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.
A Non-Western Perspective
As I have attempted to come to grips with the issues of same-sex relationships, I have found myself becoming increasingly aware of just how deeply my thinking is compromised by the society in which I live and just how shallow are the roots of the faith that I profess. I sometimes feel that my attempts to live as a committed believer in the Kingdom of God float on the surface of a vast tide of sub-conscious cultural assumptions and pervasive personal indulgences that I imbibe unconsciously from the society in which I live.
In this respect, the recent declarations by the Primates of the world-wide Anglican Communion contribute a Christian voice – an Anglican voice – that has been very helpful in crystallizing my awareness of the limited perspective from which I view the world as a North American Anglican.
I am beginning to see, however dimly, just how aberrant our society is by the norms of the rest of the world. In the West, we pride ourselves as being somehow more democratic, more evolved, more compassionate, even more “humane” than other societies, yet we compartmentalize reality so that we can ignore the evidence of political corruption, unjustifiable military aggression, self-serving economics, energy profligacy and environmental barbarism that make our society both envied and feared by most of the world. This cultural perspective has been articulated most strongly in a recent book by a Welsh Christian author who argues:
The truth is that Westerners are perceived by non-Westerners (if we can make such a huge generalization about a truly global phenomenon) as rich, technologically sophisticated, economically and politically dominant, morally contemptible barbarians…Why barbarians? For despising tradition, the ancestors and the dead. For despising religion, or at least for treating it lightly. For the shallowness and triviality of their culture. For their sexual shamelessness. For their loose adherence to family and sometimes, also to tribe. For their absence of any sense of honour.
A second, and complementary perspective comes from a recent article written by a prominent American Episcopalian theologian, Philip Turner, former Dean of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University. Turner’s article is entitled “ECUSA’S GOD: Descriptive Comment on the “Working Theology” of the Episcopal Church U.S.A.” Its focus is not primarily on the same-sex issue, but rather on his belief that the working theology of the American Church has shifted from a theology of salvation to a theology of “radical inclusion”. However, what interested me most about his article were the personal comments about how he had come to this conclusion. He states that he might well have embraced this theological shift himself but for one eventuality.
I lived for some ten years among the Baganda, a people who dwell on the North shore of Lake Victoria. … It was not until I spent a considerable time outside the confines of my own denomination that I came to realize that its working theology stood miles apart from the basic content of “Nicene Christianity” with its thick description of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit; its richly developed Christology, and its compelling account of Christ’s call to holiness of life. …The voice now addressing ECUSA in theological tones that seem not just strange but unacceptable, comes from the Global South, and particularly from people who in the biblical sense are poor. What they are trying to point out is that the working theology of ECUSA does not accord with the great Christian tradition they received from the very people who now seem to be preaching a different gospel. Rather than dismissing this alien voice … it might be more Christianly apt to adopt a more humble attitude and ask if what this strange voice is saying has any merit.
Whether or not one agrees with these views, it is hard to dismiss such a profound challenge to our assumptions about the culture in which we live, especially when we all know that there are other voices that need to be listened to than just CNN. A major component of this problem is that, as Christians, we have withdrawn our faith from public life and from public affairs. We have accepted the secular view that religion is a private matter with no implications for our culture or our lifestyle. As Anglicans, we perpetuate the uncritical model of acting as if we are just the secular world at prayer and must simply alter our beliefs to conform. We have not allowed the power of the gospel to inform and shape our perspectives of the deeply flawed and compromised society in which we live. In this too, I am as guilty as any other.
Finding a Solution
“The most important [commandment],” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12: 29-31)
I have argued that the implications of changing the Church’s traditional views about same-sex relationships strikes at the heart of the Christian faith because it substitutes our own tame god for the reality of the self-revealing Lord God Almighty and because it denies the reality of sin. Even where there is an attempt to minimize the effect of these changes, they constitute a slippery slope for the Anglican Church. Like the proverbial limpet, once it has lost its grip on the rock of reality, it becomes just a piece of flotsam awash in the tide.
But what about Christian compassion? What about the Christian belief in a God who is the Author of love and its chief Practitioner – to the point of death on a cross? Christian love is often regarded as incompatible with God’s judgement. There is a contemporary view that Christian believers face a choice between worshipping an angry judgmental Old Testament God who punishes sinners and a gentle Jesus, meek and mild, who turns the other cheek. Such a caricature is entirely at variance with the record of biblical self-disclosure of both Yahweh, the Lord God Almighty of Israel and Jesus Christ His Son, the Redeemer of humankind in the New Testament. It is also incompatible with the faith of the Church from the earliest times. God’s justice and His mercy are inseparable and, we His people, are called to act in the same manner. As the prophet Micah said: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)
But how does one act justly and love mercy at the same time while walking humbly with God? It is not by ignoring the law or by pretending that sin is not a reality. It is by accepting that reality and acting in love and mercy toward our fellow humans. I still remember vividly a sermon that I heard in the mid-1970s. The preacher argued that there can be no compromise on matters of God’s justice (the Old Covenant). To include mercy, justice must be completed and transcended by sacrifice (the New Covenant).
How might we apply Micah’s words and their implication of sacrifice to the same-sex issue? From the perspective of our homosexual brothers and sisters, their call to sacrifice is demonstrated by their commitment to continue to grapple with issues of conduct and faithfulness within a faith that defines acting upon their deep desires as sinful.
But, if that sermon on Micah is correct, the rest of us are also called into sacrificial living. If we are to love mercy we must do so with a humility that grows out being aware we are sinners attempting to lead a sacrificial life. It is not just that each of us must face our own unruly sexual desires, or even that we need to address the reality that contemptuously dismissing another person amounts to murder (Matthew 5:22)–whether the reason for that dismissal is related to sexual orientation or to some other issue entirely. At the deepest level, we must be committed to changing ourselves–not our doctrines. It is not an easy path and it is certainly not one that will appeal to those who would subordinate the Christian faith to the values of the world. We can only become credible–as Jesus Himself demonstrated–at our own cost through sacrifice.
It means genuinely welcoming into our Church all sinners including homosexuals, wherever they are on their personal journey. In our commitment to our Lord, we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. All of us need to recognize that our status as redeemed members of the family of God comes from Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf not from our own merits or by the denial of our sin. We cannot solve our estrangement from God by offering band-aids of personal affirmation when the radical healing of forgiveness is what we all need. In the end denying this need cuts us off from the only real hope that is available to us.
However painful the process, we must also as a Church begin to face the reality of living as followers of Jesus Christ in a self-absorbed post-Christian society where the gospel that we profess is radically at variance with the values of the culture in which we live. It has been said that pride is the worst of all sins–even that it is the one unforgivable sin–because it alone cannot admit to any need for forgiveness. If I create my own tin god, if I deny the reality of sin and of salvation through the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ, I have turned my back on the gospel that I have received from God through the Church. If I walk away from God, I have lost all hope. If the Anglican Church turns its back on its Creator and Founder by denying its history and its faith, it is no longer part of the Church, the Bride of Christ, on whom the faithful can alone depend.
Meic Pearse, Why the Rest Hates the West, InterVarsity Press, 2004
Rev. Dr. Philip Turner, “ECUSA’S GOD: Descriptive Comment on the “Working Theology” of the Episcopal Church U.S.A.” The Anglican Communion Institute, January 18, 2005