Monthly Archives: June 2011

Time to take a stand

Last week I received several email copies of a letter calling on Australia’s federal Parliament to reject legislation that would permit same sex marriage. The authors, the ‘Ad Hoc Committee for the Preservation of Marriage’, are seeking the support of the major Christian churches in Australia, on the reasonable grounds that without vigorous and well-argued opposition, moves to introduce same-sex marriage are likely to succeed in Australia sooner rather than later. It was suggested that I might like to provide some feedback to various Anglican leaders and groups. Having sponsored an unsuccessful Melbourne Synod motion on the topic in 2009 I was not initially inclined to say anything.

Three issues, however, have struck me about the controversy this letter represents. First is the surprising inconsistency of much theological examination of marriage, especially in light of the church’s changing history in relationship to the appraisal, regulation and promotion of marriage itself from Jacob, Leah and Rachel to the Reformation of clerical marriage. I find myself frustrated with the assumptions made in the defence of heterosexual monogamy as God’s plan for humanity. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the claim that the sexual union of one male person and one female person in the context of a voluntary, lifelong commitment represents the triune nature of God’s own being, Three Persons in One God. I’ll leave you to figure out what’s odd about this.

Second is the gradual evolution away from the vapid discourse ‘heterosexual marriage is the foundation of human society and without it all will be lost’ to the far more engaging question of children. This is a good thing; weak generalisations benefit no-one. Today’s opponents of same-sex marriage point on the one hand to the natural order of procreation (for humans), requiring a man and a woman, and on the other hand to a concept of marriage that must be inextricably tied to child-bearing and child-rearing rather than to romantic love or companionship alone. These are conversations worth having, and I admit to being more conservative than many of my friends on the topic of marriage and children. If I could have my way and ignore the needs and passions of others, I would probably recommend that we promote marriage as an institution only for people while they are raising young children (including single parents), and invent other forms of relationship recognition for everyone else.

Third is, of course, my own personal stake in all this, which is not unrelated to the first two issues. To use postmodern terminology, I have ‘been in a relationship with my partner’ for almost 18 years. Although it’s insanely complicated, I am assured that there is sufficient legislation in place to protect our ‘rights’ in relation to medical treatment, superannuation benefits, wills, and so forth. There are cultural similarities to the wedded state; when we moved in together (another bit of postmodern terminology) my father took my partner aside as his own father-in-law had done in 1970, and told him to be sure I got my sleep.

I can attest that we have no desire or intention to bear chidren – though if my work circumstances were different I would consider fostering children. I can also attest, at least on my part, that I have no desire to walk down the aisle of St Paul’s Cathedral wearing white to the tune of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March. After so many years, the only reason to hold a wedding ceremony would seem to be for the presents, and we have too many possessions already.

To get married now, or even to take advantage of a civil partnership arrangement were one made available, seems a bit like Charles and Camilla getting married. There’s no way they are ever going to have children, everyone knows they’re an item, and they certainly don’t need presents.

Hmm.

And so we come back to the human desire to give and receive love, to grow old in companionship with one another in community. If marriage is primarily about the rearing of children, then why do we marry people who are beyond child-bearing age? If human society is to be modelled on the inner life of the Triune God, why do we continually advocate the codependency of the two over the communion of the three? If Christians really do teach that the deepest of human relationships is that of heterosexual monogamous marriage based on sexual union, placing sex-for-reproduction at the heart of the human vocation, who is responsible for our unhealthy obsession with sex?

If same-sex marriage becomes possible in Australia (and it seems likely) I will be happy to celebrate with my friends. In the meantime, I would be grateful if my bishop did not sign this letter, though I would understand if he thought he had to do so. All I seek from the church are the proud and open smiles from my fellow Christians that say, your relationship is a sign of God’s grace to all humankind. This blessing means a great deal more than a registry office ceremony.

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Change and decay

It is commonplace to assert that human beings find it difficult to negotiate change. Whole industries have sprung up to assist communities to embrace change – or, perhaps more frequently, to force change upon them. Yet evolutionary science indicates that humankind itself is the result of change and contest. Today’s human population is viewed by some as the product of ancestors who successfully adapted to circumstance. Those who could not face change did not survive.

The challenge of climate change is the most obvious one before the contemporary world. Like you I read the paper and wonder, why can’t we take the relatively simple steps to mitigate the consequences of excessive carbon emissions, and then work to reverse the greenhouse effect by finding new sources of energy?

I work in a paid capacity as servant of a complex, unique organisation, a consortium within a federation, or as I prefer to describe it, a partnership of three colleges in a single institution. I also offer voluntary labour to an institution that prides itself on combining the forces of hierarchical tradition and centralised authority with democratic governance that promotes devolved responsibilities. In these duties I have come to observe that there are four kinds of people.

There are the people with the big ideas (usually seen as the alpha males), who can imagine a different set of relationships and structures that will more effectively achieve a common goal.

There are the people who think they have the big ideas, but who can’t actually imagine a different way of being and instead reinforce the same structures and relationships in order to reach a common goal.

There are the people who either cannot or will not adapt to new circumstances, and will, according to their personality type, ignore change, oppose change, or fail to understand that change is occuring in pursuit of a common goal.

Finally, there are people who can bring about change, perhaps that envisaged by some and opposed by others.

In the church, in my work, and above all in contemporary Australian government, it is commonplace to blame lack of leadership for an inability to identity and manage change.  If we came up with better techniques for change management and conflict resolution, if we had stronger leaders who articulated principles and stood by them, if we had a messiah who could win over the whole population to his or her way of thought …

Surely, however, the way to achieve change is for the four types of people to work together?

The people with the big ideas need the people who can transform them into reality.

The people who can bring about change need the people who think they have the big ideas to bed down a new reality once change is underway.

The people who are reinforcing the status quo in pursuit of change need the people who refuse to adapt to show them they are not changing anything on their own.

The people who oppose change need the people with the big ideas to push them out of their survival zone into fullness of life.

Well, actually, all we need are a few good historians who can remind us that this has all happened before, and will all happen again.

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The Grace of Humility

Sermon for Sunday after Ascension, 5 June 2011, Christ Church South Yarra

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time.

Today we have heard in the readings of the Ascension of Christ, the event where Christ withdrew from physical presence in the world some forty days after his resurrection from the dead at Easter. Those of you who were here on Thursday night for the Ascension Day service will be all too aware of the emphasis on power and glory in the scriptures and hymns for this time of the liturgical year. The theme of glory and power does not always sit comfortably with contemporary Christianity. I decided I would adopt a different approach in this morning’s sermon, using the text of our reading from the first letter of Peter, to focus on the topic of humility.

In this letter, the author speaks of many things appropriate to the end of the Easter season. Much of the language is apocalyptic, speaking of the suffering of Christ and our suffering in the world, and looking to the second coming of Christ into the world. Those of you who took notice of the recent controversy over the Rapture will be pleased to note that Luke reminds us in Acts that ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority’. We do not know when Christ will return – it could be today, tomorrow, or in a thousand years. Instead we are called to look to the scriptures for guidance on how to live now, how we should order our lives together, in the light of the return of Christ and our sharing in his suffering.

Listen, then, to some more of what the first letter of Peter has to say to us in relation to our life in the church, to those of us who have been Christians for a long time, for those who have only recently joined the Church, and to Rachel and Mila as they prepare for baptism:

Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ … I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it – not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock … In the same way, you who are younger must accept the authority of the elders. And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another …

These teachings can be summed up in a single phrase: the Christian life is not so much about what you do, as it is about how you do it. Not what, but how.

You who are leaders, you will be called to make difficult decisions, often about matters you are ill-equipped to understand – from money and property to people and morals, from the theology of climate change to the economics of accepting or rejecting refugees. The crucial task is to make the decision in the right way: as a shepherd, after the model of Christ the good shepherd who cares for each and every sheep; as one who acts selflessly, eagerly seeking the common good rather than sordid gain (or, as the King James Version puts it, ‘not for filthy lucre but of a ready mind’).

You who are young, who are new to the faith, you will be called to accept difficult decisions, to follow instructions you may not understand. Your task is to have faith – not a blind faith, but faith seeking understanding – and to trust those who are your elders, in the way that a young child of necessity trusts its guardian while still pushing the boundaries of exploration of the whole world in its wonder and breadth.

To be a shepherd, and to have faith seeking understanding: these seem to be simple demands we can readily follow. The rub, however, is in the next exhortation. Whoever you are, young or old, mature or carefree, a committed Christian or a Christian who should be committed, an unbeliever or an unsure enquirer, you are called to clothe yourself in humility. For it is in being humble that we are open to hearing the wisdom in the voice of others, it is in subjecting our own competitive desires to the greater good that we find true satisfaction and the joy that makes us glad and makes us shout for joy.

I know it is hard to clothe oneself in humility because I am not a humble person. I stand before you in slightly ridiculous academic dress, in clothes that are designed to intimidate others into believing I am clever. I stand before you as probably the most competitive person in this building, who always has to win, even to the point of creating a contest where there should be none. As my mother joked to me when I was a boy, it is hard to be humble when you are as great as I am.

Those of us who lack humility lack grace, and you face with me the prospect of being damned by our own pride. This prospect of damnation is not directly God’s doing, except insofar as God gave us free will. We are free to choose, to choose the way of pride and selfish achievement, or to choose to accept the free gift of grace – that is to say, to acknowledge that Jesus Christ, God’s own son, born of a human woman, died for us on account of his unconditional love. To accept the free gift of grace is an act which requires us to recognise that we cannot save ourselves.

Whether you are an elder or a youth, you cannot become the person you are called to be unless you humble yourself. This takes discipline, the unusual and unworldly discipline of knowing that however hard you try, however many hours you work, however many committees you join, you cannot redeem the world, you cannot fix everyone else’s problems and you cannot find joy on your own. This discipline is hard, because it requires faith in God to sort out the mess, and faith in our brothers and sisters to pick up those things which we ought to have done if they truly matter. This discipline is also a necessary one in our broken and wartorn world, lest we run ourselves into the ground thinking we can make it right. We are all too capable of beating ourselves up, even of devouring ourselves in the sinful action of trying to fix everything on our own.

I am not saying that to clothe ourselves in humility means that we sacrifice all our will and energy to an unseen other, or that we give up on seeking justice in the world and wait mindlessly for the rapture. What I am saying is first that we must cast all our cares on God, who cares for us. Second, when we have received even the tiniest glimpse of the depth of God’s care for us, then we will find that we can care for others.

My exhortation to myself this week, therefore, is to let a few things drop by the wayside, to wait on God’s good time to see what is important and what is not, to allow time to discern where I am needed to make decisions, and where I need simply to listen to my elders. Perhaps this is a task, indeed a calling, you might like to share with me.The Christian life is not about what you do, but about how you do it.

To be humble simply means to acknowledge that God has already saved the world, that God loves us with a passion that is breathtaking in its strength and requires nothing from us in return. To be Christian, to make our baptismal promises, is to say yes to the way of life that is clothed in humility. Having said yes, we stand fast in faith that all will be well and all manner of things will be well.

And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.

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25 years worth celebrating

On Ascension Day 1986 (8 May then, 2 June this year) 10 women and 2 men were made deacons in the Church of God by David Penman, the Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne, at St Paul’s Cathedral. These days, such an event merits a picture in the diocesan Anglican newspaper, TMA, and maybe an interview with a couple of the ordinands. Back then, there was a photo in The Age and clips on the TV news, for the first Anglican ordination service including women – if we exclude the ordinations of hundreds of deaconesses since 1884 – had only taken place in Melbourne in February that year. The difference between this service and the one in February was that these women were not long-serving deaconesses whose orders were finally being recognised, but women who had graduated from theological colleges in the 1970s and 1980s, often without a clear sense of where God was leading them.

The service went off without a hitch (no bomb threats this time), and the Archbishop courageously whispered ‘and sisters’ every time he had to address the prospective deacons as ‘brothers’, as required by the service used in those days.

For me, aged 13, it was a slightly confusing event. My father had been ordained priest in the same Cathedral, with much less attention, in December the previous year, and now it was my mother’s turn. My brother and I were thus among the inaugural members of the clergy couple kids’ club. For the next decade it was regularly assumed that I would be ordained too, just because my parents were.

It took six long years before the crisis over the ordination of women as priests was overcome by a further round of ordinations, for deacons who were leading parishes and taking on increasing responsibilities. And it was another twenty-two years before women were consecrated as bishops.

Two things should be recognised. First and foremost is the joyous service of those 12 women and men, who include two bishops (Barbara and Greg), a dean (Peta), an archdeacon (Heather), and many faithful deacons and priests. Some are now retired or on the verge of retirement, and others have died.

Second is the extraordinary change that has been wrought in the Church. Even with a backlash in swing against the ordination of women, even with the failure to achieve consensus on this matter in Australia or the Communion, even with the blunting of the radical edge of the Christian feminist movement, no-one blinks an eyelid these days when a woman walks down the street in a clerical collar, or uses the title Reverend, or takes a wedding or a funeral, or sings Evensong at the Cathedral, or binds up the broken-hearted, or pronounces absolution for the penitent, or makes a speech in synod about the mission of the Church. Gone are the male-only councils, the 1950s attitudes that rested on the sometimes-thanked service of a woman behind the scenes, the boys’ club of the urinals at synods, and the stunting of the vocation of the whole people of God that resulted from repressing the movement of the Spirit in our midst. All this, and more, is worth celebrating.

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