Sunday, 2 September 2012

Theological Lunches (2)

The first blog under this title included a suggested template for weighing theological issues.  My test-drive on female leadership produced mixed reactions, including that there were serious counter-arguments that I seemed to have dismissed.  I’m aware of some.  I spent a very lively lunchtime discussing the topic with neighbourhood church leaders last Autumn.  This was after the local diocesan synod held its meeting in Sheffield Cathedral to ratify the Anglican proposal to work towards women bishops. 
Jesus Fellowship is among a dwindling number of church streams in the UK that would hold to the complementarian view of sexes.  In terms of global development, proper opportunities for women are a serious justice issue.  We can join our voice with those in favour of education, aid, properly responsible roles (not exploitation) in marriage, agriculture, etc.; and against war and sexual atrocities.  The Multiply International Network gives us a genuine platform of engagement.   We’re not in the dark ages!

But why do we have to review and restate our position on some fundamentals at all.  Because we have to work out our response to the “rights” culture/movement.  Here, of course, there’s an irony.  The present “equality” culture, which has been particularly aggressive towards the church, wouldn’t have a leg to stand on if it weren’t for our Judaeo/Christian heritage (imago Dei).  For example, it was self-evident in Roman time that humans weren’t equal:  Scythians and Barbarians were simply and unredeemably inferior.  But the rights campaigners have parked their tanks on our lawn.

John Haldane, an ethicist from St Andrews University points to three stage in such a process:
(a) Tolerance, where people who have different (maybe objectionable, illegal) views, are “put up with” (not put down) for the sake of societal cohesion.
(b) Approbation, where the previously deviant view is granted legitimacy.
(c) Celebration, where this view becomes the applauded or preferred option.  
You can trace this process with women’s rights, and pre-war Germany’s acceptance for Hitler’s “final solution”, etc.  It will take this if we ever end up with a Roman Catholic monarch.  Already, beyond same-sex marriage, there’s a rights movement towards incest and polygamy.  If societies don’t hold their nerve, beneficial traditions are overrun.

This helps us to frame a response to the pressure.  I suggest that tolerance is a perfectly acceptable position, even if culture moves past this point.  The main need is consistently to uphold what we do approve, so that our line of travel doesn’t seem to take its bearing from emerging prevailing consensus.   

And if you doubt the level of ferocity to which these issues can ascend, then read the recent case of Christina Summers, the Brighton and Hove councillor.  In a free vote on issue of conscience, she was the only elected member to go against the Council’s vote in support of the Government’s plans to legalise same-sex marriage.  (Sheffield Council didn't even allow such an open option.)  Her Party requested an official enquiry, and she has received a stream of abusive emails (from outside the Council).  She had pointed out that the Government’s method of addressing the issue was unacceptable, since neither the Conservative nor Liberal Democrats manifestos mention the introduction of same-sex marriages.

So, a few reflections on relativism and the way it threatens to erode our worldview, our given assumptions and eventually society’s legal system.  One commentator (Peter Hitchens, I believe) recently affirmed that there’s no satisfactory basis for any society’s morality without a God Who gives universal and unvarying absolutes. 

His reasoning is simple: it means we can’t fiddle with the standards to suit ourselves.  Once you start to tamper with them, then moral values fall victim to power play.  Power without authority is the bane of our time: as in the media, and the US’s foreign policy!  The people who can command the biggest hearing, or apply the most pressure, will get their view accepted, and eventually enshrined in law as the undisputed norm.  This shifting of ground in standards leads to a breakdown of justice in any workable form. 

One reason why we should love the authority of the kingdom of God, is that it establishes and safeguards its justice, too.  The exercise of authority doesn’t lead to the abuse of rights, as opponents accuse: but the exercise of unlegitimated power does.  In fact, many “rights” movements can call upon no substantial evidence to give authority to their arguments.  All, this being so, we will necessarily feel the pressure of their power applied against us.

Yes, there are some poorly fought, bigoted battles.  But the fact of being lumped with marginal extremists is unfortunate rather than intended.  Jesus died between two thieves.

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