My friend and former colleague David Runcorn has written a reflection on the use of the Bible in relation to the issue of same-sex relations, and it is available on the Fulcrum website. In many ways, it functions as a methodological justification for his contribution in an appendix to the Pilling report.
As ever, David writes lucidly with spiritual insight and pastoral sensitivity, and he helpfully concludes each section with a ‘note to self’ on the pastoral and hermeneutical issues:
Note to self: I am part of this journey too. Whatever ‘straight’ means in this context it never means straight-forward!
Note to self: strength of conviction is no guarantee that I am right. I will live with conviction but hold my ‘certainties’ with respectful suspicion. Others have thought my thoughts before me – and they too knew they were right….
Some of these offer perceptive and self-aware observations about the process of interpreting the Bible. But as they go on, I think David inadvertently says some extraordinary things, and I believe there are some significant problems with the way he deploys these in relation the current debate.
His article starts with the example of Apartheid South Africa, where confidence in what the Bible was saying depending on living in a socially closed world, immune from critical reflection from alternative communities with different perspectives.
Apartheid means ‘the state of being apart’ (not unlike the word ‘Pharisee’). To a significant degree this became a theological as well as social reality in South Africa. Faith and ethics were founded on the hermeneutics of a closed world.
He goes on to cite Richard Burridge’s Inclusive Ethics:
For Burridge their stories stand as a warning ‘to those who wish to use Biblical narratives as a guide for the ethical behaviour today’ and against searching the Bible for rules or commands to apply to complex contemporary issues. Indeed this ‘may even call this entire approach to the Bible of looking for models for today into question’
This is an important issue: the process of interpretation needs critical reflection from the whole range of possible perspectives. But it strikes me as an odd place to start in relation to this debate. I am sure there are ‘traditionalist’ churches which are socially closed, but that is not the case for most of the people and places that I know. Indeed, it would be hard to have maintained closed boundaries over the last 20 years or so. For one thing, even a medium-sized congregation will have perhaps 2-300 people amongst the immediate family and close friends of those attending, so statistically there are likely to be several families with members identifying as gay or experiencing same-sex attraction.
For another, all the main proponents that I know have gone out of their way to engage with contrary views—as in the dialogue between Andrew Goddard and Giles Goddard on Fulcrum. Last November I attended a seminar where Robert Gagnon, a key advocate for the ‘traditional’ position, presented a paper at the Queer Hermeneutics seminar at SBL engaging in person with William Loader, an advocate of the ‘revisionist’ position. This is hardly a closed hermeneutic!
The role of Jesus
David’s next section makes an impassioned plea that we move beyond the polarities in this current debate, moving beyond a simple and perhaps simplistic understanding of right and wrong. He is speaking here from his pastoral heart, but it also links this to the New Testament.
Then and now there are ways of being scrupulously ‘biblical’ that lead away from Christ.
Because the “conservative” side of the argument tends to focus on specific biblical texts, it is often the case that the “liberal” discussion features Jesus more prominently—in particular, his table fellowship with sinners and his opposition to legalism. But the question here is, which Jesus are we thinking about? Very often in these discussions, Jesus can look like a liberated, relaxed modern figure who isn’t hung up with sexual mores—in other words, he looks very much like us. But the Jesus of the gospels, read in their historical context, looks rather different.
Note to self: Christian ethics is not for reducing to right or wrong choices. It is about primarily about what story I wish to be part of. My choices will flow from that.
Here I think David, and with him Craig Uffman whom he quotes, is misunderstanding the nature of ‘virtue’ ethics. It’s very clear that Jesus, and Paul, and the whole of the New Testament, are concerned about the formation of virtuous character. But such virtuous characters act in certain ways, and this is part of what Jesus means when he talks about “by their fruit you shall know them”.
I agree with David Runcorn that the sexuality debate is often too simplistic. But if we want to end up with an ethic which avoids all binary opposition, all polarisation into right and wrong, then we’re going to have to move a long way from Jesus’ teaching in the gospels.
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matt 7.13–14)
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven. (Matt 7.21)
These challenges don’t just cut both ways, they cut every way you could possibly imagine! And no one side in this discussion can hijack Jesus’ teaching here. But the gospels leave us with the awkward reality that the Jesus they testify to was able both to welcome and eat with sinners, and still adhere to the strictest code of sexual ethics.”Liberals” have been good at the former, “conservatives” have been good at the latter, but only Jesus appears to manage both.
Now the Bible has no such league table of sins. Nor would homosexuality would be at the top if it did – attracting so relatively little attention compared to other moral issues.
No indeed, and the only really plausible explanation for this is that there was no possibility for Jesus or for Paul that same sex relations (put in any context) could be seen as ethically acceptable.
‘In seeking to follow Jesus, we are called not merely to obey his ethical ‘strenuous commands’ in the pursuit of holiness but also to imitate his deeds and his words, which call his hearers to merciful and loving acceptance of everyone, including and especially those whom some consider to be sinners, without preconditions.’
I am not sure who David is quoting here, but this seems a very strange way of reading the gospels to me. “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1.15) seems to have a fairly clear precondition. “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more” (John 8.11) includes a strenuous demand for a change of life. To keep company with Jesus does not simply mean to be accepted as we are, it means also being prepared for radical transformation. This is true whatever our views of our own sexuality.
David’s section on the Word in Community is a plea for us to take notice of ordinary readers of Scripture. Again, I think there is an important hermeneutical principle here, and I have learned much by simply asking others what they see in a text. Just as the Reformation took a stand against the mediation of truth through the priesthood, we too need to question power plays involved in the mediation of the truth of Scripture by authority figures. But we cannot discern the truth by simply aggregating the views of readers. If that were so, Jesus would have said ‘Facebook will set you free.’
There has, in fact, been quite a lot of research done on both ordinary theology and ordinary hermeneutics, that is, the way that members of congregations in churches actually read and make sense of the Bible. Some of the conclusions are quite startling. Jeff Astley, in his Grove booklet P 110 Taking Ordinary Theology Seriously, discovers that many ordinary Anglicans do not believe in the divinity of Christ, as expressed in the gospels and the creeds, neither do they believe that in any objective sense Jesus death has “saved” us. (Interestingly, this was more prevalent in “liberal” churches, much less the case in “evangelical” churches.) What is Astley’s response to this?
Should we not acknowledge this ‘multi-dimensional’ nature of Christian belief? And therefore the multi-dimensional nature of the person and work of Christ? This perspective would permit many christologies and soteriologies, and this may be a strength rather than a weakness in the church.
Faced by the evidence of the ordinary theology of other people, the reaction of many of us (not only clergy) is to strive to amend it. With a little more humility, and a lot more patient theological listening, might we not come to feel that—sometimes, at least—another’s theology can correct our own?
In other words, ‘orthodox’ understandings of who Jesus is and what he does are not shared by many in the pews, and they can be a barrier to admitting people into membership of the church. So the obvious thing to do is to abandon them—or at the very least be highly flexible.
We do need to listen to “ordinary theology”, but we also need to do something more.
Note to self: my neighbour’s story must be received as I would receive Christ. It is their personal ‘holy scripture’.
As a plea for serious respect of those we encounter, David is making an important pastoral statement here. But as an expression of the interaction between scripture and experience, this is really quite extraordinary. It suggests that we need to take a radical reader response approach to Scripture; its only meaning is the meaning I construct from it. This position actually silences Scripture; it prevents us hearing the Word of God as something that comes to us from beyond ourselves and beyond our experience.
Mission and fruitfulness
I found the section on mission the oddest part of David’s whole argument, and the least coherent. Perhaps we should indeed consider using the ‘Gamaliel’ test on this whole issue:
‘For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God’ (Acts 5.38–39).
The slight difficulty here is that, both globally and nationally, this would suggest we should be ‘traditional’ on the question of same-sex relations. It is consistently the case that the churches advocating traditional morality are the ones who are seeing more growth or less decline than churches of other theological traditions. The church in Sweden has become almost invisible; in the US, the Episcopal Church is miniscule compared with more conservative denominations. You can see one or two pointers to this within the new research on church growth and the recent articles in the Church Times. But little attention is drawn to it; this is not even a politically correct thing to mention within the Church of England! And David’s own story supports this. It seems unlikely that he would have come to faith within the tradition that he now espouses. I am not here, in fact, advocating the Gamaliel test; but if we do advocate it, we need to follow through.
The scandal of the first Christian church before the watching world was that it was radically including in its expression of human relationships…
… though of course the one exception to this was on the question of sexual ethics…
…The irony is that today the scandal of the church in the Western world is reversed. Resistance to…the acceptance of faithful same-sex relationships is experienced as an excluding sexual ethic. To many in our society it is offensive…
Indeed it is, and when we reflect that the period when the church was a scandal and offence to society was its period of greatest growth in all of history, we are left with a dilemma.
To my mind, the argument about “trajectory” is the most muddled. David cites his former colleague in Bristol, who went on to be Bishop of Bolton, David Gillett:
‘For me this process of interpretation has led to significant changes in belief and attitude, most clearly in five main areas –
Creation and Evolution
Divorce and remarriage
Women in Leadership
Same-sex attraction and partnerships.
For me, as for many others, this process is so closely linked throughout that it is important to look at the last one as part of a continuous hermeneutical development.’
But this assumes that the shape of the issue, and the nature of the debate, in each case is the same, or at least, has strong parallels. Even a cursory exploration of the questions shows that this is simply not the case. The question of science and faith is much more to do with understandings of philosophy and modernity than it has to do with changes in the way the Bible was read, as is explained clearly here. Dick France demonstrated long ago that the hermeneutical issues on women’s leadership are of a completely different configuration from the issues in relation to same-sex unions. On these other issues, Scripture speaks in a nuanced, ambivalent and multivocal way. On same-sex unions, when it does speak it is unequivocal and univocal. This is not to suggest that that settles the pastoral or missional question simpliciter, but it demonstrates that the parallels mentioned are more imagined than real.
I did have an online conversation about this with David Gillett. How, I asked, could it be a question of ‘trajectory’ when the direction of the Bible from OT to NT was more restrictive and not less. Ah, it is not about trajectory, but about the inclusion principle. And who do we look to as exemplars of this? Jesus and Paul—who both reinforced ‘traditional’ Jewish ethics in this area, Jesus in his condemnation of ‘immoralities’ (not just ‘adultery’) (Mark 7.21) and Paul in Romans 1 and 1 Cor 6.
On Being Wrong
These are very challenging times and complex issues. The wisdom we need for these days will be hard won. But the transforming gift of the gospel is never found in the security of being right. It is actually revealed in the joy of being wrong. In fact it is essential that we are wrong! Our narrow vision, our tribal agendas, our lesser securities, our limited understandings, must be constantly broken open by divine grace.
I entirely agree with David in this comment. And of course it means that he must be open to admit his own conviction is mistaken. Given that this is not about a simple ‘live and let live’, but actually, as we can see above, raises central issues of how we read the Bible, how we encounter God as ‘other’, the nature of discipleship and transformation, then I sincerely hope he is wrong. And the fact that the issues listed by Gillett did not raise the same questions in the same way further sets this issue apart.
Reading his piece did make me think of someone looking down the well of history, and at the bottom seeing, not the Jesus and gospel of the New Testament—but his own, bearded, postmodern face looking back. Lack of certainty is not the answer to this debate. Somehow or other, the Jesus of the gospels manages to combine absolute certainty and confidence in the message of the kingdom, with an unparalleled warmth and humility. It is this Jesus we need to focus on as we continue to debate, and this Jesus we need to emulate, in both his confidence and his humility.