The Archbishop of Canterbury on Reading Scripture

The Anglican blogoshere is buzzing about the fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has accepted the invitation of the Episcopal Bishops for a meeting to discuss the future of the Anglican Communion.

I will not rehash that ground, but I do want to comment on a speech that the Archbishop gave today in Toronto about reading scripture. The lecture, entitled, "The Bible Today: Reading & Hearing", is well worth a careful read. I want to highlight only one aspect of the lecture. One of the points that the Archbishops makes is that it is important to focus on the full context of a biblical passage, and not merely focus on a fragment of that passage:

Among those skills we need to bring for receptivity is a capacity to think through what the initial relation between text and audience might be. I am not thinking primarily here of the way in which good critical scholarship elucidates such relations, though that is one of the underappreciated gifts of intellectual modernity -- the enrichment of sheer historical imagination in ways barely accessible to most premodern readers and hearers. What I have in mind is a more basic matter, the capacity to read/hear enough to sense the directedness of a text. Fragmentary reading is highly risky to the extent that it abstracts from what various hermeneutical theorists (Ricoeur above all) have thought of as the world 'in front of the text' -- the specific needs that shape the movement and emphasis of the text itself. Elements in that text may be valid and significant, but yet be capable of partial and even distorting use if not seen as part of a rhetorical process or argument. It is always worth asking, 'What is the text as a full unit trying not to say or to deny?'

The Archbishop then applies this point to Romans 1--the scripture most commonly discussed in debates over same sex relationships:

My second example is even more contentious in the present climate; and once again I must stress that the point I am making is not that the reading I proposes settles a controversy or changes a substantive interpretation but that many current ways of reading miss the actual direction of the passage and so undermine a proper theological approach to Scripture. Paul in the first chapter of Romans famously uses same-sex relationships as an illustration of human depravity -- along with other 'unnatural' behaviours such as scandal, disobedience to parents and lack of pity. It is, for the majority of modern readers the most important single text in Scripture on the subject of homosexuality, and has understandably been the focus of an enormous amount of exegetical attention.

What is Paul's argument? And, once again, what is the movement that the text seeks to facilitate? The answer is in the opening of chapter 2: we have been listing examples of the barefaced perversity of those who cannot see the requirements of the natural order in front of their noses; well, it is precisely the same perversity that affects those who have received the revelation of God and persist in self-seeking and self-deceit. The change envisaged is from confidence in having received divine revelation to an awareness of universal sinfulness and need. Once again, there is a paradox in reading Romans 1 as a foundation for identifying in others a level of sin that is not found in the chosen community.

Now this gives little comfort to either party in the current culture wars in the Church. It is not helpful for a 'liberal' or revisionist case, since the whole point of Paul's rhetorical gambit is that everyone in his imagined readership agrees in thinking the same-sex relations of the culture around them to be as obviously immoral as idol-worship or disobedience to parents. It is not very helpful to the conservative either, though, because Paul insists on shifting the focus away from the objects of moral disapprobation in chapter 1 to the reading /hearing subject who has been up to this point happily identifying with Paul's castigation of someone else. The complex and interesting argument of chapter 1 about certain forms of sin beginning by the 'exchange' of true for false perception and natural for unnatural desire stands, but now has to be applied not to the pagan world alone but to the 'insiders' of the chosen community. Paul is making a primary point not about homosexuality but about the delusions of the supposedly law-abiding.

As I have said, this does nothing to settle the exegetical questions fiercely debated at the moment. But I want to stress that what I am trying to define as a strictly theological reading of Scripture, a reading in which the present community is made contemporary with the world in front of the text, is bound to give priority to the question that the text specifically puts and to ask how the movement, the transition, worked for within the text is to be realised in the contemporary reading community. To move too rapidly to the use of the text to make a general point which does not require the reader to be converted is to step outside what I have been calling the time of the text, the process by which it shapes its question. It is to make the text more passive than active, and so to move away from the stance of the listener, from the stance of the Church as trying to be still enough to hear and free enough to respond to God's summons to be his community. Of course the work of exegesis to establish doctrine and ethics is unavoidable; commentary is always going on. But the first moment of commentary -- if this emphasis on the basic character of listening is correct -- needs to be the tracing of the 'time' of a text so as to chart where it is moving.

While the Archbishop is certainly correct that his discussion of does not, itself, settle the issue of its importance to the current debate over same sex relationships, I think his approach ultimately supports those of us who believe that the reference to same sex relationships in Romans 1 cannot be read as relevant to the committed same sex relationships now in discussion.

As the Archbishop notes, Paul is not pronouncing any ethical teaching generally about same sex relationships. To the contrary, he is making only a fleeting statement about certain sexual activities that he assumes (and he assumes that his audience assumes) is immoral. And this statement is on a long list of immoral activities. Paul's point is not to make an ethical statement about any of the behaviors on the list--he assumes that all agree that what is listed is immoral--instead, he is using this list to make another point altogether.

So the real issue is this--what are we to make of Paul's fleeting statement about sexual activity in Romans 1? Is it appropriate to assume that Paul is condemning all same sex sexual activity. There are many biblical scholars (see here for a summary of some this literature) who believe that Paul is specifically mentioning only sexual acts done as part of a pagan rituals common in the times--and this is consistent with the linking of the list of immoral acts in Romans only to idolatrous worship. See Romans 24-26 ("Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions.")

In addition, there is no reason to believe that Paul was condemning sexual conduct within the context of a committed relationships--which is what the Episcopal Church is discussing. Indeed, it is highly unlikely that Paul ever knew anyone in such a relationship.

Perhaps even more critically, since Paul was not giving an ethical lesson on homosexuality--and merely assumed that his readers would agree with him that same sex acts were immoral--what theological weight are we to give this fleeting reference? Paul, after all, assumed that slavery was a cultural norm, and he did not condemn slavery, but we assuredly do not therefore believe that slavery is acceptable. Similarly, why should we turn Paul's cultural views of same sex relationships into ethical doctrine?


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