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Thursday, August 4, 2011

Sexual Orientation: a core doctrine?

Since the debate over the ordination and blessing of those in same sex relationships continues to ravage our communion, and the issue has started to be discussed in terms of 'core doctrine', a recent sermon on the subject is now posted as I try and see what legs the core doctrine approach has to it.

Patronal Evensong Sermon for St Paul, Sunday 10 July 2011

Since at least 2003, with the ordination of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire while declared as living in a long-term committed same sex relationship, it is no secret that our Anglican Communion is in trouble. For some time observers have been predicting the end of the Communion. Some provinces and Dioceses have already distanced themselves from the Communion through various statements and associated actions (e.g. Nigeria, Sydney).

The dispute can be compared with controversies which have wracked our Communion before – the remarriage of the divorced and the ordination of women come to mind. The difference is that some now argue the issue of homosexuality is a matter of core doctrine rather than adiaphora – the term used to denote something that can leave room for disagreement. Core doctrines have been understood to mean what the creeds and early church councils agreed with regard to the Trinity and to the person and work of Jesus Christ: disagreement on these statements of faith would present a most serious threat to the unity of the church. By contrast, adiaphora have been defined by one report as matters “upon which disagreement can be tolerated without endangering unity.”

So, is sexual orientation a matter of core doctrine?

I have yet to understand how sexual orientation can relate to statements about the Trinity and the person and work of Christ. While I understand that, for some, Paul’s remarks in Romans (Chapter 1) seem sufficient mandate for the proscription of homosexuality, I am not confident that the scriptures can be used in this way. For instance, on the one hand, the matter is marginal in Paul (his real interest is much deeper); and, on the other hand, other so-called scriptural ‘proscriptions’ such as against usury, women or divorce have been re-interpreted over time as understanding and cultural circumstances have changed.

My own view is that we should be very careful of what we claim to be ‘core doctrine’ and I see no grounds for claiming Paul’s remarks on homosexuality to constitute anything of that kind. Ironically Paul over-turned what was in his time accepted as core doctrine: I refer to the debate in the Council of Jerusalem, the first great council of the church, on the question of circumcision.

In our current circumstances it may be salutary to remember how cultural norms and traditional understandings can assume great force and be regarded as ‘core doctrine’. That was certainly the case in the early church of Jerusalem. The church had begun in Jerusalem – it was Jewish. Its members worshipped in the temple and on the matter of dietary laws and circumcision, those matters that defined Jewishness, they were indistinguishable from other Jews. Any Gentiles attracted either to Judaism or to the faith of the Jewish Christians, ‘The Way’ as it was called, would also have worshipped in the temple but, unless they were circumcised, they would not have dared enter (on pain of death) the inner precinct but kept to the outer Court of the Gentiles. It is easy for us to underestimate how important circumcision was held to be by the Jews and Jewish Christians: for instance, it is said that the old Rabbis used to teach that were it not for Abraham circumcising himself at God’s insistence, the world would not exist. Jews went to war over circumcision: when Hadrian banned it in the 2nd century – the Bar Kokhbar rebellion followed; in the Maccabean period Jewish women faced death rather than not have their sons circumcised. Circumcision was at the heart of Jewish identity – it was a core doctrine.

However outside Jerusalem, away from the temple, especially north in the Syrian coastal city of Antioch, things were different. There Gentile followers of the Way worshipped with Jews in synagogues and circumcision did not seem so important; instead the Way became more defined as a distinctive sect within Judaism – and it was in Antioch, the writer of Acts informs us, that they were first called Christians (Acts 11:26).

Perhaps it was inevitable for two such divergent views to collide and for conflict to ensue. We read in Acts how ‘certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’ (Chap.15:1). We hear of the conflict that followed and that it was so severe that Paul and Barnabas ‘were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders’ (Acts 15:2).

So the Jerusalem Council had to face a real challenge over what some were utterly convinced was core doctrine. Jerusalem was the Mother Church and had the key leaders of the Way – Peter, James and John – associated with it. Acts tells us that at the meeting ‘some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the Law of Moses.” (Acts 15:5)

Fortunately the Jerusalem Council conceded the force of Paul’s argument enough not to force either division or compliance. So the church survived to continue its mission. Instead core doctrine was located in the mystery of Christ: as Paul bluntly said “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:6) Thank God for that!

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