Instead of concentrating their forces on tackling the great evils of the world today – epitomized in the folly of the Iraq war, which has cost twice as much as it would take to feed and educate the entire planet – the churches seem to spend their energy squabbling about finer points of doctrine. Meanwhile the political “neocons” have found religious equivalents in the “theocons”, “christianists” and “neocaths” whose voices are now so loud. The books I shall review here represent a resistance to these developments, on three different fronts. One is by a self-proclaimed ex-fundamentalist and advocates a demystified approach to Scripture; another is by a group of Oxford scholars concerned with the dispute about blessings for same-sex couples and recognition of openly gay clergy that is tearing the Anglican Communion apart; and the third is from a group of pastors and theologians calling on an obsessively authoritarian Catholic Church to focus less on issues of control and more on its mission to “the forgotten people of the world”.
TEXTUAL CRITICISM AS AN ANTIDOTE TO FUNDAMENTALISM
With the growing popularity of Evangelical churches in Ireland it may happen that biblical fundamentalism, a rigid adherence to the literal inerrancy of every word of Scripture, will become as formidable a force here as it is in the United States, where theologians seem to spend a lot of time refuting it. The very prolific Bart D. Ehrman tackles this theological disease laterally by writing a book on New Testament textual criticism – perhaps the most accessible treatment ever of what to most people is a rebarbative subject. He claims to have been awoken from dogmatic slumbers by the realization that the text of the NT has about 30,000 variant readings, so that we do not even know exactly what its allegedly inerrant words actually were.
Curiously, his book exists under two titles – a state of textual confusion not matched by the NT. One title is: Whose Word is It?: The Story Behind Who Changed the New Testament and Why (New York: Continuum, 2006); the other is: Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York: HarperCollins; Edinburgh: Clark, 2005). Close study of the variant texts reveals that Whose Word is It? corrects “Timothy LeHaye and Philip Jenkins” to “Timothy LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins” on p. 13, though it continues to misspell LaHaye on pp. 110 and 236 and to leave a few other errata uncorrected. We may surmise that the newer title, too, is not a mere alternative to, but the author’s or some later redactor’s correction of the older one, Misquoting Jesus, discovered to be vulgarly attention-getting and to have little relation to the contents of the book.
Readers of this book who have up to now been content to leave textual criticism to the experts may not be persuaded to alter their attitude. The reason is that the textual variants discussed are the best-known ones, most of them noted in English translations such as the RSV, e.g. Mk 1:41; 16:9-20; Lk 22:19; 22:43-4; Jn 1:18; Jn 7:53-8:11; 1 Tim. 3:16. Only a handful are less familiar, such as the reading “apart from God” instead of “by the grace of God” in Heb. 2:9. Others are so late as to have only anecdotal interest, or are no longer given any credit, such as the Johannine Comma.
The most interesting feature of the book is the wider theological lesson it draws. The absence of a fully definitive text of Scripture causes the concept of the Canon to be blurred. Moreover, the theological motives of some textual variants – harmonization in the direction of orthodoxy; anti-docetism or anti-adoptionism – lead to reflection on the theological motives of different emphases within the Synoptic tradition. Most students of Scripture come to reflect on the latter independently of text-critical questions, but Ehrman is no doubt trying to reach a constituency who are hostile to recognition of theological pluralism in the NT and whom he hopes to lure to it along the trajectory he himself followed.
The suggestion that instability in transmission is of a piece with a certain instability in the very composition of the texts takes a sharper edge when Ehrman imagines Paul dictating Galatians to one or several scribes, who could have written the wrong words. Or perhaps Paul merely spelt out basic points, leaving it to a scribe to fill in the rest; so that even at the origin of the transmission we cannot speak of a definitive text.
Some troubling pages touch on one of the most intractable problems of Christian theology – the need the early Christians found to portray the Jews as essentially murderers of Christ and the prophets (1 Thess. 2:14-15) and as incapable of understanding their own Scriptures. Anti-Judaism underlies some interesting variants such as the omission of Lk. 23:34 (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”) in important early witnesses, reflecting a belief that “God had not forgiven the Jews… he had allowed Jerusalem to be destroyed as a punishment” (p. 193). The alteration of “handed him over to be crucified” (Mt. 27:26) to “handed him over to them [i.e. to the Jews] in order that they might crucify him” marks a sinister drift. In other examples, Mt. 1:21, “he will save his people from their sins” becomes “he will save the world from its sins”; “Salvation comes from the Jews” (Jn 4:2) becomes “salvation comes from Judea”. Today, a new respect for the integrity of the Hebrew Scriptures, after two millennia of the Christological heist perfected in Origen’s allegorical reading, is moving us to a new, more realistic grasp of the mission of Jesus within its Jewish context, a refocussing that may in time greatly alter the complexion of Christianity.
At a time when scripture texts are used as rocks to hurl at ideological opponents, it is salutary to reconsider, led by the Church’s practice, what it is in Scripture that truly holds us and binds us. Historical-critical scholarship has brought a more relaxed attitude to the details of biblical narratives and a readiness to recognize the element of normal human fallibility that enters into the fabric of the scriptural text. Ehrman’s effort to face the implications of the human authorship of Scripture is hardly likely to ruffle Catholics who have absorbed what Vatican II and the Pontifical Biblical Commission say about the integrity of the human authorship and its dependence on the culture and literary conventions of the times. The idea that Scripture is the Church’s book, to be read discerningly, by the community, under the guidance of the Spirit, affords a latitude of interpretation that makes less dramatic the issues he raises. The answer to the question, “Whose Word is it?” is: “God’s, to his Church, despite imperfections of transmission that do not prevent the Church using Scripture so that it becomes again and again an occasion of revelation”.
GAYS IN THE ANGLICAN COMMUNION
Today, questions about the nature of biblical authority arise most frequently in connection with the recognition of same-sex relationships. The vast debate on this in the Anglican Communion should be followed carefully by Roman Catholics, for two reasons. First, it addresses a human issue that can be discussed only in a hole and corner way in our own church. It brings Christians into dialogue with modern anthropology, biology, psychology, sociology and ethics, in a major learning experience for the whole community. Second, it is full of instruction about how to handle the problems of Christian co-existence despite profound differences of opinion. Ecumenism begins at home, as the discussants labour to prevent schism without betraying principle. Whatever lessons are learned in this debate will have to be learned by Roman Catholics too. We are not in a position to tell our sister Church: “The Pope has solved all that for us!”
The Bible, the Church and Homosexuality, ed, Nicholas Coulton (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2005) comes from Oxford scholars of Scripture, theology, philosophy and law, who want to show that traditional scriptural and church authority can accommodate the newfound awareness of the rights of gays and lesbians. Bishop Richard Harries, in an encouraging preface, compares the writers to T. S. Eliot, who was “sensitive and truthful in responding to his own time” precisely because he had “the whole history of European literature in his bones”.
The coordinates of their discussion are quite different from the Roman Catholic ones. They do not have to take into account stark utterances of the Magisterium such as the controverted document Homosexualitatis Problema (1986) or last year’s obscure decree on gay seminarians. Indeed it is quite difficult for outsiders to understand how authority functions in the Anglican world. The liberal report, Homosexual Relationships (1979) was issued with a Foreword added by the Board of Social Responsibility arguing that it did not do justice to biblical teaching. The resolution of the 1998 Lambeth Conference “rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture” and promising to “listen to the experience of homosexual persons” does not seem to be regarded as heavily and universally binding. 146 of the bishops at that conference (including Rowan Williams) issued a statement to gays which apologized for the “sense of rejection” created, and pledged to “work for your full inclusion in the life of the Church”.
As to the 2003 publication of the House of Bishops, Some Issues in Human Sexuality, it is faulted here by Fr Coulton for “ruling out the possibility that clergy in gay relationships have experience to offer” and for failing “to consider clergy who, within the oppressive atmosphere of secrecy, have married and seek to maintain their marriage vows and family life, yet are aware that their nature is substantially homosexual and not to be expressed” (p. 16). As to the Bible, it is “the fallible record of where previous generations reached in understanding the nature of their relationship with God” (p. 13).
In Evangelical churches, including conservative Anglican ones, the Bible is used to cramp, suppress and penalize open discussion, as the Magisterium is in our own church. But in liberal Anglicanism authoritative documents serve as templates for such open discussion. It seems to me that we have much to learn about other possibilities of authority and community from these Anglican debates. Some will say that the church cannot become a talking shop, a club for free-thinkers, a democracy, and that the current agonies of Anglicanism bear this out. But perhaps it is not such a bad thing if Christians reach decisions on moral issues in much the same way as in modern democracies. Perhaps the procedures of a magisterium that always claims maximum authority for its teaching, rarely allowing debate or dialogue, are dysfunctional holdovers from a past epoch.
The Oxford authors do not, or at least not sufficiently, adopt an empathetic “we” rather than a distancing “they” perspective, as urged by Bishop Terry Brown, Melanesia, in Other Voices, Other Worlds (also published by DLT this year). Their essays could be seen as papers to help bishops deal with conundrums about authority arising from the recognition of same-sex relationships. They offer little in the way of a concrete phenomenology of gay/lesbian living.
Marilyn McCord Adams writes about “Sexuality without taboos”, but I doubt if one can easily clear away taboos and self-censorship in discussing such matters, or even whether it would be entirely desireable to do so. “Because taboos are inarticulate in their attempt to rule out behaviours and lifestyles as unthinkable, they have no answers to give when people start to re-examine what was so bad about such conduct” (p. 42). This is rather sweeping. Scholastic moralists provide plenty of articulate arguments in support of the incest taboo. The taboo against torture, now being undermined in the “War against Terror”, can readily be supported with a long string of rational arguments. Those who taboo homosexuality are pretty sure they could come up with good arguments.
“Human bodies... are sacraments...Indeed, for all but the most cynical, the appeal of casual sex lies in its sacramental power to symbolise the embodied personal contact that we all so deeply need. Another corrective is St Paul’s image of human bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit... Human sexual encounters are potential acts of worship… we blaspheme when we allow our bodies to be tokens of exchange in relationships premised on despair that wholesome personal intimacy is possible” (p. 46). I am confused by this, for it seems to veer between liberal and puritanical extremes; perhaps Professor Adams is confused as well (and she would not be the only one). Her laconic remarks need more clarification and discussion. But one detects that a really frank discussion here would be impeded by taboos from the start.
Jane Shaw’s long account of the history of marriage shows that “there is no fixed and unchanging notion of ‘marriage’ in the Christian tradition to which we can easily compare contemporary homosexual relationships” (p. 73). She repeats the current orthodoxy that there were no gay sub-cultures until the late seventeenth century (in London and Amsterdam) and that people thought in terms of acts of “sodomy” rather than a homosexual temperament. It seems to me that the literature of Athens, Rome and Elizabethan England suggest much awareness of homosexual orientation as such as well as the existence of social sets shaped by that orientation. Just as the end of anti-Semitism is not predicated on a better understanding of Judaism, the correction of our attitude to homosexuality has not necessarily much to do with a deeper grasp of its psychology.
The NT scholar Christopher Rowland argues well that Christianity is not a religion of the Book, but rather that the biblical texts witness to the struggles of Christians to pursue the way of Jesus in an older context and that their meaning lights up only as we consult them in relation to the ongoing struggle and debate in our own social context. He stresses that the major lines of force of Scripture, as they emerge in this two-way hermeneutic can up-end negative, legalistic concerns.
Conversely, it could be noted that when the Bible refers back to “Sodom” it is in contexts that suggest injustice, inhospitality, closed-mindedness. So the voice of Sodom today could be that of those who exhibit such attitudes to gays. This has been fearfully shown in Nigeria, where both the Roman Catholic Cardinal of Lagos and the Anglican Primate are rejoicing in draconian anti-gay legislation. The former writes:
"How could a man and a man or woman and woman be in a sexual relationship? It’s crazy. This is a curse. All they want to do is destroy the human race… But I thank God for the fastness of this regime to arrest the situation. They did not even waste time before coming up with a law... You heard that a group of them actually came out to flaunt their homosexuality and lesbian behaviours and are asking for official recognition. That cannot happen in Nigeria. Of course, it cannot happen in the Catholic Church. It’s an abomination. It cannot happen in this part of the world. No, it cannot happen. I thank God that the secular society did not leave the matter in the hands of the church. It acted appropriately and the church knows what to do now. I am hopeful that as stipulated, the government gets serious with it because we know that in some parts, homosexuals exist. It has to stop."
The voice of Christian sanity, in contrast, is represented by Bishop Paul Colton, who notes that gays have become scapegoats “caught in the middle of a row which is not about them and their sexuality, but which instead is primarily about the way different Anglicans read, approach and understand the Holy Scriptures, the Bible” (Cork, Cloyne & Ross Diocesan Synod, June 10, 2006). He says that the controversy “has called the church's bluff about its claim to be with those on the edge and among the marginalized of society... This edge place is where most homosexuals were forced to live prior to decriminalization and the arrival of equality legislation, but where, in spite of immense changes in society, many still find themselves – especially those within the church” (St. Finbarre’s, Christmas 2003). The new Presiding Bishop of the Episcopalian Church is another such voice.
Rowan Williams is quoted several times in the book under review, perhaps much as the young Ratzinger used to be quoted against the Prefect of the CDF. As Archbishop he has developed a highly complex discourse centred on the church unity. In his paper in reaction to the US General Synod he leaves a space for recognizing the path of the US liberals as that of the future:
"It is true that witness to what is passionately believed to be the truth sometimes appears a higher value than unity, and there are moving and inspiring examples in the twentieth century. If someone genuinely thinks that a move like the ordination of a practising gay bishop is that sort of thing, it is understandable that they are prepared to risk the breakage of a unity they can only see as false or corrupt. But the risk is a real one; and it is never easy to recognise when the moment of inevitable separation has arrived – to recognise that this is the issue on which you stand or fall and that this is the great issue of faithfulness to the gospel. The nature of prophetic action is that you do not have a cast-iron guarantee that you're right."
Such words may not sound like the warmest encouragement to pro-gay churches, but they are certainly far more liberal than any we hear in our own church. Had the church spoken of the prophetic risks of Martin Luther in these understanding terms, perhaps the split in Christendom would not have taken place.
RE-OPENING THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
In the Catholic Church tensions about doctrine find their most dramatic expression in the proceedings of the CDF and other Vatican authorities such as Cardinals Trujillo (Pontifical Council of the Family) and Grocholewski (Congregation for Catholic Education) against “suspect” theologians – proceedings that have caused a huge brain drain in Catholic theology in recent decades and spread a pervasive climate of fear and self-censorship. The appointment of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, of the CDF, as Secretary of State confirms the impression that the entire Curia is becoming an inquisition. Whether this stress on purity of doctrine can contribute to the vitality of the church or to its mission to the world is doubtful.
This context is reflected in the title of our third book, Opening Up: Speaking Out in the Church, edited by Julian Filochowski and Peter Stanford (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2005). I understand that The Tablet turned it down for review on the basis that it was “a manifesto”. Nonetheless, it contains several solid and informative essays. If the Christian response to “the signs of the times” that these essays attest is seen as the specialty of a “suspect” left wing and if such authors as Timothy Radcliffe, Jon Sobrino, Enda McDonagh, Julie Clague, Ann Smith, James Alison, James Keenan, Mark Jordan, Diarmuid O’Murchu, Bruce Kent, Jeannine Gramick, Kevin Kelly are dismissed as “the usual suspects”, then we may fear that the Church is turning its back on the misery of the planet, in a betrayal of Vatican II and the Gospel.
The Vatican has hunkered down in a vision of human sexuality anchored in Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, which Fr James Good memorably greeted as “a major tragedy for the Catholic Church”. The controversy has affected many areas of the Church’s life: the sacrament of penance, the academic liberty of theologians, the qualifications for becoming a bishop, the authority of Episcopal Conferences (played down because of their liberal interpretations of the Encyclical), and it continues today as background to the condemnation of civil recognition of same-sex unions and in connection with the use of prophylactics against the transmission of Aids. The present volume takes us into the thick of the fray. It is a 60th birthday festschrift for Martin Prendergast, who has worked “to bring something of Christ’s compassion, love and healing to people living with AIDS” (p. xi). When he and Julian Filochowski held a private Mass to celebrate 25 years of friendship, it “drew a scurrilous reaction from some Catholics” but “the support they received showed how dramatically attitudes have changed” (p. xii).
A problem that surfaces again and again is the extreme difficulty of dealing with the Vatican, because the principles of modern democratic society do not apply. Aidan O’Neill, QC, deplores John Paul II’s “failure or unwillingness to recognise the independent dignity and integrity of the system of the positive law of civil society as itself creating a normative order of binding obligations” (p. 183). If church leadership were to engage in dialogue without resorting to the use of ecclesiastical sanctions, and were to “seek to persuade by the authority of their reasoning rather than to command obedience to their views by reason of their authority”, there would no longer be a “radical incompatibility between the principles embodied in the institutional Church and those proclaimed by western democracies” (p. 190). Enda McDonagh agrees that “the relations between religion, morality and law are indeed more complex in the present mixed democracies than the Pope seemed to realize” (p. 37).
In the current situation people who try to say or do anything in the Church find themselves either fuming with rage – like Ann Smith, whose contribution is a poem in which the women of Africa scream against “Rome’s Goliath-men” who “forge rules till they become our millstones” – or dancing on pins as they try to negotiate Byzantine corridors of creatively reinterpreted “obedience”, as seems to be the case with Jeannine Gramick.
All of this has lamed the Church in its works of mercy. In contrast with the slow response to the Aids crisis, and the prevalence of self-protective moralism, the syphilis epidemic at the end of the fifteenth century inspired the foundation of the Congregation of Divine Love: “Victims of syphilis, having been abandoned both by their families because of shame and by hospitals because of fear of contagion, found a welcome in the confraternity’s Hospitals for the Incurables” (p. 108) – all that at a time of alleged decadence. A muscle-bound authoritarian Church is doomed to fail again and again to meet the constantly shifting needs of the much bigger world of today.
James Alison points out that the conviction is growing everywhere that traditional outlooks on homosexuality are wrong, and that the real blockage to honest development here is “the silence of those who have more than a strong suspicion that the official position is nothing more than the production of a ‘specious reason of a higher order’” (p. 80). This hypocritical silence, rather than the stridency of conservatives, poses the greater danger to the freedom and fidelity of Catholics today.
Free speech and open discussion seem to be flourishing far more in the Anglican than in the Roman Church at this time. To conservatives they represent a force of dissolution, to liberals they are the wave of the future. In any case it seems clear from these books that attitudes are evolving and that on many fronts things are in a state of flux. Parminedean solutions are not working for a Heraclitean situation. A silenced and paralysed church is not a healthy place, and indeed it may be generating pressures of repressed anger that will lead to an explosion.
Free discussion and questioning has nothing to do with the dreaded bogey of “relativism” but is rather a normal expression of growth in insight, or at the very least of honest and understandable confusion or indecision. The authors of Opening Up must be complimented for their willingness to debate frankly, not merely in theological shouting matches, but in openness to human suffering on the streets of London and in the clinics of Africa. They offer hope for the future of the church.
Joseph S. O’Leary (The Furrow, September, 2006)