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1st October 2006


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A Tale of Two Monarchs
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Christian Stewardship

In the stormy east wind straining
The pale yellow woods were waning.

These words of Tennyson came into my mind as I watched the annual fall of leaves in our garden. No stormy east wind today, just a gentle breeze and the leaves dropping slowly and softly, presenting a beautiful and relaxing scene. So far this autumn we have not experienced any of the equinoctial gales which at this time of year often sweep in from the Atlantic and act as heralds of tbe coming winter. When the gales come the whole scene of leaf fall will be transformed and the gentle and relaxing tumbling will be replaced by a veritable storm of faded leaves falling to their next incarnation as loam in the ground below. That is yet to be and for the moment I can enjoy the pageant and reflect on it.

My eyes had gone to the softly tumbling leaves as I put down a newspaper article about the current crisis in the Anglican Church. This is the main church in Britain, but although the crisis has involved directly only this particular communion, other denominations have become caught in the fallout for all are in much the same position. Suddenly the waning woods and the crisis ridden declining church seemed to have something in common. The situation which I describe here relates, I must emphasise, to the British scene. The Christian church in other lands may not be suffering from the same malaise or may have the illness in a less advanced state.

Almost half a century ago, when I first became a theological student, the signs that the church was approaching the autumn of its life were all around us. Congregations were on the decline and every few months we would hear of another church or chapel closing its doors for ever, its valiant attempts to stay alive finally defeated by the hard fact that the dropping off of interest in religion had made the position of many places of worship untenable.

We young students did not see any great threat in this. In our more arrogant moments we were convinced that when we were ordained we would be able to stop the rot. Years of bitter experience had pass under the Bridge of Time before we came to realise that the problem was much more deeply rooted than we imagined as we discussed it over our coffee cups in the Junior Common Room.

Perhaps the physical state of the college building should have awakened us more fully to the true situation. The venerable old edifice was in that state of early ruin in which it could claim status from neither the modern planners nor the Registrar of Ancient Buildings. A ruined castle has a glory of its own and when we visit it we see only the beauty and breathe the air of venerability. A modern city may be seen as a testimony to progress and success and may convey to us an atmosphere of confidence that the economic system is strong and will be our support at all times and in all things. Walking through the modern city, however, we may come across a building which has seen better times. It stands amid these glorious visions of hope, bedraggled and unsure of itself, not really at home here in the great city but not obsolete either. A few passing centuries may afford it the venerability that history and time, working in joint harness, alone can convey, but for the present it testifies to the failure of the industry which it represents. The tide of time has flowed on and left it foundering in the shallows. Our college was rather like that Set in a prosperous area, just round the corner from a modern hospital, it seemed something of an anachronism. It was a sore on an otherwise healthy body, unlike anything around it. In the college the wear and tear of decades was no longer repaired because there was insufficient money in the bank. A musty odour of decay permeated the libraries and had we had eyes to see we might have realised that the bricks and mortar around us was symbolic of the malaise which was sapping the strength of the whole church.

For half a hundred autumns since my student days the leaves dropped gently from the ecclesiastical trees until there came in quick succession two great tempests. These sudden storms caused a rapid waning in the state of the British churches. Religion, which for many years had suffered a bad press, was further debased in the minds of people as they watched our spiritual leaders engage in controversies which were bitter and often revealed an intolerance which one did not expect from the church. Such was the reaction to these tempests, the first of which was the question of the ordination of women to the priesthood and the second the issue of ordaining openly homosexual people as priests and bishops. I have watched as the church tore itself apart by the controversies surrounding these two issues.

As the leaves fall in the gardens, woodlands and hedges the hidden shape of the trees becomes obvious. So, to continue with our allegory of the autumn leaves, we see the true shape of the church being revealed as it loses the factors which previously kept it hidden. One of the most important outcomes of this process is that many people have seen and realised that the church is both ambiguous and hypocritical in its attitude to Scripture. Although the man or woman in the street might not put the matter in these words our Christian stewardship is in question. That stewardship selects from the Bible those texts which favour its argument and studiously ignores the contradictory ones. Let me give you two instances.

When the question of the ordination of women increased to the point where it became a burning issue rather than a fringe discussion subject there were many who opposed it on the grounds that it was forbidden in the Bible. They are perfectly correct, it is - in the First letter of Paul to the Corinthian church, chapter 14 verses 34 and 35. And when it was proposed very recently to consecrate as Bishop of Reading an openly homosexual priest there were once again voices raised which pointed out that homosexuality carried the proscription of the Old Testament law, which is set out in the Biblical books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Again they were quite correct. The ban is written in Leviticus chapter 20 verse 13. But it was soon observed that those who spoke against homosexual clergy served up ham sandwiches at their meetings, lived in houses without parapets and even wore shirts of mixed materials - cotton and polyester for example. All of these things are condemned by the same Code of Laws in Leviticus chapter 11 verse7, Deuteronomy chapter 22 verse 8, and Deuteronomy chapter 22 verse 11 respectively, So why do those who are so vociferous in their application of the laws against women and homosexuals not apply to themselves all the other laws of this Codex? We could multiply examples further; for instance, the same law as that which denies homosexuals a full place in the church commands that regular animal sacrifices are made (Leviticus chapter 1 and elsewhere) and that the offerings of the fruit of the land made at harvest celebrations are to be waved by the priest before the altar. I have yet to observe any priest or minister carry out this autumnal shaking and the smell of burning animal flesh never wafts out of the homes of the above-mentioned supporters of the ancient law..It is worth noting also that the practice of homosexuality which is forbidden in the Mosaic Law carried the death penalty. It is a source of wonder to me that in this advanced age people can still see validity in a legislative system which has such ridiculously extreme penalties. It is equally a source of rejoicing that we no longer tolerate animal sacrifices. Yet despite this greater enlightenment we can still isolate individual texts from the said Law as an excuse to persecute homosexuals and to keep women in the church regarded as inferior citizens of the Kingdom of God.

The New Testament prohibition on women entering the ranks of the clergy was initiated by Saint Paul. Indeed he went further than that and declared that women should not be allowed into the church as full members. (I Corinthians chapter 14 verses 34 and 35 again.) Paul's stance is held to be good and valid by opponents of womens ordination, but there are other commandments in the New Testament which are passed over by the very people who use the texts of their choice as an excuse to harass and suppress women and homosexuals in the church. As an example of this duplicity we may take the stringently observed practice of sharing all goods and wealth equally in the early Christian community. {Acts of the Apostles chapter 4 verse 32.) I have not noticed that those who want women to continue to occupy only an inferior place in the church are in the habit of becoming part of a communistic fellowship because that too is commanded. How can we possibly justify such a selective attitude?

It may well be argued that I am guilty of selectivity myself as I accept that some of the ancient rules are good and others not so. This is true, but the difference lies in the fact that my ethical position is not based on any code of ancient legislation which one must accept or reject en masse. Rather do I ascribe validity or otherwise to an individual law or moral attitude according to the degree to which it fits in with my personal Golden Rule. This rule is that something is good if it contributes to happiness, and is evil if the fruit which it bears brings about suffering and unhappiness. I believe, for instance, that when suffering is caused in the name of a religion then that religion is unworthy of the name At this point I would refer the reader to my earlier article on this website which carries the title "Christian Ethics." It will doubtless be clear to the reader that my moral guideline leads me to treat homosexuality as morally acceptable and women as equals to men. In this regard we also have to consider that no individual has a choice about being homosexual or otherwise, his or her choices being limited to the decision as to whether or not to give expression to their feelings.

My position is that I have come to accept over the years that the Golden Rule outlined above is valid, at least for me. Having then taken up the ethical position in question it is then incumbent on me to ask whether the church or indeed the religion in which I found myself was satisfactory.. In the event the message of Jesus and that of the Buddha held pretty well equal appeal and it seemed to me that I would be quite at home in either of these faiths. But I did not have to choose between them. My studies of the life and teaching of Jesus had convinced me that he had been himself much influenced by Buddhism and had absorbed much of its teaching. So I was perfectly at home with a faith which was a syncretism of Jesus and Buddha. However I had found a religion which fitted my moral attitudes - I did not carry out the opposite policy, embracing a faith and then taking on board in a slavish manner all that it taught. There is an important distinction to be made there. Incidentally I draw a distinction between the teachings of Jesus and the ethics of the church which bears his name. The latter has presented a watered down version of the Great Master's ideals, and has hidden behind the mystical ideas of Paul which are much easier to follow and therefore much more likely to appeal to many people, for there is always a temptation in life to follow the path of least resistance. It is well however to avoid such an easy option.

In other ways too the church is failing to live up to its stewardship ideals and these failures continued over many years have resulted in a church which has a spirit of failure and death about it.

Here is a quotation from the writings of Bishop Spong who has been forced to surrender his ecclesiastical position because of his liberal theological views. The Bishop wrote in his work:

"Resurrection - myth or reality":-
Institutionalised religion in general and institutionalised Christianity in particular is in serious trouble."

That is certainly the opinion of many as the Anglican faith squares up to the possibility of division over the homosexual clergy issue. I say that there is no need to fear that division as something in the future for it has already occured. Taking this issue alongside that of the question of women priests we can surely see that the great rift is already with us. The physical division may not be there yet, there are not at the moment any cases in which a parish has physically separated from the Mother Church, but that is unimportant. The fact is that the division is there in all but physical form. There are already two churches at the heart of Anglicanism.

I personally know many people who have dedicated their time and effort as well as their money, to keeping going a church or chapel which is clearly foundering. Their efforts have been admired by many people including myself, for their courage and dedication has been of a very high order. This latter fact makes it hard to say what I have to say about them, but truth must out, so here we go. I now sincerely believe that they have been misguided in their efforts and that the right thimg to have done would have been to let these ailing causes die.

The Christian church in Britain IS dying. For very many people on both sides of the theological debate this is a tragedy, a mark of total failure, but I have come to see the tensions which have emerged within the church as positive. In short, I believe that the church has to die. A great resurrection story must be played out, not surrounding an open tomb near the ancient city of Jerusalem but in the Christian church of the twenty first century. The old church has taken upon itself too many of the strange ideas of theologians over the ages and these have become burdens which it cannot drop without losing face and cannot keep without alienating many reasoning people. Many of these ideas, such as the doctrine of Atonement for example, are even in opposition to teachings of Jesus. In this regard see my article on this site entitled "Thoughts on the Atonement." One would like to see reform of the church from the inside but as the Wesley brothers found, changing the situation from within is highly unlikely. There is too much accumulated luggage. The church must die and be born again, and just as the risen Christ was not recognised even by his closest friends when he walked about after his sojourn in the tomb, so the new church will, I believe, be unrecognisable. It will be the church of Jesus and not the church of Paul. Christianity has not failed, it has never been tried. Now the time has come to bring the teachings of Jesus out of Limbo and challenge the world with them

The ideal new church would be a serving church, for that is at the heart of the life and message of Jesus. At the present moment I look around and see the energy and resources which people are putting into the church being misdirected . They are all too often aimed at "keeping the doors open" as if that in itself were a noble and worthy motive. However, I hold that in a very needy world the church must refrain from using its increasingly fragile resources to prop up a system which gobbles up more and more resources of time money and talents as the years go by. Considerable sums of money are laid out on expensive schemes to keep in action buildings which are far beyond their normal life span. As an example, our local rural parish church has just four members and an average congregation of about three. One single car could take the entire congregation to a nearby place of worship thereby cutting out the considerable costs of maintaining one of the buildings. Yet money is poured into that building to keep it open. In a needy world could not that money be put to better use in feeding the hungry or preventing abuse of children? Another church a few miles away is having a new bell costing over a thousand pounds. That church has only one service a month so the work load of the bell is likely to be very small. Is this a responsible use of resources ? I do not think so. And I think of my own mother church which in my student days had almost three hundred members and now has only around thirty. The trustees of this cause have thrown money at the problems of a building which is old and worn out. No sooner is one leak in the roof repaired than another comes along, an electrical fault is corrected only to be replaced by a similar malfunction. Out come the cheque books and a further attempt is made to preserve the building for future generations. Yet within a few minutes walking distance are two other chapels, a Methodist and a Baptist, and all the omens are right for choosing the best building out of the three and having a Union church with the consequent diversion of funds and talents to the service of mankind. Faced with this golden opportunity, however, the church authorities irresponsibly throw money at the individual cause and do not bother themselves with thoughts of unity or the blessings which such unity would give.

As the autumn leaves tumble from the trees the buds of the new growth next spring are already forming. With the death scene of autumn there is the promise of new life. In the death of a church which has become entrapped in the philosophy of Paul there is the hope of a rebirth of a new church devoted to the great spirit of Jesus. Just as the disciples on the road to Emmaeus did not recognise the risen Lord so people familiar with the church in Britain today would not recognise the new order for it would be vastly changed, just as Jesus must have been if close companions failed to know who he was.

This must happen. The old church has failed the people. A needy world has been crying out for help and the church, well placed to relieve the sufferings of many if it had embraced a more responsible stewardship, did not listen. It was too busy ensuring, or trying to, its own survival. Had its heart gone out to a needy world it might even today be an organisation which would command the respect of many, but it is so discredited that its only way now is to die and be reborn.

Stewardship in the renewed church will be far from easy but it will be very rewarding. Taking on the mantle of the Master it will be a church which serves the world and throws away for ever the image of a body turned inwards and devoting all its energies to self preservation. The church will have a Stewardship of Happiness, seeking to bring joy to any situation in the world from which joy is absent. It will have a Stewardship of Service for the church will have become outward looking. And the new church will have a Stewardship of Honesty and will face up to the contradictions in the thinking of the past. It will become a blessing to the world and as it becomes a serving church willl fulfil its Divine calling. No longer will the visitor to a small parish church or a mighty cathedral be faced with appeals for money to keep the building going but rather will face the question "What can this church do for you?" This at least is my dream, for in the role of servant and in that role alone can the Christian church find itself. Yes indeed.

This article is going to press on the very day that the Reverend Gene Robinson is to be consecrated a bishop in the American wing of the Anglican church. This priest is open about his homosexuality.. What will happen? Will tbis be the event which splits the church? Time alone will sit in judgment, but if the Anglican communion does divide on the issue then Gene Robinson will have performed a great service for the church.

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