Is openness the highest virtue?

200499102-001I have just read a really interesting reflection on the larger context of the ‘gay debate’ by Anna Norman Walker, whom I knew in passing from theological college, and who is now Diocesan Missioner in Exeter Diocese. In it, she puts her finger on a number of issues which are particularly pertinent for those from evangelical backgrounds who have changed their minds on this subject.

She talks of her conversion from ‘middle of the road Anglican’ to enthusiastic evangelical:

I discovered churches where the music was uplifting and modern and where week by week someone carefully explained what the Bible taught. So I stubbed out my fag, cleaned up my language and accepted that the religion of my childhood was nothing but heretical nonsense and stepped into a brave new world. It was like being born all over again.

…and then of her gradual change to a different position:

I reject penal substitution as a valid theory of atonement, I accept that men and women are called, without distinction, to every ministry in the church (including oversight) and I am content that to be a homosexual Christian is not something that excludes you from marriage to the person you love….

I was wrong about what the Bible teaches about such things. I was wrong and I am sorry for the times I have encouraged others to think wrongly too. I have come to this place because I have studied scripture and reflected theologically. I have come to this place because I have refused to seek always to defend what I thought was right but I have listened to God’s spirit at work in and around me. I have also been humble enough to acknowledge the fruit of the Spirit powerfully at work in those who belong to different tribes (especially the ones I was taught to fear, because of their ‘heretical’ liberal views)…

I think Anna says some important things here, but along the way also reinforces some worrying trends in the discussion. One of these is a hardening of attitudes in the debate to evangelicals; anyone who opposes same-sex marriage is assumed to be extreme and reaction. I think Anna hints at it in her summary:

Among those off to hell in a handcart are Steve Chalke, Rob Bell, Brian McClaren, Rachel Held Evans and the most recent addition to the fiery furnace is of course Vicky Beeching.

Some extreme responses might have felt like this—but a very good number of evangelicals have engaged thoughtfully and identified the problems with ‘progressive’ theology, as I have attempted to do in relation to Steve Chalke. But characterising all responses in this way completely short-circuits actual engagement on the issues. And this is reinforced constantly in the media. On Channel 4 News, guess who Vicky Beeching is put up to debate with? The ‘notoriously homophobic Scott Lively’ who has just been indicted for crimes against humanity for his views. No wonder Beeching came across the winner—in every department. Those who don’t agree with Beeching are clearly extreme, unreasonable, and bigoted. This is perhaps why, according to Mike Starkey, (who teaches at Church Army in Sheffield) it is now easier to come out as gay than as evangelical:

The indifference of the chattering classes towards evangelicalism has become a visceral loathing. Evangelical faith has become the love that dare not speak its name; unacceptable, even between consenting adults. (An opinion piece in today’s Guardian says bluntly that the theology of events such as Soul Survivor is beyond the pale and has to change). Submitting to the [truth about being gay] is authenticity, submitting to the other [being evangelical] bigotry.

I have a friend in London who is a high-profile, partnered gay man who had an evangelical conversion experience. He remains out and proud about his sexuality. But his conversion and love of charismatic worship remains a secret, confided to me behind closed doors. He knows what the public reaction would be.

The second feature of Anna’s post is the acclaim of openness as a virtue. The interesting question that follows is whether openness is ever a problem. As it was once said: the purpose of an open mouth is to close it on something; the same is true of an open mind. If openness is a virtue, what will be the next issue on which we should be open-minded? Interfaith relations? Whether Jesus was in fact not much more than a good teacher? Whether there are other ‘gospels’ which are more reliable than the canonical ones? I am not by any means suggesting that one’s position on SSM will lead to other developments (though it does appear to be influential on other sexual ethical questions). But there is a parallel here with the debate on censorship. Often this is posed as a debate between those who want censorship, and those who oppose it. But in reality everyone believes in censorship of some sort; the debate is where that censorship line should be draw. The same is true with openness; the question is not whether we should be open, but on what issues, and in what way.

OT scholar Peter Enns has been running a series on his blog for scholars to post about their ‘aha’ moments, when they realised the narrow view they had held previously as evangelicals was suddenly broken open. What I find most fascinating about these stories, as well as Anna’s, is that it bears no relation whatsoever to mine. I’ve never bought into a monolithic set of beliefs which I have subsequently had to question or abandon. On the things Anna has changed her mind, she has moved to agree with the position I’ve always held as an evangelical—except the last. And for most of Peter Enns’ friends, they have come to the position (more or less) which I would agree with. For that reason, most people would classify me as an ‘open evangelical’, but I have never liked the label precisely because it suggests openness is in itself a virtue.

I am not sure whether I deserve any credit for this. I am temperamentally unsuited to jumping on bandwagons and I am not much of a conformist. I have always been in the habit of asking questions. It’s a bit awkward really; even as a regular speaker at New Wine I don’t think I have the natural temperament it seems to take to be a charismatic at a big gathering, where it often appears that you have to buy into a whole package of theology and ministry. If I am a charismatic, it is by conviction rather than nature; it’s really hard to read the NT and not see the centrality of the Spirit in its theology and practice. (It may of course just be that I was taught well from an early age.)

I wonder, in fact, whether the language of ‘openness’ is often used as a code: ‘Be open to new ideas until you reach my position, and then stop there.’ Or perhaps ‘openness’ is in fact the wrong term altogether.

imageAs usual on questions of interpretation, Paul Ricoeur steps in to help. Ricoeur identifies the need to interpret from his understanding of the nature of humanity as essentially hermeneutic; we construct our own identity through the use of symbol and narrative, both of which call for interpretation. He describes the state that many live in of pre-critical naivety, and highlights (in all areas of life, and all disciplines) the need to engage in the process of critical reflection. This is needed so that symbols which mislead us or disguise the truth, which he calls ‘idols’, can be done away with, and those symbols which describe things as they truly are can live. But the problem with the critical process is that it creates a desert—you are left believing nothing, as in the past many evangelicals have experienced when studying theology in a secular university context. Or perhaps you are left believing everything, which amounts to the same. ‘Beyond the desert of criticism we wish to be called again’, says Ricoeur. Once the work of criticism has been done, we need to make a ‘wager of faith’ on what we actually believe. Having opened our minds, and evaluated different views, we need to ‘close’ them on one particular position.

So openness on its own is not enough. We need to close down as well, we need to actually render judgement on what Scripture says, not simply be ‘open’ to new views. In fact, it is less about being ‘open’ than about being (reflectively) engaged with different viewpoints, with self-awareness and a willingness to genuinely understand different viewpoints. I think it is these qualities which have been lacking from the earlier stages of faith that both Anna and Peter Enns describe. And none of this precludes being confident in our own position, even whilst engaging with others. In fact, this confidence is vital if we are not going to be hijacked by the latest trend, experience or new piece of information.

In my observation, two key things separate the nature of the debate we are having about same-sex marriage and the debate that was had about women and leadership (quite apart from the content of discussion). The first is the speed at which things are changing; I have been surprised at how quickly some have been able to change their mind in the light of not-all-that-persuasive arguments or experience, almost as if the position they had previously held had not been thought through. The second is the role of experience. In the debate about women’s leadership, new experience made many look again at the text, and see things which were there but which they had missed because of confirmation bias—they previously found in the text only what they had been looking for. But in the debate about SSM, new experience is leading people to suppose that there are things in the text which in fact are not there! A classic example of this is the idea that Lev 18 refers only to male cult prostitution, despite the fact that there is no evidence whatever for this in the text itself. This does appear to be a strategy for avoiding the meaning of the text, because it is too inconvenient in the light of our experience.

Despite what you see in the media, there are in fact a good number of us who are committed to honest engagement with different views, and who aim to critically reflect on what we encounter as well as our own assumptions. The result of this has been to find that the scriptures remain relatively clear on the matter, and because of this we agree with the comment made by theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg nearly 20 years ago:

Here lies the boundary of a Christian church that knows itself to be bound by the authority of Scripture. Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism. If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

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101 thoughts on “Is openness the highest virtue?”

  1. Thank you, Ian, for a thoughtful (and heartfelt) post.

    I would have thought openness, while not the ultimate virtue, it’s not something that can be put on or off at our convenience. To me, openness signifies a willingness to subject our viewpoint to scrutiny in the light of new information. So it’s not a case of coming to a position (once) and then sticking rigidly to that, but of continuous reexamination. That does not mean, however, that the reexamination should not be rigorous nor that we should allow ourselves to be hijacked.

    You express surprise at the speed with which some appear to be changing their minds. I rather think that what we are seeing is the result of many people (mostly evangelicals, but not exclusively), having struggled privately with this issue over a long period of time, finding the cognitive dissonance between what they “ought” to believe and what they see, hear and experience in their own lives, or in the lives of close friends or relatives, too much to handle.

    I would say you are fortunate/blessed if your experience of evangelicalism has always been of the open variety.

    • Simon, thanks. I agree about not choosing whether or not we are ‘open’, but I guess that underlines my concern as to whether this is the right word.

      I think you are probably right about the dynamic for those who have changed their mind. But this does lead me to ask ‘And what were they thinking beforehand?’ I remember a recent conversation with someone in this situation, and I said ‘So what have you read? Richard Hays? Thomas Schmidt?’ Turns out they had changed their view without doing any serious study or reflection. I know that’s not true of everyone—but it is true of many.

      I have *experienced* other kinds of evangelicalism—but I have been happy to reject them out of hand. I was once pinned in the corner of a room by someone yelling at the ‘The AV is the only sound Bible!’ But, unlike others who have journeyed, I don’t think I’ve ever been conned by such views, so have never had to unlearn them.

      • Thank you, Ian. I’ve not come across Hays, but I read Thomas Schmidt 16 years ago when I was at Ridley Hall and writing an essay on the ethics of same-sex relationships. (I had hoped that doing that would help me settle the issue, but it ended up raising a whole lot more questions for me). I liked Schmidt’s approach, not least for the fact that he attempted to see the best in the opposing arguments, taking them seriously even if he came to a different conclusion himself. I guess I’m rather disappointed now when I see argument that essentially fails to take the other side seriously (and I’m not accusing *you* of doing that). Although I got a good mark for the essay, I was accused/criticised by my tutor (from one of the other houses in the federation) of having a conclusion that was at odds with the material that had gone before.

  2. It may be rather simplistic, but my experience suggests there is an assumption about evangelicals that they haven’t thought very deeply about theology, because if they had, they wouldn’t be …

    • Clive, I have read and re-read my comment and I honestly cannot see how anything I wrote could be remotely construed as “putting two fingers up to Christianity”. Nor have I “quietly and immediately dismissed the Bible “. The whole issue is about how we read, understand, interpret and apply the Bible in the early 21st century. And I have been wrestling with it in regard to sexuality now for well over 20 years, so I am not dismissing the Bible whether quietly, immediately or in any other way. However the way I read, interpret and apply it is not the same now as it was 20 years ago, and I suspect is not the way you do these things either.

      Besides that, Christianity is more than simply the Bible: it is following Christ within the community of the Church with the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus told his disciples would guide them into all truth.

      Explaining my current position fully (which I regard as provisional anyway) would take more time and space than would be right on a comment on someone else’s blog. However, I do not believe the discussion is helped by us casting aspersions on each other’s motivations – quite common on social media, I find – especially on assumptions made on the basis of a few short sentences.

    • I don’t think I read Simon’s comment in the way you have Clive, and I don’t think I know Simon’s final position either.

      Simon, I agree with you about Christianity being more than the Bible—but I would also want to note it is not less than the Bible. The theological question, which is really about the integrity of God, is how could the Spirit of God lead the Church in a direction contrary to the Spirit-breathed Scriptures God has given the Church.

      • Dear Simon and Ian Paul,
        I apologise and take the rebuff. I originally read the second and third para of your first entry as being dismissive of the Bible.

      • Well I guess it may partly be to do with what we understand “Spirit-breathed”/”inspired by the Holy Spirit” mean. We certainly don’t mean that God dictated the precise words, in th way that Muslims understand the Qur’an to have been transmitted. Our scriptures, written over a long period, show clear signs of the human element of their authorship in the variety of styles, vocabulary, genre, cultural setting etc., so to claim infallibility or inerrancy seems to me to be making a bigger claim than scripture does for itself. This does not render void Paul’s claim that they are *useful* “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” But it doesn’t necessarily mean that God’s message to one group of people at one time has to apply everywhere else and at all times. Sometimes it’s not all about us.

        Our experience is not insignificant when it comes to interpreting and applying scripture. Firstly, we learn to interpret scripture through a community or tradition which itself is moulded by certain experiences, including past disputes with others. But our own experience can also lead us to challenge received understandings, which is what I believe is currently happening. Scripture’s own paradigm for this is found in the early dispute about what was required of Gentile converts in regard to the Torah, which comes to a head in Acts 15 but finds it precursors first in the experience of a very reluctant Peter in Acts 10 and then in the experience of Paul and Barnabas as they begin to share the message in the gentile world. Perhaps this is a good example of cognitive dissonance. Through the sharing of experience a new understanding is reached, with new light being shed on certain pasages from the Hebrew scriptures. In the end, it is decided to dispense with the usual Jewish boundary requirements, except for three conditions for the Gentile converts.*

        In spite of this decision, the dispute clearly rages on for quite a while. But interstingly of the three conditions, Paul begins in 1 Corinthians 8 to ask for tolerance for different understandings regarding food offered to idols (=”things polluted by idols”?). And I have not heard any recent theological (as opposed to ethical) argument recently about the method of slaughter of meat, or about whether Christians should or should not eat black pudding.

        I do worry about the extent to which the “traditional” view of homosexuality places burdens on people (which, after all was the concern of the Council of Jerusalem regarding dietary laws etc). This especially since one of Jesus’ criticisms of (some) Pharisees was that they placed burdens on others but did nothing to help. Jesus, it seems, was most harsh on those who felt confident they “had it right” and then excluded others over their perceived failure.

        There is much more I could add, but I seem to have go on for long enough this time.

        *This, incidentally, is also the response to the question (that some evangelicals seem to regard as facetious, though it seems fair enough to me) as to why (Gentile) Christians no longer obey the dietary and clothing restrictions also found in Leviticus 18 alongside the prohibition on “men lying with men”.

        • Simon, I think I would want to respond positively to these reflections…but with some important riders.

          When Paul talks about things being ‘useful’ he is not using the word casually. Both Jesus and Paul do appear to believe that ‘what is written’ has indeed been spoken by God himself. But they do appear to do something akin to our ‘reading in context’ by treating different texts differently in terms of their applicability. Thus we are right to read the OT texts in different ways–some as tied to their context, and some transcending their context. For example, Jesus treats Gen 1 and 2 as being transcontextual but parts of Mosaic law as tied to context.

          And of course experience plays a vital role in interpretation–as set out by Anthony Thiselton in his language of the ‘two horizons’ of text and interpreter which meet in the act of interpretation. This relation is circular but virtuously so…or rather it forms a spiral as understanding grows. But, as Thiselton points out at length, this breaks down when experience is given prior authority over the horizon of the text.

          The testimony of one group is that the ‘traditional’ view in fact liberates people from being defined by their sexuality–and there are good grounds to take this seriously.

  3. Intriguing question, Ian.

    I agree that there exist things we shouldn’t be “open” to, like racism, but we reach that conclusion because we’re open to the evidence that racism is a harmful ideology, devoid of justification.

    The moment “authority” enters the mix, we start ignoring evidence. Attitudes have shifted so fast on gay relationships because the evidence that they are as good as straight relationships has become overwhelming. Many who hold a traditional position, like Justin Welby, admit this.

    Whatever the Bible says, it won’t overcome the evidence. We didn’t reject male headship because, after 2,000 years, the Greek changed its meaning, but because, for those who believed in biblical authority, the disconnect between the text and experience became intolerable. The Bible *couldn’t* say that women were unsuited to lead when they so obviously were called to leadership, so to reconcile it with the evidence, the interpretation had to be wrong. This suggests that evidence is, ultimately, what guides us.

    I’d be intrigued to know, Ian, how you first came to believe in biblical authority, and how much error, if any, you’d allow the Bible to have?

    • I am not sure that is what Justin has said, and I don’t think the evidence is overwhelming. In fact, outside Christian circles, I think there is much evidence that gay relationships are seriously dysfunctional, emotionally, medically and socially. A study actually conducted by gay campaigners notes that monogamy just does not work for the gay community; almost no-one in an established gay couple was sexually exclusive.

      I don’t think the Bible has any ‘error’, not least because that category belongs to the testing of scientific theories, and not to wisdom literature. I think the Bible speaks from, to and about its various social and cultural contexts. So (for example) it appears to believe in a three-decker universe. But in such issues, it never relies on such assumptions for its theological argument, which is why it is (unlike holy books in other traditions) transferable from one cultural context to another.

      • “In fact, outside Christian circles, I think there is much evidence that gay relationships are seriously dysfunctional, emotionally, medically and socially.”

        Ian, are you claiming those flaws to be inherent to gay relationships, or commonly displayed in them? Justin Welby certainly doesn’t believe dysfunction to be inherent: he describes gay relationships that are “just stunning in the quality of the relationship.”

        No psychological or psychiatric association classifies homosexuality as a disorder. Just the opposite, they highlight the damage done to lesbian and gay people by discrimination and homophobia. Subcultures formed in a climate of persecution will inevitably be affected by the denial of social approval and rites of passage.

        As illustrated by the rise in divorce, and history of polygamy, straight people are hardly predisposed to monogamy. The paradox of equal marriage is that it’s simultaneously radical and conservative.

        • Well, I certainly agree with you that people are not ‘saved’ by being heterosexual. Sinful heterosexuals are still sinful. But there is good evidence that these problems are even greater in the gay community at large. However, the current ethos in the media prohibits any proper discussion of this.

          • I certainly that proper discussion is prevented. The British Psychiatric Association has significantly back-tracked to reinstate the science that says that homophilia / LGBT is not inherited, it is not genetic, it is considerably more complex that that … but we are not even allowed to discuss the science.

          • Dear Ian

            Not sure how to reply to the email below asking for references.

            Sorry about the delay for references – I’ve been on holiday. If you send me an email I have seven references so far from UK and North America and I can just send them back to you.

            I didn’t know how to be clear that scientific consensus is not that genetics count for nothing but it is actually always more complicated that just genetics which explains why identical twins don’t come out as both gay 88% of the time.

  4. I think ‘openness’ is often a euphemism for “you must be prepared to accept my opinion, even if you disagree”. It locates the sphere of the disagreement not in the arguments themselves but whether you’re prepared to be open or not, so if you disagree – clearly you’re not listening / not being open. It’s your fault.

    It’s an interesting question as to how quickly the pendulum has swung on same-sex marriage. Brendan O’Neill has talked about this on Spiked before (see here for example). What I find striking is that, despite people claiming to be ‘open’, there was/is little to no engagement with conservative arguments.

    ‘Openness’ is a two-way street – it should cut both ways.

    • Conservative arguments have been engaged, Phill, for decades. In an impartial forum, U.S. federal court, they’ve been shredded time and again, by judges of all political stripes.

      The evidential weakness has, implicitly, been admitted by conservatives themselves: arguments from authority are all that’s left. Authority can tell you that a person has *power* to do a thing, and a legal right to act, but not whether their action’s just. For that, you need reasons. Even the most complex hermeneutic, reaching back to Genesis, ultimately rests on “because the Bible says so.”

      That’s why public opinion’s turned against the traditional position on sexuality. Those who hold it acknowledge the burden it places on lesbian and gay people. For most, an argument from authority isn’t viewed as sufficient justification for telling LGB people to deny themselves the possibility of finding a loving sexual relationship, which straight people take for granted.

      • Hi James, we meet again at last, the circle is now complete… 😉

        You talk a lot about authority. The thing is, you are essentially telling me that your experience overrides my understanding of Scripture. Is that not a power claim over me? You are seeking to drown out the authority I place on Scripture by the authority of your own experience. It’s a competing authority claim, not a problem of authority vs something else.

        Secondly, as I understand your argument, it is entirely based around your experience (and the experience of other LGBT individuals). I would wish to dispute that experience. As Ian blogged about last time round, I think experience is subjective and is not independent from a worldview. Also, and I am aware this is a very un-PC thing to say at the moment, but I am not convinced that gay relationships are identical to straight ones – to give one example, the fact that statistically so many gay men are unfaithful (or redefine faithfulness) suggests to me there is something intrinsic to gay relationships which is not to hetero ones. Also there are things like high rates of mental health issues and substance abuse in the LGBT community – which I don’t think can be entirely written off as “societal disapproval” or that kind of thing. This is all stuff we’ve been over before on Peter Ould’s blog, and I don’t really want to get into a discussion about it here per se, other than simply to make the point that “experience” needs to be interpreted through a framework, and I think Scripture is the right framework to interpret it from.

        My belief in Scripture is not based on pie in the sky rationalism. It is my lived experience: my experience is that what Scripture tells me is true. It’s like a mirror to my soul – it tells me what I am at my deepest levels. That is my experience, and the experience of countless people throughout the generations. As someone observed, “original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith” – it explains everything.

        My heart does bleed in our culture today for people who are attracted to people of the same sex, because our culture constantly reinforces the message that you can’t be fulfilled and happy unless you are in a sexual relationship. But just because our culture goes crazy about sex doesn’t give us licence to abandon the Bible’s teaching. I saw an interview with Mike Pilivachi yesterday where he speaks a lot of sense about celibacy (starting at about 9:30 in).

        • Experience can be evidence: every day, courts convict people based on testimony. By “authority” I mean valuing a statement by its source, not its content. The crucial thing is whether there’s substantive evidence to work with.

          The Bible offers none. It nowhere says *why* homosexuality is wrong. All the marriage hermeneutics are extra-biblical creations. That’s the paradox of scriptural authority: since interpretation is an active process, the thing empowered isn’t the text, but its interpreters.

          By highlighting “lived experience,” you illustrate the point further. Ultimately, we “know” the Bible to be God-breathed because of a personal experience of the Holy Spirit. The authority isn’t it, but us.

          • I do agree that “experience can be evidence” – the problem is, whose experience do you believe? Clearly mine and yours differ. Or, to put it more sharply, your experience differs from people like Sean Doherty, Peter Ould, Vaughan Roberts and the like from Living Out.

            This is the thing with evidence and authority. I believe the authority of the Bible is derived from God, because they are His words. We will never agree unless we see eye to eye on that.

            Yes, I know the Bible to be God-breathed because of the Holy Spirit – but to modify what you said slightly, the authority isn’t itself but Himself. There’s an important difference.

            You have no authority for your experience other than yourself. Whatever evidence you can offer is based purely on your own subjective experience. On the other hand, I believe that the God who created everything has the right to set the rules in his own world. There is order within the world, because the God who created it has set it up that way. Christopher Ash has written a big book on marriage, and he says this:

            “No Christian movement needs to defend marriage: rather we seek to protect human beings against the damage done to them by cutting across the grain of the order of marriage … When teaching ethics we are engaged in proclamation of a given order and appeal to men and women to live in believing obedience to that order in Christ; we are not engaged in a desperate attempt, like King Canute, to turn back the tides of social affairs.”

            So to pick up what you were saying about the “why” – it’s a creational thing. The evidence is the world. God has set the world up in a ‘heterosexual’ way, if you will, because it pleased him to do that to bring glory to himself. Those who depart from this pattern ultimately harm themselves, and – although I know you disagree – I think there is evidence aplenty for that.

            What I find striking in your comments is that you seem to believe that God is absent from the world – implicitly if not explicitly. I don’t think God is absent; the God I believe in is infinite in goodness, infinite in knowledge, infinite in power, competent to communicate with us, who does all things well, who knows what is best for us, and who demonstrated his love by sending his Son to die on a cross for us. This is the God that Christians have believed in and worshiped throughout the generations. I’m not sure this is the God you believe in.

          • Those who depart from this pattern ultimately harm themselves, and – although I know you disagree – I think there is evidence aplenty for that. How do I harm myself, Phil? and what’s the evidence (that is specific to the gay community, not just to society in general)

          • [This is a reply to Lorenzo 11:03AM – unfortunately due to the limitations of the software I can’t reply directly]

            I think it’s a red herring to wave away evidence of unfaithfulness and mental health issues etc in the LGBT community as not ‘specific to the gay community’. Just because those things affect everyone doesn’t mean that the gay community don’t have a specific problem. If, as Ian Paul said in another comment, even some within the LGBT community are saying that “monogamy isn’t going to work for the gay community”, then I’d say it was a problem.

            However I think these are symptoms of the root issue. To my mind the root issue is Genesis 2:24 “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” The ‘one flesh’ union is massively significant. Sex is special. It consummates the bond between a man and a woman. In fact I believe it’s possible to have a marriage annulled by the Catholic church if it has not been consummated.

            So, if I look at this from a homosexual perspective, I think anyone entering a same-sex relationship is putting an intolerable burden on themselves and the relationship – because the relationship cannot be consummated. The mind writes a cheque which the body cannot cash. I wonder if this explains the unfaithfulness, because actually many in gay relationships are left in a permanent state of unfulfilment (or perhaps come to live with lowered expectations).

            That’s not to say that I think you can have deep, close, intimate friendships between two people of the same sex – but I don’t think they are marriages, and to call them such is to place expectations on them which they cannot bear.

          • Phil, that’s only because your definition of ‘consummation’ is an extremely antiquated concept that only has legal traction in today’s culture. Gay sex is quite enjoyable to people so inclined, and quite frankly, I’m not at all sure that rates of infidelity are that different. I can however assure you personally that it is quite possible to be in a same-sex relationship and faithful. You really have not even begun to explain why such a relationship is wrong, you just assume it must be because the Bible frowns upon it, but you seem, to me, unable to say why.

          • [Reply to Lorenzo 2:42AM]

            I fear that we’re simply going to get into a “Yes it is – no it isn’t” discussion here. I think what I said makes sense. Gay sex, whatever form that may take, may be “enjoyable” but I don’t think it’s “one flesh”.

            I’m sure there are plenty of faithful same-sex relationships. But it does seem faithfulness is often a problem, i.e. the San Francisco University Gay Couples Study showing about 50% of men have sex outside the relationship with their partner’s consent. Getting reliable data on this, however, is a problem. Time will tell, I’m sure. I’d be interested to see some data on this in a few years time when gay marriages have been around for a while.

            So I think what I’ve said does explain why I think such relationships are wrong, and I believe this is supported by the evidence. However, I feel like we are at something of an impasse with this discussion so it’s probably time to draw stumps.

            To be honest I would rather discuss with you why I think Scripture is God’s Word, it seems to me the more logical place to begin the discussion. If God has indeed spoken, we need to pay attention to Him first and foremost. If he hasn’t spoken, there’s no point us being here.

          • Not it does not at all say why gay relationships are wrong, it merely shows that (as I do) you thing faithlessness is wrong, and at best that everything bar procreative intercourse (one flesh?) is immoral, which I don’t even think you hold.

          • And discussing on your terms why you think Scripture is God’s word would be a bit fruitless, really. I’m a Christian too, but of the catholic variety and like St Paul on whom you base your disapproval, I do not think morality is anything to do with revelation. We’re quite able to figure out what’s wrong and what’s not without Scripture. Heck, if we did not, we’d have no real reason to believe the Bible to be right rather than the Qur’an. But yea, as usual with evangelicals, the conversation goes nowhere beyond fideism.

          • I don’t hold that everything bar procreative sex is immoral, and I don’t think it’s logically required by my position?! I was just responding to your question about harm.

            Interesting that you’re Catholic, because as I understand it the Catholic line on this has always been fairly strong and consistent. I’d say the official Catholic line on Scripture is higher than the view you seem to hold as well.

            I both agree and disagree about morality and revelation. I do think Paul believes in Natural Law, taken mainly from Romans 1:18ff. But he doesn’t then go on to say that we can do away with the Law! Rather, the problem is exactly the opposite – that mankind cannot fulfill the righteous requirements of the Law. The Christian message is that, although we do have the requirements of the Law written on our hearts, we frequently ignore it and deceive ourselves. Our problem is that we doubt God’s words rather than affirm them.

          • Hi Lorenzo,

            IFor one I was responding to your question about ‘harm’ and trying to outline how the logic of that worked from my perspective. I was trying to outline how a traditional Biblical understanding of sexuality might respond to your point, rather than trying to make a general case about what is moral and not moral.

            In other words, I start with what Scripture says is moral rather than starting with what I think is harmful. And, I don’t think faithful same-sex relationships are condoned in Scripture, therefore that is my starting point. This is ultimately because I think God understands what is harmful and what is not better than I do. Even if I can’t express something very well, I trust that God is reliable. Incidentally, this is why I said I’d rather talk about Scripture first.

            Anyway, to try and respond to your question, I think there is a world of difference between non-procreative sex happening within a heterosexual relationship, and those acts happening in a same-sex relationship where – and this is the key point – ‘one flesh’ sex cannot happen by the very nature of the relationship. The logic isn’t the kind of act involved, the logic is about whether or not the two people are even able to become ‘one flesh’.

            There are some rare instances in heterosexual relationships where it cannot happen, but the point is that is where something has gone wrong – it’s not seen as another kind of ideal.

            I hope that clarifies a bit! I’m no ethicist so please excuse me if my language is imprecise.

          • I’m sorry, I’ll stop arguing here, I simply do not understand what you mean. You may very well write that you don’t want to start with what’s harmful or wrong but simply “don’t think faithful same-sex relationships are condoned in Scripture;” so what? Surely we must believe that whatever’s not strictly forbidden in Scripture is allowed rather than whatever’s not explicitly condoned is forbidden. I don’t get up every morning wondering whether whatever I’m about to do is allowed in Scripture.

          • Nor have you cared to explain what you mean by ‘one flesh’ that would make sex licit. I was always taught (and can read this in the Talmud as well) that this meant new ties of kinship were established, whether or not procreation ensued. This is true in same or opposite sex marriage. Indeed this is exactly what marriage establishes in law. It sounds to me like you equate ‘one flesh’ with the beast with two backs and I’m really not interested in discussing this kind of stuff which has no support in either Scripture or Tradition. Bye, it’s been fun. And God bless you.

          • On your first point… I do think that same-sex relationships are prohibited by Scripture?! I’m sorry if I was ambiguous in my language there. I normally say something is “not condoned” to mean that it is forbidden, rather than a more neutral sense.

            I’m also really not sure where you’re going with your second point either. Do you not think that, at the very least, the ‘one flesh’ union of Genesis 1-2 is pretty explicitly to do with a man and a woman?

            I agree that the “one flesh” union is more than simply sex, but that seems to be pretty significant to the idea (see how Paul interprets it in 1 Cor 6:16).

            However you define it, to say that it can exist between two people of the same sex has no support within either Scripture or Tradition.

            I’m sorry that we can’t see eye to eye, or even that I can’t seem to make myself understood. Maybe one day we can talk about it properly. Blog comments are to discourse what throwing rocks over the fence is to neighbourly relations.

      • James said “…by judges of all political stripes.”
        This isn’t actually true.
        The Bush appointed judge in the last case actually pointed out that the Obama judges were allowing any form of marriage at all including polygamy and incest, and so was the one dissenting judge.

  5. I agree with Phil’s closing paragraph very much.

    James, there is NO relationship between what the Bible says on women priests and SSM, you really cannot relate the two. The New Testament doesn’t talk about priests at all save Hebrews, which talks about Christ alone as the priest, and 1 Peter, which talks about everyone as a priesthood of all believers. The O.T. is God revealed in history, whereas the N.T. is God on earth. The O.T. contains many parts which God doesn’t want precisely because it is God revealed in history, so it is really easy to quote parts of the O.T. as if they were commands when they are not.

    • Clive, I acknowledge the differences, but in turn, will you acknowledge the similarities? On both, the Bible reaches back to Genesis: whoever wrote the pastorals justifies male headship by Eve’s actions in Eden. And on both, interpretation only shifted alongside the shift in social norms.

      The irony is that the underlying justification for both is, likely, patriarchy (male-on-male sex was viewed as unmanly), but many who explicitly reject that creed when it comes to women in leadership defend its imposition on gay people. That’s what you get when authority is divorced from reason!

      • I don’t agree, because I don’t think the pastorals teach male headship. Structure, context and vocabulary all undermine that idea.

        I think there is also plenty of evidence in the NT that the prohibition on SSM has nothing to do with patriarchy, and on women, Paul is notably anti-patriarchal.

        • Paul’s anti-patriarchal chops depend on whether he wrote Ephesians and the pastorals, and whether the verses about women being silent in church are interpolated into the authentic letters. In any case, the Mosaic law that would’ve shaped his views of same-sex activity was undoubtedly patriarchal.

          The verses can be interpreted in the way you describe, but that just goes to underline the fundamental ambiguity of texts, especially texts written 2,000 years ago in a dead language. Even if I believed in biblical authority, I’d have to accept that this isn’t clear cut. For all we know, Paul’s only knew about homosexuality in the context of Bacchanalian rites!

          • Yes, I suppose—except that there is absolutely no evidence for this in the texts. The prohibitions that Paul expresses, as with the Levitical texts, are expressed in the most general terms.

  6. James, I quoted Mark 10:8 which probably does not go back to Genesis 1 & 2, verse 6 probably does. Mark is probably the earliest of the synoptic gospels and you can find the matching sentence in the other gospels. Notwithstanding that, Jesus speaks about marriage on earth, Jesus does NOT speak ever about women priests, so I can’t agree unless you can find somewhere that Jesus speaks about women priests.

  7. Hi Ian,

    Thank you for this balanced and sensitive blog.

    Two things especially resonated with me:

    ‘It is now easier to come out as gay than as evangelical’

    and this from the Wolfhart Pannenberg excerpt you quoted:

    ‘Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on its matter must know that they are promoting schism.’

    As one who is at peace with ‘the norm’ of the church’s teaching on this matter, I sometimes feel apprehensive about tweeting comments that, for me, are just ordinary and matter-of-fact.

    I belong to a generation where ‘the sexual revolution’ back in the ’60’s and ’70’s left many of us deeply concerned about the global spread of the HIV virus. I remain concerned about this, and I don’t take kindly to dismissive and sneering remarks about Leviticus, such as some remarks made by some SSM supporters.

    It is possible to have a loving heart towards gay people, while at the same time honouring the church ‘norm’.

    Thank you again.

      • Hi Lorenzo. I’m not convinced that ‘the church, and especially its evangelical wing’ has ‘alienated the goodwill of the nation’.

        However, I do agree that, to a significant extent, perceptions of ‘the church’ have changed.

        I think of the saying: ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’.
        Those who are not attracted to the ‘Zeitgeist’ no longer appear ‘beautiful’ to those who are attracted to it.

      • I would not like to speculate about this.

        However, it is true that the HIV virus remains a threat and that none of us can afford to be complacent.

        This was brought home to again just this week, when I read a newspaper article about the HIV scare at the University of Derby.

        ‘No man is an island’ – we all live in the same world.

        • My post beginning ‘I would not like to speculate…’ is a response to the question posted by Lorenzo 23-08-2014 at 10.57 a.m.

  8. Perhaps it might help if we looked at it like this: the Bible is not truth itself in the sense that every sentence and every paragraph is immutable truth. The Bible is the window through which truth about God and his intentions for human existence is revealed (and even then we see ‘through a glass darkly’). You have to look at the whole picture if you don’t want to be confused by homing in on one small bit. And the Holy Spirit helps you to make sense of what you see (he doesn’t rise up in opposition and suggest an opposing viewpoint!)

    We can all spend our time considering the window itself or looking for other windows but it is only when we look through the window of the Bible that we see truth revealed. And looking through it has to be a step of faith but also acceptance of what we learn when we do so. In this sense the Bible will always be divisive because we don’t find all the truths it reveals to be convenient and we want to look elsewhere or blank out disturbing aspects of what we see.

    We humans love to identify and judge people in terms of the party or tribe to which we think they belong. But evangelicalism at its core is an attitude of mind which humbly accepts truth as revealed through the Bible even when it is highly unpopular or derided and irrespective of who agrees or does not agree with it. And, because people with this attitude will choose truth over any tribal dogmas, they will follow when their understanding of the truth needs revising but remain constant when age old insights continue to hold good.

    While the spirit of the secular Western world is currently enthused by homosexuality in general there seems to be nothing new to be found in the Bible which is comfortable reading on the issue. If that is so (many clearly don’t agree that it is so) then Evangelicals have no choice but to say so, however annoying that may be to other people. In fact to say so is an act of love, for there is no kindness in accepting something that you know will bring dissatisfaction and sadness to those you love.

    • Thanks, Don. I will keep being annoying then!

      Do you know the book ‘The Fall of Interpretation’? In it, James Smith argues that our uncertainty in interpretation is not due to sin, but is part of our limitation as human beings.

      • My point was not from personal experience; gay and lesbian people are as rare in the Christian churches as they are in wider society (about 1-2%?) despite the impression given in the media. However, they do deserve at least as much love and concern as anyone else who seeks to live as God intends.

        Evangelicals who understand from the Bible that this is not God’s intention as a way for people to live should not be expressing their own condemnation from a position of superiority; but when the Bible is so clear on the issue what else can they do except pass on the best advice they know? The amount of resentment and real anger that is manifested online by those who argue against the Biblical viewpoint on homosexuality certainly suggests to me that they are not in a place where it is easy to find peace.

        • Let me get this right: (a) those who disagree with you disagree with ‘the Biblical viewpoint,’ and (b) this is why they are not at peace with themselves? It could also be that many evangelical people are so generally and absolutely certain of holding the truth that talking to them feels like talking to a wall, which is infuriating.

          • Well, Lorenzo, I did say in my original comment with regard to the Bible that we ‘see through a glass darkly’ and this implies that even the most fervent evangelical must accept that, so long as their human existence remains, they will not know or understand all there is to know. And I did also say in my reply to you that they ‘should not be expressing their own condemnation from a position of superiority’. So my answer to your question a) is that the Bible speaks for itself and my or anyone else’s view on what it says should be tested by actually reading what it says for yourself – this free access to check things up for yourself is something we should all treasure.

            I’m sure you would agree that a Christian whose lifestyle is at odds with God’s intentions is not going to find inner peace because of the division within which is pulling in opposing directions. This is absolutely nothing to do with disagreeing with what I say – I am a mere fallible human being. I can appreciate that you find some evangelicals to be infuriating but have you considered that some promoters of the gay agenda are equally infuriating and appear to want to rub the nose of evangelicals in the dust? I wonder why that is?

          • You did not, you said that ‘the Bible is so clear on this issue’ and quite frankly, to me, you do speak from a position of great superiority. It does not impact your life. You discard every evidence from the lives of those who are concerned to cling to your simplistic reading of Scripture to give ‘the best advice you know.’ If Scripture were so simple, everyone would agree (you know, as we do on the divinity of Christ).

          • If you are suggesting that my quote from the Bible that ‘we see through a glass darkly’ means that the Bible can never be ‘clear’ on an issue, I simply don’t agree that these phrases are mutually exclusive. Could it be that the extent to which we can see depends in part on the natural human limitations which we all share and in part upon what we as individuals may wish to see? I readily accept that both of us are equally vulnerable in this regard. However, I do think we must all agree that there is such a thing as objective truth and I know that this can be brutal (for all of us) especially when it cuts across desire; I certainly find this is true for myself and that is why I would never wish to come across as superior.

            You think I have a cold ‘tough luck mate’ approach to Christians who are personally affected by the gay issue. Well it’s true that I am not personally affected but I do have an imagination and you might be amazed at the wish I feel that I could be on side with the gay agenda; I really do appreciate the hurt which can be involved.

  9. Out of curiosity, you seem to agree that the indifference of what your friend calls ‘the chattering classes’ has turned to loathing,’ but why is it, do you think? Why has the church, and especially its evangelical wing, alienated the good will of the nation, prevalent even not so long ago?

    • Lots of reasons. Ranting criticism from atheists like Dawkins. A PR agenda dominated by 1960s liberals, including members of the gay community. Detachment from actual encounter with the church. The huge undermining of moral thinking by the ruthless adoption of free-market economic reductionism.

  10. While the debate has rightly centred around the whole issue of revelation, I also find it fascinating how often a willingness to accept homosexual relationships is also accompanied by a rejection of penal substitionary atonement. Reflecting on this further, the (literally) crucial issue revolves around how we believe God accepts us and what it means to say that God is love. There are two very different answers to that question currently being promoted, and this to me provides further evidence that what we are discussing here is a first-order issue.

    • “I also find it fascinating how often a willingness to accept homosexual relationships is also accompanied by a rejection of penal substitionary atonement.”

      Hardly surprising that people who are capable of enlightened thinking in one aspect should be capable of it in another.

  11. I’m really not convinced that the distinction between support for women exercising pastoral oversight and support for same-sex marriage can be so tidily separated. While it is clear that a great many of those who support women exercising pastoral oversight do not support same-sex marriage, it should also be clear that these two positions are widely held for very similar, if not the same, reasons. The comments that you make about the role of experience could all be made—and, indeed, are all made—about homosexuality. Besides, there is arguably far more relevant ‘new experience’ in the area of homosexuality than in the case of women in the priesthood.

    One also encounters plenty of novel readings of biblical passages sharply contrary to their prima facie sense in support for women in priesthood, invoking extra-textual contexts that give the texts a very different sense. This isn’t the place to get into those, but to my mind it rather undermines the clear distinction between the two positions that you want to draw here.

      • Thanks for the response, Ian.

        I read your earlier post when you posted it, and just re-read it. I’m far from persuaded that things are as straightforward as you present them to be. I find Webb’s trajectories to be rather tendentious. For instance, one could observe that many of the cultures surrounding Israel had priestesses, but Israel’s priests were all male (and the typical answer to this objection is much the same sort of answer as that given by those explaining the forbidding of same sex relations). One could also observe that the most prominent women—Miriam and Deborah—in national leadership occur nearer the beginning of Israel’s story, rather than towards the end. The explicit teaching on the subject of women in the NT often pushes in a conservative direction (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11, 14; 1 Timothy 2), against radical impulses in the contexts being addressed. Etc. A similar inversion of Webb’s trajectory could easily be presented in the case of homosexual relations.

        My point here is not to argue for an alternative trajectory, but to suggest that all such trajectories tend to over-determine the data that we actually have in front of us. Further, the whole presumption of a continuing trajectory that we can extrapolate out beyond the biblical text is an endeavour fraught with speculation and the perils associated with that. Often it can lead to the gerrymandering of lines of biblical warrant that just so happen to run right beneath our feet.

        As for saying that ‘new experience’ is leading SSM advocates to see things in the text that aren’t there, I happen to agree, but surely you should be able to recognize that egalitarian readings of 1 Corinthians 11 or 1 Timothy 2, for instance, typically depend no less upon, frequently rather speculative, claims about the extra-textual contexts. This doesn’t mean that these readings should be dismissed, but it does suggest to me that differences between the two positions of Christian support for same-sex relations and support for women in Church oversight aren’t as clear-cut as you want to make them.

        The other important thing to notice is that, no matter how much you want to distinguish these two positions, empirically they often go hand in hand. This isn’t just a matter of people happening to hold both positions simultaneously, but involves appealing to the same arguments and employing the same hermeneutical and rhetorical tactics to support their positions: accommodation to patriarchal culture, the extrapolation of (speculative) biblical trajectories, unacknowledged contextual background that undermines the prima facie sense of the biblical text, casting doubt upon the clarity of key texts in a way that leads to their being stretchered off the field of debate, contextual and cultural contingency (e.g. uneducated women and abusive cultural forms of homosexual relations), the precedence of principles of social justice over the Christian tradition, the radical equality of texts such as Galatians 3:28, etc.

        While I share your opposition to same-sex marriage, my concern here is that the hermeneutical means and strategies with which Christians have argued for women in Church oversight are typically presented in a way that lacks clear criteria for their use. As a result, they have readily been commandeered for the purpose of arguing for the legitimacy of same-sex sexual relations. Behind the rhetorical force of the distinctions that you are drawing, I don’t believe that you have adequately established the requisite strength of theological and hermeneutical principle.

        • Great post, Alastair.

          The principles behind the pro-women hermeneutic are, as you say, transferable to other issues. Distilled, it claims, “As regards women in leadership, the Bible says the opposite of what it appears to say.”

          If you take that position, you can’t call “Halt!” when it goes further than you’d like. Of course gay Christians and their allies will draw inspiration from women’s liberation, and ask, “Why must we stay chained when they were freed?”

          These forces, one loosed, can’t be controlled. Spirit trumps letter, every time.

          • Dear James,

            I note that you haven’t replied to the question that “Jesus speaks about marriage on earth, Jesus does NOT speak ever about women priests, so I can’t agree unless you can find somewhere that Jesus speaks about women priests.”

            I am still waiting.

            There is NO relationship between what the Bible says on women priests and SSM, you really cannot relate the two. The New Testament doesn’t talk about priests at all save Hebrews, which talks about Christ alone as the priest, and 1 Peter, which talks about everyone as a priesthood of all believers. The O.T. is God revealed in history, whereas the N.T. is God on earth. The O.T. contains many parts which God doesn’t want precisely because it is God revealed in history, so it is really easy to quote parts of the O.T. as if they were commands when they are not.

          • Clive, the typical argument against equal ordination is that Christ chose twelve men as apostles, so in that sense, he does address it. Obviously, this ties into wider issues about the nature of priesthood.

            In any case, the gospels aren’t newspaper reports, but theological reflections on Jesus’ life by the early church; and even if Jesus did condemn homosexuality in all circumstances, he was shaped by the culture of his time, and could be wrong.

        • Alastair, thanks for the comment. On several things I would agree with you, but I wonder if you over state your conclusion.

          Yes, I think that Webb over does the ‘trajectory’ thing at one level. Along with the early/late difference in Israel, it is interesting that women feature more prominently in Luke than in Acts, and it is interesting to speculate why this is. Having said that, I am continually struck by how radically egalitarian Paul’s view is, and am baffled that ‘conservatives’ miss this at the level of exegesis.

          I am not quite so persuaded though that e.g. 1 Cor 11 is pushing in a conservative direction. Paul appears to me to be firmly arguing that women *do not need* a head covering, since they have hair *in place of* a head covering. and in any case the whole argument is about allowing women to fully participate in public ministry. What is conservative about that?

          On the role of experience, in the SSM debate experience is most often held to contradict the biblical texts, which then must be given an extra-textual context which changes their meaning. In the debate on women, experience led to fresh exegesis, and it was the exegesis that led to a change of view. Even in 1 Tim 2, whatever contextual issues are discussed in relation to women in Ephesus and the influence of Artemis, there are also key exegetical issues, like the meaning of authentein. Even the AV sees this, with its translation ‘usurp authority.’ The idea that it was a neutral term is quite a modern invention—as is, for example, making Junia a man!

          I agree that empirically the two issues go hand in hand. But I think a key reason for this is that quite a few (often non-evangelicals) did change their mind because of justice, not because of exegesis, and this is the reasoning on the question of SSM. But that was never *my* reason, nor in fact formally was it the reason for the C of E, whose position depending on theological reflection including exegesis of the texts; I am not sure that the ‘justice’ question even features in Anglican documents or statements of reasoning.

          The one thing you don’t mention is perhaps the most obvious of all. The texts on women might be read as equivocal, one way or the other; the texts on SSM are unequivocal, and not to recognise this is really a failure of reading at a fairly basic level…

  12. The question to my mind is ‘open to what?’ Open to having my mind changed? Open to what others believe, especially if they are different from me? Openness itself is meaningless, and the way it’s used these days as a desirable goal leads us all down blind alleys. Being open to ‘ truth’ may include all of these things, but assumes that there is an objective truth out there which is accessible. How we get there, of course, is another debate.

    • How about:
      – Open to taking other people, their viewpoints, arguments and conclusions seriously? (Do unto others as you would have them do to you)
      – Open to reexamining my own views, including presuppositions?
      – Open to the possibility that I may have something valuable to learn, even from those with whom I disagree?
      – Open to the possibility that I could be wrong, and that the truth (to the extent that it is accessible to us with our limitations) might not be quite what I first thought?

      • I agree with that, but in each case being open is a prelude to concluding something. I cannot live my life thinking I could be wrong about everything without ever being confident that, having been open to exploring other views, I have now settled on something in which I can be confident.

        I think that is a key observation of my post. In which case, ‘openness’ is I think the wrong term for one’s ongoing attitude. ‘Willingness to consider’ is something slightly different.

        • I view “openness” and “willingness to consider” as synonyms.

          “Open” just means that a change of mind is *possible*, not probable, as not all evidence is equal. It doesn’t mean walking around in a state of uncertainty (although more doubt would, IMO, do us good), just being willing to consider new evidence, or reconsider the available evidence.

          Recent decades have witnessed a revolution in our understanding of sexuality, so it’s essential that received views be reexamined in light of it. When authority’s vested in ancient texts, confirmation bias can seek to downplay the evidence to make it harmonise with the source of authority (whether that’s the Bible or the Magisterium).

          Instead of using people’s relationships as a battlefield in a proxy war, churches need to face issues of authority and truth directly.

      • A wise friend recently put it to me this way… “We should be impermeable in belief, but permeable in debate.” In other words, we should hold our scripturally reasoned convictions while being open to our convictions being challenged, and possibly altered, by a satisfactory weighting of freshly presented evidence.

  13. But just to look at it at a very basic physical level, if we believe God created us (which I do), if he had intended to approve of homosexual activity, wouldn’t he have made the bits fit?

    • Tony, as we evolved from primates over millions of years, by the trial-and-error process of natural selection, talk of design is wide of the mark.

    • Tony, if the bits didn’t fit, it wouldn’t work and people would soon give up on it. They’d go and play golf or something instead.

      • Actually, the bits don’t fit very well in other ways. Habitual anal sex is extremely damaging to the body (I know; my wife is a GP and has to fix the damage), and it always has a massively enhanced chance of passing on disease.

        Culturally, anal sex is also almost universally associated with domination and humiliation. So it is not a value-neutral act.

        • Without getting too explicit, Ian, many gay couples don’t have anal sex, and quite a few straight ones do. There’s plenty alternatives for male couples to express their love sexually (and, of course, this is less of an issue for lesbian couples).

          As for any associations anal sex has with dominance, that surely says more about social perceptions than the sexual act itself. Southpaws weren’t children of the Devil, whatever society said (although some unfortunate batters may beg to differ!). A consensual sexual act between adults is value-neutral.

  14. I have just watched a tribute to Sir richard Attenborough. At the end it described all the attributes of their marriage, a very good marriage, a very english marriage. Sadly, it is everything that David Cameron says is a thing of the past and marriage isn’t like that anymore.

    David Cameron is wrong. There is still a Christian marriage even if he is silly enough to think otherwise.

  15. Ian, I am unable to comment on facebook because I am not connected to you there – but I have read with fascination the dialogue which has taken place there under this post.

    I am in the US, was raised (clergy child, then clergy wife) and have been a member of the United Methodist Church. Your conversations with fellow CoE members/clergy are so similar to ours here; we are in much the same place, it seems.

    We say the same things: Is this a “first order issue?” (My answer, a resounding “yes.”) Can we agree to disagree and have, essentially, two churches within one? (I don’t think it is possible, sadly, at least not long-term.) If one speaks on issues at the forefront, people accuse you of being “hyper-focused” or “obsessed.” (That’s a type of shaming, and an attempt to cause you to be quiet. Don’t do it, please.) And if some do eventually leave the church, should it be those who advocate for full inclusion or those who adhere to original church doctrine and sound interpretative practices/traditional theology? (If you don’t agree with the doctrine of your church, why wouldn’t you want to simply leave and start your own?) Wouldn’t schism be a terrible thing? (Yes, it would. It would harm the global church. And yet…what are the options? And I truly mean that. What *are* the options – for the CoE and for the UMC?)

    2016 is our General Conference. No one expects that full-inclusion can be voted in. Thanks to the global nature of our church, the votes simply aren’t there. De facto moves under the wire and clergy disobedience are challenging the US church to the breaking point, however…so something must happen, but no one knows what.

    I do thank you for your consistent witness and for the manner in which you interact both here and on facebook. You have taught me so much; how to speak truth within my own dialogues, yet to do so with care and concern for those with whom you speak. I can tend to be too caustic, so this is a valuable lesson for me. Rather than simply shut down and not talk (which I think can be the tendency for contentious issues, you lend me courage and kindness. God bless you ~

  16. The conversation about SSM relies on experience of an individual. The point about Sir Richard Attenborough, and many others, is that those who experience original matter are excluded. Why? Original marriage is really difficult. Why are we excluded from the conversation?

    Holly, why do you mean by “first order issue?”, I don’t understand.

  17. Dear Holly,

    You describe the discussion about same sex marriage as being “similar to ours here; we are in much the same place, it seems. ”

    I am not properly aware of the USA debate.

    The basic problem that has been revealed in the UK is just how untruthful so much of the debate language is. There is very little truth here.

    Those who have left the church over SSM, such as ACNA, have already exceeded the number of usual Sunday attendance in Canada and are on their way to overtaking the Episcopal Church (which continues to decline). That doesn’t seem to be the experience you are describing.

  18. Clive, I have certainly noticed language issues between the UK and the US. I have had to read for quite awhile, months really, before I have understood what UK churchmen and women are saying. Even then, sometimes I am not sure. :). I simply mean this: Is marriage and what it tells us about who God is a main issue in church doctrine? Do we need to reframe the entirety of our view of scripture if we change this one thing? If we knock out this pillar of our understanding, do we have anything left worth preserving? Personally, I do not believe we can lose our theology of marriage and remain orthodox or evangelical or even faithful.

  19. Clive, there is very little truth allowed in the debate here, either, or in society in general.

    Yes, many have already left over the inclusion issue here too. Our church has been embroiled in this debate for forty years. We have been the subject of aggressive agenda groups. And yet, there are conservatives and evangelicals who do remain, who do hold the line. We, of course, are different in structure. It is our voting members from the more conservative global south (which continues to grow rapidly while the US churches decline alarmingly) who have kept our doctrinal language intact.

  20. Btw, a note to commentators; the software only allows three ‘nestings’ of comments, and for good reason. If there is no ‘reply’ button on someone’s comment, it is because it is already at the last level. But for your reply to appear in the right place, simply scroll up until you find the first ‘reply’ button, and use that. Your comment will then appear below the last person who replied to that comment.

  21. But the statistical trends are long entrenched. Does it really matter who is quoted? USNews/NBC and NY Times aren’t exactly conservative papers, regardless of the authors.

    • They are not, Holly. Some of the most doctrinally, liturgically and politically denominations are being wiped off the map as we speak. Take the Roman Catholic Church in Western Europe, for instance. I buried my (RC) dad a month ago and could not even find a priest to do it. He was buried Anglican, God rest his soul. People are leaving conservative Presbyterian churches in their droves for Pentecostalism. Southern Baptists’s baptism are declining worryingly/wondrously (delete as appropriate). And the usual liberal objects of your remark (Episcopalians, Lutherans and whoever allows same-sex marriage) aren’t doing nearly as bad as the above articles suggest once you examine the stats put forward by these churches themselves rather than their detractors. Over all, only the nones and Muslims are growing fast.

      • As regards church attendance, style is at least as important as substance.

        Evangelical churches that do well are culturally accessible (guitars, good AV, talks crammed with pop culture). By contrast, theologically liberal churches tend to be liturgically conservative.

        As the name suggests, evangelical churches also recruit.


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