At 21, I returned to the Church. I was drawn by the counter-cultural Jesus and his circle of friends. I was enthralled by his relationship with the invisible ones. He had compassion for them, which is good, but he also sought them out and enjoyed their company. This personal encounter of mine, this rediscovery of faith, was wonderful. I began to dream again. Looking back, I know it was the dream of faith, which is the Spirit’s gift to each of us. It is the kind of dreaming too that inspires faith communities to risk everything in the name of love.
As a young man, I was keen to explore the dream with others. It seemed logical that I would investigate the local parish church. To my surprise, the people I met there were gracious and hospitable. But not everyone was like that. I began attending a study group on ethics where I was greeted by a pleasant looking older man. In due course, the topic of homosexuality came up and I asked naively, “What’s the problem?” To my dismay, the older man bellowed “It’s a matter of principle!” He proceeded to hurl biblical hand grenades at me, and other members of the group, while severely condemning homosexuality. All the time repeating the catchphrase “It’s a matter of principle!” He then got up slowly, left the room and never returned.
I have not forgotten the contempt I saw in that man’s eyes. Driven by hatred and fear, he tried to claim the higher ground by parroting “it’s a matter of principle”. For me, this encounter is an apt metaphor for the debate about homosexuality, currently taking placing in the Anglican Communion. In many quarters, the debate has been hijacked by hatred and fear. Like a Trojan horse, homophobia has been smuggled into our synods under the guise of orthodoxy.
Today, we do not burn people at the stake over matters of faith. Or do we? Historically, Anglicans have held the truth passionately, but exercised prudence in its interpretation. This is not because we are wishy-washy. On the contrary, through reason and experience, we have recognized that the truth is a gift and not a weapon. As a gift, we hold the truth with humility and share it generously. The decisive thing is our relationship with our sisters and brothers in Christ. After all, what kind of truth is it that means we have to win the argument at all costs? In places, however, the term orthodoxy is being used to control our conversations. In Australia, for example, the debate on homosexuality has been largely swept aside by the rhetoric of orthodoxy in order to keep the peace. The term orthodoxy , however, can be used in two basic ways: historical and rhetorical.
The historical use of orthodoxy tells us about belief and identity. This can be a good thing. The term itself means right opinion or true belief. The problem, however, is three-fold: what is right, who says so and on what basis? On historical grounds alone, the right opinion is not always clear. Thus, orthodoxy sets out broad parameters for belief, but it does not address all of life’s contingencies. Things change. This is why Anglicans have traditionally held the truth with humility, focused on essentials and celebrated diversity.
The rhetorical use of orthodoxy is a major problem; the purpose of which is to inhibit debate or discredit opponents. The rhetoric is often used like a cudgel: “This is the orthodox position!” The term heretic is rarely used, but it is often implied by the use of leading questions like “Of course, you support the orthodox position?” This approach is related to the dramatic rise of fundamentalism in the Anglican Communion. The key feature of fundamentalism concerns absolute truth statements. Fundamentalists believe they own the truth, the truth is easily discerned and it is their right to defend the truth at all costs. Inevitably, it produces a violent religion, which finds its voice in hate-filled, fear-driven speech.
In my formative years, I saw fear and hate in a man who attacked me with the respectable refrain “it’s a matter of principle”. Fortunately for me, there were some wise and wonderful people in that parish, whose generous love nurtured the dream of faith in me. So, I do not pretend for a moment that there is an easy way forward for the Anglican Communion. But I suspect it has something to do with naming the fear, acting out of love and living the dream. Fittingly, we will soon be entering the season of Lent, where we identify with Jesus and his gift of love and his dream of faith. He died for the dream. But the story did not end there. The Spirit of Jesus now sows and nurtures new dreaming, hoping and loving.
Dr Steven Ogden
Principal St Francis Theological College Brisbane, Australia
Author Love Upside Down: Life, Love and the Subversive Jesus (March 2011)