The Church of England has not done itself much good in the public controversies of recent weeks. While a minority within the church may have become very agitated about the nomination of Fr Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading, most people outside the church have been more concerned, and in many cases appalled, by the strangely mixed moral values of so many vociferous Christians.
No-one has questioned Dr John's suitability in terms of pastoral, spiritual, theological and liturgical gifts. Everything has revolved around his acknowledgement of his celibate homosexuality. This is an issue under serious discussion within the church, and the arguments are by no means as simple as some would claim. The Gospels record no word at all from Jesus about it. Those who select certain verses from the Old Testament as normative for Christian living must justify the selection of these and not others. Otherwise, equivalent passages from Leviticus would ban the lame, dwarves, hunchbacks and the visually impaired from the priesthood! All sides in the debate are using Scripture selectively, and those who demand authority for the literal interpretation of chosen verses have the greater responsibility to declare and defend their criteria of selection.
Equally important is how the debate has been conducted. Financial blackmail has been employed by large congregations - "give us what we want or we will withhold our contribution to central church funds". Bullying tactics, like the threat of leaving the church or withdrawing from the Anglican Communion, have been used by people in the highest positions. Personal attacks and harassment have been used to gain publicity, and some of those who have been so clamorously vocal on this issue have been deafeningly silent on other questions of integrity and justice, leading to the conclusion that they have an unhealthy obsession with the intimate details of people's sexual activity.
There are bound to be disagreements in any human organization - but, instead of sinking to the level of the least edifying political controversy, the church ought to pilot a way forward in constructive debate, based on mutual respect, open-mindedness and charity. It is there that we have failed so significantly in the past few weeks, as many articles in local and national newspapers have made painfully clear. Because the morality of their actions is so ambiguous, because of dominant note of condemnatory self-righteousness and pride and the apparent absence of compassion in their words and actions, the integrity of the Church of England as an agent of God's inclusive love has been compromised.
But not all parts of the Church are like that. We do still welcome all who seek God's love, forgiveness and strength, and try to follow the example of Jesus, who was Himself condemned for welcoming those whom religious zealots preferred to ignore. May the silent pleading of His compassion overcome the strident noise of controversy, and let us work out the long-term answers in calm and prayerful reflection. After all, there is as much need for blackmailers and bullies to repent, and history shows how often the strident voice of the Church has been proved to have been on the wrong side! MALCOLM
- February 2003
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- December 2003
About the Vicar's Letter
The Vicar's Letter has been appearing in the villages Focus magazine since August 2002.
The Rev. Peter Graham also used to publish The Vicar's Letter in the parish magazine of 1964. Please see the Vicar's Letter area for these.