I’ve had quite a few interactions with Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham, mostly on line and (once) in person. On some occasions he has been reasonable, thoughtful and well-informed; on others, belligerent and polemical. So when I received this book for review, I was intrigued to know which way it would go. Unfortunately, it is the latter.
Reading the first couple of chapters was a very odd experience, and I could not work out why—until I realised I had entered a parallel universe—Wilson’s World, if you will. In this World, all sorts of odd things happen. The church of the 80s and 90s was in the control of a ‘self-righteous conservative rump who held the whip hand’ (p 7, a phrase that recurs throughout the book), which is a very odd description of a church recovering from the Honest to God–type controversies of the 1960s and 70s, and a time when Don Cupitt launched the ‘Sea of Faith‘ movement. It is a World where the policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’, with its ‘duplicity [that] stank of hypocrisy’ (p 8), was the work of conservatives, rather than the liberals who actually practiced it. It is a World where ‘affiliation to the Church fell like a stone’ because of conservatism, against all the evidence that it was and is liberal churches whose numbers dropped most sharply. It is a World where, on the one hand, we feel sorry for the most vulnerable group in all this, closet gay bishops, but, on the other hand, we can on the very same page (p 12) blame them as the most hypocritical and biggest obstacle to moving beyond our current, impossible situation. It is a World where we must not ‘slap on people terminology that they do not accept for themselves’ (p 13)—but at the same time, people who disagree with Alan are ‘stupid’ and unquestionably ‘homophobic’. In fact, in this World to even cite the Church’s current teaching position is ‘conventionally homophobic’ and Rowan Williams was as guilty of this as anyone. In this World, conservatives have had the ‘whip hand’ (that phrase again) for ‘500 years’, perhaps the most extraordinary reading of church history for someone with a doctorate in it! In all this, ‘conservatives’ have consistently been at fault, never been involved in setting up AIDS charities nor engaging in any positive way with the gay community.
In other words, Wilson’s World has very selective connections with reality as most people would see it. What it does do is connect with the feelings of the gay community, and the considerable anger there is in response to past history in society and Church. Parties on all sides need to hear this—but the disconnect on so many other levels actually makes this task quite difficult.
The omissions and selectivity continue into the chapter on science, under the heading ‘Unnatural?’. New Testament references to ‘nature’ in Paul are thrown together, as if no-one had ever explored what these terms mean. Our understandings of what is ‘natural’ are entirely grounded in our own culture, so are clearly of little value—until now, when we have emerged into a period of scientific enlightenment, where ‘the science is pretty much nailed’ (p 24). Sexual identity is fluid, and to suggest that there are two sexes called ‘male’ and ‘female’ is simply to deny reality. Since people can walk on their hands, and others can paint with their feet, it is pointless to talk about parts of the body having any purpose (p 27). There is some useful information here, but what is entirely absent is the presence of any contrary opinions, even from the world of science. No mention, then, of the serious medical reservations about gender dysphoria and the effectiveness of, or even logic behind, the use of surgical gender reassignment. No mention, either, of longitudinal studies which show sexual attraction to be changeable, which has led many in the secular gay scene to abandon language of ‘orientation’ and gay identity. The Church’s critique on any of this is universally ‘vague, stupid and inadequate’ (p 30). Since ‘the Lord knew what he was doing when he ordered nature as he did’ then ‘all human options are equally natural’ and so equally moral. This is, I think, the most simplistic and uncritical statement of ‘natural theology’ I have ever read, and surely the most implausible. Apart from the absence of dissenting voices in science, there is no theological expression of idea that the world might not be as God intended it. The final conclusions here are asserted, rather than argued. Any theology of married where our affections need to be ‘hallowed and directed aright’ simple cannot succeed without including same-sex marriage. ‘Relationships are better judged by their fruit than their configuration’ (p 34), a comment which simply sidesteps any discussion on the connection between form and virtue—and presumably would allow polyamourous and incestuous relationships as long as they were ‘permanent, faithful and stable’.
The next chapter, on the question of equality, again presents one side of the argument as though any opposing view was hardly worth considering. Reflection on the relation between Christ and culture (in the form set out by Richard Niebuhr, who again comes up later) must be set aside until other issues have been considered. The argument that same-sex marriage changes the definition of marriage is nothing more than rationalisation by those opposed on ‘gut level’ and is seen as absurd by ‘non-homophobes’ (p 40). Marriage has always been changing—though, curiously, there is one definition that has been in use since 1297 (in the OED), and this would equally describe same-sex marriage. There is no mention here of the Church of England’s own understanding of marriage in either the Canons or the marriage liturgy. Those who think ‘one man, one woman’ is of importance subscribe to a ‘Janet-and-John’ binarism about gender (p 42)—another phrase that is repeated later in the book. Any suggestion that we should ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ amounts to pathologising and scapegoating, so those who advocate positive pastoral engagement with the gay community, whilst opposed to same-sex marriage, are expressing ‘love distorted by partiality and prejudice.’ It is just the sort of ghettoising form of racism which was evident in apartheid. In this context, equality and inclusion are fundamental biblical themes in both Old and New Testament, though there is no consideration here of texts which nuance that or engage with the boundaries of holiness amongst the people of God, or the very prominent use of ‘exclusion’ language in Jesus and Paul.
Two chapters follow on the use of Scripture. We have already been told that the biblical evidence is ‘scanty’, though the obvious conclusion from this (that same-sex sex was unquestionably and universally rejected) is not mentioned. The first chapter focusses on questions of method. We cannot proof-text, and we cannot take single texts in isolation from their wider context—so we cannot isolate individual verses. ‘Every commandment is a commandment, and was intended to be so.’ This comes quite close to the ‘We wear polycotton shirts and eat shellfish, so why think same-sex sex is an abomination’ argument, when in fact there are perfectly good grounds to attend to some texts more than others, as in fact Jesus does in his reading of the OT. Texts also need to be placed in the Bible as a whole, though again the consistent rejection of same-sex sex from Genesis to the Pastorals does not feature here.
The Sodom text in Gen 19 is dealt with at some length, which is interesting as I am not sure many people make use of this in contemporary discussion. On Lev 18.22 and 20.13, Wilson does not strongly push the line that Matthew Vines has popularised, that these texts are referring to cultic prostitution. Rather, he sees in the texts ‘echoes of male-on-male rape and cultic prostitution’, even though neither of these things form part of the immediate context of the verses, which are set in the context of sexual relations within the family. He does this on the basis that the condemnation is of the passive, penetrated partner, who is thus feminized, even though this has been shown to be a misreading of the text. The most obvious reading of the Levitical prohibitions is that, on the basis of the Gen 2 creation account, these commandments reject as unholy even the most culturally acceptable forms of same-sex activity, a general prohibition which is without parallel in the ancient world and is picked up directly by the NT. But this view is not even considered by Wilson here, let alone discussed.
On Romans 1, ‘nature’ is taken to mean ‘custom’ on the basis of its occurrence in 1 Cor 11, and in any case the example of same-sex relations is incidental to the main charge of idolatry. This reading not only goes against the major commentators, and ignores the arguments of Gagnon, Hays, and Loader (to name conservative, moderate and revisionist commentators), it does not even hint that such views exist or need to be engaged with. On 1 Cor 6.9 and 1 Tim 1.9, arsenokoites probably was coined from Lev 18 and 20, but since these refer to the passive effeminate partner, that is what Paul probably refers to—again, against the majority of commentators on both sides of the debate. Wilson adds to this Dale Martin’s notion that the term is often put together with terms of economic exploitation, so has something to do with pimping—even though the first three terms in 1 Cor 6.9 are sexual, and only two later terms have anything to do with money. In conclusion, he says, ‘the tiny collection of NT texts can be understood in many different ways.’
The chapter on marriage in the Bible includes an odd analysis of the marriage metaphor in relation to Christ and the Church. ‘Modern campaigners sometimes suggest that marriage can be defined by three basic realities which are not possible in a same-sex marriage— difference of gender, reproductive capacity, a notionally natural pattern of sexual intercourse. None of these three realities, however, can possibly play any role in the marriage of Christ and his Church’ (p 95). All you have to do with these terms is express them as difference, fruitfulness, and ordered intimacy, and Alan’s argument unravels. I don’t myself think this is a particularly strong argument in the debate—but it is clear that Alan hasn’t tried hard to take it seriously.
The concluding chapters repeat many of the patterns on show earlier—repetition of catch-phrases, the erection and demolition of straw men, and a dismissal of opposing arguments as plainly absurd without any real consideration.
Did this book need to be written? At one level, clearly it did. It appears to have been a cathartic experience for Alan himself—as one of the commendations notes, there are repeated expressions of anger and frustration, some more explicit, and some more veiled. And as they say, better out than in. I have no doubt that this book will sell well, since it is voicing the views of a group for whom Alan has become something of a spokesman, and this group will be pleased to have their voice articulated.
But I think the book will actually be quite damaging, not least for Alan and his supporters. The disdain with which he treats his episcopal colleagues is hardly going to help future conversations or working relations. And the partial, caricaturing dismissal of those whom Alan disagrees with won’t help his reputation. What on earth is a bishop in the Church of England, with a PhD, doing by disguising from readers the good, accessible alternatives to his view in order to make his case?
I am not sure it will really enhance the reputation of supporters either. Will Jeffrey John, commending such a divisive and dismissive text, really function as a ‘focus of unity’ in a diocese? Does Charlotte Methuen really think that a book, which she notes was ‘written in haste’ (evident from the numerous repetitions and inconsistencies) offers a ‘good’ argument ‘for extending marriage to include same-sex couples’ when is simply side-steps or ignores the objections—and often disguises the fact it is doing so?
I also think it is damaging for the Church and the cause of Christian faith. In mocking his opponents, Alan is (in the eyes of those outside the Church) not doing much more than mocking faith. When he dismisses the biblical discussion out of hand, the conclusion of observers is not that Alan is right, but that the whole project of Christian faith is wrong:
The author didn’t prove the church’s stance in homosexuality isn’t biblical. What he proved is that it’s actually its concept of marriage that isn’t. Further proof, if it was necessary, that the bible is nonsense. (comment)
In what way is this approach ‘missional’? Alan’s hasty, angry and dismissive approach threatens to drag the Church down the route of an internal culture war, and it is not the way to go. The one achievement, I suppose, is that it makes the ‘facilitated conversations‘ look quite attractive by comparison.
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