Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Not about Sex (Dutton-Gillett)

It's Really Not About Sex
by the Rev. Matthew Dutton-Gillett

Just recently, the Anglican Communion website published a rather lengthy essay, "What is Anglicanism?," by the Most Rev. Henry Luke Orombi, Archbishop of Uganda. [The complete text is now only available at First Things.] The essay is mainly a history lesson, in which the archbishop recounts the arrival of Anglican Christianity in his country, and the very real sacrifices made by many of those missionaries and by the newly Anglicanized Ugandans . (Indeed, the martyrs of Uganda are remembered in our calendar.)

In sharing some details of the founding of the Anglican Church of Uganda and its subsequent growth, the archbishop also weaves in another story, about what he understands to be the centrality of Scripture in the life of the church. Near the end of his essay, the archbishop makes what appears to be his central point:

In the Church of Uganda, Anglicanism has been built on three pillars: martyrs, revival, and the historic episcopate. Yet each of these refers back to the Word of God, the ground on which all is built: The faith of the martyrs was maintained by the Word of God, the East African revival brought to the people the Word of God, and the historic ordering of ministry was designed to advance the Word of God.
And that Word, the archbishop concludes, must be "reassert[ed]" in the Anglican Communion. The essay makes clear the archbishop's sense that the North American and European expressions of Anglicanism (which the Archbishop of York has called North Atlantic Anglicanism) have lost their understanding of the Word of God, and seems to believe – as many in the Global South seem to – that this is the root of the Communion's current situation.

Reading his remarks, I was struck powerfully by his assumption that the way he understands the Word of God is the only correct way. Indeed, while he acknowledges a place for modern biblical criticism, he nevertheless seems to regard the Bible as self-interpreting, as quite obvious in what it means, and he seems genuinely alarmed that anyone could possibly reach an understanding of Scripture that is in any way different from his own. From such a perspective, it is easy to understand why he would reach the conclusion that we in the North Atlantic provinces have lost both our minds and our faith.

Of course, the Archbishop of Uganda and many of his fellow Global South bishops are not the only ones who assume that their way of reading the Bible is the only correct way of doing so. Plenty of us in the North Atlantic provinces share in that error. Many of us assume that the way we read Scripture is surely better and more faithful, and we become genuinely alarmed that anyone would read the Bible from what seems to be such a literal mind-set. From that perspective, it is equally easy to see why many of "us" would regard "them" with the same skepticism and bewilderment with which "they" regard "us."

I believe the archbishop's essay underscores what really is going on within the Anglican Communion and beyond. Debate about sexuality, or more precisely, homosexuality, is not really the issue; it is, rather, a very significant symptom. The real issue is this divide about how the Bible is to be interpreted and understood, and its place in the life of the church. Human sexuality is the current favorite battleground for this more significant debate about Scripture. And it is no surprise that in setting forth his views about the Bible and its place in the church, Archbishop Orombi indicates that he feels much more kinship with the evangelical manifestations of the Christian faith than he does with most Anglicans in the North Atlantic provinces. I am quite sure that, if the archbishop visited my town, he would feel more at home at the huge Baptist church down the street than in our parish. And realizing this leads me to feel rather less hopeful about re-establishing unity within the Anglican Communion.

If we are to restore unity amidst our differences, I don't think we will find it in the Bible. After all, the expression of the Word of God par excellence for Christian people is not the Bible. It is, rather, Jesus himself – the Word made flesh. At the heart of our faith, we see Jesus as the most sublime expression of the Word of God, and we are convinced that Jesus as the Christ is not locked into a particular period of history, but is a living presence in the life of the church today and in the life of each of us who seek to be his followers. The Bible is a tool – and an indispensable one – in coming to know the Christ, as are tradition and reason. But the tools can ever only be tools – none of them can ever replace the One whom they help us to find.

St. Paul has been much maligned over the years. He is regarded by many as a misogynistic conservative. But it is closer to the truth, I think, to acknowledge that whatever else St. Paul was or might have been, at heart, he was a mystic whose own conversion to the Christian faith was rooted in an encounter with the Risen Christ that was difficult to put into words. As Paul himself says, when it happened, he couldn't tell whether or not he was in his own body, and after it was over, he had seen things that were impossible to describe. But the result of this encounter with the Risen Christ for Paul was radical transformation – the kind of transformation that made Paul, the observant Jew, able to say – quite astonishingly – that in Christ, there is "neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female." This leads me to conclude that in Christ, there is also neither conservative nor liberal, Global South or Global North, straight or gay. Rather, there are only human beings made in the image of God, baptized into the Body of Christ, each seeking to be transformed through our own encounter with the Risen Christ. Our life in Christ lies exactly there: in Christ. Not in the Bible, nor even in our tradition. And Jesus reminded his followers many times that life in Christ was often an unpredictable and personally crucifying experience.

The parts of Archbishop Orombi's essay that I found most moving were the stories he told of how Ugandan tribal culture was transformed in various ways through encounter with Christ. The archbishop's recognition of this transformation should remind both his Ugandan church and ours that our transformation in Christ is never completed in this life, and thus there is likely more in both his culture and ours that still longs to be touched by the healing and life-changing power of the Risen Christ. It would be a grave error for the archbishop and his church if they were to assume that no further transformation in their lives and in the life of their church and culture were needed. But it would be an equally grave error for me, or for us in the Episcopal Church, to make that same assumption, or to assume that we are somehow advanced beyond the world's other Anglicans in that process of transformation. Jesus is not done with any of us. We are all, in our own ways, incomplete. Perhaps this is where our true unity lies.

Wouldn't it be a remarkable thing if all the Anglican bishops were to gather together at Canterbury next year fully aware of their own incompleteness, and seeking their completion in Christ and in one another? That would be by far the most powerful witness I could imagine, both to the church and to the world.

About the Author: The Rev. Matthew Dutton-Gillett is a graduate of Michigan State University's James Madison College and the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He served churches in the dioceses of Missouri and Chicago prior to becoming rector of St. Elizabeth's Church in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1999. Matthew participated in the 2006 General Convention as the First Alternate Clergy Deputy from the Diocese of East Tennessee.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Praise God for this sensible and balanced article. Truly our completeness and unity with each other can only be found in Christ, not in total agreement concerning all of these other side issues.

A deep realization of this is the only hope for the church.


7/26/2007 6:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Well, if the controversy is really about the role of the Bible and Biblical interpretation, then it seems odd that the conservatives are not really asking ECUSA and the Canadians to subscribe to a creedal statement on Scripture instead of "repenting" for the sins of ordaining Gene Robinson and authorizing blessings in parts of BC.

If it the controversy is really about how to interpret the Bible, then why don't we have some kind of confessional statement, an update of the 39 Articles, instead of this whole Covenant business which seems to just transfer power from national churches to the Primates?

Alas, I think that less happy motives are really driving this controversy.

7/28/2007 12:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While it is true that Jesus is the Incarnate Word (Logos) of God and the supreme revelation of God, we can no longer ask Jesus questions and have Jesus answer people. Unless we are well grounded, Jesus will tend to answer what we want to hear. Holy Scripture, on the other hand is not just the "expression of the Word of God," it is the Word of God. I said I believed Holy Scripture to be the Word of God when I was ordained and I suspect that Matthew did as well. As clergy, we did not say that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments "contained" the Word of God or were the "expression" of the Word of God, but that they are the Word of God. If we are going to make a major shift in how we interpret the Word of God, then perhaps we should ask the Church (the Body of Christ)if that shift more accurately reflects the mind (Logos) of God before we act on the results of our shift.

Phil Snyder

7/29/2007 6:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pelagius began with a notion of justice that he inherited from his culture. He brought this notion to Scripture and it blinded him to several important biblical notions. Flowing from this error were others. This is the same root error that Doctor Schori, much of the leadership of the Episcopal Church in the United States, and you are making. You are making the substitution of the contemporary cultures idea of justice for the Christian ideas of sin and forgiveness.

It has been said Pelagius recoiled in horror at the idea that a divine gift (grace) is necessary to perform what God commands. For Pelagius and his followers responsibility always implies ability. If man has the moral responsibility to obey the law of God, he must also have the moral ability to do it. As logical as this sound, the Holy Catholic Church declared that it was heresy.

Christianity is not an experiential religion. That is not to say that there is not the place for the move of the Holy Spirit, but we must test all moves which appear to be of the Holy Spirit against Scripture and Tradition using logic. When such testing show conflict, as it must in declaring homosexual acts as other then sin, we must assume that the apparent move was demonic.

The heresy of Pelagius is one which is easy to fall into for the modern mind. But it is heresy none the less.


7/29/2007 9:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said Phil Snyder. I too affirmed my belief that Scripture IS the Word of God when I was ordained; and where-else do we find any reliable information about Jesus, the Incarnate Word, except from Scripture, the Inspired Written Word.

Furthermore, if we are to be truly united in the body of Christ, then surely we ought to have unity of mind on who this Jesus Christ is; and what he has done/doing/will do - his creating all things, his incarnation, atoning sacrifice, bodily resurrection and glorious return - and this takes us back to Scripture to discern these truths.

It seems to me that many have come up with strange notions on who Jesus of Nazareth was, the nature of his being, the nature of his work and mission, because they do not have a traditional education in Scripture.

7/29/2007 11:30 AM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Thanks for dropping in, Phil. I have one question. You said: "Unless we are well grounded, Jesus will tend to answer what we want to hear." I have a couple of questions about that.

Who determines whether we are well grounded?

I often find that Christ ... or the Spirit ... tells me things I don't want to hear. I am daily -- sometimes hourly -- told that what I have done (or failed to do) or what I am thinking (or failing to think) is sin. When I am convicted of these sins, I am pretty sure that it is not I, but Christ living in me. And he talks to me about some of the sins that I most treasure. How can you explain why he doesn't tell me that my desire for a committed lesbian relationship is a sin?

These are great mysteries.

7/29/2007 1:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I will answer your question with a question (and then answer my own question). How do we know about Jesus? What is the greatest source of information about Him? The earliest accounts of the work of Jesus are Paul's Epistles. The Gospels are next and are probably distillations of earlier oral or oral and written traditions. So, we know we are well grounded in Jesus if "our" Jesus conforms to the Jesus presented in Holy Scripture and proclaimed by the unbroken tradition of the Church. So, if we can't find unity in Holy Scripture, then I submit that we will never find unity. There will be differences in interpretation and some will be sever, but unless we can agree to limit our differences to those that the Church (and not just a few diocese or just one or two provinces) agrees are within the bounds of acceptable interpretations, then I don't think we will ever find unity. Unity in Jesus without unity in Holy Scripture isn't unity based on who God is. It is based on who we are because the Jesus proclaimed apart from Holy Scripture simply becomes a political leader and not the revelation of God.

Phil Snyder

7/29/2007 1:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lisa said: . . .How can you explain why he doesn't tell me that my desire for a committed lesbian relationship is a sin?

It is really simple, God has given you Holy Scripture, which say that it is sin. You must discern what is true when you hear and when you do not hear. That you have not heard God speaking to you is really of no matter, given that the answer is clear in Holy Scripture.

Yours in Christ,

7/29/2007 1:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


You write

That is not to say that there is not the place for the move of the Holy Spirit, but we must test all moves which appear to be of the Holy Spirit against Scripture and Tradition using logic. When such testing show conflict, as it must in declaring homosexual acts as other then sin, we must assume that the apparent move was demonic.

I cannot agree with you (or Phil). To arrive at "as it must" you appear to a plucked out a verse or two here and there without looking at the totality of what the Bible has to say about the nature of sin. From biblical scholarship we know that the Bible is not a transcription of what God had to say. Nor is it all, nor especially one part, capable of revealing to us all that God is and wants for us. Because we are human. Hence the struggle to understand and comprehend, to be willing to acknowledge in our interpretation -- just I acknowledge the very valid point that we are very capable of self deceit.

7/29/2007 2:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John B. Chilton said . . .From biblical scholarship we know that the Bible is not a transcription of what God had to say.

This goes to the point the Arch-Bishop was trying to make. The only alternative to a faith based in God revealed through Scripture, is religion based upon how we feel.

John B. Chilton said . . .I cannot agree with you (or Phil). To arrive at "as it must" you appear to a plucked out a verse or two here and there without looking at the totality of what the Bible has to say about the nature of sin.

There is much more sin than sexual sin. I would suggest a lot more. In the world it is likely that there is much more heterosexual sin than homosexual sin.

This does not change the facts concerning homosexual sin. The fact that this is the most discussed sin in Episcopal circles, is not how much of it there is going on. It is clearly to me not because it is worst than other sins. It is because we have people who are claiming what Scripture has called sin, is not sin. From my point of the discussion is not about homosexual sin, but rather that some feel the Scripture can be changed.

As to picking out a few passages, I would suggest that there is no issue in which Scripture has more than a few directly applicable passages. I would suggest that there is no part of Scripture which say that homosexual acts are not sin.

It is not my intent to engage this thread any more as it go too far from the initial post.

Yours in Christ,

7/29/2007 4:37 PM  
Blogger Derek said...

Scott+ delivers a literalist, pure Sadducee approach to Scripture with barely even a Christian gloss. Not at all the role Jesus (or even Paul) seemed to regard Scripture in.

It's all well and good if you clergy types have taken an oath that Scripture is the Word of God -- I'd be very mistrustful of someone who took that then to mean that the Bible was written by God to be taken literally and at face value in all times. That primacy for the written word (beyond being inspired by the Holy Spirit, as is commonly accepted by whichever side of the debate one is on) is nowhere in the Creeds I recite as a Christian, is nowhere in the Ten Commandments I affirm (usually during processions in Lent). The very closest Scripture comes to having such pride of place is in the Baptismal Covenant, and there, only if one were to fully equate "apostles' teaching" with "Scripture." Which is quite a stretch, given that much of Christian theology about so many basics of our faith from the Church Fathers and Doctors occurred after Scripture was made canon.

So the first Christians didn't have the benefit of Paul's letters, or didn't have all of them -- they were living outside the faith? The majority of Christians who have lived on the planet have been illiterate, so likely only heard so much of Scripture as was read to them. True Christian faith does not and cannot equate to a "Bible faith," or else it fails. Jesus did not come to do away with the Law, but he did come to fulfill it. Scripture can only take us so far.

Every argument that perceives Biblical injunctions against love between gay people is of the same tradition as the clergy and religious politicians of Jesus' own day, who used Scripture to make their case against his message of God's love and the salvation Jesus would bring to the world in his resurrection. Time and again, Jesus shows and says that, if the two ever come into conflict, knowing and sharing the Father's love trumps rules in Scripture every single time. Every. Single. Time.

Phil says that we can no longer ask Jesus ourselves and expect him to answer. Scott says God gave us Holy Scripture to use instead.

Well, sorry if Scripture is the basis of your faith, but Jesus TOLD me to ask, because it will be given me; to search, and I'll find; to knock and the door will be opened. He didn't say, "Turn to Holy Scripture for your answer." And he specifically did NOT say that God would give us Holy Scripture -- he said that after he ascended, God would send the Holy Spirit.

Scripture is the starting point for a life in faith -- it's what first introduces us to the Risen Christ and our own resurrection. It isn't the final arbiter of our salvation or the Advocate and Guide he asked the Father to send us.

So beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadduccees! (And, no, Jesus was not speaking literally when he said that -- though his followers keep making that mistake.)

7/30/2007 11:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is really simple, God has given you Holy Scripture, which say that [a desire for a committed lesbian relationship] is sin . . . the answer is clear in Holy Scripture.

No, let me give you a "clear" answer from Holy Scripture, Scott:

"Thou shalt not bear FALSE witness against your neighbor" (which you just did against Lisa)

7/31/2007 12:08 AM  
Blogger Marshall Scott said...

Scott, Phil:

I certainly declared that the "the Holy Scriptures... are the Word of God, and contain all things necessary to salvation." Let me make two points.

First, I knew when I declared that, and was honest in prayer that I knew it, that I understood the written word as Word inasmuch and only forasmuch as it directed me beyond itself to the Living and Resurrected Word, still present in the Holy Spirit. Indeed, it is not true that "Christianity is not an experiential religion," or that, "the only alternative to a faith based in God revealed through Scripture, is religion based upon how we feel." In fact Christianity has been affirmed throughout history as a religion in which the continuing work of the Holy Spirit is discerned in the experience of those living in light of Scripture. It is certainly heretical to simply reject all of our Hebrew tradition (Marcion's error); but it is just as heretical to reject the continuing work of the Holy Spirit, which will, as Jesus said in John, "lead you into all truth," which will be more than we can bear right now.

And thus, second, to say that Scripture contains "all things necessary to salvations" is not to say that "all of Scripture is necessary to salvation." That is certainly not what the whole Church has taught. Even my most faithful Southern Baptist relatives get edgy about equating responsibilities under the Old Covenant with those under the New.

In light of the post and the comments, I continue to believe that there is hard work in discerning what we mean when we call ourselves "Anglican" before we should determine who's in and who's out, and what we should put on paper. Sadly, some will not wait: they will define Anglican to suit themselves, and break communion with those who don't fit. That indeed is what Archbishop Orombi says in the article is in process. His historical review of Ugandan history is moving and informative. His historical review of Anglican history beyond Uganda is narrow and incomplete, and biased toward his own perspective on what "Anglican" should mean.

I think that interpretation of Scripture is an issue. However, I think the "umbrella issus," if you will, is what we mean when we call ourselves Anglican, and how willing we are to live with those not just like us.

7/31/2007 9:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I am not saying we should not be open to the moves of the Holy Spirit. I am saying that when we hear what we think is the Holy Spirit we must test what we hear against Tradition and Scripture.

What I object to is the rejection of Holy Scripture based upon what some think the Holy Spirit is saying. If what you hear is not in line with Scripture and Tradition it is safe to say it is not from the Holy Spirit.


7/31/2007 11:25 AM  
Blogger Derek said...

And what you read in Scripture must be tested against what Jesus proclaimed as the Gospel -- and by what we learn in Tradition and discern by Reason. Otherwise, one can take Psalm 137:9 as instructional, Genesis 2:22 as scientific, and 1 Cor 6:9-10 as canonical. (And if so, therefore, Archbishop Akinola among others must resign his see, having been a reviler of the first order.)

All Scripture must be read in the context of the Gospel and God's revelation in our own lives and in the lives of others. Thanks to Biblical literalists and selective verse-quoting (and willful misinterpretation), efforts to "heal" gay people, ostracize them from church and society, and denigrate their loving relationships have resulted in a history of suicide, physical abuse, and dangerous, underground sexual expression and risks. But we shouldn't be surprised. These Biblicists keep trying to gather grapes from thorns and figs from thistles by using Scripture to uphold bigotry. They try to lock people out of the kingdom of heaven, do not go in themselves, and when others are going in, they stop them.

Whereas gay bishops throughout history have served God in his church with distinction and to the furtherance of his kingdom -- we just now have the first who's not closeted.

"You shall know them by their fruits" -- and the literalists have a very poor track record when it comes to their views and treatment of gay people.

7/31/2007 1:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Derek said...
Whereas gay bishops throughout history have served God in his church with distinction and to the furtherance of his kingdom -- we just now have the first who's not closeted.

The change today is all about the closet. A homosexual may have been a bishop in the past. He may have even done the sin in "in the closet". This was wrong, but we all sin. What is changed is that we now have sin being called good.

8/02/2007 8:25 AM  

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