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A house divided against itself


27 February 2005 11:00 | The Revd Canon Dr John Cullen

NT: Ephesians 5.1-14; Gospel: Luke 11.14-28

Family disagreements can be very painful experiences. And the longer they go on, the higher the stakes become, the more serious the consequences. Loyalty is tested to the limit, betrayal threatens, possibility of reconciliation recedes.

It was in a mood of real apprehension therefore that the 35 archbishops and primates of the world-wide Anglican Communion gathered this past week to address a serious disagreement within our family - a disagreement so deep, some suggested, that it threatened to tear our family of Anglican churches apart. All the more telling, and ironical, was the venue for the meeting: a retreat house on the outskirts of Newry in Northern Ireland, close to the border with the Irish Republic, which has witnessed decades of division, entrenched argument and hatred.

As I followed the media coverage of that meeting this past week on radio, TV and in the newspapers, I became more and more concerned at how exaggerated, misinformed and mischievous the reporting was. And because such alarmist journalism does real damage to the church - our church - I acknowledge a responsibility to offer some reflection on this situation, in the light of the Gospel, the Good News, by which we seek to live, and which the church exists to proclaim.

The major issue which the leaders of the 35 regions of the Anglican Communion came together to discuss was not in fact the issue of homosexuality which the media have focussed upon. The issue which has created the present impasse is how as a family of churches in 44 countries with 78 million members of widely different cultures, we can live together and at the same time respect the diversity which those various cultures represent. This is where the language of "family" helps us to understand something of the problem!

We all know, within any family, even our own nuclear families, it is not always easy to understand one another, or to agree on certain issues, or to respect others' opinions when they differ from our own. Expand that on to a global scale, and you begin to appreciate the task which confronted those 35 bishops gathered at Newry. That was the fundamental issue which drew them to their meeting.

What brought the heat and aggravation into their deliberations was the topic on which they found themselves at odds - and that was the highly emotive subject of homosexuality, with which all churches have been wrestling for many years. Now what puzzles many people from within and outside the church, is why that particular subject has become such an explosive issue for Anglicans, one which for some people has become the touchstone of orthodoxy above all else. This is the point on which we need to reflect, in the light of the Gospel.

A sermon, within the context of our Sunday worship, is not the place to discuss the topic of homosexuality itself, but in so far as this subject now affects the way we live together as followers of Jesus Christ within our worldwide family of churches, there are just three things we might ponder.

First: One of the most serious areas of misunderstanding is what the Bible says on the subject of homosexuality. (And here it is important to point out that there are only five passages across the whole Bible where it is referred to directly.) As one who has studied the Bible in both the Hebrew and Greek, I do not believe we can pick and choose which passages of the Bible we will accept or reject. But those passages where the Bible condemns homosexual practice, it is referring to the behaviour of people who are presumed to be heterosexual, and where such relations are thus by definition "unnatural", and are taking place outside the context of a loving relationship. To apply those passages to people who are by orientation homosexual, and in permanent, faithful and stable relationships, is therefore unjustified because we are not comparing like with like.

Secondly: and this comes as a surprise to many people. The only time the Bible refers explicitly to a same-sex relationship, it does so with approval.

In the Old Testament, there is the story of the shepherd-boy David who eventually becomes King of Israel. In his youth, David joined the household of Saul then King of the Israelites, and while in service in Saul's household, David formed a close relationship with Saul's son, Jonathan.

In the account of the relationship between these two young men, the Bible says: "...the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved David as his own soul." (1 Samuel 18.1). And later in the story, when Jonathan is killed in a battle, David expresses his grief in these words: "I am greatly distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of a woman." (2 Samuel 1.26). That's what the Bible has to say about a loving same-sex relationship, in stark contrast to its condemnation of promiscuous and 'unnatural' behaviour which exploits and de-humanises the parties involved.

Third: While Jesus frequently vented his anger and frustration on many issues, particularly when confronting the religious zealots of his day, he made no reference at all to homosexuality. He was however, much more concerned about how his followers lived together, and dealt with disagreements. Time and again he told his disciples to settle their differences quickly and without rancour. In his High Priestly Prayer just before going to his crucifixion, Jesus reminds the disciples again and again that they are called to exhibit that unity which is God's gift to the church, that unity which embodies Christ's unity with the Father. And after his resurrection, Christ breathes on the apostles his gift of shalom, that peace and well-being which again is God's gift, which all who are baptised into Christ are bidden to display: to be instruments of his peace.

The same message is taken up by St Paul when he reminds us that all of us who are baptised into Christ are entrusted with the message and ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5.18-19).

All that is a far cry from threats of schism, refusals to receive Holy Communion together, denunciations and calls for punitive measures against one another that characterised the early stages of the meeting in Newry.

Many loyal Anglicans have felt ashamed and betrayed by the way their leaders have behaved. The church talks so much about listening to one another, forgiving one another, and calling one another to reconciliation. While we remain locked in combat over this issue, what right do we have to say anything at all to the world at large on the subject of reconciliation and peace?

So well might we ask the leaders of our church, those who claim to speak on behalf of the people of God they represent: "Why has homosexuality become the touchstone of orthodoxy above all others? When Jesus expressed his concern about so many other issues: riches and poverty, status, peace, justice, including the outcast, healing the sick, denouncing legalism, and had his harshest words for church leaders who 'tied up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and laid them on the shoulders of others, but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them' (Matthew 23.4), why has this one issue - on which Jesus said not one word - come to determine who is in communion with whom, and who is and who is not acceptable to God?"

Some cynical journalists, reporting on the outcome of the Newry meeting, have already denounced the outcome as "a typical Anglican fudge", and are predicting division and schism as inevitable. I have here a copy of the Communiqué issued on Friday as the conference ended. It speaks honestly about the difficulties they faced as they talked, prayed and ate together. But it also speaks hopefully and humbly, of being committed to staying together, and continuing the search for deeper understanding of one another's views, in a genuine spirit of reconciliation and love. Those are not sentiments to earn praise from reporters out for a snappy headline; but they do take heed of Jesus' warning in this morning's Gospel: "Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and a house divided against itself falleth…"

As loyal followers of that same Lord, may we also take heed of those words, and pray for the healing of divisions within our Anglican Communion, and pray especially for Rowan Williams, in the exercise of his demanding ministry as Archbishop of Canterbury. Amen.
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