What did we learn from the interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury on ‘Start the Week’ yesterday? We learnt that the BBC blew up his comments about the Catholic Church in Ireland out of all proportion. What he actually said didn’t sound anywhere near as dramatic or critical as the news stories put out on Saturday.
I learnt that Rowan still expresses his ideas about faith and the Christian life in ways that are recognizable to me from his teaching and preaching thirty years ago at Westcott House.
Commenting about the problems the church has as a human institution I heard the Archbishop saying that the Anglican Covenant is dealing with the problems of the Communion at a structural, institutional level and it’s a short term solution to a long term problem which is in truth about personal relationships, not systemic problems. Doing work at this level as Archbishop is deeply frustrating and seldom feels as if it’s got much to do with the core of things, he said. There is a core, I heard him say, he is being distracted by arguments about things which are not that important to the essence of Christianity from focussing on what is of the essence.
The New Testament is witness to a central event, he said, the words of Jesus, the life of Jesus, the death of Jesus, and for Rowan also, the resurrection of Jesus, which caused such an explosion of ideas and puzzles that the language that exists can’t cope and you have a very complicated period during which the language is settling down in new ways and you then begin to see the emergence of bureaucracy, an institutional structure to hold it all. But no-one came along and said this is a really good idea, by which I take Rowan to be saying that it isn’t a good idea, just inevitable.
Lectionary readings for Easter Week provide a startling example of how the explosive experience became tamed and modified by those who in the aftermath of the resurrection picked up and immediately and dramatically modified the experience.
John’s tells us that Mary Magdalene was the first visitor the tomb, the first to tell others about the empty tomb, the first to meet the risen Christ. Luke tells us that Mary of Magdala, Joanna, Mary the mother of James an the women who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee were the first to find the stone rolled away, to hear news of the resurrection and report it to the eleven and the others. Later, Jesus appeared to men, to Simon, the two on the road to Emmaus and those assembled in Jerusalem.
Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 tell how he handed on the tradition he had received: that Christ was raised to life on the third day and appeared to Cephas and afterwards to the twelve and then to over five hundred brothers at once and then to James and afterwards to all the apostles. What happened to the women, Paul – to Mary Magdalene, Joanna, the other Mary, the women from Galilee?
How easily the women were written out of the story, how quickly the early church made them invisible. The church continues to make women in the Gospels and the New Testament narratives invisible. How rarely, if ever, have I heard a sermon about women, the key witnesses to the resurrection and bringers of good news to the community.
Those Christians who direct us to the Bible as the sole authority and witness of the events of Jesus’ life and teaching direct us to the institution’s tamed narrative and away from the explosive ideas and puzzles referred to by Rowan. The transformed place of women in the inauguration of the Christian community is tamed as is the transformed place of all in the Kingdom of God. I don’t trust conservatives to be faithful guides to the true Gospel.
The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and those in Changing Attitude working for our full inclusion are working for an explosive, untamed Christianity, to use the Archbishop’s own words.
The storm that raged on Saturday around his reported remarks about abuse and the Catholic church arose from the institution reacting and defending the system of theology and practice which, working in secrecy, creates the culture in which the abuse of children can take place. It then, outrageously, defends itself by turning the tables and blaming others for abusing the Pope – which is exactly the same strategy used by reactionary conservatives against LGBT Anglicans.