Enticing unsteady souls into darkness : when ‘mutual listening’ opens the door to false doctrine.
By Dave Doveton – Vice Provost, Cathedral of St Mary the Virgin, Diocese of Port Elizabeth.
The ‘listening process’ in the Anglican Communion
Anglican Bishops at the 1998 Lambeth Conference committed themselves and their churches, through Resolution I.10, ”to listen to the experience of homosexual persons”. At the time it was made clear by bishops of the Global South that any programme of ‘listening’ was to help persons experiencing a homosexual orientation to live in conformity to the churches quoted understanding that homosexual practice was ‘incompatible with Scripture’[i]. In 2005, the Anglican Consultative Council called for a ‘listening process’ to be set up in which there would be ‘mutual listening’ and resources allocated to facilitate ‘study, discussion and reflection’. Provinces were requested to send in materials related to human sexuality. After a process of collating and editing, summaries were posted on the Anglican Communion website, and a book was published, The Anglican Communion and Homosexuality. One of the chapters of the book is a discussion between what is termed ‘a partnered lesbian priest’ and an evangelical theologian. Another chapter reports the ‘testimonies’ of various respondents on how they ‘discovered’ their homosexual ‘identity’. One significant development within this process is said to be the building of relationships with groups which advocate the full acceptance of homosexual behavior within the church. How the aim of the listening process was subverted form the original intention is not my concern in this article, but I am particularly concerned with the dynamics and effect of the ‘listening process’ as presently structured by the Lambeth bureaucracy. This process was never a completely novel technique, despite it being used with some particularly African modifications at the Lambeth Conference in 2008, and dubbed an ‘Indaba process’. For the past 40 years The Episcopal Church, formerly known as the Episcopal Church of the USA, has been encouraging gay members to ‘share their stories’. Even as recently as 2007 the Presiding Bishop urged the ‘telling of our stories’, the aim of which was ‘full sacramental recognition’ of those who self identify as ‘gay and lesbian’[ii] .
The ‘listening process’ in the Anglican Communion is based on a particular methodology. Participants are given specific guidelines ; A listening process is an open commitment to engage actively in the world and thought of the person or people to whom you are listening and a corresponding commitment on the part of the other person or people to enter into yours. It does not presume agreement or disagreement; it presumes a striving for empathy[iii]
It is clear that those participating are expected to suspend all critical faculties; the aim is to arrive at some understanding of the other persons ‘world and thought’ and an empathy with the person. Doctrinal convictions are excluded, they play no part in the process; “…Listening processes are about how another person sees and understands the world and the gospel and not about you making others agree with you, or others making you agree with them”[iv]. On the surface of it, this is a process of value free transactions, but to think that there is no change of conviction involved on the part of the ‘listeners’ is to be deceived along with the listeners. The pro-gay activist group PFLAG is quite openly frank about the effect of this technique; “We change hearts and minds by telling our personal stories…”[v]. Changing Attitude, another group which campaigns for the acceptance of homosexual behavior and even ‘gay marriage’ within the church, state, “Experience shows that whenever a group or society engages with lesbian and gay experience, change occurs. Prejudice and misapprehension is revealed for what it is. Hearts and minds are changed”[vi]
It is without question important that hearts which harbor prejudice against and irrational fear of people who struggle with homosexual tendencies be changed. However, many ‘ex-gay ministries’ engage with lesbian and gay experience every day and are not changed in their belief that gay behavior is wrong. They have a prior conviction, and they are not engaged in an open ended dialogue with people who are in denial of the truth of God’s word.
Listening is a vital part of communication and genuine and vital Christian community. Open face to face sharing helps to clear up misunderstandings, clarify viewpoints, and build trust. It is an opportunity for mutual understanding, and mutual understanding helps foster good relationships, especially where people have widely differing viewpoints on a particular issue. Scripture compels us to face each other when we disagree so that we can bring our points of conflict into the open, resolve them and then direct our energies into mission.
However, the New Testament[vii] is clear that there are times when we should not listen to another; when even admitting a person’s presence into our home would mean we ‘share in their wicked work’[viii].
The use of “Myth” to undermine truth[ix]
In Paul’s letter to Timothy he repeatedly and expressly addresses the topic of doctrinal purity and the responsibility of a church leader to be a steward of correct doctrine. He must guard the good deposit entrusted to him by ‘following the pattern of sound words’ he heard from Paul; he is to then ‘entrust this to faithful men’ who in turn will teach others. It is obvious from the context that he is referring to the passing on of a body of sound doctrine. Timothy is also alerted to the fact that there are those who teach a ‘different doctrine’ and he is instructed to ‘charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine’. This warning about false teachers and their teachings is repeated several times in both letters. Timothy must counter them – false teachers are the source of false doctrine; they must be identified and opposed, so that the flock are not led to ‘ruin and destruction’ (6:9). Sound doctrine conveys truth, but some, Paul says, will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths (2 Timothy 4:3, 4 see also Titus 1:13, 14)
In addition to what Paul calls ‘genealogies’, he lists myths as a source of false teaching. Again, in 1Timothy 4:7 he warns, “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths” as opposed to the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that he has followed. But what are myths? and why are they so dangerous to Timothy’s flock – and of course by implication, we his readers ?
We are not told what particular myths were being propagated by the false teachers, only that they conveyed a false theology of marriage and of creation. We do know however what myths are and how they function. A myth quite simply is a story which has a special function. Storytelling is one of the main means by which humans explore the meaning and purpose in life, to explain why things ‘are as they are’. For example stories of origins or creation myths are found in many cultures and societies. Here I am going to use Myth with a capital ‘M’ to indicate their social significance. These Myths are retold to each succeeding generation – they are ways of expressing a world view and passing that world view on to the next generation.
So, Myth is a special category of story. Here the meaning of Myth is not the modern one – that is a fictional, false or make-believe story or notion. A Myth is quite simply a story which is extremely important and significant for a person or a community. It is a story which provides a model for our behaviour. (In this sense the gospel story functions not only as a historical story, but also as a mythic story – Jesus’ life is an example for us to emulate) By doing this the story gives meaning to what we do and through it we make sense of our lives. If Mythic stories provide value, meaning and purpose to our behaviour they thus become the source of the ethical basis for behaviour; says the renowned authority on world religions Mircea Eliade, “ …(myths) establish and justify all human conduct and activity”[x].
Personal myths and story-patterns
As a young student with some drafting abilities I was often approached to make posters – advertising campus organizations and their events. To make sure my work had consistency and impact, I would use templates and stencils. Thus I could put a message across to the passing public in a more effective way than if I had just written the poster in freehand.
In a similar manner people sharing their experiences and telling their life stories frequently use a storytelling format or pattern which is in accordance with patterns of storytelling in general use within their own culture. These typical story patterns are labeled ‘personal myths’ by psychiatrists and scholars of literature/ narrative forms. These patterns also have a prototypical example.
Academics concerned with the study of personal biography/storytelling have developed methods of identifying these ‘story patterns’ and evaluating the effect of using them both on the storyteller and the listeners. One story pattern commonly used, especially in western cultures is the ‘hero story’. This particular ‘story pattern’ is a favourite of Hollywood filmmakers and forms the plot of many movies made in the last 40 years. The plot of movies from Superman and Spiderman, to Avatar are based on this ‘story pattern’. Using the story pattern adds a compelling ‘power’ and meaning to the story which it would not necessarily have without the format.
a) In the hero story, the main theme is the struggle of the hero against a powerful oppressive force of some sort. The hero is a victim, at times almost overwhelmed and the opponents of the hero in all cases have a negative characterization.
b) The hero/storyteller is alone and exposed in his struggle, often not even supported by family or friends. However in the telling of the story, helpful people appear, giving hope to the hero in his struggle.
c) In the end the hero does not struggle against oppressive forces on his own behalf alone, but also fights for a larger group that he belongs to.
d) The hero fights for a good cause, and his opponents are cast in a bad light.
e) The identity of the hero is gained through his own efforts. The opposition and the crises the hero has to struggle with bring out his best qualities, forming his personality and thus becoming meaningful.
The following is a ‘testimony’ – one of several contained in the Chapter entitled “Sexuality and Identity”[xiii] in “Anglicans and Homosexuality”. It has been shortened for the sake of illustration:
I am N…. a group leader of Changing Attitude Nigeria (CAN) here in Jos……I am from Nkanu local government area of Enuku state Nigeria. I was born into a family of six of which I am the third child. I have four brothers and a sister.
…Right from my younger age I noticed that I have feelings for the same sex as myself. When I see men I fall for them more easily than a female. So I will say that I am born with it, it is an inborn thing. I never made myself that way, but I grew up to find myself this way. I know God made me this way.
….As I can recall very well, in the year 2003, I went with some of my friends to a party in Port Harcourt where I was arrested with some others and we spent two good weeks in a police cell. Then it was a hard time for me, because my father got to know about it but as I have said before, he never said anything to me. If not for God’s intervention and some people who stood by us then, it would have been a different story. I was there in person and I can tell you how it feels like when your society does not accept you and you have a lot to offer your society. You just feel like an outcast. But I have always drawn courage from Mr Mac-Iyalla who have been bold to come out of the closet.
… But back in Jos I got the invitation to join the first meeting of CAN in Abuja.. For the first time in my life I noticed gay Christians coming together to form a group. I never imagined it happening in my life and it made me feel relieved. I asked myself a question, How can Christians who are gays come together to form a group? For the first time I found myself being accepted and also that I can work for God and still be myself. With that spirit I came back to Jos and opened the CAN chapter of Jos group which has been growing in numbers.
Roesler’s outline is clearly discernable in this ‘story’ as it is in most other autobiographical testimonies of this type which we may call ‘personal myth’. It conforms to the typical autobiographical ‘hero story’ , and so do many others in the ‘listening process’.
To recap, Mythic stories have a hero; usually he/she is in a battle against oppressive forces, is often a victim of the powerful and usually has to overcome fearsome obstacles of one sort or another. Mythic stories engender certain responses in their audience (or the reader, if the story is in book form – books, television, plays, films all contain mythic themes). Most in the audience would identify with the hero and feel empathy with his/her struggle against overwhelming odds. They may also admire the hero and see him/her as a person worth emulating.
The power of Myth to shape our thinking and our value system
Thus, it is not only doctrinal statements that convey beliefs and ideological frames of reference; these are also conveyed through narrative and myth – the telling of stories. Many other religions and belief systems lay claim to the truth, and they use Myth to convey their beliefs and values. Because Myths convey values they are never neutral, and of course they can convey values that are antithetical to the gospel. By doing this they undermine doctrine; they subvert the truth and propagate a lie. Autobiographical stories or testimonies, if repeated often enough and if they follow the pattern of a mythic story come to function as myth, and capture peoples’ imagination; also engendering empathy and identification with the storyteller, especially if the story is autobiographical – the storyteller becomes the hero. There is also the possibility of emotional attachment and a sort of sentimentalism in which the listener suspends critical evaluation. In the case of the ‘listening process’ all of these conditions pertain.
The power of Myth to shape our ‘identity’ and the way we perceive the ‘identity’ of others
Myths are also ways of establishing identity. All myths function as identity myths – they enable the individual “to understand his place in the world, to grasp the dimensions of being human, to comprehend limits and purpose and perhaps to give meaning to human existence”[xiv].
Scientific research confirms the power of mythic story to shape our sense of identity. Neuropsychologists have found that myths and stories are directly instrumental in the psychological development of people, producing a sense of identity and shaping the way we think, feel and behave. They also impart self understanding and a sense of our place in the world. Neuropsychological functions in the brain itself enable us to respond to the stories by which we form our identities and find meaning and purpose in life[xv].
“Identity itself can be understood as a life story, initially composed in late adolescence or early adulthood, which gathers remembered events, current circumstances, and future anticipations into an internalized integrated, personal myth.” [xvi]
If a Myth functions to define identity, it follows that if a group of people accept that particular myth, it functions as a societal myth – that is, it defines a group identity, it defines boundaries. Those who accept that they are members of the group achieve their identity in ‘belonging’ . Within the group the individual obtains his identity, he feels comfortable. Outside of the group he feels different, insecure, even alienated, so the group myth functions to reinforce boundaries, to assure the individual he is different from those outside the group.[xvii]
This process not only serves to construct an identity which is acceptable to a small group within a society, it can also subvert the rest of the society into accepting what they may not initially agree with. The French literary theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes[xviii] shows how myth is used to ‘naturalise’ assumptions, values and notions (eg the notion that there is a ‘gay identity’) within a society so that even notions that may once have been strange or alien are eventually unquestioningly assumed as ‘given’ in a society. Through these notions, certain values become embedded in a society. For Barthes, mythic language serves the ideological interests of the ruling class in a society; it is used to make “values, attitudes and beliefs seem entirely ‘natural’, ‘normal’, self-evident, timeless, obvious ‘common-sense’ – and thus objective and ‘true’ reflections of ‘the way things are’”[xix]. Cultural elites in western democracies through political and corporate influence and through the myth-making power of the media have advanced the ‘gay’ agenda to normalize what was previously a taboo behavior by naturalizing the notion of ‘gay identity’[xx]. By conflating attraction, desire and behavior with identity, behaviour is removed from the moral sphere. The consequence of accepting this conflation of behaviour with ‘identity’ is that there is no longer any basis for moral judgment on any behaviour.
By simply accepting what has happened in society, the church falls victim to an ideological subversion of its doctrines and becomes complicit in deconstructing the moral foundations of the society.
Underlying the clamour to listen to persons who experience homosexual desires and want to assert a ‘gay identity’ is the assertion that we will discover something we did not already know. This underlying belief is evident in many of the published website pages on the ‘listening process’ Communion site. For example part 24 of the recommendations of the Winsor Continuation Group states that the “Anglican way (is) a readiness to acknowledge that Christian disciples discern God’s truth by learning to wait upon one another, and that it takes the whole Church to know the whole truth.”[xxi] This implies that the fixed body of received doctrine that we adhere to is not sufficient to know the ‘whole truth’ . There is some further vital essential, not peripheral , truth. It is a version of the Gnostic heresy that truth resides in people, not in external objective doctrinal formulations, thus also this proposal, “The hope is that it will encourage you, if it is possible in your own context, to get to know other Christians whose personal experience gives them particular insights into questions of sexuality and identity”.[xxii]
One comes across this idea in quite subtle ways in ministry. One example I clearly remember was the belief that Catholic priests are not suitably qualified to do pre marital teaching and counselling, because they have never experienced what it is like to be married. It may be true that those who have particular experience of a life situation, good or bad may be able to empathise better those who have the same experience, but experience is not the same as revelation.
Examining the process whereby people with homosexual desires or tendencies ‘tell their stories’ it is clear that most of them fit into a ‘hero story pattern’ . The telling of their story then functions as a way of finding and establishing their identity, then asserting it . They find in this way identification with others who self identify as ‘gay’. Because a group of people have accepted the Myth, it becomes a societal Myth and all who accept the Myth constitute themselves as a distinct group with boundaries.
As they then ‘tell their story’ to others (especially those who suspend critical evaluation of that to which they are listening) the Myth exercises a profound and often unconscious influence on the listeners. These ‘listening exercises’ have served to influence those at the highest level in the Episcopal Church over the past 40 years – to the extent that they have changed their doctrinal stance regarding the ethics of homosexual behavior without major doctrinal debates on the subject.[xxiii] They continue to use this strategy to spread their error and so undermine other Churches in the Anglican Communion.
It is clear that the metaphoric, non-rational dynamic of the ‘listening process’ abstracted from rational theological debate, exercises a powerful and subversive influence on the doctrinal convictions of Christians. It becomes understandable why Paul advises Timothy to both evaluate ‘mythic’ stories with apostolic doctrine and ban those who insist on teaching ‘mythic’ doctrines which conflict with sound doctrine. Established doctrine, then has always been the yardstick to test whether a certain behaviour conforms to the truth or not.
Those who continue to participate in a ‘listening process’ where heterodox views are disseminated, are in direct disobedience to the teaching of Holy Scripture. They open themselves together with those they lead to deception, the undermining of their faith and ultimately apostasy.
[i][i] Part of resolution 1.10, Lambeth 1998. See Charles Raven, Shadow Gospel: Rowan Williams and the Anglican Communion Crisis, The Latimer Trust, 2010, p 89.
[ii] Sermon 7/4/2007 Christ Church Cathedral, Boston;
[iii] Anglican communion official website; http://www.anglicancommunion.org/listening/whatis.cfm
[iv] Anglican Communion official website;
[v] Message from PFLAG on the official website of St John United Church of Christ;
[vii] Also the Old Testament; Nehemiah refused to engage with Sanballat, despite Sanballat’s repeated attempts to engage him in mutual counsel (Nehemiah 6:2-8).
[viii] 2 John 10. To prevent deception of the wider church – see also 1 John 2:26, 3:7; 1 Timothy 1:3ff.
[ix] I am indebted to Dr Vishal Mangalwadi who pointed out this relationship between myth and sound doctrine to me in a private conversation.
[x] Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality. Trans. Willard R. Trask. New York: Harper & Row, 1963, p 5.
[xi] Roesler, Christian, A narratological methodology for identifying archetypal story patterns in autobiographical narratives, Journal of Analytical Psychology,Volume 51, Issue 4, pages 574–586, September 2006.
[xii] The outline is cast in masculine terms for clarity of exposition, but is in reality gender- neutral.
[xiii] Anglican Communion official website: http://www.anglicancommunion.org/listening/book_resources/3.1.cfm
[xiv] Gerald A Larue, “Ancient myth and modern man”,Prentice-Hall, Englewood cliffs, New Jersey, 1975,P183
[xv] John A Teske, NEUROMYTHOLOGY: BRAINS AND STORIES, Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science, March 2006, Vol. 41 Issue 1, p169-196.
[xvi] Teske P188 Teske summarises Mc Adam’s view. (McAdams, Dan P , 1988, Power,Intimacy and the Life Story, NewYork, Guilford)
[xvii] Teske p185.
[xviii] Barthes, Roland, Mythologies, tr Annette Lavers, Hill and Wang, New York, 1972.
[xix] Chandler, Daniel (1994): Semiotics for Beginners [WWW document] URL http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/semiotic.html [retrieved on 12 July 2011]
[xx] This appears to have happened in the past, within the social structure of Rome. Initially the Romans were averse to the homosexuality within Greek culture, but by the time of the early imperial age, “Homosexuality….may have ceased to be merely another practice of personal pleasure and began to be viewed as an essential and central category of personal identity, exclusive of and antithetical to heterosexual orientation.” – Thomas K. Hubbard, Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents, University of California Press, 2003, p. 386.
[xxi] Anglican Communion official website;
[xxii] Anglican Communion Official website; http://www.anglicancommunion.org/listening/book_resources/3.1.cfm
[xxiii] Frank Griswold, former Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, admits that the church’s actions in permitting same-sex unions, ordaining practicing homosexuals and eventually consecrating them to the episcopate “came as part of an at least 40 year listening process”; see http://www.ecusa.anglican.org/3577_72769_ENG_HTM.htm