The pragmatics of the sexuality debate

Fake Dictionary, Dictionary definition of the word pragmatic.pragmaticpragmatic-1I offer here the second of three planned reflections on the sexuality debate—before returning to the bigger questions such as question of biblical interpretation, the importance of apocalyptic.

Adrian Hilton recently published an exchange of six letters (three each) with Martyn Percy, Dean of Christchurch, Oxford, and in the last one Percy claims that:

 I am quietly confident that ++Justin is softening up the hard edges of conservative evangelicalism, and is preparing the ground for a complete volte-face on human sexuality.

He offers several pieces of evidence to support this claim. The first is rooted in Justin Welby’s own style of working, which Percy describes as characterised by ‘directness and clarity…borne out of a certain kind of courage.’ Percy is not always impressed by this kind of courage, and some of his earlier comments in the correspondence earned a civil-servant-style rebuke from the busy Secretary General William Nye along the lines of ‘This is not the kind of language I recognise as Christian.’ Percy is not, though, the only one to have concerns about such direct styles of working, according to his summary of a report ‘on an earlier phase of ++Justin’s ministry – long before he began at Canterbury’ which ‘concluded that his staff, though highly motivated and dedicated, lacked good oversight and good management to enable them to develop and flourish.’

Percy offers other evidence to support his claim, including the previous approach of George Carey to women’s ordination, and the final move in that debate, on women bishops led by Justin Welby himself. But that is not a very convincing parallel, not least because the theological debate around that issue had been thoroughly worked through in a way that has not happened on sexuality, and there was a sense of a theological amongst the church and its leaders (even if not a complete consensus) which is marked in its contrast with the current situation.

But let’s suppose for a moment that Percy is right: if we set aside issues of theology, ecclesiology and anthropology, what would the most appealing pragmatic direction be for the Archbishop? As Percy himself has pointed out, Justin Welby is deeply committed to the Renewal and Reform agenda, and this seems to me to be a means to making evangelism and discipleship central realities for the C of E in a way which has not been the case in the past. Who are Justin’s key allies in this, pragmatically speaking? It can hardly be the liberal tradition, since it is liberals (like Percy, and Linda Woodhead) who have been most vocal in their criticism. Who, pragmatically, is most likely to stay with this cause?

A recent report on church growth in Canada suggested there is a strong correlation between ‘conservative’ belief and church growth.

Churches that are theologically conservative with beliefs based on a literal interpretation of the Bible grow faster than those with a liberal orientation, according to a five-year academic study. “If we are talking solely about what belief system is more likely to lead to numerical growth among Protestant churches, the evidence suggests conservative Protestant theology is the clear winner,” said David Haskell, the Canadian study’s lead researcher.

The phrase ‘literal interpretation’ needs to be understand in the context of a non-church Guardian readership, rather than within the framework of hermeneutic reflection. But this did not come as a surprise to many people. Anecdotal evidence supports this, and I don’t think anyone was convinced by the anaemic conclusion in this area (of an otherwise good report) from David Voas for the Church of England report, that there was

“modest association between worship style, theological orientation, and growth”, but that this had disappeared once other variables were taken into account.

(Think for a moment: can you imagine a Church of England report suggesting that one theological tradition was more effective than another?) The Canadian research also correlates with what has happened at a national level, with national more liberal churches consistently declining more precipitately in Western contexts than more conservative national churches. When the Church Times report on this, (first published online a week before the print edition) there were the usual responses from the nay-sayers, though in fact I agreed with one observation from Linda Woodhead, that ‘what mattered was that church leaders had real conviction about what they preached’. But this needs some qualification, said David Haskell, who conducted the research.

“Different convictions, though equally strong, will have different outcomes. The convictions of the first [growing churches] predispose them to aggressive outreach and thus growth; the convictions of the second, though equally strong, predispose them to stasis and thus decline…When growing churches are identified in research, they are almost always conservative.” Clear mission was “not a root cause”, but was a working out of conservative doctrine. He has also suggested that conservative Protestant theology produced “unity of purpose” through reliance on the Bible, and that the insistence on a God who was “active, loving, and close” resulted in “personal happiness”.

This makes practical nonsense of Percy’s claim that ‘Church of England can have no real public or media credibility as a plausible body – so can’t do mission, and can’t recruit new clergy easily – if it carries on discriminating against LGBTQ Christians.’ The idea that churches cannot do mission unless they align with the values of the culture around them on key issues does not have any theological, historical or practical foundation. It turns out that the motive behind Percy’s desire for change is not, in the end, pragmatic, but ideological. If Justin Welby is committed to pragmatics, then that suggests that he would take a different course from the one Percy is advocating.

(You can read further comments from Haskell in response to criticism in this follow-up article.)

What are the alternatives to a pragmatic resolution of our dilemma? How might change (or affirmation of our current position) flow from theological conviction? Michael Lakey put his finger on the issue in an online conversation with me last week, where he shifted the focus from politics and process to the deeper underlying issue.

I’m not sure that the difficulties in arriving at a common mind are just to do with the HoB or even Synod. (And a common mind IS what is needed–even agreeing to disagree/walk together/generously disagree/whatever requires a common mind that this is the course we all pursue).

The difficulty as I see it is that the wider Church lacks the terms to arrive at a common mind because we disagree between ourselves about meta-issues like the nature, source, scope and interpretation of revelation, and this feeds into the scope we have for defining terms that enable a debate in the first place. Lacking a coherent theological anthropology of its own (or more precisely exhibiting elements of several across the institution) the Church en masse is not in a good place to reason coherently about what it is good for anthropoi to do!

Add to this:

1. the effects of different styles of theological reasoning, which are in my experience as often as not chosen retrospectively because they are sympathetic to preferred outcomes, and couple this with

2. the advent of pastoral theological disciplines which derive in the last analysis from modes of reflection that presume a concrete form of life and a shared institutional habitus (e.g. elements of the pastoral cycle derive from Gramsci, via Freire and Lib Theol–but only really make sense in the context of shared concrete habitus as in the mass proletariat of the mid-20th C).

In other words, the Church of England is currently in a position where it lacks the deep theological coherence to make a decision together on common terms or even with shared points of theological reference.

The upshot of this is that, having three theological wings and a variegated centre, the national Church no longer has the capacity to draw its diversity towards a coherent centre (1 above), and because of the ideological, cultural and geographical terrain it must cover, it could not have a habitus and shared social location to enable some of these reflexive methodologies to form anything more than local congregational identity (from 2 above). And this capacity of theological reflective models to only really work at the local level is a problem for a Church that does its primary identity at the regional level. In short, the bishops seem to me to be called to do the impossible, something for which I do not envy them.

When one adds to this that the bench is theologically weaker than it used to be to a non-trivial degree, then the scope for difficulty is even higher. One has well-meaning, but less well-equipped senior clerics making judgements about a problem that (if the character of the Church and its theology is as I describe above) is quite possibly intractable, but which cannot be left unaddressed. The house cannot be fixed, but if it isn’t then it will fall down, and the builders are not as great as they used to be.

It is worth noting here that Lakey is not being critical of the House of Bishops, but simply noting the position they appear to find themselves in. It has been widely observed that there is less theological weight there than there has been in the past—and this might not be a bad thing when you consider which direction some of that weight pulled in in generations past. And the practical pressures in church leadership—in part percolating in from the surrounding culture of busyness, in part because of lack of available resource, and in part precisely from the fractured nature of the Church in a time when centralised, authoritarian leadership cannot effect change in the way it used to—means that we have bishops who might be spending 70 or 80 hours a week just keeping the show on the road. Similar pressures are evident amongst clergy on the ground, too. There is not the time, the leisure or the conviction to do the theological work that might well be needed. Lakey concludes:

Given all this (of which I expect the HoB to be well-aware) I am not surprised that attrition-based change management under cover of silence-to-enable-deliberation shouldn’t occur from time to time. Not that I think it has to happen, or that it happens often. But it would be surprising if it didn’t occur at all.

What will happen next is unclear. But if we can begin on a path to addressing some of these central theological issues, then that would be no bad thing.

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51 thoughts on “The pragmatics of the sexuality debate”

  1. I think lack of shared, coherent theological anthropology is evident. But it is a corollary of lack of shared, coherent doctrine of revelation. The debate depends no longer on what the Bible says but the role and authority people think it should have in the life, doctrine and ethics of the church and individual Christians. If you can’t agree on that then you won’t agree on anthropology.

    But if you can’t agree on that what you have is different religions

  2. I entirely agree with what you say about what would be the pragmatic course through this debate. The idea that change would be best for church growth is contrary to all evidence both anecdotal and scientific. It is a fantasy of revisionists and needs to be thoroughly debunked. Apart from anything else, it would be the final straw for many conservatives who would either leave immediately or drift away over time, whereas does anyone really think that the Church of England is not already liberal enough to maintain the support of its liberal wing were it to stick with its current form of accommodation?

    What also needs to be debunked, I think, is the idea that agreeing to disagree and have a ‘mixed economy’ ‘like with divorce and women priests’ is not simply to cave in and accept the revisionist agenda. The number of evangelicals who I meet who are against SSM etc. but think that we should let those who are ok with it carry out blessings etc. is really deeply worrying. Time and again I have to explain that this requires the church to change its teaching on marriage and sexuality, and therefore is no compromise at all, but total capitulation. We need to repeat this until everyone is sick of hearing it, because right now it seems to me the greatest danger to the church in this area – generating support for change among those who really don’t agree with it but would like to compromise and don’t realise this is a massive Trojan horse.

    • Hi Will,
      You mentioned divorce briefly and I know that others have mentioned the re-marriage of divorce(e)s in connection with the debate about same-sex marriage.
      My marriage ended in divorce before I became a Christian. My ex-husband re-married, but I didn’t. I have wondered what my position might have been if I had re-married before I became a Christian. The Lord hates divorce, so divorce would not have been an option. Would my second husband and I have been expected to remain married, but in a celibate relationship? This is, of course, a hypothetical question for me, but I think it could be a real conundrum for others.

      • (off topic) Christine – how would you square your comments above with 1 Cor 7:13-15 (ESV): “If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. … But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved.” (NIV / NASB “not bound”)?

        There’s an idea going around, particularly with those who’ve been influenced by Roman Catholic teaching, that the marriage covenant cannot be dissolved. But this is plainly false. Most obviously, it is dissolved by the death of one of the spouses. And it is also dissolved by divorce.

        My reading of the scriptural accounts leads me to believe that divorce (and possibly remarriage) is supposed to be a mechanism for re-forming and re-sanctifying the (ideal of a) marriage covenant after adultery; Malachi (Mal 2), Jesus (Matt 5, 21), and even the rules against remarrying a twice-divorced woman in Deuteronomy (Deut 24), are angry because divorce is being instead used to facilitate adultery & covenant-breaking. (It’s worth noting that Levitical priests – and only the priests – are forbidden from marrying divorced or widowed women. Marrying a divorced woman does not defile Israelite men who are not priests.)

        Hosea is commanded to first take a promiscuous woman, and then to take her back after adultery. This symbolises the defilement of the land (compare Deut 24:1-4, Jer 3:1). And yet we would be rightly scandalised if God had said “Go murder a man”. There’s obviously some odd sense in which Hosea is defiled by his promiscuous wife yet is not committing sin (though she is plainly sinning). A persons’ first sexual act, or marriage act, for that matter, does not seem to establish some divine reality that cannot be subsequently shattered. I find no biblical justification for the idea of a “true wife” or “true husband” independent of the one that you are currently covenanted to.

        I do agree that remarriage of divorcees is an issue the church needs to approach with great care. Faithlessness is a great sin, and marital faithlessness moreso. But notice that 1 Cor 7:10-11 says that a wife must not leave her husband, nor marry again having done so, and the husband must not divorce his wife. (The lack of symmetry here contrasted with 7:12-16 suggests that men may have had more facility to initiate divorce than women). It does not say that a woman who was divorced may not remarry, nor that a man whose wife has left him may not (though the rest of 1 Cor 7 might suggest wisdom in remaining single). We must not treat divorce lightly, or use it as a false covering for promiscuity. And where possible we should urge reconciliation. But once a divorcee has given their body or their covenant to another man or woman, the old covenant is genuinely destroyed, and they don’t become less defiled by being faithless to their current covenant as well as their old.

        • Hi Andrew,
          Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I will respond more fully this evening because most of my day will be taken up attending a course, but I will respond briefly for now. Firstly, your: (off topic) at the beginning of your comment : I was hoping that this was not off topic because I know of Christians who have suggested that the more relaxed attitude in some parts of the church to the re-marriage of divorced people may have played a part in the relaxed attitude of some in the church to same-sex marriage. I also thought that my point about some people being divorced and re-married before becoming Christians might also be relevant to some LGBT people (now and in the future) who may enter a same-sex marriage before becoming Christians and then find themselves in a position where their marital status is legal, but not acceptable to some in the church. I am actually strongly in favour of the church’s traditional teaching on marriage, but I am also aware that any discussion about it contains many complexities.

          • Believe me, if one half of a gay couple becomes Christian, the other half isn’t likely to stick around long enough to give his partner enough time to agonise over whether they should stay together in celibate misery or separate.

            The non-Christian partner will vote with his feet. Why would he stay with someone who’d betray both of them by claiming that the very basis of their relationship was wrong and evil?

            I know if it happened to my partner, he wouldn’t see me for dust. Addiction is a much stronger force than love, as any child of an alcoholic will tell you. Alcohol, drugs, religion: whatever substance someone uses to dull the pain of living always wins when it comes into conflict with human relationships. All the partner of an alcoholic, or drug addict, or Christian can do is walk away before their partner’s addiction drags them down too.

            It’s sad, but at the end of the day, you can’t make other people’s choices for them.

          • That’s interesting. I wonder if you could offer any support for the idea that a conversion to Christian faith has the phenomenal features of an addiction?

        • Hi Andrew,
          Re: your 1 Cor 7:13-15 quote, I have no doubt that some Christians do divorce and re-marry in such circumstances, but my point was about Christians who divorced and re-married before becoming Christians. If an unbelieving second-time-around spouse of a new Christian were to leave the marriage, the Christian spouse would not be accountable for the decision of the unbelieving spouse. But if the unbelieving spouse remained and the Christian spouse grieved deeply over the termination of his/her first marriage, and came to believe that the second marriage was adulterous, well… I have more questions than answers.
          I know a number of one-time-married Christians (both men and women) who became Christians after they married, while their spouses remained unbelievers. They have remained faithfully within the marriage, according to the teaching you quoted in 1 Cor 7:10-16.
          The scenario I can envisage in a same-sex marriage between two unbelievers is that of one of the pair becoming a Christian and becoming convinced that continuing in a same-sex marriage is not right with God (something several LGBT Christians already believe, though others don’t) That person would then be left with a choice of remaining in the same-sex marriage, but in a celibate relationship, or seeking a divorce from the partner. I would like to think that, in such a circumstance, each of the pair would receive wise pastoral support from a church leader.
          I do believe in a male-female binary, but I think that the difficulties surrounding same-sex marriage are far from being black-and-white, and I am not really surprised that there is so much debate about it.
          Thank you again for your comment.

          • I think the situation you present is easier to deal with than you think. Such a relationship/marriage is not in agreement with God, it is contrary to God, thus in God’s eyes it is in a sense ‘not’. There is nothing to undo in His eyes.

  3. The idea that churches will become more effective once they have aligned themselves with key cultural values and undercut much of their theological impetus towards mission is a crazy one. In such a situation, we can proclaim our message with as much passion as we want, but we will be like people selling belts to tracksuit wearers.

    I recently wrote a piece relating to this phenomenon in the US. Within it I quoted Paul Gleason, who really puts his finger on the key issue:

    Why is this controversy, insofar as it is conducted in the language of religion, so one-sided? She never considers what, for her, would be a painful answer. Liberal Christians no longer need theology to make their case. They can couch their argument entirely in terms of secular political rights (as Robinson does here). In fact, arguments based on rights were probably more convincing than theological arguments even to them. The mainline remains as committed as ever to the social causes of our day—to gay rights, immigration reform, and a stronger social safety net. They still decry racism and economic exploitation, too. They’ve hardly remained silent, but there’s a reason you can’t hear them anymore. They sound just like everybody else.

    • Ahem, how does one say this;…..


      #occupysynod #lovewins #blamethepatriarchy

      (P.S Ian will inevitably delete this comment, but I thought you might appreciate the humor Alistair)

        • It’s always tough explaining jokes…..

          Simply, it tends to be a feature of the sexual ethics debate (primarily stateside, but not rare over here) that language similar to this dominates the social media discussion on the issue of sexuality. Both ‘sides’ do it of course, but it seems to be more common to the progressive left.

          You often read things like;

          In this debate “person A destroys person B…”
          “person A demolishes arguments 1,2 and 3…”
          “person A burns* person B’s argument….”

          Obviously person B and their arguments are always those with whom you disagree and “burns” in this context indicates an intense rebuke, or a statement that is difficult to challenge/counter. One of the common retorts that often follows from supporters of A is the sarcastic “would you like some cream for that burn…”, but you get the general idea.

          Paul Gleason’s cutting remarks, which Alistair quoted, about the Liberal Christians neither needing theology, nor sounding distinctive are exactly that: Difficult to counter assertions that undermine the integrity of the person you’re debating with (and generate a smile on the lips of the supporters). He is exactly right.

          As was said, I expect Alistair understands the humor. Two of the hashtags are parodies of #occupydemocrats (an activist group of progressives) and a feminist movement. #lovewins is a real hashtag that was trending when many states legalized SSM last year. The *cough* person who wrote this comment was referencing them to show the sort of things that pass for debate/argument in certain circles; a string of social media statements that are endless circulated, and written in such a away that to defy them makes you anti-love, or anti-equality. etc etc

  4. I think Lakey’s response is excellent, and he is probably right, but this makes me immensely sad to acknowledge. I understand that he is not being critical of the Bishops specifically, or blaming any one person, but if his assessment of the church’s current predicament is right (as you seem to think Ian) then how can we avoid the sense of defeatism that we will inevitably start to feel and how can we work to repair it, if we even can?

    A statement such as; “The house cannot be fixed, but if it isn’t then it will fall down, and the builders are not as great as they used to be.” is surely fatalism regarding the continued existence of the established church, at least in any meaningful sense?

    In looking more deeply for the root cause of the division on matters of SSM it seems to me that Lakey has bought back into focus even greater problems, ones often hinted at but rarely addressed (or worse, quietly ignored).

    Like a homeowner who calls in a builder to look at the damp patches in the kitchen, things might not see so bad at first, but when the structural surveyor comes around and finds cracks in all of the supporting walls, suddenly demolition seems inevitable. The question instead becomes one of “is repair even possible, or worthwhile?”, or “do we simply let the house fall down and rebuild something stronger on the foundation?”

    That’s depressing

  5. Thanks for the blog, Ian. A few comments from an NZ perspective where the process, if not the theological discernment is much further advanced.

    Firstly, here much of the Anglican Church is in a more advanced state of collapse than in England, and so churches that are still healthy (numerically (caveat caveat ad infinitude)) are much more visible, especially in dioceses which have historically been ‘Progressive’. The evidence is startlingly clear, for the numbers in orthodox churches represent the significant majority of congregants in these dioceses. This situation has caused two out of our seven dioceses – more traditional – to come in behind the argument against SSM for pragmatic reasons. One diocese which is at present very healthy will find itself in a very precarious position as and when the church’s praxis changes in this regard, as the Conservatives leave, or enter alternative structures. (Leading to more multiplicity and complexity in structures with its own fall out down the line.)

    Second, busyness. This is to my mind the real problem, with evangelical and liberal versions. Here there are two cries, 1) we’ve spoken about this long enough, from progressives, 2) no we haven’t (Conservatives) Both are right and both wrong. We have in the institutional sense, it has consumed two complete General Synods (every other year here, to the almost complete exclusion of any cogent discussion of anything else,) Yet in a sense ‘We’ haven’t. The conversation is happening largely at the ‘public’ level in the church, which meets for a week every other year, My own experience suggests it is hardly talked about at all amongst laity in the local church context. So General Synod gives over sixty hours over a four year period, with the conversation happening pretty much between the same people.
    The Anglican Church here will move to blessing SSM in 2018, because we have so much more to be talking about. Busyness works against deep reflection, and there will be a top down approach which will see the ore homogeneous conservative congregations leave. And many mixed congregations with conservative clergy. Rent assunder

    Here also, the bench of Bishops lacks theological depth . . .I know of one who had to be given a reading list – ‘a basic primer in Anglican theologians’ (201 if not 101 level stuff) when they were consecrated . . . Regrettably the conversation here theologically seems rarely to move beyond ‘Jesus says be nice to each other!’, ‘but the bible says . . .!’ Out of our 8 Bishops, only one is recognisably a theologian.

    Of course, as the Orthodox would say, ‘if you muck around with marriage the Church will disappear, for you are playing with things you don’t begin to understand, given your capitulation to philosophical nominalism . . . ‘ But if you say that around here there is a pause, and then the conversation carries on 🙂

    • Thanks Eric. How have the majority ‘orthodox’ allowed other to drive central decision making…? It almost sounds like an argument for evangelicals getting involved in Synodical processes…

  6. Hello Ian and all,

    a little ragbag of comments in response to this.

    – what did your opening mean, about “returning to the bigger questions…. the importance of apocalyptic”?

    – isn’t there something consequentialist or at least outcome-based bubbling under some of this? At various points you, or those you quote with approval, say that conservative theology is “more effective” for church growth. But surely if something is right, its rightness isn’t validated by its popularity? Given what happens to Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels, it seems incongruous to hold popularity as a criterion… (& yes this cuts both ways, if what I understand you to say about Martyn Percy’s view is right…..)

    – Alastair, above, quoted Paul Gleason – “Liberal Christians no longer need theology to make their case. They can couch their argument entirely in terms of secular political rights”. While there may be a good deal of truth in this in some cases, what does it say that Robert Gagnon has also made an argument couched entirely in secular terms…? (

    – like Mat, if maybe from a different standpoint, I suspect much of what Michael Lakey said to you, Ian, is right (and depressing). He succinctly says what a bind the C of E is in – that this is a matter which “is quite possibly intractable, but which cannot be left unaddressed”. You point to the lack “of the deep theological coherence to make a decision together on common terms or even with shared points of theological reference”.
    Well, I’m sure I’ve pointed before to this essay of James Alison’s from 2005:
    It’s not short and is quite densely argued, but I can’t help wondering if it (or a Protestant equivalent…?) might at least sketch a possible way toward a theological coherence. I think it notable that anthropology has been mentioned several times in the article and comments above, and that JA argues that “The whole argument turns on the veracity or otherwise of the characterization of what is. Either being gay is a defective form of being heterosexual, or it is simply a thing that just is that way”….. might that suggest a hint of agreement that what we disagree about is anthropology?!

    in friendship, Blair

    • No, the Baptists (who are not a denomination, but a voluntary affiliation) are leaning on their congregationalist ecclesiology which says that they have the minimal in common.

      This would be a possible route for the C of E if we also decided we were essentially congregationalist, and that any collaboration we had in common was voluntary. That would be quite a change.

      • When you say ‘no’ – which bit did I get wrong?! I pointed to a website where Baptists joined together to disagree well…

        Does part of this disagreeing well come from their ecclesiology? Yes – it is part of their deeply held theological convictions, and your portrayal of this as having ‘the minimal in common’ is rather a rude statement, which ignores the importance of covenant in Baptist understanding.

        Whether the Baptist Union (not ‘affiliation’) is a denomination is a question that we could debate endlessly. I’m not sure how knowing the answer would help. Is a union of churches in a covenantal relationship a denomination? Is there some platonic ideal of a denomination?

        I never said that this would be an exact model for the CofE. But surely it is worth noting what our neighbours are doing if we are talking sexuality, theology, and pragmatics, rather than instant dismissal.

        • Jonathan, can you answer this?-

          Most of the time when people say that they hold a position, in my experience, that position is the position that suits them rather than the one they have evicence for.

          They then expect their *preferences* to have equal status to other people’s *evidence*.

          Not only are preferences and evidence agreed on all sides to be very far from being the same thing, the exalting of preferences (or confusion of preferences with evidence) is the way dictators (and of course the dreaded elites) operate.

          They have no right to do so. All the rest of us are obliged to go by evidence alone, so why should they be exempt from that?

          Just imagine if places that had a regard for truth started operating that way. ‘I would prefer the moon to be made of green cheese, ergo, bingo, it is made of green cheese.’

          In a world where people can often have precisely what they want at the touch of a button, they become used to getting what they want all the time. That is why one often hears things like ‘The God I want is like this’.

          It is completely irrelevant what God someone *wants* to exist. For reality is, obviously, extremely unlikely to match our specifications and preferences. The only questions are: Is there evidence for any God at all, and if so, for which particular sort of God.

          In the case of things bigger than us (the nature of God, the nature of the universe, etc.) we are stuck with what hand we have been dealt, obviously.

        • When people claim to disagree, it is not always a disagreement between different convictions.

          Sometimes it is a disagreement between desires on the one hand and conclusions on the other hand – which is only to be expected.

          At other times, people have not researched the topic enough to have any conclusion about it, but still claim to have one.

          People whose standpoint is one and the same with their desire are only too happy to have good disagreement. That means that their position is accorded integrity without their ever having to prove that they can actually argue their case.

          These are just 3 of the more obvious flaws in ‘good disagreement’.

        • It would be easy to test whether the Baptist \Union is a denomination – a congregation sould say they are leaving. The rapid response team sent out (or maybe not, but I doubt it) to keep hold of all goods and chattels because they ‘belong to the BU’ would be a clear demonstration.

      • I think Baptists have fairly a lot in common: a commitment to conversion and evangelism, to baptism, to the Lordship and authority of Christ, acommitment to God as Trinity, a commitment to the Bible, and to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in interpreting the scriptures. There is a commitment to ministry, both local and translocal, and to associating – there is debate about the extent and authority that ministry and associating have, but no Baptist church, at least in the BUGB, is wholly independent.

    • Such a move would likely mean the end of the central structures of the C of E—and it would certainly spell the end of episcopal authority in the Church. I suppose some might feel that that was a price worth paying…?

      • The website that Jonathan refers to is made up of a self-selecting group of Baptists who do not represent the Baptist Union as a whole but only their own views.

        • You are quite right. The individuals would not dream of saying that they speak for the Baptist Union as a whole. To claim to do so would go against their theology.

          But they do represent well-known (within Baptist circles) Baptists who disagree on this issue who have come together to make this statement.

          In other words, Baptists disagreeing well.

          • Jonathan
            See my quote from the statement in my 6 December post. I have assumed (correct me please if I have misunderstood) that the ‘we’ in the quote means all the authors of the statement. If that is the case then they are not disagreeing well because they have all agreed that (implied by the last sentence) there is no difference in terms of brokenness or sinfulness between heterosexual marriage and same-sex marriage.
            Phil Almond

    • Jonathan

      The statement your 6/12/16 9.29 am post points to includes the following:

      ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…’ (Rom. 3:23): we refuse any account of human sexuality that claims certain sexual desires, orientations, or relationships are unfallen or free from sin. Equally we refuse any account that judges certain sexual desires, orientations, or relationships to be peculiarly broken or sinful’.

      Surely the last sentence is astonishing.

      Phil Almond

      • I would not like to speak for that group, but it seems pretty standard theology to me. The first part is a reference to our fallen nature. The second part seems to take Romans 2 & 3 seriously – who are we to say ‘that sin is particularly bad’, when all have sinned and fallen short? Unless you are reading something into it beyond this, it doesn’t seem astonishing at all.

        • Jonathan

          You posted, ‘who are we to say ‘that sin is particularly bad’, when all have sinned and fallen short?’
          The whole disagreement is about what the Bible says about this sensitive, personal, delicate and highly controversial disagreement.
          I agree of course that all have sinned and fallen short. When Christian husbands and wives fail to obey the exhortations of Ephesians 5:18-31 and 1Corinthians 7:3-5 that is a sin. Husbands and wives who realise this should repent, ask for forgiveness, and seek by the Spirit’s help to obey those exhortations more and more. They are thus seeking to be obedient in a sexual relationship that is approved by God. That is the point. Some of us believe that same-sex sexual relationships are not approved by God. That is the disagreement. The last sentence of the extract we are discussing from the Baptist statement clearly implies that there is no difference in terms of God’s approval or disapproval between heterosexual sexual married relationships and homosexual sexual relationships. So, in terms of the quote, all the authors are on the same side in this disagreement.

          Phil Almond

          • May I suggest that your understanding is not that intended by the authors? Otherwise, they wouldn’t be disagreeing (and they do disagree).

          • Jonathan

            A member of the Baptist group who authored the paper has kindly and graciously responded to my email seeking clarification about the last sentence and their position in general. You are right that ‘they do disagree’. I am now in an email exchange (I’m not sure how long it will continue, partly because I am having email problems) to try to understand what their disagreement is, whether it is the same as what I believe is the disagreement, and what they understand to be the meaning of the last sentence.

            In defining my view of the disagreement I have presumed to speak for all those who oppose any change to the Church’s teaching on this issue. In this I may indeed have been presumptuous – if so I apologise.

            This is my definition:

            ‘The present realities of faithful, loving Christian heterosexual sexual married relationships are acceptable to God (following the Westminster Confession ‘Of Good Works’, item VI. ‘Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in Him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreproveable in God’s sight; but that He, looking upon them in His Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections’), whereas faithful, loving Christian homosexual sexual relationships are not acceptable to God.’

            I would be interested to know how many of those who oppose any change to the Church’s teaching would agree with this definition of the underlying doctrinal issue.

            Phil Almond

  7. I’m sure we all need faith, vision, creativity and pragmatism in the church, with probably much else besides.

    God commended Solomon for his choice of wisdom as a request, and a very important part of wisdom is the ability to foresee ‘what will happen if I follow a certain course of action’. This might be portrayed as a worldly preoccupation which neglects the pre-eminence of truth and reliance on the promptings of the Holy Spirit; yet, as was discussed quite a few blogs ago on this site, Jesus’ famous advice about being ‘wise as serpents and harmless as doves’ suggests he was by no means opposed to use of what we might call pragmatic common sense. We may literally have to choose between the alleged hurt feelings of a tiny minority against the spiritual loss to our parishes if their local church cannot survive because faithful Christians will no longer support them and have gone elsewhere. As pointed out, we have plenty of experience warning us about this from other parts of the world – it really does happen.

    In the present period of discerning the way forward, the bishops involved, who at the very least must be anxious to employ all the wisdom they possess, would indeed be failing in their task if they were not to consider very carefully the pragmatics of what they will recommend to General Synod.

    And Justin Welby might not wish to look forward to a time when, if he has got the pragmatics wrong, the many church buildings which could finally stand silent and empty became known as ‘Welby Churches’. Please God, that will not happen, not only because of the injustice of pinning the blame on one individual but because empty church buildings are a witness no longer to Christ but to failure – and none of us can be relaxed about that.

  8. This post is far above my level of comprehension but the scripture I read this morning I Corinthians ch.6 verses 1-11 if my interpretation is right forces me to say read it and see if it relevant.

  9. Returning to the pragmatics of the sexuality debate in the Church of England, I think Martyn Percy is correct in noticing a drift within the CofE towards full acceptance of gay marriage. This is not a drift towards an ‘agree to disagree’ position, but to the position of Jeffery John, in which Christian gay marriage is positively promoted as a call to lifelong mono-faithfulness.

    What is the best, practical, way for Evangelicals to counter this drift? Is it to continue to argue that the Bible is clear, the Church’s teaching has not changed, and we must therefore resist all gay marriage? This way is failing. It has not prevented nor hindered the drift. As full acceptance of gay marriage becomes more and more the norm in the UK, the view that gay marriage is ‘wrong’ and people should not enter it is set to become increasingly marginalised. In our democracy, in nation and in church, this Evangelical approach will be, even more than now, an extreme minority view and, as such, will carry no practical weight. The universal full acceptance view will carry the day. The ‘no gay marriage in the CofE’ position is likely to become untenable.

    An alternative practical way forward for Evangelicals is to argue for ‘agree to disagree,’ ie that differing views on gay marriage should continue to be accepted and that, as part of this, the Church is right to accept differing practices on gay marriage. This is the position underlying the Government’s legal protection for churches to refrain from conducting gay weddings. It can be seen as a fall-back position for Evangelicals, and one which can be defended.

    The drift away from exclusively heterosexual marriage can be channelled into ‘agree to disagree’ instead of ‘full acceptance of gay marriage.’ For this to happen the ‘agree to disagree’ case needs to be presented much more fully and strongly. Part of the reason why the drift has been towards ‘full acceptance of gay marriage’ is that Evangelicals have resisted ‘agree to disagree’ and it has not been seen as a position on the level of the strident ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ positions

    It is high time for at least some Evangelicals, particularly in the Open, Fulcrum, tradition to promote ‘agree to disagree’ if only for pragmatic reasons. Some Conservative Evangelicals will continue to argue for ‘no gay marriage in the CofE’ and this voice is needed to make it clear that there is a strong difference on which we agree to disagree. But more Evangelicals need to take their stand on ‘agree to disagree’ in order to ensure a continuing representation of both views and both practices within the CofE.

    I think there are Biblical, theological, reasons for ‘agree to disagree,’ as outlined in my This discussion, however, is about pragmatics. Please can we move from a position ultimately untenable within the CofE to a position that can be held for many years to come?

    • Roger

      ‘What is the best, practical, way for Evangelicals to counter this drift?’

      As I keep on saying, there is a deeper, even more important ‘drift’ in the CofE as a whole: the drift away from a belief that Articles 9-18 and 31 are true – a drift present among some who would describe themselves as evangelicals. The terrible but true doctrines stated by these Articles – the Fall, Original Sin, the wrath and condemnation of God which we all by nature face, predestination to life, the inability, without divine grace, to turn to God – are surely more abhorrent to our democracy and nation than even the view that homosexuality is a sin like any other sin.

      If we follow the example of the prophets, should we not persevere to say the hard sayings, knowing that no-one will take any notice until there comes a breath from heaven to breathe upon these slain that they may live.

      Now go, write it before them in a table, and note it in a book, that it may be for the time to come for ever and ever:

      That this is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the LORD:

      Which say to the seers, See not; and to the prophets, Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits:

      Get you out of the way, turn aside out of the path, cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us.

      Many therefore of his disciples, when they had heard this, said, This is an hard saying; who can hear it?

      Phil Almond

  10. Didn’t someone once say “I would that you were either hot or cold” and “let your yes be yes and your no no”!?
    Yes in our no and no in our yes seems more like Perfidious Albion than pragmatism.

  11. There’s a clinically established link between addiction and the brain’s production of the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine.

    Repeated exposure to an addictive substance or behaviour causes nerve cells in the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain involved in planning and executing tasks) to communicate in a way that couples liking something with wanting it, in turn driving us to go after it. This process motivates us to take action to seek out the source of the pleasure.

    Hallucinogenic drugs such as psilocybin and LSD, which stimulate dopamine activity in the brain’s frontal lobes, have been routinely observed to produce religious experience even in the avowedly non-religious. These hallucinogens produce vivid imagery and intense spiritual experience, all tied to stimulation of dopamine receptors on neurons in the limbic system, the seat of emotion located in the midbrain, and in the prefrontal cortex.

    What’s interesting is that clinical studies have shown that patients affected with left-onset Parkinson’s Disease, a neurological condition causing a marked reduction in dopamine production in the right prefrontal cortex, also exhibit a significant decline in religiosity. The same is not true of patients presenting with right-onset Parkinson’s and a corresponding decrease in dopamine production in the left prefrontal cortex.

    This localisation of the “religious centre” of the brain in the right prefrontal cortex allows us to predict religiosity in subjects based on levels of dopamine production.

    Put simply, the higher the dopamine level, the more likely the subject is to be religious. For these individuals, engaging in religious activities increases dopamine production in the right prefrontal cortex in a manner consistent with similar rises observed in the brains of drug users and alcoholics.

    So yes, religion is an addictive substance. Or at least, the brain reacts to it as if it were. Which is why if anyone’s partner were to become a Christian and start agonising over the morality of their relationship, my advice would be to walk out and leave him to it. In any battle between an addict’s habit and his loved ones, the habit always wins. Cut your losses and get out while you can.

    • We are a unity of material and spirit, and given modern advances in technology I would have been surprised if neuroscientists *hadn’t* found parts of the brain through which God can communicate with us directly via our inner selves. Our culture puts great prominence on feelings, but God can communicate with us in many ways. He can use our eyes (and visual cortex) to give us visions, or our ears to give us words, or – closer to Newberg’s book – he can use dreams. Atheists who assert that religious experience is ‘nothing but’ brain patterns are forgetting that specific brain patterns light up when other human beings communicate with us, and those atheists don’t deny the existence of other people…

  12. Hi Oisin,
    ‘Religion is an addictive substance’ . I don’t think it is, but I do believe in the power of prayer and the peace of God which ‘surpasses all understanding.’
    Have you read ‘How God changes your brain’ by neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, and Mark Robert Walden? I refer to this book without prejudice – I have read it and continue to reflect on it.

  13. Oisin may like to read this man’s account of his life as a transgender person..

    It’s quite long, but then it’s quite a big subject..

    and this man’s life as a homosexual..

    Of course these are only individual testimonies, but as valid as any other individual’s experience.
    No one has yet found a gene that makes one a homosexual or bi-sexual or anything else. There are really only two sexes, male and female. The rest is emotional/nurturing confusion

  14. I would love to read your thoughts and response to Matthew Vine’s book, God and the gay Christian. Also I wonder if your views on sexuality would change if your children told you that they’re same-sex attracted. And what advice you would have for parents in that situation.

    • I have tried responding to Matthew Vines, but there are so many errors on every page I have given up.

      If I had done any thinking about sexuality and NOT considered what I would say to my children if any of them told me they were gay, what on earth would I have been doing with my time? I continue to be astonished by people who say ‘I thought X, but then my friend came out to me as gay, and now I think Y.’ When they thought X, had they never anticipated knowing gay people? Did they not know any at the time? Had they no pastoral encounters? How could they be so ill informed?

      What would I say? I would spend time ensuring that they knew I loved them, and over time would want to explore the really good news of the biblical picture of sex and sexuality—that it is a good gift from God, but in our fallen world needs boundaries—and is not the be all and end all and not our defining characteristic.

      • I can understand that and I’m aware that you must have spent a lot of time on this issue. After all it is a very sensitive topic and no one wants to cause harm.

        I would though like to hear from you what your thoughts are on his discussion of celibacy. It seems to me that scripture and Christian teaching condemns celibacy as a mandate, which would mean that we shouldn’t be forcing lgbt Christians to be celibate.

        Secondly do you feel that the 6 “anti-gay” Bible verses are irrelevant when considering a loving monogamous same-sex marriage? I’ve read John Stott’s arguments on these verses in “issues facing Christians today” and he also says that you can’t use these 6 verses to attack same-sex marriage. He does however use genesis to argue that if you take heterosexual marriage as a creation ordinance then same-sex marriage is not good. But from reading Vines I have found that his arguments surrounding genesis and sexuality much more compelling and so I find it hard to understand the non-affirming viewpoint.


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