Cardinal O’Brien: is this all that’s left of Christianity?

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.

4 thoughts on “Cardinal O’Brien: is this all that’s left of Christianity?”

  1. Thank you for this – you could also write for a blog called ‘thinking Christian’!

    Jesus’ teachings are those of a prophet/revolutionary, he showed no interest in founding a church. His ‘manifesto’ would be more like the Green party than Lab/Con, to use a limited analogy.

    When Constantine decided to make christianity the state religion for the Roman Empire, he was not working with promising material – his starting point was a combination of critique and impossible(?) idealism. How to make a hierarchy, legal system, power structure out of that? Mohammed would have been a better job, but he came too late.

    It is tempting to think that Constantine was using christianity for his own ends, but what would you do if you were both a real emperor and a real christian? How could one change the law to enshrine such principles as ‘If a man takes your cloak, give him your shirt too’? would forgiveness prompt one get rid of law altogether? The statement ‘give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and what is God what is God’s’ is difficult to interpret if you yourself are Caesar.

    I think the gospels do not form a complete blueprint for a working government, but that doesn’t mean that the principle of a christian state is completely flawed. Could not it be ‘more christian’ than a secular state? I believe the catholic (and orthodox) churches are attempts to solve this problem. They are unpleasantly imperfect, but I don’t believe they can be criticised solely on the grounds that they don’t follow the gospel teachings.

    1. You’re right that the gospel message is no way to run a state or a church – which I think is why I am still so drawn to it, even after having lost touch with so many Christian doctrines. Its madness just forces you to look at problems in a new way.

      Still I don’t think it is of fundamental importance for a church to hold fast by a particular tradition. I think the gospel can be used in a process of continuous renewal, rather than hanging on to a particular set of doctrines. Having said that, for many this consistency is one of the abiding attractions of the faith. Which I suppose is why I call myself an agnostic and not a Christian.

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