Rilstone on Gay Bishops

I do like the essays of Andrew Rilstone, so it’s good to see a new one. The Ballad of Reading Diocsese is about the last but one gay bishop controversy. You have to like a piece in which the phrase “Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury and Chief Druid” has a footnote saying “Contravening, it seems to me, the rules about multi-classed characters in the player’s handbook.”

Ivan Gelical: Men can’t touch each other’s willies!

Archdruid: Don’t be silly. Grown men can do whatever they like.

Ivan: Men who touch each other’s willies can’t be bishops!

Archdruid: Really, I think you ought to bring your views up to date.

Ivan: God says so! Jesus says so! The Bible says so!

Archdruid: (annoyed) I don’t care what the Bible says! I don’t care what Jesus says! I don’t care what God says!

Ivan: Ha-ha! So then, you are not a Christian at all!

Archdruid: Drat and double drat, you have caught me out. Truly, you are too clever for us syncretic people. I suppose I will have to let you run the Church from now on.

Ivan: Don’t mind if I do. (Aside) My plan worked. Heretics always make at least one foolish mistake. Would you be interested in coming to my Alpha course? We serve rice salad.

In a good bit of exegesis, Rilstone shows that the fuss made about all this is unwarranted, even if you do follow a fairly evangelical line on the Bible (as well as pointing out that evangelicals aren’t really the literalists or bigots the media make them out to be). He says that, while disapproval of homosexuality has always prevailed among evangelicals (as I recall, Mark Ashton tended to drop references to homosexuality into unrelated sermons as one of the canonical examples of sinful behaviour), similar issues, such as divorce or women priests, have not threatened to divide the church. (Although my cynical side would say that the evangelicals have chosen their ground carefully in picking a sin to which most people are not tempted).

But, he says, the issue has become a sign of a deeper conflict in the Church of England (note for Americans and other aliens: the C of E has an official status in the UK as the established church, involvement in state occasions and so on). On the one side are those who want the church to be a sort of National God Service, providing social programmes and appropriate words and ceremonies in times of national and personal need, using the idea of God to help them in this mission. On the other are those (including the evangelicals) who want it to be a supernatural religion: “Christians say ‘Religion is about contact between Man and the Divine – and by the way, this has lots of implications about how we should behave towards each other’. The National Church says ‘Religion is about how we behave towards each other (justice, tolerance, love) – and, by the way, God can be enormously helpful in getting this right.'”

Rilstone thinks, as do I, that the National Church has watered down Christianity to leave something like Deism. The difference between us is that I can’t believe in what he calls capital-C Christianity. A preacher at StAG once compared the watered down religion of school assemblies (and presumably your standard of C of E church) to an innoculation in childhood which prevents you from getting full blown Christianity as an adult. I imagine the parallel to the ideas of Richard Dawkins was unintentional (“Evangelicalism is a plague, Mister Andurrson. And I am the cure”). I have the opposite experience: I’ve had the full blown version and my immune system rejected it, so nothing else now seems likely to stick.

Rilstone seems a little despondent at the end of the article, facing a choice between the Deism of the National Church and the prejudice of the evangelicals. I hope he works it out somehow.

10 Comments on "Rilstone on Gay Bishops"

  1. Thank you, that’s a very interesting article. I have a lot of time for the kind of argument which discusses, what is this debate actually about? And the parenthetical background bits got me that incremental step further towards getting my head round the (to me) weirder bits of Christianity.


    1. It’s interesting. Even though I’m not an evangelical anymore, I still have the background knowledge of the sort of thing mentioned in the article, and that keeps me interested in reading about what’s going on in that world.

      Since you’re here and it’s mentioned in the article, what do modern Jewish people think is the purpose of the Law? There’s a popular Christian thinking that the Jews at the time of Jesus were proto-Pelagians, trying to earn favour with God by obeying the rules, although people like N T Wright (no relation 🙂 disagree.


      1. Subject: What is the purpose of Judaism?
        I haven’t read the article, and I only skimmed your linked article on Pelagianism, and I’m not intending to answer your question in any depth, but I’d just like to say a few things about Christian attitudes to Judaism.

        As illustrative of my point, a while ago I came across (possibly on Usenet, though I can’t remember) a Christian asking “Is marriage a sacrament in Judaism?” The problem is that the whole concept of sacraments does not exist in Judaism; it’s an essentially Christian idea. You can say that nothing is a sacrament in Judaism, or you can say that everything is a sacrament in Judaism, but both of them miss the point, by approaching the issue from a worldview that’s alien to Judaism.

        The relevance here is that the concept of the Original Sin does not exist in Judaism, nor does Judaism hold that everyone is born into sin; so comparing the Jews to Pelagianists is IMO a false analogy.

        As for the purpose of the Torah (this being a blanket term covering both the Pentateuch and the Talmud — no one Jewish uses the term “Law” in English), hmmm… I think (writing from the point-of-view of Jewish Orthodoxy) it’s a combination of a code of practice to ensure a moral/ethical lifestyle, a test of faith in G-d (some commandments, known as חוקים chukim (statutes), are held not to be explicable by humans at all), and the opportunity to be a light unto the nations by demonstrating how well Jews keep all these commandments. (Of course, this lesson is lost somewhat on modern nations, not to mention many modern Jews.)


        1. comparing the Jews to Pelagianists is IMO a false analogy I think I’m probably closer to Pelagius than to what eventually became the Christian orthodoxy. But I doubt that one can actually be Pelagian without believing in a Christian concept of Salvation. So yes, I agree with your disclaimer here.


        2. Subject: Re: What is the purpose of Judaism?
          i>I haven’t read the article, and I only skimmed your linked I haven’t read the article, and I only skimmed your linked article on Pelagianism

          The most relevant bit of the N T Wright article is probably the section headed “Paul and Justification” (erm, no relation, again!)

          The problem is that the whole concept of sacraments does not exist in Judaism; it’s an essentially Christian idea.

          Indeed, and mostly a Catholic/Orthodox one at that. They might have phrased it as “Do Jews believe God acts through the marriage service itself?” or something similar, since that’s my understanding of what a sacrament is about.

          Pelagianists is IMO a false analogy.

          Indeed (and I hope that Christians don’t think that’s what modern Jews are about, although it’s certainly the popular image of people like the Pharisees). As well as the business about original sin not really applying, it’s an anachronism to project a later Christian “heresy” back on to the Jews of Jesus’ time.

          I’ll reply to the bits about what the Torah is for in conjuction with livredor‘s article.


      2. Well, having posted a general appeal to get other people to give their views on this (because Jewish people have never had much consensus on anything much, in any era ancient or modern) I should also give you my own response.

        Asking the purpose of keeping the Law initially struck me as a slightly superfluous question; if God wants you do something, what further motivation do you need to do it? But that begs the question of why (Jews believe that) God would tell Jews to do apparently arbitrary things which don’t seem to have a lot of ethical impact.

        I think the best way to address that is to start from the blessing1 for carrying out an obligation: You are blessed, Eternal God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us by your commandments… So (like a lot of stuff in Judaism at least ultimately, it’s about holiness2. By living according to a detailed law that affects every aspect of it, a Jew aims to transform the mundane and make it holy. And it’s regarded as a privilege, as one of God’s miraculous gifts, that we have this opportunity to experience holiness (which is of course a characteristic of the divine). Cf Leviticus 20:26 inter lots of alia. It’s also an obligation; the famous light unto the nations concept means that Jews have as it were a mission3 not only to live such an exemplary life that everyone who isn’t Jewish would want to imitate it, but also to be if you like the means by which God’s holiness is channelled into the world.

        A more rationalist explanation (and my own Reform Jewish background is very into providing rationalist explanations for everything) is that keeping laws gives a sense of communal identity. That’s part of holiness too, actually, deliberately setting yourself apart, in the same way as setting certain foods apart. You’ve talked about institutional religion being a self-perpetuating meme, which is a fair criticism, but it’s also the case that if the religion is in fact worth having, then having some mechanisms to perpetuate it is not necessarily a bad thing. People who can live on pure spirituality, who are always at their ethical best without any sort of external props are, I think, pretty rare. But it’s pretty easy to form a habit of following certain practices, and the habit itself is comforting, especially the sense of being part of a group who all follow similar practices.

        It’s fair to hope that keeping Jewish law is likely to make you an ethically better person as well. The question of why one needs laws relating to matters that are obviously morally desirable anyway is a tricky one, and one that has historically been controversial within Judaism. One view at least falls back on the holiness question. According to some views, being a decent person is admirable; being a decent person who is also following God’s law is as were extra credit. Again, it’s God giving us further opportunities for people to achieve merit. I think wanting to be a better person can reasonably be an end in itself.

        Most flavours of Judaism I’m familiar with are not very eschatological, you don’t keep the law, or try to live a morally good life, because you want to get to heaven or equivalent, but because it’s the right thing to do. Back to my original point; if it’s God’s will then obviously you want to do it.

        1. A short prayer (between a sentence and a paragraph, usually) expressing gratitude for a particular event.
        2. The root in Hebrew (קדשׁ) that is translated with words related to holiness, sanctity, is connected to the concept of separate. God is holy because God is ultimately different (‘wholly other’, it’s sometimes put, punningly) from anything else, that’s the point of monotheism.
        3. Emphatically not Mission in the Christian sense. But I can’t think of a better word.


        1. So (like a lot of stuff in Judaism at least ultimately, it’s about holiness

          Yes, that makes sense. I’ve also heard that explanation suggested by Christians when they’re asked about some of the odder bits of Leviticus, say. A lot of evangelical Christians will also be familiar with what holiness is about (for example, see the chorus of this chorus), although it’ll be mixed in with the idea of sinlessness as well as separateness. The evangelicals’ version of how Jesus’ death “works” (a hotly disputed topic among Christians, although they pretty much all agree that it does work) is largely borrowed from their understanding of the Jewish first Temple sacrificial system (q.v. the letter to the Hebrews).

          keeping laws gives a sense of communal identity… You’ve talked about institutional religion being a self-perpetuating meme, which is a fair criticism, but it’s also the case that if the religion is in fact worth having, then having some mechanisms to perpetuate it is not necessarily a bad thing.

          I’ve slightly modified that bit to clarify that my main objection was that the church I was part of seemed dedicated to evangelism at all costs (a sort of Hegemonising Swarm, if any of your Iain M. Banks reading has mentioned that). I can certainly see how having God’s rules involved in every aspect of someeones life would help them to be mindful of God, and how such practice would bind a community together. The community of believers is something I valued and something I miss after leaving the church.

          Most flavours of Judaism I’m familiar with are not very eschatological, you don’t keep the law, or try to live a morally good life, because you want to get to heaven or equivalent, but because it’s the right thing to do.

          A lot of Christians who I know would say the same about their attempts to behave morally (but you probably knew that!) If N T Wright is, er, right then the Jews at the time of Jesus did have some eschatological expectations about keeping the law, but these were not that they’d go to “heaven” but “Rather, particular groups of first-century Jews intended to be the advance guard of God’s righteous kingdom and saw themselves as the true Israel living in anticipation of that great and glorious day” (quote from the article about Wright’s theology). I was, and am, a big fan of Wright for beating the conservative evangelicals at their own game: the difference between my earlier fandom and now is whether I think the Apostle Paul was right, of course, but it’s still interesting to see a new view on what Paul meant by what he said. I’d recommend reading “What St Paul Really Said” if you get a chance.


      3. And I am here because livredor solicited additional viewpoints. I don’t have a great deal to add to her summary of Jewish opinions on the Law except to observe that there’s always been discussion (with a certain element of controversy) about how God’s commandments can be understood in relation to one another, so that they form a kind of unified plan for holiness instead of a checklist for achieving God’s favor. Another flashpoint is how to understand commandments which are not merely irrelevant but impossible to perform — those dealing with the Tabernacle, for instance — and whether they are likely to be reinstated or abrogated in the event of a Third Temple. Legal details pertaining to these commandments were gradually dropped from the late antique commentaries and then the medieval law codes; Reform Judaism is actually following a fairly well-established trajectory in stating that they don’t exactly matter, and yet… well, a lot of that Temple stuff still winds up in the liturgy somehow or other. So it depends on what you consider a legitimate source for theological data-collecting. 😉

        I’d also like to point out that the lack of eschatological orientation in most liberal Jewish movements is not at all echoed in Second Temple Judaism. (There is, after all, a reason why Paul was able to convince the Pharisees to help him out in Acts 23 — “of the hope and the resurrection of the dead I am called in question,” as the KJV rather grandly says. The same issue is highlighted among the shibboleths of Rabbinic Judaism listed in Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1.) There are strands in contemporary Judaism, especially not-so-Modern Orthodoxy, which do indeed continue to focus on the World To Come and how one’s actions here affect one’s fate there, but there is surprisingly little mainstream Jewish discussion, much less consensus, about it. I have a fair amount of experience teaching Christians about Judaism, and this is usually the one point that drives them batty: “No, really, what do you believe about heaven?”

        I, personally, side with Maimonides in the Guide of the Perplexed III.26ff — that is, that there is room for legitimate disagreement about whether each element of God’s Teaching follows from wisdom and thus has a clear purpose, or whether some of them follow from God’s will alone and so are bound to be incomprehensible. “It is, however, the doctrine of all of us — both of the multitude and of the elite — that all the Laws have a cause, though we ignore the causes for some of them and we do not know the manner in which they conform to wisdom.”

        My first problem with considering Judaism to be “Pelagian” is that you are letting Augustine dictate your category terms. If we must be doctrinaire about it, I prefer to assert that any given flavor of rabbinic Judaism is not warmed-over Manichaeanism with a Platonic glaze. But we are not Pelagians, either; we are — leaving aside the vexed question of universal salvation — ideological third cousins to Western Christianity, since we both emerged from Second Temple Judaism with a strong Pharisaic emphasis. We agree with normative Western Christianity that God’s Teaching, or Way, or Law (those are my translations for “torah” in order of preference) is extremely important; we differ on the issues of (1) a new covenant touched off by Jesus which somehow affects the original one(s) God made with Abraham et al., (2) the eschatological/Messianic implications of said Jesus and his involvement in the Godhead, and (3) the Augustinian doctrine of “original sin” with all its implications.


        1. I’d like to, somewhat belatedly, thank you for your reply. I’m not sure I have anything to add, except perhaps to say that it wasn’t my intention to compare Judiasm to Pelagianism, but I’m guessing the first “you are” in your last paragraph means “one is” (I wish English had an equivalent to that which did not sound pompuous).

          Other than that, thanks for turning up and elaborating 🙂


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