One of the great reliefs of the last sessions of General Synod in York (on July 6th to 10th) was the absence of any acrimonious debates about sexuality in the main chamber. The Business Committee had taken the bold and commendable decision that, in the light of the planned teaching document on sexuality, any private members’ or diocesan motions on related issues would not be taken until after the document was produced and discussed. The teaching document was announced after the ‘rebellion’ in February 2017 when Synod decided ‘not to take note’ of a report from the House of Bishops’ report on the state of play in discussions following the long and drawn out (and expensive!) process of ‘Shared Conversations‘.
There had already been an announcement that there was going to be a change in name for the document.
Living in Love and Faith: A new name for the Episcopal Teaching Document
As the work of the Episcopal Teaching Document has progressed it has become clearer that the word ‘document’ does not do justice to the emerging vision for the resources that the groups working on it envisage. Furthermore, ‘teaching’ does not reflect the working groups’ aspiration to produce teaching materials that will invite active engagement in mutual learning. So, after several months and the participation of many people, a new title for the project has been agreed by the Archbishops: Living in Love and Faith: Christian Teaching and Learning about Human Identity, Sexuality and Marriage.
This provided plenty of fuel for the suspicious, that there was a retreat from the idea that the Church of England might actually have a clear position on sexuality that needed ‘teaching’. But Justin Welby had said from the beginning that this was going to be a ‘mapping’ exercise, highlighting areas of agreement, the areas of disagreement and possible ways forward—which in itself suggests that this, another costly process, would not lead to any clear resolution. Personally, I was intrigued at the idea that ‘teaching’ on its on does not ‘invite active engagement in mutual learning’, but in fact in Higher Education it is common to talk about a ‘teaching and learning strategy’, recognising that the focus needs to be not simply on what is offered, but also on the effect that it has in enabling learning to take place.
So instead of any debate, the Saturday afternoon of Synod was given over to a series of workshops and seminars, some of which focussed on other topics (including digital evangelism) but which included presentations on the work of the different groups involved in the process (Bible, theology, biological and social sciences, history and a slightly separate Pastoral Advisory Group). I attended the ones on Bible, theology and science, and what emerged was a rather mixed picture of what we might expect from the process.
Each seminar session included three presentations, accompanied by various opportunities for questions and discussion. The first biblical presentation was an excellent overview offered by Dr Isabelle Hamley, currently Justin Welby’s chaplain. She highlighted the fact that the modern agenda is often focussed around questions of identity, whereas ‘identity’ as such was not a subject addressed directly in scripture. We therefore needed to ask some interpretive questions which centre on what it means to be human—the question of ‘theological anthropology’, and she ended with a helpful series of questions, which included something like this:
Are there aspects of being human which are ‘given’?
If some aspects of being human are ‘given’, are they given by God?
If they are given, and given by God, are they immutable, that is, can they change or are they fixed?
My immediate response to these questions was ‘Yes, those are the questions which are central and which matter!’ We then turned to our neighbour, and I shared my response with the person sitting next to me, who was a lay person—not a theologian, but someone with important lay responsibility in the C of E. When I shared my response, this person replied: ‘I have no idea even how you would get to those questions. I have never thought about “anthropology”.’ This highlighted a fundamental dynamic, which appeared to be widespread in the room, that the issued being raised, which were fairly bread-and-butter for the theologians present, were issues that many of the lay people in the room had rarely, if ever, thought about.
For me, it explains the nature of conversations I often have about the questions of sexuality being currently debated by the C of E. I can see the impact of different discussions and decisions, but many (both clergy and lay) struggle to see the issues. I don’t mean that to sound patronising or superior; it is simply a reflection of differential levels of engagement in some of the key issues. And it highlights the first enormous challenge for the process of producing a ‘teaching and learning’ document: there is a vast gulf of understanding and level of engagement that has to be bridged between different parts of the Church, even before we get on to questions of method. This was highlighted even more in the second presentation, a slightly complex analysis of Eph 5, and the third, an eccentric consideration of an academic thesis that the relationship between Jesus and the ‘beloved disciple’ were in a pederastic homoerotic relationship, where Jesus was the erastes and the disciple was the eramenos. This might have been entertaining as an occasional contribution to a postgraduate seminar—but in this context it was completely ill-judged.
The second session I went to was looking at theology, and particularly the question of what we are doing theologically in different aspects of the discussion. Mike Higton, Professor of Ministerial Training at Durham (so overseeing the Common Awards process for ordination training) argued that there has never been a single, agreed, ‘Anglican’ theological method when it comes to making ethical decisions. At the time I thought his argument quite persuasive. On reflection, I wonder if there is really no common factor in different Anglican statements at different times—I simply do not know enough about Anglican history to be able to say (do feel free to comment on this below if you have a view). But I did also wonder why we need to find an Anglican method. Why are good disciplines of interpretation and hermeneutics not sufficient? Of course, questions of method in these areas are contested, but there are better and worse ways of reading texts and connecting them with the questions we face today—and a leading authority in this area in a past generation (Anthony Thiselton) is, as it happens, Anglican.
The third session I went to, on the biological and social sciences, was the most disturbing. Andrew Davison, Starbright Lecturer in Science and Theology at the University of Cambridge, gave a straightforward presentation of the views of Augustine, Aquinas and Calvin on the importance of considering what science says as we think about our theological position—not least in an apologetic context where we are hoping to persuade others of the reasonableness of Christian claims. My question from this is: what do we do about the distorting effects of sin, in the form of ideological bias, so that ‘science’ as we experience it in our social context is not necessarily telling us about reality. I cited the fact that it has long been argued that 85% of medical research papers are actually presenting false results, from a combination of biassed financial interest of drugs companies, and the need for journals and academics to produce positive, rather than ‘null’ results from research. The answer I got (an airy dismissal) was neither convincing nor reassuring. If the relatively hard science of medicine is hopelessly ideological skewed, what are we going to expect in the hotly contested areas of sexuality and the related psychiatry issues?
My concerns were confirmed by the presentation of Chris Cook, Professor of Psychiatry also at Durham. He offered us a series of statistics about sexuality, and appeared blithely ignorant of either the fact that the statistics might be biased (‘1.5% of the population is likely to be transgender’) or that they tell us more about what is happening in culture than offering any objective insight into sexuality (‘43% of 16–24 year-olds don’t identify as either exclusively homosexual or exclusively heterosexual’). This same naivety (or wilful ignorance?) is evident in what I can only describe as the abysmal article written by Cook in last week’s Church Times.
Cook begins by claiming:
The Christian debate about human sexuality has primarily revolved around a small number of sexually specific biblical texts. What effect might it have if we were to select our material differently?
It might not be unreasonable to read a subtext here: ‘Look at how narrow these evangelicals are in reading the Bible; let me take a broader and more mature approach’. But what it actual says is that Cook must have been hiding under a rock for the last 20 years, or has decided simply not to engage in the debate. Even in my Grove booklet (which is specifically focussed on the ‘boo’ texts’) I look much more broadly, considering issues of the creation narratives and (once again) issues of theological anthropology; I consider the question of Jesus’ ministry, and in what sense it was ‘inclusive’ (as recorded in the gospels); and I go on briefly to explore questions of the way we use texts. I guess Cook hadn’t read it. And he can’t have read Richard Hays’ The Moral Vision of the New Testament, or the arguments about the meaning of friendship, or essays on what does it mean for us to hope for bodily resurrection, or his colleague Robert Song’s argument about covenantal friendship, and critiques of why Song includes a sexual element in this without explanation, or questions about what it means for Scripture to be authoritative in Anglican discussions, or the debate about sexuality and relationships in the first century…and so on. How could we have gone through all the pain and time—and expense—of the Share Conversations process, and end up with someone on the science group who appears so lamentably ignorant of the breadth of the debate?
Cook then offers us a well-worn liberal cliche: Jesus, in proclaiming the kingdom of God, was opposing those narrow-minded religious people who were all concerned about doing God’s will, being holy and keeping the law, and Jesus showed that they were all wrong. Translation: anyone who is concerned about what the Bible actually says is just being a narrow-minded Pharisee, and we liberals are doing Jesus’ work of the kingdom. Perhaps we do have to set aside what Jesus actually says, perhaps we have to ignore his evident concern for holiness of life and purity, including mentions sexual ethics in every one of his ethical exhortation lists, perhaps we have to pass over his explicit claim that he is not ‘doing away with the law, but fulfilling it’, we might ignore the terminology of the Holy Spirit, and we could even dislocate Jesus from his historical context, both within a multiplicity of competing ‘Judaisms’ in the first century, but also the shared distinctive that all known Jewish movements had from their pagan neighbours, not least in the area of sexual ethics. But do we really, at this stage in the life of the Church, need to put up with such a thin, caricaturing and patronising argument as this?
The third colossal error that Cook makes is his association of scientific ‘fact’ with moral position.
Science shows us that homosexuality is not a medical disorder but a part of the natural diversity of God’s creation.
Since when has Anglican (or any Christian) moral discourse moved uncritically from what is to what ought to be? Does Cook think we are all stupid, and we never realised that some people appear to be gay for life? Does he think that when Paul uses the language of ‘nature’ in Romans 1, he is just showing what a primitive, pre-scientific idiot he is? Perhaps he does; if so, what on earth is he doing on the science group contributing to the teaching document.
And I suppose it means that this group will avoid looking at the comparative evidence of violence and abuse in male same-sex coupling compared with other-sex couplings. Or the evidence of widespread multiple sexual partners, even in ‘closed’ committed relationships? Or the research evidence of environmental factors predicting men entering same-sex relationships? Or the instability of self-identified sexual orientation, particularly amongst younger women? And the comparative instability of same-sex marriages? If the ‘science’ group doesn’t explore these and other key issues, and I not sure what the point of it is.
I didn’t visit the seminar on the Pastoral Advisory group, but was intrigued that the chair, Christine Hardman who is bishop of Newcastle, was adamant in the opening presentation to Synod that the group would be working within the current teaching position of the Church—and she emphasised this by drawing a rectangle in the air, and admitting that this would upset everyone, some because they were suspicious, and others because they were disappointed. A friend commented that, in the seminar he attended, the main thrust of the questions was ‘How can we get on with changing the teaching of the Church without losing too many people who disagree?’
All this shows that the challenges remain immense. The issues around sexuality have thrown up a large number of questions. Do Church of England congregations understand their Bible and know how to read it well? Do we have a shared view on how we move from our authoritative text to our ethical practice? And are we alert to the ideological corruption that is an ever-present danger in our interpretation of ‘science’ and the world around us—which is no less of a hermeneutical challenge than our reading of texts?
At the moment, we are still a long way from answering any of these questions in the affirmative.
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