By John Bowen
Published: June 2007
Old jokes sometimes bear repeating. Here's one of my favourites: "Did you know? The world divides into two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don't."
Right now, Anglicans do generally divide themselves into two groups. If you doubt me, I challenge you to describe the present debate on homosexuality without using the terms "left" and "right" or "conservative" and "liberal." Part of the reason we seem so stuck, I believe, is because we insist on using this kind of language. But do we really need it?
The terms left and right in this sense originated at the time of the post-Revolutionary French parliament in 1791, when those who supported the aristocracy sat on the right of the house, and those who supported the revolution sat on the left. It was that simple. This means that the terminology is relatively new (200 years is not much for Christians, who celebrate events from two thousand years ago and more). It is also worth noting too that the language comes from a secular source--not that there is necessarily anything wrong with that, but we might well be cautious before adopting language into Christian vocabulary that might distort the reality of who God has made us.
In a sense, Christians ought to be both conservative and liberal. To be conservative is to conserve what is good from the past. Every Sunday, Christians around the world express their profound conservatism by enacting an ancient rite called the Eucharist. This is one of those times when we agree that saying "we've always done it this way" is a good thing. But equally all Christians are liberal, since liberal means free, generous, fully alive. The apostle Paul (oddly enough, seen by some as conservative) says, "For freedom Christ has set us free: stand firm then, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." Strong words!
Of course, there are distinctively Christian constraints on both our conservatism and our liberalism. They are not blanket approvals for any kind of behaviour or belief. We are not conservative to the extent that we want to reintroduce the Jewish temple sacrifices. Neither are we liberal to the extent that (say) we think promiscuous expressions of sexuality are just fine.
As Christians, we take our cues on both fronts from Jesus, who was a peculiar mixture of the two. On the one hand, he lived his life faithfully according to the scriptures: "the Son of Man must go as it is written." So he's conservative, right? On the other, he interpreted Jewish law and tradition pretty freely--to the horror of the religious leaders. So he must be liberal, surely?
But to suggest that Jesus was both "liberal" and "conservative" highlights how unhelpful these terms are. He really doesn't fit those tired old French Revolution categories, and why should he? He marched to a different drummer he called "my father in heaven", and if we are worried about whether he was more of the left or the right, we are probably missing the point. It's as short-sighted as speculating whether he would prefer Coke or Pepsi. He demands to be considered on his own terms, not ours.
Recently, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke at a convocation at the University of Toronto, where he was given honorary degrees by Trinity College and Wycliffe College. His topic was "The Bible Today: Reading and Hearing." (The text is available online.) If one asks (as our culture has conditioned us to do), "Did he seem more conservative or liberal?" the best answer is "Yes." One did not need to agree with everything he said to realise that he was talking about a Christian faith that is deeper and wider--not to mention more life-giving--than any superficial left/right distinctions....
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