Andrew Goddard writes: As set out in my shorter summary, I believe the three articles entitled “Same Sex Marriage & Scripture: Affirming Evangelical Response” which were commissioned by Jayne Ozanne for her Via Media blog are significant and helpful responses to the Oct 2018 letter from the Bishop of Blackburn and ten other evangelical Church of England bishops. In the previous post I responded to David Gillett’s proposal for re-reading Genesis 2. I now turn to the second article of the three.
David Atkinson: Covenanted Friendship, Sex, Pastoral Accommodation, Blessing, Conscience
The inter-connection of the doctrine of marriage and the doctrine of created humanity is something of which Bishop David Atkinson, the second author, is acutely aware. As a result, his article and its theological method and conclusions are often significantly different. Recognising and exploring these differences opens up some interesting fresh lines of enquiry. These are important for both those who initially seem broadly to share his conclusions (like the other two Davids) and those who initially seem broadly to reject them (like the 11 bishops).
Covenantal friendship in a fallen world?
The most obvious sign of a different approach here is perhaps the refusal to argue, in the way David Gillett does, for same-sex marriage. David Atkinson warns the bishops against identifying “the wording of Canon Law and various Resolutions about heterosexual marriage with ‘the teaching of Scripture’” and rightly reminds us that “Christian understanding of the ‘Scriptural teaching’ on marriage and sexuality has developed”. His concern, however, is not to find a biblical justification for same-sex marriage in the Genesis creation accounts and he explicitly writes that “Jesus endorses the Genesis teaching about humanity in God’s image, male and female”. His concern is rather to ask “how is a Christian gay person to make optimum moral sense of his or her life?” and to encourage us to accept “freedom of conscience to disagree” in our answers to this question.
David Atkinson’s citing of Jesus’ teaching on divorce (on which his own earlier work proved so influential for many evangelicals) and description of it as “the best way of making optimum moral sense of a less than ideal situation” is striking. It points to the fact that challenges may still be offered to the bishops’ approach without reworking the doctrine of creation to embrace a range of patterns of sexuality or redefining the doctrine of marriage to include same-sex couples. Instead, in relation to the experience of gay and lesbian people, the challenge to the bishops may be raised in terms of how we best navigate the complexities of living as fallen creatures within a fallen world. This would appear to be an approach that owes much to the writings of Helmut Thielicke and Lewis Smedes and results more in a form of what Oliver O’Donovan and the Pilling Report spoke of in terms of “pastoral accommodation”.
Similarly, David Atkinson explicitly does not argue for same-sex marriage. He wishes instead to commend a form of same-sex relationship as “not incompatible with the doctrine of Holy Matrimony that is affirmed in Canon B 30”, suggesting that it is “possible for a gay couple to make an act of exclusive, loving commitment within a permanent covenanted relationship and to experience God’s blessing in doing so, and find their lives displaying the fruit of God’s Spirit”. What is required therefore is “a broader evangelical theology of covenanted same-sex friendship than can be found in what the bishops refer to as ‘Anglican tradition’” not a new theology of marriage.
This approach raises a different set of questions and in turn is open to a different line of critical questioning. My suspicion is that at least some, perhaps most, of the 11 bishops would be in agreement on the potential in the church exploring a form of “covenanted same-sex friendship”. It is interesting for example, that Bishop Bill Love’s recent letter in the US opposing same-sex marriage rites is clear that
the Bible does not forbid two people of the same sex from loving one another in the sense of caring deeply or having a strong sense of affection for one another. Strong friendships are a blessing and gift. As already mentioned, God commands us to love one another both male and female. The Bible doesn’t forbid two people of the same sex from sharing a home or life together. It doesn’t forbid two people of the same sex from being legal guardians for one another or health care proxies for one another. All God has said through Holy Scripture regarding relations between two men or two women is that they should not enter into sexual relations with one another, and that marriage is reserved for the joining together of a man and woman.
The question is how that form of friendship is to be defined. David Atkinson’s fascinating suggestion is that a canon could state
The Church of England also recognizes that there are circumstances in which an individual may justifiably choose to enter into a covenanted partnership, permanent, exclusive and life-long, with a person of the same sex, with the hope of enjoying loving companionship similar to that which is to be found in marriage. Such a partnership is not incompatible with the doctrine of Holy Matrimony that is affirmed in Canon B 30.
This makes clear that the relationship is “similar to” marriage and not marriage. The similarities are seen in it being marked as “covenanted…permanent, exclusive and life-long” and being entered “with the hope of enjoying loving companionship similar to that which is to be found in marriage”.
The question of sex
In considering this proposal, one important question is why the partnership is “exclusive” and what is meant by this. This relates to at least two aspects. One of the hallmarks of “friendship” as a pattern of life is that – unlike “marriage” – it is not “exclusive” in its focus but plural and diverse: we are to have many friends, but only one spouse. The answer here may be that just as marriage has traditionally been seen as a particular and exclusive form of friendship, so this pattern of same-sex covenanted partnership is also a particular and exclusive form of friendship. The two partners have other friends just as spouses have other friends but none of them are this sort of friend to either of them. Their form of friendship with one another is, like the friendship of husband and wife, consciously and publicly qualitatively different from all of their other friendships (not least in it being, like the friendship of marriage, a covenanted and life-long friendship, unlike other friendships).
Much more contentious is something about which David Atkinson is almost wholly silent. When used of marriage, the word “exclusive” includes within it, even has a focus on, the clear sense of sexual exclusivity. It is noteworthy that he describes the wording of the canon as “taking our cue from some wording in the forgotten 1979 Gloucester Report”. Although he does not cite the wording he has in mind it would appear to be that found in para 168:
In the light of some of the evidence we have received we do not think it possible to deny that there are circumstances in which individuals may justifiably choose to enter into a homosexual relationship with the hope of enjoying a companionship and physical expression of sexual love similar to that which is to be found in marriage.
The most obvious and significant difference between this and his own proposed canon is the canon lacks any reference to “enjoying…physical expression of sexual love”. What are we to make of this important omission?
Part of the logic is perhaps that (despite the arguments to the contrary proposed by Vasey whose 1995 work Strangers and Friends is cited), the traditional view of friendship – which distinguishes it from marriage – is the absence of exactly such “physical expression of sexual love”. Unlike many in contemporary society, the church does not support the idea of “friends with benefits”. It is precisely the presence of such sexual activity in most same-sex unions that explains both why many of the advocates seek to call them marriage and why the bishops are opposed to their acceptance and liturgical celebration by the church.
Related to this is the importance, and definition, of chastity for Christians. The bishops in their letter oppose any affirmation of a sexual union other than marriage because they believe in “faithfulness and chastity both within and outside marriage”. This is a commitment which David Atkinson says he too affirms. On a traditional understanding of chastity, entering into “a homosexual relationship with the hope of enjoying…physical expression of sexual love similar to that which is to be found in marriage” is not in fact justifiable as such a relationship is not a chaste pattern of life. Here again is an important area to explore further: what pattern of life embodies the virtue of chastity? Concern that “chastity” was being used by some to include homosexual behaviour as long as it was within committed same-sex unions is what led the 1998 Lambeth Conference to accept an amendment to Lambeth I.10. It was proposed by the current Archbishop of York and replaced “chastity” with “abstinence” so that the final resolution reads “in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage”. It was strictly a better wording also because, as in the bishops’ letter, chastity traditionally is right for all and takes the form of “faithfulness” ie sexual exclusivity for those who are married.
Given this distinction between David Atkinson’s proposed canon and the Gloucester Report, the question is raised as to the extent of real disagreement there is between his proposal and that of the bishops. The bishops’ letter summarises their understanding of the tradition vision they uphold and ask the Church of England to uphold through the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process in these terms:
- sexual intercourse as “an act of total commitment which belongs properly within a permanent married relationship” (Lambeth 1988),
- marriage as a union of a man and woman in a covenant of love marked by exclusivity and life-long commitment, and
- faithful, sexually abstinent love in singleness and non-marital friendships
They describe this as “the teaching of Scripture” and claim that “it therefore expresses the character and will of God which is our guide in ordering our lives and in addressing public global ethical issues”.
David Atkinson warns the bishops that identifying this account of their vision with “the teaching of Scripture” is “too bold”. It is, however, not clear from his argument in this article that his own understanding significantly departs from these three points. Nor, on the other hand, is it clear that this three-fold vision defended by the bishops is inherently incompatible with David Atkinson’s proposed canon.
Responding to same-sex partnerships – How wide a gulf?
What then might be the continued difference between David Atkinson and the bishops? It is perhaps that the bishops believe the likelihood of “physical expression of sexual love” within a “covenanted partnership, permanent, exclusive and life-long, with a person of the same sex” makes it impossible for the church to affirm the choice of such a relationship. David Atkinson, in contrast, either views such behaviour as chaste within such a relationship or holds that, although strictly a sin against chastity, it is not in itself a ground for refusing the partnership’s recognition in the terms described in the canon. On this latter view the virtues of covenantal friendship being committed to are the focus of the church’s concern and affirmation not any sexual sin within that covenantal friendship (just as the presence of sin in various forms, including sexual, within all marital relationships does not give grounds for refusing to recognise specific marriages).
The article says little or nothing directly as to what recognition of same-sex relationships by the church might look like. However, the current discussions and the article’s focus on Jesus pronouncing blessings on the pure in heart and those seeking God’s justice as something that can be legitimately pronounced on those who are gay, would point to some form of church blessing. The question left unaddressed is who or what would be blessed. It is noteworthy that the examples appealed to in the gospels relate to individual people whose lives embody certain virtues. The more difficult question is what pattern of same-sex relationship might be blessed by a church which is faithful to Jesus and to Scripture. Here is where the analogy with remarriage after divorce (or, to parallel the blessing pattern, even a service of prayer and dedication for a couple where there is a surviving spouse from a previous marriage) is not as simple as some suggest. In the first place, although Scripture does have a place for remarriage after divorce, it does not for sexual same-sex unions. In addition, in these cases there is no dispute what pattern of relationship is being solemnised or prayed for – it is marriage and in the service of prayer and dedication the couple need to affirm their relationship is marriage as the church understands it. The dispute in relation to divorce is whether it is right to enter that new marital relationship during the lifetime of a former spouse.
As regards same-sex relationships, the six objections raised by Bishop Keith Sinclair in his dissenting statement to the Pilling Report (paras 476-481) still need to be seriously engaged with by those advocating the church should bless these. In particular, his first point (para 476) captures the challenge faced by applying David Atkinson’s argument about blessing to support a new form of liturgical recognition:
…the Church cannot hold a public service for a couple simply on the basis that it discerns virtues and good qualities in their relationship. It must also be confident that the pattern of relationship it is affirming is in accordance with God’s will. It expresses that confidence liturgically by proclaiming a form of life which is in accordance with God’s will and asking the couple to affirm publicly that they seek to live faithfully within this way of life. This means that as long as the Church of England continues to ‘abide by its current teaching’ it cannot with integrity offer or formally allow a service for any pattern of sexual relationship other than marriage, even though Christians can recognize moral goods, such as love and fidelity, in particular non-marital sexual relationships and qualities of character in the partners. Good, compassionate pastoral care requires the Church to help people to respond obediently to God’s love by living rightly before him and thus it cannot be pastoral to affirm a form of relationship which is contrary to God’s will
One possible answer is that the “form of relationship which is in accordance with God’s will” is precisely that which the article proposes as a revision of Canon B30. There are within Christian tradition forms of service for friendship and the making of brothers which may be looked to for guidance if that is so. Two main concerns about a formal blessing on such relationships would likely be the following.
First, the move from recognising that “an individual may justifiably choose to enter” such a relationship to “the church should formally celebrate such a relationship in its authorised liturgy” is one which needs careful justification. This includes determining who would be eligible (for example, must there be a recognised legal union and could that be civil marriage?) and the definition of the commitments being made by the couple. This is particularly important given the lack of an explicit biblical authorisation or longstanding traditional theological understanding of the pattern of relationship and the opposition to it in some parts of the wider church.
Second, and more difficult, is the question discussed above of any sexual element to the relationship. Here there would appear to be four broad options:
- Acknowledgment of a sexual relationship within the liturgy, for example, in promises of exclusivity or descriptions (as exist in the marriage liturgy) of the nature of the relationship. This would go beyond the proposed wording of the canon, represent a change in the church’s teaching, and be unacceptable to very many as contrary to Scripture.
- Commitment to abstinence. Were it, on the other hand, to be explicitly required of those in such unions that they promise to refrain from sexual intimacy it would be unacceptable to many, perhaps most, of those seeking formal recognition.
- The question is then whether, like the proposed canon, the liturgy simply remains silent on this matter, in which case what is understood by it being an “exclusive” relationship would likely need to be set out.
- Teaching but no vows.Rather than total silence, the liturgy could include reference to the church’s vision of “faithfulness and chastity both within and outside marriage” (for example in its preface) but not require formal vows to live in accordance with this.
Given the difficulties in agreeing any form of liturgy of blessing, two other options may be considered as a way forward. One would be to have no specific liturgy but to allow public prayers for same-sex couples. The challenge here is that, although not as focussed and explicit as in relation to a formal liturgy, the same questions arise here as to what forms of relationship the church would recognise and how such recognition relates to church teaching and law. That is why the bishops have been careful thus far to encourage private prayers but not public prayers for those in, or entering, same-sex unions.
Freedom of conscience and agreeing to disagree?
Another way forward, increasingly popular way answer to how to proceed is to refer, as David Atkinson does at two points, to “freedom of conscience to disagree”. Although he himself does not present this argument, this appeal is increasingly made in order to argue that clergy who wish to do so should be free to bless or marry same-sex couples while clergy who do not wish to do so should be free not to do so. This common appeal, often linked to the affirmation of diversity or “radical Christian inclusion”, appears to be unanswerable. Who is going to want to insist on denying freedom of conscience? Its simplicity however masks a range of complex questions.
At a fundamental level we already have “freedom of conscience to disagree”. That’s why there is so much debate in the church and why these three authors can write as they do. What is therefore being asked for is more: the right to embody that disagreement through the church formally permitting or positively authorising certain actions which are currently prohibited as they are contrary to church teaching even though desired by many within the church. The protest within this form of an appeal to freedom of conscience is not only that an individual should be free to dissent verbally from the beliefs of the wider body of which they are part and seek to change that body’s stance. That is already well established. The objection is that freedom of conscience is also lacking when an individual cannot act on certain beliefs because they are being constrained by the wider body. Their conscientious beliefs, in disagreement with the beliefs and authorised practices of the wider body, therefore cannot be expressed in certain concrete practical actions (eg blessing or marrying a same-sex couple, marrying a same-sex partner while being an ordained minister of the church) or, if they are so expressed, there is the threat, or reality, of negative repercussions from the wider body.
Although this objection and request for what might be called a “mixed economy” of variable practices appears reasonable to many, it does create a number of problems which are rarely addressed.
Firstly, unless we move to a situation where there is total freedom of conscience, there will likely always be some who can make this sort of appeal for “freedom of conscience to disagree”. So, were we to allow a form of blessing for same-sex couples but not a marriage liturgy there would still be those able to make this appeal. The question is therefore not really whether or not there is freedom of conscience to disagree. The questions are rather (a) what the formal teaching should be and (b) what the limits are as regards freedom to dissent from that teaching. In particular, how far that freedom extends in terms of acting contrary to what the church teaches and understands to be biblical teaching and what the consequences are for so acting. An appeal to “freedom of conscience to disagree” does not give an answer to these issues.
Secondly, the move to permit (on the basis of freedom of conscience) people to act in the name of Christ and the church in ways that are currently forbidden is therefore very difficult, perhaps impossible, to distinguish from changing the church’s teaching. So, when we moved to ordain women as priests and bishops we did not simply allow freedom of conscience. We changed church teaching concerning whether these orders were restricted to men. Similarly, if we make changes here we are doing much more than granting “freedom of conscience to disagree”. Depending on the change we are saying, for example, “it is no longer the case that the only sexual relationship the church can approve is marriage” or “it is no longer the case that marriage is a union of one man and one woman”. Simply appealing to diversity or freedom of conscience is again insufficient. The question is whether or not a new teaching can be found that gives a substantive theological rationale for a greater diversity of authorised practice that can be widely recognised and accepted as authentically biblical and Christian. David Atkinson’s proposed change to the canon with its explicit affirmation that this is “not incompatible with the doctrine of Holy Matrimony that is affirmed in Canon B 30” is an attempt to answer that important question which has otherwise received little serious attention.
Thirdly, any move towards those who claim they currently lack “freedom of conscience to disagree” inevitably creates a new group within the wider body who will find themselves having to claim that freedom. In this case, those who cannot in conscience bless any sexual relationship other than marriage between a man and a woman. The standard answer here is that they will not be forced to do this and so there is really no problem. It is though unclear whether those conscientiously objecting will be required to make their churches available for such ceremonies or, looking at the American context, whether bishops will be free to refuse to authorise such services in their jurisdiction. There are also important practical differences between this proposed form of “freedom of conscience to disagree” and that which it is being claimed by those advocating for change. Those seeking change are objecting that, because the wider body prevents them, they currently are not free to do somethingthey think they should do. In a “mixed economy” situation what those refusing to marry or bless same-sex couples will be given is the freedom to refuse to do somethingwhich the wider body used to prohibit but now permits. It is not surprising that this is not an attractive offer. It will require individuals to act in ways that are increasingly viewed as unacceptable in wider society (echoed in David Gillett’s implicit description of this view as a denial of people’s humanity and equality) and even a form of abuse. The experience of those in churches which have taken this step adds further weight to their concerns about accepting such an outcome. It is therefore unsurprising that those who are offered this as the outworking of “freedom of conscience to disagree” prefer instead to consider, as the bishops’ letter notes, some form of ecclesial “visible differentiation” in which they are not isolated individuals free to refuse but a distinct body of people supporting one another in witnessing to a shared belief.
Fourthly, it may be that an additional, perhaps better, category to explore, rather than simply appealing to “freedom of conscience to disagree”, is therefore that of “faithful and conscientious dissent”. This leads to questions such as the following, whatever view one holds or wishes the church to hold:
- What is required of a wider body in response to those within it who conscientiously dissent from its stance and seek to change it?
- What, in turn, is required from those expressing such dissent and seeking change in order for it to be respectful and faithful to the wider body?
- Are the answers to these questions the same when the dissenters are those challenging long-held traditional beliefs and practices and when the dissenters are those holding traditional views and unable to accept recent developments and innovations?
- In what ways do the answers differ depending on what the focus of dissent is and the nature of the changes which are being sought? Here the question of different levels of doctrinal significance and adiaphoraneed to be considered and are themselves, of course, highly contested.
- What might we learn from (a) how we have answered these questions in relation to women priest and bishops and from ideas of “mutual flourishing” and the Five Guiding Principles, (b) how other churches have handled these questions in relation to sexuality eg the Church of Scotland attempt to uphold traditional teaching as a body but then giving a greater space for ordered dissent in relation to appointment of ministers?
- Can we agree on answers to these questions together – or at least explore them together – given the seeming intractable nature of our differences but the desire (at least in most cases) to recognise that on both sides there are members of the one body of Christ?
Revd Dr Andrew Goddard is Associate Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (KLICE), Cambridge and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Anglican Studies, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California.
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