave Sims openly wonders why more isn't being said these days about the Draft Anglican Covenant. Sims admits he didn't even know where to find the DAC on-line, but also seems to be unaware of the depth of discussion (albeit one-sided) that has indeed been going on.

For instance, while he notes that I made a brief comment questioning the need for a Covenant back in the fall of 2006 (before the Draft was produced) and that I published a satirical comment just last month, he fails to reference the detailed critique of the Draft Covenant in the response from the Diocese of New York General Convention Deputation, a response of which I was the principle author. This document raises a number of very specific questions about the DAC, and I have seen similar questions asked again and again elsewhere.

And there has been very little response; which goes far to explain why there hasn't been much recent comment since. The current version of the DAC dates from April of last year, after all; although there has been considerable comment since then (most of it in the months immediately following the Draft's release) there has been very little response or engagement from the Covenant Design Group. (I hardly think Ephraim Radner posting a comment at Stand Firm constitutes critical engagement!) There is really very little for those of us not on the Design Group to discuss until we see if and how the Design Group addresses the many critiques in their next (and one assumes, final) draft. This is, after all, how draft documents are refined and edited. At present who knows what if any of the critique already on record has been taken under any kind of serious consideration.

This is most troubling due to the extent to which the Covenant-oriented (both on the Design Group and at places such as the "Covenant" blog) seem not to appreciate the strong opposition to the idea of having any covenant at all, by those of us who see any covenant other than one rooted in shared ministry and mission to be a dangerous and unnecessary innovation. Their response, to date, has been to ignore that opposition as if it were self-evident that a Covenant such as they propose is needed -- an asseveration that does not bear the support of history: since Anglicanism has survived until now without one, and the proposed Covenant will most definitely mark the end of Anglicanism as we have known it up until now, so fundamental is the change in structure and ethos proposed -- as Dave Sims clearly recognizes in noting the importance of this proposal.

It would be wonderful if the Covenant Design Group would share some of the revisions that might have been made on the basis of the critiques that have been offered. Then we might see if in fact some workable covenant could be possible. But without a view of the actual text, vague comments about "drawing people to the truth, through various means of integrity" seem to be more of a kind of wishful communionist jargon than practical ecclesiology.

Tobias Haller BSG