I spent last Saturday in London at a consultation organised by the Church of England Evangelical Council on (guess what?) the current debate on sexuality. The focus was a new book by Martin Davie, commissioned by CEEC, looking at all the major publications on the Bible and same-sex unions that have come out since the Church report Some Issues in Human Sexuality. The impulse for this research came from the Pilling report, which suggested that scholarship had shifted in recent years, and it was no longer clear what Scripture actually said or meant, though did not give evidence to support this claim. The invitation list included people with a wide range of views, some who would call themselves evangelical, some clearly not, and the whole spectrum of views on whether the Church should change its teaching.
I must confess that I was not looking forward to it. Yet another discussion, and more potential conflict—and on a day when I would much rather be having a lie-in, doing some gardening, and spending time with friends and family. In fact it turned out to be a very positive and valuable occasion.
The work Martin Davie had done was very good. The book is arranged in three sections, the first exploring and citing ‘revisionist’ approaches to the texts, the second doing the same with ‘traditionalist’ approaches, and the third evaluating the respective arguments. Martin was concerned both to allow the arguments on each side to stand on their own merits, and to separate his evaluation from the texts, so that they could be considered carefully.
The approach was not without its critics. I think we all felt that a simple polarisation of views into ‘traditionalist’ and ‘revisionist’ was always going to be slightly problematic, though probably necessary as a broad outline. There are many things about the ‘traditionalist’ view which I wouldn’t myself support, and I have gained insights from engaging with people who might be labelled ‘revisionist’.
The second main criticism was of Martin’s characterisation of our approach to Scripture. He suggested that there could be three main understandings:
- It could be the case that the existence of conflict shows that the teaching of Scripture on this matter is inherently unclear and that therefore caution is required.
- It could be that case that the scholarly debate about the teaching of Scripture on this matter is currently inconclusive and that for this reason caution would be sensible.
- It could be the case that the teaching of Scripture is clear and that the conflict is due to the fact that the people on one side of the conflict have simply failed to interpret Scripture properly. In this last case caution would not be justified. The Church should declare the clear teaching of Scripture.
Many, perhaps most, of those who would like to see a change in the Church’s teaching proposed a fourth possibility: that Scripture is clear to the limited extent that it engages with the issue, but that what we are now considering (faithful, committed, same-sex marriage) is something that Scripture knew nothing of and therefore does not—indeed cannot—speak to. This suggestion appears to make assumptions in three areas:
- Social context. It assumes that the scriptural authors cannot have had any conception of committed and faithful same-sex relations.
- It assumes that modern conceptions of ‘sexuality’ (which mostly arose in the nineteenth century) fundamentally change our understanding of what it is to be sexual humans—and that this anthropology is superior to the theological anthropology that we find in Scripture.
- The authority of Scripture. All the people articulating this on the day expressed their belief in the authority of Scripture, but that Scripture was unable to address our present question in the way we are asking it because it was trapped in its own cultural world. But to claim this is in fact to make a statement about the nature of the authority of Scripture, and it is one that departs from classical Anglican understandings in this area.
To my mind, Martin’s work did demonstrate convincingly that there is no real case, based on what Scripture says and how it is interpreted within the Anglican tradition, for the Church of England to change its teaching position on this subject.
One of the most valuable things for me was (as I always find) to engage with people of different views face to face in a constructive context. Andrew Goddard had done an excellent job of both inviting a good range of people and creating a positive process for mutual engagement. We spend time in the morning in small groups of three or four, listening to each others’ stories of how we had engaged with this issue. There was a truly fascinating interleaving and interweaving of question of theology, philosophy, reflection and personal experience, and I felt I was being invited into a sacred space of other people’s experience. In the afternoon we were in different, larger groups, considering the issue in a different way, but it was equally illuminating.
From all these conversations one particular thing that came out very clearly for me—that the people with whom I don’t agree on the issue of sexuality have a wide range of views, and therefore my disagreement was often for very different reasons. There were a number of people with whom I had much in common regarding our core theological outlook, even though we differed on this particular question. It was therefore easy to have a constructive conversation about our reasons for differing. On the other hand, there were some people in attendance whose expression of Christian faith seemed a very long way indeed from anything which could be described as ‘historic Anglicanism.’ With these people I felt I had very little in common, and disagreement on the question of sexuality was the least of our differences!
This illustrates how engagement with this question can actually lead us on to conversation about much deeper issues of belief, interpretation and theology. It is this which makes the issue so important to engage with.
So can there be ‘good disagreement’ as we move forward? Despite all these positives, I am not clear that there can be ‘good disagreement’, and on the day it was suggested that the pain and challenge in the discussion could either be ‘birth pangs’ of something good and new, or indeed the pain of impending divorce. The position that has been reached regarding women in leadership is often cited as providing a model for ‘good disagreement’ and continued co-existence of conflicting views. I am pretty clear, though, that this cannot work, for three reasons:
- First, as I have argued elsewhere, the nature of the biblical texts are quite different in the two cases. In relation to women in leadership, there clearly exist texts in Scripture which, at least on a surface reading, at some points affirm and at other points prohibit women in leadership. Both sides on that debate agree on this, so neither side could be seen as rejecting biblical teaching simpliciter.
- Secondly, the nature of the question is quite different. It would be possible to have parts of the church with women in leadership, and other parts without women in leadership, and imagine that these two regimes could, in principle, coexist. But it would be impossible to even imagine the same thing happening on this issue. It could not be the case, even in principle, to have same sex unions as contrary to canon law (and therefore giving rise to clergy discipline) in one diocese, and not in another. Such a patchwork approach would never stand up in law.
- Thirdly, this debate is not so much about whether SSM is right or wrong; the lines are clearly drawn (though a number of stories show that people can change from one side to another). The main discussion is whether or not the issue is adiaphora—whether we can agree to disagree or not. It is not possible to affirm that we can agree to disagree and that we cannot agree to disagree simultaneously.
It is far from clear that churches which are ‘inclusive’ on the question of same-sex marriage are in fact ‘inclusive’ of and welcoming to those who support the Church’s current teaching.
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