Queer Catholics often have a tortured relationship with the Bible. As Catholics, scripture has usually been less prominent in our faith formation than for other denominations. As lesbians, gay men or other sexual minorities, we are always conscious of the abuse of Scripture used as a weapon against us. Fortunately, there are others, including some who should be important role models, who see things rather differently.
A year ago at this time, I was developing my ideas for what became this blog: prepared during Advent, launched during the Christmas season. In this current season Advent season, I am naturally reflecting on what I have and have not achieved. One of the more important failures has been around Scripture. Right from the start, I planned to share with my readers some of the Good News of Scripture – good news that applies specifically to us as gay men and lesbians, but also the more important Bible messages of hope and joy that are relevant to us all. It is far too easy to hit the roadblock of the clobber passages, and either turn back, or to spend endless time and energy trying to climb over them. It is important to remove the blockage, but sometimes it is also important to simply walk around, and to enjoy the rest of the biblical landscape. I have been seeing a lot of useful insights recently, form John McNeill and others, which shed useful insight into the situation of queer Catholics, but which also have a lot to say to the wider church about the nature of authority and the workings of the Holy Spirit. I have a further commentary on John McNeil which should be ready for posting later today, but in the meantime, as a useful corrective to the common queer Catholic wariness of Scripture, I thought it could be useful to share with you some thoughts of Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, renowned as the first openly gay man to be ordained as bishop in the Anglican Communion.
I love the Bible. With no reservations, no holding back.
I grew up in a Bible-believing congregation of the Disciples of Christ Church. Every Sunday morning, from ten to eleven, every member of the church, young and old, went to Sunday School, and the study was always about Scripture. From eleven to twelve, we worshipped God, always from the perspective of scripture.
But the experience I had as a child that sealed my love for the bible was this: I heard God’s voice coming through those scriptures. I’d already begun to wonder about my “difference” and the thought scared me to death. My church was using the words of scripture to say that people who were attracted to others of the same sex were despicable, an “abomination” in the eyes of God. And yet – and here’s the miracle – I heard God saying to me the words God said to Jesus at his baptism: “You are my son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased. [“Luke 3:22”]
I have professed at each of my three ordinations, “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.” But what do I mean when I say it?
First, let’s remember that the real, actual “Word” of God is Jesus, the Christ. As the Gospel of John so beautifully says, “in the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God. And the Word was God.” That “Word” proceeding from the mouth of God, and existing concurrently with God since before time is Jesus Christ. Jesus himself is the only perfect revelation of God.
All too often we forget that the holy scriptures, while the Word of God, are not the words of God, dictated from on high. The words of scripture are a snapshot spanning fifteen hundred years of humankind’s encounter with the living God. The Hebrew scriptures describe the movement of God in calling God’s people to do things in God’s behalf. The Gospels give three accounts of the life of Jesus, plus one theological reflection on those events and that holy life. The rest of the New Testament contain the story of how the community came o believe that Jesus was still alive, still guiding them.
The Bible is a collection of many accounts of what it is like to encounter the living God. They are dramatic stories about what happens when God cares enough about creation to be actively engaged in it. They area faithful accounts of the indescribable, they are words used to recount that for which there are no words: the mystery of God.
Are those words holy? Absolutely. Are they inspired? I believe they are. But are they inerrant? I don’t believe so. The people who authored those accounts were not inerrant. They were faithful people describing – and testifying to – the meaning of God’s actions on our lives.
That is “all” the Bible is. It’s a compelling, useful and primary source of our knowledge of how God works in the lives of human beings. For countless generations it ahs been the foundation of our faith and a witness to God’s love for us. But what of “tradition” and “reason”?
“Tradition” is the history of how the church has come to understand, interpret and use those testimonies in the life of the church and the lives of the faithful. Is the “tradition” inerrant? Of course not. We don’t have to look far for evidence: the Crusades and the Inquisition are obvious examples of how misguided Christians can be when it comes to putting biblical values into action. Later, we can also not see how far we have strayed from the Revelation of God in Christ? Could the Church’s accumulation of wealth, which continues to this day, have been what Jesus longed for when he cautioned against the corrosive power of possessions? Could the disregard and ill-treatment of the poor be the sort of thing Jesus had in mind?
Still, the “tradition” is important for several reasons. The tradition is a check on our all too easy self-confidence. We need to learn what our forebears have thought. The history of the church, though I has its share of regrettable actions, is also replete with holy and courageous people of staggering faith, people who risked life and limb to be the loving arms of God in the world. Countless people of faith have written theology, poetry, prayers and reflections that dwarf our own meagre efforts at spirituality and are worthy of our study and thoughtful consideration. There is much to be commended as worthy of our careful and prayerful attention.
Today, in the midst of a struggle between those who suggest that we change the “tradition” of a particular understanding of scripture and those who resist such a revision, it’s instructive to note how many times within our two-thousand-year tradition – always with confusion and pain – the church has changed its understandings. Just a couple of examples:
Marriage, for most of the first millennium, was seen as a legal arrangement, blessed by the church, to provide for the proper , peaceful and orderly transfer of property: of the woman from one man to another, the husband; and the transfer of land and property to those who deserved them by virtue of marriage and legitimacy. Since such concerns were relevant only to those who owned any property to be transferred, marriage was regarded as unnecessary for ordinary people. That changed in the Middle Ages and a fuller understanding of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony developed; today marriage is understood as a sacrament open to and recommended to all. And the notion of marriage –for- love is a concept that developed only in modern times.
Slavery, commonplace in the scripture, continued to exist into the nineteenth century, when the abolitionists began to argue against it. Both sides in that debate quoted scripture to bolster their arguments. In the end, slavery was abolished and the church changed its position which it had held for nearly nineteen hundred years.
For nearly two thousand years, the church accepted St Paul’s notion that it was inappropriate for women assume leadership positions in the life of the church Then, following several other Protestant churches, the Episcopal Church changed to permit the ordination of women in 1976.
For countless centuries, anyone divorced and then remarried was unwelcome at Communion; subsequent marriages could not be presided over or blessed by Episcopal clergy. But the church began to realise that we were denying Communion to members when they were most in need of it. Over time, we began to ask, “Might our understanding of what God wants be too severe, too unpastoral, too unresponsive to God’s less-than-perfect children?”. Over time, accompanied by controversy, the Episcopal Church changed its mind. Now, the solace and sustenance of the Holy Communion is offered to those who have been divorced, and with appropriate counselling, subsequent marriages may be solemnized or blessed in the church. A very strong tradition was changed.
There’s a much neglected and seldom quoted passage of scripture in St John’s Gospel that reports Jesus’ words to his disciples on the night before he died: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot listen to them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you to the truth”. (John 16:12-13a). Jesus is saying, “You are not ready to hear everything I have to teach you – things you cannot culturally comprehend right now. So I will send the Holy Spirit to guide you and teach, over time, those things which you need to understand.”
The changes we’ve seen in the understanding of Scripture in the nineteen centuries since it was written have happened through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. God hasn’t changed God’s mind, but our ability to apprehend and comprehend the mind of God is limited and sometimes faulty. The things that seemed simply “the way if the world” – like slavery, polygamy and he lower status of women – in retrospect were examples of humankind’s flawed understanding of God’s will. Our ability to better discern God’s will has improved with time, prayer and reflection.
God didn’t stop revealing Godself with the closing of the canon of scripture. God is still actively engaged in ongoing revelation over time, even in our own day. God didn’t just “inspire” the Scriptures and then walk away, wishing us well in our attempts to understand those words. God’s Holy Spirit continues to lead us into all the truth, as Jesus promised on the night before he was betrayed.
This gives us a whole new way to understand our beloved Anglican Communion’s three-legged stool of authority. Scripture is the inspired accounts of encounters with the divine, written by people who knew the Jahweh of the Hebrew scriptures and the Christ of the Christian scriptures, and set down, in the best words they could conjure, what they learned about God in these encounters. Tradition is the two-thousand –year history of the church as Christians have grappled with those scriptural accounts, seeking to understand them and apply them in their own lives – and changing former understandings through their own encounters with the Living God through the Holy Spirit.
Finally, reason is the authority that presents itself in our own lives. We not only experience life in our own day and time, but we experience God in the midst of our lives, through the power of the Holy Spirit, who continues to lead us into truth. Sometimes that leading prompts us to change understandings we may have held for centuries. The good news in all this is that we worship a God who isn’t locked up in scripture, but a God who is alive and well and active in our midst, continuing to lead us forward in our understanding of God’s unchanging truth.
To learn about God, we always begin with scripture, which, after the full and perfect revelation of the Word, Jesus the Christ, is our primary source. Then we look at how the church has understood those words of scripture over time. And then we use our experience and reason to ask what all this might mean for us today. Because we are always prone to shaping everything, including God’s will to our own ends, we must be careful as we apply “reason” in this triad of authorities. No one person can decide that our former understandings are faulty; changes that veer from long-held understandings must always be made in community. Many minds and hearts, working prayerfully together, must be employed in this discernment of God’s will. But this is a task we must not neglect, for to do so is to reject the leading of the Holy Spirit that has been promised to us.