What did God intend in Creation?
27th Sunday : 7 October 2012 : Genesis 2: 18-24 , Mark 10: 2-16
A subdued mood hangs over the diocese of Wellington at present. The news that its recently retired Bishop, Tom Brown, has left his wife of 47 years marriage, and is now in a relationship with a much younger woman, herself a priest, and also married, and the mother of four children, has left Wellington Anglicans feeling, to put it at its politest, that they have been let down rather badly.
The news has also rocked the house of Bishops as they prepare to grapple with the forthcoming debate on the nature of Christian marriage, and whether that holy estate can be extended to same sex partnerships. So today’s Old Testament and Gospel readings are timely and topical.
As usual the question put to Jesus is a trick and a trap. The local tyrant had recently abruptly rearranged his matrimonial affairs, and had married someone he shouldn’t have. When John the Baptist publicly criticised this ungodly state of affairs he was imprisoned and executed. Unguarded remarks about this celebrity marriage could also put Jesus at risk. Besides, in Jewish society of the time divorce was relatively common. So Jesus has to beware of alienating some by a hard line, and to avoid on the other hand being seen to sell out the requirements of the religious law. Apart from anything else, his interlocutors would have been deeply curious as to how he would respond to this issue. He had, after all, been relaxed and liberal about some aspects of the Jewish law, such as the rules on ritual purity.
What Jesus does, as so often, is to avoid the trap by going back to first principles, and reorienting the whole issue so as to look at it from a God’s eye point of view. Looking back to the Genesis text we started with this morning he asks, what did God intend in creation, why did he divide humankind in to two different genders, why did he create marriage between a man and a woman, what is human sexuality for in the Divine reckoning of things?
This, in my opinion, is where we should start from in our consideration of all the controversial issues before us as they relate to human sexuality and Divinely sanctioned partnerships. The questions that matter are: what does God expect of us in this situation, what does God call us to be, what standards does God set for us in our sexual habits, and what does God intend for us for us in our intimacy lives?
If that sounds like an obvious place to start then I am afraid to report that it is a perspective that is rarely ever heard. The New Zealand Anglican Church has bent over backwards to accommodate itself to its surrounding secular society. It has wanted to see itself in alliance with, and on the cusp of, progressive change in each of its unfolding stages. In wanting to distance itself from its anglophile origins, it has tried to make itself deeply at home in what it sees as a distinctively New Zealand culture.
But the problem is that the more our Church has identified itself with its surrounding secular culture the more it has lost its cutting edge as a unique and distinct entity that is shaped by a Divine agenda. We are in the salvation business - that is what we do that nobody else can. But now we are suffering from a kind of mission drift in which we risk being seen as a faint echo of the last bright idea of progressive elites.
As an example of what I am talking about I think back to a recent article in our national magazine Taonga, in which retired Bishop John Bluck argued that secular New Zealand society had easily and painlessly adapted to civil unions and same sex partnerships, and it was time for our Church to get with the programme. There was no hint of an argument from Scripture, or of a solidly argued theological case for doing this. The line of argument was - where secular New Zealand society goes we go.
Even if you take this line of argument on its own terms, it ignores the reality that our secular New Zealand culture is changing in rapid and unpredictable ways that are not necessarily helpful to the way God intends human flourishing. The labour party is congratulating itself right now for being first off the blocks on same sex marriage, but it has also got a private members bill waiting in the wings promoting euthanasia, and of course one of its MP’s was the promoter of the legalisation of prostitution. As a result some young women now think that this is a socially acceptable way to earn some extra money.
I agree with the American Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson that divorce proceedings are now under way between the Church and its surrounding western culture. Western culture is less and less influenced by Christian values, and is in fact pursuing some re-paganising agendas, while under the illusion that it is doing this for the best of progressive reasons. The problem for the Church is not only that it now swims in a culture that has little understanding or sympathy for its message, but also that often its membership has their world view and essential values shaped by this de-Christianised culture.
Which is why I don’t think our surrounding culture should set the norms or the agendas for our mating habits, or our intimacy lives. What pagans, secularists, and unbelievers get up to in that respect is their business. Things are different in the Church. Christianity is a counter cultural affair. God sets a higher standard for us. The Holy Spirit calls us to be holy, set apart, different, sanctified, trying to be in our own small way a little bit like God.
Of course, often God’s high standards must contend with human frailty, and our vulnerability to failure in matters of the heart. No doubt Jesus’ uncompromising teaching on the subject of divorce and remarriage would have taken some of his audience’s breath way. And even in the pages of the New Testament we see the early Christian community struggling with the high standard set by Jesus. Matthew, for instance, allows divorce in his Church if your marriage partner is unfaithful to you, and Paul allows the possibility, which he hopes Christians wont take, of separating from an unbelieving partner.
Up until recent decades the Anglican Church had the toughest marriage discipline in the Christian world, re-marriage after divorce was not a possibility full stop. Even Roman Catholics had it easier, since a good canon lawyer might be able to find grounds for believing that your first marriage had a defective intention behind it, and was therefore null and void. In the end the Anglican Church decided that although the teaching of Jesus on this subject was clear and uncompromising it would make an exception in this case on the grounds of pastoral compassion. We have done that in at least one other instance. Take for instance the teaching of Jesus on "take no thought for the morrow" and "lay not up for yourselves treasure on earth." We think it is a bad idea to leave it to our children to look after our old age and our retirement arrangements. So we have no moral qualms about investing in pension funds and the like, and respectfully disagreeing with Jesus on this account.
The problem comes as to how often we can disagree with the teaching of Jesus on compassionate grounds, and not lose our way in the process of trying to follow in his way with integrity and faithfulness. And when we do make compassionate exceptions what new ground rules do we establish that are fair and Christian. For instance, when the New Zealand Anglican Church decided to change its marriage discipline in 1970 it saw itself as the Church of the second chance - it didn’t envisage the situation of people coming back again and again for remarriage - so are we now the Church of the third and the fourth chance? And when remarriage in Church first began the clergy were directed to carefully enquire into the circumstances of the failure of the first marriage, to see if there was some insight on the part of those concerned as to why this had happened, and what they had leant from it, and the Bishop’s permission had then to be sought to proceed. All of that has gone by the board now, and not a few clergy neglect their pastoral responsibilities in this regard, and just remarry on demand. So being pastorally compassionate doesn’t necessarily make things easier.
When Christians find themselves in troubled marriages the issue becomes can they make gospel treasure out of it? I am going to finish with a case in point. Back in the days when most South island ordinands were trained at College House, Christchurch, the theological students decided to put the city’s parish clergy to an interesting test. Fanning out across the city’s parishes with their girl friends in tow they booked themselves in for forthcoming weddings, and told the Vicar’s concerned that they were very keen to do the available marriage preparation course. As they completed the courses they reported their findings back to a student at home base, who then ranked the Vicar’s concerned in terms of the customer feed back. That year a sudden rash of cancelled weddings puzzled the parish clergy of Christchurch. As the findings of this exercise were analysed and released one Vicar emerged as the standout performer in terms of the thoroughness, insightfulness, and the helpfulness of what he offered. And the puzzling thing was that he was well known for being unhappily married. Clearly he had decided to do all in his power to help others to not get into the same situation.
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