I 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.
As 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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