Tonight I am speaking at the Theos gathering at the launch of the new report “Worldviews in Religious Education”. I am speaking in relation to Worldviews and Texts and Teachers, a project I have been working on which advocates teaching RE in a Sacred text scholarship way.

But just as I am getting ready I read that Pope Francis is reported in the Guardian as having said in an interview in a documentary film, Francesco, which premiered at the Rome film festival on Wednesday: 

“Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God. What we have to have is a civil union law; that way they are legally covered.”  (see https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/21/pope-francis-backs-same-sex-civil-unions and also https://www.itv.com/news/2020-10-21/pope-francis-endorses-same-sex-civil-unions-for-first-time-as-pontiff-in-new-documentary-film for an ITV news clip with interviews on reaction)

Pope watchers might not be surprised but to those described as Catholic conservatives it will cause quite a debate. RE classes will now need to factor this in when they explore the topic which is of course a central one to young people. 

But how? 

Traditionally there is an approach to this sort of thing that goes a bit like this:

  • On the one hand conservative Catholics/Christians believe …. blah blah blah
  • On the other hand liberal Catholics/Christians (including Francis!) believe …. blah blah blah

Teachers will recognise this sort of framing. It is framed by an idea that you describe to the students different views within a religion and I should say that many would dispute the use of the words conservative and liberal in this framing, especially when it comes to describing a Pope! There might even be a debate style question on it:

  • arguments for and against, probably using love thy neighbour on the one hand and something from St Paul and the Hebrew Scriptures on the other!

Sacred Text Scholarship would allow us to go deeper than listing of views. An alternative approach would be to explore the scholarship sacred text debate about this. 

Gentile admission as an analogy

One possible place to start is the debate about whether the New Testament Church admission of gentiles was such a cultural revolution, that it could be drawn on as a scriptural reference point for adopting a new culture of inclusion of relationships previously thought unacceptable within traditional Christianity.

This is a debate about among some sacred text scholars and it is well summarised in Engaging Scripture, a great little book by Stephen Fowl of Loyola College, Maryland. It appears in Chapter 4, How the Spirit Reads and how to Read the Spirit, which touches on the perennial challenge for Christians on how to faithfully live and interpret the Bible. Fowl explores this through an understanding of what it means to read the Spirit and how the Spirit reads.

So interpretation is at the heart of the matter, and also at the heart is the extent to which there can be legitimate grounds for cultural revolutions in Christian communities today.  The sacred text scholars have had a lively debate of this kind for some 20 years.

I think students of secondary age doing Religious Education would find it an interesting thing to explore and it fits into big questions such as:

  • “Has revelation finished or is it ongoing?”
  • How should traditions change?”
  • “When is an interpretation an interpretation too far?”
  • “Is there a too far’ when it comes to interpretation in a worldview that has a God who intervenes in history?”
  • “Are interpretations fixed, are some things open to change, or are all things open to change?”
  • “Can we reach a finally settled interpretation of anything? How?“

These are real questions for Christian communities today and real questions for students of hermeneutics and they reach far beyond any single ethical issue. It draws them into a much more hermeneutical way of thinking about these issues and shows more clearly how different Christian worldviews make sense of such important issues today, in relation to their ancient sacred text, the Bible.