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Different Gods - by Douglas Farrow

Different Gods

By Douglas Farrow

(Note: the original text with footnotes is available as an Adobe PDF file)

There is a scene from seventy years ago, recounted by Karl Barth’s biographer, Eberhard Busch, that came to mind as I watched the sorry proceedings of the Anglican Church of Canada’s 2004 General Synod.

On the evening of 22 January [1934] Barth was again called to Berlin unexpectedly. The next day he was a highly undesirable guest at an assembly of church leaders and theologians which was to make preparations for Hitler’s reception of seven representatives from each of the two church camps on 25 January. When Barth arrived at the meeting at St Michael’s Hospice he was asked to agree to a memorandum issued by the Tübingen theologian Karl Fezer.

To his horror he could only regard it as heretical. ‘I therefore said to Fezer on 23 January, “We have different beliefs, different spirits, and a different God.”’ ‘That proved a bombshell. Wild tumult broke out. Fezer turned pale and was almost helpless, and some people … shouted, “Can Barth be serious?” Others … wanted to leave the place and others again wanted to throw Karl (Barth) out.

Yet others asked Barth to take back his remark and to show some Christian love. When calm had just about been restored, he began to speak again and said that of course he was in earnest. That was the situation between him and the German Christians… Bishop Meiser moaned that this was the end of the Evangelical Church…’ [Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts, Eerdmans 1994, p. 242; drawing on the account of Charlotte von Kirschbaum]

This scene presented itself as I pondered the much better-orchestrated debate on 3 June over the amendment to resolution A-134, which added an article affirming “the integrity and sanctity of committed adult same-sex relationships.” During the debate an indigenous brother (whose name I did not catch) appeared ready to launch some such Barthian bombshell when he was asked by the acting primate, David Crawley, to sit down. Apparently he had exceeded his three minutes, but this violation of the white man’s culture was not his most egregious offence. His greater sin was to ask the question that no one else that morning dared to ask. If I may be permitted to paraphrase, the question was this: How is it an act of loving affirmation towards homosexuals to refer them for salvation to someone other than their Saviour?

Make no mistake, that is exactly what the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada has done. A well-marshalled parade of speakers, including the amendment’s sponsors, made perfectly explicit the principle on which this “pastoral” amendment rests: The only way to affirm the homosexual – and in this respect at least, the homosexual cannot be regarded as an exception – is to affirm the integrity and sanctity, the wholeness and holiness, of what he or she already is and has as a sexual being in a sexual relationship. In that relationship, he or she already has and knows the divine blessing. That is the good news offered by the church to the homosexual; the bad news is that rites articulating the church’s “amen” to the divine word seen and heard in the natural sacrament of committed homosexual relationships – rites certain now to proliferate across Canada – will continue to be experimental until 2007.

Now of course it may be objected here that no one is supposing that anyone’s eternal salvation is secured by virtue of participation in a committed sexual relationship. It is therefore unfair to say that the homosexual, or anyone else, is being referred to himself for salvation rather to the Saviour. But the speciousness of this defence can be shown by a closer look at the analogy between the objection of Barth to the German Christians and the objection of our native brother to the Bulmers and Crawleys and Hutchisons and Inghams of Canadian Anglicanism.

On 31 May 1934, at 11:30 a.m., the first Confessing Synod of the German Evangelical Church adopted unanimously the now famous Barmen Declaration, which Barth had chiefly drafted, then “rose spontaneously and sang the verse ‘All praise and thanks to God’” (Busch, p. 246). The first three articles of Barmen are especially instructive and I quote them at length:

1. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” (John 14.6) “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber… I am the door; if anyone enters by me, he will be saved.” (John 10:1, 9)

Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.

We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God's revelation.

2. “Christ Jesus, whom God has made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” (1 Cor. 1:30)

As Jesus Christ is God's assurance of the forgiveness of all our sins, so, in the same way and with the same seriousness he is also God's mighty claim upon our whole life. Through him befalls us a joyful deliverance from the godless fetters of this world for a free, grateful service to his creatures.

We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords ­– areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.

3. “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body [is] joined and knit together.” (Eph. 4:15, 16)

The Christian Church is the congregation of the brethren in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in Word and sacrament through the Holy Spirit. As the Church of pardoned sinners, it has to testify in the midst of a sinful world, with its faith as with its obedience, with its message as with its order, that it is solely his property, and that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his direction in the expectation of his appearance.

We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.

These articles were aimed directly at the premises and goals of the German Christian movement, whose platform of 1932 intended “to point out to all believing Germans the ways and the goals by which they can attain a new order in the church.” Like General Synod, the German Christians insisted that their directives and resolutions were “not intended to constitute a creed nor to replace one;” they simply pointed to “a way of life” that would no longer “obstruct the high purpose” to become one inclusive church. “We want a living People’s Church [Volkskirche],” they proclaimed, “which is the expression of all the religious powers of our nation [Volk].”

We take our stand on the platform of positive Christianity. We affirm an affirmative style of Christian faith, as appropriate to the German spirit of Luther and heroic piety. We want to bring to the fore in our church the reawakened German feeling for life and to make our church life of positive value for life…

We want our church to fight in the forefront in the decisive struggle for the existence or extinction of our nation. She dare not stand aside or indeed shy away from the fighters for freedom…

We want an Evangelical Church which roots in the national character... [We want a church] which by maintaining confessional peace will develop the powers of our Reformation faith into the finest of the German nation.

Barth (and other Barmen elders) saw in the actions of the German Christians, who attained a following of roughly two-third of the Protestant church, something more than a mere political mistake. He pointed to the heart of the problem, and the problem was at once a theological and a pastoral one: The German Christians thought it possible for the church to be an expression of the religious powers latent in the German people – powers released by faith and baptism – when in fact the church can only be the church in so far as it becomes an expression of the transforming power of God in Jesus Christ.

The German Christians called “pious” and “godly” and “spiritual” and “Christian” what was not pious or godly or spiritual or Christian, because they looked at what human beings – specifically German Christians – could be or become in their own right. They thus left themselves open to interpreting historical events – such as the rise of National Socialism – as driven by the Spirit of God, when these events were driven rather by the spirit of this world and by the Prince of Darkness. They failed to measure these events by reference to the redemption of humanity accomplished by God, once for all, in Jesus Christ. Neither did they understand the correlation between salvation in Christ and the lordship of Christ. Since there is nothing lacking in the former, responded Barmen, there is nothing lacking in the latter: “We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords – areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.”

I am not going to develop in detail the analogy that might well be made between the German Christians’ embrace of the spirit of their age and the embrace of the spirit of ours by General Synod. On that score I will only remark that General Synod, when through the amendment to A-134 it declared extra-marital sexual relations between “committed” partners to be holy, made a rather obvious concession to the idol of sexual self-expression – an idol that certainly existed in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, but in the latter decade took a back seat to the idol of nationalism. All that matters here is that both the German Christians and General Synod invite the same theological critique. For both have based their concessions to their respective idols on the same principle: that what we are in ourselves is already (potentially if not actually) whole and holy. Neither as Germans in the one case, nor as sexual beings in the other, do we require any special justification, sanctification and transformation in Jesus Christ. Neither then must we be submitted in that respect to Christ or to the rule of his lordship.

Like it or not, this is the implication of the passing of the amendment to A-134. Several members who spoke in favour of the motion were quite explicit: Synod was being asked to affirm the presence of God that already inheres in every committed (homo)sexual relationship between Christians.

Many have charged General Synod with speaking out of both sides of its mouth, and in a confusing manner. Nothing could be further from the truth. Canon Gregory Cameron placed before it at the outset a dilemma: Approve the blessing of homosexual relationships and you let down your brethren in the global south; disapprove and you let down your gay and lesbian brethren. Canon Cameron intimated that, regrettably, the right choice at the moment was to let down the latter, but General Synod found a better way. It decided that homosexual relationships were already holy and did not require the church’s blessing in order to be so.

In doing this General Synod clearly revealed its mind and its character. It was not indecisive but decisive. The theologically illegitimate distinction between a “theological” and a “pastoral” motion is a form of prevarication that cannot cover up the radical break that the Anglican Church of Canada has made with the Christian faith and the Christian tradition – indeed, with the very baptism to which A-134’s first clause appeals. Neither that clause nor the other three that were put in as a buffer around the same-sex clause(s) mean anything more than did the German Christians’ appeal to baptismal unity. Indeed, the record suggests that these clauses, though foolishly assented to by the would-be orthodox, mean anything much even in themselves. (What happened, for example, to the clause affirming “the principle of respect for the way in which the dialogue and study may be taking place … in indigenous and various other communities within our church in a manner consistent with their cultures and traditions,” when our native brother was told in mid-sentence to sit down?)

It is time to face reality. I for one find myself, post General Synod 2004, utterly divided from the Anglican Church of Canada in its present form. Utterly divided not over issues of sexuality, as some vainly imagine, but over something much more serious, as the primates of the global south have recognized. To those responsible for this situation, it is time to say: We have different beliefs, different spirits and different Gods.

© 6 June 2004. The author is associate professor of Christian Thought at McGill University, and was until recently a member of Archbishop Hutchison’s theological commission. See further “Beyond Nature, Shy of Grace” (International Journal of Systematic Theology 5.3, 2003: 261-86) and “Is Theological Education Possible?” (Pro Ecclesia 9.4, 2000: 404-13). See also Ascension and Ecclesia (1999).

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