Posted by Andrew Symes on 19th January 2016
After such a nourishing feast of teaching which illuminated both Scripture and the roots of the current crisis of sexual confusion that we are in as a culture, at the end of the Conference was I convinced by all of Christopher West’s conclusions? If I had been, then logically I would have had to respond to his implicit invitation to embrace Roman Catholicism. But more of that later!
The final day of the conference, Saturday 16th January, began as usual with coffee, fellowship, and worship led with passion and sensitivity by Helen Burgess and Edwin Fawcett. Not surprisingly, more people were present than on previous days. The programme was advertised as foregrounding Christopher West as a keynote speaker, but including two other significant inputs, as well as contributions from the floor.
Bishop Michael Nazir Ali gave the first address, on the subject of marriage in creation, the church and contemporary society. There is a difference, he said, in the Bible between using human characteristics as analogies to compare an aspect of God’s nature (eg arm, eye, face), and words which in a more precise way describe God’s relationship to us, as Father, Bridegroom, Husband. While the church has not invented marriage – it is set in the structure of creation and is the normative basis for family in almost all societies – the church has made a significant contribution to the understanding of marriage. Christian teaching has insisted on the equal dignity of men and women in marriage, on the importance of individual consent, and on the mutual love of husband and wife being more important than social obligation.
Augustine of Hippo wrote of three strands to marriage: contract, commitment and sacrament. There must be legal protection for the exclusivity of the marriage, the equal rights to property and so on. There must be a public declaration of permanent commitment. And marriage in its structure illustrates Gospel truth – that of Christ’s love for the church and the future perfect union in heaven. According to Bishop Michael, enlightenment thinking began to separate these three strands, and today contemporary society has largely abandoned them altogether. “No-fault divorce” reduces any concept of marriage contract to a short term agreement; cohabitation without commitment is now the norm, and the idea of sacramental union has been replaced with the idea of “pure relationship” advocated by sociologist Anthony Giddens among others, which is simply affirming any kind of relationship where there is “love”, however temporary.
For hundreds of years our society has had a public doctrine of marriage, based on the teaching of the Bible, Augustine, the Book of Common Prayer – in which governments and civil society recognized that the wellbeing of communities and the future generations depends on promoting and protecting lifelong, faithful, heterosexual marriage. In other words this doctrine is not just for professing Christians but for everyone. Sadly the church in recent years appears not to have appreciated its responsibility in this area, afraid to appear ‘judgmental’ or out of touch regarding the need to encourage public commitment and persevering faithfulness in marriage. But now is the time to step up, because of the increasingly deep hurt resulting from misuse of sexual relationships and ‘society not telling the truth to itself’ about marriage, procreation and parenting.
Bishop Michael then gave a warm introduction to Christopher West, who began by continuing on the same theme of the state’s failure, in the Western world, to protect marriage, because of capitulation to a wrong idea of ‘discrimination’. He quoted from an open letter which he had written to a newspaper during the debates in the U.S. about same sex marriage, to argue that a state which does not discriminate between monogamous, heterosexual marriage and other relationships is sowing the seeds of its own destruction, firstly because it is not protecting the basic family unit, and secondly because it is colluding in a false interpretation of reality. It is not controversial to say, for example, that ears are for hearing, but to say that genitals are for reproduction is now seen as offensive. This is evidence, according to West, of a “rebellion against the given” – instead of receiving God’s gift with thanksgiving, we reject it and replace it with our own version of creation.
The church’s prophetic witness in this area is to warn people that they are going the wrong way – an amusing film clip to illustrate this (one of several shown during the conference) featured Steve Martin refusing to listen to the shouts of a fellow motorist as he drove the wrong way down a dual carriageway. But again West stressed that this must be done in love and humility, fully aware that all of us are in need of repentance and grace as Jesus pointed out in the Sermon on the Mount.
Using an illustration familiar to those who had seen the YouTube clip in the publicity for the conference, West showed a piece of paper, and asked us to imagine it as a picture of the garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve living together in perfect union with each other and with God. The fall caused the ‘picture’ to be scrunched up, deeply affecting the sexuality of all of us. Some, afraid of the passion and drive of eros, have attempted to suppress it; modern preachers of the sexual revolution such as Hugh Hefner and subsequent pornographers have taken the damaged picture and held it up as an ideal for our short term excitement. What is needed is Christian prophets who, like Pope John Paul 2, unscramble the picture, present and explain it as the meaning and purpose of our sexuality and our yearning for love, which is fulfilled in the Gospel.
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In the session immediately after lunch, Mike Davidson, the main organizer of the Conference, took some time to interview delegates, some of whom just wanted to share an insight they had received from Christopher West’s teaching, others with a specific testimony for example a journey of moving away from a gay lifestyle and identity. Mike then spoke movingly about developments in his own ministry of Core Issues Trust.
In conjunction with partners in Europe and North America he continues to be an advocate for the right of people unhappy with their sexual orientation to seek professional counselling and therapy, in an increasingly hostile environment for this kind of ministry. He told us about a documentary film project in which he is involved, which seeks to draw parallels between the Jewish and Christian slaves in Rome and other Italian cities in the late first century AD, and modern Christians faithful to the Bible – in both cases powerless people wanting to hold to a biblical sexual ethic find themselves oppressed by state power that legitimizes and encourages sexual decadence.
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Christopher West in his concluding talk used a clip from the film ‘Shawshank Redemption’ to encourage us to “turn up the music” of hope, to find in our own lives what gives voice to the desire that God has put in us, to turn it into prayer, excitement about our place in eternity, and mission action. ‘Our bodies proclaim the Gospel’ because our physical maleness and femaleness speaks clearly of God’s design for marriage and family, which in itself is a symbol of God’s desire for union with his people. West encouraged us to consider membership of his Cor Project, and to share what we had learned more widely.
As I said at the beginning of this post, I stopped short of embracing Roman Catholicism! While there are insights about the meaning of Scripture in the Theology of the Body that are profound and unfamiliar to evangelical Protestants, on reflection it is some of the over-symbolising of Scriptural pictures, especially relating to Mary the mother of Jesus, which I felt sometimes obscured other important interpretations. For example, much was made of a sculpture by Cerro showing Christ on the cross with Mary holding a chalice to receive the outpoured blood from Jesus’ side, symbolizing the redemptive blood being received by humanity. While it is a powerful symbol, it is not specifically alluded to in the Scriptural accounts of the crucifixion, and by being highlighted in this way tends to obscure the more explicit ideas of sacrifice and substitutionary atonement in the narratives and the apostolic explanations. Perhaps also the strong prohibition on contraception within marriage could come from an overemphasis on the symbolic: while contraception can be seen as a symbol of neutralizing femininity and blocking divine blessing, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it actually affects these things, in the same way that the bread and wine does not necessarily literally become the body and blood of Christ.
But having said that, the Conference as a whole has been very inspiring and challenging. We desperately need more teachers and prophets like Christopher West, daring to talk about the body, desire, sex and marriage with passion, fun and courage, to give us tools to understand ourselves and our culture, and to point us to salvation in Christ and generous, holy lifestyles. In particular we need his example to help us explain why we have our doctrine of marriage – something which seems to have been missing in the post-Canterbury debates.