Monday, July 07, 2008

Speech of Archbishop Alan Harper of Armagh, Primate of Ireland, "Holy Scripture and the Law of God" with reference to Romans 1

Holy Scripture and the Law of God in Contemporary Anglicanism in the light of Richard Hooker's "Lawes" by the Most Revd AET Harper, OBE, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland.

The speech was given at the annual conference of the USPG in Swanwick, Derbyshire from July 2-4. It opens with a proposal to revive parts of Richard's Hooker's writings:

Largely because of the centrality of sacramental theology to the debates of the last two centuries in Anglicanism, attention has been almost exclusively focussed upon Book V of “The Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity” to the neglect of the Preface and the other seven books. This is unfortunate and a matter that requires swiftly to be remedied, especially in respect of the manner in which Hooker dealt with Holy Scripture, how is to be esteemed and how it may be interpreted: an issue central to our contemporary concerns. In particular, the crucial distinctions that Hooker makes between the whole body of scripture and what may be identified as the Law of God needs swiftly to be recovered. It seems, on the face of it, that such essential distinctions, which are central to the theological understanding of all things Anglican, have been allowed to disappear from view in the current ferment. Those distinctions were crucial in securing the Anglican position during the Presbyterian attacks of the 16th and 17th centuries specifically because those attacks were couched in terms of the biblical inappropriateness of the basis of Anglican polity. The arguments and understandings developed by Hooker in his day remain essential now to exploration of the scriptural dimensions of the current disputes amongst Anglicans.

It is no exaggeration to say that the debate within Anglicanism on the place of homosexuality in human society and the relationship of homosexual acts to the Law of God has become deeply visceral and that the quality of debate has suffered as a result. Furthermore, this specific issue has become the battleground upon which the authority and the interpretation of scripture within the Anglican tradition is being re-fought. Regrettably, most of the discussion appears to be taking place in ignorance of the earlier controversy and its outcome. However, the nature and the urgency of these matters are not dissimilar to those of the 16th and 17th century debate which gave rise to Richard Hooker’s magisterial treatise.

In Book III, chapter 5 Hooker makes this point: adjudications found in that type of Holy Scripture that is essentially narrative in character have application in the circumstances, situation and historical context in which they originally arose but are not, without additional and compelling warrant, to be assumed to have subsequent universal application. Rulings that may have applied and been deemed valid at one time and in one specific circumstance need not necessarily retain that applicability and validity at another.

Hooker distinguishes between the direct oracles of God and what might be called "by-speeches in some historical narrative or other." To distinguish between them, one has to apply reason as Paul himself did in the interpretation and application of Hebrew Scriptures.

Romans 1:18-27 is a good test case of the application of this principle. First, it is a denial or suppression of the truth visible in creation which has been set aside in favor of idolatry. Second, the created order reveals God's power and divine nature: the more we know and the better we understand the mechanisms of creation the better our insight into the power and divine nature of God through the things he has made. Third, God's wrath is directed against the suppression of that truth clearly visible in creation. Fourth, the "degrading passions" to which Paul refers involve the exchange of one thing for another. Also, Paul’s assumptions about what is “natural” and what “unnatural” are based upon the knowledge and understandings of the time, relying to a degree on the presuppositions of the Old Testament. If, on the basis of additional knowledge and the application of human reason, such assumptions and presuppositions are shown to be inadequate it will become an absolute requirement to re-visit the definition of what in this area may be described as “natural” and “unnatural”. Indeed, such an outcome would actually be consistent with the witness of Paul in Romans 1, for he is describing the suppression of what was natural and the substitution of what, in the case of those being punished, was unnatural.

The only thing about this passage reflecting a law of God is the requirement to recognize the truth about God and not to exchange such acknowledgment of truth and the worship that goes with it, for the lie that anything other than the God revealed in scripture and through the created order is worthy of recognition and worship. The rest of the passage is a "by speech" in a narrative context.

Romans 1, therefore, provides no declaration of the Law of God in respect of homosexuality and homosexual acts. Reference to such acts is what Hooker might call “by-speeches” in the context of an historical narrative and, as such, not a declaration of God’s Law. Furthermore, Paul, in his treatment of the issues, employs reason based upon the knowledge and presuppositions accessible to him in his day. These may be challenged if the knowledge base changes definitively. It is therefore inappropriate on the basis of Romans 1.18-17 and ff to judge or anathematize persons on the basis of sexual orientation. It will be necessary to scrutinize other sections of scripture in a similar way to discover whether elsewhere there may be established evidence of the Law of God in this matter and I have not attempted to do that in this essay. I remain committed to the view, however, that the tools of analysis which Hooker articulated are essential to our contemporary purpose and are especially relevant for the purpose of distilling the Law of God from the total corpus of Holy Scripture.

Finally, let us be clear on this: it has not yet been conclusively shown that for some males and some females homosexuality and homosexual acts are natural rather than unnatural. If such comes to be shown, it will be necessary to acknowledge the full implications of that new aspect of the truth, and that insight applied to establish and acknowledge what may be a new status for homosexual relationships within the life of the Church.

As for the aftermath, a spokesperson for the Church of Ireland clarified that the address calls for a mature discussion of the issue of homosexuality that draws upon both scripture and the results of scientific research using the application of traditional Anglican methods. Said spokesperson denied that Archbishop Harper was implying the approval of same-sex marriage.“The Archbishop does not call for a particular outcome [in the debate on homosexuality]. The Archbishop’s address draws no parallels between same sex relationships and marriage.”

There has been some fallout. Responding to Archbishop Alan Harper's controversial comments about homosexuals on Friday, the Rev Clive West said that he did not believe the Archbishop was guiding the church properly.

Mr West, a prominent evangelical member of the Church and former rector of All Saints church in south Belfast, said he believed many in the denomination shared his view.

Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster's Sunday Sequence programme yesterday, he said of the Archbishop: "He's a bishop; he's a guardian of the faith but the question is: Is he guarding the faith or is he a false teacher? I think he's a false teacher."

But the Rev Patrick Comerford, director of spiritual formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College, defended the Archbishop and said it was "a disgraceful comment to come from a Church of Ireland priest".

In the wider context of Northern Ireland, this speech is playing out against the background of remarks by MP Iris Robinson comparing gay people to murderers. These remarks were made in the context of comments on an attack against a gay man, Stephen Scott, in the middle of June. The Belfast Telegraph comments on her remarks:

That fact is that her views are vastly out of step with modern society. Homosexuality is a fact of life. We do not expect Mrs Robinson and her ilk to celebrate it by taking part in the Gay Pride festival, but Northern Ireland is a better place for openly acknowledging and accepting gay life, rather than trying to drive it underground.

The issue of civil partnerships — often referred to as 'gay marriage' — is settled, but for those who disagree with it, the advantages can be summed up thus: stable human relationships, of whatever sort, make stable societies.

Mrs Robinson's comments may cause some discomfort for her husband, the new First Minister. His office has funded, and presumably will continue to fund, the Gay Pride festival. Any withdrawal of that funding would expose his office to a lawsuit under equality legislation and we trust Mr Robinson will not expose the taxpayer to any more expensive tomfoolery by Government.

It also noted that a formal police complaint has been made against the remarks.

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