20 May 2007

Westminster Abbey lecture: biblical understanding and inclusion

Richard Burridge gave the Eric Symes Abbott lecture at Westminster Abbey earlier this month. Its title was "Slavery, sexuality, and the inclusive community." It's a bit of a read, but it's well worth it. Burridge says that we must consider both the words and the deeds of Jesus in our understanding of the Bible. Burridge also makes useful comparisons between our current debate on human sexuality and earlier debates on slavery and divorce.

Here's a sample:
I have argued that to be truly biblical, we have to imitate Jesus' teaching and his example, his deeds as well as his words. Jesus' demanding ethical teaching cannot be appreciated separately from his behaviour and activity. Both the biographical genre of the gospels on the one hand, and the ancient idea of imitation and Jewish rabbinic precedent on the other, suggest that Jesus' teaching must be earthed in his practical example, both of calling people to repentance and discipleship - but also his open acceptance of sinners, with whom he spent his life and for whom he died. Unfortunately, all too often those who do New Testament Ethics today end up doing one or the other: that is, teaching a rigorist ethic with extreme demands which seems condemnatory and alienates people - or having an open acceptance and being accused of having no ethics at all! Seeking to follow Jesus in becoming both 'perfect' and 'merciful' as God is perfect and merciful (compare Matt. 5.48 with Luke 6.36) is not an easy balance to maintain, but one which is vital if we are to be properly biblical.

To study the scriptures requires the context of an open and inclusive community of interpretation. The movement for the abolition of the slave trade could only discuss what the Bible really said about slavery once slaves and former slave traders were present and their experiences were heard. Similarly, change in South Africa about apartheid as 'human relations in the light of scripture' needed the 'voices of protest', with blacks present in the Bible studies and their experiences being recounted. Equally, over recent years, we have struggled to read and re-read the Bible about the place of women in church leadership, as deacons, priests and now as bishops, with women participating in the debate and their experience being heard - and we still have some way to go here. The same has been true for debates about human sexuality: in the middle of the last century, divorce was not permissible and remarriage in church was not allowed - on biblical grounds. But through the debates and reports of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the experience of marital breakdown was heard and listened to - and then our understanding of a biblical approach for compassion and care changed how church treated divorcees.

Burridge argues that we must include gays and lesbians as we grapple with our understanding of the Bible. This is -- I remind you, gentle reader -- very much in accord with the as-yet-unstarted listening process that the Lambeth Conferences have been asking us to undertake for 30 years.

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