Here follows a really clear and careful review of Alan Wilson’s More Perfect Union? by Martin Davie. Martin was for several years Theological Secretary of the Council for Christian Unity of the Church of England and Theological Consultant to the House of Bishops. He offers a comprehensive analysis, and his comments on the nature of marriage, and whether this is a matter of theological ‘indifference’ are particularly important. Because it is longer than my usual blog posts, I offer it in two parts; the second is here.
The Bishop of Buckingham, Alan Wilson, has become known as the bishop who has broken ranks with the official policy of the Church of England by arguing that there should be complete acceptance by Christians of same-sex relationships and that ‘marriage’ between two people of the same sex should be viewed as a theologically valid form of Christian marriage.
This is not the first book written by a Church of England bishop in support of same-sex relationships. Back in 2000 the then Bishop of Swindon, Michael Doe, argued for a more accepting attitude towards such relationships in his book Seeking the Truth in Love. However, since 2000 the creation of Civil Partnerships and the legalisation of same-sex ‘marriages’ have increased the pressure on the Church of England to change its position on sexual ethics and its view of marriage and there is no doubt that Alan Wilson’s book will become widely seen as providing a manifesto for such a change in the same way that Bishop John Robinson’s book Honest to God became the manifesto for the ‘new theology’ back in the 1960s.
This being the case, it is incumbent on those who believe that it would be wrong for the Church of England to change its teaching about sexual-ethics and marriage to explain why they are not persuaded by the arguments put forward by Wilson and the purpose of this review is to provide such an explanation.
The argument that Wilson puts forward in More Perfect Union has a number of strands.
- (Chapter 2) Developments in biology mean that we can no longer view human beings in simple binary terms as either male or female and this in turn means that we can no longer see same-sex orientation as ‘unnatural’ or ‘intrinsically disordered.’ This means that we are free to judge same-sex relationships by exactly the same criteria as heterosexual ones. ‘Do they display virtues of permanence, stability, mutual love and fidelity? Relationships are better judged by their fruit than by their configuration’ (p.34).
- (Chapter 3) Equality is at the heart of the biblical story, ‘the ground bass of the Bible story from the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem’ (p.53). The refusal to accept same-sex marriage is a refusal to accept equality in a way that is akin to the refusal of the South African state to accept non-white people as equal citizens during the apartheid era.
- (Chapter 4) We need to read biblical verses in relation to their particular historical and literary contexts and in relation to the message of the Bible as whole. The history of Christian attitudes to slavery and corporal and capital punishment point us to two ways of approaching the Bible. There is the ‘narrow gauge’ approach that focuses on particular texts and there is the ‘broad gauge’ approach that approaches these texts, and where necessary qualifies them, in the light of the Bible’s overall teaching.
- (Chapter 5) The ‘clobber texts’ that have shaped the way that Christians have viewed homosexual people (Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, I Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10) do not, on close examination, provide a clear condemnation of same-sex relationships today. Furthermore, they have to be read in the light of Jesus’ teaching about a tree being known by the quality of its fruit (Matthew 7:16-18) and this means reading the Scriptures in the light of God’s love. ‘The Scriptures cannot bear bitter fruit. The discipline that enables Christians to hear the word of God according to the love of God is not woolly liberalism, but obedience to the New Testament injunction to discern the spirits and make love our aim’ (p.81)
- (Chapters 6 & 7) Both in the Bible and in our society the forms that marriage have taken and the understandings of the nature of marriage have changed and developed. In the Bible marriage in its various forms is ‘an externally defined social institution that is drawn upon to illustrate God’s relationships with his people, about which regulations are made, but, more importantly, its spiritual and relational aspects developed beyond considerations of sex, gender or children’ (p.99). The history of marriage in our society shows us that marriage ‘is not defined by Church or State, but by the lives of people who marry according to the social and personal mores of the time and place’ (p.121). The medieval idea of marriage as an ‘indissoluble sacrament’ has become an ‘empty shell’ and has been superseded by the Puritan concept of it as ‘personal partnership of equals’ (p.121).
- (Chapter 8) The global Church should adopt a Romans 14 approach to issues of sexuality by allowing different approaches to co-exist. This would enable the churches ‘to be agents of mutual understanding and reconciliation rather than creating hate and alienation between themselves’ (p.146).
- (Chapter 9) Same-sex marriages will enrich rather than diminish the institution of marriage. The distinctive thing that should mark out a Christian marriage is not the sex of the couple involved, or whether their relationship is open to the procreation of children, but ‘the quality of self-giving love between the parties’ (p.163), something that is equally possible in a same-sex ‘marriage.’
Strand 1 – the argument about biology.
If we now consider each of these strands in turn we find, firstly, that Wilson’s argument that we can no longer view human beings in simple binary terms for biological reasons is flawed both scientifically and theologically.
Science It is flawed scientifically for a number of reasons:
- As the Pilling report notes ‘the great majority of human beings are unambiguously either male or female in terms of their chromosomes and the primary and secondary sexual characteristics that their bodies display.’ The variations in human brains to which Wilson refers (page 26 fn. 4) do not negate this truth. Estimates of the number of people with intersex conditions very between 0.018% of the population to 1.7% depending on the definition of intersex that is used. It is therefore illegitimate to appeal to intersex conditions, as Wilson does, to argue that we can no longer think of being either male or female as the human norm.
- The existence of gender identity dysphoria (in which people feel they are trapped in a body of the wrong sex) and same-sex attraction does not disprove a binary male-female divide since the vast majority of people with gender dysphoria and same-sex attraction are biologically unambiguously either male or female and the vast majority of people with same-sex attraction view themselves as either male or female.
- Biologically, human sexuality is oriented towards reproduction. The sex organs of the human body are designed in a way that leads towards the procreation of children and human sexual attraction works on the biological level to bring about procreation. When human beings become sexually aroused they become aroused in a way that is designed to bring about reproductive intercourse. Furthermore reproductive intercourse requires the activity of both sexes. That is why same-sex couples cannot have children of their own and have to rely on either adoption, egg donation or surrogate motherhood.
- What Wilson dismisses as the ‘Janet and John’ view that human beings are either male or female is in fact, according to biology, the overwhelming human norm and the basis for human sexuality. An alien visitor encountering human beings for the first time would view them as a species that exists in two sexes and which requires two sexes to reproduce.
- Wilson goes against the available evidence when he says that attempts to change people’s sexual orientation have ‘almost universally failed’(p.28). There were a series of well documented reports from the 1940s to the 1970s of successful therapy to help people deal with unwanted sexual attraction. The controversy about such therapy means that there have been no controlled randomized trials in this area since then, but such evidence as there is suggests that such therapy can be successful in the case of some people, including people who are definitely homosexual rather than bisexual.
Theology It is flawed theologically because it ignores the clear teaching of Genesis 1 and 2, echoed in Romans 5:1-2, and reiterated by Jesus in his teaching on marriage (Matthew 19:4, Mark 10:6) that God chose to create people as male and female. Wilson ignores these texts totally in spite of the fact that they are fundamental to biblical anthropology and have been fundamental to subsequent Christian anthropology. Wilson has to face the question: if he no longer thinks that we should view human beings in binary terms then what does he think we should do with these texts?
It is also flawed theologically because it takes no account of the Fall. The Bible and the Christian faith teaches us that we live in a world that is not as it should be and that this fact is reflected not just on the spiritual level, but on the biological level as well. That is why, although human beings were designed by God to see, hear and walk there are people who for congenital, medical or accidental reasons are blind, deaf or lame. The fact that Jesus came and healed the blind, the deaf and the lame indicates that how things are in a Fallen world is not necessarily how God intends them to be. Similarly, the fact that some people feel a disjunction between their bodies and who they truly are and the fact that some people are sexually attracted to those of the same sex does not mean that this is the result of the diversity of creation rather than a result of the Fall.
Strand 2 – the argument about equality.
Turning to the issue of equality, the cogency of Wilson’s argument depends on what is meant by equality.
In Scripture all human beings, regardless of their sex, race, or class are created by God in His image and likeness and they have the possibility of participating in God’s eternal kingdom through the work of Christ. It is this equality to which St Paul refers in Galatians 3:28 and which gives every human being an intrinsic dignity which demands respect. That is why the first Christians gradually came to do away with the markers that separated Jews from Gentiles (such as the Jewish food laws and the requirement for circumcision) and why Christians are (or should be) opposed to sexism, racism or class based oppression.
However, it does not follow from the intrinsic dignity of every human being on the basis of creation and redemption that all human desires (however strongly felt), or all forms of human sexual activity, are equally acceptable before God and therefore should equally be accepted by the Church. If this was the case it would be impossible to make sense of what Jesus says about the desires of the human heart that defile people in God’s sight (Matthew 15:19-20, Mark 7:21-23) and it would also be impossible to make sense of the numerous biblical commands and injunctions that say that certain forms of behaviour (including sexual behaviour) are unacceptable for God’s people.
Wilson’s argument that it is wrong to try to ‘hate the sin, but love the sinner’ because it is a failure of love to fail to take ‘anyone’s self-identity seriously’ (p.47) is problematic because this is in fact exactly what God does. In the words of St Augustine, commenting on Romans 5:8:
…in a manner wondrous and divine, he loved us even when he hated us. For he hated us when we were such as he had not made us, and yet because our iniquity had not destroyed his work in every respect, he knew in regard to each of us, to hate what we had made, and to love what he had made. (Tract in John 110)
What Wilson is doing is confusing love with acceptance and affirmation. According to classical Christian theology, love, whether God’s love for us, or our consequent love for other people, is not simply about acceptance and affirmation. It is instead desiring that someone should flourish as the person God made them to be and taking the appropriate action to achieve that end. It follows that if, as Christian theology has traditionally claimed, human beings were created by God to engage in sexual activity solely within a married relationship within someone of the opposite sex, it would be a failure of love to simply affirm or accept someone in a same-sex relationship. This would not encourage them to undertake the change necessary to become the person God made them to be.
Strand 3 – how to read the Bible.
On the issue of how we should read the Bible, Wilson is right to argue that we need to read particular texts in their literary and historical context and in the light of the Bible’s overall message. Unfortunately what he does not seem to have registered is that the overall message of the Bible is one that leaves no space for the affirmation of same-sex sexual relationships.
This is a point that is well made by the American writer Michael Brown in his book Can you be Gay and Christian? He asks the question why there are only a tiny number of biblical verses that directly address the issue of same-sex sexual relationships. His answer to this question is to draw an analogy with a book of recipes for sugar free puddings that has an introduction that explains why sugar should be avoided. The book would not need to constantly say ‘no sugar’ because this would be the point of the book. In a similar way, he says:
The Bible is a heterosexual book, and that is why it does not need to constantly speak against homosexual practice. It is heterosexual from beginning to end, and my heart truly goes out to ‘gay Christians’ trying to read the Bible as ‘their book.’ For them it cannot be read as it is; it must be adjusted, adapted, and changed to fit homosexual couples and their families. In short ‘gay Christians’ must read God-approved homosexuality into the biblical text since it simply isn’t there.
And this is the pattern throughout the entire Bible in book after book.
- Every single reference to marriage in the entire Bible speaks of heterosexual unions without exception, to the point that a Hebrew idiom for marriage is for a man ‘to take a wife.’
- Every warning to men about sexual purity presupposes heterosexuality, with the married man often warned not to lust after another woman.
- Every discussion about family order and structure speaks explicitly in heterosexual terms, referring to husbands and wives, fathers and mothers.
- Every law or instruction given to children presupposes heterosexuality, as children are urged to heed or obey or follow the counsel or example of their father and mother.
- Every parable. Illustration or metaphor having to do with marriage is presented in exclusively heterosexual terms.
- In the Old Testament God depicts His relationship with Israel as that of a groom and a bride; in the New Testament the image shifts to the marital union of husband and wife as a picture of Christ and the Church.
- Since there was no such thing as in vitro fertilization and the like in biblical times, the only parents were heterosexual (it still takes a man and a woman to produce a child) and there is no hint of homosexual couples adopting children.
The Bible is a heterosexual book, and that is a simple, pervasive, undeniable fact that cannot be avoided, and, to repeat, this observation has nothing to do with a disputed passage, verse or word, it is a universal, all pervasive, completely transparent fact. (pp.88-89)
Because this is the case, whether you engage in a ‘narrow gauge’ study of the specific texts that speak about same-sex sexual activity, or a broad gauge study of the Bible as whole the message is the same. Because of the way that God created human beings as male and female there is no legitimate space for such activity, let alone for same-sex ‘marriage.’
 Some readers of this review may find the quotation marks round references to same-sex ‘marriages’ offensive. I apologise for the offence, but it is necessary to keep on marking out that from a traditional Christian view point these are not truly marriages (as the BCP marriage service puts it ‘so many as are coupled together otherwise than God’s word doth allow are not joined together by God; neither is their Matrimony lawful’) and the use of quotation marks is one way of doing this.
The review continues with part 2 here.
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