Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Changing the Rules of Engagement

Have just come away from a church service on the eve of the Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast, where I heard a remarkable sermon by Labib Madanat of the Palestinian Bible Society. Preaching from 2 Kings 5: 1- 19, the story of Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram. Aram had persecuted and plundered Israel, and Naaman had a captured Israelite girl as a slave. She encouraged Naaman to go to Israel to seek healing from his leprosy.

Now most takes I have heard on this story focus on Naaman and Elisha the prophet by whom God healed him, but Labib focussed on the slave girl – taken by force, her family probably slaughtered before her eyes (or worse), and now held a captive far from her home land, speaking a foreign tongue, she had no cause to love or care for her Aramite master. Indeed, she could have said his leprosy was God's righteous judgement on him – but instead she had compassion on him. The rules of engagement required that she should be his enemy – she changed the rules of engagement and showed compassion.

Labib recounted his own experience after losing a close friend and colleague to Hamas gunmen, and while initially feeling this hatred he found himself some time later meeting with a Hamas leader, and mourning with him the loss of his son to Israeli forces some two weeks earlier – this after spending time with his colleague's still grieving family, including his young children. He changed the rule of engagement, and showed compassion.

When I look at Jesus, that is what he did all the time. He never met the scribes and Pharisees on their turf, or fought according to their rules. He did not distance himself from prostitutes and tax collectors and occupying Roman soldiers as the religious rules of engagement dictated, rather he went out of his way to engage with them. He changed the rules of engagement between God and humanity.

At the moment I see my own church's global family ripping itself apart over the issue of gay priests. And while I have sympathy with both sides, especially the conservatives, I fear that neither are changing the rules of engagement. At a time when we are finding that gay men in the UK are engaging in risk taking behaviour like never before, and that HIV rates are climbing within the gay community as a result, should we not be changing the rules of engagement and looking at what we as Christians have to offer to help tackle this? Not in judgement and harsh messages, but out of grace, love and compassion to those who are choosing knowingly to put themselves at risk. A radical suggestion, bound to be disliked by gay activists, religious conservatives and liberals alike – so all the more reason to put it forward. I suspect Jesus would have been with the gay communities, and those affected by AIDS as he was with lepers and prostitutes and tax collectors in his day. Those marginalised by society - is the church doing anything to reduce that marginalisation? I fear the answer is a qualified "no".

While some commentators suggest this growing Anglican rift is primarily a conflict based on a clinging to a Christendom model of the Christian faith, and others that it is just plain intolerance of difference, there is no doubt that both sides in the debate have been lobbing missiles at one another, and as things currently stand a growing number of bishops will not be at the Lambeth Conference in July – heralding the real possibility of schism within worldwide Anglicanism.

But in keeping to the traditional rules of engagement between the theologically conservative and liberal, the Anglican Communion may also be missing the mark in other ways – the media and commentators will be obsessing over the gay priests issue, while the other issues under debate, including global poverty will not get an airing. The National Prayer Breakfast (on the eve of which the service last night was held) is focussing around the Micah Challenge – the global church movement to hold our governments to account for the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals to halve global poverty and tackle the other scourges facing the world's poor. This will also be a focus of the Lambeth Conference, with a planned prayer walk to 10 Downing Street of Bishops committing their churches to the campaign. With so many conservative bishops boycotting the Lambeth Conference, the message of commitment to the Micah Challenge vision of a mobilised global church addressing the issue of poverty will be weaker than it should be.

The rules of engagement between liberal and conservative Anglicans need to change – on both sides; there is too much at stake for the world as a whole for there not to be.

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