Gay marriage, integrity and the church

One of the issues that has kept surfacing in the last few months, in the rapidly changing scene relating to same-sex relations, gay marriage, and the church, has been the question of integrity. Is the Church doing one thing, but saying another?

Jeffrey John pointed out some time ago that much of the Church’s current problem has arisen from the 1960s, when ‘liberal’ bishops started permitting and even encouraging relationships ‘on the ground’ that were completely contrary to the Church’s actual teaching. I have found it fascinating, in various discussions, to be accused of this hypocrisy myself. In defending the Church’s teaching, surely (it is said) I must have known that this was not the Church’s practice. As a naive, credulous evangelical, who actually assumed that people meant what they said and were committed to keeping promises they had made, I didn’t!


As Justin Welby has signalled, the battle over same-sex marriage in society is now over. But of course the battle in the Church continues—and in fact I think will now intensify. A notable commentator on this is Alan Wilson, suffragan Bishop of Buckingham in Oxford Diocese. Alan and I have had a good number of interesting exchanges over the last couple of years, and I think we have been able to do so whilst maintaining some mutual respect. (You can see his comments about me on the Commendations page of this blog.)

His latest comment has been characterised as a call that ‘Clergy should defy Church’s ‘morally outrageous’ gay marriage ban’.

The Rt Rev Alan Wilson, the Bishop of Buckingham, said priests should be “creative” to get around restrictions on blessings for same-sex couples and that gay clergy who wish to marry should do so in defiance of the official line.

Given Alan’s call for ‘honesty and truthfulness’ and the need for integrity, I find this a strange recommendation on at least two levels. First, clergy have committed themselves to obedience to their bishop in all things ‘lawful and honest.’ You might disagree with the current position of the C of E, but it is clearly not illegal, and the position itself can only be called ‘dishonest’ as a rhetorical ploy. To encourage clergy to act as Alan suggests is to encourage them to break their ordination vows.

But, secondly, I find it very strange that a suffragan bishop should encourage clergy to defy the teaching of the collegial body of bishops of which Alan is a member. Surely the ‘honest’ position to take is to argue one’s position within the group, seek to persuade others, and if this is not successful, to accept the group’s view and continue to work within that. If anyone on a PCC, or in a work context, bypassed this kind of process in the way Alan’s pronouncement appears to, I don’t think any would hesitate in describing this as the ‘nightmare’ scenario for working relations.

I am sure that Alan would respond that the recent statements of the College of Bishops (all the bishops together, on the Pilling report), and the House of Bishops (the diocesans plus elected suffragans, on same-sex marriage) were in fact ‘dishonest.’ And this appears to hinge on Alan’s other assertion:

He also claimed that several current serving bishops are themselves in gay partnerships, and urged them to publicly acknowledge their status for the sake of “honesty and truthfulness” and even consider marrying.

He added: “You even have this extraordinary situation where there are gay-partnered bishops – so that gay-partnered bishops are saying to gay-partnered clergy ‘Why are you marrying Fred?’ and the only logical answer is ‘Why aren’t you marrying Tom?’

This is yet another of those hideous situations where, apparently, anyone ‘in the know’ knows, and it is an open secret. Except that, what with my being a naive evangelical, I don’t. In fact, I seriously wonder whether this is the case—whether there are partnered gay bishops as Alan asserts.

But there is, of course, a very simple way of both ascertaining whether this is true, and resolving this apparent ‘hypocrisy’:

Alan should simply name them.

The individuals would themselves be able to either affirm or deny this; the true position of the Church would become clear; and those bishops would then need either to resign, or join Alan in campaigning for change—with integrity. This is important not just in relation to the current debate, but more widely for the sake of mission. The one thing that puts people off Christian faith more than anything else (in my experience) is hypocrisy amongst Christians. So, Alan, let’s put an end to this particular example of it.

However, if Alan will not name them, then his assertion remains merely that—an assertion with no supporting evidence. I think the phrase ‘Put up or shut up’ is a bit harsh—but I don’t see how someone can continue to repeat an assertion like this and at the same time refuse to provide any evidence to back it up.

So, Alan—over to you. I look forward to your comment.

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40 thoughts on “Gay marriage, integrity and the church”

  1. Perhaps you have often raised concerns and blogged about the following practices in many evangelical churches: unlicensed preachers; no vestments worn for HC or occasional offices; no HC on some Sundays or Principal Feast Days; effective refusal of baptism of infants; use of unapproved forms of worship.

    If so, then read no further. If not, ask whether your real concern is obedience to the bishop or whether it is a convenient argument in this case alone.

    • Mark, I think I have blogged about a number of these. Vestments do, of course, have ‘no theological significance’; the evangelical churches I have been part of have had Communion every Sunday at some point; most informal services conform to The Service of the Word—though of course use of the Roman Missal does not.

      But are these at the same level as sexual morality in terms of importance?

      • Ian, I would put infant baptism on a level with sexual morality in importance. But more to the point, in making importance a factor you concede that it is not obedience to the bishop per se that matters. Therefore, to charge +Alan with encouraging the breaking of ordination vows is a red herring. Importance will always be subjective, so we are back to the presenting issue of sexual morality itself. +Alan clearly believes it is rather important not to follow the letter of the HoB’s guidelines and many priests are serving in dioceses where their diocesan bishop will think (if not speak) similarly.

        • I am not conceding any such thing! I was just pointing out that the issues you mentioned were not quite as black and white as you suggested.

          To live in a world where your sexual behaviour matters as much as whether you wear a cassock and surplus is quite a strange world, if you don’t mind me saying so.

          I would agree with your point that you cannot simply ignore your bishop on these other issues—though I am not sure whether that is also your point of view.

          • OK, sorry. I misunderstood you. In saying that some issues are more important than others I thought you meant that this had some bearing on whether the rule could be disobeyed, but you now clarify this with “you cannot simply ignore your bishop on these other issues”, so maybe you think a rule is a rule whatever the issue. I am not an absolutist, so for example I did not hold a Communion service on the Feast of the Annunciation last week.

            I agree that it would be strange to consider sexual behaviour on a level with cassock/surplice. I never claimed that all these matters are of equal importance. In my previous post it was infant baptism which I identified as of similar importance to sexual morality.

            The reason for my original reply was my amusement at having heard from various evangelicals the argument based on obedience to the bishop, when this tradition has sat light to such authority in so many ways. But it seems this does not apply to you, so you are consistent, even though it would be a hollow argument from Anglican evangelicals as a whole.

            In reality, there are always some rules which are overlooked because law often catches up with practice. That doesn’t mean we have anarchy where each person goes with their own mind. Obedience to a rule is not always black and white, not least when a substantial and increasing proportion of the church is unhappy with it, including many amongst the bishops, and when some perceive there to be pressing pastoral and theological arguments against the rule. (See Rev last night!) +Alan has made his comments in a context where the diocesan bishop has expressed regret concerning the tone of the HofB’s statement and promised that there will be no witch hunts.

          • I think you are right in some ways about the evangelical tradition, and I am not sure I am as perfect as you suggest!

            But it is important to listen carefully. Evangelicals will never be saying the obedience to the bishop is *the* thing…though catholics have said this to me. I obeyed my Ordinary, so how can that be wrong?

            But they will say it as a ‘last resort’: ‘Besides all else, how could that person defy their bishop too!’

  2. Of course, there may be “gay bishops” who are “partnered” but actually are clearly celibate and have no desire to change the teaching of the church. Or we might have bishops who have been sexually active in the past but have since repented of their sin and now teach an orthodox sexual morality.

    Neither of these two are hypocrites. Hypocritical would be not allowing one thing publicly but actually practising the very same thing privately. And on that I am completely with you Ian – let’s just get it out in the open and deal with it.

    I think “put up or shut up” is actually quite appropriate.

  3. Ian I think that if one does not agree with what ones collective group has agreed then you either keep quiet or you stand down.

    At a micro level, there are sometimes issues at PCC where i have voted against but it is passed by PCC. I believe that as a member of that group I absolutely do not ‘bad mouth’ the decision outside that group by saying…”yes PCC agreed but I don’t”. If ever a matter of ‘conscience’ came up and I could not support then I would feel obliged to step down from PCC and air my views as an individual and not as a member of the PCC.

    As a humble PCC member I would expect my leadership to lead by example and do the same….seems from what I can read in the blogg that this is not the case which is very sad.

  4. Thanks Jonathan. Do read the press story which I have linked to. I don’t think I am misrepresenting anyone, but simply recording what has been said.

    Thanks for contributing—appreciated.

  5. I find it breathtaking that within the church it is considered a valid moral argument to break rules and then claim that rulebreaking as a ground for changing those rules. If the rules are wrong, argue thus, the mere fact they are broken by some no more argues for their removal than it highlights the importance of their existence. After all, we do not remove speed limits from roads if more and more people drive too fast, we install more (bloomin) speed cameras, don’t we?

    Secondly, is it fair to accuse a whole body of hypocrisy (ie the C of E)? Perhaps, but in one way only that I can think of. That is, where tacit permission is given to break the rules by the way rules are formulated and the way they are applied by the governing authorities. Other than that, the church is divided and conflicted, rather than hypocritical.. The hypocrite would be the individual who decried homosexual practice and then willingly flouted that teaching, such people should be open and have integrity, as Ian suggests. . though I am aware of the personal costs at stake here.

    If this difficult process of Pilling and the CofE’s discernment of the way forward on issues of sexuality is to offer any hope of unity amidst the argument, rules that are made will need to be obeyed. . Perhaps some clergy have grown used to a blind eye being turned, perhaps that has been the way for some time, but what even is unity if on such a matter as this, rules hammered out to create a common understanding are simply ignored.. what kind of united church would we even be? That said, the first Bishop to discipline a clergyman/clergywoman for same sex marriage should get the VC.. (many of which are awarded posthumously… ). We will need to stand with them, without animosity but publicly.

    OH the joy of living in interesting times..

  6. I am willing to defy the instructions of the HoB pastoral letter because, whilst legal, it hinders our understanding of what God is showing us through the lives and experiences of lgbti people and is therefore unlawful in a theological sense. It is akin to attempts by the circumcision party in Galatians to hinder the acceptance of Gentiles into the Church as equal members. In the name of compassion and justice demanded by the Kingdom Jesus defied the religious leadership of his time by breaking the first commandment. Clergy should have the moral courage to do likewise.

    • OK–but of course in doing that, unlike the circumcision party, you are going against the stated mind of the Church, and deciding for yourself what is ‘theologically lawful.’ I don’t see then how you could complain about any other individual deciding entirely for themselves what they consider lawful–which of course leads to anarchy. I fail to see how this approach has any foundation in theology or Scripture.

      Jesus broke the first commandment? What an odd statement!

      Is there no ‘moral courage’ in taking canonical obedience seriously? I am not arguing for fawning submission or sycophancy, just a modicum of integrity. We live in a world where people find it easy to break promises.

      • Going against the status quo is often the way in which change happens. cf the re-marriage of divorcees. or the ordination of women. Jesus broke the Sabbath law – what’s odd about my statement? The point I am making is that the house of bishops are not good at seeing the signs and wonders God is doing among among the Gentiles through lgbti people just has the party of the Pharisees could not see what God ha done through the Gentiles – over reliance on law and tradition and a lack of trust in grace and the movement of the Spirit beyond the religious centre.

        • The Sabbath law is the *fourth* commandment. And the early church went to great pains to show that all Jesus did was *in line* with Scripture, not opposed to it…as indeed did Jesus according to Matthew.

          Sorry, but I don’t accept your assessment of where the Spirit of God is moving.

          • Just testing ;-). Mmm that the early church went to great pains to show that what Jesus did was “in line” would tend to confirm for me how much it wasn’t. Why would you need to argue he was Lord of the Sabbath if he hadn’t broken Sabbath rules? Sadly Ian, I tell you in love that your scholarship is not serving the ministry of many people who like me who want to repent of the Church’s tradition of shameful treatment of lgbti people over 2 millennia and at last welcome gay people into the church and society as equal and one in Christ. The Church today has so much to learn from Acts 10. And btw, in 43 years of ordained ministry I have previously broken the oath of canonical obedience only once ie in never refusing to marry divorced persons.It is not something I view lightly.

          • I entirely agree with you that we need ‘to repent of the Church’s tradition of shameful treatment of lgbti people’ and ‘welcome gay people into the church and society as equal and one in Christ’. In fact, a good number of evangelical churches have been doing that over the years. But I don’t accept that ‘welcome’ means affirming same-sex relations as equivalent to marriage.

        • Ian Stubbs

          You cannot seriously be proposing this?

          So the spirit tells you that it is OK to have Gay Sex? It seems a mighty helpful revelation if you are Gay.

          Are we not supposed to test this against Scripture?

          Otherwise we would all be off to form a Mormon Church or off with Jim Jones to Guyana and kill ourselves.

          I believe the African Anglicans have got the balance about right.

          High time we learned from them


      • And, we are all deciding for ourselves what is theologically lawful there is no other way. It’s just that in this case you decide to go with the ;mind of the church; whatever that actually means, and I (along with many others) don’t.

      • “Why do you not decide for yourself what is right?” (Jesus in Luke 12:57)

        What we’re talking about is not anarchy, Ian P. It is people using their own God-given powers of reason and acting according to conscience. This is not a theologically unorthodox view, either, by the way.

        On the whole, pro-lgbti people in the church do not want to restrict the consciences of traditionalists; they just want their own consciences to be respected, too. That so many conservative evangelicals oppose those explains why conservative evangelicals are perceived as so ungenerous and so lacking in basic human empathy on this issue.

        • ‘Newfred’ I think it fascinating that in quoting the verse, you have changed Jesus’ plural ‘yourselves’ to a singular ‘yourself.’ Jesus isn’t here appealing to individual conscience over against a corporate view, but challenging people to sit up and take notice of what is going on.

          The ‘live and let live’ approach you are advocating is precisely the issue: is this question ‘adiaphora’ (a matter of indifference) about which we can agree to disagree, or not? That is the difference of view.

          Since it seems to me (and to a good number of biblical scholars, across the spectrum of views on this subject) that you have to radically cut the connection with biblical theology to affirm the ‘revisionist’ view, I don’t think it can be adiaphora. This isn’t about being ungenerous (though I agree with you that is how it is perceived); it is about keeping Christian faith rooted in a persuasive reading of the Scriptures.

    • Ian Stubbs

      I am a greedy bastard Ian. I always feel really uncomfortable with “A Christmas Carol” because Scrooge is me. If it wasn’t for my wife spending my money I would be the richest and miserablest git in Church (and in our church there is some stiff competition). I have my own business and I am always into value for money and if I as left to my own devices, money would trump everything that I do. Paying my workers the minimum I can get away with would be the least of it.

      You see Ian, because of what Jesus did for me I try and to curb my greed. It is isn’t easy, it goes against my nature, one might even say I was born this way.

      Why do I do I try to go against my nature? Because curbing my greed is nothing compared to what Jesus did for me.

      But if you are saying that the Bible is pic n mix then I can relax and give in to my natural desires with your blessing Ian?

      Off to your church then where greedy bastards like me can be told that they are loving Jesus by giving into their natural desires.


    • Ian Stubbs, your raising of circumcision actually points to the away forwards in this issue. In Acts 15 we see that the issue is raised that Gentiles need to be circumcised. In verse 6 it says “The apostles and elders met to consider the question.” This then led to a decision that circumcision was not required and a letter going out to the churches to tell them the decision of the Council of Jerusalem.
      So the Bible shows that there is a very simple method for responding to an issue of practice: let the elders (let’s call them bishops) meet and discuss the matter and then inform others of their decision (maybe by use of a pastoral letter) and then the churches can follow their teaching. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?

      • Yes, except that it appears at the Council that Scripture played a key role, and they continued to leave Jewish patterns of sexual relationships in place as binding. So perhaps that is, in fact, just what the House of Bishops have done.

        ‘Acts 15 requests Gentiles to refrain from certain activities which were viewed as part of their Gentile identity and there is a strong case that amongst these was homosexual practice… [T]he value of Acts 15 for those seeking further to revise traditional church teaching on homosexuality is very limited. Indeed, by focusing attention on the Jerusalem Council, ‘revisionists’ may, ironically, have highlighted yet another biblical basis for insisting that, even as the church continues to struggle with this issue, to repent of its past hostility to gay people, and to welcome them into the church and learn from them as gay Christians, it must appeal to all disciples of Christ to refrain from homosexual conduct.’ (Andrew Goddard)

  7. Ian

    I must say that I was pleasantly surprised when reading this from you.

    We have had exchanges before on the late John Richardson’s Blog for one. John always stated when you depart from Biblical Orthodoxy, e.g over divorce and recently over Women Priests, then acceptance of homosexuality was not far behind.

    It is sad that within months of the acceptance of women Bishops the liberals are confident enough to push the next boundary on complete acceptance of homosexuality.

    Where next? I think one of Paul’s letters might provide one or two clues?

    My money is on polygamy. Although the Church pushing for the lowering of the age of consent might just push past it into the number one spot. Incestuous and open marriages probably will take some time yet.

    On John’s Blog in November I think, I remember reading from a contributor, that if the go ahead was given for women Bishops, homosexual ones would follow within a year. I thought the writer barmy and said so. After all it was 60 years or so for divorce to lead to women priests and then 30 more for women Bishops.

    It seems that I was the barmy one!

    The pace of change is accelerating and not in a good way.


    • I agree with this. What’s obvious is that this whole argument was polarised from the beginning and conducted along ‘either/or’ lines. Throw in a load of emotional abuse and claptrap, stand back and light the touch paper. Result: very few people seem to have done the necessary thinking.

      Secular government has decided that marriage is a category, in which different kinds of relationship can be put. As you say, it therefore is only a matter of time before Muslim and other polygamists start claiming that their right to have several wives should be made legal too. After all, they are a misunderstood minority and have every right to become ‘equal’ … re-run all the present arguments.

      The church has decided that Christian marriage is a definition, one man and one woman with the potential for procreation, for life. Changing this is like saying that cricket can be played with a football – it changes its fundamental nature and makes it something else.

      I think the churches are right to stand firm on this. But it isn’t popular. Inevitably. Tough on us. It’s a reason to listen, but it’s not necessarily a reason to change.

  8. Ian, I think you did address the issues well. Asking +Alan to ethereal “put up or shut up” is even British politeness. I would have thought that the right thing to do is to resign in good “conscience” and protest if you like. He can pursue his course outside the CoB. Name them and shame them they say. Keep fighting for the truth Ian. It will surely pay off.

  9. Amen brother to being a “naive, credulous evangelical, who actually assumed that people meant what they said”. The address by Jeffrey John comes as a deep surprise to me. No one told me this was the church I was being ordained into.

    My surprise is kept from being complete only because conversations over the last few weeks have begun to suggest to me that this so-called “open secret” really exists. (The comments on a blog post of mine on promises were revealing). I’m still wondering, though, is this something that is only believed in and only known about by a particular subset of the church?

  10. ‘No one told me this was the church I was being ordained into.’ No indeed. The idea of being ‘innocent as doves’ seems to be rather old-fashioned these days…

  11. Allegations of institutional hypocrisy lie at the heart of this, Ian. It goes way beyond a few closeted bishops. Jeffrey John has recounted the routine private disowning of public attacks on homosexuality. You’re surely aware of the closeted Anglo-Catholic subculture, if only through jokes. The jokes are well founded.

    This elitist conspiracy of silence was always unsustainable. Another way forward has got to be found. I’ve gone to bat for open evangelicals over on ‘Thinking Anglicans’ as I’ve come to accept that your opposition to homosexuality is founded not on homophobia but on obedience to the Bible. More liberals might be willing to take that leap if they saw evangelicals who feel unable to affirm gay relationships nonetheless willing to look for an inclusive way forward, a way that doesn’t seek to impose evangelical norms on the rest of the church.

    If open evangelicals take point on this, it’ll do them great credit. The hypocrisy does stink. Offer an alternative.

    • ‘I’ve come to accept that your opposition to homosexuality is founded not on homophobia but on obedience to the Bible.’ That’s fascinating and encouraging…provided it was not written on 1st April!

      But I don’t think it is a question of ‘imposing evangelical norms’ on the Church. It is about being faithful to the Church’s own teaching…as for example set out in ‘Some Issues’ in 2003.

      The debate here is less about what is right, and more about what can be adiaphora.

      • Typed past midday, so you know its on the up-and-up. 😉

        ‘Some Issues …’ itself imposed those norms. Beyond that, we all know that it, ‘Issues …,’ and the Higton motion are first and foremost political documents.

        I accept that evangelicals aren’t gonna label gay relationships adiaphora anytime soon, if ever. If the church isn’t going to tear itself apart over this, a way has to be found for evangelicals to tolerate something even if it isn’t theologically indifferent. In a broad church, tolerance can’t be on evangelical terms.

        We all know that the church isn’t going to impose the discipline necessary to make all its gay members live celibate lives while they campaign for change. Since its members hold different theological frameworks, however long we talk, they’re not likely to reach a consensus. We just talk past one another. How about a “two integrities” model, despite homosexuality being a salvation issue? Evangelicals would be free to persuade gay people to be celibate. Freed of the taint of coercion and hypocrisy, I predict a much friendlier reception.

  12. Actually I think you are on to something here James but to my mind your idea isn’t quite radical enough.

    The disputes about homosexuality are but one flashpoint between the progressive liberal and orthodox conservative wings of the Cof E. The two sides understand scripture in fundamentally different ways using the same words but attaching different meanings to them. I think it was Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali who once stated that there are effectively two different gospels being preached within.

    So let’s push your idea further. Why doesn’t the Cof E not formally recognise this and delineate two entirely separate structures within it that cater for the opposing sides? Let’s abandon this false and hypocritical show of ‘unity’ that creates so much conflict.

    To the outsider then one might see signs outside Anglican churches that read the “Liberal Reformed church of St Mark” where you can have gay weddings and all other kinds of innovations and on the other side of town, the “The Orthodox Evangelical church of St Paul” (they can choose similar titles that reflect their theological outlook).

    Each strand would have its own ecclesiastical hierarchy even headed by common Archbishop of Canterbury (whose main job would be to keep them apart) but it would be clear that their theological understanding of a common Bible are fundamentally different and this would be evident to all.

    During the switchover phase then it should be for the congregations to decide which side of the fence they would prefer to be on but they pay their money and they know what they get. It would also be interesting to see in time, which of these would flourish and which would wither on the vine.

    (Where this would leave individual bishops such as Alan Wilson is a completely different question…)

    Look! There goes a flying piggy..

    • Isn’t this the ‘Third Province’ that Forward in Faith asked for, and were refused, in the archaic days before their leaders left for the Ordinariate (sp?)?


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