Evangelical and affirming?

Andrew Goddard writes: The October 2018 letter from the Bishop of Blackburn and ten other evangelical Church of England bishops produced a range of different responses.  The most significant and helpful for me were undoubtedly the three articles entitled “Same Sex Marriage & Scripture: Affirming Evangelical Response” which were commissioned by Jayne Ozanne for her Via Media blog. These were from three well-known evangelicals (two retired bishops, David Gillett and David Atkinson, and a well-known academic and – it is so good to be able to use this designation! – the husband of a bishop, David Runcorn).  They all disagree with the bishops and wish to see the CofE move towards a more affirming stance towards same-sex relationships.

The pieces graciously and clearly provide an alternative vision which seeks to be recognised as authentically biblical and evangelical. In so doing they helpfully highlight and elucidate a range of important areas in the discussions around same-sex marriage.  By referring to “an alternative vision”, however, I run the risk of perpetuating the myth that there are simply two opposed groups and two conflicting visions in relation to same-sex unions among those claiming to be “evangelical” – that of the bishops and that of “affirming evangelicals”.  In fact, a careful reading of the three pieces shows the situation is much more complex, even among these 14 people who all identify as evangelicals.  Each of the three authors approaches the debate from a particular, distinctive angle.  In so doing they reveal some important differences of emphasis, method and substance between themselves.  The three also either implicitly or explicitly address a range of wider and deeper theological issues than simply sexuality.  Here, in some cases, their approaches also distinguish some of their arguments and methodologies from those of the bishops and of classic evangelicalism and these merit further exploration.  In other places, their discussions open up possibly constructive forms of dialogue between those who share their more “affirming” stance and those whose views are better reflected in the bishops’ original letter.

What follows seeks to summarise some of the key points which are explained more fully in my more detailed discussion of each article.

What are the main differences between the three “affirming evangelicals”?

David Gillett argues clearly for a “fully inclusive” doctrine of marriage whereas David Atkinson argues for a pattern of same-sex quasi-marital partnership as a form of friendship which “is not incompatible with the doctrine of Holy Matrimony that is affirmed in Canon B 30”.  It is unclear which of these paths David Runcorn’s argument leads him to support although in alluding to changes in “the ‘traditional’ understanding of marriage” he would appear to be closer to David Gillett.

David Gillett’s argument is based on a re-reading of Genesis 2 which leads to a reformulation of the traditional doctrine of marriage, and perhaps more widely of created humanity. David Atkinson instead approaches the issues more from a pragmatic, pastoral ethic which asks about “the best way of making optimum moral sense of a less than ideal situation” and draws parallels with a response to divorce.  This approach is therefore one that can be used by those who insist on the need to uphold a traditional doctrine of creation and the effect of the Fall on us as sexual beings.  David Runcorn’s way into the questions is focussed instead on the unfolding in history of God’s revelation and, in his appeal to Acts 15, he appears to be suggesting that what we are to discern is a new thing that God is now doing in the world or at least that God is revealing something new to us.

What are the main deeper theological differences between the three authors and the bishops?

David Gillett’s piece shows that rather than being simply disagreement over the exegesis and application of the few classic texts appealed to in relation to homosexuality, the disagreement is often about the more foundational text of Genesis and the doctrine of creation.  It is also about how we interpret the Bible.  His approach offers a highly individualistic approach in which a person faithfully “inhabits the story” and acknowledges biblical authority when they find within the biblical narrative a description, even in modified form, of their own subjective experience. Despite his emphasis on the Bible as a narrative he gives no attention to Jesus’ appeal to Genesis 1 and 2 (or the wider canonical witness) which points more to an objective divine ordering of human creation and to the basis in creation of marriage as a union of male and female.

David Atkinson focuses on the pattern of loving covenantal relationship and the wider category of friendship rather than the structure of the marital covenant as male-female. He is, however, silent about the issue of sexual behaviour within the relationship or how he would fill out his agreement with the bishops that the Christian vision is one of “faithfulness and chastity both within and outside marriage”.  In contrast to the bishops’ reading of Scripture he appears to believe homosexual behaviour in this context is either not wrong or that, in making a moral judgment on the relationship, the relationship’s other qualities more than counterbalance any element of sexual immorality.  He therefore seeks a more affirming stance (presumably of blessing) by the church but does not explore what relationships should be so blessed or the bishops’ concern that this would be seen as blessing sexual sin and approving of same-sex marriage.  His appeal to “freedom of conscience” highlights the need to explore a range of complex questions about ecclesiology, conscience and dissent which are not easily separated from whether, and on what basis, the teaching of the church on sexuality has to change in order for its practice to become more accommodating to the position he advocates.

David Runcorn implies that the bishops are inconsistent in being open to new understandings but rejecting his view which he presents as applying principles found within Scripture in Acts’ account of the inclusion of the Gentiles.  In addition to specific problems with appeal to that text and process as an analogy, there are deeper issues here.  The acceptance of the possibility of development and the appeal to Acts 15 do not offer any answer as to what development would be legitimate.  Can those, such as Dale Martin, offering a much more radical revision of sexual ethics not legitimately follow the line of argument he himself uses against the bishops and apply it to critique his defence of same-sex unions? Deeper questions concerning the authority of Scripture are also raised as he seems unclear as to whether his argument is that Scripture is silent on what we are considering or whether he has no objection to saying that Scripture’s view is now superseded by the leading of the Spirit and our own cultural context.

What are the important challenges to the bishops and the possible openings for dialogue?

David Gillett’s piece is the most stark in its opposition and, although he claims that both his position and that of the bishops may be right, this appears neither logically possible nor his own view.  Despite the problems in how he uses it to interpret Genesis 2, his example of a gay man experiencing in relation to another man what Adam experiences in relation to Eve raises the important question of how traditionalists offer a theological interpretation of this experience and how they enable those experiencing it to develop the goods within it while rejecting what is wrong within it.  His tying of his argument to a recognition of “the full humanity and equality of our LGBTI+ brothers and sisters” also highlights the difficulty that the traditional view is increasingly heard by many people today, including many Christians, as a denial of this fundamental truth.

It is David Atkinson’s piece which offers, for me at least, the most interesting avenues for further exploration.  His proposal of affirming 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” raises the question as to whether (and if so where and why) this statement is incompatible with traditional teaching.  While his appeal to “freedom of conscience” has problems, it may be recast into consideration of whether we can agree together on what might be the limits of legitimate faithful dissent that can be recognised within the church, whatever its teaching on these matters.

Finally, David Runcorn’s approach presses the bishops and those of us who share their views to be clearer as to why their acceptance of development in our understanding, including of Scripture, cannot extend as far as it has for him in relation to same-sex unions.  This is a question also recently pressed on Tom Wright in relation to his “biblical drama” approach by Brian Walsh in his contribution in the newly-published Festschrift for Tom. Related to this is why other developments in this area (for example, divorce and remarriage and contraception) are embraced or at least tolerated.  This nexus of issues raises in turn the question as to whether and how we can acknowledge, even respect, different discernment processes among Christians.


It is clear that the bishops’ letter did not lead any of the three authors to rethink their journey which has taken them away from the stance of the letter to the “affirming” position they now hold.  It is unlikely that any of their short pieces will lead those who still hold to the traditional position to abandon it.  It is, though, important to recognise that there are not simply two opposing views but that the articles present three distinct (and at time incompatible) approaches.  In so doing they open up a range of wider questions that, if wrestled with, might encourage the authors of the letter and the articles to think in fresh ways, might help to clarify the nature and significance of disagreements, and might even, in some cases, lead to greater understanding, respect and even consensus emerging.

(Responses to each of the three articles will be posted in successive articles and linked here. The first responds to David Gillett’s proposed re-reading of Genesis 2.)

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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