I really like Francis Spufford. I loved his book Unapologetic, in which he seeks to give an emotional, rather than rational, ‘argument’ for the Christian faith. It includes a perfect summary of the dilemma that Christians have in talking about sin and forgiveness, noting how the word ‘sin’ has been degraded into the idea of eating one too many ice creams, whilst the reality of human error is written all over our culture, in a phrase he abbreviates as HPtFtU. It is not only beautifully written, but offers robust, appealing and thoroughly humane response to the glib assertions of the ‘new’ atheists.
But I also like him in person. We are both members of the General Synod, and during the ‘Shared Conversations’ about sexuality, we were in a small group of three together, and had the most fascinating exchanges about the reasons for our different views, and whether they could co-exist with mutual respect. I wish those conversations could have continued.
Francis has written a characteristically engaging and nuanced piece in the Christian Century on why he changed his mind about same-sex marriage, and why he thinks the Church of England can and probably will change its mind too. It is just as interesting, nuanced and humane as his other writing, but I think it makes three very large mis-steps in its argument.
Spufford gets much right in his argument. He is right to point out the stark difference now between the Church’s understanding of marriage, and how rapid that change has been. He is also right to note that the legal change came about quite pragmatically, with a right-wing Conservative Government wanting to land on an issue which they thought would not alienate their core vote, but which demonstrated to others that they were not the nasty party. He does not notice, though, how effective certain individuals have been in that, nor indeed that Britain has one of the gayest parliaments in the world, with around 9% of sitting MPs being gay or lesbian. Compared with the best estimates that around 2% of the population are consistently same-sex attracted, and you can see the influence that the group has had.
I don’t think Spufford is entirely right in describing the change as ‘arbitrary’; we need to think about changing attitudes to the body, the radical change in women’s roles, changing views on marriage, and in particular a diminishing in our culture of the importance of having children, as all contributing to a massive revision of what Western culture thinks sex is. When sex is, to a large extent, a necessary activity which might bond a couple together but which is inextricably linked to procreation, then there is no question that sex must be between a man and a woman, and so in Christian theology (as well as in past Western moralistic outlooks) marriage must be as well. But when sex becomes a pleasurable activity, rooted in personal choice, apparently undertaken by individuals as uncoerced free agents (which of course is never the case), and when differences in social roles arising from the differences in bodily form between men and women are viewed at best with suspicion, and when having children is an optional extra for those that choose it and can afford to do so, then marriage logically can be between any two (or more?) people.
But Spufford traces the changing shape of the debate very well.
I’m suspicious of the tendency among liberal Christians now to try to deal with remaining opposition just by glaring at it and bombarding it with our moral disapproval. Wedge strategies for achieving change can be very effective. First you ask for compassion for those an existing moral rule condemns; then you convert compassion into tolerance, tolerance into acceptance, acceptance into a new normal; and then, when 51 percent of people perceive the situation the new way, you pivot promptly and suggest that disagreement is now intolerable, illegitimate, of a piece with famous cruelties of the past.
If he is right about this, then almost all of the discourse that I encounter from those in the Church who want to see change here must be ruled out of order. He is quite right to say that:
We’re arguing about ideals of behavior, about what the shape of holy living ought to be in the light of conscience, scripture, doctrine, and Christian history. And that is always a legitimate thing to do. I think it behooves those of us who have changed our minds to continue to show our own working rather than to talk about bigotry.
The showing of working is precisely what is missing in most discussion, and Spufford showing much of his working is what makes this both engaging and, for myself and other readers, unpersuasive.
Spufford notes the good reasons for the Church not to change its mind on doctrine, rooted in the conviction of the consistent and unchangeable nature of God. That quickly puts paid to the common but theologically lazy argument, ‘Well, the Spirit said one thing then, but the Spirit is saying something different now.’ He also gives due weight to past understandings, and the enormous work that changing our understanding now would involve.
[T]he arrival of same-sex marriage does rely, for its justification, upon a major and historic change in Christian understanding. For almost all of Christian history, almost all Christians have agreed that nonheterosexual sex is inherently sinful. It was condemned in Mosaic law, and then the condemnation was reaffirmed for the early church by the apostles…Yet even when it was being treated as a venial or trivial sin, it still was seen as a sin. There was no area of un-sinful gay sex corresponding to the un-sinful zone of straight sex within marriage.
And this is the underlying issue still. If gay sex is always a sin, you cannot agree that a sexual, companionate marriage between people of the same sex is fit for blessing. Because you can hallow a vow, but you can’t sanctify a sin. That would be an impossibility, a self-confuting contradiction.
He does not detail what this would involve for the Church of England—not only a revision to canon law, and to liturgy, but also a change in the Church’s relationship with the Book of Common Prayer, which most would see as a basic change in the definition of the Church of England. Other provinces in the Anglican Communion had already detached themselves from their historic moorings in this way, before they considered the subject of same-sex marriage, and the fact that the C of E hasn’t done this sets it apart.
This is where we get to the meat of Spufford’s argument. We should note from the outset that his own ‘change of mind’ is something quite different from what he is suggesting the Church might do. He changed from someone who ‘didn’t find anything troubling in the knowledge that our gay friends were sexually active’ but rejected same-sex marriage on the grounds of terminology and classification. The C of E’s doctrinal position is currently that sex belongs within marriage between one man and one woman, and sexual intercourse outside that context is to met with a call to repentance.
But it is in his reading of Paul that things begin to get really interesting.
I see that there is a specific force to Paul condemning “men who lie with men” in the context of a slave-owning rape culture where high-status men felt entitled to help themselves to human flesh of every variety. I see that this Romanized and Hellenized Jew, expanding a Hebrew message of grace and dignity into a Greco-Roman world with a grossly transactional view of sexuality, wouldn’t have had before his mind’s eye any models at all for relationships between men, or between women, that were marked by mutuality.
But I’m not convinced by the next step, in which it’s argued that the rule against gay sex was therefore never really intended to apply to sex between loving equals. I don’t think we’re really saying that Paul has been misunderstood for two millennia. I think we’re saying that Paul was wrong.
Spufford’s argument is quite nuanced here, and I needed to read it twice or more to understand his position. He appears to be rejecting the weak argument that Paul is only condemning exploitative same-sex sex in the ‘boo’ texts, and agreeing (with the majority of commentators) that Paul is actually rejecting all forms of same-sex sexual activity. I think he is correct here; in 1 Cor 6.9, it is notable that Paul avoids the common Greek terms erastes and eromenos which designated the penetrating and penetrated partners in anal sex, and instead coins a term, arsenokoites, based on the prohibition on same-sex sexual activity in Lev 20.13. In other words, the implicit but clear case Paul is making is not about the context of such activity, but the creation principle behind it which is the form of humanity as male and female. Similarly, in deploying his coined term again in 1 Tim 1.9, Paul does so in a list which looks a bit like a rehearsal of the Ten Commandments; Paul is treating this aspect of sexual ethics as core, not peripheral, and in doing so he is in line with other Jewish commentators of his day, including Jesus. When Jesus condemns porneia, sexual immorality, then this must be taken to refer to the list of prohibited sexual relations in Leviticus, including same-sex sex.
But Spufford then appears to think that Paul was incapable of imagining same sex relationships of mutuality. This seems to rest on the notion that the ancient world was dominated by exploitative relationships, and (ironically) appears to involve a projection of modern morality on ancient perceptions. For most Greeks, the erastes/eromenos relationship was not considered ‘exploitative’, since the younger, penetrated partner, undergoing this experience as part of his growth and development, would in due course become the older, penetrating partner to a different younger person. This was not about one group exploiting another, but about a kind of patronage at one stage in life. And if Paul was able to imagine the kind of radical mutuality in which both husband and wife exercise mutual authority over one another (1 Cor 7.4), and in which women could represent him (Rom 16.1), teach him, and be outstanding apostles (Rom 16.7) in a doggedly patriarchal world, why could he not imagine mutuality between two men in a sexual relationship?
Paul’s denunciation of homosexual practice in Romans 1 is well known but not so well understood, particularly in relation to its place in the argument as a whole. It is too often dismissed as simply firing some Jewish-style thunderbolts against typical pagan targets; and it is regularly thought to be dealing only with the deliberate choice of heterosexual individuals to abandon normal usage and indulge in alternative passions. It is often said that Paul is describing something quite different from the phenomenon we know today, e.g. in large western cities.
This is misleading. First, Paul is not primarily talking about individuals at this point, but about the entire human race. He is expounding Genesis 1-3, and looking at the human race as whole, so here he is categorizing the large sweep of human history as a whole – not, of course, that any individuals escape this judgement, as 3.19f makes clear. Second, the point of his highlighting of female and male turning away from natural usage to unnatural grows directly out of the text which is his subtext, here and often elsewhere: for in Genesis 1 it is of course male plus female that is created to bear God’s image. The male-plus-female factor is not of course specific to humanity; the principle of ‘male plus female’ runs through a great deal of creation. But humans were created to bear God’s image, and given a task, to be fruitful and multiply, to tend the garden and name the animals. The point of Romans 1 as a whole is that when humans refuse to worship or honour God, the God in whose image they are made, their humanness goes into self-destruct mode; and Paul clearly sees homosexual behaviour as ultimately a form of human deconstruction. He is not saying that everyone who discovers homosexual instincts has chosen to commit idolatry and has chosen homosexual behaviour as a part of that; rather, he is saying that in a world where men and women have refused to honour God this is the kind of thing you will find.
When Spufford says ‘I think we’re saying that Paul was wrong’, he is not merely rejecting Paul’s view on this one issue. He is rejecting Paul’s understanding of biblical anthropology, of the importance of creation, and of the way in which God reveals himself in the world, as well as the way in which he uses the Old Testament, and sees continuity between Jewish beliefs and those of the early Jewish-Gentile communities of disciples. And, of course, we are not merely saying ‘Paul is wrong’, since we do not have the whole of Paul before us, but only that which was, from the beginning, considered to be not merely Paul’s opinion, but writings that were seen to be on a par with the ‘God-breathed’ Scriptures of Israel. If we are going to accept Spufford’s claim, we will need to reject the belief of the XXXIX Articles which receive Scripture as ‘God’s word written’ (Article XX).
‘We’re saying that Paul’s views on gay sex belong with his views on women wearing hats’ Spufford concludes with a flourish. Except that Paul’s discussion of head coverings in 1 Cor 11 is notoriously obscure and complex, when the text on same-sex relationships are consistent and comparatively clear. And Paul’s goal in the discussion is to allow women to pray and prophesy in the assembly; there is no comparable aim in relation to sexual ethics. And the conclusion of Paul’s discussion is that ‘women are given hair in place of [anti] a head covering’ (1 Cor 11.15). So it is not such a good comparison after all.
Spufford then moves on to compare the proposed change on marriage and sexuality with changes in the past on
clerical celibacy, the use of pain relief in childbirth, the acceptability of studying human anatomy, the acceptability of translating the Bible and of putting it in the hands of laypeople, praying for the dead, contraception, divorce, and whether a man can marry his deceased wife’s sister…
and of course lands on women’s role and the question of slavery as the two most important. There is something vital here, and it is the case that people on ‘my side’ of the discussion can easily underestimate the significance of such changes at the time. But I also think Spufford makes the comparisons too easily; for most of these issues, the shape of the debate was quite different from what we are facing. The accepted view was a function of culture and tradition much more than explicit biblical texts; they were not usually articulated in the explicit doctrine of the Church; and the change came about by re-reading and re-appropriating the teaching of Scripture. When we get to the point of saying ‘Scripture on this point is wrong’, then something quite different is going on.
The debate about women’s ministry has always been complex. On the one hand, there are texts which appear, on a surface reading, to agree with the patriarchal context of the first century (such as 1 Tim 2.12 and 1 Cor 14.34) and thus allow such patriarchy to continue. But alongside that, there have always been texts which stubbornly refuse to submit, such as the example of Priscilla teaching Apollos and being a founder of the church in Ephesus in Acts 18, the mutual exercise of authority in 1 Cor 7.4, and the sex-blind distribution of all the gifts by the Spirit ‘as the Spirit wills’ in 1 Cor 12. There is no such complexity in the biblical texts on same-sex sex.
And this is why Christian history has repeatedly flirted with allowing women to teach and exercise authority, but has never before our day done the same with sexuality.
On slavery, when Spufford says that:
Christians spent the first millennium and a half of the church’s existence gradually arriving at the idea that Christians should perhaps not enslave other Christians, only to collapse promptly into an abyss of moral squalor in the face of the New World and its temptations…
he is quite wrong. Rodney Stark, in Bearing False Witness shows how the theology of Aquinas effectively eliminated slavery from Christendom Europe, and that it returned under the influence of Muslim incursion and the enslavement of Africans by other Africans. The struggle was not in finding an obscure biblical warrant against the practice, but in failing to be shaped by biblical teaching that all humans are made in the image of God, against cultural and commercial pressures that would claim otherwise. If ‘the Holy Spirit was guiding this particular work of realization’, then the Spirit was doing so by taking us back to Scripture, not by telling us that ‘Scripture is wrong’.
Spufford’s last move is in fact two moves in one. First, he makes the distinction between principles and rules.
The pattern is this: where a rule and a principle are in conflict, the principle in the end prevails. In the end, with much heat and shouting and foot-dragging and confusion, we always set aside the rule, or remake it, in order that we may live more fully by the principle.
For the sake of the principle of the equality of souls before God, we set aside scripture’s rules for slavery. For the sake of the principle of compassion, we set aside Genesis’s prediction (which for centuries looked like a rule) that Eve and her descendants should bring forth children in pain. For the sake of the principle that the gifts of the Spirit transcend human stereotypes and human gradients of power, we set aside the rules preventing women from answering when the Spirit calls them to minister.
There are several difficulties here. For one, that was not really how the Church changed its mind on women’s ministry; a key part, for those for whom Scripture was authoritative, was to see actual examples of women exercising ministry, rather than seeing a biblical principle trump a biblical rule. (For a good worked example of this, see Dick France’s Grove booklet on the subject, comparing the debate about women’s ministry with the debate about same-sex sex.) For another, it suggests that Scripture itself has difficulty making this distinction, which I don’t think is true.
But the biggest problem is the assumption that consent, mutuality, and commitment are the principles of sexual ethics, and who you have sex with is a mere rule. That has never been the case in Christian sexual ethical discussion in the past, and it is an idea that appears to be firmly rejected by the biblical texts themselves. If the creation of humanity as male and female has any significance, if procreation is in fact an integral part of what God called humanity to, if sex is more than a pleasurable expression of commitment, but actually reflection something of God’s intention in creation through the intimate union of two different bodily forms, then the male-female distinction belongs to the principle of sex, not just to its ‘rules’.
By making such a distinction in such a way, Spufford is actually smuggling in a whole host of assumptions about what sex is, what it is about, and what it is for, without admitting it. He is here failing his own principle of ‘showing his working’.
And his method falls down when he comes to consider what he sees as an application of this idea in the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. In fact, as I have shown before, it is no such thing. The admission of Gentiles in the Israel of God was indeed a seismic shift, but it only took place at the confluence of definitive and consistent proof of experience, the agreement of key leaders, a careful reading of Scripture, and an agreement that this fulfilled the eschatological intentions of God. As I commented previously:
This confluence of revelation from God, testimony of experience, agreement between those of very different perspectives, the apostolic wisdom of a respected leader, the location of the experience in the scriptural account of the purposes of God, and the minimising of disruption and difference, might then offer us some kind of framework for decision-making in the contemporary context when faced with a sharp difference of view.
But, against that, we also need to note that the admission of the Gentiles was seen to fulfil, in OT terms, the ultimate goal of the eschatological purposes of God, indeed the whole point of the story and history of God’s election of a special people for himself in the first place. They were always to be a light to the world, that all people would be drawn to the presence of God enthroned in Zion, and the whole earth filled with knowledge of the glory of God. To that extent, this event is unrepeatable, so the example here needs to referred to with caution. In particular, it means that citing this example as justification for a contemporary change in the church on a specific issue would require us to argue that our issue was one which we can find expressed in the OT as an eschatological goal of God’s purposes in redemption—which is asking rather a lot.
And, in his careful study of the episode, Andrew Goddard makes some parallel observations:
If this is the rationale underlying Acts 15 then the significance for its use in the current debates over homosexuality is revolutionary. The failure of ‘revisionist’ advocates to consider the limits placed on Gentiles by the Decree has always been a problem in their argument. The seriousness of that problem is now deepened if the Decree is based on Lev 17 and 18 and the prohibition of porneia therefore rooted in Lev 18.26. Among the ‘detestable things’ prohibited by that text are the male homosexual acts described in Lev 18.22. There is now strong evidence that viewing homosexual practice as acceptable for gay Christians is not only to push the analogy from Acts 15 further than it logically can go. To make such a claim would in fact explicitly contradict one of the requirements placed on those Gentiles who entered the church as Gentiles. (p 21)