Until recently, no divorced person could remarry in the church. That is no longer the case. The church changed its mind-most would say for the better. Photo: Shutterstock
Several years ago I met a friend from college who became an Orthodox priest. When I mentioned that I am now an Anglican priest, we began to chat about the similarities and differences between our two churches. My friend said to me, “The trouble with you Anglicans is that you always change your mind. You might say one thing one day, and another thing another day. You lack consistency. We Orthodox are absolutely clear on the authority of scripture and sacred tradition. We are unwavering in our teaching. We never change.”
I’m not sure if how my friend characterized the Orthodox church is accurate, but over the years I have thought seriously on what he said about Anglicans and, in light of scripture from Exodus, I now have an answer for him. Exodus 32:14 says: “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”
That’s a very important verse of scripture. Jewish biblical scholar Richard Friedman, in his book The Hidden Face of God, suggests that we ought to take this verse as seriously as revelation, the very heart of the story. Exodus 32:14 tells us about the kind of God we have: we have a God who changes his mind.
Yes, I know…we tend to think of God as unchanging and changeless. “Change and decay in all around I see; / O thou, who changest not, abide with me,” writes Henry Francis Lyte in one of the most beloved hymns of the Christian church. The Scottish pastor and hymn writer Walter Chalmers Smith said it more poetically: “We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree, / And wither and perish, but naught changeth thee.”
Nothing changes God. But, according to Exodus, God changes his mind. God was about to destroy the Jewish people for their apostasy; then, thanks to the intercession of Moses, he relents and changes his mind.
What a God we have here! This is not Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover or Plato’s Absolute Good. The God of Israel is one who is open to change. God will revise his plans and reconsider his decisions, based on ongoing interaction with those affected.
Do you recall the story of Noah and the flood? God spared one righteous man, and his family, and began the human race over again. In Exodus 32:10, God proposes to do the same thing. Only this time Moses intervenes: “Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster upon your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel, your servants…. And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring upon his people” (Exodus 32:12b−14).
That is amazing. It reveals a God who gets angry, relents and keeps on forgiving, over and over. You can read the entire history of Israel that way. It is the history of God getting angry at Israel, threatening to do something terrible, then remembering the covenant he made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and relenting, forgiving and taking Israel back. What this tells us is that the most essential thing about God is mercy, love, forgiveness and compassion.
Do you remember the story of how God asks Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach repentance to the people so that God can forgive them? Jonah doesn’t want to go. He hates the Ninevites. He knows that, if they repent, God will forgive them. He doesn’t want this to happen. So he says to God, “I knew that you are you a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2b).
The distant, immortal, immutable, unchanging, unfeeling God is not the God of the Bible. God may appear that way to those who do not know him. That God is the God of the philosophers-the God of the abstract idea, the prime mover, the first principle, the ground of being, some idea, some abstraction. But that is not the God of the Bible.
If God can change his mind because his very nature is compassion and love and mercy and forgiveness, then so can we. So can the church. I don’t mean change our minds capriciously or arbitrarily, but change them to become more loving, more forgiving, more merciful, more compassionate, more Christ-like.
John T. Noonan, the well-known Roman Catholic scholar, jurist, and author of A Church That Can and Cannot Change, wrote about how the Roman Catholic Church has changed its mind on five key issues over the centuries: marriage, slavery, the death penalty, religious freedom and lending money at interest. It is difficult for us, perhaps, to comprehend that the institution of slavery was widely practised and accepted by most Christians until the 19th century. Muslim slaves were manning papal galleys until 1800. Jesuits in colonial Maryland owned slaves, as did nuns in Europe and Latin America. Only at the urging of Protestant Britain did the papacy condemn the slave trade in 1839, and it was not until 1888 that the papacy condemned slavery itself, after every Christian nation had abolished it.
The Roman Catholic Church has changed its mind on many issues many times. So have Anglicans. Consider the religious upheaval at the time of the Reformation. If you were a priest ordained in 1530 and retired in 1560, you would have experienced five major upheavals in the life of the church! It would take another 100 years before liturgy and doctrine would be settled through the 1662 Prayer Book.
And change is still happening. It may surprise us to know that, until the second half of the 20th century, no divorced person could remarry in the church, let alone be eligible for Holy Orders. That, of course, is no longer the case. The church changed its mind-and most of us would say for the better.
The same goes for the ordination of women. One of the strongest opponents of women priests in the Episcopal church was Victor Rivera, the third bishop of the diocese of San Joaquin in California. Bishop Rivera not only would not ordain women, he even refused to allow woman priests to function in his diocese. When his daughter Nedi Rivera was ordained a priest, Victor was absent from the ceremony. When Nedi was elected suffragan bishop of the diocese of Olympia in Washington state, however, Victor was one of her co-consecrators. Through his daughter, he had changed his mind about the rightness of women’s ordination.
Did you know that the Anglican Communion opposed birth control until 1930? At the Lambeth Conferences of 1908 and 1920, the bishops voted against any kind of contraception. To them, church teaching was clear-going back to St. Augustine: “Sexual activity… is forbidden except within marriage, where it is allowed only in acts that are open to procreation. Contraception, since it violates the integrity of the conjugal act, is prohibited” (The New World of Faith, Cardinal Avery Dulles).
But in 1930, Anglicanism became the first major branch of Christianity to allow contraception. Quickly, mainline Protestant churches followed, while the Roman Catholic Church did not. In 1931 Pope Pius XI issued the encyclical Casti Canubii, which reiterated the long-held prohibition on contraception. That decision was reaffirmed by Pope Paul VI-and today the prohibition on contraception remains part of official Roman Catholic teaching.
So who is right-the church that changed its mind in the face of 1500 years of tradition because different circumstances and new knowledge warranted a different conclusion or the church that adhered to the tradition absolutely, even in the face of a changing world? You be the judge.
What happened with contraception echoes what is happening as we move toward same-sex blessings. Gradually but steadily, the church is changing its mind as it develops a teaching on sexuality based on experience deepened by empathy. John Noonan thinks doctrinal development should be based on love, knowledge and insight, and he likes St. Augustine’s rule of faith: a true understanding of divine revelation is one that will “build up that double love of God and of neighbor.”
Many of you may know that I support open communion. A lot of controversy surrounds the issue, which makes ongoing conversation all the more important. Someone recently asked me, “How wide is wide?” By that he meant, “How inclusive does the church have to become to accommodate people into it?” I told him that I didn’t know the answer to that question, except that it seemed to me God was stretching the church to draw the circle wide-wider and wider-until all people everywhere are embraced in the arms of Jesus, who loves without limit and whose mercy is without end.
How wide is wide? As wide as the love of Jesus.
Dear people: it is OK to change your mind when that leads you to become more loving, more compassionate, more inclusive. It is OK to give up beliefs and opinions that no longer make sense because they prevent you from loving other people as God loves them. Never be so fixed in your beliefs that God can’t melt your heart and open your mind to the new things God is doing in the world.
We in the Anglican church may not always get it right, but it is always better to err on the side of being more loving than less loving, more merciful than less merciful, more compassionate than less compassionate, more inclusive than less inclusive. The next time you dig in your heels and draw a line in the sand and refuse to budge on an issue, think twice about it, because if God can change, so can you.
— The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.