You condemn it, Archbishop

It is often noted that the Scottish Episcopal Church is very much in favour of the Anglican Communion. What is noted in public slightly less often but which is no less important to remember, is that it is not in favour of the Anglican Communion at any cost. Our dismissal of the Anglican Covenant showed that very clearly.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s statements yesterday in a radio phone-in, which seemed to imply that opening marriage to same-sex couples would lead to murder in Africa, take us into a very murky ethical place. I have to admit that my heart sank when I heard it. We have had more than enough of this kind of thing from inhabitants of Lambeth Palace. It seems very clear to me that in this case, Justin Welby is wrong.

Generally speaking, I thought it was a poor radio performance. Personally I never do radio phone-ins. It is a format that is hard to do well with. The Archbishop seemed nervous (perhaps rightly) and ill-prepared.

The particularly offensive thing which he has said is to suggest that there should be no movement on opening marriage to same-sex couples in the church because that could lead to Anglicans being murdered in Africa. He told a story of standing beside a mass grave and being told that the people had been killed by local opposition forces.

I’ve stood by a graveside in Africa of a group of Christians who’d been attacked because of something that had happened far far away in America, and they were attacked by other people – because of that a lot of them had been killed.

Inevitably, I’ve seen US friends posting a great deal online asking whether the Archbishop was trying to lay the blame for dead Africans at the doors of The [US-based] Episcopal Church. It is a repugnant suggestion and comes just before Justin Welby is due to visit that church next week. The Archbishop needs to justify his claim or withdraw it. It is a vile suggestion for a cleric to make of another part of the church.

I find the ethics of this very straightforward. It seems to me that the ethics of the Anglican Communion, of the churches in the UK, of the churches in North America, of the governments of the nations in which we live – these cannot be determined by those who bear the bullet and the bomb. The Archbishop of Canterbury seems to have been suggesting that our policies should be dictated by murderers.

In some ways this isn’t new. Justin Welby’s view is probably not that different to that of Rowan Williams and we’ve heard the same stuff coming from the Mothers’ Union for years. More than once I’ve heard it said that Rowan Williams was desperate for Jeffrey John to withdraw from being a bishop because he feared the consequences of violence in other countries. It can seem plausible put like that, can’t it? Who wouldn’t want to stop violence?

The trouble is, it is an attempt to deal with the reality and horror of violence by appeasing the violent. It is giving those who murder, a moral authority that they can never be allowed to hold.

Let us presume for a moment, for the sake of argument that the story told to Justin Welby is essentially true – that there is a mass grave in Africa caused solely by positive attitudes to gay people (a gay person?) in the US. If that is true then the only Christian response is to condemn the violence and do so publicly, loudly and endlessly. You don’t keep your mouth shut and try to turn the clock back on progressive attitudes on the other side of the world as a response to it.

The claim is that these people were killed because their opponents believed that if they left Christians alive then they would be “made gay”. If this is true then those people were killed as a result of homophobia.  It is homophobia of the worst, most violent sort that killed the people in the Archbishop’s story.

You condemn it, Archbishop. That’s what you are called to do.

This feels very personal for me. In my work at St Mary’s I encounter very frequently people who come from Africa including some of the countries that are being discussed around the world because of this current conversation. I also encounter  those who are gay and lesbian and particularly, I help those amongst them who want to get married, to get hitched. Am I supposed to prejudice the rights, livelihoods and wellbeing of one group over another because someone threatens one particular group with violence?

We are our own Anglican Communion at St Mary’s and I couldn’t possible care only for the rights of one group. We all have a right to life, to security, to live our lives to the full.

When you encounter violence, you condemn it, Archbishop. When you encounter murder, you condemn it, Archbishop. When you encounter homophobia, you condemn it, Archbishop.

You don’t appease it, Justin Welby. You condemn it.

Why should any of us in any land expect anything less of you?

Baptism and Communion – more

I’m grateful to those who have commented on the post I put up on Monday regarding the order in which it might be thought proper to receive the sacraments. Particular thanks to Akma for the thoughtful post that he put up on his own blog about it.

Comments come in all over the place these days – it might be worth just noting a couple and my own response to them here.

Erp made the interesting comment that various Anglican churches honour Elizabeth Fry in their calendars and it seems to be the case that she being a Quaker would not have been baptised. That’s an interesting point and one that I’d not thought about. Can you have an unbaptised hero of the faith?

In a similar way, someone commented on twitter that Jesus said to the repentant thief that today he would be with him in paradise and that baptism did not seem to be an issue there. I’m guessing that Akma might well respond to that with the view that this was an utterly exceptional case from which it is pretty hard to make a general case. If he did, I’d have to say I’d agree with him.

However, I’m a bit troubled by something which Akma did seem to suggest which was that we could somehow note with rejoicing the unpredictable activity of the Holy Spirit blowing where the Spirit wills but at the same time apparently base our thinking about the church on Other Matters. I’m not sure I feel comfortable with that. It seems to me that if we believe that Pentecost matters, ecclesiology is inherently bound up with our pneumatology.

Much of Akma’s argument seems to be that specific instances of different practice in this area should not be used as a case for making a change to what has hitherto been the norm. I can understand that up to a point. However, I’d have to ask whether it is appropriate for the norm to be used to construct a prohibition on other possibilities.

Those who come to different conclusions about this question almost seem to pass as ships in the night, never really engaging with the issues which the other point of view raises. I suspect this may be because the argument is being played out in quite different playgrounds – the ethical and the more strictly theological.

Those who would favour a more open table are coming at this with ethical arguments. For example: Would Jesus have refused anyone communion who happened to be at the last supper on the basis of their baptismal status? (And yes, this is the point where that argument notes that he shared bread with Judas). [This is a ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ argument and they don’t always make for straightforward thinking, but it is an ethical argument all the same]. There seems to be more evidence of disciples baptising than descriptions of them being baptised.

There is a reason why it matters whether or not this is an ethical argument. Modern times seem to be making people less easy with deriving ethics from norms. Increasingly, modern people will assess each individual circumstance and make ethical judgements in the moment on the best evidence that they have that something is right. (Those who have recently been at my ‘Everything You Need to Know about Christian Ethics in 6 Cartoons’ seminar can see pictures in their minds right now). I see situation ethics being used to trump normative ethics left, right and centre and I only forsee that increasing.

Those on the other side seem to have more of a theological system that they want to defend and I’ve seen some folk who seem to think that lots of other things will come crashing down around their ears if this point is conceded. I find myself wondering whether the same things would have been thought to be at risk 30 years ago regarding Confirmation before Eucharist. Or indeed in some traditions Confession before Eucharist. Or Baptism before Marriage. Or Confirmation before Bellringing. (This is not a hypothetical issue – I was involved in looking at our bellringers’ guild constitution at the weekend which asserts that members of the Guild need to be confirmed, a point which is as honoured in the breach as in the observation).

Please don’t send me postcards and billets-doux telling me that Bellringing is not one of the sacraments of the church. I know. I know.

I don’t think, incidentally, that I can be found to argue in favour of the unbaptized receiving communion as an idea that carries any theological virtue. However, I do tend to want to say that we should welcome everyone to communion. That does seem to carry theological virtue. In any case, the idea that baptism should precede eucharist and the idea that everyone is welcome at God’s table are not polar opposites and it would trouble me to think that they might be seen to be.

I remember a quite heavy discussion once with someone about this during which I proclaimed that if anyone presented their open hands at the altar I would be unlikely to refuse them the host. The person who had just moments before declared that baptism must always precede communion looked me in the eye and said, “Well, neither would I. Of course I wouldn’t.”

I tend to take the view that Christians should do what they say and be truthful about what they do. And that gets me back to ethics. Melissa suggested that this issue is a “Don’t Ask, Don’t tell” kind of thing and I have a feeling she might be right. I’m not sure that I feel good about “Don’t Ask, Don’t tell” policies very often.

Do people who have different theological views about this issue actually have very similar pastoral ethics when the find themselves at Table?

If they do, then Akma’s raising of the issue of whether this is an adiaphoron is right on the button.