Losing the Plot
John Richardson asks what the Spirit is saying to the Churches
During my initial years as a Christian in the early 1970s I became what might be called a ‘card carrying’ Charismatic. In those days, the Charismatic Movement put a particular emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in guidance. Sanctified common sense might get you so far, but the spiritually-open believer could expect particular nudges, and even ‘words of knowledge’ or ‘prophecies’ in certain circumstances.
There was, however, a cautionary note in this heady environment, which was always to ‘test the spirits’ in accordance with the admonition of 1 John 4.1. This itself was no easy task for young Christians, and not surprisingly the gift of distinguishing between spirits, referred to in 1 Corinthians 12.10, was particularly coveted in this period. Nevertheless, there was one golden rule which we all followed without question: the Spirit of God would never suggest something which was contrary to Scripture.
I am no longer a Charismatic, but this period of my life came to mind recently when I read the words of Frank Griswold who has written thus to the Primates of the Anglican Communion:
‘As hard as it might be for sisters and brothers in Christ in other contexts to understand and accept, please know that broadly across the Episcopal Church the New Hampshire election is thought to be the work of the Spirit.’
In the light of this, therefore, I found myself constructing the following ‘case study’ – perhaps for consideration at your next suitable diocesan study day:
‘A family of four have joined your congregation, after previously being in a hyper-charismatic Christian group. They have settled in well, been faithful in attendance, and have even been confirmed. One day, however, the wife informs you she is being told by the Holy Spirit to leave her children and divorce her husband. She also says she is being told to set up home with her girlfriend as she has realized she is, in fact, a lesbian. Finally, she adds that she believes the Spirit is calling her to be become a priest.’
Would not the reaction of almost every sensible Christian be ‘This person has lost the plot’? Indeed, you would seriously wonder about not just the spirituality but the sanity of an individual who claimed to be receiving such ‘guidance’. And yet, with the exception of a few details, this is almost exactly the scenario in Gene Robinson’s case. Each comparable step in his own life is regarded by him as having been divinely sanctioned and blessed. And if Frank Griswold is to be believed, much of the Episcopal Church of the USA agrees with him.
The more I look at my own hypothetical case, however, the more convinced I am that the issue of Gene Robinson’s sexuality is actually concealing from all sides in the debate something of even greater importance than the moral issues involved, namely where Christian spirituality is grounded.
A rational person faced with the claim that separation from one’s children, divorce and an unmarried sexual relationship were suitable preliminaries to ordination would be dismissive. Faced with the further claim that this is ‘Spirit guided’, they would be, literally, incredulous. Therefore something must have happened for people to be persuaded that the reverse is true – something which is, nevertheless, sanctioned as true spirituality and yet which leads to conclusions which stretch rational understanding to breaking point.
Crucial to that ‘something’ is the way in which the term ‘Spirit’ functions in the system of theology involved, for it is surely only the invocation of the ‘Spirit’ which prevents the whole scenario being laughed out of court. However, by using the ‘Spirit’ to sanction decisions which are clearly counter to common sense (let alone Scripture), we begin to give credence to irrational processes and outcomes in our decision making, which must lead ultimately to theological chaos. Ironically, I find the criticism John Chapman once applied to Evangelical pietists now applying to Liberal intellectuals:
‘They thought that … the Holy Spirit somehow popped into your mind the right thing to do – and that you did things to get rid of everything else so the Spirit could do that. Whereas I thought that you put everything into your mind that you could and weighed it up carefully – and the Spirit would guide you by that method. So, what I thought was a godly and pious thing to do, they thought was ungodly. And I thought what they were doing was too stupid for words.’1
Surely appointing a divorcee living with his homosexual partner as chief pastor of your diocese is ‘too stupid for words’? Yet this is precisely what has happened – and with the accompanying claim that this is the work of the Spirit. Thus we find the former understanding of liberalism to be no longer quite accurate. From being that wing of the Church which preserves the place of the intellect and makes reason the final arbiter of theology, Liberals have now become hyper-Charismatics, since they will do what even the most naive Charismatics in the 1970s anathematized, namely to attribute that which is clearly contrary to Scripture (let alone common sense) to the work of the Holy Spirit.
The underlying issue in all this is, of course, how the Spirit comes to us. And here, Gene Robinson’s own words are worth pondering. In the Boston Globe of the 24th October 2003, for example, he is quoted thus:
‘It’s tough knowing what God wants, and I work with a spiritual director to determine whether it’s God’s voice I’m hearing or my own ego doing a fantastic interpretation of God’s voice … But one thing that helps me to believe this is God’s voice is I’m not sure anybody would choose this for the fun of it.’
This seems to be a typical expression of Robinson’s belief that he is hearing God’s voice. We may note that he is aware of the possibility of self-deception, yet he is equally clear that he is not deceived. God’s voice, and not his own, is what he is hearing. Thus, by contrast, in the same article, he says that he ‘absolutely’ believes the Primates of the Anglican Communion were wrong when they made their own pronouncements in October, adding that, ‘when the Anglican bishops get together, they don’t speak for the Church. They’re just speaking for themselves.’ Here, then, we are de facto, in the realm of prophecy, true and false – the ‘word of God’ is coming to Gene Robinson. The ‘opinions of men’ are being spoken by the Primates.
However, another quotation of Robinson in the Washington Times on the same day reveals some of the curious presumptions behind his own ‘listening’ to God:
‘Scripture says to be remarried after divorce is adultery, but in this country, we put tradition together with our own experience of formerly married persons who have found a second marriage to be a blessing. We went against Scripture and 2,000 years of tradition by relaxing those rules and allowing remarriage. We used our own experience and reason to come to that conclusion.’ (Emphasis added)
At one level, of course, such quotes merely confirm what we already know – that liberals consciously set aside biblical teaching and tradition in favour of their own views. What is not always taken fully into account, however, is that the outcome is understood as in the fullest sense ‘hearing God’s voice’ as reliably (at least within liberal thinking) as was once thought to be the case with Scripture.
The significance of this can hardly be overstated, since it demands a shift in our understanding of the processes by which God engages with the Church. Traditionally, Scripture has been understood as not merely the record of God’s works but itself a work of God: ‘no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.’ (2 Peter 1.20–21). To believe this is, of course, itself an act of faith. But it is no more unreasonable an act than believing that God speaks to people like Gene Robinson and his spiritual director. However, once we assert that God not only speaks to them, but speaks a better word to them than that of Scripture we have moved into new and dangerous territory.
First, the location of the Spirit becomes completely indeterminate. If Scripture may say something which Christians, individually or collectively, can set aside then the Spirit does not always come to us through what Scripture says. And if tradition may also be wrong, then the Spirit does not always come to us that way either. But that leaves open the question of how the Spirit does come to us. It is clearly not through the collective decision-making processes of the Church, since although New Hampshire is held to be right the Anglican Primates are held to be wrong. Nor, however, is it through private contemplation and personal struggle, since otherwise how can Peter Akinola be wrong and Gene Robinson right?
Second, although liberalism wants to assert that ‘experience and reason’ are an adequate basis on which to reject Scripture and tradition, the outcome is described in revelatory (rather than merely experiential or rational) terms, as ‘hearing God’s voice’ or ‘following the Spirit’s lead’ and so on. And unless this language is mere hyperbole, such outcomes must be regarded as authoritative revelations, to be accepted by all. Frank Griswold may aver that the Holy Spirit ‘can be up to different things in different places’, but if what the Spirit is up to in North America is appointing divorced practising homosexuals as bishops, then American traditionalists must be called to repent and obey.
And it does in fact seem that liberalism takes its ‘insights’ that seriously. This is surely why the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement seems determined to bring the full force of the law against traditionalists. In Anglicanism, ‘the punishment of wickedness and vice and the maintenance of … true religion and virtue’ is the proper role of the monarch and the ministers of church and state whom she appoints. And those we believe the law ought to punish are surely those we believe to be culpable. One must therefore have profound confidence in new revelations of God’s will to call the law down upon people who hold to what was previously standard Christian doctrine and morality.
But when the liberal is pressed as to how this revelation has taken place there is no coherent and rational answer. The liberal can demonstrate the process by which reason and experience are used to reject claims to being the Spirit’s voice in Scripture and tradition, but liberalism locates the new revelatory action of the Spirit nowhere specifically, except perhaps in a glorified process of navel gazing.
We have thus arrived in a curious situation where a hyper-charismatic spirituality, claiming new and authoritative ‘revelatory’ insights contradictory to former Scriptures and tradition, is allied to a hyper-institutionalist ecclesiology whereby the structural unity of the church and the formal authority of her officers override all considerations of actual doctrine. The bishop may, by his own admission, be overthrowing all former understandings of teaching and practice, but he must be obeyed by those within his ‘cure’ and may not be opposed by any from outside it at peril of being labelled schismatic and dragged before the magistrate!
I am afraid that only one passage of the Bible – one word of the Spirit, in my view – adequately describes the nature of this outcome: ‘For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.’
Is this the ‘end’? Probably not – but we do know that the spirit of antichrist is always at work in the Church. This should not panic us. It should not even surprise us. But it should, at least, alert us to what is currently going on.
M Orpwood, Chappo: For the Sake of the Gospel (Russell Lea, Australia: Eagleswift Press, 1995) 39
John P Richardson ministers not far from Stansted Airport.
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