River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Anglican Letter

August 2008

Keith takes St Paul's text "Through a glass Darkly" as his bais for an examination of our interpretation of Christianity.

August 2008 Newsletter

St Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth that "now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face". Actually he wrote to them in Greek and I have used the translation of his writings that King James I ordered to be made in the early 17th Century - the famous Authorised King James Bible. The most popular modern English translation says "now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face". "Now" means "now", "then" means when we all come to judgement and the Kingdom of God descends finally onto the earth.

The 'glass' through which we see darkly is the body of information that we have about God - in the institutional Scriptures that make up the Bible and in the less formal writings of the great theologians through the ages (such as Thomas Aquinas) and in the sermons and words of other good men over the centuries (such as Charles Wesley or Billy Graham). God reveals himself to us gradually. Abraham would have some difficulty recognizing the same God whom the disciples encountered within the form of Jesus. St Paul would have some difficulty recognizing the same God, whom he knew in the form of the 1st century Jesus in the form of Jesus that we see nowadays. "Then" - ie at some time in the future - we shall see God face to face and we will see him better and differently than we can see him now. That does not make any of these visions of God untrue - simply incomplete.

Einstein did not prove that Newton's famous Laws of Motion were wrong, only that they were incomplete. They applied to a 3 dimensional universe and work perfectly for almost all the purposes for which we need them in ordinary life. In a 4 or more dimensional universe the laws are more complex, that is all. Our 2 dimensional photos and films give very true representations of 3 dimensional reality, but we recognize that they are incomplete.

Our view, our revelation of God today is very incomplete and has many dimensions missing. We have, hopefully, grasped a few more than Abraham was able to, than Paul was able to, than theologians and ordinary people were able to only 50 years ago, but we have not yet arrived. The glass is still dark.

The Church of England and the wider Anglican Church is going through difficult times - but "difficult" does not have to mean "bad" - it should mean "exciting". As I write, it is less than a week since the General Synod voted (by a margin of 2:1, both in the House of Bishops and more generally) that the Church of England should be ready to ordain women priests as Bishops. Fifteen or so years ago, it voted to allow the ordination of women as priests. At that time, special provision was made for those members of the Church (lay and clerical) who could not, in conscience, accept that this was biblically permissible, to opt out. This was for Parishes who felt they could only choose male priests as their Vicars and for Priests who could not accept the ordination of women. They were allowed to bypass the authority of their Diocesan Bishops and to accept instead that of a 'flying Bishop' of the same persuasion as themselves. Whatever the objectors all felt about it, it seems clear that the body of the Church that elected for the ordination of women thought this provided a solution for the conscientious objectors, which would effectively be transitional, even though no dates or periods were involved. In the event, this may have been wishful thinking. At Petertide last month - the time when, traditionally, new priests are ordained, the service in Ely Cathedral of ordination of new deacons and priests in the Ely Diocese was matched by a service in Downham Market presided over by the (flying) Bishop of Richborough, when a deacon was ordained priest, who could not accept the authority of the Bishop of Ely, because he accepted and ordained women priests.

The formulae for the granting of similar rights of special treatment in a future time of women Bishops were rejected by the General Synod. It voted for women Bishops, without any concessions, but promised to come up with a code of practice (which by definition must presumably be voluntary and indefinite in terms of timescale and detail). In agreeing the terms of such a code, the conscientious objectors will have limited bargaining power, since the decision in principle has already been taken. Regardless of your point of view about all this, the decision by General Synod was unusual in that it shows the Church of England making a clear decision, rather than a woolly one. The risk, of course, it that it could drive some people out of the Church of England.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, there is another even bigger running sore - bigger in so far as it affects the whole of the worldwide Anglican communion. This is the dispute about the position of homosexuals. It appears to apply to gay men, but not to gay women. If that is the case, they have got ahead of the men for a change! The problem is that 3 years or so ago, an openly practicing gay priest was ordained Bishop in the USA, to the horror of many American and European Christians and most African Christians. The objections to homosexuality come from the Bible, as written and handed down - as accepted virtually without question until the last few decades. Bishop Robinson's response is to quote Jesus, speaking to his disciples at the Last Supper, not long before he was arrested and executed - "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However, when He, the Spirit of truth has come, He will guide you into all truth." This is a pretty clear promise that more guidance will come from God than had already been forthcoming. This is reason enough why we take so seriously the Spirit-guided words of the Apostles in their letters and of the Gospel writers. But it is the age old problem of taking biblical quotations out of their context and building on them. The context is the whole Bible, not any part of it, so it is difficult to deal with.

For those not terribly interested in Christianity and for many who are, this is all pretty heavy stuff - not exactly Da Vinci Code stuff.

Oliver Cromwell pleaded with Parliament, when they sought to make him King, that they should seek whether "in their bowels, they might be wrong" [not an accurate quotation, I am afraid, but something like]. Albert Einstein said "I think for months and years. Ninety-nine times, the conclusion is false. The hundredth time I am right."

The glass is still dark. My feelings and conscience lead me in certain directions. They are informed and guided by all the influences that have affected me over many years. In forming them, I know that I have discarded or ignored many of the influencers that I should have had some regard to. Theology is not democratic. God is not a democrat. But the reason that we have Synods (and the reason why there is so much that is uncomfortable for Roman Catholics in accepting the sole authority of the Pope) is that we all know that we could be wrong. If the vast majority of the members of Synod (not, note, of Society at large) have a view then it has to be heard and given room. If the majority of the Church is still uncomfortable with something, then maybe a little more time is needed for the glass to clear a little more.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu once remarked that the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and "we" had the land. They said "'Let us pray'. When we opened our eyes, the tables had been turned: We had the Bible and they had the land." Let's hope that the strong African Church can be aware of this history and they are not trying too hard to turn the tables again, but are ready to listen as well as to hear and to join in debate and consideration.

I am glad that I am not required to join in at the Lambeth Conference of all the world's Anglican Bishops (except only Bishop Robinson!) - it will have started and finished between my writing this and getting it into print.

Keith MacLeod

Licensed Lay Minister

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