Most of the world was surprised this week when Ireland voted overwhelmingly in a popular referendum to legalize gay marriage — the first country in the world to make that decision through a popular vote. Ireland. For centuries, one of the most traditionally Roman Catholic countries in the world. And one in which, until recently, the Roman Church held enormous influence and power. And a church which still officially teaches that gay marriage is wrong.
It seems appropriate that this revolutionary vote took place around the time of Pentecost, when we are reminded that the Spirit sometimes invites us into places we would never have expected to find ourselves. That certainly seems to be where much of the Roman Catholic hierarchy currently finds itself, and they seem uncertain just how to respond. An Irish bishop commented, in the aftermath of the vote, that the church really needs to search its own soul, and understand how it has become disconnected from the sensibilities of the Irish people, particularly the younger generations. This bishop publicly worried that the church risked irrelevance if it didn’t engage in some serious reevaluation of itself. That is a rare thing to hear a Roman Catholic prelate say. On the other hand, the Vatican’s Secretary of State — another bishop, and one of the more powerful members of the hierarchy — reportedly called the Irish vote a “defeat for humanity.”
I myself was disappointed to learn that the Anglican Church in Ireland was also less than enthusiastic about this referendum. Ireland’s only female Anglican bishop wrote against the referendum in advance of the vote, saying that God prefers that children be raised in a traditional family structure. And some in the Irish Anglican church took pains to point out after the vote that same-sex marriage, while civilly legal, would not be conducted in Irish Anglican churches, and Irish Anglican clergy would not be allowed to be involved in them. It seems that the Roman Catholic Church is not the only Christian community that is in need of some soul-searching.
What disappoints me, but doesn’t really surprise me, about the reactions of much of the religious hierarchies to the Irish referendum is that it fails to entertain a revolutionary possibility: that the Irish vote may be a work of the Spirit, seeking to teach the church something new that the church refuses to hear. There is an arrogance, particularly among hierarchically structured churches, that the Spirit is only able to speak through official channels, populated by officially authorized persons (usually bishops). There is a presumption that the church somehow controls the Spirit — or, perhaps more accurately, a presumption that the Spirit would never dream of going outside official channels. It is an arrogant assumption that truth is somehow the property of the church, rather than something that belongs to God.
I find myself wanting to repeat a quote I used in last week’s post, which is actually a part of the Gospel reading assigned for this Sunday:
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’
The verse is something of a play on words, since “wind” and “Spirit” is the same in the Greek in which John’s Gospel was originally written. Jesus’ point is clear: no one can presume to control the movement of the Spirit, the dynamic, living divine energy that moves in the world according to God’s choice, not ours. The Spirit does not belong to the church — rather, the church belongs to the Spirit.
We are accustomed to equating truth with power: those in power have the truth, and vice versa. Of course, we challenge this all the time (how many people, for example, think that powerful politicians have much of a handle on truth these days?), and yet our thought remains structured around this equation, power=truth; or, at least the right to say what the truth is. A careful reading of the gospels shows the way in which Jesus undermines this traditional thought structure (which was even more embedded in his world than in ours). Jesus is constantly pointing to those in power as having lost the truth, and he is constantly pointing to those who are disempowered — the marginalized of society — as being possessors of it. For Jesus, the movement of the Spirit — and of truth — is from the margins to the center, not the other way around.
Ireland is, I think, for us today an example of precisely this dynamic. The Spirit is speaking truth about human life and human relationships from the popular margins toward the center of the church’s power structure, and those in that center seem for the most part not to want to hear it. The question is, will they remain intransigent? If they do, they will indeed become irrelevant, as the Irish population — and others around the world — are carried on the winds of a new truth that is blowing against the bulwark of Christianity but so far, only getting in through some small cracks here and there.
Will church leaders continue to bewail what they see as the abandonment of “the truth” by larger and larger numbers of people, until no one is coming to their churches anymore? Or, will they begin to entertain the possibility that the Spirit is out there, outside the centers of ecclesiastical power, calling for a spiritual revolution just as Jesus did centuries ago?