On Monday I went to the Queen Elizabeth Hall to attend the British premiere of ‘For the Bible Tells Me So’, a film detailing the painful relationship in the US between Christianity and homosexuality, which was followed by a question and answer session with the man who was the main focus of the film – Bishop Gene Robinson. Robinson was for some of the time interviewed by Sir Ian McKellen, co-founder of Stonewall, and it was a remarkable experience, being in the presence of two men who have transformed society around them. Whilst it was fascinating listening to Robinson on his own, having McKellen as a counter-point made it particularly inspiring. Witnessing their joint claim that society could only progress through their joint work – the atheist McKellen lobbying to change laws, directly affecting civil rights, with the religious Robinson working to change hearts and minds, felt like a sea-change in social campaigning was occurring in front of me. It’s a position you never hear organised religion or the non-religious taking – that both sides working together should be fundamentally essential for social change to work. Robinson had a lot more to say (the supporting quotes are from this Guardian article), which that night and in other interviews throughout his stay pretty much concentrated on using the Church as a tool for human rights. Given much of the Church’s current obsession with exclusion, intrusion where it isn’t needed, and its lack of attention to crime and inequality of opportunity in this country, that argument couldn’t have been more timely.
It was time to take back the Bible, he said, from those who used it as a weapon with which to bludgeon the most vulnerable in society.
And now, by the leading of that same Spirit, we are beginning to welcome those who have heretofore been marginalised or excluded altogether: people of colour, women, the physically challenged, and God’s children who happen to be gay.
God and the Church were not the same thing, he reminded us – as humans we get it wrong. He also didn’t think we’d see the day when homophobia was eradicated. He was ultimately comfortable with that however, because (as he put it) those who followed on from us would need our shoulders to stand on for their battles. He was going to Canterbury to remind the Lambeth Conference that ‘we’re here too’, and to remind them of their vows to serve all of their flock and not just some of them.
He thought it crazy that an established Church should be allowed to discriminate in any way at all. That it could meant we should ‘separate civil rights from religious rites’ – ie. distinguish the civil from the religious sphere. In the case of marriage, he advocated its restoration as a universal civil right, which could then be celebrated and blessed within and by the religious community, and not be identified as a religious institution which could then (in this country) be discriminated against (yes, they were in part talking about Lillian Ladele). When the religious people who reject us see that civil rights don’t mean the end of the world, he believed they would likely then follow an extension of the equality agenda of civil rights within their own, religious community.
If the African communion didn’t remain part of the worldwide Anglican communion, we wouldn’t be able to see the consequences of colonialism, racism and Bush’s adventurism. The world needed a model like that, he maintained, particularly with the world getting smaller, and the Anglican communion could offer this model. He wanted opponents like Archbishop Peter Akinola to stay within the Anglican communion for that reason, but also because they were both part of the same Church, Robinson would present for Akinola (and homophobes like him) the possibility by example of changing his worldview. (following quote from the video – transcript here)
We need each other. We need the voices from Africa and Asia and South America to tell those of us in the so called first world the ramifications of our racism, our colonialism and so on. We need each other really for our mutual salvation.
In describing what for him is an interactive God whom he worships, he wanted to make it clear to the audience that he understood Christianity to be something not uniquely locked up in a one-time, immovable, exclusive book of scripture, and used an example from the Bible to illustrate his point. In John’s Gospel Jesus said there was more to learn, but the people of the time couldn’t handle it (as opposed to now).
Jesus says a remarkable thing to his disciples at his last supper with them: “There is more that I would teach you, but you cannot bear it right now. So I will send the Holy Spirit who will lead you into all truth.” Could it be that God revealed in Jesus Christ everything possible in a first-century Palestine setting to a ragtag band of fishermen and working men? Could it have been God’s plan all along to reveal more and more of himself and his will as the church grew and matured?
We have intellects, and should use them to make reasonable interpretations (about the Bible), he maintained.
This is the God I know in my life – who loves me, interacts with me, teaches and summons me closer and closer to God’s truth. This God is alive and well and active in the church – not locked up in scripture 2,000 years ago, having said everything that needed to be said, but rather still interacting with us, calling us to love one another as he loves us. It is the brilliance of Anglicanism that we first and foremost read scripture, and then interpret it in light of church tradition and human reason.
It was possible, he believed, to reach people in the ‘moveable middle’ – those who weren’t rejecting of gay people but who weren’t fully accepting, and this pretty much summarised why he’s here. The Anglican Church is fracturing because traditionalists can’t abide the inclusion of women and out gay people, and modernists similarly won’t concede to the rigidity of traditionalists. Just the other day the General Synod backed the appointment of female bishops, flying in the face of traditionalists such as the aforementioned Akinola and their Gafcon. The position towards Robinson however remains acrimonious on both sides. He was barred from the Lambeth Conference, and he says:
“I think a mistake was made in not including me in those conversations. I was the only openly gay voice that might have been at the table. But I will do all I can from the fringe. Miracles happen when people who are divided by something get to know one another.”
McKellen though went deeper:
Just looking at it from the outside, the church thinks it’s got a particular problem with some articles, perhaps not of faith but of, written in the Bible that they refer to. And I can remember the armed forces not that long ago saying they had a particular problem – it was all to do with discipline. Well it’s just been discovered there is no discipline problems when you let gay people into the military. And schools too. Well we’ve got a particular problem.The particular problem they’ve all got and share is homophobia. And having it they root around in the Bible to discover the very few passages that seem to be relevant. But people like the Bishop, like the Quakers, like many people I marched with in Gay Pride last week, gay Christians, gay Jews, gay Muslims are at ease with their faith and their position in society.
Both of them really are looking at the identical issue from completely different angles. It’ll be fascinating to see what happens to them next, both singly and together. I must confess that when Ian said he was so moved by Robinson that he’d nearly converted him to Christianity there and then, I shared a similar feeling. Gene Robinson is an unquestionably great man; at a time when Chuch attendance is at an all time low, Lambeth Palace risks damaging itself yet further by excluding him.
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