I listened in yesterday to a debate in the Church of Scotland's General Assembly about the place of gay ministers in that church's life. The Assembly arrived at a compromise position that strikes me as an awkward solution that is unlikely to persist for very long. I suspect that the Church of Scotland may well move, in time, towards a fuller acceptance of the ministry of gay people as it experiences their ministry more openly in its parishes.
The thing I really wanted to say about that debate is to do with the use of the Bible in discussions of this sort. There was a general consensus among those who spoke in favour of a more traditionalist understanding that the Bible had a straightforward position on the matter, that this position was easily discernable and that the church's duty was to do what the Bible told it to do. I think that this is an unsustainable hermeneutical approach for a number of reasons.
The most obvious to me is that no one reads scripture in a vacuum. I said to someone recently that if he wanted to know more about Christianity, he would be ill served in this endeavour by reading the Bible from cover to cover. He would be better off discovering how the Church reads scripture, how it interprets it in the light of an ongoing life of prayer. The Bible is not separable from the community that reads it. The canon of scripture arose out of the life of the Church and its meaning is only slowly yielded as the community of faith reflects on it in the course of its life and experience of the living God. The Church does not and should not give every word of scripture equal weight. It emphasises those parts that most clearly reflect the heart of its teaching - such as the Gospels - and reads other parts in the light of that witness. This process is a constant dynamic and the careful balance between scripture, tradition and reason is maintained by constant and prayerful reflection.
Another reason for my discomfort with this hermeneutical approach is that the Bible did not arise in a vacuum. It seems bizarre to have to reiterate this obvious truth after centuries of Biblical criticism. In Christian tradition, the Bible is not a miraculous text which dropped down from heaven ready-formed. I think it is profoundly heterodox to say that it did. It is the product of prayerful reflection on the things of God and, if the Church describes the Bible as inspired, it is because it has found it to be a reliable guide to the things of God. The Bible does not tell us everything about everything, but, read in the context of the community of faith, it does tell us all we need to know about God. We have an ongoing responsibility to discern how that knowledge shapes our behaviour and decisions and that is not always an easy process.
I think that this process does not work like an instruction manual: the text tells me to do something and I do it. It works more like this: our prayerful interaction with the text is the model for how we engage with the world around us. It is not the text that is primary, but our shared reading of the text. And that shared reading is done with a consciousness of how the text has been read by our spiritual forebears. This does not mean that we are bound to follow their conclusions, but we do commit ourselves in humility to hear how they read and to learn respectfully from their experience.
In this approach, God is present dynamically rather than statically. God's Word is not an artefact but a person, not a book but a body. I do not read the Bible to get an answer to my questions, but to meet God. In that encounter, I hope that I will find myself in a better place to address the questions.