Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Causes and Effects

by Christopher L. Webber

I know people who wear green because they are blonde and think it’s flattering. I know others who wear green because they are Irish. The result is the same, but the cause is very different. When it comes to wearing green, it doesn’t much matter. When it comes to the divisions in the Anglican Communion, causes matter a lot.

The 1998 Lambeth Conference called on the churches of the Anglican Communion to enter into a listening process on the subject of sexuality. Recently I came across the report of the Church in Nigeria on that “Listening Process.” The report is lengthy and seems to me to show little evidence of listening to people with different understandings, but we would do well to listen to what Anglicans in Nigeria are really saying.

Here’s a key passage:

In Nigerian traditional culture homosexuality is seen as taboo. Homosexuals are thought of as threatening the divinely ordained order of the community. The Western idea of human rights is subservient to the service of the common good. The so called ‘right’ to homosexual orientation threatens the order of society because the continuation of the race is threatened by gay practice. Children are treasured as fruits of marriage and any union, as a gay union, that prevents the propagation of the community's growth is a personal shame to be openly censured.
Exactly! Traditionally, homosexual unions have always been condemned for that reason: because they threatened the ongoing life of the community. The Old Testament Hebrews were an endangered species, a small tribe in a hostile world. No wonder we find the condemnation of homosexual practice in Leviticus and elsewhere. Such actions threatened the community and could not be tolerated. Not surprisingly “Nigerian traditional culture” also saw homosexuality as “taboo.” It threatened “the continuation of the race” and “the propagation of the community’s growth” and so was shamed and censured.

Most Americans are unaware of the fact that the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the official book still of the Church of England and the book common to all Anglicans in Africa until recent years, proclaims in the opening words of the marriage service that it is vital to consider “the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.” What are these? The 1662 Prayer Book tells us:

First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.
There was some criticism of Archbishop Cranmer’s formula even when it was first published in 1549 on the grounds that the Book of Genesis tells us that God’s first purpose was the help and comfort the man and woman were to give each other, but human life was still insecure, death in childbirth and death in infancy were still common, and the priority was given to procreation. Infant life was still insecure in late 18th century America when the first American Prayer Book was published, but no statement of the purposes of marriage was included until 1979 when we were told that marriage is first for the “mutual joy” of husband and wife, second, for the help and comfort they provide for each other, and only third, and “when it is God's will,” for the procreation of children. What we have, then, is a clear case of changing priorities and cultural change would seem to be the likeliest cause.

The Church in Nigeria would undoubtedly argue that God’s word is one thing and cultural priorities are another. That is an important argument to consider. I would argue that what God’s word shows us is God’s concern for the welfare and survival of God’s people. That concern must be honored, but it might be differently expressed today. In contemporary America families of a dozen or more do not contribute to our welfare or survival. There is no urgent need to insist on "fruitful"sexual relationships. But it may be, nonetheless, that we will have a better chance of understanding each other if we pay attention to the role of culture in shaping our approach to such issues. And it does seem important to point out that when the Nigerian Church advances “Nigerian traditional culture” as having weight in this discussion, it is not basing its case entirely on the Bible.
About the Author: Christopher L. Webber has written for The Episcopal Majority before. See "A Certain Madness," "The Conscience of a Conservative," and "1984 in the Episcopal Church" (which includes background information about the author). He is the author of Re-Inventing Marriage, as well as a new supplement to the last title, called Same Sex Marriage and the Bible (available from his website).


Anonymous Josh Indiana said...

What a disappointing post. This "conservative" thinker might have pointed out that "gay practice" in no way "threatens the continuation of the race." Nigeria is bursting at the seams thanks to unlimited procreation and is already suffering the increase of poverty that accompanies overpopulation, but when Akinola trots out this old canard, all Mr. Webber can do is say "Exactly!"

11/14/2007 4:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I congratulate Christopher L. Webber for showing insight and perception, sensitivity and understanding of the driving force of the Nigerian, and of ourselves, also. It makes sense. It also allows us our views and the Nigerians theirs, and salvific effort of God for all.

11/14/2007 6:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a narrow minded post...you're making a poor assumption that gays and lesbians do not procreate. Many of "us" have biological children, have adopted children, or are foster parents. To be homosexual does not exclude one from raising a family.

11/14/2007 7:48 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

It's too bad that Josh and Anonymous II have so completely missed my point. Josh seems to think that if I quote Nigeria's Report, I must agree with it. "Exactly" was intended to draw attention to the way in which Nigeria's Report echoes Leviticus and the 1662 Prayer Book in centering on the cultural value of reproduction rather than the theological value of faithfulness.
Anonymous II has the same problem, thinking that I must agree with the Nigerian Report if I quote it. Maybe they should both go back and read what I wrote again. I'm saying we need to listen to each other in order to understand where the other person is coming from. If Josh and A II can't understand me, they will never understand the people who are out to destroy the church and we then have a conversation of the deaf. Lambeth asked the church to engage in listening. These two comments illustrate the need for an improvement in listening skills on both sides of the issues.

11/16/2007 6:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous II replies - I did reread what you wrote. What point is there to miss? That the Nigerian Report thinks homosexuality will unravel their social structures? That being a homosexual is somehow of less value since we don't propogate in a conventional way to propogating the species? I still hold that the post is narrow minded, whether the thinking is yours or anyone elses. And the listening process in the Episcopal Church gets much more "lip service" then actual practice at least in my southern based diocese.

I will never be able to see myself with the same fear and hate that they see me. In that you are correct, that I am unable to understand "them." I would find it much easier to see Christ in them if they would quit demonizing me.

11/16/2007 6:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In Nigerian traditional culture homosexuality is seen as taboo. Homosexuals are thought of as threatening the divinely ordained order of the community. The Western idea of human rights is subservient to the service of the common good. The so called ‘right’ to homosexual orientation threatens the order of society because the continuation of the race is threatened by gay practice. Children are treasured as fruits of marriage and any union, as a gay union, that prevents the propagation of the community's growth is a personal shame to be openly censured.

This is true statement about his country and is also in keeping with the teaching of almost all Christian Churches up to the last 60 years.


11/18/2007 8:43 AM  
Blogger Desert Kat said...

Mr. Webber is very correct in his analysis of Nigerian culture. We don't have to agree with it to understand the roots of a belief and understanding the argument and source of the argument provides a better base upon which to counter that argument.

11/18/2007 7:45 PM  
Blogger Mike Greiner said...

Yeah. Thanks for telling us how silly those Nigerians are! Man, if they were only as bright as us Westerners! They're behind the times, you know?

Seriously, just for a second: Could it be that God's goal for marriage wasn't survival only? Could it be that He does want Western Christians to make babies? Could it be the Nigerians are right?

Nah. Couldn't be. Not with the eloquent apologies we can offer.

Here's the truth: By "listening" you mean, "Don't you dare tell us that where we disagree is so serious that we might have to break communion. No, by listening, we mean, put up with what we say, and we'll overlook the fact that you morally outraged. Indeed, we haven't really noticed, yet."

Oh, why try. Just more muddy pearls . . .

12/04/2007 7:12 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

C'mon, Mike, cool it and pay attention. I did not say that Nigerians are "silly" - that's your word - or that they're "behind the times" or any of that. I suggested that there are real reasons why they think as they do and we should listen to them. I would hope they would also listen to us. But anger and sarcasm and misinterpretation don't help. I'm praying daily with Jesus for the unity of his church. What are you praying for?

12/04/2007 8:03 PM  
Blogger Mike Greiner said...


I'm praying for the purity of His church.

Sarcasm is not always nasty. It is sometimes an economical way to communicate. Jesus, Paul, and even God used it.

My point, without sarcasm, is that you define listening as implying that the Nigerians must also co-exist with those who believe something that is to them anathema. To that, i'd say, you are not listening.

You see, listening isn't really your goal. It is remaining one communion. But is this goal what is most important? They are saying no, it isn't. For saying this, you are saying that they are not listening. They are listening. They are also outraged. Can you hear the outrage?

Peace at any price? No. The Episcopal church in America has gone too far from historical Christianity. This is what is being said. This sentiment does not get along with, "unity at any price."

Perhaps you need to hear that there is an impasse.

In grace.

12/08/2007 2:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Just let’s take one thing at a time. Yes, my goal is unity - read John 17 - but not, of course, at any price. You say your goal is purity - but at what price? That’s a very good goal - but not, unfortunately, attainable in this world. I notice that a number of the clergy joining Bp. Akinola’s church are divorced and remarried although the Bible is clear in forbidding it and calling it adultery (i.e. impurity). So are you willing to tolerate - pay the price of - that kind of impurity? There are lots more divorced and remarried Episcopalians (and I have no evidence that that’s different among those lining up with Nigeria and the Southern Cone etc.) than homosexual. I have a real problem with the prevalence of divorce and remarriage among the clergy - and Christians generally, but I’ve learned not to expect perfection in this world.

I’ve been reading lately about the Non-Jurors in 18th century England, some of whom called their church the “most pure and catholic church in the world” - although they were a tiny schismatic group. You can be very pure and very small. Or you can let the tares grow until harvest and let the Lord of the harvest root out the tares then. I hope I won’t be one of them.

Meanwhile, there’s listening. I want to know why the Nigerians are so outraged so I try to listen. As I listen to them (and I have talked in person with two of their bishops (one an Archbishop) more than once as well as read their report to the Anglican Communion) I hear them say that they are concerned for “fruitful” sexual relationships, that is, for the “continuation of the race.” I don’t judge that; I simply note it. I notice also that it is put forward as a cultural imperative as well as a Biblical one. That seems to me significant. It seems reasonable to me to ask whether the prohibition in Leviticus is also a cultural matter - as so much of Leviticus which we now generally ignore clearly is - and I ask myself (and you) therefore whether the lack of understanding between the Nigerian and American churches is also in part at least a cultural difference. If so, that is surely worth noticing.

Can we agree on that? Perhaps the Nigerian outrage is also largely cultural. I remember being outraged myself when I first heard of the ordination of an openly homosexual individual many years ago - but I had not thought about the matter at that point or met anyone who was openly homosexual. I’ve come a long journey since then, largely by listening. But one has to stop putting forward one’s own prejudices and really listen.

I’ve written another piece for TEM which has not yet been posted discussing the listening process in the Anglican Communion in more detail. In it I note that there is legislation in Nigeria, which the church supports, to ban “same sex unions, all homosexual acts and the formation of any gay groups.” That makes listening more than a little difficult!

You say the Episcopal Church has gone too far from “historical Christianity.” Well, all of us have changed. Historical Christianity didn’t have Vestries or bishops with limited authority, it didn’t ordain women, it had a papacy with secular authority, etc., etc. The Orthodox find it intolerable that western Christians have added a filioque clause to the Creed. “Historical Christianity” for Anglicans has often been defined by the Lambeth Quadrilateral. Why do we need to add to that? I stand with Queen Elizabeth I in looking for unity in worship first of all and worrying about other things only if they impact that unity. When such issues arise (sexual issues, for example) I ask myself whether they rank up there with the papacy as something so intolerable that I cannot worship with those whose views on it differ from mine. (Even there, actually, it’s their problem, not mine!) I’m still waiting for someone to explain to me why homosexuality is that central to our life as Christians. If such a person will listen to me, I will gladly listen to them. I am perhaps naive, but I think that the “impasse” you speak of
might be resolved at the price of a lot of listening on both sides. Why not give it a try?

Chris Webber

12/17/2007 9:16 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home