CHESS OR CHURCH?
As the Scottish Episocopal church engages with the question of same-sex marriage, there is another group within the Anglican communion who is prepraring to make some news in Edinbrugh today. Gafcom, the grouping of those who are of conservative theology, may appoint a Bishop for Scotland, should the SEC vote in favour of licencing clergy for same-sex marriage.
This would not quite be in the “flying bishops” mode of the C of E, who appointed bishops to service the needs of those who opposed female clergy. The difference, and it is a big one, is that the Gafcom Bishop would be operating within Scotland, without being licenced or approved by Scottish Bishops.
Can Gafcom do it? Within Scottish canonical law, probably not, within the wider context of episcopal authority, possibly. The question is not can they, but should they?
To me it points to a question of what sort of church we want to be. I want to be the sort of church the Apostles founded, a spirit-breathed bible-based, divinely institued communion of God. But what does that sort of church look like? If we go by the Acts of the Apostles, it looks like a passionate, messy, argumentative but faithful church, full of vibrant people and full hearts. And occasional arguments. That’s part of the package. What it doesn’t look like is a bureaucratic, procedural, ecclesiastical church, whose communion with one another is through pronouncements, regulations and canons.
Jesus knew the sort of church he was setting up when in Matthew 18 he gave them some sort of rules for how to disagree. He did that because he knew they would – often. If you have an issue with your brother or sister, he said, speak to them personally first, then if that doesn’t work, bring along a few friends to help sort the matter out, if not speak to the whole church, and keep working on it until you see no choice but to split – and even then, he said, treat them like a Gentile – that is, someone in need of the loving mercy of God, someone to be brought back into the folk and taught the good news. At no point was there an opt-out of communicating with those with whom your disagree.
Paul may not have heard that part of the teaching when he confronted Peter about Gentile converts, but it was certainly what he did. In his own Pauline way, he more or less bawled Peter out for backsliding on his attitude towards Gentiles. Paul didn’t talk about Peter, he talked to him, he travelled a long way to speak to him. They had a passionate discussion, possibly and argument, and they kept debating and discussing.
By contrast, a theological discussion about the nature of God as expressed in the Creed took place a few centuries later. By now the church was powerful and well-organised. The controversy was about whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the son together, or just from the Father – known as the filioque clause.
Now that theological discussion had been simmering for centuries, from the 6th scentury, but in the 11th century things changed. It changed because both sides of this debate became associated with political power. The place of the Bishop of Rome and the Bishop of Constantinope in the church became a subtext to a simmering argument, the issue of how the church was governed became a power-grab, and in 1054 the schism between what is now the Orthodox and Catholic churches took place. It is for this reason, the question of whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father or the father and son together, than the churches have been split fromm the 11th century to this day. Now I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty embarassing to me.
The question of what sort of church we are boils down to this – are we a family, or an ideology? Should we behave like a family, with our arguments and disagreements, or like a political party, with a given party line, and occasional schisms?
My Dad and I disagree about many things. We disagree about divorce and remarriage, about female clergy, about same-sex marriage. We even, believe it or not, on an evening with rather too much whisky, disagreed about the filioque clause. But he’s still my Dad. We still talk together about all of these things, and many more. And we still love each other. If we have a problem we talk it through. Sometimes it’s resolved, sometimes it’s not, sometimes it takes time.
I believe we are supposed to be the family of God, not a political party. Political parties can have nice clear lines, and nice clean policy statements. But they also have machinations, power-bases and subterfuge, none of which is part of our Gospel. I’m afraid the Gafcom move feels like a political move, not a family argument.
It might be that having an alternative oversight bishop could keep some of our churches in the Anglican commuinion, should the same-sex marriage vote go through. I wouldn’t like it, but then again I don’t like lots of things that my family members do. Loving people who are different is a compromise.
But not this way. Not this political way. By all means, let’s talk with passion. Let’s discuss and wrestle and fight and pray. Let’s shout at each other if we need to in the street like St Paul. Let’s lose our tempers if we must, and come together and talk of other things, like normaly families do.
But let’s not seek to out-manouvre one another. This isn’t chess, this is church. If we do it this way, there may be a winner, but it won’t be the will of God.