The essays you read here are based on my own preparatory notes with some of the conversation from the class considered.
What follows is part one of our discussion, which focuses on the Bible and how we Episcopalians view/read it.
In discussing same-sex marriage in/for The Church one is obligated to be aware of “what the Bible says.” The Bible (and a particular reading of it) dominates the conversation.
It is true that so-called “progressive” Episcopalians are put at something of a disadvantage on this topic because, as the so-called “conservative” Christians will quickly assert, the Bible is clear that homosexuality is a sin in the eyes of God.
This is, for many, something that is non-negotiable.
One can point to the Bible and say “here’s what it says.”
I’m reminded of a former class-mate of mine in college who was an Evangelical Christian. She and I got into a discussion about the Bible and I made mention of “gray areas.”
“There are no gray areas in the Bible,” she stated without hesitation. “The Bible is black and white. There are only those parts of it that you disagree with that you want to interpret away.”
Her words are pretty consistent with what many of us hear in this conversation.
Before we get into the discussion of the Bible itself, I think it is important to talk first about how we read the Bible.
We are Anglican Christians. This means that we have a distinct way of being Christian. The past several decades have seen a shift away from denominational distinctiveness in favor of a loose commonality in an attempt at Christian unity. The result, however, has largely been to allow Evangelical Protestantism to dominate all non-Catholic ecclesiologies. This is a troubling trend.
Evangelical Protestantism tends to understand the Bible as a book that is to be taken literally, at face-value, a book containing everything we need to know about life. This is expressed in a bumper-sticker I’ve seen more than a few times: The B.I.B.L.E.—Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.
A point that many Christians are quick to forget or not notice in the first place is that The Church has never had a universally recognized doctrine in regards to the Bible. Indeed, most (if not all) “doctrines” on the Bible are products of the late Protestant Reformation-era (at the earliest).
Martin Luther, the German Reformer, gave us the popularly known term “sola scriptura” which means “scripture alone.” It was this notion that created the context for a key component in Protestant Christianity: the Bible is the final and ultimate source of authority for The Church.
Following Luther, John Calvin and, later, Ulrich Zwingli, provided their own spin on sola scriptura. Calvin, an unordained lawyer, believed that The Church, led by the scriptures, had an obligation to govern society. Zwingli, further, put this into practice and laid the groundwork for what is often called “the radical Reformation.” And the Radical Reformers are the ancestors for the Baptists and Evangelicals we see today.
Luther tended to believe that the Bible held primacy for The Church and that The Church is obligated to conform to what is written therein. If the Bible is silent on a matter, then The Church has the authority to do what it wants, so long as that action does not contradict something written in The Bible.
The radical Reformers, on the other hand, believed that the Bible held primacy for general society and that people are obligated to conform to what the Bible says—sometimes going so far as to declare the Bible prescriptive in the sense that one must do only what is written in the scriptures; if the Bible is silent on a matter, then that is to be taken as indication that the Bible does not endorse that matter.
The Reformation Era is the context in which Anglican Christianity came of age.
Unlike the rest of Europe, Henry VIII did not seek to reform The Church. Instead, he moved to take The Church in England out from under the political and ecclesial authority of the pope. This put Anglican Christians in a unique situation—as well as subject to a number of conflicts and controversies.
During Henry’s lifetime, The Church in England remained mostly identical with wider Catholic Christianity. It was under his son, the short-lived Edward I, when the European reforms began to affect The Church—under the leadership of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry’s reign. Upon Edward’s death, his sister Mary (the famous “Bloody Mary”) re-aligned The Church in England with Rome and had Thomas Cranmer executed. After her death, her sister Elizabeth I reversed the move to Rome and, with the help of the theologian Richard Hooker (among others), developed what has become known as “The Elizabethan Settlement.”
The Settlement sought to address the changes and challenges of Christianity on England. England was a realm filled with, by this point, Radical Reformers, Lutherans, and Catholic Christians. The work of the Elizabethan Settlement, in addressing these disparate Christian movements, has given us Anglicans a defining term: via media, “The Middle Way.”
Often mistakenly referred to as “the middle way between Catholicism and Protestantism,” The Settlement tends to find a way between Lutheran and Calvinist/Radical Reformation-ism. It gave us what is known as The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (found on pages 867-876 of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer). Among those are two Articles that speak directly of the Bible.
The key teaching on Anglican views of the Bible is found in Article VI of the Articles of Religion:
Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.
This teaching is further reinforced in Article XX:
The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.
So, to break this down, Anglican Christianity affirms that The Bible, primarily, contains what is necessary for salvation (this article is titled “Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation”). The context here is that The Church cannot declare something NOT found in the Bible as being necessary for one’s salvation (this addresses a particular Reformation-era controversy surrounding Roman Catholic indulgences). However, if The Church does discern that something extra-biblical is necessary for salvation, then that thing must be “provable”—based in or in harmony with—by the Bible.
Further, The Church’s authority is limited by what is contained in the canon of Scripture. It cannot teach something that is “repugnant” or contrary to what is written in The Bible. (It’s important to note that The Articles of Religion do not have any weighty authority for us today. Rather, they reflect the roots of our Anglican Tradition.)
This teaches us that matters of salvation take primacy for us Anglicans in interpreting The Bible. The only “requirements” we have in regards to The Bible are in matters concerning our salvation (which includes the nature of sin, death, the divinity of Jesus, the nature of the sacraments, the bodily resurrection, etc.). We probe the scriptures in search of what saves us, helps us in our salvation life, and how to lead others to experience that salvation. We Anglicans, then, understand The Bible as a cross-oriented book—we read all of it in the shadow of the Cross.
The Bible, for Anglicans, then, is not Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. It’s not a rule book or life-manual. It contains the story of our salvation. It is a book about Jesus, revolving around Jesus. And we don’t read this sacred book dryly. We enact it, live it, dramatize it. The Book of Common Prayer is 80% scripture (more or less). We put our very lives in its pages, trying to align ourselves with the stories contained therein.
All of this is to say that the reading of the Bible that tends to dominate the discussions of same-sex marriage is a reading we Episcopalians do not endorse.
The next part of this series will look at the Bible’s passages that are typically said to deal with “homosexuality.” To read on, click HERE.