Three recent Church stories have been churning round for a week or two, ranging in character from what was generally considered mildly comical, to the inexpressibly tragic, with an over-familiar side-order of ‘business as usual’ poised somewhere in between. Uniting them all is the old theological question: what can we say about God? And with what certainty can we say it?
The nation’s press was delighted to discover that a group of students at Westcott House (apparently a ‘leading theological college’) had celebrated an Evensong for LGBT History Month using the language of Polari, that Esperanto of the demi-monde of actors, clowns and merchant seamen, a sort of camp patois that flourished, like the use of girls’ names by gay men in the dismal days before decriminalisation, when being a friend of Dorothy wasn’t so much a euphemism as a line in self-defence.
The organisers explained that it was a language of the outcast, a natural choice for ‘recovering for Christian tradition a sense of its own intrinsically subversive jouissance.’ Quite so.
Others duly denounced it as if it were a debauched episode from Unguarded Hours, an early AN Wilson novel set some decades ago in an equally leading theological college. The Westcott Principal called Polari a code language that can never work liturgically because worship is about finding language within which all can find themselves, ‘because it’s directed to God.’ If a language ‘belongs to a particular set of circumstances and seeks to subvert particular norms, it can never work’.
I would naturally be cautious about picking an argument with a College Principal. Like me, he will have read Rowan Williams’ topical The Edge of Words. Unlike me, he’ll have understood it all. That said, I would still want to defend the Polari evensong, and not just as part of the ongoing liberation of one of humanity’s most abysmally mistreated groups. I think the organisers have also done us a valuable service in reminding us that all religious language ‘belongs to a particular set of circumstances’, whether the Christian Reformation of 16th century Europe or, yes, the continuing call for justice by persecuted minorities. And this language (these noises we make about God) is as inadequate as it is inculturated. Whoever mines for words for those with hands outstretched in prayer must in the end concede that no words begin to comprehend the great Mystery of God. As the Preface to the ASB put it, ‘words, even agreed words, are only the beginning of worship. Those who use them do well to recognise their transience and imperfection; to treat them as a ladder, not a goal.’
Our entire Christian lexicon would be unrecognisable if it had grown in different soil, if the hills and valleys of Palestine had been covered not with scampering sheep but with snuffling wild boar, or if its staples had been not bread and wine but beer and bananas.
Thus is God called ‘Father’ and Jesus called ‘Son’, and such terms do say something of what is going on within the Trinity, just as our grasp of the Trinity helps to say something of what is going on at the heart of reality. But such word-pictures blur as much as they elucidate, consigning us to a Renaissance ‘God’ seen unhelpfully by far too many as a kind of supercharged Santa Claus: a straight old white man densely bearded, semi-recumbent among the cumulonimbi.
This simply won’t do and, despite the embarrassment of the all-too grabbable headlines, it must be acknowledged that addressing God as ‘Duchess’ (a leader female and royal) gives a jolt to our tired supply of metaphors, letting in light and sharing with us the language of some of those whose cries for loving justice have been too long unheard.
What we must never do is think that we can draw straight solid lines between the reality of God and the language we must use to describe God.
In the same way (turning to our ongoing issues with human sexuality), we cannot draw lines linking unrepresentative verses in scripture and the morality of our own society without doing grave disservice to the nature of God and the quality of the Mystery we pursue.
As Christians we are immersed in the significance of Jesus: we say with Paul that Jesus is the ‘ikon’ of God invisible (Colossians 1.15), and we note that Jesus stands in the line of prophets, priests and kings who are celebrated in Israel as exemplars (or not) of holiness and justice. But this does not settle for us a view of what such a thing as Biblical Marriage might be, for example, or make plain what is ‘God’s will’ in a very different biological and psychological landscape from that known to those who first assembled the biblical materials.
The danger of drawing straight solid lines between human duty and one’s understanding of ‘God’ is seen with tragic force in the John Smyth case. One hesitates to use such an appalling and brutal story to illustrate something as abstruse as a theological claim, but religious matters begin and end with theology and it is important to get it right. That Smyth was able to conjure an image of God as the Creator of the Universe to whom it mattered particularly and ferociously what schoolboys did beneath their blankets, telling his victims that savage beatings had to be endured in order to impress Jesus with the degree of their devotion, illustrates the absolute need of a calm and apophatic biblical hermeneutic.
Recent events therefore persuade me afresh that if we hold fast to a reserved refusal to rely on solid straight lines, turning God into a neatly-labelled diagram,
- an abuser would find it harder to create a sphere of plausibility in which his cruelty could thrive;
- those in permanent, stable and faithful same-sex relationships who cannot yet be blessed by the Church need no longer be regarded as falling short of ministerial standards;
- those responsible for liturgy might take a broader view of what is possible, remembering the inculturated and inadequate nature of all theological language.