by Adrian Thatcher
from Modern Believing Vol 54:3

I was delighted when Michael Lawler, professor emeritus of Catholic theology at Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska, and Todd Salzman, professor of Catholic theology and chair of the Department of Theology - also at Creighton - kindly responded to my invitation to contribute an essay to Modern Believing.

Michael and Todd are very well known theologians in the USA. The Catholic Press Association of the USA awarded their book, The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology1 first place for the best book in theology, in its 2009 book awards. What do you think was the response of the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops? Guess. Was it gratitude for writing such a profound and deeply Christian book? Or pride that such a competent, liberal, far-sighted set of proposals for renewing Catholic sexual teaching had been produced by two of their theologians? Or an enthusiastic response to the plea for dialogue? No, I'm dreaming. Not for the first time they received a 'severe censure'. The book was thought to contain 'serious error ... [that] cannot be considered authentic Catholic teaching'.

Their article, comparing the reasons for their Church's change of mind over usury, with the reasons for their Church's yet-to-be-accomplished change of mind over homosexuality, will resonate well with readers of Modern Believing. A tour de force against the stubborn homophobia of official Catholic teaching, the essay is also a model of how the liberal theology which Modern Church exists to promote, should get done. A detailed grasp of scripture, tradition and reason (on which Richard Hooker would have insisted) is necessary, together with the confidence that there is a 'Spirit of truth' (John 16:13) who guides us 'into all the truth', and, we may presume, takes no delight in sound-bites, proof-texting or parrot-like repetition of yesterday's answers. Coincidentally our second article takes up also the theme of homosexuality, commending the work of the liberal Anglican Derrick Sherwin Bailey. Bailey wrote about sexual ethics for Modern Believing (then The Modern Churchman), when he was Rector of Lyndon in Rutland, in October 1961. He used his paper to record his 'conviction that we need to think out again our sexual ideas and attitudes from the very beginning'.2 Bailey's way of doing this was not via situation ethics or the 'new morality' which was to influence John Robinson a couple of years later. He wanted an 'enquiry into the ontology of sex in Man', and 'a discussion of the metaphysical aspects of human sexuality'. Michael Wilson's article praises Bailey's achievements, and uses them to guide today's Church as it grapples with profound sexual questions.

Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, a member of our Editorial Board and of the Council of Modern Church, casts a critical eye on the detail of the prevarication, procrastination, obfuscation and filibuster that has characterized the debates in General Synod about women bishops. At a time when we have become over-familiar with the different positions in this fracas, her analysis is remarkably fresh. She shows how the quest for 'proper provision' for the opponents of women bishops has become a foil for stopping the legislation by any possible means. She digs into what Bailey called 'the ontology of sex in man', and exposes 'a dangerously false theology of gender' which creates and indulges in the fiction that God's relation to women is 'fundamentally different' from God's relation to men. So the first three essays of this edition of Modern Believing, in a way that was not anticipated when it was planned, all contribute to a Christian 'ontology of sex' which develops scripture and tradition while remaining faithful to each, and anticipates the day when there will no longer be that unequal bipolarity of 'male-and-female'.

I hope you enjoyed our Honest to God special edition in April.  It was especially gratifying that Modern Believing was the first, or one of the first, tributes in print to John Robinson in the fiftieth anniversary year. Bishop John Robinson learnt his trade as a curate in St Matthew's parish, Bristol. That parish is now closed but the neighbouring parish of St Ambrose is celebrating his ministry and his book Honest to God, on St Matthew's Day, 21st September from 10am to 4.30pm. The Revd David James,  a long standing member of Modern Church and vicar of St Matthew's will welcome Bishop John Saxbee,  Canon Vanessa Herrick and Canon Richard Truss to speak and lead worship. Our special conference, with PCN Britain, on Being Honest to God, chaired by Prof. Elaine Graham, a Trustee and Vice-President of Modern Church, will be held on Friday 8th to Sunday 10th November, 2013,  at The Hayes Conference Centre, Swanwick. Please do all you can to publicize this event. Early booking is advised. More details of these conferences are on the Modern Church website. Another positive essay on Honest to God appears in this edition  as Hugh Rock explores the influence of Paul Tillich on Robinson's thought. My own D.Phil (more years ago than I care to recall) was on Paul Tillich. His 'method of correlation' will form the basis of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality and Gender.3 Robinson and Tillich believed that theologians could and should provide real 'answers' to real human 'questions': bringing them into 'correlation' was what theology was supposed to do.

John Robinson, despite the controversy surrounding Honest to God and several of his later popular works, was never dismissed for heresy. The same cannot be said for Anthony Freeman, our assistant editor, who was dismissed by his bishop for endorsing a 'non-realist' interpretation of Christianity in his book, God In Us, in 1993.4 We mark this anniversary too by publishing Anthony's reflections on the theological and personal background to the book and on what might be said differently today. Completing 54.3 is Stephen Parsons' careful discussion of the question whether Christian clergy are prone to narcissistic character disorders. Strong charismatic leaders, and all who listen to or follow them,  may find this article uncomfortable but essential reading.  


Notes

  1. Todd A. Salzman & Michael Lawler,  The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2008).
  2. Derrick Sherwin Bailey, 'Christianity and Sexual Ethics', Modern Churchman, 5.1 (Oct. 1, 1961) [59-67], p. 67.
  3. Adrian Thatcher (ed.),  The Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality and Gender (Oxford: Oxford University Press), forthcoming 2015.
  4. Anthony Freeman,  God in Us: a Case for Christian Humanism (London: SCM Press, 1993).

Adrian Thatcher is Visiting Professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Exeter.