The church: It’s meant to be a community in which one learns obedience safely

Westminster Abbey, West Door, Four of the ten ...

Westminster Abbey, West Door, Four of the ten 20th Century- Mother Elizabeth of Russia, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero, and Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The announcement made by the House of Bishops that clergy in a civil partnership could become Bishops as long as they remained celibate was not really a new announcement.
Speakeasy Rev Giles Fraser took to the Guardian to announce that it was the moral responsibility of those clergy to lie to anybody who asked them if they remained chaste. He assumes of course that they aren’t. Fraser is applying the logic of nonviolent resistance as ascribed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Stanley Hauerwas to what he believes is oppressive and outmoded belief. Fraser should keep supping from that cup till he can hear other truths Hauerwas speaks. More on that later. Let me explain how a lie can be more truthful than a perceived truth.

Hauerwas explains what he means by invoking Bonhoeffer story that if a child were to be asked in front of a classroom by his teacher whether his father was a drunk the child would not be responsible for the lie he told if he said no. The guilt of the lie would lay on the heart of the teacher as the question was not one conducive to protecting the dignity of the child and therefore was not conducive to learning how to tell the truth. That is because the environment in which the truth would have been told would have made the truth a lie.

Speaking the truth bears a relationship to its source: Jesus. This way of thinking applies the claim that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life.” If we take seriously the idea that Jesus is truth and that he is the groom of the bride that is the church, then working out what it means to be a community in which we speak the truth matters. Moreover, since we speak the truth as a community not only to each other but also to the world, what does it mean for us to speak truthfully about homosexuality?

Laying aside for a moment the obvious differences within the Church of England on accepting homosexual sexual practice, how the requirement for gay celibacy is communicated to a world in which sex outside of marriage in general and gay celibacy in particular is unintelligible and a hard truth to speak (from whichever camp). This seems an insurmountable problem. How to speak about the requirement God puts on gay and lesbian people to not express physically what married people can, while also communicating that God loves them? Anglican Conservatives should remember that their duty is to speak the truth, which means to speak about the self sacrificial love of Jesus, not primarily about church politics.

How does this truth sounds to the world? An astute observer on twitter, and also a Rev revised the recent headlines like this: “Gay community decides that gays may be bishops, so long as they promise to never practise in an episcopal role.” In this sense two assumptions are being made (and not very likely by the one who so eloquently turned the headlines around). The first is that the gay community is like the Church of England in its self understanding as a community. In that sense what is being assumed is that “the gay community” has an authority in running its own affairs, or more to the point that some body can speak authoritatively about the whole of the gay community. The second is that in order for a Bishop to be a Bishop he (currently he) has to practice an episcopal role. However, must it be that somebody has to express their sexuality in order to be human?

First to the question of “the gay community”. It sometimes strikes me as odd that people call communities communities when really they are speaking of groupings of opinions mediated through an external identity. Sure there are areas in which real communities of men have decided to live together. But when the press talk about “the gay community” they are not talking about such communities. They are talking about people who identify with a specific sexual identity and asking the question: “What do you think about this matter?”

The primary value that inform how gay people and others view their value as humans is based mostly on the principles of self actualisation. That is to say theirs are the values of liberal democracy, informed by our tastes and desires about how we want the world to be. Most Christians, and most of the rest of society lives like that as well, so I am not faulting anybody for doing so, nor do I think that everything in liberal democracy is bad.

Hauerwas however questions that the primary guiding force of a person should be self-actualisation, or at least not if the self that is being actualised is not being formed by a community that desires to worship God. In modern society we have a very weak understanding of what “community” means.

People who live in a community by participating in church life (outside the regular sunday service), are perhaps most familiar with what I mean. But for those that do not, the closest experience they may have had with community that is larger than their extended family is either education or employment. In many cases this experience will be either with people who are the same age as they are and therefore can be self selecting, or as in the case of employment is based on mutual self interest, rather than on lifting the interest of others above one’s self. Again, being around people your own age, or seeking mutual self benefit is not wrong, but both of these should be informed by a way of becoming more human.

However, because we live in a world in which to tell the true can mean to lie, because by telling the truth we can harm the dignity of another, the church community needs to be a safe community. Not every church will be a safe place, but it should be. But the application of a right sort of authority that is not understood outside of the community puzzles the world. More often than not it needs to be experienced. Never the less, it can be described.

That there are communities that are safe for people with same sex sexual attraction should be plain given the recent articles published in the Guardian. Its about Vaughn Roberts the Vicar of St Ebbs an evangelical anglican church, who recently “came out” but does not describe himself as gay. While the tone of Andrew Brown is a little dismissive of not using gay to self identify, he also published a piece by Mark Meynell of All Souls Langham Place, which speaks truth:

We don’t believe desire is a reliable guide in life. Sometimes it leads us to what is true and good. Sometimes it flickers and deceives. Instead, Christianity offers a far more radical proposition: we are not defined by the things we want or own. So we are not defined by our sexuality, social status, wealth, education, looks or even by which newspaper we read. Instead, we are defined by two key things: that we are each created in God’s image, and that in Christ we are redeemed by God’s astonishing love. It is on this foundation that we can surely move beyond a battle of derogatory stereotypes to a real discussion of what it means to be human.

Church authority is just not intelligible to a world shaped by the principle of self actualisation and choice. The way christians believe that we can become more human, whether around issues of social status, sexuality, wealth or education is by participating in safe communities in which authority is exercised like Jesus exercises his; by dying on a cross and coming back to life. This is why it is possible to be a person with same sex sexual attraction and not express that attraction physically, but it requires a safe community to develop the skill to die (and come back to life). It’s ontologically impossible however to be a Bishop who does not exercise authority.

Of course even for the chaste Christian attracted to same-sex sex it is still a choice whether to participate in what they themselves thinks is wrong. So it is precisely when the fundamental values of self-actualisation are taken into consideration that the world and those that speak for them impose their values on the values of those that want to self-actualise differently than they do. And while some might argue that Christian teaching is fundamentally unhealthy, the person with same-sex sexual attraction can walk away, as I am sure many have.

But for a chaste male Christian who wants to remain chaste, to have sex with another man, would be to lie. Giles wouldn’t want to encourage that lie. But then he views sexuality differently

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8 Responses to The church: It’s meant to be a community in which one learns obedience safely

  1. Phil says:

    Interesting, thank you. I thought that column by Mark Meynell was excellent.

    There are a couple of things I don’t get. You wrote:

    “That is because the environment in which the truth would have been told would have made the truth a lie.”

    Can you explain this more? Or provide a link to Hauerwas? The commonsense understanding of truth is (generally speaking) as a reflection of reality – not as something that respects the dignity of persons.

    I’m also trying to work out the point on self-actualisation. Is it that the world thinks you can choose whether or not to identify (i.e. self-actualise) as gay; whereas the biblical point of view is that your identity is different, or bigger, than whatever you choose? Meaning the latter has a bigger claim on our identities and lives than what we choose or desire?

    • Lauri Moyle says:

      Those are key points. You can read more here: But I would say that the assumption that reality is so linear as to exclude the context into which speech is brought is a reduction of what reality is. Though I do think Fraser’s application is weak, since a Bishop can refuse to answer a question. Hauerwas and Bonhoeffer do think that there is a problem when the child lies, its just that the problem is with the teacher. Ideally they would have liked the person being asked to have the capability to respond in such a way that a lie would not be told, but because the child does not have that capability (sophistication in language etc) the guilt of the lie is on the teacher that asked the question. In that sense one has no obligation to tell the truth to a person who cannot keep that truth safe.

      On the other question, I don’t think that the world thinks you can chose to be gay. Because the world does not understand what it means to be chased, even though one has sexual desires. My point is that the assumptions behind self-actualisation are that we chose to self actualise and that by and large in liberal democracy that choice is ours and not somebody else choosing for us. The last sentence of your paragraph is what I mean for the church.

      • Phil says:

        Thanks. I will need to think and read a bit to get my head around this point on truth and lies.
        Your final paragraph expresses my point much more clearly – I agree that the world doesn’t think that, and the prevailing attitude is that such things are up to us and nobody/nothing else.
        It’s peripherally relevant here, but I like Lauren Winner’s point that all Christians are called to be chaste, but that works itself out in different ways. For example, the single person is called to be celibate; the married person is called to be faithful to their spouse; and so on. We’re not all called to celibacy, but we are all called to chastity.

    • Lauri Moyle says:

      Also just to add, Hauerwas has this fun caveat that he makes about truth telling. He says that its a significant moral feat to be able to lie, since lying assumes you know that truth. Of Bill Clinton he says around the time of the Lewinsky trial that he did not think Clinton was lying, because he did not have the capacity to know truth.

  2. Duane Arnold says:

    You might be interested in a new music video on Oscar Romero done by Michael Glen Bell. See it at Feel free to review, blog, embed or get back to us with any questions. Follow us on Twitter @martyrsproject.

    • Lauri Moyle says:

      Thanks Duane. Though I usually dont approve comments which dont directly relate to the post, in this case I think its worth making an acception.

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