Lightning strikes

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Apparently York University was hit by lightning last week. In and of itself, that fact may be of minor meteorological interest; but given that the General Synod of the Church of England was meeting there to discuss the possibility of ordaining female bishops, some have turned it into a matter of major theological interest. 

The detail echoes the consecration of David Jenkins as Bishop of Durham in 1984; then the enthronement had been precipitated by a damaging lightning strike on York Minister three days earlier. 

Jenkins, of course, was a man; his gender was not an issue, but his theology was. His pronouncements on the significance of Easter gave rise to a host of debates over whether, or to what extent, the new Bishop believed in the resurrection. 

Jenkins reflects very candidly on the lightning strike in his autobiography, 'The Calling of a Cuckoo'. At one level, it was, he says, 'a gift both to those who had decided that I was not fit to become a bishop and to a delighted media'. At first indifferent to the events surrounding his enthronement, Jenkins came to view things differently. In all his studying and reflection on theology, he says that 'it would never occur to me to take seriously the proposition that God might send a bolt of lightning as a direct intervention to express his displeasure at my theology'. 

Yet there were those within the Church, he recognised, that argued differently, only because 'the Bible is full of such signs and interventions'. For Jenkins, ultimately, 'the lightning had revealed...two very different theologies based on deeply different understandings of the nature and being of God'. 

I suspect that Jenkins is absolutely right in this assessment, even if I think he is fundamentally wrong in his position. The reactions to the lightning strike (if that is what it was) that damaged York Minster in 1984 showed a polarisation within the Anglican Church that was not so much about David Jenkins' fitness for episcopal office as about the place and authority of the Bible within the Church. 

For those who believed that the God who intervened in the biblical narratives to send lightning bolts and thunderstorms, plagues and pestilence, still does such things today, the consecration of a Bishop who seemed to deny the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection was bound to rouse God to anger. The damage to York Minster seemed proof of his divine displeasure. For others, such vehement reactions only proved to the watching world that - in Jenkins' words - 'we were a foolish bunch of fantasists'. 

Of course, it is one thing to believe that the God of the Bible is capable of such interventions, and indeed such judgements in nature, but it is quite another to interpret such events in that way. A lightning strike in the Bible may be a symbol of divine judgement (thought I am not sure that there are any historical examples of such in the biblical record), but that gives me no warrant to think that every bolt of lightning functions in that way. 

All of which is interesting, but a digression. I still think that Jenkins was correct; even if he was unduly dismissive of the phenomenon of the lightning, he was correct to recognise that the reactions to it demonstrated the divergent theologies within his Church. 

And last week's lightning at York, as the Church of England continued to debate the ordination of female bishops, will do the same. We actually don't need a bolt of lightning to tell us that such debates within the Church are debates about the nature of God and the status of the Bible. 

And we don't need to be fantasists (or even fanatics) to realise that no Church can enthrone a bishop who does not believe the fundamental doctrines of the faith, or a bishop who is not male, without radically altering the textbook on which all Church life and faith rests. 

To debate whether lightning strikes represent divine acts of judgement is one thing; but to debate whether the plain meaning of the Bible is to be re-interpreted is quite another. The statements of the Bible are clear: those who deny the faith should not hold office in the Church; women should not occupy teaching positions in the Church; homosexuals should not marry nor be ordained to ministry. 

When the Church spends an inordinate amount of time arguing over the legitimacy of positions which the Bible itself forbids, then the debate is not about the issues at all, but about the status we give to the Bible as our ultimate authority. And if we are prepared to reinterpret it in order to justify our positions, then we have already sold the pass. What does the Christian Church exist for if it can so easily re-write its holy book?

I am not interested in trying to assess the significance - if there was any - of last week's lightning strike in York. But I am interested in the directions in which the major denominations of the United Kingdom will take in the debates before them. These debates have already shown that there are not just different views, but different theologies, within the Churches: a secular theology grounded on a rejection of the Bible, and a scriptural theology that is subject to the Bible. 

I hope that I will always have the latter, although how I would interpret a bolt of lightning striking Point Free Church I have no idea. 

Posted July 12, 2012 @ 9:23 AM by Iain D Campbell

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