It was an interesting day on which to start the three-week-long General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family – the Feast of St Francis (yes I know the Sunday takes precedence); and did you notice the Sunday readings?!
On Sunday I was in the congregation of a church I worship in very occasionally. This was the Gospel Reading:
Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
This stopping place is an option in the Roman Catholic version of the Sunday lectionary, reflected in, and hence allowable, in our NZ Prayer Book. As the reading progressed the listening silence in the congregation became palpable. “This is the Gospel of Christ”, following straight upon, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” was said to, what seemed to me, a (rightly?) shocked congregation.
I imagine that there’s nothing particular about this congregation – probably between a quarter and a half of the people there are divorced. I would be very surprised if there was anyone there who did not have a friend or family member who has been through divorce.
The sermon began by reading the omitted verses that follow about children and the kingdom, and then preaching on that. There was no reference to the divorce text whatsoever. This is no reflection on the call made in that particular pastoral context, but, the reading does need some attention.
I serve in a church, the Anglican Church in NZ, that sits very lightly to this text. We have even produced a Liturgy for Recognising the End of a Marriage. Clergy in their third marriage can hold a bishop’s license. Someone tell me how much debate, and for how many years, and through how many commissions, and with how many challenges did the Anglican Church here change the centuries-and-centuries-old ban on remarrying divorcees. I don’t think it took much effort at all.
And now, compare that to the energy our church is putting into debating whether to bless or not to bless committed same-sex couples.
Remember that the community in which Mark’s Gospel was written didn’t have Matthew’s disputed subtleties: “…anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity (πορνείας), causes her to commit adultery…” [where πορνείας porneias may simply refer to it not being a marriage in the first place, as in “…whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery…” New American Bible].
A couple of controversies frame the start of the Synod of Bishops and hopes to steer a pastoral, compassionate way through doctrine, scripture, and tradition.
Kim Davis’ lawyer’s description of a private audience with Pope Francis was, to say the least, surprising. The Vatican, unusually, put out a press release which gave quite a different account. In hindsight it is not too difficult to join the dots, starting with some people who are less than happy with the new direction the Papacy has taken. The dots include Terry Moran, of ABC, on the plane asking the pope a vague question about “religious liberty,” without mentioning Davis’s name, a surprising omission for a veteran journalist. The pope gave a fairly mothers-milk answer about freedom of conscience. And later, Kim Davis gave an exclusive interview to ABC, the same network that employs Terry Moran who asked the question on the plane.
The reactionary media win backfired in the Vatican’s reporting that “The only real audience granted by the Pope at the Nunciature was with one of his former students and his family,” a former student who brought his gay partner to whom he has been committed for nineteen years.
Next came the news of the removal from duties of Monsignor Krysztof Olaf Charamsa, a Vatican official who came out as gay and held a news conference with his partner beside him. Commentators stressing RC teaching that priests be celibate whether they are gay or straight seem to have forgotten the 2005 Vatican ruling that priests not just abstain from homosexual activity, but must be free from “homosexual tendencies” for at least three years prior to ordination to the diaconate, something that the seminarian’s spiritual director/confessor was to supervise. It is fairly clear that this was all part of the confused church response to the appalling sex scandals. It is difficult to imagine Pope Francis signing up to such an approach now.
Consistent approaches to sexual ethics can include
a) The rejection of divorce and remarriage, as well as the repudiation of blessing or marrying committed same-sex partners. Such a position can still attempt to deal compassionately and pastorally with people who are divorced or gay. Encouraging the latter while holding to the former is no easy juggle; this seems to be the route that Pope Francis appears to seek to take.
b) A position that does not hold too tightly to every scriptural verse as it appears, conscious of Jesus’ use of hyperbole, and of the trajectory set within scripture and tradition. This approach stresses that it is precisely the pastoral and compassionate that is the core of the Christian Good News, and that love is to be encouraged and nurtured wherever it is found. This path is open to marrying divorced persons and blessing or marrying committed persons of the same sex.
c) There are those who would bless or marry committed same-sex couples, and hold to a strong marriage bond – more akin to (a) in their attitude to marriage, but seeking to extend this sacramental union beyond heterosexual couples.
The position I see a lot of, and I have the greater struggle to make sense of, are (d) those who sit lightly to the clearer biblical and traditional approaches against divorce, but fervently resisting any movement that encourages commitment in, and blessing of, homosexual couples.
It will be interesting to see what the Synod produces – and our prayers are with the deliberations.