05 May 2009

Your Christians are so unlike your Christ

I've been umming and ayeing about this post for ages, and have finally been spurred into action by Caron's post on the campaign against openly gay clergyman Scott Rennie gaining the ministry in Queen's Cross Church, Aberdeen, and LPW's further reflections on the matter.

I shall preface the lot by saying that while I don't consider myself a Christian (I was baptised in the Anglican Church of St Laurence, in Chorley, but was six months old at the time so didn't really have time to reflect - or have much of a say - on the matter). But then, I'm not sure what I am. There's a sort of smugness about humanism that grates with me, plus I find something slightly odd about how a lack of religion, in fact a distrust of religion, is somehow being shaped into... wait for it... a religion. I'm not an atheist as there's a finality that comes with atheism and that doesn't sit well with me either. But I'm not a theist either - the idea that there's one (or several) all-powerful beings looking out for me just unsettles me - and I recoil in horror at most organised religion: I've always thought that morality is too personal a concept to have it dictated to you by an ancient book or a bunch of guys who happen to be at the top of a particular faith's org chart.


It's the Scott Rennie question that I want to talk about. Despite the congregation at Queen's Cross being quite happy with a Rennie ministry, a rather loud group has basically decried his assumption of the post as the end of civilisation as we know it, simply on the grounds that they do not see a gay man as being capable of preaching the Gospel. Frankly, I thought the Gospel was all about love and tolerance so I'd have thought that a gay man was no more or less suitably placed to preach it than anyone else, but these hardliners disagree. I suppose that if you believe Lot's wife really was turned into a pillar of salt, you'd probably reckon that it was all for nothing if a gay man were to join the clergy, but even so, it'll come as no surprise that I suggest that they have misread their Bible. I would argue that they have skimmed through the bits about forgiveness, about loving the sinner regardless of what you think of the sin, about not judging lest ye be judged, and my personal favourite, letting he who is without sin cast the first stone. I would argue that if, in the Gospel they follow, the Christ they claim to worship was willing to forgive (or ask his Father to forgive) his executioners, then they can let slide the fact that their minister is involved in a consensual, mutually-fulfilling relationship with another man.

But then, the hardliners' reaction to homosexuality seems to go beyond logic. Gay couples marrying? No, that's destroying the sanctity of marriage, it would seem. Leaving the Britney Spears precedent aside, it simply doesn't work: divorce is a fact, and permitted in the Church to whihc the complainers belong. Civil marriages are a fact. Is my sister's marriage less valid, because the wedding was held in a hotel and with not a clergyman in sight? Or my cousin's marriage?

This is of course a rhetorical question, and there's a trap lying in wait for any attempt to answer it. If the answer is no, it's just as valid as one held in a Church, then I would ask why the 'sanctity of marriage' only applies when it's a barrier to same-sex marriage. If the answer is yes, then I'd respond with rage, questioning why the my sister's strong relationship with her husband, why the hard work she puts in raising her children, and the love she shows to them - a brilliant young son with tonnes of potential, and an absolute angel of a baby daughter - is somehow undermined simply because they didn't go through certain religious rites.

No, there's a strong strand of Church opinion, that gay marriage and gay adoption (which is beneficial from a purely utilitarian perspective of giving a child a stable, loving home regardless of the genders of those caring for him or her) should not be advanced simply because they don't like it. Yet when anyone objects to any of their practices, they're being bigoted, and attempting to secularise society, leading us into an age of godlessness. And in high places, actions that they disapprove of are simply swept under the carpet, rather than challenged openly. I believe that Scott Rennie would not be in this situation had he climbed the clerical ladder before coming out. In that case, it would simply be hushed up. That's the hypocrisy of the situation.

Nevertheless, there are times when the LGBT community could maybe hold back from fighting various battles. So a Church objects to gay marriage - why would we want to have a relationship blessed by someone who objects to it when it can be truly celebrated by someone else? So a faith-based adoption agency doesn't want a gay couple to adopt - why would we want to co-operate with an organisation that sees us as second class, when there are plenty that see us on our merits? So a bigoted B&B owner won't give us a double room - why would we want to pay money to sleep under a bigot's roof? We may win the vote, we earn the law but we'll never win the argument and we'll never win their respect. There is such a thing as a lost cause, and whether we like it or not, we have to accept that we are just 6% of the population, and that makes us just a little bit 'other' and what's 'normal' to us can never be seen as 'normal' in the eyes of society at large. Viable? Yes. Valid? Yes. Acceptable? Yes. But normal? Forget it. That's why there will always be bigotry, always be mistrust, always be hostility, but we can earn the support of those who will listen to us and support us without screaming in the faces of those who won't.

Which brings me back, in a way, to Scott Rennie. I don't understand why he would even want to do the job he seeks, when members of his own Church despise him so, simply for who he is. It wouldn't be too unreasonable of him to say, "Bollocks to this, I'm going somewhere where I'm welcome". Yet he won't do that. Neither did Bishop Gene Robinson, the Bishop of New Hampshire.

And that's why they have my respect: they have chosen to fight the fight. They have chosen this battle, and it is the right one. This is more than a choice about where to get married, which adoption agency to talk to, which hotel to pick. This is about doing something you feel born to do, and the bigots - these so-called Christians - are standing in Scott Rennie's way. Yet he presses on. I would probably call it a day.

In many ways, Scott Rennie is a walking, talking example of what Christianity is supposed to be about (hence the quote form Gandhi in the heading). Its founders preached forgiveness; sought tolerance; encouraged diversity. Rennie will doubtless forgive his detractors - they will not forgive him. Rennie shows a tolerance they will not. And he's an example of the diversity Christianity celebrated, yet they reject. I put it to them that they are the ones who have perverted the faith, not Scott Rennie's supporters.

Yet whether or not they have reason on their side (and they do not), they will attempt to win by volume.

By simply being himself, however, Scott Rennie is a shining counter-example to us all, of what things could be like. I wish him luck, and hope that a vision of a tolerant Christianity for everyone prevails at the General Assembly.


Lallands Peat Worrier said...

An interesting read, Will. And with a slight inversion of view, I can absolutely see why you argue and conclude as you do.

If you've read my piece, you'll see I don't quite share your perspective.

The crux of the division, I think, is our general attitude towards Christianity. As you have it, Christians are presented as failing to live up to good ideals. It is a familiar story. Pious, drab bourgeois religious sensibilities, when compared to the ragged, boozing figure of Christ, toppling tables, never seem to flatter the former.

However, I think the morality of secular christology - and an enthusiasm for Christian values shorn of their divine sanction - is more easily asserted than argued for. Who would disagree with mercy, compassion? However, does an examination of the words of Christ - and the vision of justice envisioned by the Father who discharged the pecuniary debts of mankind with a bit of exchanging spiritual lucre - bear out the admirable characteristics of the snatches of dogma and parable-telling attributed to him?

Its something I feel profoundly unsure about. The conceptualisation is certainly sufficiently commonplace to warrant sceptical examination. Moreover, the way it characterises “real” Christians as the desirable ones – in contrast those who emphasise the flat words of prohibition, and vicious misogyny from the “Old Testament” – tends to conceal the real degeneracy of morality and sentiment which is woven throughout religious texts, including the ostensibly “merciful” passages. In short, albeit tentatively, I’m disposed to consider Jesus of Nazareth one of the most overrated moral doctors of history. As Tom Paine argued in the Age of Reason, actually reading the Bible can be a brutalising experience, by turns boring and appalling.

That being so, the mercy for our society is that most of the people who self-identify as Christians are basically deistic – deaf to narrow theological proscription, the friend of pre-martial sex, shruggers over sexual difference, morally detached from domineering clerics and their ancient hates. Their God is not the furious, nostril-flaring child of the Book of Job, neither is it the trading justice who presides over Christ’s court. The modern equivalent of the faith of a Vicar from Savoy which Jean-Jacques Rousseau discussed: hope for an afterlife, loose belief in a divinity with very few characteristics actually deriving from Biblical authority.

That I can shrug about, though I don’t think it can ever be particularly admirable. How faithful the faithless ought to be to old truths, dyed through with "Christian" sentiments, I'm not sure.

At any rate, to bring a close to a rather long comment, this my main gripe with your position.

I suspect, however, that more people will find themselves in sympathy with your conceptual generosity than my disapproving glances!

Wrinkled Weasel said...

I have had a go at this too.


I suppose my main point is that I object to others over ruling the collective will of the local congregation.

I also feel that the Church and its executive have secularised Jesus and his teacings from the equation.

Anonymous said...

Very good post. It's alarming how some parts of the Christian community in the UK seem to be taking their lead from the Christian right in the USA. Not a trend I hope continues.

PJ said...

I agree almost entirely with your insightful analysis and share many of your views. I am glad you touched on the issue of gay adoption as to my mind it hasn't had nearly enough attention or useful debate. As a product of care services (complete with the emotional baggage that entails) I whole-heartedly believe it is the love and support of a family that is important for a child desperately longing for a home - regardless of the colour, religion or sexuality of its consituent members.

Channel 4 is running an adoption season at the moment - I'll watch with interest (and several boxes of tissues no doubt) to see whether they truly respresent a balanced view of 'forgotten children'. I sincerely hope that they will not be following another agenda that will just market the problem as opposed to facilitating a more modern flexible solution.

boxthejack said...

Good post Will.

I'd like to respond to LPW, whose position I think is coherent. However it's coherent only in so much as it adopts a hermeneutic of (Christian and other) scripture similar to that of the Christian right.

It is essentially a Western systematising hermeneutic that views scripture as pretty much the spoken words of God. God sits down with the writer of Job, for example, and says: "grab a pen".

Taking LPW's example of Job, how do I respond as a Christian with quite a high view of scripture?

Firstly, as with any text, recognise the genre. It's a prose poem - so we're already in the realm of license.

Secondly, the audience. Probably the exiled community in Babylon trying to make sense of their abject state. Why did our God with whom we are in covenant allow this to happen?

Thirdly, the literary thrust. Job is about the problem of theodicy, and it is an outstanding work. In it the villains are bigots parroting platitudes about a God who is unmoved by human suffering but vicious when it comes to punishing human sin. They tell Job that it must be because he's done wrong that he's suffering - a view that you'll hear in some fundie churches today. All along the reader knows it's due to Satan extracting a concession from God - this itslef is not posed as an answer to the question of theodicy, but a device to frame the story. Job wrestles. No answers are given. God's otherness is asserted. Job gets his life back. The end.

The Bible is a compilation of voices preserved as they wrestle with God. Wrestling with God and the unknown is a recurrent theme. Then Jesus is presented as God, known finally as he shows his love by dying as the lowest outcast. But still it is not neat and sown up.

Alas, Christians have attempted to contrive a neat system from scripture and have largely failed.

Back to the issue then. I know a gay Christian couple of thirty years or more; I know a gay Christian who believes that human sexuality is designed to be heterosexual and therefore has chosen to not to express his sexuality.

My unoriginal response to both has to be: "May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace."