Two sides of the Church

It has been a big week in my ongoing spiritual odyssey, as I wrestle with my agnostic contradictions.  My anti-Church  hackles were raised, all too predictably, by the Church of England’s response to the Government’s consultation on gay marriage.  But I was was  disarmed by the response of a priest to a blog on the subject.  And then I chanced into hearing an episode of Richard Holloway’s radio series Honest Doubt.

First that Church response on gay marriage.  To start with I relied on news reports, mainly from the BBC.  And these were (predictably) provocative – saying that the Church felt the issue to be one of the gravest in its 500 year history, and implying that the Church still considered marriage to be about having children.  I could not but feel this was a calculated insult to my own, childless, marriage.

But rather than sounding off in that vein, I thought I had bet read it (summary here, with link to the full response).  It was of course, much more measured.  But it also cut no ice.  Indeed it seemed to be just begging the question (in the proper sense of being circular rather than the common usage of “inviting the question”).  Two problems preoccupy the drafters: first that it changes the meaning of marriage.  To which the liberal response is, “Well spotted.  So?”  The second worry follows: it means that the Church’s definition of marriage will no longer follow the state’s.  They say that there should be no difference between “religious” and “state” marriage; there should be just marriage.  The natural response from liberals is, “Well, that’s entirely up to you.  Why should that bother us?”  The Church marriage would be fully recognised by the state; it would be a subset of state marriage.  Actually, the reason for the Church to worry about this distinction was spotted by many commentators.  It is part of that wedge with is slowly separating the Church of England from the state and may one day force its disestablishment.  But to most people the establishment status of the Church is just an ornament with nostalgic value, rather like the monarchy.  Few are against it, unless it tries to flex its muscles.  Trying to prevent overdue change to civil customs is just such a muscle flexing: and if it leads to disestablishment, so be it.

On reflection it is difficult to be angered by the Church’s position.  It is just demonstrates all the disappointment I have in it and other Christian institutions.  It just cannot reinterpret ancient principles in light of its more fundamental principles and our changing understanding of the world.  It is just heading for the dustbin of history.

Meanwhile atheistic Lib Dem blogger Mark Pack challenged the Church on the grounds of historical inconsistency.  One of his posts was entitled Could a theologian please help…?  The point at issue was divorce rather than the single sex bit – if the Bible says that marriage was to be for ever, why did they change their view on remarrying the divorced?  Typical smart Alick stuff from an outside commentator.  But it drew a long and wonderful response from a Methodist minister, Philip Wren.  He took time to start with the biblical quote from the Gospel of St Mark that defines the basis of marriage (“…what God has made let no man cast asunder.”)  But he explained it  in terms of the tension between forgiveness and sin.  It’s the sort of stuff that reminds me why I’m agnostic rather than atheist – Christianity is not about neat, cut and dried rules.  It’s about love and redemption.

This was enough to throw the Christian religion back into a more favourable light.  And then, by accident, I caught one of the BBC Radio 4 talks on “Honest Doubt” on Friday, tackling the issue of morality – if we throw out God and religion, on what basis do we found and enforce morality?  The honesty with which it confronted the question made me stop in my tracks.  I immediately went find other talks in the series from the BBC website.  Unfortunately the it isn’t available in podcast, and they apply a strict 7 day rule – so I could only backtrack a week on iPlayer, and missed the first 10 episodes (it extremely irritating when BBC do this, for no good reason that I can see).  I wasn’t disappointed as the series went through the various Victorian thinkers’ reactions as the faith was shaken to its foundations by a series of shocks.  I was particularly taken with Keats’s idea that truth comes from the process of doubt itself.

The talks are given by Richard Holloway, a former Bishop of Edinburgh and professor of theology.  I was hugely struck by the way a religious person could have the courage to confront deep questions that few dare to (amongst atheists as well as churchmen).  If they could do this, I thought, there was hope for the church yet.  I could be a member of a church that contained Richard Holloway.  As I researched Dr Holloway (my practice of using people’s titles as a mark of respect causes difficulties here – his not a bishop or a professor; I assume he is a doctor though!) I was not reassured, though.  He resigned from being a bishop, and now describes himself as an agnostic – his views taking him beyond the pale so far as the official church is concerned.  My struggle continues, but it is good to know that I am not alone.

The talks are given by

2 thoughts on “Two sides of the Church”

  1. Good article, thanks! As a Christian who is critical of many aspects of the church, I can relate to it.

    I am a very opinionated person, I can’t help it. It is natural for me to form and act off my own opinions. But I don’t know if I am wise to be so self-confident.

    It seems to be the current feeling that the church is allowing itself to be swallowed up by the dustbin of history.

    But who are we to judge, us modern westerners? Are we really the pinnacle of human evolution? Sure we know about aeroplanes and fridge-freezers (although most of us can’t build or repair these things), and we have our theory of evolution and of the big bang. But what does this count for? Who could know more about God than a devotee who spends their life in prayer and/or meditation? Are we at the pinnacle of the development of these inner faculties?

    Bowdler, the Victorian famous for editing out the rude bits of Shakespeare, no doubt thought he was doing the right thing, and yet 100 years later the rude bits are back in. Modern artists, despite the air-brush, the camera and the internet, are not often producing works superior to Da Vinci, Giotto, or ancient Egyptian sculpture.

    We have to think for ourselves, but we must also make a realistic assessment of our own capabilities.

    In the case of marriage I do not think us moderns know enough about alchemy to pronounce of it’s subtle alchemical secrets. Nor do we know enough about life’s secrets to pronounce on alchemy. The church’s job is to stay with eternal truths as best it can, and not be swayed by fashion, even when eternal truths are deeply unfashionable.

  2. Well I’m more inclined to believe in some sort of evolution of ideas, with less robust ones being replaced by the more robust in the great human jungle. Of course that’s different from the good supplanting the less good. But it may tell us about the dustbin of history.

    I am more careful these days not to tell Christians that they are wrong about something. My “dustbin of history” remark does rather push the boundary – but it is not an argument based on eternal truth but pragmatic understanding. My main energy is reserved to restricting the right of Christians telling the rest of us what is right and wrong (they are welcome to so do, but need better arguments than divine revelation by itself).

    And undoubtedly the Church of England is confident of the basic rightness of its stand on gay marriage (as opposed to its establishment status) by the fact that its followers outside western culture are more than confident of the Christian position. It is the west that is out of step.

    And of course Christians must proclaim what they see as eternal truths, however unpopular.

    BUT. My take on the New Covenant is that it is God has not ordained a series of detailed rules by which people should live their lives, as seems to be the case with the Jewish religion. Instead the eternal truths are based on a much more flexible set of principles, based on the central proposition of love. It should be the case that these can blend with culture and developing knowledge so that the rules change over time without overturning eternal verities. This has been done by most churches on the question of remarrying divorcees (but bot unconditionally). My disappointment is that for so many Christians (not all: the Quakers are an exception), they seem so unwilling to entertain any such flexibility. And I think in this case, in Europe and America, it is warranted.

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