Who are you to pass judgement? – Twelfth Sunday after Trinity 2011

Very Revd Tom Gordon, Dean of Leighlin

I was in two minds whether or not to address the big issue this week: C of I Cleric in Civil Partnership – shock horror. Dean Tom Gordon entered a Civil Partnership at the end of July, with the connivance of Bishop Michael Burrows, and apparently the good wishes of the parishioners of Leighlin. And hackles are raised on all sides. The gay community is giving out because Tom has said, “it’s  a partnership, not a marriage” – Shouldn’t he be speaking out for marriage equality? And couldn’t he sound a bit more romantic, as he formalises a relationship of twenty years standing? The liberal church community are complaining because Archbishop Harper seemed to be sitting on the fence when he should be affirming this great step for progress. And Reform Ireland, the conservative evangelical pressure group, are having a field-day. I quote from their website:

The recent civil partnership of a C. of I. cleric, with the apparent permission of his bishop, is a day of shame for the Church of Ireland and marks a significant abandonment of its responsibility to hold out the Gospel to the people of Ireland. Once again, an arrogant action by liberal catholics has effectively brought deep division into the Church of Ireland and its witness.

 They end their press release with a stirring call to action:

Church of Ireland people, the people in the pews should rise up and reject this unilateral, arrogant and hypocritical situation. A special synod should be called on this issue. The cleric and all those clergy involved in the background to this action should resign. It really is time for action by God’s people.

Well perhaps. Or perhaps not. I speak as one who considers himself a liberal catholic, who supports the inclusion of gay and lesbians in the church – as if they weren’t among us already – and who wishes Tom and his partner, both of them devout Christians, every happiness. If that makes any of you want to light the fires around the stake, so be it.

Most Revd Alan Harper, Archbishop of Armagh

Actually the responses of Archbishop Harper and of Dean Gordon deserve a little more attention. Both are playing down the situation, prudently. It is a very C of I approach, to be understated. That doesn’t appeal to people who want to wave their freedoms under the noses of the world. But perhaps at this juncture the pioneers need to be a bit discreet, to give other people time and space to adjust to something different.

Friends of “Changing Attitude” at Dublin Gay Pride 2011

Present rector and former rector of Finglas, several musicians, and several members of Cumann Gaelach na hEaglaise

 Archbishop Harper spoke about the potential for division over this development, expressing his desire that the Church might continue to hold together people of different convictions. He reminded us that the House of Bishops is itself divided on this issue, as is the rest of the Church. I think he was trying to say that the Church does not in fact have a common mind on this matter, that sincere Christians hold opposing views, and that it is mistaken for either side to label themselves “orthodox” and their opponents “heretics”. I suspect myself that this is an issue where the Church may never come to a common mind. So the call for mutual forbearance, charity, and patience is important.

Archbishop Harper has also brought criticism on himself for saying that Tom’s partnership is a purely civil matter; that Tom has a freedom as a citizen to enter such a partnership and that it is his own business. Our experience as citizens of this Republic in the days when John Charles McQuaid made it his business to stick his nose and his crozier into other people’s bedrooms left us with a conviction that people’s private lives are largely a matter for their own conscience. I think something of this pragmatic and sensible reticence underlies the Archbishop’s refusal to mind other people’s business.

Incidentally, I succumbed to a degree of curiosity and looked up the website on Civil Partnerships: what do aspirants to that state actually promise? “To live together and support each other”. I’m damned if I can find anything contrary to the Gospel in that.

 

In our Epistle reading today St Paul is addressing a situation of conflicting opinions in the Roman Church.

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgement on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another?

It appears that one group are refusing to eat meat. Perhaps they were Jewish Christians who were still attached to the kosher food laws. Perhaps they had a conscience about eating the meat offered for sale in the market that usually had first been offered in sacrifice to the pagan gods. Some might say, that’s just an empty custom, it doesn’t mean anything, it’s just food. Others might feel that it compromised their loyalty to Christ, that it seemed to give credence to the pagan deities.

Then there were some who kept some days as holy, and some days not; while to the others all days are the same. Perhaps again we have Jewish Christians for whom the Sabbath must be kept separate from the weekdays. Or perhaps some were already observing weekly fasting days.

It would be so easy for the strict people, with their conscience about food, and their concern for observing holy days, to regard the others as unprincipled liberals, letting standards down. It would be easy for the easy-going eat-everything anyday lot to laugh at the others as superstitious and fearful. Paul himself describes the strict people as “weak in faith” – surprisingly, perhaps? – because they can’t quite dare the walk in unknown territory that the “strong” are doing.

How does Paul resolve it? He doesn’t tell the weak to catch up, or the strong to go back. He acknowledges that both are committed to their Lord, that they must follow the path that he shows to them, and that they must desist from passing judgement on each other. The one who will judge is the Lord, before whom all must give account.

 And so in light of Paul’s words I will not say anything further about Reform Ireland. They are sincere in their beliefs. But I don’t share them, and I don’t have to. As Paul might have said, as Christians we are committed to living together and supporting each other, even when we disagree.

 Then Jonathan made a covenant with David,

because he loved him as his own soul.

(1 Samuel 18:3)

 

 

 

 

 

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