Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Generous orthodoxy

It's been an interesting year of ordained ministry! I believe anyone who is ordained will tell you that no amount of seminary or formation actually prepares you for what happens when you finally put the collar on. Even my Lutheran friends, who wear collars as seminary interns before they are ordained, find that things are still different after they become "pastor."

If you've never heard the song Jeremiah by Suzzy and Maggie Roche, get a copy of their album Zero Church and take a listen. The words are from God's words to Jeremiah (33.3):
Call me Jeremiah
Call me and I'll show you
Great and mighty
Things you have not seen.
How true it is for those of us who are ordained. We see things both great and mighty things ... and sometimes we see things that, if we are completely honest, we'd rather not. But God calls us to see these things, especially the painful and hard things, to witness to God's love and reconciliation in Jesus Christ.

I just finished reading Bishop J. Neil Alexander's book This Far By Grace: A Bishop's Journey Through Questions About Homosexuality. This book is outstanding for anyone wanting to understand how in the world the Episcopal Church can consecrate an openly gay bishop in a partnered relationship in light of Biblical passages which seem to condemn homosexuality.

I've read a lot of reflection since 2003 on what I believe to be our "hot button topic du jour." I say that because I do believe it's just the next round of debate on how we engage the Scriptures on a variety of topics (not the least of which was the appropriate role of women in the church ... a question which is still being debated in a number of places and which still limits where I can realistically be called to exercise my priestly vocation ... but that's another blog post for another time). There are those who take a more literal interpretation of the Scriptures within the Episcopal Church. They are hurt and frustrated about the full inclusion of gays, lesbians, transsexuals, and bisexual persons in the life of the church because they believe it violates Scripture.

Recently, our Presiding Bishop met with some clergy in South Carolina (who are more literalist and conservative in their interpretations). The question which kept being raised was surrounding the "authority of Scripture" in the Church. Literalist conservatives (and as a note, I hate labels ... but use them only as descriptors here, not as pejoratives!) accuse the Episcopal Church of rejecting the authority of Scripture. I don't believe that's an accurate definition of the issue.

If you've followed this blog for any length of time, you've probably figured out I consider myself a "progressive." Again, labels are a problem, especially since "liberal" has a whole theological connotation which is different from the political one and which is a theological position I reject. I'm not a Biblical literalist all the time. I do think there are some things in the Bible which should, and even must, be taken literally. Jesus said, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." I take that literally - I'm not sure how one could take it any other way. But do we take everything literally and does every piece of Scripture carry the same moral weight? I don't think so. I truly think the prohibitions against wearing a polyester/cotton alb (Lev 19:19) aren't very important in the grand schema of the Almighty and therefore I do not assign the same moral weight to that passage as I do to Jesus' love commandment.

In the ordination service for all clergy in the Episcopal Church, we make a solemn declaration about what we believe regarding the Scriptures. "I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation." What I did not say was I believe all things in the Holy Scriptures to be necessary to salvation! There are many things in Scripture which have nothing to do with salvation. It doesn't mean we disregard them, but it does mean we need to discern their importance in light of the saving work of Christ on the cross.

The question, therefore, is not whether folks like me have rejected the authority of Scripture (as some may believe). The question is whose interpretation of Scripture will be authoritative for the community? That's a much more dodgy question because it involves interpretation which is a living, dynamic process rather than a static set of rules. Bishop Alexander says in his book that the interpretation of Scripture needs to incorporate the Jewish Midrashic process wherein we engage the reading of Scripture with scholars throughout the ages to wrestle with the questions of our time. Our question then will move from "What does the Bible say about ...?" and become "What do you believe the Bible says about ...?" I think his point is well taken.

To me, this is the generous orthodoxy of which both Bishop Alexander and Brian McLaren address from their respective perspectives. Orthodoxy isn't a rigid set of rules which become the litmus test of who is "in" and who is "out." Orthodoxy is found when we all enter the conversation to find the deeper truth that any of us alone can grasp. It's the process that allows diversity at the table and is generous in letting the messiness of that conversation unfold.

Interestingly, the word "orthodoxy" comes from Greek. "Ortho" is to be "upright," "straight," "correct" and "doxy" comes from doxa, which means "glory," "brightness," "radiance," "majesty" and "splendor." The word, over time, has been interpreted as "right belief" ... but going back to the original etymology, it's really about "right glory." How do we give God "right glory?" I believe it's by engaging others with differing insights and resisting the temptation to go for the quick and easy answer.

Now playing: Suzzy & Maggie Roche - Jeremiah
via FoxyTunes


liturgy said...

Maybe we need to distinguish "literary" from "literal".
Literary would mean responding to the text within the genre that it is.
My students struggle to explain how they know something is an advertisement, an opinion, or a historical fact - when presented in a Newspaper or TV - they "just know".
We might all be able to affirm God's Word in the Bible - but we struggle to agree on the genre.
Those who had these texts originally IMO would find some literalist interpretations surprising - even comical.

I haven't read Alexander's book, nor do I know his perspective - but it appears hard to find biblical texts that speak negatively to our relatively recent concept of homosexual orientation and committed relationships within that context.

As to orthodoxy - as you are highlighting - it is more about right worship than right belief.
Along with our shared affirmation of hearing God's Word in scripture, Anglicans/Episcopalians, IMO, are on the right track in seeking unity through worship rather than through ticking boxes of mental propositions confessionally.


Mercenary Presbyter said...

I agree. There is a striking difference between the Word (with a capital "W") and the word (small "w"). The first is the living Word, the Spirit of God, found through the word of Scripture.

+Alexander is not a literalist in any sense. He offers in his book some of the alternative interpretations of the texts often used to justify the exclusions of GLBT persons from ministry. He rightly points out that some of the words which have been translated (only recently btw) as "homosexual" are more nuanced and suggests they speak to some specific practices which by today's standards would be considered abusive. You're right, there really are no texts which address the concept of homosexual orientation and the possibility of committed monogamous relationships in that context.

I went to a Lutheran seminary (Gettysburg) and one of my professors there said to me, "We pray for the Episcopal Church because if you don't get this sexual orientation thing right, there's no hope for the rest of us!" Another said, "Your polity and praxis supports this messy conversation better than our confessional approach."

I'm convinced Anglicanism isn't for the faint of heart. If you want clear, unambiguous answers, you won't be happy here. But if you think God is a greater mystery than any one of us can comprehend and you're willing to work (yes, work!) at your faith, come on down!

Crimson Rambler said...

thank you for this good and thoughtful post...and for the reference to +Alexander's book also.