Friday, 10 April 2015

Tough task for Church to find the right balance at synod - My Catholic Universe column


For the past week I have been on holiday in the great city of Chicago. With world class museums, sports and theatre it is without a doubt one of the finest cities on this planet, I very much hope I will have the chance to return at some point in the future. 

Whilst being away I went to see the touring Broadway show 'The Book of Mormon'. For those of you unfamiliar with the production it is a worldwide smash hit which takes a satirical swipe at the 'disneyfication' of Africa and, as the name suggests, the Mormon religion.

The show, which was written by the creators of the cartoon series South Park, initially received reactions and criticism something akin to Monty Python's Life of Brian but as times move on and in no small part due to the fact that adherents to the Mormon faith largely saw the funny side a major critical and commercial success followed. 

There is no doubt that The Book of Mormon is not a show for the easily offended, the themes are adult and the language explicit. But whilst I was humming along to the catchy tunes and giggling to well written but nevertheless very definitely toilet humour an important point struck me. 

As with all musical theatre the show has an anthemic song, in this case based on the faith and resulting idiosyncrasies of the young lead. 'I Believe' starts off as a passionate enunciation of Mormon doctrine but becomes increasingly silly as some of the more unusual aspects are mentioned. 

I paid particular attention when I heard the line 'I believe that in 1978 God changed His mind about black people' that I wanted to know more. 

Some background reading told me that until 1978 the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stopped most black men from ‘being ordained to the church’s lay priesthood’, which resulted in black members not being able to play a full role within the church itself. 

In broad terms since its creation in the mid 1800’s the church and adherents to Mormonism had held a view about black people largely in accordance with that of the wider community and it was only when the civil rights movement became so prominent in the 1950’s and 60’s that attitudes changed and a few short years after the church accepted blacks to full status.

It shook me that as recently as in my lifetime a church was discriminating against people because of such a basic attribute of who they are. 

I am absolutely sure you are starting to see where I am going with this observation. 

Last week the front page story of this newspaper reported on battle lines being drawn up for the upcoming Synod of Bishops focusing on the family. A letter has been sent by 461 priests in England and Wales affirming ‘fidelity to the traditional doctrines regarding marriage and the true meaning of human sexuality’. 

Not for one second would I claim to be a theologian or have the biblical knowledge of any of those 461 priests who signed that letter but I, like many, many other Catholics can see how society is changing to become more accepting of people with different backgrounds and who make different lifestyle choices and I am more than comfortable with that. 

I come from a generation which sees divorce as sad but sometimes as sadly inevitable, a generation where we believe it is infinitely better to have a child needing care being raised in an unconventional foster family rather than staying in a children’s home, and where we realise that our gay friends make just as much a contribution to society as we do.

I have no idea what the outcome of the upcoming Synod of Bishops will be but I do know that the views and opinions of Catholics and non-catholics alike have changed irreversibly over the years to ones of being increasingly accepting of different lifestyles. I’m very proud that that change has happened in my lifetime.

During the recent Channel 4 programme ‘The Battle for Number 10’ Ed Miliband was asked what did he most applaud Mr Cameron for during his time as Prime Minister? Ed responded that there were two things, Mr Cameron’s support for international aid and his support for the introduction of gay marriage. 

To my mind Mr Miliband was right to identify both. I have written before in the pages of this newspaper about the need for overseas aid, and it is indeed a real achievement for this government, but this is the first time I have commented publicly on the second issue. 

I am very humbled to be a Catholic and I try to follow church teaching but I cannot help but feel if it were my son or daughter that told me they were gay above all else I would want them to have every right that I have had. I am sure like countless other parents my love for my children, and who they are or may grow up to be, would trump church dogma every single time. 

My views are not special or unusual, they are commonly held with most people that I know. 

Whether we are prepared to accept it or not parliament for the most part reflects wider society. Changes to social legislation such as the introduction of gay marriage would never have happened unless there was widespread public support for it. 

I cannot imagine a Conservative lead government making such a change twenty years ago. The reason they have now is because society has changed. It has become more tolerant, more accepting. In that sense we live in a much better world and have a much brighter future. 

Pope Francis can see that change happening and just like a political leader realises for the church to remain current it must adapt, the alternative is for its role to greatly diminish in our society. 

Just like in party politics change in the church is very much a balancing act. The church has to reflect society but should not forego its fundamental values to achieve popularity, even if maintaining those values may inevitably lead to a much tougher future. 

But, even without a great theological knowledge, let us be clear, in the church just as in politics there is massive room for interpretation. Scripture and teachings have been revised countless times over the decades each time with minor changes to wording or inference. I am fairly certain that the cumulative effect of those changes has led to a church organic in nature and which has gone through a number of iterations of it’s teaching on society. 

It seems to me at least that this time around our Bishops will have a very difficult task in balancing historical teaching and current society, the conservative right of the church and the liberal left. 

To do nothing will leave the church on the wrong side of history. We should very much pray for them.

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