Sunday, 24 May 2015

Ireland, same-sex unions & Pentecost

Yesterday the Republic of Ireland voted in a referendum to allow same-sex marriages.  The remarkable aspect here is that it was a public referendum and there was a clear message that the people want this to be allowed to happen.  In a country where this would have seemed unthinkable just a few years ago, there has clearly been a radical social change.  I have long since realised that when you ask people you get a very different answer to what you think you will get before hand, not least because the majority are often silent and quietly make their minds up away from the noise and clamour of those who like to tell everyone what 'everyone thinks'.  I wish we had had a referendum here on this, because it would have provided greater legitimacy to the change and also it would have offered space for a better debate than we had.  That said the arguments deployed were very similar and the majority of the people clearly found those against didn't cut it for them.

In response there have comments from churchmen that they need to reconnect with the young.  I'm not sure if this means that they feel the need to change their view so that it is more in line with the public mood or find better ways of communicating what stands in opposition to the public consciousness.  Many will see this as a matter of justice and equality, which it is.  How we see justice has to be based on something.  That clearly has to be more than the teaching of a particular church.  More is required.

The best definition of justice I know comes form the 11th century Archbishop of Canterbury, St Anselm.  He was brought into a dispute after the Norman conquest between the monks at Canterbury and the new Archbishop, Lanfranc.  A Saxon Archbishop, Alphage, had been murdered by the Danes because he refused to allow the city to pay a crippling ransom for him.  Lanfranc thought this didn't constitute a sufficient reason to regard him as a saint, so deleted him from the calendar of holy days.  The monks, in uproar, appealed to the visiting Anselm.  His response was that Alphege died for justice, since justice is truth in action, he therefore died for truth.  He was reinstated in the calendar.

Truth is itself a slippery phrase, but it needs assessing by some standard.  Since the 16th century,  after Richard Hooker, Anglicans have had at their disposal three pillars for assessing truth: Scripture, Tradition and Reason (reflection on experience and other knowledge).  Scripture gives us the story of faith that provides the frame through which we interpret the meaning of life.  Tradition gives us the story of that faith over time and ensures that we have a sense of how we got to be where we are, in thought and insight.  Reason is how we make sense of everything else that we know, from science, the arts and our experience of life.  All of this has to be put into the mix and how we see truth is the product that comes out at the other end.  When we put this into practice, we live justice.  Truth will find it is justified by experience and be backed up.  Falsehood will crumble and not be sustained.

Attitudes to sexuality have changed dramatically over recent decades.  This is not surprising because we have come to see that people do not choose who they love or who they are attracted to.   We understand its complexity in ways we once did not.  How we see this will determine how we assess what is truth and therefore what is just.  The people of Ireland have decided that they do not see a conflict between what they believe and same-sex relationships.  The idea that the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church can tell them what constitutes truth has clearly been left behind, otherwise they would have voted in a very different way.

The Holy Spirit leads us into truth.  It disturbs and challenges.  It brings to light things which we have not seen before.  We can only interpret its stirrings in light with what we can see as being possible and some things seem to take a long time to break through, and a more liberal attitude to sexuality would seem to be one of those areas.  If truth is static we would have no use for the Holy Spirit.  Everything would be clear and all we would need to do is follow the Maker's instructions.  But that is not the way Scripture describes God's revelation.  Insights emerge and change; it is more relational than concrete.  In relationship we change as we grow and share, experience and reflect.

The arguments for and against same-sex marriages have been rehearsed many times.  My thought here is how the change in public mood can fit with how we understand what is true and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who leads us into truth and urges change where it is needed.  It is grounded in how we understand and perceive, even evaluate, truth, which is itself based in the interaction between scripture, tradition and reason.

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