This is the first in a three-part series by Mark Larratt-Smith.
Mark Larratt-Smith’s grandfather was an Anglican Priest and his great-grandfather was Archbishop of Ottawa. He was born in Montreal and studied at Yale, Columbia and the University of Toronto. Mark was a career public servant and served as an Assistant Deputy Minister with the Government of Ontario. For nearly 30 years, he attended Little Trinity Church in downtown Toronto. For the last decade, he and his wife have been members of St. John’s, Waupoos, part of a small rural parish in Prince Edward County in Eastern Ontario.
Facing the Issue
“Where do you stand on the issue of a same-sex blessings in the Anglican Church?” It’s a question that is asked by many from an assumption that there is a simple choice. My problem is that I cannot give a simple twenty-five-words-or-less answer. I cannot simply respond to the issue of same-sex relationships as a social issue in the context of the secular society in which we live. I am a Christian, a life-long Anglican. If my Christian faith is real, I have to address the issue in the broadest possible context of that faith.
The problem is that the question about a same-sex blessing is a symptom, not the issue itself. Before we can discuss the treatment of homosexuality in the Anglican Church, we have to be clear about the nature of reality from a Christian perspective. We need to address our understanding of ourselves and of all of our relationships – starting with our relationship with God and continuing – flowing – inevitably into our relationships with each other. For this reason, I strongly support the conclusion of the St. Michael Report that the issue is in fact a matter of doctrine not just of pastoral care.
In order to answer the question about same-sex blessings, we first have to start with our understanding of the underlying theology. There are two theological implications that seem to me to be most relevant in the debate about same-sex relationships: the implications for the sovereignty of God and the nature of sin.
The Sovereignty of God
Can We Know God?
If a Creator exists, then He is the centre of the reality that is His creation. By definition as its Creator, God, not any human being or institution, is Sovereign. He sets the rules of creation. For every one of His creatures, our relationship with our Creator is the most important relationship we have. I need to try to know Him as best I can for who He really is not who I would like Him to be. If I am honest in this I can never be satisfied by the temptation to invent my own comfortable mental image of a god who will simply reflect and re-enforce my preferences and prejudices. This raises two fundamental questions. First: can I ever know God? Second: even if I can know Him, can I trust Him?
Part of the reason why I am so sceptical of comfortable man-made gods is that it is so inconceivable that any image that I might create on my own could bear any relationship to the Creator of the universe. How can I, a creature bounded by space and time, ever reach out and touch the face of my Creator? I can empathise with those who decide that if God exists He must be completely unknowable. From a strictly human perspective their conclusion is inescapable, but that perspective is based on the assumption that a relationship between Creator and creature depends entirely on the initiative of the creature. What is impossible for the creature must be entirely possible for the Creator, since the rules of creation are His. He can reach out to us, even if we cannot reach out to Him. What is more, it seems to be a reasonable working assumption that if God is the Author of creation in all its marvelous and relational intricacy, He has a motive to wish to interact with it and to self disclose in some manner to those of His creatures who have the capacity to respond to His initiatives.
This still doesn’t fully answer the first question. How might we expect the Creator to reach out and reveal Himself unmistakably to His creation? How can we hear Him and know that we are not just creating our own comfortable idol? The Christian answer is that God has reached out to humankind consistently throughout history and that the record of His intervention is primarily contained in the collection of writings we call the Bible. The Bible is an amazingly diverse collection of human writing, written in many literary and cultural forms over many hundreds of years, by a multitude of individuals each with their own personal perspectives and limitations. I am a historian by training, taught to assess fragmentary and conflicting pieces of evidence from the past. There are inconsistencies in the Bible, as in any human record of historic events compiled from different perspectives, but it is remarkably complete and coherent when you compare it to any other similar body of evidence that stretches over so many centuries – if indeed you could find a comparison in the first place. Taken together, the Bible provides a compelling record of the Lord God Almighty disclosing Himself to His chosen people, Israel, through their history and the voices of the prophets and then enlarging and completing that disclosure in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the face of this record, those who challenge the motivation of faith or who question inconsistencies of detail in an effort to discredit or selectively edit the record must also submit to scrutiny as to their own motives.
Trusting that the God I worship is not just the creature of my own imagination, but the Lord God Almighty – my Creator – isn’t just a matter of evaluating the consistency of the historic record. At the deepest level, it is a matter of a personal relationship. How can any creature have a relationship with God even if the initiative in that relationship is entirely on God’s side? The Christian answer is that Jesus as the Son of God, as God made visible, is God in relationship with each one of us. In his last appearance to his apostles, as recorded by St. Matthew, he promised: “… surely I am with you always to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20b). The reality is that the mainstream Christian Church, of which Anglicanism is a part, has for over two millennia accepted this claim: “…very God, of very God…who … was made man … was crucified … he rose again … and sitteth on the right hand of the Father” (Nicene Creed). Over the course of my life as I have not just read scripture, participated in public worship, and engaged in personal prayer, I have encountered the Living God in the person of Jesus Christ. I am not a good disciple, but I am His disciple, not because I have reached out to Him, but because He has reached out to me.
Can We Trust God?
The second basic question that is raised by accepting the existence of a Creator God, is whether we can trust Him. For all of its beautiful intricacy, this world is not a happy place. We may live in comfort for a time and have experiences of great beauty and delight, but the daily news is filled with stories of human depravity and natural disaster. Whatever our individual experiences of life, at times we all suffer deeply from pain and in the end we all die. From the natural perspective, every human life is a tragedy. How can we trust the Creator of such a world?
The advantage of a home-made god is that expectations are low. We don’t really expect a human created god to solve the problems of the world. But then, if we are foolish enough to create such a god, we are likely foolish enough, against all the evidence of history, to insist that we can solve all those problems ourselves.
If we do believe in a Creator God, we cannot let Him off so easily. If He is almighty and also the author of a deeply flawed and damaged creation, how can we trust Him? If we cannot trust Him, we have no alternative but despair. We may mask it with stoicism or with efforts to live individual moral lives, but despair, like death is always lurking in the shadows.
It is not surprising that a creature cannot fully comprehend the mind of his Creator. The really difficult question is why He gave humanity sufficient moral awareness to enable us to see just how bad the world can be. It doesn’t make sense for a Creator God to give His creatures even the delusion of having a higher standard of morality than His own. That would make reality not just tragic, but a horribly twisted, cruel joke. It makes far more sense to believe that the infinite Creator God who invented love and beauty has good purposes for His creation that are simply beyond the comprehension of his creatures.
An intellectual belief in a loving God isn’t much help to us when we face tragedy, or injustice, or death. But, the experience of Christians over the centuries, is that the real issue is not whether we can comprehend God’s purposes, but whether we are able to trust Him when we cannot understand.
How can we trust the author of a flawed creation? Here again, I find the Christian gospel to be the only avenue of hope. Even after many years as a believer, I find it startling, even overwhelming, to encounter God’s radical solution to this issue. It is right there in the words we use weekly in the (BCP) communion service: “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
What remarkably comforting words those are! God’s solution is not just to send His son as a visible representative of Himself. He “gave” His son to suffer the most horrible death on our behalf. When I am visited by Jehovah’s Witnesses claiming that we all believe in much the same god, my response is that if, as they profess, Jesus Christ is simply one of God’s angels, a creature, however exalted, but still a creature, then I can have no personal trust in such an arms-length manipulative god. The breathtaking claim that God, Himself, in the person of His incarnate son, Jesus Christ, came into our world of suffering and died on a cross for us may be hard for the modern secular mind to accept, but for me it is quite simply the only possible way of trusting God when I cannot understand Him or His purposes, since He has submitted Himself fully to the same world in which we all must suffer and die.
An Anglican, Dorothy Sayers has provided what is for me one of the clearest and most powerful statements of this conclusion:
For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is – limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death – he had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair.”
The Sovereignty of God and Same-sex Relationships
How does my understanding of God affect my views of same-sex relationships? It is clear to me that both scripture, and the tradition of the Church over the last two thousand years regard all sexual practices outside of heterosexual marriage to be sin. Whatever else you want to say about the motion endorsed by the last General Synod affirming the sanctity of committed same-sex relationships, it is undeniably a change in the historic faith of the Church. That some theologians attempt to erect an intellectual smokescreen around this fact by the conflicting arguments that either a) change is always occurring, or, b) that the change is really not change at all is just not convincing.
Why is this a problem? The first clue is in this very attempt to reinterpret both scripture and the history of the Church. That effort clearly reveals the priorities of those involved: justifying same-sex relationships is of a higher importance than listening to God through the channels of communication – scripture first and then the 2000 year tradition of interpreting scripture– that are basic to the Christian faith as practiced within the Anglican Church.
In fact, what is involved is an attempt to redefine the nature of Almighty God, in order to make Him fit with our contemporary society’s view on a single social issue. In this it does not seem to me to be any different from any other attempt to create a tame god who will comfortably reflect and endorse our own sense of what is appropriate. It is just another example of making one of the gods of stone or wood that the Old Testament prophets denounced. Its implicit message is that, if I don’t agree with God’s version of reality, I will reconstruct a god who is more congenial with my own view of the world. As I have stated above, such a god is not worth worshipping and certainly not the source of any hope to rely upon.
The central issue here really isn’t about same-sex relationships at all, but about God’s sovereignty and the creation of idols. The problem is, once you start redefining god, where do you stop? The issue may be same-sex relationships this year, and perhaps polygamy or euthanasia next year, but why stop there. In the light of human reason and the current advances of science, why do we really need to accept all the difficult doctrines in the creeds: the fully divine, fully human nature of Jesus; the virgin birth; the Resurrection…
The slippery slope of re-inventing God is well illustrated by the fact that one of the leading Canadian proponents of same-sex blessings, Bishop Michael Ingham, is also the author of a book that denies Jesus Christ’s central claim that “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) He argues that choice of a religion is a purely personal matter and that all religions are equally valid paths to God. By implication, a god constructed of stone or wood – or a golden calf – is just as valid a god as the Lord God Almighty.