GEORGE BROWNING. Please Leave.Please Come Back

Oct 24, 2019

In his speech at last week’s Sydney synod, Archbishop Glenn Davies made it clear he wished those who support the blessing of same sex marriage unions to leave the Church because ‘you cannot bless sin’. Subsequently he attempted to clarify his statement which had caused enormous anguish and resentment by saying he intended the message only for Bishops who did so. 

I am not sure where this leaves me, from his perspective. While my faith compels me to be an environmental activist, I am not an LGBTQI activist although I absolutely support the notion that all who are committed to the principles of Christian marriage, i.e. fidelity, mutual love and respect, and life-long union deserve the blessing of God. The reason I am not an activist in this cause is because those outside the Church have long since moved on. They are sick and tired of a debate which increasingly appears to be an unhealthy obsession, or perhaps paranoia, for a group of Christians who are rightly or wrongly thought to be ‘fundamentalists’.  I say to the Archbishop, please find something else to talk about. Your obsession and that of those around you is making an absolute nonsense of the good news of Jesus.

With considerable sadness I say to the Archbishop, you are the one who has left, please come back. You are trying to make the test of faithful fidelity to Jesus a single, and I would claim, secondary issue. In the past those who did this set up their own Churches or sects.  A protestant professor of theology of another denomination whom I deeply respect said of the Anglican Church in Sydney: “it is not a Protestant Church it has become a Puritan Church”. I asked him what he meant by this. His reply: “A protestant Church is one that reads the bible in context and is committed to reform that it might be a constant agent  for God’s grace in Jesus’ name. A puritan church on the other hand is a confessional church that chooses immutable doctrine to define its membership, without context”. The Anglican Church has never been a confessional Church. Archbishop, the doctrines necessary for salvation were decided at the fourth and fifth century ecumenical councils, it is not up to you to slip another couple in, in the 21st century. Has it occurred to you that as the Diocese of Sydney continues to internally breed its leadership and agents of authority, you reduce your gene pool and risk re-enforcing and strengthening mutant doctrinal genes?

Let me say from where my sources of Anglican episcopal inspiration have come.  First, I have been greatly influenced by the early 20th century writings of Charles Gore of Oxford and William Temple of Canterbury. Then, in my lifetime there have been four. George Bell of Chichester, diocesan in the years of my infancy and youth, the friend of Bonhoeffer and burr in the saddle of Churchill.  John Moyes of Armidale, the bishop who sent me to theological college, an evangelical socialist, political activist, supporter of unions, and patron of a broad and liberal education. Ernest Burgmann of Canberra, the ‘troublesome priest’ whom it was my destiny to follow from Armidale to St John’s Morpeth and then to Canberra. And finally Desmond Tutu, the rainbow coloured lover of Ubuntu, Nobel Peace Laureate and promoter of Truth and Reconciliation, a favourite visitor to our home.  If I have gone astray might I say with humility, I keep extraordinary company.

You will probably find this annoying, but let me tell you a bit about the bible.

Scripture has a lot to say about all manner of singular issues, but it always demands that these issues are understood within a universal context.  A bit like Archbishop Tutu’s love of Ubuntu – the understanding that while every single life is individual and distinct, it is caught up in and only properly understood in the context of all other lives that have intersected with it.  In scripture there are two universal covenants and two particular covenants. The two universal covenants are the Noah covenant with all living that emerged from the ark and the new covenant made with all humanity through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Both those covenants affirm the total and unequivocal commitment of God for all living. The two particular covenants, the Abrahamic and Davidic, can only be understood against the background of the universal. God never does a deal with a select few to the exclusion of others. God calls that we might be a blessing to others. 

The universal covenants of unconditional love reflect the first creation narrative in which humans, male and female are created in the image of God of the dust of the earth. All of us, in all our rich diversity, have the same value as children of God and we all have the same fundamental needs.  Our needs are not simply for food and shelter, an even greater need is for meaning, intimacy and belonging. As a Christian I would say this need for intimacy includes, but goes beyond, human intimacy; “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in him”. It is not possible to be fully human and live in isolation.   

The biblical imperative for intimacy in its expressive fullness is that two people are unconditionally committed to one another in the way that God in Jesus is committed to those who seek him. Because God’s commitment is without end, so marriage is to be enduring.  It is to the exclusion of others; and like the particular covenants of scripture , it is a calling to be blessed and to bless: blessing to each other, and from each other, a blessing to the wider community of which the two are part.

I acknowledge that many marriages lapse, divorce occurs, and that remarriage should receive the full blessing of the Church.  However it seems to me that if a serious break from the Christian concept of marriage is to be highlighted, this is where it occurred. Godly, enduring, same-sex unions  are far more reflective of scriptural mandate than short term, often abusive heterosexual unions.

I do not even begin to understand the challenges and difficulties faced by individual members of the LGBTQI community.  I am not blessed, as many are, with a member of this community within my own family. However, I have been profoundly blessed through invitation into the homes of many same sex couples. What I have found to be common is deep love for each other as well as empathy and compassion for the wider community, especially the vulnerable. Most live full and selfless lives because of the security and intimacy afforded at home. Now, why would the Church not want to bless such commitment and why would the Church not be extraordinarily grateful that so many choose to be part of its fellowship, despite the ignorance of those who purport to know better than they of the way God’s grace is to be channelled in their lives.

It is probable that sexual orientation is chosen by some.  However for the vast majority, heterosexual and homosexual, sexual orientation and gender identity is not chosen, it is a given. For any such people to be told that the union to which they are drawn is verboten, haram, forbidden, is to commit many to a life of disjunction and perhaps of antisocial behaviour.

Archbishop, the society of which you are part has moved on.  You clearly regret this, but if you persist with this as your dominant narrative you may be pleasing your rusted on membership, but you are alienating not simply your brothers and sisters in the Church who find your position to be an abuse of the voice of scripture, but this noise is making the Christian Gospel a source of pity  to the average Australian.

Why do I say you are abusing the voice of scripture?  Because when scripture addresses the human condition, it is almost always addressing the misuse of power, the neglect of care for the vulnerable, the corrosive nature of wealth acquisition and the need for human aspiration to always be tempered by the needs of the wider community (including the whole created order) to which the person belongs.  The only noise the rest of us ever hear from the Diocese of Sydney (and the Australian Christian Lobby for that matter) is noise about sex and gender.

Archbishop come back to the rich Anglican heritage of which you and I are heirs, accept with thanksgiving its diversity and make your contribution. May we be blessed by each other’s difference and, may this rich tapestry enrich the world which God loves. 

George Browning is the former Anglican Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn.

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