National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  December 12, 2003

An African view on ordaining Gene Robinson

Christian life calls for scripture to take priority over individualism


The ordination of a divorced, non-celibate homosexual as Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire has created a serious crisis of faith and morality in the Anglican communion and has left ripple effects on Christianity the world over. It has cast the Christian faith in a bad light in the eyes of many people of other religions.

Since the 19th century, when the Anglican church defined itself, it has accepted the normativity of holy scripture as the primary controlling authority for church life and practice. Since the early 20th century, Protestant theologians have given greater attention to the theology of the Word as assuming primacy over individual lifestyles. Already by the 19th century, the Enlightenment had done considerable harm to faith and life, especially undermining Christianity and her moral teachings. No longer was it assumed that there was a Christian ideal of the good life; each individual was to pursue whatever she or he deemed fit. This idea created a climate of moral and cultural relativism, and sundered the bond between the individual with a limited worldview and God, who offers us the infinite horizon.

Protestant theologians like Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Oscar Cullman and Dietrich Bonhoeffer tried to recover the truth of Protestant theology and morality. They concentrated on the centrality of Christ in salvation history and the hold of Christian truth on human life and reality. The Christian, according to Bonhoeffer, is called to pay the price of discipleship, which is a call to die to oneself. This calls for the priority of the values of the Christian faith over and above individual preferences or orientations. The Christian life, accordingly, has a definite limit; there is a dividing line between authentic Christianity and other appealing ways of life projected by a secular culture.

The sentimentalized image of God and the humanized, diluted morality of many liberal Protestant theologians in the early 20th century were particularly contested in the writings of Barth, but this convenient theology has once more re-emerged in our times, both in Protestant churches and even in the writings of some Catholic thinkers. It can be said, following the thought of Bonhoeffer, that what took place in New Hampshire is the triumph of “cheap grace.” Cheap grace is the one we confer on ourselves without due regard to the requirements of the Gospel. It is cheap grace, for instance, to preach forgiveness of sin without repentance; it is also cheap grace to talk about Christian life without prophetic and courageous witnessing; and it is cheap grace to accept the grace of the episcopate without accepting its moral demands.

The consecration of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire was justified on the basis of an extended exegesis that interprets the Bible and morality based on evolving and directionless new social realities outside the analogy of faith. I did read the homily delivered at that consecration by Bishop Douglas E. Theurner. According to him, the ordination is significant because, like our Lord, the Episcopal church is welcoming the marginalized. It is true that Jesus welcomed the marginal people; however, Jesus did not welcome them and keep them marginal, but invited them to something higher.

Obviously, there is the need for the church to be a welcoming community of the disciples of Jesus, open to all men and women in a spirit of love and compassion. Sometimes, we as a church have not adequately responded to the heartaches of some marginal groups, be they homosexual persons, women, divorced and separated couples, the poor and the sick members of the church. We are often reacting to crisis instead of adequately responding to felt concerns before they explode into situations that threaten the unity of the church and the faith of the people.

Where do the Anglicans fall back for truth in moments of doctrinal crisis like the present one? This is where the magisterium (in the Catholic church) comes in to interpret the truth and set the conscience of the people of God at peace. The lack of some kind of structural and doctrinal form and apostolic authority in the Anglican faith is evidently clear in these trying times. The people of God want the whole Gospel and not some minimalized message that abandons the individual to personal weakness and subjective whims.

It is the “new churches” in Africa and Asia that have been calling for renewal and revival of the Christian tradition, which is clearly threatened by contemporary cultural currents, especially in the Western world. Most of these churches have not even celebrated the centennial anniversary of the Christian faith. The truth is that Christianity captures the imagination of the people of my continent, Africa. African Christians find in Jesus Christ the message of salvation. Christianity has been the greatest force of social and political change in Africa. At the same time, it has to contend with Islam and African traditional religion for what values will shape society and govern the hearts and minds of the people.

I cannot forget the response given to my lecture on the sharia Islamic law and the practice of the Christian faith in Nigeria by a Muslim professor some three years ago. This professor, while acknowledging that the adoption of sharia in a secular country like Nigeria threatened the country’s federalism, noted that sharia was a corrective measure by the Muslims to safeguard the morality of the land. The original sound morality of the 250 tribes in Nigeria, according to him, is threatened by what he calls the “negative Western Christian values” that have given rise to contraception, abortion and international prostitution (which flourishes in some Western “Christian” countries), among other evils. The African traditional religionists also hold that Christian morality, as practiced both in Nigeria and in the Western world that brought the faith to us, is not superior to the African traditional mores. Many of them do not see any reason to convert to Christianity.

Thus, if we are to have a truly universal church, we must also begin a journey to rediscover the truths of our faith, which could unify, ennoble and perfect various cultures around the person and work of Christ. Christianity would lose its relevance if it receded into the backwaters of ideological conflict between liberals and conservatives, gays and straight, “we” and “they.”

While we struggle with our personal histories and group identities, we still believe that God can change us to be what he made us to be. We seek the path of personal and group transformation by conforming to the image of God in us and by laying ourselves before the light of Christ, in whom we see ourselves as we are. It is in this light that one hopes that what happened in New Hampshire will lead the Anglican church, and indeed all Christians, in a sincere and sober examination of conscience on how we have come to this point and where we are heading in our journey of faith.

Stan Chu Ilo is a Catholic priest from Nigeria working in Canada. He is the past editor of the journal Encounter.

National Catholic Reporter, December 12, 2003

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