‘Test the spirits’ on gay issue

Published May 1, 1998

REV. GEORGE EVES, rector of St Mark’s Church in Saint John, New Brunswick, recently published a book entitled Two Religions, One Church, and circulated it to all members of General Synod 1998. In his foreword, Archbishop Harold Nutter identifies the central issue of the book: “the relationship of homosexuals to the church as a question of human/social justice” versus “those who claim the authority of Scripture as a basis for their orthodox/ traditional stand.” This is “the issue which will reveal the church’s division into `two incompatible and competing religions,'” and thus, quite possibly, into two churches. The books ends with an invitation from Mr. Eves to join VOICE (Vocalizing Our Interest In Church Endeavours), and with an open letter to General Synod delegates.

Christians have divided over a number of issues, including doctrine, jurisdiction, and even politics; but we have never split over moral issues, presumably because we instinctively realize the truth behind Jesus’ injunction, “Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone.” But as Mr. Eves’ book makes clear, the homosexuality issue is not simply a moral one, but one which raises the much broader issue of authority, and scriptural authority in particular. Nor are the issues he raises peculiarly Canadian; they are under debate throughout the Anglican world and beyond. For some reason, though, the homosexuality issue seems to be stirring up more passion than did the parallel issues of divorce and remarriage or the ordination of women which have come up in recent decades – parallel issues because they too involve scriptural authority and theological principles while at the same time having a direct bearing on the daily lives of individual human beings.

One could take issue with a number of the assumptions which underlie Two Religions, One Church, and which therefore colour all its arguments. One would be the claim that “our Church was founded in the first half of the 16th century during the time of the Reformation.” Another would be the pretence that the Bible gives a single witness on the issue of sexual morality, or that the church has always interpreted the biblical data on this subject in the same way (e.g., the age-old difference between the eastern and western churches on remarriage after divorce; celibacy versus marriage as the preferable option; the changes in our own church this century on family planning and on remarriage).

Another would be the claim that liberals pick and choose their approved bits of the Bible, as from a smorgasbord, whereas real catholic/traditional/orthodox Christians accept the Bible whole and unaltered. Is one to infer that Mr. Eves and all Christians like him really subscribe uncritically to the levitical Law of the Hebrew Scriptures (and all its penalties), or the sumptuary laws of I Peter 3, or the political views of Romans 13? – and if not, by what criteria do they determine why these are no longer binding? Not, presumably, by any criteria which would cause soul searching in a contemporary seminarian. The book gives the impression that biblical studies are bound to undermine true faith, and that candidates should prepare for ministry in an atmosphere of pious anti-intellectualism.

Yet another challenge could arise from the discounting of religious experience as a valid factor in the development of Christian doctrine and practice. If, in the name of Jewish monotheism, the first Christians’ experience of Jesus and of the Holy Spirit had not been validated, Christian orthodoxy would not now affirm the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity. If Luther or Wesley had not had their particular religious experiences, and other Christians had not affirmed them, what would have become of the Reformation or the evangelical revival? Mr. Eves’ disclaimer of such experience is strange, coming from one who stands so firmly in the tradition these two spiritual giants helped to found, and in defence of the orthodox Christian faith.

So there are any number of people who might want to challenge Mr. Eves: Christian gays, church historians, and biblical scholars, to name but three. But my challenge to Mr. Eves is made on quite different grounds – grounds which we share, in some ways. Back in the ’70s, I was the principal mover behind the Manifesto on the ordination of women. Part of what prompted the Manifesto was the feeling of those who (for whatever reason) were “anti” that they had been unchurched by the liberal establishment of the day. So I sympathize with Mr. Eves – and remind him that establishments (ecclesiastical, political, academic) are all prone to the same temptation, and that things were no different for dissident voices when those of his convictions were in power in Massachusetts or Geneva or the English Commonwealth, any more than when High Anglicans held sway in Caroline England or the Inquisition in Catholic Spain. Now I am part of the establishment, and hope that I am avoiding the temptation. To judge by its theme (Lift Every Voice), General Synod is trying to avoid the temptation, too: every voice lifted in faith and love will be heard in faith and love.

Why, then, is the author of the Manifesto now writing to counter Mr. Eves? Let me begin a reply by referring to his statement (p. 113) that there are “some on both sides of the (homosexuality) debate that see it merely as an extension of the previous debates … over divorce and remarriage and the ordination of women.” Yes, indeed, and nothing he says in the following sentences convinces me that the parallel is not an exact one. Scripture is clear (through Paul – but is it Paul?!) that “women should keep silence in church.” (I Cor. 14:3, I Tim.2:11); Scripture is clear (through Jesus, who takes the hardest possible line in a matter which was controverted in contemporary Judaism) that remarriage after divorce constitutes adultery for both women and men (Mark 10: 2-12).

Yet as Canadian Anglicans we have ordained women and permitted remarriage after divorce, and Mr. Eves does not disavow either. Neither do I: I avow them both, but I wonder how he can. I avow them both, along with the homosexuality issue, because I believe in the Holy Spirit; because I take quite literally what Jesus tells us in Scripture: “I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth,” (John 16:12).

Jesus intended those words as a promise; why do so many people treat them as if they were a threat? And if it is indeed a promise, then why do many people limit its parameters to matters of pure theology, and not also to morality, spirituality, politics, social justice, and indeed every realm where the human spirit and the Spirit of God meet? Of course we must “test the spirits, whether they be of God,” and the test is whether witness is borne to the reality of the incarnation (I John 4:1). Were we wrong in our assessment of the Spirit in those other matters? Presumably we think not – then why are we so distrustful now?

Members of General Synod; fellow Canadian Anglicans: let those who rely most on the very words of Scripture heed Acts 5:34-42. Can we be certain that it is through VOICE that we are hearing each others’ voices, and discerning the voice of God to us today? Peter Hannen is archdeacon of the Diocese of Montreal.


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