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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Review: Church In Crisis by Oliver O'Donovan

Nearly 15 years ago, noted Anglican ethicist and Oxford professor Oliver O’Donovan applied his insight to the crisis in his own Anglican Communion regarding homosexuality in a series of monthly sermons published online by Fulcrum. While that initial moment has passed, the situation in the Anglican Communion continues in the lead-up to the 2022 Lambeth Conference. The book version of those sermons, Church in Crisis: The Gay Controversy and the Anglican Communion, remains a wise and helpful guide as the divides within the Anglican Communion and the broader Christian church continues to widen.

O’Donovan spends most of the first sermon analyzing liberalism and what he believes to be liberalism’s failings in the current situation. He sees liberalism’s distinctive feature as an openness to the world with an expectation to see God working in it. It assumes the moral consensus of the day and moves from it to evaluate the teaching of the Church. O’Donovan believes this is a helpful process that has led to fresh doctrinal reflection. Where it falls short is that this process is only one way. It does not use doctrine to critique the moral intuition of the world. As the moral consensus fractured over the 20th century, it could not address the various situations. It stepped into an emancipatory role focused on bringing marginalized groups into its own universal vision. While producing incredible victories in the Civil Rights Movement, O’Donovan will later argue in his conclusion that it too quickly moved to emancipate the LGBT community without taking time to listen to the uniqueness of the gay experience and learn from people. It viewed this community through the lens of its own story without carefully listening first.

In his second sermon, he surveys the history of the crisis and illuminates the various hurts inflicted by factions of the Anglican Communion. He lays bare the pain and mistrust that still impede dialogue on this matter. As he narrates the story of the Anglicans’ recent disagreements, he advocates for a conciliar process, also supported by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, and the 2004 Windsor Report. A conciliar process would require a season of dialoguing and listening together as the church works to a consensus. He can be detailed in his account and his discussion of Anglican polity, assuming a certain amount of knowledge from his reader that can be somewhat confusing and requires careful reading. Yet his description of the process is necessary for all Christians engaged in any dialogue, especially in the heated conversations surrounding same-sex marriage. My favorite quote from this section:

The only thing I concede in committing myself to such a process is that if I could discuss the matter through with an opponent sincerely committed to the church’s authorities, Scripture chief among them, the Holy Spirit would open up perspectives that are not immediately apparent, and that patient and scrupulous pursuit of these could lead at least to giving the problem a difference shape-a shape I presume will be compatible with, though not precisely identical to, the views I now hold, but which may also be compatible with some of the views my opponent now holds, even if I cannot yet see how (33).

His third sermon focuses specifically on ethics, his area of expertise. The key strength of this chapter, and the following, are how he challenges the oversimplification of revisionists and traditionalists. He argues that all ethical decisions are constrained to the historical details of a situation. Each situation requires careful thought to discern the specific facts of the circumstances before making a decision. We make ethical decisions based on the state we find ourselves in, not simply acting as if we are in a past situation. “It means Christians have to make specific moral judgments in particular contexts, leading to differing priorities. We face different questions and challenges” (45). I thought here of the traditionalist side of this conversation which can veer towards quoting Scripture passages without careful reflection on their historical context.

The fourth sermon makes a similar argument regarding Scripture, namely, that the historical details matter. A simple appeal to the command (or, perhaps, in this case, slogan) to “love your neighbor” or parroting the biblical prohibitions against homosexuality fails to respect the authority of Scripture. The Scriptures are a record of God’s revelation of Himself in history. As such, the historical details and literary features of each passage matter. Merely quoting Scripture, assuming we already know its meaning, and without paying careful attention to its context disrespects Scripture’s authority. We must think carefully about the text and our current situation. As the two situations dialogue with one another, we learn how to make ethical decisions.

With a theology of Scriptural authority in place, O'Donovan moves to develop an interpretive hermeneutic for this process. A hermeneutic is necessary because all obedience requires thought and understanding. His approach respects the variety contained within the biblical text. Not all passages are interpreted in the same method, nor do all have equal bearing on moral decisions, but all have their role in ethical deliberation. We also have to recognize the distance between us and the text. While this includes historical and cultural distance, it also knows there is a distance of authority. No matter what, we can never come to the text with the assumption we know what it means if the text is to have the final word. If we respect the text’s authority we must be open to changing our minds from what we previously thought each time we read it. “The text and my reading of the text are two things, not one, and the first is the judge of the second” (80).

The sixth sermon is the weakest in the set. In it, he interacts closely with an essay by R. M. Adams titled, “Human Nature, Christian Vocation, and the Sexes”. I found O'Donovan's careful analysis of the argument hard to follow as I am unfamiliar with the original. And some of his philosophical discussions can be hard to follow without familiarity with Aristotle. My basic understanding is that Adams argues Christians should discern ethical reflection from the future eschaton rather than look back from creation. He is then able to create a trajectory that sees homosexual behavior as pointing to the future of Christ’s consummated Kingdom while avoiding asking questions about prior moral intuitions and the subject of creation, which can provide a strong argument for the traditionalist view. O’Donovan, instead, argues we must pay attention to the body because of the Incarnation, that God took a body, and through the body, we can interact with God and the world He created. He also describes how we can discern between what is healthy and sick as an analogy for being able to discern what God intended and what is fallen in creation, a distinction Adams thinks makes it impossible to learn morals through reflection on creation. O'Donovan sees this as trying to reconcile the tension between the creation story and the eschaton inherent in the biblical narrative. Freed of the creation story as a pole of theological reflection, Adams can project what he values onto the future without looking at God's plan in creation. I admire and respect O’Donovan’s attempts to keep the reflection on the tension between God’s good creation and Christ’s redemption of the fallen creation. However, I am not sure I followed the details of his argument enough to say that he convinced me. The piece of his critique that did convince me is that we cannot merely project a vision of the good onto the future and then argue from it, but must ask our moral questions in light of our present, created realities.

In his final sermon, O’Donovan does not bring us to answers and conclusions, but drawing from Rowan Williams’s essay, “Knowing Myself”, develops a series of questions to discern the specific moral vocation of gay Christians in the Church. Gay Christians must answer these for themselves. Other Christians need to befriend them to learn from them. The questions are as follows: “What is the good news for gay Christians? How does the homosexually inclined person show Christ to the world? Is homosexual desire always a sign of disorder? If you do not accept that homosexual desire is a mark of disorder, can you confidently say that the presence of this desire always rules out sexual expression? What wider, broader good does this desire serve? How does it spring out of our strengths, and how does it spring out of our weaknesses? Where in relation to this desire does real fulfillment lie? How is this form of sensibility and feeling shaped by its social context? How it can be clothed in an appropriate pattern of life for the service of God and discipleship of Christ? How are we to understand the particularity of the age in which we live to attest God’s works?” He highlights that for each person, the Gospel is the same, yet the vocation we have, the specific ways it relates to our lives and challenges us, and the specific ways it takes shape in our lives are unique. We cannot assume these answers, but in dialoguing with one another and looking to tradition, how they wrestled with Scripture to answer questions, we can see through our desires to their root to know how to evaluate them in light of the Gospel. In the years since this book, many gay Christians have published reflections that have done just what O’Donovan thought: enriched our understanding of the Gospel.

O’Donovan’s book will disappoint those looking for straightforward answers, but that is this book’s strength. It cuts through the noise of the loudest voices in the debate, raises the theological stakes, and urges us to engage the moral question of same-sex marriage in a humble posture, looking to the authority of Scripture, engaging the tradition, and listening to gay Christians’ experiences before jumping to any conclusion. If every Christian (and the Anglican Communion) listened to this book, we would set out on a process of listening, learning, and discovering that might not lead to any of the answers we now expect to glean, but would hear the Holy Spirit speak again through His Scriptures exactly what we need to hear at this moment in the church’s life. And we would encounter the presence of Christ witnessing His work in the world in people we had not previously listened to.

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