Face to Face with the ‘Text of Terror’ – at The Hui

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 1 Corinthians 6, 9-10 NIV

There was plenty of heavyweight scholarship in evidence at this week’s hermeneutic hui. This hui (held at Auckland’s Diocesan School for Girls) was, after all, the big daddy of the three hui held thus far. The one where the 80-odd assembled Anglicans actually grasped the nettle, and grappled with the scriptures about homosexuality. But perhaps it was a brief, personal contribution from one of the scholars that put those earnest endeavours into context.

During the final session of the three day hui, Dr James Harding, lecturer in Old Testament Studies at Otago University, rose and spoke of the time when, as a young man, he’d first read 1 Corinthians 6, 9 – 10. He was, he recalled, face-to-face with a “text of terror” – because he was also coming to the awareness that he was attracted not to women, but to men.

Paul’s warning: ‘Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor… homosexual offenders… will inherit the kingdom of God’ – was for him stark and terrifying. “What that said to me was: ‘You don’t belong in the Kingdom of God.’”

He urged those present at the hui to weigh carefully the real-world consequences of their thinking and pronouncements about such scriptures: “What effect do they have on the way people feel about themselves? On how they discover themselves in the biblical text? On the way they experience themselves as loved – or not – by God, and by the members of their churches?”

“Our task is not simply a matter of reading the text, then the commentaries, and then figuring what the text means for all time. Because an ‘ethical crunch’ comes when we deal with the effect that our sacred texts have on people’s lives.”

Dr Harding, who grew up in the UK, then spoke of a time (about 15 years ago) when he was in a church in Manchester. He’d become caught up in a discussion with a fellow parishioner, who was pronouncing Scripture’s harsh judgements on homosexuality. James challenged him: “I spoke of the young people who have taken their own lives because they couldn’t escape from the idea that they have no place in the Kingdom of God. His response then still sends shivers down my spine: ‘These suicides are good’, he said – ‘because soon society will be rid of this evil.’”

Dr Harding later said that he’d taken to heart a principle outlined by St Augustine: that Christians should always “interpret (Scripture) with charity”. Dr Harding also said he was “pleasantly surprised” at how generous the hui atmosphere was. “I loved the way people from different backgrounds, cultures and places were able to share from their standpoints about what the texts mean. Because at the end of the day, the scriptures are the church’s book, they’re bigger than any one of us, and we have to listen to how everybody in the church comes to these texts and these issues.”

A key to that generosity of spirit, he felt, was the deliberate, three-times-daily undergirding of the hui in worship. “Prayer and the Eucharist were absolutely fundamental,” he said. “Worship was the context in which we did our did our work.”

That was a widely-shared view. Dr Peter Carrell, The Diocese of Christchurch’s Director of Education, said he felt the worship had “framed the hui in a way that was helpful… by putting God first, centre and around the event. He described the worship – which was prepared and led by the students of St John’s College –  as “very high calibre, thoughtful and well prepared. It helped keep us at the same table of the Lord.”

We’ve only just begun

Who won? Who lost? What was finally decided?

Anyone who’d imagined that this hui would, finally, produce some decisive outcomes to the biggest internal struggle wracking the Communion, would’ve been disappointed. Yesterday might have been the last day of the third hui, but there were more comments about this being the beginning  of something, rather than its ending. The following remarks, for example, jotted down when the small groups reported back to the plenary for the final time, hint at the feeling:

“The deeply personal statements, testimony and moments are so important to forming the bonds that are necessary for good ethical reflection…

“The conversations have helped prepare for difficult conversations in the future.”

The series of hermeneutic hui had been the brainchild of Archbishop David Moxon, and he felt his “modest hopes” for their success had been realised: “We listened to each other with respect, we played the ball, not the person – and nobody left. I think we’ve created a culture of scholarly, irenic dialogue on a very heated issue.”

Lessons had been learned from each of the previous hui, he said. Dio School’s architecture, for example, meant it could offer better small spaces to meet in than Wellington Cathedral, and there was more time set aside for small group reflection than in previous hui. “We are lab-testing something for the episcopal units,” said Archbishop David, “and perhaps for the Anglican Communion as a whole.” There seemed to be widespread relief too that, at last, the hui were getting down to tin-tacks – in other words, to grappling with the texts (Genesis 19; Leviticus 18; Romans 1 and 1 Corinthian 6) at the heart of the controversies.

In Peter Carrell’s view, that was a big plus: “There was an engagement with scripture, an across-the-hui respect for scripture… which helped conservatives feel that their concerns and views were being heard. And taken seriously, even if not necessarily agreed with. There was an acknowledgement that scripture says some things that underline the conservative viewpoint.”

But the conservative evangelicals weren’t the only ones to welcome the focus on scripture. Professor Peter Lineham, for example, who presented a paper on Genesis 19 – and who is a gay man, with a Brethren background – was one. “To me,” he said, “that focus is always worthwhile. It’s got to be resolved. You can’t just put the Scriptures aside in this discussion. “I think the respectful talking about the Bible would be enormously helpful to conservative people – and I’m not frightened of it.”

Where’s the whanaungatanga?

All three tikanga led significant sessions of the discussion, with Professor Paul Trebilco, who is the Foundation Professor of Theology at Otago University, and who specialises in the New Testament, exegeting and giving a hermeneutical context for the passages – as well as providing feedback in the plenary sessions to questions raised in the small groups.

There was a concern, however, expressed by one or two Tikanga Maori delegates, that Pakeha weren’t recognising the central importance of whanaungatanga  in Te Ao Maori. That’s a valuing of family and community relationships that transcends notions of individual sinfulness, or notions of depravity. Moana Hall-Smith, who is the Kaihautu of the Manawa o Te Wheke taapapa, touched on these ideas in a paper she presented:

Whanaungatanga,” she said, “recognises the many branches and associations, interactions and relations within and outside the Maori world. It conveys the meaning of kinship or a sense of belonging – a privilege not experienced by Western interpreters… “Therefore, homosexual acts (just like heterosexual acts) are but one feature of a much larger complex of factors that contribute to the make-up of relationships. The focus on the sexual act is to miss the point of the larger context of whanaungatanga.”

A better pastoral response?

Peter Carrell says he’s not prepared to guess where conservatives who attended the hui will finish up in processing what they experienced. “There’s always been a distinction in the evangelical mind,” he says, “between pastoral responses to people, and the church formally making decisions about the ordination of people living in same sex relationships, or the blessing of same sex relationships. “However:  I felt I clearly heard conservative evangelicals articulate the need for them to work on making better pastoral response to gay and lesbian people in our churches.”

The final word is anonymous – it’s a quote lifted from the feedback reported to the final plenary session:

“I remain convinced,” said the author, “that scripture is relatively clear on the issues of sexuality, and remain committed to the force of Scripture’s voice. I am, however, utterly challenged by the reality of dealing pastorally with all that happens in our world and church – and most especially, by the deep needs, pain and worth of people.”

Footnote: a fourth and final hermeneutical hui will be held next year.

_____________________________________________________________________________

Reading this article –  beginning with a talk given, on the final day,  to the recent Hermeneutics Hui for ACANZP – one cannot but appreciate the courage with which the speaker, Dr. James Harding, of the University of Otago, shared his experience of  battling this particular piece of scripture. I wish I’d been at the Hui. I would have liked to see the look on the faces of the theologs who really believe that God, who created Gays, could actually fulminate against them in the way that Saint Paul ‘s letter here is too often discerned  to be doing.

What insitutionally anti-gay Christians fail to realise is that Saint Paul was not privy to the understanding of the true situation of LGBT people that is available to us today. Scientific and Social Studies have revealed a much more complex and diverse world of human sexual responses than was ever known to first century writers of the New Testament (let alone the Old). The word homosexual was unknown to Paul and the Early Church writers, whose understanding of sexuality was focussed around the heterosexual ‘norm’ – which was considered to be the sole way of expressing one’s-self sexually, and then primarily for the purpose of pro-creation. Any expression of sexuality that was not oriented towards the goal of procreation was considered to be extrinsic to God’s plan and purpose for humanity.

One has only to read the Song of Songs, in the Hebrew Scriptures, to begin to understand that the gift of sexuality was far more than mere propagation of the species, but then from the time of the story of Adam and Eve there has been a tradition of viewing sexuality as something to be ashamed of – to be hidden from God – as if God would be defiled by our human ‘depravity’ in the exercise of his gift.

There is, in the pages of ‘Anglican Taonga’, from which I obtained this article, a following comment which reflects the hubris of the writer who seems to think that God is offended by the thought of his LGBT children exercising their sexuality in the only way that they are equipped to do so – with any integrity for their particular sexual-orientation. This is the attitude of those Provinces of the Church, like Uganda and Nigeria, whose archbishops and bishops have drawn apart from association with TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada – on account of their liberating attitude towards LGBT people in the Church, both male and female, who feel that God is calling them to participate fully in the life and work of the Church as precisely who and what they are – intrinsically other than heterosexual in their orientation, and therefore capable of a different way if expressing themselves sexually and lovingly towards their partners from the majority of their fellow human beings.

I’m glad we have people like Dr. James Harding, an Old Testament scholar and lecturer at Otago, who is able to share his own experience of what it’s like to be a gay Christian – while yet reconciling his situation with significant texts from the Bible that appear to run counter to what he knows to be the truth for him. The key, of course, to this is the fact that hermeneutical research is able to reveal what is, and what is not, able to be discerned as relevant to the world of today – in the basic lessons of Scripture that reveal God as the advocate of Love which supercedes the sterility of the Law. Only with such an enlightened understanding, for instance, can we deny the secular idea of the sort of God who is concerned to punish, (usually by ‘acts of God’) , like earthquakes and tsunami) rather than to redeem. Whatever we perceive as ‘sin’ in other people may render us blind to the ‘sin’ of judgement of them in ourselves.

It will be interesting to see how the effects of this Hui reverberate around the dioceses, as we consider the actions of TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada, that have awakened in the Churches the need for a new idea and understanding of gender and sexuality – and of how that will affect our attitude to the provision of The Covenant, which may insist on their exclusion from the Communion. 

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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