Orthodoxy is relative

My friend Clive, recently married gay priest, is being accused of breaking church rules and teaching, firstly because he has married his male partner and secondly because his church website advertises that the church hosts groups with a new age dimension.

Conservative evangelicals with an unhealthy non-Biblical addiction to legalism make accusations against him in a blog which demands that bishops take punitive action both against him and against me because we are deliberately breaking Church of England rules and teaching. We are accused of being unorthodox.

An evangelical priest friend of mine has also laid accusations in private, against Clive, of practising a dangerous unorthodoxy which he says puts all of us who are campaigning for LGBTI equality at risk of criticism by those who oppose us, and who claim for themselves the status of upholders of true orthodoxy in the church.

The criticism from both directions is challenging, and pushes all of us into territory where lie dangers for us all.

In recommending me for ordination forty-one years ago and then ordaining me, the Church ordained a person who has always held what others consider to be unorthodox beliefs, both in relation to teaching about human sexuality and gender and about what passes for current orthodox Church of England teaching about the essentials of faith.

I have never subscribed to the teaching that gay people are not allowed to fulfil ourselves sexually and intimately, nor to fall in love with someone of the same sex and live with that person in a committed relationship. I also believe, which is more controversial, that it is normal for adult human beings to enjoy responsible sexual intimacy with another person when they are not married nor in a marriage equivalent status. Young adults and elderly widowed people and many others in between can enjoy responsible, fulfilling sexual pleasure. This “non-orthodox” belief has characterised my own life.

I have also in the course of my life overcome my unfortunate aversion, instilled by the church, to practices labelled new age, and to other ideas and disciplines which some would judge to be unorthodox for Christians. I deeply valued the experience of a gong bath at St Agnes, North Reddish. I have broken bread and shared bread and wine freely with all who have come to share.

I am deeply immersed, spiritually, in the unknowing of the apophatic Christian tradition. I have lived into risk and uncertainty, finding there the deepest experiences of truth and love. I have read the Bible with a critically cautious mind all my life, searching for the deepest truth amongst passages of unhelpful dross.

The Church of England lives with a temporal orthodoxy, an orthodoxy constructed out of existential anxiety about the changing post-second world war world, with loss of status, power, and numbers. The church has become a defensive institution, reacting to the demands of conservatives here in England and in other parts of the Anglican Communion.

The versions of orthodoxy claimed by twenty-first century Christianity are place and time specific. There is nothing traditionally orthodox about much that is taught and preached in churches in every part of the world. Orthodoxy evolves, and the teaching and practice of the institution lags behind the evolution of the way in which faith is being explored and constructed anew in the imagination of individuals and communities in response to their intuition and search for truth.

In my lifetime the church has become more insecure, reactionary, and defensive. People around me cope in various ways with the disjunction between their faith and the local practice of the church. Some withdraw their presence and abandon the community journey; some focus on the smaller, practical details of church life; some suppress and withhold information about what they really believe and think; some become frustrated and depressed and a minority despair.

All this is adding to the crisis which the Church of England faces, or rather, is unable to discern and unwilling, corporately, to face.

It would be good if we were able to live together with our differences, openly and honestly, with our legitimate varieties of belief about sexuality and gender, the authority of Scripture, the nature of God, the core teachings of Jesus, and the differences between realism, myth and metaphor in the Bible. But at the moment we can’t. Intimidation by conservatives who style themselves “orthodox” and “mainstream” is suppressing conversation in the church about issues beyond sexuality and gender and which are ultimately far more important to the radical changes in human awareness and divine truth that we are immersed in and into which some of us are living.