Paul Bayes, currently the Church of England’s bishop in Liverpool, has made his clearest call yet for the Church to change its understanding of marriage and sexuality, in his address to the MoSAIC group (I assume in his diocese). He does not disguise the reasons for his views, where he thinks the Church should go, and what that would mean. Along the way, he makes some extraordinary comments for any Christian, let alone for someone appointed as a bishop.
The primary driver for his agenda is ‘the world’.
I believe that your agenda will align the Church more closely with the life and values of Jesus. It speaks of love and of the God of love, and it is also the world’s agenda… In the mid to late 1960s the World Council of Churches developed an understanding of mission. The soundbite that summed up their understanding was this: “Let the world set the agenda”.
He immediately notes an objection, that ‘God should come first’, but doesn’t attempt to engage with this. He simply lists the ways in which the morality of ‘the world’ is evidently superior to the morality of ‘the Church’ in the areas of racial justice, disability, and sexuality. ‘The world beyond the church has set the moral agenda.’
This is odd language to use for anyone familiar with the biblical narrative. This narrative begins with something going badly wrong with ‘the world’, and it is righting this wrong which leads to the expression of God’s love for ‘the world’, in calling it back to its creator. This was why God called Abraham into a distinct relationship with God, foreshadowing the distinctive relationship the people of Israel would also have, which would lead to a distinctive way of life which set them apart from ‘the world’ around them. The same then became true of the new Israel in Jesus, including both Jew and now gentiles incorporated into this Jesus-centred Jewish renewal movement.
The clearest expression of this is found in John’s gospel, where ‘the world’ is both the object of God’s love (John 3.16)—but also a force which stands against God and opposes God’s people (John 16.33)
Although Bayes occasionally mentions ‘Jesus’, as though taking a secular agenda and adding ‘Jesus’ makes it Christian, there is little consideration of the teaching and action of Jesus. When he burst on the scene in Galilee, proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God, and the need to repent and believe, Jesus was hardly ‘letting the world set the agenda’, whether that was the Jewish religious world of his day or the pagan Roman world. Why would it be any different now?
Thankfully, the early followers of Jesus didn’t ‘let the world set the agenda’ when it came to care for the poor, attitudes to wealth and status, and in particular the understanding of sexuality, marriage, and sexual morality. Historian Tom Holland has expressed eloquently his realisation that the ethical values of the modern West have, until very recently, stemmed not from ‘the world’, but from the world-contradicting values of the early Christian movement.
The longer I spent immersed in the study of classical antiquity, the more alien and unsettling I came to find it. The values of Leonidas, whose people had practised a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics, and trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was reported to have killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. It was not just the extremes of callousness that I came to find shocking, but the lack of a sense that the poor or the weak might have any intrinsic value.
Christian distinctiveness was particularly evident in attitudes to sexuality. Although the approach to sexuality differed between Greek and Roman thinkers at important points, there was widespread acceptance of same-sex sex; elite men were allowed to have sex with whomever they pleased; sexual ethical expectations were quite different between men and women; men were not expected to help in raising their children; and unwanted babies were exposed and abandoned. As Rodney Stark documents, all these things were challenged by the early Christian movement, and this challenge contributed measurably to its growth. And many of these views were regarded, by ‘the world’ at the time, as morally offensive. It is odd that Bayes, along with Stephen Cottrell, should find this difficult or surprising, or on its own a reason for change in the Church’s doctrine.
And these concerns flow directly from the teaching of the Jewish Jesus. Jewish rejection of all forms of same-sex sexual activity was its most consistent distinction from pagan culture around it, and Jesus’ lack of explicit mention of same-sex relations locates him within this context. (Given that Jesus was willing to offer radical challenge to so many other assumptions of his Jewish world, it is striking that he does not do so here.) Contrary to a commonly expressed view, Jesus did in fact make sexual ethics an important part of his teaching.
In the Jewish context of Jesus’ day, and in the Christian context that grew out of it, homosexual coitus would have been automatically embraced within the scope of porneia…
So can we say that sexual morality was not a major focus of Jesus’ teaching and that there is, therefore, nothing in the Gospels that should be taken as critical of homosexual sexual practice? Can we say, therefore, that concern with sexual conduct does not align one with Jesus and that in particular Christian criticism of same-sex sexual practice has no basis in the Gospels? No we cannot.
Sexual ethics are given a place of considerable importance by the Gospel Jesus; and in his context, not to speak directly of homosexual sexual practice is implicitly to affirm the negative view of such practice that was prevalent in his context and mandated by the Scriptures of that context. (John Nolland)
The teaching of Paul here is simply making explicit, in a mixed Jewish-gentile context, what was assumed in the teaching of Jesus in a Jewish context. As William Loader, a NT scholar who disagrees with the church’s traditional rejection of same-sex marriage, comments:
It is very possible that Paul knew of views which claimed some people had what we would call a homosexual orientation, though we cannot know for sure and certainly should not read our modern theories back into his world. If he did, it is more likely that, like other Jews, he would have rejected them out of hand….He would have stood more strongly under the influence of Jewish creation tradition which declares human beings male and female, to which may well even be alluding in 1.26-27, and so seen same-sex sexual acts by people (all of whom he deemed heterosexual in our terms) as flouting divine order. (William Loader, The New Testament and Sexuality, p 323-4)
I suspect some critics of Bayes here will infer that he sees the atoning effect of Jesus’ death and resurrection as of no value—if the world is not fallen, then why does it need redeeming? I am not sure that this follows; it would be possible to believe there are things wrong with the world that need redeeming whilst still taking insight from the world—and in any case there is a long tradition of seeing Jesus’ death as exemplary rather than ‘transactional’.
And I would not want to reject the idea of ‘listening to the world’s agenda’; a sure recipe for marginalising Christian faith is to ignore the questions that those around us are asking. There is also a significant strand within Scripture of God speaking to his people by means of those ‘on the outside’, from Balaam’s ass to Cyrus of Persia. But all this is far cry from deciding that the moral agenda of the world is superior to the moral agenda of the church.
The church has often got things wrong—which is why I am a Protestant Christian, always committed to seeing the people of God reformed by the word of God spoken to us in Scripture. But what Bayes is setting aside, in rejecting the Church of England’s current doctrine of marriage as a lifelong commitment of one man and one woman, is not merely ‘the church’s’ moral agenda; it is the consistent view of Scripture, which has (in different social forms) been the constant benchmark of Christian understanding down the ages. This means that the criticism which he brushes off, that he is not starting with God, actually has bite. On what grounds does Bayes reject what Christians have consistently believed, in favour of ‘the moral agenda of the world’?
Bayes’s position appears to reject the idea that God has revealed himself distinctively in Scripture, and this in turn raises a question about whether God has revealed himself in the person and teaching of Jesus in the gospels. He ends with a concern that the church should be ‘one’, but he appears to have forgotten the other descriptors of ‘…holy, catholic and apostolic’.
Ultimately, Bayes’ position despises the grace of God that we have experienced, in calling us to a distinctive way of life and a distinctive understanding of both our bodies and the place of sex.
To reinforce his position, Bayes groups his own concerns on sexuality with the other secular virtues of race and disability, and the concerns of those upholding the Church’s teaching with the secular bogeymen of ‘divorce, contraception, and the place of women in ministry’. These connections all merit more careful reflection.
The Church clearly changed its view on contraception many years ago, and at the time the main concern expressed was that this separated sex from procreation, a connection that the Catholic Church continues to argue for. But the Church of England has not changed its doctrine of marriage in the light of this, nor in the light of the possibility of remarriage after divorce with a former partner still living; this is about forgiveness and restoration, whilst marriage remains (in doctrine and liturgy) a lifelong commitment. I am clear that the teaching of Scripture enables both women and men to exercise ministry and leadership at every level, and that the debate here is very different in its substance from the debate around same-sex sexual relations. But what these debates do have in common is the question of whether bodily sex difference matters, and how sex is connected to commitment and procreation. These continue to be live issues.
On the other hand, Bayes assumes that the issues of disability, race and sexuality are inseparable. It might be argued that being gay could be understood as a form of disability (as some gay rights campaigners in the US have argued) but Bayes’ position assumes that, against the evidence, sexual orientation is the same kind of immutable characteristic as ethnicity, and that ‘being gay’ and ‘being black’ are equivalents. Without any clear rationale, he is simply dismissing those who demand racial justice but hold the orthodox Christian view on marriage, which (ironically) excludes many of the black-led churches in the UK.
But what is most baffling in Bayes’ position is the idea that ‘the world’ has things sorted out on issues of sexuality and has a morally superior position. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes watching Netflix (we are currently watching ‘Lovesick’) or listening to the radio to learn that the assumed position of ‘the world’ (or at least its dominant narrative in the media) is that casual sex is fine, as long as there is consent.
Beyond the church, the gay community appears to assume the same. This is the account of Alastair Appleton, presenter of ‘Escape to the Country’, of his own experience of coming to terms with being gay:
This greater goal of sex means that it’s irrelevant who we love. The important factor is that we do fancy and love other people. I should have got this clear in my head before even coming out to myself… Instead I fell into the trap of going out, meeting men and having sex with them, while all the time, deep in my heart, I was actually thinking : this is aberrant, this is not in the natural scheme of things, I like it but it’s invalid.
We really have to get away from this kind of thinking, because slowly and surely it will eat away the joy of our sexual encounters. It will either makes us despise the whole gay sex scene or makes us so furiously heedless of our true feelings that we start using mindless sex and drugs and serial dating to mask that deeper unease, that tiny voice that’s saying: this is not right…
It wasn’t until I left the matrix of the English Motherland and headed into the warm belly of the Cold War, post-Wall Berlin, that I was able to discover guilt-free sex.
There on the nudist beaches of Wannsee and in the gay street festivals of Motzstrasse; in the plush gay clubs buried like ruby-velvet jewels in the grey decay of the East; in the clannish, exclusively male Gay Scene of that city, I found that my dirtiest dreams were pretty mainstream and for the first time in my life I could chat openly to other men about those communal sexual pursuits: flirting, fancying, sharking, hunting and getting your heart broken.
Does Paul Bayes think that this is a superior ‘moral agenda’ to the teaching of Jesus? If not, why not?
Bayes talks of the ‘mystery of the body’ and the ‘mystery of desire’ (dismissing those with a more orthodox view as being ‘fearful of their bodies’) without acknowledging that this ‘mystery’ has power to manipulate, harm and destroy lives. It is the power of sex, sexual attraction and sexual activity which has led God in Scripture to put firm boundaries around sexual activity—precisely to protect the weak who could be abused by it.
The acceptance of gay relationships on a par with marriage could only happen in a culture which valorises sexual experience, prioritises the interior life with its patterns of desire over the external realities of the body, and sees sex primarily in terms of pleasure and feeling rather than procreation and society. Bayes appears to have missed that. He cites Gregory of Nyssa, but rips the quotation out of the context of the Nyssen’s wider argument that the discipline of virginity brings us closest to the life of Jesus and anticipates our destiny in the new creation.
What is most sad about Bayes’ argument is the attitude it betrays of those who disagree with him. Unlike those enlightened members of MoSAIC, who are on an exciting journey of learning, the orthodox are apparently stuck in the past, refusing to learn, and trapped in a fear of sex and of their own bodies. They are either asleep, or they are anti-liberal authoritarians, no better than reactionary racists or those who despise the disabled. This dismissive and patronising language is hardly the approach that the LLF process, signed off by Bayes as part of the House of Bishops, wanted to encourage; it is the most exclusive kind of ‘inclusion’.
How Bayes can act as a shepherd to the orthodox in his diocese, whilst viewing them in this way, I do not know. What is worse is that he has made these comments public—so he must intend those whose views he dismisses to know that he views them with such derision.
And how he can be a teacher of the faith, when he waves away actual theological reflection as ‘glittering arguments of the brain’?
A clergy friend of mine made this comment online:
The Church has always grown when its offered a radical alternative to an increasingly morally lost and confused society and, when becoming a member of the Church carries a risk—the test of commitment factor. On my knowledge of rural demographics I think we have 5–7 years left before around 80% of all C of E rural churches will close due to non viability—if not before. But a new, confident Church, anchored to biblical orthodoxy but with the Spirit’s liberating gracious welcome, can offer what our lost and vacuous society needs right now.
Some years ago, gay atheist Matthew Parris said something similar.
As a gay atheist, I want to see the church oppose same-sex marriage…Even as a (gay) atheist, I wince to see the philosophical mess that religious conservatives are making of their case. Is there nobody of any intellectual stature left in our English church, or the Roman church, to frame the argument against Christianity’s slide into just going with the flow of social and cultural change?
Can’t these Christians see that the moral basis of their faith cannot be sought in the pollsters’ arithmetic? What has the Irish referendum shown us? It is that a majority of people in the Republic of Ireland in 2015 do not agree with their church’s centuries-old doctrine that sexual relationships between two people of the same gender are a sin. Fine: we cannot doubt that finding. But can a preponderance of public opinion reverse the polarity between virtue and vice? Would it have occurred for a moment to Moses (let alone God) that he’d better defer to Moloch-worship because that’s what most of the Israelites wanted to do?
It must surely be implicit in the claim of any of the world’s great religions that on questions of morality, a majority may be wrong; but this should be vividly evident to Christians in particular: they need only consider the fate of their Messiah, and the persecution of adherents to the Early Church. ‘Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you.’… These, and not the gays, are now the reviled ones. Popular revulsion cannot make them wrong.
Unless other bishops speak out and offer better leadership and a clearer vision, with bishops like Paul Bayes, who deny the doctrine of their own church, despise those who do, and prefer the agenda of the world to God’s own revelation of himself, the Church of England is doomed.
For my own assessment of what Jesus and Paul teach, along with the other key biblical texts, see my Grove booklet Same Sex Unions: the key biblical texts.