Welby and his ‘Father’: playing with words – church leaders and other manipulators

 

Our Great Leader, the Archbishop of Canterbury (peace be upon him, oh yes) has been speaking again on gender-related issues.  I’m actually waiting to hear him speak on something that is relevant to the struggles of the majority of members of the Church of England, but hey-ho.

Apparently he was responding to a question from the audience during a talk at St Martin-in-the-Fields, earlier this month. The questioner had asked the Archbish about what it means for him to call God his father, bearing in mind his own personal experience of fathers, and being a father himself.

Very good.  But am I being just the teensiest bit cynical by wondering if the question was a ‘plant’ to enable the reply?  If this was indeed a genuine question from the audience, then fine. I am more than happy to hold up my hands and admit an error – years of practice have taught me well.  But one of the unintended outcomes of the increasingly loaded pronouncements of the ‘leadership’ in the C of E is that moderate people have started to become suspicious.  And suspicion leads to a lack of trust.  And lack of trust tends to make people less moderate.  Just sayin’.

So, bearing this mind, let’s just call it a coincidence that Our Great Leader was provided with yet another opportunity to pronounce on the male-female narrative/discourse/articulation/social justice battle (delete as the mood takes you) at a prominent event.  Two things spring to mind from this.  Firstly, the theological issue itself; secondly, the likely hidden agenda behind his comments (oh, surely not, I hear you saying).

“So, what does it mean for me to call God father, having had a rather confusing experience of fathers? It means that here is one that is perfect, that loves me unconditionally, that reaches out to me and knows me better than I know myself and yet still loves me profoundly. That loves me enough to make redemption and blessing possible and open. That offers me a way through life that can be very complicated and painful, and can be overwhelming and wonderful, but is always father… is always the one who in love embraces, draws, heals, blesses and will eventually call me to be present to God.”

Hear, hear.  Good response. I agree ( I suppose that’s why I think it’s a good response).  Have we finally struck gold at the top? But wait – as ever – there’s more….

“It is extraordinarily important as Christians that we remember that the definitive revelation of who God is was not in words, but in the word of God who we call Jesus Christ….”

Very true, yes, but I suddenly hear a bit of clever footwork approaching….

“We can’t pin God down….. God is not male or female. God is not definable.”

Right. God is revealed to us through Jesus.  Yet somehow, despite this, ‘we can’t pin God down’?  Hmm.  What does that say to you?  I don’t think I have any trouble pinning God down in a way that I can functionally understand Him, as a believer, through what Jesus told us.  True, we will probably never fully understand God, and we certainly ‘see through a glass darkly’ while we’re here on earth.  But if we take Jesus according to what He said, we can ‘pin God down’ as Our Father. For most ordinary Christians I suspect this is sufficient.

Naturally enough, the media have jumped on these latest comments as being related to the current gender-wars.  Whether or not this was the intention behind the question and reply all along, or not, that’s what has happened.  It seems to me that the Archbish must be incredibly naïve if he thought his comments would be taken any other way. So where does this leave us?

Let’s look at the theological issue first.  Yes, it is true that God is beyond gender.  Our Father is not male or female – those biological realities are part of His creation.

‘So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.’  (Gen. 1:27).

Yet, we are stuck with human language as we try to describe God.  We don’t have any words that replace ‘he’, ‘father’, ‘him’, ‘his’ and so on, that apply solely to God.  So we need to use words that reflect our human experience and language limitations.

But does this mean that we should not be able to refer to God as our Father?  To call God ‘He’ and to think of Him as male?  These are simply traditional ways in which we have thought of God so that we can make some sense of Him in our minds and talk about Him.  Of course this is derived from ancient cultural ideas that reflect the male-led societies of the past, but I would argue that this does not denigrate women, or anyone else. A lot of concepts from the past are very beneficial – just because something is old, traditional and from a background very different to ours does not mean it is wrong.

Besides, and here is the crunch point – Jesus Himself referred to God as His Father.  He referred to Himself as the Son of God.  He came to earth as a man.  He talked about His relationship with His Father.  And crucially, He told us to think of God in the same way.

‘Really? When did he do that?’

Here…..

Our Father, Who art in heaven.

If the language of maleness and fatherhood was the way that Jesus thought of and referred to God, then I’m going to do the same.  Anyone got a problem with that?

Once we depart from this ‘father’ concept of God, we’re ultimately into female deities, multiple deities, inanimate deities and even animal deities if we don’t look out.  Our God is different from all other gods – He is the God, the Creator and sustainer of all things.

If anyone wants to think of our male-pictured God as facilitating the patriarchal domination of women, subjugating the female to the status of second class, or ‘othering the lived experience’ of the non-male – go right ahead.  That’s your choice. God made us with free will.  If you don’t want to picture God as male – then that’s also your choice.  For the Anglican-in-the-street, however, I suspect that most are quite happy to conceptualise God as male, because it’s a simple way to think of Him and visualise Him.

Most Christians in my experience are capable of recognising that God is not actually male. Most of us seem to have no problem with God being thought of as a ‘he’.  Speaking as a woman, I’m not intimidated by calling God ‘our Father’ or thinking of Him as a heavenly father.

I’ve never met a female Christian who says ‘I really worry that God can’t understand my gender-related issues because He’s not, like, you know, a woman’. I’ve never met a female Christian who is ridden with angst because she feels she is less than a man or unable to ‘encounter’ God: ‘But I just can’t get through the invisible barriers of patriarchy and suppression that make a living relationship with Him intrinsically unattainable!’

Neither have I (recently, at least) met any male Christians who say that ‘because God is a male and Jesus was a man, that makes men better or higher up the spiritual ladder than women’.  I’m not saying that there aren’t any deluded male Christians out there who think this is the case (believe me, I’ve met a few), but I would point out that those living in Yorkshire – and a few other places which produce robust women – are unlikely to retain their delusions (and a few other vital male bits) for long if they dare ‘articulate’ this view in public. Their own ignorance is their downfall.

This moves us onto the second point that the Archbish’s comments brought to mind. The hidden agenda. (Alleged, of course.)

Just which ‘communities’ in the current climate may be gratified to hear that God is neither male nor female.  Any guesses?

God is neither male nor female?  Bingo!  If God isn’t male or female, and we’re made in God’s image, then humans don’t have to be male or female either!  Right?  Yes?

Now, we can presume that those who don’t believe in God are not really bothered about the ‘made in God’s image’ argument.  But those who do believe in God may want to pay more attention to this.

Most Christians, on reading the Archbish’s comments are likely to have agreed with him on the ‘God is not male or female’ point.  But at the same time, they are likely to have missed the subtext.  They are unlikely to have considered ‘who is this aimed at?’ and ‘why is this being said and reported so widely just now?’

Sadly, looking for the subtext is now the crucial point.  It was only in May this year that we had Bishop Michael Curry preaching at the royal wedding. Most of the Christians I know were over the moon about his sermon on the power of love.  Great, yes.  It was a lively, endearing talk that electrified the event and caused much media response.  But.  What most failed to see (or hear), hidden carefully inside the words and the presentation, was a repeated confusion of the word ‘love’.  Bishop Curry repeatedly used the word ‘love’ in a way that made it sound as if he was talking about human, romantic love (‘eros’ in Greek – and not in the Bible).  But he was applying it as if he were talking about God’s divine love (‘agape’ in the Bible).  So when he said:

“When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again; when love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook. When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary….”

…it was presented as if he were talking about human love (eros, romantic love) – this was a wedding after all.  But let’s look at what may have been the subtext in his sermon.  What else do we know about Bishop Curry?  He has been very vocal in his support of the LGBT+ community in the Church.  He belongs to the Episcopal Church in the US (which has been suspended from the Anglican Communion due to its stance on marriage ‘equality’) and has been highly active in the promotion of same-sex marriage in churches.

Ok.  No Christian should reject another Christian because of who he or she is.  We’re all responsible to God for our own life and lifestyle.  We’re to show love to each other.  But there’s a big difference between supporting an individual and supporting an ideology. I may not agree with your lifestyle but I am not going to be nasty to you because of it.  I can still be your friend, help you, be involved with you at church and be there for you. ‘First remove the plank from your own eye’ before you start sorting anyone else out.  That works both ways, folks.

But in his sermon at the royal wedding, Bishop Curry also appeared to engage, like our own Archbish may be doing, in a bit of manipulation.  Let’s look at what he said:

“We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world, for love is the only way. There’s power in love. Don’t underestimate it. Don’t even over-sentimentalize it. There’s power – power in love”.

Ok.  We can’t disagree with that.  He’s talking about the power of God’s divine love, isn’t he?  The redemptive power of love is what Jesus showed us, right?  How He demonstrated the love of the Father for us, right?  The power of the love of God can change the world, right?  That’s agape, right?  The divine, unconditional, sacrificial and unending love of God for us.

Er, no:

“If you don’t believe me, think about a time when you first fell in love. The whole world seemed to center around you and your beloved”.

Well, that’s eros – the romantic love of humans.

“Ultimately the source of love is God himself: the source of all of our lives”.

Ok. But humanity has a habit of wrecking God’s gifts to us. Don’t you think?

“There’s an old medieval poem that says, ‘Where true love is found, God himself is there’.”

Sweet – but old medieval poems are not the Word of God.

“The New Testament says it this way: ‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God, and those who love are born of God and know God. Those who do not love do not know God.’ Why? ‘For God is love.’(1 John 4:4-8)

Eh?  This New Testament quote is not saying the same thing as the medieval poem at all.  John is talking here about agape – the divine love of God – in this context, demonstrated by us towards each other.  John was not talking here about eros, the fallible romantic love of humans for each other. He was talking about the true, sacrificial, unconditional, wanting-the-best-for-you kind of love – which never fails or dies.  Can we honestly say that human romantic love (eros) can achieve that?  The two kinds of love are not equal by any measure.  To mix them up like this is deliberately deceptive.

“There’s power in love. There’s power in love to help and heal when nothing else can.”

Yes, Bishop, there is power in love – God’s divine love for us.  Human romantic love is not such a great healer or power source when it can fade away or turn to hate, is it?  But hey, you’ve very nicely confused the issue here and suggested to listeners that all human love is the same as God’s divine love.

Great!  I wonder why you have done that?  What could your interest in doing that possibly be?

Where true love is found, God himself is there’ (that’s the old medieval poem that apparently says the same thing as the New Testament). So…. wherever ‘true love’ is, then God is there too?  It then follows, doesn’t it, that if God is present in any love relationship, it must be a ‘God-approved’ love relationship, right?  And if it’s approved by God, why should the Church not recognize it? And why shouldn’t each and every sort of love relationship be recognised by the Church?

Hey!  Woop-de-doo!  Would you look at that!  The Bible supports same-sex marriage! Who knew?!

Are you following all this?

There’s a distinct pattern of manipulation noticeable in what is coming down from the top in the C of E nowadays.  It’s the way activists work. If you’re clever enough, you can make ‘this’ sound like ‘that’.  Let’s face it, most people listening don’t want to be bothered to dig deep.  It’s only a few weeks since the Bishop of Leeds (blessings be upon him) announced that ‘bishops are called to tell the truth’.  I assume that the same goes for archbishops too.  It’s just that the truth seems to be er, well-hidden, if not re-written, in a lot of stuff coming down to us from the top these days.

But here’s the thing.  Jesus wasn’t a leftie liberal (I’m not saying that Christians can’t be liberal in their politics, just that to claim Jesus as such is pushing it). He didn’t advocate breaking the law. He told us to respect and pray for those in government – render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.  He wasn’t a social justice warrior. He didn’t engage in identity politics and undermine social order to alleviate his own feelings about his place in the world. He told it like it is – this is what the Father says and is like.  Follow me.  He came to fulfil the Law.

Yes, Paul said:

‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’.

….but he was talking about social, religious and economic hierarchies, not calling into question the reality and truth about Jews, Gentiles, males, females, slaves and free men.  All of these realities exist, but in Jesus Christ we’re all equal in status in the Kingdom of God.

But in this new media-savvy world that our leaders inhabit, it seems that all we need to do is just ask the ‘right’ questions, and the socially-acceptable ‘truth’ will be forthcoming. Usually via some media outlet.  It’s as if our bishops (and many other ‘useful idiots’) have self-installed a button on their heads.  Simply ‘press here and the socially-acceptable truth will manifest’!

So just in case you’re wondering what the truth actually is in this postmodern, social justice culture club that the C of E seems to be turning into, here’s a hint:

‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ (John 14:6).

‘Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.’ (John 1:17).

Is this what our bishops are teaching us?  No?  why not?

Whether it’s the truth or the current trendy version of the truth that emanates from our leaders, let’s rely on the Holy Spirit to lead us to take hold of the right one.  And follow it.

2 thoughts on “Welby and his ‘Father’: playing with words – church leaders and other manipulators

  1. Thank you for your blog. Am starting to visit regularly.
    This article hits a nail squarely on the head; and reminds me of a quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland:

    Dumpty explained:
    “When I use a word… it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

    Those manipulating language believe implicitly that they have the power to do so and inflict it on the rest of society. This strikes me as particularly dishonest when words are redefined and the honourable deceased are judged with vitriol on the basis of the new meanings of old words. It is also under God’s sanction when such trickery is applied to scripture; that that worries some of todays clerics.

    Like

  2. Hi Alastair, thanks for your kind comments. I love the Alice in Wonderland quote – how apt. Yes, I agree that a lot of this amounts to trickery with the Word of God. Scary stuff. I’ll look forward to more comments from you in due course, I hope! Best wishes.

    Like

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