© 2016, Tony Harwood-Jones
Arrogantly Determining God’s Will?
Five hundred years ago, Europeans “discovered” North America, where they found some “Indians.” Although many considered such “Indians” to be savages, lacking “reason,” and “slaves by nature,” a minority 1 saw them as persons – equal in worth and rights to the European. This more enlightened view eventually prevailed (only after years of brutality and genocide 2) and the settlers began to give Indigenous North Americans an education, and the Christian religion. Schools were established where the children – removed from the “primitive” influence of their families and culture – were given a chance to be assimilated into the “higher” civilization of the Europeans.
There was some enlightenment, to be sure, in the overall attempt to share the fruits of European culture with Indigenous peoples – though it is politically incorrect to say so in these turbulous times. Despite the epidemics of diabetes, substance abuse, and suicide in their communities, many Indigenous individuals are glad of their Western education, their many labour-saving devices, and their access to high-tech medical care. And a large number of them are also active participants in Christian churches, including the Anglican Church: witness an entire diocese, Mishamikoweesh, made up of Indigenous communities, and led by an Indigenous bishop; not to mention a host of fully Indigenous Anglican congregations spread throughout Canada, under the spiritual care of a “National Indigenous Bishop.”
Nevertheless, the arrogance of the incoming Europeans cannot be denied, and today both the church and the government of my country are bending over backwards to apologize for it. 3 It is shameful how the invading settlers treated Indigenous people as primitive savages, without any intrinsic worth or value. It is equally shameful how the Europeans assumed that the language and culture of the natives was something to be erased.
“We know what is good for you,” was the default European approach to native people. “We will help you to emerge from your primitive ways.”
How deeply we Christians now regret such arrogance!
Arrogance still reigns. A people who see themselves as “enlightened” are once more treating others as backward, and primitive. Worse, the vast majority of those who see themselves as progressive and forward-thinking are descended from Europeans, and the people who hold what they suppose to be regressive and unenlightened views, include North American Indigenous peoples, and Africans – all descendants of the very people so brutalized in the colonial enterprise.
Have we learned nothing? Are we incapable of listening to our brothers and sisters who do not share our views?
You may have guessed by now that I am referring to current controversies in the church, and in our culture, about gender.
There are certainly plenty of European-descended Christians who are feeling vilified because they are uncomfortable about changes to gender norms. However, they can probably take it, since few of them have a corporate memory of being marginalized. But the aggressive self-righteousness of those who are convinced that gay marriage, for example, is a good thing, is still unnerving – whether it is the 2016 backlash against Anglican bishops who issued a caution 4 about changing the marriage canon in Canada, or the petitions and uproar around the global Primates’ Meeting 5 6 that had censured the Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. for its 2015 decision to make such a change. 7
The greatest number of Anglican Christians in opposition to the new gender norms are African. 8 These are people whose homelands still bear the scars of the slave trade; yet they are also a people whose colonially-established churches are full on a Sunday morning, ringing with songs of Jesus’ love and forgiveness.
However, caution about emerging gender norms is not at all limited to Africa. I have it on good authority that a huge number of Indigenous Anglicans here in North America are extremely cautious about the whole issue. 9
And what do the people pressing forward with the cause of same-sex matrimony say to such Africans and Indigenous North Americans? “Your thoughts are unacceptable; our way is the good way; yours is the backward one.” The disapproval now to be heard from North American liberals regarding African and Indigenous views about the emerging gender ethic, never uses the actual words, “primitive,” or “savage,” and yet the tenor of their message means nothing less.
I’m not saying that same-sex marriage, or any other sexual diversity cause, is wrong. Nor am I saying that these causes are right. What is at issue is the manner in which this important topic is being pressed forward by its advocates.
In our generation the “Sacred Circle” method of Indigenous deliberation has been rediscovered, 10 and its use is becoming quite widespread, even among non-Indigenous people. However, such an approach to communal problems is, of necessity, extremely slow, because it requires intensive listening on the part of all persons present. No point of view is forbidden; ALL opinions will be given a full hearing. None are instantly discounted, or shouted down.
What would the gender controversy be like if everyone who favoured same-sex marriage stopped, took a deep breath, and listened appreciatively to those who do not favour it? Can we really say, after doing so, “You are foolish and backward. You’ll catch up to us one day!”?
I would like to say, particularly to the African church leaders, that they, too, should stop and take a deep breath; but given the history of colonialism, that sort of messaging, coming from someone like me, is counterproductive. Anyway, I think it preferable to be the first to begin doing the intensive listening.
In true dialogue, where genuine listening takes place – the person on the “yea” side may well have something to teach the person on the “nay” side, and in the right environment the message may well get put across successfully; but, equally, the one on the “nay” side may also have something to teach those who say “yea.” True listening always implies a willingness to be taught – a willingness, in fact, to be wrong.
Now, here am I, a descendent of Europeans, trying to put forward an Indigenous “Sacred Circle” approach to this ethical conflict! That would be rather presumptive of me, were it not for the fact that listening and inclusion is also deeply rooted in the Christian Gospel.
We Christians are committed to living according to God’s will. In thought, word, and deed we are to “please” God. Doing something against God’s will is terrible, and should rightly terrify us.
But how do we know which of our thoughts and deeds conform to the will of God?
The time-honoured Anglican approach is: you can be assured that you are in conformity with the will of God, if your thought or action is: (1) commanded in Scripture, (2) consistently taught by the Church throughout the years, and (3) if it’s reasonable.
And, what should we do when something seems to be reasonable, but is forbidden in Scripture, and has never been taught in the history of the Church? 11
We discuss, we debate in formal church assemblies, we pray, and we seek the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit.
According to Scripture, Jesus promised that the Spirit would “guide” us into all truth. 12 This implies that there may be circumstances when some completely new direction must be taken by His followers, and in such circumstances, help – God’s direct guidance – will be given.
There is even a sample process to be found in the Bible:
Despite the fact that Jesus apparently said (in the Sermon on the Mount) that not one letter or even the stroke of a letter of the Jewish Law should be changed, and that anyone who teaches such change will be “least” in God’s Kingdom 13 – we nonetheless find in the Acts of the Apostles that a fundamental commandment (the circumcision law) was completely discontinued by Jesus’ followers; the exact type of change to God’s law that Jesus had forbidden!
How did they do it?
They had a meeting in Jerusalem, 14 where leaders of the whole community – speaking for all congregations in all countries – got together, discussed, and prayed. At times it almost seemed as though they were passing around a “talking stick!” Eventually they agreed; and their decision was not fifty percent plus one, it was unanimous. And, as a result they said that their discontinuation of a divine command was actually God’s will – in union with their collective human will. 15 The Holy Spirit, they said, had guided them into a new truth.
Can we apply this to the process of trying to change the Christian ethic about gender and marriage?
Whether it is the consensus of a Sacred Circle, or a collective agreement of the churches of God – what counts, in determining where the Spirit is leading, is agreement across the whole community. Listening, waiting, offering respect to divergent views, and prayer; always seeking the unity in love that is a sign of the will of God.
Not petitions, not name-calling, not political jockeying, not stacking delegates, not stomping out and slamming doors; and no ramming through legislation over the dead body of dissenters. Respect, and at all times a search for unity and agapé.
But two important issues now need to be addressed: the sense of urgency (particularly on the part of same-sex couples who wish to be married in the church); and the suggestion that everyone might “agree to disagree.”
A “Sacred Circle” is a slow and tedious process. A person’s deeply held convictions do not change overnight. By the time the whole church endorses same-sex matrimony – if it ever does – our present generation may well be dead and gone. Worse, when we talk about gender issues, we’re concerning ourselves, among other things, with young love – and young love is often impatient. Couples whose bond is strong would rightly feel cheated if their whole lives were forced to be spent waiting for a public endorsement by the church.
But the Christian church is becoming more and more marginalized, so that a public endorsement of same-sex matrimony will do very little to change the actual circumstances of those lovers. In all sorts of African countries, homosexuals will still be vilified by their neighbours, while in North America such marriages, performed by the state, are already socially acceptable. Approval by the church will not affect the day-to-day experience of the couples in question.
What approval by the church will do – if it comes into being through a genuine consensus approach, with widespread concurrence across the whole church 16 – is give everyone the assurance that God has spoken. By contrast, if approval is accomplished piecemeal, then the temporary bitter taste of victory may be felt by some, but all we will “know,” as the Body of Christ, is that we have severed ourselves from one another. The devil will have done his work.
The Biblical story of the prophet Micaiah 17 is instructive here: Micaiah was in the right, and the prophet Zedekiah was in the wrong, but King Ahab, wanting to act swiftly, paid no heed to the one who was right, and ended up dead. Meanwhile Micaiah, despite being right, spent the rest of his life in jail. All in all a discordant and ungodly mess.
Discerning the will of God is unlikely to be speedy. Ever. Barring a miracle.
Walking Separate Roads Together (agreeing to disagree)
A less arrogant and much more respectful approach has been suggested by certain liberal Anglicans. They say – to the conservatives and to the Indigenous communities – “Can’t we just do it our way, while you continue to do it your way?” This worked quite well in the matter of the ordination of women, where some parts of the church to this day do not have women priests, while others have priests and bishops who are female.
Certain other Christian denominations in Canada are taking the “parallel roads” approach with respect to same-sex marriage; wherein some congregations willingly perform marriages of same-sex couples, while other congregations do not.
Underlying such a policy, however, lies a rather individualistic view of morality – as if your moral viewpoint is merely an opinion, to which you are entitled, while I’m entitled to a different one. In that environment it doesn’t really matter what foolishness other people get up to, so long as my group thinks the way I do.
I hope I’m wrong, but I cannot see how the “Separate Roads Together” path can be sustained for very long.
Christianity is a universalist religion: if something is said to be a “sin” or wrong, it is wrong for everybody. Take the second of the two greatest commandments: Love your neighbour as yourself. No one is off the hook. It is not okay for anyone to hate their neighbour, ever. Those who do so have sinned, and must repent. Love of neighbour is not a suggestion; it is not an option; it is not an opinion. Period.
Christianity actually commands us to speak lovingly but firmly to those who sin – calling them back into godly living. And, if they refuse, we are to separate ourselves from them.
In the debate around gender ethics, battle lines have been very clearly drawn: “the Bible teaches that homosexual acts are an ‘abomination,’ and ‘unnatural,’” says one side; and, “those who reject the gender-diverse are being unloving and hateful, and ‘whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love,’” says the other. 18 Both sides thus believe that the only right course is to lecture the other side about how sinful they are, and if there is no repentant response, then the only recourse is to separate from them.
Disunity; schism; the greatest of all evils awaits both sides.
In effect, the idealistic policy of walking a “separate road together” will sooner or later result in each group being unable to sustain good fellowship with the other.
Thus it is that the best – indeed the only road open to us is patience, continuing to talk, and maintaining an intense listening stance – daily asking ourselves, “What is the Holy Spirit saying to me through these, my brothers and sisters, whose views I oppose?”
And, of course, faith. We must have faith that this church, this company of disciples, is ultimately God’s project and not ours; and that we, if we wait long enough, and pray faithfully enough, and love unselfishly enough, will be shown and guided and directed into the right way.
Okay. You can have the “talking stick” now.
May 12, 2016
1 You can see some of these terms and issues in the work of Francisco de Vitoria (1492-1546), who argued that American Indians were persons with sovereign rights in the places where they lived. See the synopsis at http://www.college.columbia.edu/core/content/francisco-de-vitoria.
2 The phrase, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” is attributed indirectly to U.S. General Philip Sheridan. Lieutenant General Edward Cornwallis (1713-1776), of Nova Scotia, in 1749 famously issued a bounty on the scalps of Mi’kmaq men, women and children (albeit in the context of all-out war between the Mi’kmaq and the English).
3 Apology and reconciliation have taken many forms over the years. The pivotal apology, by the Most Rev’d Michael Peers, then Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, came in 1993. The full text can be read here.
4 The bishops had warned, in a public statement, that changes to the marriage canon were not likely to pass, if put forward as planned, at the 2016 General Synod. Indeed, they wondered “whether a legislative procedure is the most helpful way of dealing with these matters.” Social media then erupted. A “closed” Facebook group, insisting that the canon be changed, quickly gained more than 1,400 members. A blog by the Rev’d Bruce Bryant-Scott is representative of a reasoned and considered reaction by those who favour same-sex marriage, and is available to the general reader here.
5 A formally called meeting of all the leading Archbishops (“Primates”) of the world’s Anglican churches is considered to be one of the “Instruments of Communion” – the means whereby this global fellowship of churches is held together. Here is a web page about the 2016 gathering.
7 Here is a July 2015 news article about the Episcopal church’s decision to authorize marriage of same-sex couples.
8 Actually, it is possible that the greatest number of Anglicans in the world are African; but when, in 2008, a conservative “Global Anglican Future Conference” (generally referred to as “GAFCON”) convened in Jerusalem, its leadership included Peter Akinola of Nigeria, Benjamin Nzimbi of Kenya, Emmanuel Kolini of Rwanda, Henry Luke Orombi of Uganda, and Valentino Mokiwa of the Anglican Church of Tanzania. GAFCON continues as a worldwide association of Anglicans who are critical of “increasing secularism” in the church, and opposed to treating “a variety of sexual preferences and immoral behaviour as a universal human right” (Wikipedia), but its leadership remains strongly African. The 2013 meeting of GAFCON, for example, took place in Kenya; the Chairman of the association, appointed in April, 2016, is Archbishop Nicholas Okoh of Nigeria, succeeding the Most Rev’d Eliud Wabukala, the Primate of the Anglican Church in Kenya; and a 2016 video produced by GAFCON begins with a non-African, but every other face appearing in the two-minute sequence is African.
9 Indigenous Anglican bishops in Canada have expressly stated that Indigenous congregations are unlikely to follow the non-Indigenous church into the performing of same-sex marriages. See Section 2.4 of “The Report of the Commission on the Marriage Canon of the Anglican Church of Canada.”
10 In a “Sacred Circle,” participants sit in a circle and each is given a turn to speak on the subject for which the meeting has been called. As I understand it, a “talking stick” – either a hand-held baton, or it might be an eagle feather – is passed around. The person holding the talking stick may speak as long as they wish, and no one may interrupt. The Anglican Church of Canada holds a regular “Sacred Circle,” described as the “national gathering and decision-making body for Indigenous Anglicans in Canada.” An article appreciating the 2015 “Sacred Circle” that was held in Port Elgin, Ontario can be read here.
11 I include in this a possible proposal which in Scripture would be called a “word of prophecy,” where a person, sensing a nudge from God, says, “God is calling us to do a new thing!” This is perfectly normal and acceptable in Biblical terms. So the question I’m putting here could just as easily be worded as: “what should we do when a new thing is suggested by prophetic inspiration, but is forbidden in Scripture... etc?” The answer – meet, discuss, pray, seek unity – would be the same, whether the “new thing” comes by direct inspiration or by common sense.
12 John 16:13
13 Matthew 5:19
14 See Acts 15:1-29
15 Acts 15:28
16 Here’s a simple formula: Christian certainty that God has spoken varies directly with the amount of unity displayed by the church in its teachings.
17 1 Kings 22:1-38. King Ahab of Israel wanted to go to war, and summoned the prophets to get some advice. Most of them said, “Go for it! God wants you to go to war, and God will help you win!” Micaiah was the exception. He said, in effect, “God is letting these guys fool you. Go to war and you’ll be dead.” One of my favourite lines in all of Scripture comes next – a line that certainly fits with this essay: Zedekiah slaps Micaiah on the cheek and says, “When did the Spirit of God stop speaking to me and start speaking to you!???”
18 Biblical references for these opposing positions: