Will the real Christians please stand up?

Some time ago, an atheist friend of mine brought this blog post to my attention, and asked for my opinion.

Part of my answer was that I agree with her about the issue of “real” Christians. I recognise the problem; there are people who identify as Christian, who understand that so differently from the way that I do, that I feel all that we have in common is being alive, and probably some DNA from an ancestor a million years ago. I’d love to be able to say, they’re not real Christians.

But I don’t think I can, partly because of my own history.  If I were today to meet the Christian I was even ten years ago, I probably would want to say she wasn’t a “real” Christian.  But I have come to see that Christianity is a journey, it involves change in a person, and if someone is in a different place to me, it doesn’t make them any less authentically engaged in that process of change. It does mean that I run the risk of a slightly different mental conceit; instead of “those” people not being “real” Christians, it’s easy for me to tell myself they are “immature” Christians, and to feel that I myself am more mature and superior. I need to watch that; however much I might suspect that is the case, I also need to remember that I can’t set the agenda for someone else’s development and expect it to follow the path of my own.  The wind blows where it chooses, and all that.

More than that, I don’t think that we can dissociate entirely from the “bad Christianity;” not because I myself am likely to run an inquisition, or a genocide – let’s face it, I’m squeamish like that – but because it is really important that I and every other Christian engage seriously with our own fears, our own pride, our own will to power; all the things which are behind the inquisitions, genocides, and the polite modern suburban hells which we create in our own homes and cities, when we fail to love our children, our siblings, or those otherwise closest to us because they are gay, or mentally ill, or defy us, or whatever other reason we think justifies our behaviour. I need the inquisition and the genocide to remind me to be gentle with the friend who is afraid to come out to me, or whose depression exasperates me, or whatever else. As one person I heard put it, “The line between good and evil runs through the middle of each person’s heart.” I can’t externalise evil, scapegoat it, or project it elsewhere with any integrity, and if I try, I’m only going to end up in a very unhealthy state, and deceiving no one but myself. (That is, perhaps, a more modern way of articulating a sense of sin).

It does frustrate me, however, that in dealing with the complex spectrum which is Christianity, its would-be opponents collapse all Christianity into its worst examples. How can I have a reasonable discussion about who I am, and what I’m about as a person, when I’m being labelled as a willing collaborator in pedophilia, homophobia, misogyny, genocide, etc, etc? Those things happen; they mostly leave me as appalled and angry as any outsider, and it’s not that I want kudos for being “better” than that; but I want to be recognised as someone who is committed to being better than that. The idea that some of us might actually want to see – and bring about – transformationfrom within doesn’t seem to occur to anyone.

However, I think it’s also true that Christians such as those belonging to Westboro Baptist Church are going to be in the forefront of the media and people’s minds not least because they’re active.  I might loathe what they do, but they’re out there, doing.  And as long as the sort of Christians who think that “real” Christianity is different to that are quiet, passive, focussed inwardly on the individual life of faith, or the social life of the church, rather than vocal and active and actually making a difference in the world in the way which seems right to us, we can hardly complain when our sort of Christianity is overlooked and we’re lumped in with the nutcases and the fringe groups.  Hence, the title of this post: will the real Christians please stand up?

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Give to the emperor…

A couple of nights ago, I went to a public lecture on the topic: Upholding the traditional idea of marriage whilst loving our gay neighbours: is it possible?  The lecture was so embarrassingly bad that it might well take me several posts to deal with different aspects of it and get it out of my system, but for now, I’m going to confine myself to the question: What is marriage?

The lecturer on this occasion argued that marriage should be defined in philosophical terms, and proceeded to argue that traditionally, marriage has been defined as a comprehensive union between a man and a woman.  He suggested that allowing same sex marriage would shift the definition to being an emotional bond between two persons.  I would take issue with the narrowness of the “tradition” on which he draws, but beyond that, I take issue with attempting to define marriage in this way.

I would argue that marriage is not now, and has never been, first and foremost a philosophical (or indeed religious), matter.  I suggest that it is primarily a legal matter.  And the church has often found itself struggling with the interface between the public ministry of the church, and the reality of laws around marriage.

Some quick examples:  In ancient Rome, a woman could not marry a man of lower class (say, a slave) without forfeiting her high social standing (since marriage had to do with laws around property, inheritance, wealth and social structure).  So some Christian women entered into relationships with Christian slaves in their households which the church blessed, but which were not legal marriages.   (Not, I might note, without debate about whether this was the church sanctioning adultery!)

Or, take the example of the dark ages/early middle ages, where the clergy (as some of the few educated and literate folks around) were often called on to witness marriage contracts, which were signed at home.  Marriage was considered too secular and profane a matter for the church (and certainly wasn’t considered a sacrament), but the priest might be asked to bless the newlywed couple.

Or, take Archbishop Cranmer, who went to Germany and married a Lutheran woman despite English law forbidding him, as a priest, to marry.  He had to wait for Henry VIII to die before his marriage could become legally recognised, and she could live openly with him in England.

Or, take the remarriage of divorced persons, now so commonplace that most people don’t blink, but once a major issue for the church and the source of many an excommunication.

I could go on.  Anyway, my point is this: marriage has always been first and foremost a legal matter.  It is the formal recognition of an agreement between two (or, let’s remember that in some societies it is more) people with regard to their legal union, which has legal implications for them and any children they might have.  What the church has done is to say that marriage is good, we want to acknowledge and celebrate it, and we ask God to bless it.  (That’s the only significant liturgical difference between a church and a civil wedding, by the way; the fact that the priest asks God to bless the couple and their marriage.  The rest is just pretty buildings and frippery).

So the fact that (parts of) the church are uncomfortable now that same sex marriage seems to be on the horizon is nothing new, really.  The church has had to deal with its discomfort over marriage laws in a variety of societies throughout its history.  And here I get to my point; the church has never, in situations where it is separate from the state, defined or controlled marriage.  It has only given or withheld its blessing.  So it is disingenuous now for the church to suppose that it should control marriage in a secular society, either directly on theological grounds or by attempting to frame the discussion as a matter of philosophy (which is, in this case, simply I think a Trojan horse for theology anyway).

Same sex marriage is coming in Australia.  Already many of our citizens have been married overseas, even though those marriages (like Archbishop Cranmer’s), are not yet legally recognised here.  The church will have to deal with that fact and its discomfort around it, but not by attempting to control the process of legislation.

The lecturer two nights ago suggested a neater separation of church and state on this matter; that all legal unions should be civil unions, for everyone, and that after legalities are dealt with, marriage ceremonies which would have no legal standing could be performed by clergy or others, should the couple wish it.  I think his proposed solution is close to the way forward, except that he has it the wrong way around.  All marriages should be civil marriages, done at a registry office, for everyone; and then ceremonies of blessing or celebration or whatever else could be performed afterwards, which would have no legal standing.

In the church state divide, marriage does not belong to the church.  It belongs properly to the state.  And so on this matter I suggest that churches surrender their claim to define or control marriages, and recognise that in this, they need to give to the government, the things that are the government’s, and to God, the things that are God’s.

Praise the Lord, my soul!

This is the text of a sermon for the third Sunday after Pentecost, in the parish where I’m placed this year.  The Scripture text it references is Psalm 146.

Let me start today by telling you about another service, in a church not terribly far from here, a little over a year ago.  My daughter Zoë was only a few months old, and I was preaching; but from where I was sitting up the front, I could see – and hear! – that she was upset and not settling for her dad.  So after the sermon, at the peace, I said quietly to the priest that I would go and sit down in the pew and hold her.  And he said to me, “No, no, don’t do that, bring her up with you into the sanctuary.”

I thought this had the potential to go quite pear-shaped.  But he was insistent, so trying to make the best of it, I spent the rest of the service in the sanctuary with Zoë on my chest, where she promptly snuggled up and went to sleep.

This is, in and of itself, not really remarkable.  So I was very taken aback, after the service, by the large number of people who approached me, very emotional and even teary-eyed – and it wasn’t just the women or the mums – and told me how deeply moved they had been, to see a young mum and baby sitting quietly in the sanctuary.

It left me thinking, what was this about, this really quite profound outpouring of emotion from the congregation?  I had obviously touched a nerve, but what was it, and why was it so sensitive?

(Nobody actually mentioned my sermon, mind you.  But perhaps I ought to get used to being upstaged by my own child).

After reflecting on it for a while, here is my best guess as to what happened that day.  All too often, in our churches, we have a culture which expects that people be a certain way.  That varies a bit from place to place, but there tend to be unwritten expectations about being happy and upbeat, or about holding particular opinions, or indeed tendencies to elitism – or whatever it is in that particular place.  And the corollary of that is that people feel that they can’t be honest, can’t be fully themselves, at church, when it contravenes those unwritten expectations.  We present a certain face to the community, and leave anything not consistent with that at the door, to be picked up again on the way out.

And by taking a baby into the sanctuary during a service, I broke the unwritten expectation that the liturgy is an occasion when individuality – whether personality quirks or family ties – needs to be set aside.  And – remarkably – instead of being punished for breaking that expectation, I found people responding with joy.  I’m going to come back to that joy shortly.

But if you’re wondering what any of this had to do with today’s readings, let me change tack and draw your attention to the psalm, and its refrain, “Praise the Lord, my soul!”  I think, for many of us, this brings to mind ideas about the soul as something distinct from the body; the spiritual part of us as separate from the physical.

But that sort of dualistic view of human nature owes much more to Plato and other Pagan Greek philosophers than to any scriptural source, and it definitely doesn’t accord with the sense of the Hebrew in this psalm.  Rather, what we’ve been singing refers to the vital spark which makes us who we are.  It’s much closer to our concept of personality, which expresses itself through body, mind and spirit, through every aspect of a person and all that we do.  In the Psalms, “my soul” is an emphatic and poetic way of saying “I” – I with all that I am.

The response of the psalmists to the revelation of God’s power, faithfulness and justice was not simply an intellectual acceptance of what he had revealed.  We see in the words of the psalm joy, a sense of liberation, and encouragement – “God raises up those who are bowed down.”  The spirituality of the psalm is a matter for the heart, as much as the head.  And in response to God, the psalmist sings in worship in a way which indicates his total self-giving and commitment to the reign of God.

And the clear, ringing joy of the psalm brings me back around to the joy of the congregation I was talking about earlier.  For one morning, I broke the rules and quite literally brought a part of my life into the sanctuary which we normally keep separate.  And the people around me responded with joy; joy at seeing that I didn’t have to divide my life into neat little separate boxes to worship God; and, by extension, neither did they.

The message they got that morning in a silent action is the same message the psalm tells us in words and music.  We don’t need to divide our lives into neat little separate boxes to worship God.  We can come before him with all that we are; with the messy bits and the sad bits and the ugly bits and whatever else we might be tempted to try to leave at the door.  And when we do, when we refuse to compartmentalise but instead seek a wholeness and integrity about who we are in worship, we find a sense of liberation and joy.

That doesn’t mean I’m going to rearrange the sanctuary complete with toddler furniture while the vicar’s on leave.  But what I learned from that morning is that if I spend energy trying to maintain a particular persona in church, not only am I wasting my energy, but I’m giving the unspoken message that everyone else has to conform to unwritten expectations as well.  Sometimes, it’s important instead to be very clear that we do best to come together before God as fully who we are, whoever that is.

And that gives us a two-fold responsibility; not just to find the courage to be true to who we are, but also to learn to recognise and challenge the systemic barriers which exist within our communities.

I leave you with a final thought from a commentator on this psalm: Other texts may exhort to faith, hope and patience, promising that the world’s sufferings will at last be changed.  But in our psalm are open gates to a celebration already begun.  Perhaps what this psalm offers is a life in this world of suffering, but suffused already with resurrection light, if we dare to take it to heart.

The Lord be with you.