Monday, July 07, 2008

Interpretation and dialogue across cultures

I started Monday sluggishly with an early wedding rehearsal for tomorrow, prolonged by the need to search for relevant books and sound playback equipment which was buried under plastic in the midst of heaps of books and files assembled by the building workers for protection in the middle of the room. Fortunately I was successful and the rehearsal concluded in time for me to move on to a meeting at school. The young couple are so excited, and delighted to be getting married, albeit far from home with just their local friends. There will be other celebrations for them with their families when they return home to Malaysia.

The meeting called this morning at school reported growing concerns arising from the fact that there is no longer an on-site caretaker. The house in the playground that was occupied by the previous caretaker wasn't really meant for this. It wasn't owned by the school, but by the Diocesan Board of Finance, which sought an unsubsidised rent considerably higher than what would be payable if the house had belonged to the local authority. With nobody to oversee the place out of hours the play area is now being used by druggies and prostitutes, requiring a meticulous clean up each day before the children arrive. This has only begun to happen over the past few months since the caretaker moved out, after decades trouble free.

Some of the city's homeless drug taking population has been displaced from the city centre by the redevelopment building work, and is making use of empty houses near the school We're now concerned that that house in the school yard doesn't become the the target of drug abusers, or others, as happened to St James' church after it was closed and before it was properly secured. The school site is anything but secure for an unsupervised property, and it's meant to be a zone safe for children, free from prying eyes. It's already several months since we first raised these concerns. Response has been slow so far, dominated not by the question of what needs to be done to restore security, but how whatever needs to be done can be afforded?

Tackling the problem requires involvement by the WAG the LEA and the DBF, and extensive expertise to know what can be asked of these three bodies. The Diocesan Education Officer, two community policemen, the outgoing and incoming head teachers and three of us governors were present, trying to tackle the question of how best to make progress. I fear that now the silly season of school vacation time is upon us, it will be difficult to make any progress at all, and that these issues will be there to welcome the new head teacher when he arrives in September.

A strange co-incidence arrived in my email after lunch. It was a message from a young woman who had been in an inter-religious relationship, happy and in love. Just like the couple I shall be marrying tomorrow, though not the same religious mix. The common element was that one of the couple was a 'non-denominational' Christian. In this case doubt had set in about the future of a married relationship, which both wanted, because of the differences in beliefs, but the other had withdrawn from the relationship, causing deep hurt. I was, at the end of her story telling, simply being asked if the church condemned inter-faith marriages.

All I could do was repeat what I had said to the young Malaysians about the teaching of St Paul who went to the trouble to defend the right of believers to marry outside their faith community, recognising that, as the Prayer Book later said "Marriage is a gift of God in creation", and in that sense a human covenant of love which existed before there were distinct confessing communities of faith. God doesn't discriminate among those on whom the gift of mutual love is outpoured. It's God's business God's calling, a challenge to all involved - couple, families and communities of faith, to learn to live together with their differences, and show what love is made of.

It appalls me that Christian groups ignore or neglect this 'difficult' biblical teaching but it doesn't surprise me. Not even the Revd Alan with his Hindu spouse to be Usha has yet stood up for his own position by citing the teaching of the New Testament. An unusual BBC omission.

Jesus was more inclusive and egalitarian than any of us in any generation since, and Christians have played all sorts of games down the centuries, often cruel and violent ones, in order to avoid keeping full faith with the Master's teaching. Scripture often seems to reveal our blind spots, and challenges us to examine our prejudices and priorities because of the diversity of ways in which it sheds light upon human experience. The CofE has only just, sixteen years on from agreeing to women priests, agreed a process that will make it possible to ordain women to the episcopate, in the face of considered resistance from those who cannot accept deviation from the classical model of apostolic church leadership. To me this seems inevitable.

There is still no universal consensus among Christians in which questions about how scripture can be faithfully interpreted and implemented can resolved, and that leads to differences in ideas about social roles and gender. It has given us critical problems of communication over the century of unrelenting change in every aspect of society. There hasn't been a single common mind among Christians on the nature of scriptural interpretation since early times. May be there never will be. Perhaps it's providential, a permanent challenge from God to people to think, to engage with scripture as faithfully as they can, and expect to be challenged in the search for the truth that sets each other free.

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