Friday, July 31, 2009

Poor Rowan Williams: The Moral Conundrum Facing the Churches Today, Through Gay Lives

Two days ago, I challenged the poor-Rowan Williams meme now developing in centrist Catholic circles (and in centrist Christian circles in general, among liberal Christians who want to appear tolerant while refusing to risk anything by actually supporting the cause of gay rights in the churches).

The Poor-Rowan Conundrum

The poor-Rowan meme wants us to see the Archbishop of Canterbury as a thoughtful, sensitive man caught in an impossible conundrum. The conundrum itself is not entirely clear to me. Either it’s the conundrum of holding a communion together when some of its members regard the full inclusion of gay human beings as an issue worth dividing the church over, or it’s the conundrum of doing the impossible balancing act of trying to keep the church on track biblically by preaching that gays are sinners, while proclaiming that the church is, as it ought to be, welcoming of all.

The Conundrum Facing Churches: How to Preach Love While Practicing Hate

If it’s the latter conundrum for which we ought to pity poor Rowan, then it’s important to note that this is a conundrum facing the Christian churches in general today. It’s the conundrum of trying to profess what a church has to profess in order to be church at all—and that’s love—while practicing the opposite of love. It’s the conundrum of trying to present oneself as loving when one is, in fact, hateful in one’s deliberate decision to treat gay humanity as less than the humanity of everyone else. It’s the conundrum of saying that one is just and inclusive when one is, in fact, unjust and excluding in one’s institutional life as a church.

The conundrum facing the Christian churches at this moment in history is the conundrum of having to make a choice, when one event after another has definitively revealed the traditional teaching of the churches, held always and everywhere, grounded on a consistent reading of the scriptures throughout history, as indefensible. As immoral. As a betrayal of what the scriptures are really all about, at their most fundamental levels.

And so it’s not a conundrum at all, really. It’s a question of either doing what we know is right, or of continuing to do what we know is wrong when we actually know better, and while we proclaim that we’re trying to do right. It’s the age-old conundrum that has always faced people aspiring to an ethical life: bridging the gap between theory and practice; doing what you know is right, particularly when the doing requires that you pay a price.

It’s easy to theorize, analyze, and preach. It’s much harder to practice.

But the preaching of the church about love will make sense to people only when the church practices and stops preaching—stops preaching, that is, until it begins to practice. The preaching of the church about love will make sense to people only when the church listens carefully to Francis of Assisi when he tells his followers to preach all the time, but use words only when absolutely necessary.

In this final sense—the conundrum of doing what you know is right, when there is a price to be paid for doing right—the conundrum that the Archbishop of Canterbury is now facing does seem poignant. And it’s one worth analyzing, because it’s one that Christians in general now find themselves facing.

The Biblical Face of the Moral Conundrum Facing the Churches

Homophobia is being so decisively exposed within the culture at large as unjust and immoral, that many Christians are now having to reassess their attitudes towards gay persons at a fundamental level. And this pushes Christians towards something they do not like to do: that is to reassess their entire tradition, including how they read the bible and how they find absolute certainty and absolute authority in the bible.

If we might have been spectacularly wrong about the gay issue, the reasoning of many Christians goes, then what else might we have been wrong about? Where do we find absolute authority and certainty, when our reading of biblical texts appears to be affected and even normed by cultural developments that challenge the traditional reading?

Real-World Context of Reading the Bible: Pressure and Threats from Powerful Interest Groups

It is important to note, too, that discussions of how to read the scriptures and apply them to the life of the church never take place in a theological vacuum, apart from the real world. The decisions churches make about how they choose to interpret the bible have real-life effects. And many groups, including some that have no real interest at all in religion, but a vested interest in placing religion on their political and economic side, work very hard to assure that the churches’ reading of the bible does not change, where they do not want it to change.

How we read the scriptures affects how we do business. Ultimately, what stands in the way of change in Christian churches, when it comes to repenting of homophobia, is not really the bible itself and how we choose to read it. It is economic self-interest that stands in the way, the self-interest of church leaders who know that they will pay a price in the real world, an economic price, if they permit new readings of the bible to inform the viewpoint of their churches about gay issues.

At the very heart of the churches’ (self-made) conundrum about how, whether, when, to include gay human beings in the churches’ life, how to treat us as fully human, is fear. Fear runs deep inside all Christian churches and the institutions they sponsor when they consider what otherwise seems to be a theological issue: the question of how to read the scriptures regarding gay people, and of how to apply those texts to the life of the church today. There is tremendous unacknowledged fear around these issues within the Christian churches. It is fear of economic reprisal, fear of reprisal if they choose to do what they know to be right . . . .

Time and again, when churches, church leaders, and church institutions admit that the traditional approach of the churches to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people is just not theologically and morally defensible, they face serious reprisal. Wealthy church members routinely hold churches hostage by withholding funds from churches that do the right thing vis-à-vis gay human beings. They withdraw their funds from such churches and move them to gay-excluding churches.

The Power Exerted by Right-Wing Political Watchdog Groups to Keep Homophobia Alive in Churches

Powerful political watchdog organizations also get into the act and assure that churches choosing to alter their gay-excluding stances pay a steep price for that choice. These organizations target such churches, publicize their choices, and call on people both inside and outside the church to make the church pay for its choice. These groups are capable of raising hell for churches that do not dance to their reactionary tune. They have strong ties to the mainstream media, and they control the dominant media text about the churches’ response to gay people, depicting every move to inclusion within the churches as a move away from the bible and longstanding Christian tradition—an abdication of Christian belief and values for cultural norms.

These powerful political watchdog groups are adroit about assisting reactionary groups within any church that chooses to repent of homophobia. They encourage these splinter groups to split the church—to preach that the church’s choice to welcome gay brothers and sisters is a church-dividing choice, one that demonstrates that their church has repudiated the bible and longstanding tradition. They not only help these groups to create splinter churches claiming to represent the tradition in all its purity, but they also assist these splinter groups in filing lawsuits that try to damage the mother church financially by taking its property away when a split has occurred.

Rowan Williams's Conundrum as the Conundrum Facing the Churches Today

So, yes, I can well imagine that Rowan Williams does face a conundrum right now. But I would frame that conundrum differently than right-wing groups with a strong presence in the mainstream media want to frame it when they promote the poor-Rowan meme.

To frame the conundrum facing the churches today as gay people ask to be treated as fully human in the churches, it’s important to look at what has happened in the past, when the church has been confronted with similar requests from other groups long marginalized by the churches, as the churches claimed sanction for their oppression of these groups in the bible and in tradition.

Similar Conundrums for the Churches in the Past: Slavery and Women's Rights

This is not the first time in history that the churches have chosen to split over issues of inclusion or exclusion, of full or partial humanity of marginalized groups of people. And it’s not the first time in history that churches choosing to do the right thing have been faced with economic reprisal by those with a vested interest in maintaining a status quo based on discrimination.

In the United States, the churches split over the issue of slavery in the 19th century, and throughout the 20th century, as churches that once made women second-class citizens have opened their doors to full inclusion of women in church life and in the ministry, there have been splits, with economic reprisals, in churches that have chosen to do what is right in this area—despite long-held interpretations of the bible throughout Christian history that have justified the exclusion of women from ordination and have regarded women's humanity as flawed and inferior to the humanity of males.

Just as churches that supported slavery and the continued subordination of people of color to white people preached in the 19th century that they were simply doing what the bible had always told Christians to do—hold slaves, but treat slaves with Christian kindness . . . . In all the churches that chose to split over the issue of slavery—in the churches that took the pro-slavery tack—the argument was consistent: the patriarchs of the Old Testament held slaves; Jesus never condemned slavery, but took it for granted; Paul upheld the right to hold slaves. Tell us that we’re reading the bible wrong about slavery now, and you challenge the entire history of Christian biblical interpretation. You undermine the whole authority of the bible, in changing what Christians have long held to be the correct biblical interpretation of slavery.

The Archbishop of Canterbury's Justification for Resisting Change re: Gay Issues

So it’s interesting to read now the Archbishop of Canterbury’s justification, published three days ago on his website, for punishing the Episcopal Church USA after that church has abolished bans on the ordination of openly gay clergy. I’m interested in particular in the Archbishop’s argument that “the way in which the Church has consistently read the Bible for the last two thousand years” makes the decision to abolish bans discriminating against gay clergy candidates problematic. The Archbishop’s statement reads,

6. However, the issue is not simply about civil liberties or human dignity or even about pastoral sensitivity to the freedom of individual Christians to form their consciences on this matter. It is about whether the Church is free to recognise same-sex unions by means of public blessings that are seen as being, at the very least, analogous to Christian marriage.
7. In the light of the way in which the Church has consistently read the Bible for the last two thousand years, it is clear that a positive answer to this question would have to be based on the most painstaking biblical exegesis and on a wide acceptance of the results within the Communion, with due account taken of the teachings of ecumenical partners also. A major change naturally needs a strong level of consensus and solid theological grounding.

“In the light of the way in which the Church has consistently read the Bible for the last two thousand years”; “painstaking biblical exegesis”; “wide acceptance” within the communion; “solid theological grounding: what the Archbishop of Canterbury is offering here is an impossible process of indefinite delay, before the churches ever act on the growing culturally-grounded consensus that homophobia is morally indefensible. Rowan Williams is arguing that issues which I believe he himself has long since regarded as settled—in favor of a full welcome of gay human beings in the churches—need further study, as a prelude to further dialogue to build futher consensus among Christians who are, in many cases, determined to resist any opening to gay people within the churches.

Further, further, further, which essentially means never, never, never.

Rowan Williams' Argument That Anti-Gay Biblical Texts Are "Very Ambiguous"

What’s fascinating about this argument—and here is where I find the poor-Rowan meme apt—is that prior to his election as Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams wrote theological essays that reject precisely the argument he now wants to impose throughout the Anglican communion, as a way of dealing with the divided mind of his church regarding the humanity of gay persons. In 1989, Rowan Williams wrote an article entitled "Theology and Sexuality" which he presented as the 10th Michael Harding Memorial Address to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement.

In that article, he argues,

In a church that accepts the legitimacy of contraception, the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous biblical texts, or on a problematic and nonscriptural theory about natural complementarity, applied narrowly and crudely to physical differentiation without regard to psychological structures.

Interesting, isn’t it? In 1989, for Rowan Williams the theologian and pastor, the biblical texts condemning same-sex relations were “very ambiguous,” and the attempt to impose them on the entire church in the name of longstanding tradition was “fundamentalist.” Now, in 2009, for Rowan Williams the Archbishop of Canterbury, the church has consistently read the bible to condemn same-sex relations for 2000 years, and the attempt to impose that viewpoint on the entire Anglican communion is not fundamentalist at all.

The burden of proof is now, in 2009, on those who want to challenge that longstanding interpretation of the scriptures. They must now convince even the most fundamentalist of their brethren who hold views in other areas—e.g., re: the treatment of women—that not even fundamentalist Anglicans in many regions can support. They must now convince those espousing a fundamentalist reading of the bible which is not even consonant with the Anglican tradition, and not imposed in any other area of Anglican life except when it comes to gay human beings.

Nor has Rowan Williams really recanted what he wrote in 1987. In 2007, he was asked by Time reporter Guilhelm Alandry precisely that question: whether he stills stands by the position he defended in 1987. He replied as follows:

Yes, I argued that in 1987. I still think that the points I made there and the questions I raised were worth making as part of the ongoing discussion. I'm not recanting. But those were ideas put forward as part of a theological discussion. I'm now in a position where I'm bound to say the teaching of the Church is this, the consensus is this. We have not changed our minds corporately. It's not for me to exploit my position to push a change.

The Heart of Rowan Williams' Conundrum: Doing Right When One Knows What Is Right

And so we see here with utter clarity precisely where the conundrum lies for poor Rowan Williams: “It's not for me to exploit my position to push a change.” I have my personal viewpoint: I regard the biblical texts long thought to condemn same-sex relations as “very ambiguous.”

But as Archbishop of Canterbury, on behalf of the Anglican communion, where there are many Christians (with powerful economic and political elites backing them) who promote what I know personally to be an indefensible fundamentalist reading of these scriptures, I have to act as though those scriptures which I know to be very ambiguous are binding on the whole communion and represent the longstanding tradition of the church. That tradition must be defended and cannot be changed without wide consensus throughout the whole church.

How Churches Change Their Moral Minds

This is definitely a conundrum, and it’s one that calls for our compassion: as Rowan Williams' own argument in 1987 noted, the church can and does change its moral and theological mind. It has done so throughout history. It does so, in many cases, when cultural developments cast an entirely new light on how the church has always and everywhere read the bible, and shows that a certain interpretation of the bible is fundamentalist, morally undesirable, less ethically insightful than the viewpoint of the culture at large.

In 1987, Rowan Williams referred to the case of artificial contraception. He admits that the church has changed its mind about this practice, and he admits that longstanding Christian tradition and biblical interpretation view the practice as immoral. He takes for granted that the church was right to change its moral and theological mind about artificial contraception, and right to ditch the longstanding, traditional reading of the scriptures to outlaw the practice—even though many Christians still do not buy into this new viewpoint, and there is not complete consensus about this issue within the Christian churches.

What I think the Archbishop of Canterbury knows, and what makes his current conundrum poignant, is that his analysis of how churches change their moral and theological minds is fundamentally wrong. And it’s wrong because he appears unwilling to take the only morally defensible side he can and must take in the current controversy about gay issues, though he may pay a strong price for doing so.

The Archbishop of Canterbury knows full well that the churches changed their moral minds about slavery and about the place of women in church and world despite what had always been the theological and exegetical consensus in the churches. And the churches changed their moral minds regarding these issues despite the opposition of large numbers of Christians to this theological and moral shift. There was not widespread consensus on these issues when the churches finally decided to do what was right.

The churches changed their moral minds in these instances because cutting-edge groups of prophetic believers within the churches took the risk of speaking out, needling, prodding, challenging the status quo, opening doors to women and people of color when the church itself refused to open those doors. Significant shifts in the moral minds of churches do not occur because churches have built a consensus around a new reading of the scriptures. The shifts are driven by prophetic minorities who then precipitate a shift that eventually creates a new consensus in a recalcitrant body bent on keeping change at bay.

Invariably, when such new readings arise—from the margins of churches, and often in collaboration with secular human rights movements—the majority of church members kick and scream against change. And those with the strongest vested interests in maintaining the status quo—who also often happen to be the wealthiest and most powerful members of the churches—do all they can to resist, as they maintain that accepting the new reading of the scriptures will undermine all religious authority in the world and make everything relative.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is, I believe, faced with a significant moral conundrum today. It is the same conundrum that faces many Christians, who are slowly becoming aware that how their churches have chosen to treat gay human beings throughout history, while quoting the bible, is no longer morally desirable.

It is the conundrum of choosing to do right, once one has attained the intellectual insights that precede a shift in moral awareness. Knowing what is right to do is often not the biggest problem in the ethical life. It's actually doing right that's difficult, and choosing to do so when we know we will pay a price for making that choice.

But when the ability of the church to convince others that its message is worth hearing depends on doing what we know is right, rather than on talking endlessly about what is right, while we remain aloof from the world of choice and action, what a steep price the church pays, in terms of its credibility and ability to be a sign of salvation in the world.