Policemen & shepherds

Published in Movement magazine issue 115 September 2003

I'm writing this column as the Anglican Church disgraces itself over the aborted appointment of an openly gay bishop. I'm sure that many 'ordinary' believers, whatever their position on this matter, are as angry and upset as I am about the discourtesy and hurt done to individuals, and the damage to the standing of Christianity as a whole in Britain. When people set out to tar and feather we all get splattered.

But behind the immediate arguments, of which we've all had far too much, there are models and mindsets which shape how these disputes proceed. I'm not talking about theological or doctrinal matters themselves, but about the ways in which those matters are put into play - the chessboard beneath the pieces. Because at moments like this it's striking how some people seek confrontation over symbolic issues, while others, who may have the same opinions theologically, can peacefully accommodate those they disagree with.

In order to draw my chessboard I need to make use of some concepts taken [probably naively] from mathematical set theory. Sets are groups of things that belong together. A 'closed set' is defined by a boundary - all that is inside belongs to the set, all that is outside does not. An 'open set' has no such 'territorial' boundary, but is defined by relationship with a centre: all that is moving towards the centre, seeking relationship, belongs; all that is moving away, abandoning relationship, does not.

Applying this to the Church, 'closed set' believers have a 'territorial' concept of God's kingdom, enclosed within a boundary. Membership comes through crossing the boundary in an act of conversion. Once inside the territory, care must be taken not to cross the boundary again. For 'open set' believers, membership of the Kingdom is defined by movement towards or away from Christ as centre. There are still those that belong and those that don't, but you can't separate them easily, let alone state who's in and who's out once and for all. Those who appear to be close to Christ may be moving away from him, those that seem far away may be heading towards him. C.S. Lewis makes the point in 'Mere Christianity' that choosing God is an ongoing process, and that all our choices add up to a direction towards or away from God. So for open-set believers the Kingdom consists of, or at least is present in, those who are moving towards Christ - following him one might say - whether they are conscious of it [yet] or not.

For closed-set believers, how one defines the boundary is crucial. In many respects it determines the nature of the territory within. A boundary-defining issue need not be central to the faith, but as the 'border crossing' it is taken as the litmus test of whether one accepts the central matters of the faith or not. And so it is that a marginal element of Christian belief, or a matter less remarked-on in other times and places, becomes contested with such hysteria and venom. From the point of view of closed-set believers, the integrity of the boundary is vital. If it is breached, the entire territory within is under threat. And so any concession on the boundary issue is seen as threatening the integrity and even existence of the whole Church.

Borders require policing, and policemen. In a mobile world, fixed borders will always appear to be under siege because people will always be bumping against them. So the closed-set model will experience a changing world as a threat - because it is a threat, to the impermeability of borders. Open-set believers are concerned less with defence than with discernment. They scan the crowd to see which direction people are moving in, individually and en masse. Having no borders to police, they intervene more as shepherds - seeking to direct the flows, towards Christ and better pasture. Their kingdom map is provisional, a matter of hunches and possibilities rather than certainties. For open-set believers, no single issue is enough to determine the fate of a person or the Church.

I find open-set belief more true to the world, and to the gospel. After all, the wheat grows with the tares. The first shall be last. Not everyone who says "Lord, Lord" will enter the kingdom. By their fruit you will know them. Do not judge. The open-set model helps me understand why those at the 'centre' of the Church can do evil while the anti-religious shine as saints. It reminds me that even the worst can head towards God, and that even the best need to watch their direction.

Which set theory one adheres to has nothing to do with whether one's positions on specific doctrines are liberal or conservative. Liberals can defend single-issue boundaries with militant certainty, expelling those who disagree. Conservatives can have strong opinions on direction without making rigid judgements or picking battles. I'm not sure that closed-set correlates to modern and open-set to postmodern, but there are definite affinities. It's hard for the two approaches to coexist. Each offends against the other's proprieties. Closed-set people think open-set people unprincipled or weak because they will not stand and fight. Open-set people think closed-set people intolerant and controlling. I suspect Rowan Williams is an open-set believer. And it's hard for open-set believers to prosper in an institution that chose a closed-set model in the days of Constantine [if not before]. But I do not believe that such has been the entire story of God's people. Boundaries offer clarity and security. But for good and ill they are more permeable than some would like to admit.

For set theory diagrams see set theory

top | Set theory >>