Pentecost 22 John 15:17-27
The road to a place called justice is long, dusty, and windy. It’s a rough road, that the best prepared find jarring. For those who like to arrive quickly it is very frustrating, and they often turn back. Others stop en route, to mend a tyre or share some lunch, weighing whether to carry on. Friends and enemies alike criticise those who take the road to justice. Travellers often say the same thing over and over again. Their determined single-mindedness is unwelcome in our Kiwi culture that entertains passionate conviction only on the sport’s field.
In 1974 the Vicar of St Matthew’s, Morris Russell, and his curate, John Bluck, with the blessing of Bishop Gowing, invited gay, lesbian, and transgender Christians to meet for an evening Bible study. A group gathered, and have continued to gather for the past 33 years. They became known as the Auckland Community Church. The mere fact that homosexual Christians exist, are welcome in a church, and structure their own worship, was enough to cause offence to many in the wider Church and society. One of their gifts to St Matthew’s has been to set us on this particular road to justice, a road which we are still on.
Slowly, painfully, the obstacles to justice have been removed. The Homosexual Law Reform Act was passed in 1986, the New Zealand Human Rights Act 1993, and the Civil Union Act and Relationships (Statutory References) Bill 2005. These pieces of legislation in essence were about giving the homosexual neighbour the same dignity and rights that the heterosexual majority expect. All of the legislation passed along with significant opposition from conservative Christians.
Society has changed largely because our common knowledge has changed. Slowly the insights from the medical and psychological communities, beginning in the 1970s, have filtered through into popular consciousness. For me as a parent I cringe when I read of the injustice and stupidity of trying to get left-handed children to operate right-handedly. Two of my four children are left-handed and in the not-so-distant past would have been subjected to correction programmes. As I remember the history of trying to change those who are labelled different, I feel again my anger at the injustice and torment suffered by many gay and lesbian people in behavioural correction programmes. Such programmes still exist around the world.
In the Anglican Church, while legislatively silent, there has come a gradual recognition that society is changing and the Church must too. A number of clergy who in the past would have kept their sexual orientation quiet have bravely come out. Some of those who have come out have same-sex partners. Some are vicars, archdeacons, and bishops.
Yet the forces of conservatism remain very strong. I cannot name one same-sex couple in New Zealand living in a vicarage, deanery, or bishopscourt. I can name experienced and talented clergy who have been refused employment opportunities because a parishioner or two have objected to their sexual orientation. I can name people who have had their desire to be ordained stifled because of their orientation.
Currently the Anglican world is gripped by fear. It fears that if it permits justice – the dignity and rights of being treated as an equal – to gay and lesbian Christians it will ostracize those of a conservative persuasion, particularly the huge number of Christians in the central African Provinces. It doesn’t want to make a choice between siding with justice and siding with conservatism. It values the unity of the Church more than the rights of its people.
The status quo is of course a choice, and it is a choice for perpetuating centuries of injustice against gay and lesbian people. It is a choice to live in fear of being disapproved of by vocal conservatives. It is a choice not to make clear and forthright God’s love and embrace of all. It is a choice to erect barriers of exclusion.
The Bible has long been used as a barrier to prevent gay and lesbian people feeling beloved of God and welcome in the Church. Using verses in particular from the books of Leviticus and Romans Church authorities have condemned homosexuality.
However scholars in the 1970s and 1980s looked again at the texts. They found that none of the passages addressed the permissibility of consensual committed love in a same-sex relationship. Rather most of the passages were concerned about the violation of hospitality, rape, and pederasty. The texts were written within a patriarchal culture obsessed with purity. It tried to regulate for example what went into and out of the body, the latter including menstrual fluid and semen. Wasting semen was a crime whereas sleeping with multiple wives, concubines, and prostitutes was not.
These scholars also noted that Jesus made no reported comment on homosexuality. He was though critical of the patriarchal family, and what that institution did to those it rejected. He also talked about the importance of love and how we treat one another.
Conservative scholars have tried to counter these arguments. In short they argue that because the Bible is silent on committed same-sex relationships does not mean it permits them. The Bible endorses a heterosexual perspective, albeit within an ancient patriarchal context that most today would not want to wholly replicate. They think the Church needs to be very careful in how far it deviates from the literal words of various biblical texts.
In the end, I believe, it comes down to us making a choice. We can choose to follow a God who wants us to conform to one particular way of being human, as defined by heterosexual norms. This God stands opposed to the direction of Western democracies as they seek to acknowledge the human rights of all their citizens. There are a number of biblical passages and preachers that will endorse this choice. Or we can choose to follow a God who in the name of love breaks through the barriers of prejudice and leads us on the road to justice. There are a number of biblical passages and preachers that will endorse this choice too.
Making a choice regarding biblical texts and moral direction is nothing new. The 16th century reformer, John Calvin, a man not known for his liberal tendencies, was faced with a problem. The Bible’s unequivocal denunciation of usury, i.e. earning interest on money, was preventing the economic development of Europe. Whereas originally these texts were framed to stop the poor falling into debt-slavery, they were in the 16th century preventing people from borrowing to finance enterprise. Calvin reasoned that although these verses made sense when they were written, times and understandings had changed, and the texts needed to be ignored. Further he regarded the moral principle of equity as taking precedence over these biblical texts. In other words Calvin, the great pioneer of Protestantism, and champion for many modern-day conservatives, blatantly disregarded the clear teaching of Holy Scripture and gave preference to the principle of equity.
We need to have the courage of Calvin today to set aside biblical prohibitions that stand in the way of people flourishing. This was the same courage that Jesus showed in setting aside biblical texts regarding the Sabbath, women, lepers, tax-collectors, dining, and adultery.
We need to choose which road to travel. There is a narrow conservative road that requires conformity to one understanding of Scripture and faith. You won’t have to think too much – it will do it for you. This road denies that any other road is Christian.
Then there is a broad highway littered with churches and bishops that is designed to keep everyone happy. In the name of unity dissension must be avoided. It is risk-averse. It tries to be tolerant. Those who don’t fit with the majority however are discounted.
Then there is the difficult road to justice that St Matthew’s is travelling. On this road unity does not precede justice, but follows it. On this road the Bible does not precede truth, but serves it. On this road God’s will is not frozen in the 1st century but is unfolding among us. This is the road that I and many of my predecessors have chosen. And we still have a long way to go.