Please Leave ?? No — Please Stay !!

There has been a lot of media interest in the recent declaration by the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, concerning the way that some dioceses, a number of ministers, and many, many people of faith are grappling with our changed understandings of gender and sexuality, and how that relates to Christian faith.

It is a complex matter, with many nuances, that deserve careful consideration, and compassionate reflection.

The words of the Sydney Diocese leader, however, cast the situation in a clear black-and-white manner, with the stinger of a sharp command to those with whom he (and many in his Diocese) disagree: “please leave”.

The full set of words from this part of his speech is instructive: “My own view is that if people wish to change the doctrine of our Church, they should start a new church or join a church more aligned to their views – but do not ruin the Anglican Church by abandoning the plain teaching of Scripture. Please leave us.”

So sayeth the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, the Rev. Dr Glenn Davies.

(A full account of his speech to the Anglican Synod is reported on the Sydney Diocese webpage at https://sydneyanglicans.net/news/guarding-the-faith-in-a-changing-world and in Eternity News at https://www.eternitynews.com.au/australia/please-leave-us-sydneys-anglican-archbishop-tells-progressive-christians/)

But there are a number of problems with what Dr Davies said.

The Archbishop distanced himself from “people who] wish to change the doctrine of our Church”. The first problem is, that doctrine is always changing. It was changing in the early decades of the church. It changed significantly in the various Reformations of the 16th century, under the leadership of Jan Huss, Martin Luther, Jean Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, John Knox, and then the response of the Council of Trent in the Roman Catholic Church.

It changed in 1540, when Henry VIII of England sanctioned the complete destruction of shrines to saints, and further in 1542, when Henry dissolved monasteries across the country—actions which changed doctrines and led to the formation of the very church in which Glenn Davies was ordained and then consecrated!

It changed when, during the Enlightenment, theologians and scholars applied principles of rational thinking to scriptural texts and faith concerns. It continues to change in the postmodern world, as new discoveries and insights lead Christian leaders to bring new questions to faith issues, and to formulate beliefs in ways that connect with and make sense within the changing world.

In my own denomination, the Uniting Church in Australia, we recognise this when we recall the paragraph in our Basis of Union that affirms “the continuing witness and service”, not only of evangelists, prophets, and martyrs, but also of scholars; and which notes that as we engage with “literary, historical and scientific enquiry … [of] recent centuries”, we are able to develop “an informed faith” of relevance to the current times.

Doctrine is dynamic; it is always in a state of flux. Theology is transient; it is always developing. Church teaching is constantly evolving; it is never static.

(On my take on interpreting the classic creeds of the church, see https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/02/interpreting-the-creeds-in-a-later-age/; on how the Uniting Church envisages the factors involved in this process, see https://johntsquires.com/2018/07/30/seeking-an-informed-faith/)

Second, the Archbishop referred to “the plain teaching of Scripture”. The second problem, then is that scripture does not actually have a plain teaching. There are words, written in the Bible, which need to be interpreted, if they are to be understood and applied to contemporary life. There is no plain and simple teaching in these words; they are words which always need interpretation.

This interpretation starts with the choice of text. We do not have an “original version”; we have copies of copies, some complete, many fragmented. There are always options to consider–and we all rely on experts in this matter. Then comes the matter of language. Biblical texts were written in languages other than English. We English-speakers are reliant on the careful work of translators and scholars, seeking to render the phrases of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, into contemporary English. There are already multiple interpretive decisions that have been made for us, in our English Bibles.

Then, interpretation needs to take into account the differences in culture that exist, between the patriarchal, honour-shame cultures of antiquity, and the current state of play within (in our case) contemporary Australian society. We can’t just assume that something from an ancient culture “makes sense” in our contemporary culture, let alone that it can be “directly applied” into our context. There are interpretive decisions to be made.

(I have written about this dimension at https://johntsquires.com/2018/12/07/to-articulate-faith-contextually/)

The process of interpretation also needs to bear in mind how the usage of particular words and ideas has changed over time. Awful, for instance, once had a very positive sense, “full full of awe or admiration”, whilst nice had an earlier sense of “silly, foolish”. Guy (from the historical British figure Guy Fawkes) had an earlier sense of a frightening figure, not the generalised reference to men that it has today, whilst meat in earlier centuries was a catch-all term referring to food in general. (And, most pertinent to the particular issue at hand, “gay” once had a very different point of reference in English!)

These kinds of shifts in usage are also found in terms that appear in the Bible, especially in translations from some centuries ago. We need to factor that in to our interpretation.

And then, reading and interpretation of the Bible involves application, discerning how and in what ways a biblical passage is relevant for us today. That means knowing what our situation is as well as what we hear in the biblical text, and connecting the two. It is not simple or straightforward.

In an earlier interview about his view of matters of sexuality (and other issues), Dr Davies referred disparagingly to “a virus in the national church, caused by not teaching properly the word of God” (see https://www.thepastorsheart.net/podcast/2019/9/17/archbishop-davies-on-public-christian-leadership).

That’s an unfair and unhelpfully polemical characterisation of what is a complex and nuanced matter—reading biblical passages about sexuality in contemporary society. The biblical texts about sexual relationships involving people of the same gender are not simple and self-evident prohibitions on such behaviour, and should not be read as such.

Elizabeth and I have contributed a discussion of this matter which, I believe, offers more constructive lines of understanding; see https://johntsquires.com/2018/07/30/marrying-same-gender-people-a-biblical-rationale/ as well as https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/26/human-sexuality-and-the-bible/ and https://www.unitingnetworkaustralia.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/02-Human-Sexuality-in-Biblical-Perspectives.pdf.

(More generally, see https://johntsquires.com/2018/07/30/the-word-of-god-scripture-and-jesus-christ/)

Third, the Archbishop—quite strikingly—has urged certain people to leave the Anglican Church. I believe that advocating that people leave one church to start another church is not a helpful activity. Anglicans, like other mainstream denominations, have a commitment to unity in the church. So, the third problem is a lack of commitment to the unity of the church.

That’s quite an amazing position for a leader in a denomination which affirms that it is, indeed, an integral part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church—and which is universally recognised by other denominations as an integral part of that Church.

Each Sunday, in Anglican churches around Australia (and beyond), faithful people affirm, “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” That’s a line in the Nicene Creed. And those Anglicans are joined by many Roman Catholics, members of the many Orthodox churches, and quite a number of folk in the various Protestant churches, to say these words together on regular (even weekly) occasions. Across the denominations, there is a commitment to unity.

Not in the Sydney Anglican Diocese, however. The Archbishop’s invitation to those who see things differently from him to leave the church and form their own branch is fracturing the unity of the church even more by this narrow, sectarian dogmatism.

Even his own colleagues, it seems, have recognised that Dr Davies has crossed a line with his rhetoric in recent days (see https://www.theage.com.au/national/even-conservative-rectors-shuddered-why-sydney-archbishop-s-words-hurt-20191018-p531ye.html). Such rhetoric serves only to exacerbate differences and intensify hurt. Is that really being faithful to the office into which he has been called?

The worldwide leader of the Anglican Communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd Justin Welby, has affirmed that “reconciliation is the hallmark of Anglicanism, the heart of the gospel and a life to which we are all called” (see https://www.anglicancommunion.org/mission/reconciliation.aspx).

Archbishop Welby is promoting through the Anglican Communion a resource entitled Living Reconciliation, which “offers a vision of Church marked by honesty, truthfulness and love … [and] applies the teaching of the Gospel at precisely the point where we need it most today” (see http://living-reconciliation.org/thebook/).

Is the Archbishop of Sydney aware of just how contrary his words are, to the principles of reconciliation and the commitment to an honest, loving church that is being championed by the Archbishop of Canterbury?

Finally, the Archbishop of Sydney is quoted as imploring those with whom he disagrees: do not ruin the Anglican Church. The fourth problem I see is that exploring and developing ideas is not a process of ruination.

Rather, the exploration of ideas and the development of thought is a constructive process that offers a gift to the church at large: the gift of an ever-evolving, ever-refining articulation of beliefs in ways that resonate with life in the contemporary age. Questions, provocations, redefinitions, and developments in thinking and believing are wonderful gifts!

I wouldn’t characterise the process as one of causing ruin. Rather, I would celebrate it and affirm the importance of this process. The problem, it seems to me, is that if you really believe that you have The Truth, then you are impelled to convince others of that Truth. But if you believe you are called to Love others, then you will listen and learn.

Sadly, the Archbishop has demonstrated this stark difference: when we prioritise Truth, we inform, lecture, admonish, even berate; whereas when we prioritise Love, we enter into relationships, affirm, explore, nourish, question, rethink, and develop in community with each other. Quite a different ethos. Quite a different result.

Please Leave? No—Please Stay! To the people addressed by Dr Davies, I say: Please stay in the Christian church and help us to be faithful to the Gospel. Please stay in the Christian church and help us to change in ways that are positive and life-giving. Please stay and gift your distinctive contribution to the life of the church in your locality and beyond.

And to the Archbishop, if he really is committed to the process of leaving, I say: you please leave. Please leave behind homophobic fear and discriminatory rhetoric. Please leave behind your insistence on conformity to your particular dogmatic assertions. Please leave behind your criticisms of those who happen to be born different from you. That’s what I would like you to leave.

“Do you believe in the Triune God?”

Every so often, I get asked the question, “Do you believe in the Triune God?”

My answer to that question involves consideration of a number of areas.

One. History

I accept that the Trinity is a helpful way of understanding God that the church has employed throughout most of its history. It arose within the debates that took place amongst philosophically-aware teachers of the church in the third and fourth centuries, so as an historical phenomenon, I can see that it makes a lot of sense within that context.

Three persons, consubstantial, of the same nature, co-inheriting, all makes sense in terms of the philosophical context of the day. Clearly, these were important ideas at the time; they generated vigorous debates amongst church leaders for quite some time!

That was how they thought and wrote, so analysing and describing God in terms of ‘persons’, ‘substance’ and ‘essence’, was utilising the tools of the time. From my studies of the period, and of many of the writings of these teachers as they debated and probed the ideas, I find I can generally admire their intellectual strength and spiritual insight in the course of these debates.

Viewed contextually, in their own time within history, the affirmations about God as “triune” make good sense. I value the concept of the Trinity as a fine example of good, honest, contextual theology.

Two. Scripture

I don’t find that there is a clearly-articulated awareness of a “three-in-one, one-in-three” divine being within either testament of the Bible. At best there are hints and clues which later investigators used, in the 3rd to 5th centuries, as the basis for their own theoretical speculations.

Neither the Hebrew Scriptures nor the Greek New Testament are informed by the developed neo-platonic worldview which was held by those Christian teachers of later centuries. So none of the writers of books which are placed into scripture can articulate things in the way that was later developed.

It is clear to me that a number of the individual elements (both the ‘persons’ and their attributes, or qualities) which made up the fourth-century concept of a triune God, are all to be found within the works of assorted first century followers of Jesus, which were eventually collected together as part of Christian scripture, the New Testament.

It is also clear to me that many of these elements are most certainly not found, in the way they are used in Christian theology, in the Jewish writings from centuries prior to Jesus, which were collected together as Hebrew Scripture.

So the individual elements can be seen if we identify a number of New Testament texts, extract those elements from their context, and combine them artificially into a new combination of ideas that we then grant the status of a reality. Clearly, the fully-fledged, totally integrated concept that the later fathers developed, is not there. Scripture does not testify to the “three-in-one” concept of God that is articulated in later theology.

This is an important distinction to maintain. Perhaps you can argue that individual elements are present in some biblical passages for assorts books. But certainly I cannot see how the final, integrated idea is put forward at any point in Scripture.

And, of course, there are numerous ways of understanding God, articulated in both testaments, which are not of primary consideration in the “doctrine of the Trinity” that arose over time. Hebrew and Greek writers offer a wide range of diverse insights into what God may well be like. A “triune God” is one, but by no means the only, deduction to be drawn from scripture.

Three. Liturgy

Personally, I find that the threefold pattern of prayers and litanies that have been developed within the church is a useful, and often quite poetic, help in shaping public worship and private prayers. And that makes sense, since the pattern of threes is a common technique in public speaking, in speeches, in jokes, and so also in liturgies.

However, I don’t for one moment imagine that the way I shape my litanies and prayers is a full and final reflection of the inner nature, the “essential being”, of God. That points in some ways to God, but by no means defines the essence of God. So I am open to other patterns and structures in worship, and in talking about God, as well.

Four. Doctrine

I do have a degree of frustration with the way that what appears to be a fixed, solidified understanding of ‘the Trinity’ or ‘the Triune God’ has taken hold, not only in many liturgies, but also in much theological writing and thinking, and doctrinal treatises, in our own time. This doctrine seems to have become a touchstone for orthodoxy, a test as to how genuine one’s doctrinal understanding is. We have solidifed our view of God into a Trinitarian formula.

The effect of this “solidification” of views about God has been that it has squeezed the life out of a wide range of other expressions as to who God is, how we relate to God, and what we understand of the mystery of the deity. Our doctrine (teaching) about God needs to be open to our range of experiences as we encounter and engage with and meditate upon God.

One way that systematic thinkers have grappled with the doctrine is by focussing on the notion that the Trinity places the idea of ‘community’ right at the heart of God; and that this then provides a mandate for exhorting our fellow human beings to live relationally, in community, with one another. That is an attractive idea, to be sure — and one that is much needed in modern society.

But how do we really know what is at the heart of God? what is the essential nature of God, within God’s own self? We can’t be sure that this is actually how God is. And why do we need an abstract theory of ideas and concepts to validate the exhortation to live in community? A theoretical philosophical doctrine, shaped so long ago, isn’t really a convincing argument in modern public discourse, I would have thought.

Five. Polemics.

Modern theologians are quite taken by the notion that the doctrine of the Trinity provides some unifying vision that enables Christian believers to feel content in their close relationship with God, and affirmed in their positive relationships with other people of faith (and beyond …).

I find it ironic, however, that the process by which this unifying vision emerged was through a series of entirely pragmatic political powerplays exercised by a group of church fathers who soughty and gained control over the church.

Those patristic patriarchs “played hard”, confronted alternative points of view, argued vociferously against them, expelled their proponents from the church, and created creeds which shut out these so-called ‘deviant’ or ‘heretical’ opinions. They were convinced that they possessed The Truth, and any other view was Beyond The Pale.

The irony is that such modern theologians can so readily overlook the hardball powerplays of the patriarchal pugilists, and create theories and pictures of trinity-as-communion, trinity-as-unity-in-diversity, and the whole idealistic perichoretic thing.

I’m somewhat sceptical of the conclusions to which such modern theologians arrive (very nice as they are, very appealing as they emerge), largely because these theologians appear to be completely oblivious to the rough, painful and highly politicised process by which the doctrine was created.

I wonder: would any of the fathers of old have been up on Discipline Charges, given they ways that they prosecuted their arguments and dealt with dissidents, if they were miraculously transported into the contemporary church??

Six. Prayer

It seems to me that the doctrinal stranglehold of the Triune God has limited, confined—even belittled—our human grasping after God, our human imaginings of who God is, our human efforts to articulate something of how we might gain access to the inner workings of God.

I am actually quite unsure as to how we human beings can do this with final, definitive confidence, so I much prefer the openness of pondering about, and praying with, God, that is not limited by trinitiarian formulae and dogmas. Prayer, after all, is opening ourselves to a renewed encounter with the divine.

I do not believe that the Trinity as a doctrine has nothing at all to offer to us today. That is not so. But, by the same token, there is so much more to ponder, explore, and explain, beyond this strict triune formula, so I think we need to be regularly reminded that we ought to be opened up to those possibilities.

So I am happy to have a place for “the Triune God” amongst the various ways in which I think about and relate to God. But it is not the one and only thing to be said, or thought, or prayed, in relation to God.

Seven. Mission and Meaning.

So, I reckon that Trinity Sunday provides a new missional opportunity. The missional task that we face is to follow the example provided by the contextualised development of doctrine by the church fathers. This Trinity Sunday, instead of sermons that grind through abstruse and remote arguments for the Trinity, I would hope we can begin to find ways, in the contemporary context, where we can talk about God and bear witness to our faith, using concepts that are understandable and ideas that are enlivening.

If we want to talk about the divine delight in deep relationships and God’s desire to relate fully to our world, then concepts of incarnation, God coming “down” to earth, hypostatic equality, co-inherence and perichoresis, just won’t cut through in the contemporary era.

We need to move beyond the ossified conceptualisation of God from so many centuries ago, and begin to create our own language and our own ideas for bearing witness to what we know in God. Mere repetition of ancient speculation and debate will not suffice.

It seems to me that, if we want to engage adequately in mission, we have to be immersed in our world, fully part of the communion of daily life. One critical problem is that when we devote time to speaking of the Trinity, using abstract philosophical terms drawn from the foreign languages of antiquity, then we are privileging the voices of male patriarchs from antiquity, over the lived experience of faithful people in these present time.

The Gospel is surely that God’s generous self-outpouring is evident in actions which foster justice and deeds which demonstrate compassion; in loving relationships and in living the values of the kingdom. Words which are uttered about concepts which are about imagined entities and their relationships, will not suffice. We need new images, concepts and doctrines: new images to reflect who God is for us, new concepts to help us think further about God, and new doctrines to speak clearly about God in our contemporary context!

(The image is a literalist personification of the doctrine of the Trinity, from the so-called Dogmatic Sarcophagus, c. 350 CE, kept in the Vatican Museums)

Geoff Thompson has recently written a thoughtful and challenging reflection on the Trinity at http://xenizonta.blogspot.com/2019/06/trinitarian-disruption.html

Craig Mitchell has offered these words (to a familiar tune) which provide a supportive expression of how we encounter the triune God in our lives at https://craigmitchell.typepad.com/mountain_masala/2012/05/creator-companion-comforter.html?fbclid=IwAR39O1mfvMFx4dKIPtUhuUKfldiW4LAZZp2zgh4A6j37AGCh4tPDyWjGDqQ

For my musings about the creeds and what they contain, see

https://johntsquires.com/2018/10/30/affirming-the-teachings-of-jesus/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/02/interpreting-the-creeds-in-a-later-age/

Interpreting the creeds “in a later age”

I’ve recently written about adding to, or modifying, the classic creed of the church, the Apostles Creed.

https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2018/10/30/affirming-the-teachings-of-jesus/

In this blog, I turn my attention to the process of interpreting this creed, and other classic creeds of the church.

Continue reading “Interpreting the creeds “in a later age””

Affirming the Teachings of Jesus

“The teachings of Jesus were a bit of an embarrassment to the [4th century] church and its relationship with power. The creeds which were developed at that time say almost nothing about the real life of Jesus or his teachings. Jesus is a saviour figure rather than one whose life and teachings matter.”

Chris Budden, Why Indigenous Sovereignty Should Matter To Christians (page 62).

Continue reading “Affirming the Teachings of Jesus”