Content warning. This column may contain half-pie, untrained theological musings, so will probably be bad for your health.
Sometime after my 30th birthday, I gave in. All my life, there has been something I recognised, if I truly slowed down long enough to listen to the world around me.
Francis Spufford describes one of those moments of recognition in Unapologetic:
It feels as if everything is with light, everything floats on a sea of light, everything is just a surface feature of the light. And that includes me. Every tricky thing I am, my sprawling piles of memories and secrets and misunderstandings, float on the sea; are local corrugations and whorls with the limitless light just behind. And now I’ve forgotten to breathe, because the shining something, an infinitesimal distance away out of the universe, is breathing in me and through me … someone, not something, is here.
And, despite the long and depressing history of colonialism around the world that I was very well aware of, and the torturous history of the relationship between Māori and the various Christian denominations that arrived in this country, I became a Christian that year.
Or, more accurately, I took my first wobbly Christian steps then. It is taking me many years to work out what being a Christian really is. I started attending an Anglican church, and there I remain.
Ah, church. The ultimate programming tool, right? Why bother? I could just go down to the beach to talk to God (whatever I perceive that to be) and feel good.
The god of sunny days, waterfalls, and puppies is not a very demanding atua. In fact, I can mould that kind of entity into anything I need it to be. I could have a permanent spiritual mascot with all the right political beliefs and all the right cultural characteristics, and I would always be right and never be wrong. My faith need never be on the “wrong” side of any political, cultural, or moral issue ever again.
Why then choose a belief system that imposes any kind of orthodoxy, one not birthed in tikanga Māori, for example? The simple answer that any door-knocking God-botherer will tell you, is the Person of Christ, the guy who died on the cross and was resurrected, cracking the universe into “before” and “after”.
The framework is secondary to the Person. But without the framework, most of us haven’t a chance of seeing the Person at all.
Actually, what many people, including many Christians, don’t get, is that Christianity doesn’t impose a rule book as such. No Leviticus memes to live by. No clean and unclean divisions of behaviour and objects. No “good Christian” check boxes that we can fill in and then face the unknown future confident that we have Done What We Had To Do To Get In The Club.
Well, hang on. That’s not quite true. There is a paragraph or so of stuff Jesus chucks out there that we are supposed to do, mostly cribbed from the Ten Commandments, but missing a few.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. (Mark 12:30)
“‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honour your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’”(Matthew 19:18-19)
“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)
So really, it’s all there in the last bit. We are to follow. To direct our feet and our lives, and our innermost beings, towards Christ. Along the way, we are to shuck off those things that would divert us from that journey. Apparently, that’s how you become perfect.
Except following perfectly is bloody well impossible. Thanks, E Hoa.
According to the stories Jesus told, and the life he led, we have to give up those material things that matter to us, like status and money. Turn the other cheek to those that abuse us. Feed the hungry. Love the outcast. Forgive every bastard that does us wrong. Go after the sheep that has strayed. Risk everything for the child who has let you down and probably will do so again tomorrow.
And, above all, love.
And WE HAVE TO MEAN IT. There’s no getting away with going through the motions, because the light behind everything knows us.
And so we fail.
And fail again.
And fail again.
Christianity is a religion of failures and dropkicks, hypocrites and losers, because most of us are goodish, but not one of us is good enough. We all know this regardless of belief, right?
Every one of us breaks things, be they relationships, promises, principles, or other people’s bodies. On one level, admitting the truth of this is terrifying, and goes against everything we think we know in this modern world.
Our failure is not softened by our individual skill set and general awesomeness, nor by Tony Robbins or inspirational posters with sunsets and cats and little quotes that say things like: “You are the best YOU you need to be right now!”
Self-improvement, while it can and does help us Do Life, will never mean we stop breaking things.
We will always break things.
But that hononga, that deep connection between all of us who break all the things, is also immensely comforting. We are never alone, thanks to the whanaungatanga of the fucked-up.
We will keep breaking things and each other and we will still suffer. But if we keep turning back to God and acting accordingly, we are rescued from our broken state again and again. And we are loved no matter what.
But Israel Folau reminded us that Christianity includes the notion of judgment. Furious struggle over what counts as brokenness (“sin”) and as turning back to God (“repentance”) and as following Christ (“righteousness”), has caused, among us inadequate humans, exclusion and bigotry and countless deaths over many centuries.
Sexuality, cultural practices, cultural autonomy, the rights of women to their own bodies, the rights of slaves to freedom — all of these things have proved, and still prove, to be battlegrounds. Human sexuality is just the most recent of these.
At one level, judgment is pretty easy to understand. We do it all the time ourselves, discerning what is the right thing from the not-right thing. We can only “judge” something properly when we know enough about that thing or that action.
I am judged right now by God because I am utterly known right now. There will also be judgment to come. I don’t know what that looks like. But now, or then, everything I am is known, good and not — regardless of my careful construction of who I would rather the world see “me” to be, that construction that secrets away my overuse of porn many years ago, my tendency to lie to myself, my subterranean arrogance.
It doesn’t matter what that “thing” is. What matters is that it draws me away from following Christ.
One of my favourite passages that explains how our “things” get in the way between us and God comes from Jane Eyre. This 19th century novel by Charlotte Bronte is often thought of as a simple, if wonderfully told, love story. You know, poor smart girl meets rich man with a dark past, they fall madly in love, and are about to tie the knot when she discovers he has a wife locked up in his attic all along. As you do. She flees, and realises in retrospect that her obsessive love for her would-be husband was the problem
My future husband was becoming to me my whole world; and more than the world: almost my hope of heaven. He stood between me and every thought of religion, as an eclipse intervenes between man and the broad sun. I could not, in those days, see God for His creature: of whom I had made an idol.
Heterosexual love here was the broken “thing”. Jane and Mr Rochester did eventually marry, once they got each other off their idolatrous pedestals and put God back in the centre of their lives together. (Don’t hold your breath for this aspect of the story to appear in any BBC production).
So is homosexual practice itself one of those “things” that prevent any person from living a Christ-following life? The short answer is of course it can. Anything in the human condition that may be bad, benign, or even a positive good, can morph into “an eclipse [that] intervenes between man and the broad sun.”
“Ah!” say the eagle-eyed scriptural traditionalists, “you are copping out. What about Romans 1: 26-7 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11?” Indeed. We can’t gloss over these kinds of passages or wish them away, although there are way more passages condemning poverty.
The Romans reading looks back to the old story of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah as the quintessential story of Screwed-up Humans Who Lost the Plot And Forgot God:
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
Verse 24 is the important one, actually. The sexually immoral behaviour stems from the worship of the creature (themselves) instead of the creator. The behaviour is a symptom of wrongness, not the cause.
So what about the Corinthians reading:
9 Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers — none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.
Drunkards, thieves, and those who pursued sexual immorality in all its forms are to be treated the same. Sexual immorality was a big deal for Jesus, too. Merely looking at someone wanting to commit adultery with that person is enough to knock you off the path (Matthew 5: 27-28). He never mentioned homosexuality, but he made his position clear — sexual immorality would get in the way of those who follow Him.
Many orthodox Christians, I think, would probably say that there is, in these verses, a clear condemnation of homosexual practice, even though it’s no more serious or trivial than any other behaviour. Being habitually drunk is just as sinful. Therefore, homosexual practice (and by extension, for many, homosexuality itself), on this view, is one of those “things”.
For me, though, the question is not “what are the forbidden behaviours we must not do”? Remember, this is not a rule book.
Perhaps it would be more fruitful to identify the sexual behaviours that bring us closer to God. We know covenantal relationships do: marriage, for example, that places Christ at the centre of the relationship. Sexual practice within the context of truly covenantal relationships then becomes rightly irrelevant.
The very notion of the possibility of same-sex covenantal relationships is relatively new (in the context of a 2000-year-old religion), hard, and confronting. And one day it will need to be faced, despite the existence of Matthew 19, Jesus’ condemnation of adultery:
“Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’5 and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.”
Traditionalists assert that all arguments end here. Marriage simply cannot be between men or between women. On this view, God cannot “join together” same sex couples. ‘Nuff said.
The Anglican church in 2014 affirmed that traditional definition of marriage. And yet, the 63rd General Synod (flash word for church parliament) of the Anglican Church in New Zealand and Polynesia, decided to allow for the blessing of same-sex relationships in New Plymouth in May 2018.
The vote was not about allowing gay couples to marry in a church. That debate for now is closed.
What was decided was to allow church blessings of gay relationships in this corner of the worldwide Anglican communion. To cut a long story very short, a recommendation was made that bishops may authorise the use of:
a service blessing the relationship of two people, regardless of their sex or sexual orientation where the minister has satisfied him or herself that the relationship is loving, monogamous, faithful and the couple are committed to a life-long relationship.
Nothing about this blessing will be compulsory for Anglican clergy. The rights of members to take different positions on same sex relationships has been preserved.
Nevertheless, and regardless of the definition of marriage, this s a clear step towards recognising that all couples can enter into covenantal relationships, and therefore that sexual orientation and sexual practice are not merely, by definition, “things” that get in the way of the journey to follow Christ.
It is fair to say that people were be torn. And some walked away, and may yet still walk away from our communion. The 85 million-strong Anglican church worldwide will probably experience some degree of schism as other countries wrestle with the very same issue.
And we, the equally broken, will continue to break ourselves and each other, until we return to the road we must travel, and whatever that requires of each of us.
Ka aru mātou i a te Karaiti
Tui, tui, tuituia mātou
Tuia ki te tumanako
Called to follow Christ
Bind us together
Bind us in hope.
[Please note this article has also been published on E-Tangata. This article has also been amended slightly in the wake of the 2018 General Synod vote]