Champagne Rules

It became my custom to give up alcohol during Lent. I’m not sure when it started, but by the time I was ordained it was an established practice. With the eagerness of a new curate I was very clear that this was something I would observe, come what may. Like so many of the things we decide with absolute conviction, God is adept at questioning any rule we might turn into an idol. During those first few years of ordained life I found myself on one occasion at a 90th birthday celebration for a parishioner. Naturally, the fizz was circulating in abundance and there was to be a toast. I began to wonder whether my Lenten observance was pharisaical – placing the observance of a rule over its spirit and purpose. At that moment I took a glass and toasted the nonagenarian.

Rules can be very useful, even essential, but it can be important to know when they should be set aside for a greater purpose. In the Church of England the recent debates about same-sex blessings might be another example of the ‘champagne rule’. The moment when we realise that a rule no longer serves the purpose for which it was intended. When the Church realises it is operating a self-denying ordinance that leaves it skulking in the corner when the community we are called to serve is celebrating.

‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.”

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’

Matthew 11: 16-19 NRSV

When we develop or change rules it can be unsettling. Many of those who have changed their mind on the topic of the blessings have done so because they have listened to people in relationships that are enriching each other, and the community: ‘Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds’. I am quite sure that they have also been open in prayer to seek what God is asking of the Church. Opponents simply battering on about marriage as something that has never changed (it has), or investing a particular interpretation and a huge weight on a few verses of the Bible, should not fly in the face of the overall purpose and direction of the Gospel. God is love, and enabling people in love to be blessed in the community does not seem un-Christian.

Perhaps it is only when we arrive at a particular moment, and are open to hear the whisper of wisdom, that we feel able to engage the champagne rules. For me it changed nothing about my overall observance of Lent. In fact, it helped dispel my youthful pride in a holy and sacrificial abstinence. God didn’t allow me to complete Lent with a clean sheet, but ensured that when there was a wedding or a birthday I always raised a glass. As the days of Lent progress it is important to remember that rules alone seldom (if ever) bring us closer to God.

‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law’.

Romans 13:8

One thought on “Champagne Rules

  1. I’ll drink to that, Chris!
    Seriously, though, your article is a breath of fresh air in a very toxic atmosphere that is emanating from many (otherwise) respectable Christian leaders. I wonder how history will judge the current episode in the long line of controversies that have left a trail of disillusionment and hurt in the Christian Church?
    I hope my (and your) openness to new moral insights in the (mine)field of human sexuality may be deemed charitable and wise, in tune with the Spirit.
    I can’t help but wonder whether the acceptance of those with a very different understanding of love and life, will be for us what Simon Peter’s rooftop vision was for him.

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