After a wonderful day out in the sun, I return home to a Twitter feed bulging with reaction to Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s Easter sermon in Edinburgh. It was near top of the BBC news this morning, but it was surprising difficult to locate their coverage on the BBC website (here) this evening. Archbishop Rowan Williams’s sermon (something about happiness) got much more coverage. From this coverage I find it rather unclear what Cardinal O’Brien actually said, beyond an attack on “aggressive secularism”, and calling for all Christian denominations to unite against it in defence of traditional Christian values. This was enough to get Evan Harris wound up and twittering.
I do support state secularism, but my deeper reaction to Cardinal O’Brien’s sentiments are about what it means to Christians. There seems to be a large body of people for whom a (the?) fundamental purpose of Christianity is to defend its traditional values. I have heard people on the radio suggesting that the Church got these values right at the start, and that to change them to suit modern fashion is a betrayal. There is a massive reaction against accepting gays – quite disproportionate to the significance of the issue. Likewise, many react badly to the idea of women priests and bishops, to the extent of switching from Anglican to Catholic denomination.
I find this very strange because it seems so at odds with the teachings of Jesus in the gospels, to say nothing of how the church has evolved since. The central message to me of the Sermon on the Mount was that Christians should not be deceived by the letter of the law, but always go to the underlying purpose, and to do so with humility and love. This is a dynamic message, allowing practices to be continuously re-interpreted. One of the examples in the sermon was the observance of the Sabbath – where Jesus said that it was nonsense to be totally strict. And so the church did adapt, notably by extending membership to Gentiles. And this adaptation has been dynamic. Take its attitude to women. It is quite clear that in the very early days, the time of Paul, women had a leadership role in the church. But as Christianity became closer to the establishment this was less acceptable, and so doctrine changed (including some rather dubious epistles making it into the Bible, supposedly from Paul himself). More recently, women have been returning to prominence, although the Catholic hierarchy are still determined to hold their line in the sand.
Defence of tradition actually undermines the core Christian message. It is a doctrine to hide behind rather than face up to the challenges that real faith should lead you to. It is a message of despair. Is that really all that is left of this once great faith? At least Archbishop Williams is trying to use his Easter pulpit to promote a message of hope.