Theological discourse and the sexuality debate

fraying-brown-fiber-rope-against-black-background-1A week is a long time in politics, and it is just as long in church politics and the media coverage of it. Just three weeks after perhaps the most important gathering of the Primates of the Anglican Communion for a decade, almost everyone in the media has moved on, as if there is nothing to see here.

Last week, Angus Ritchie helpfully highlighted the significance of the remarkable agreement—not least the fact that all but one of the Primates actually remained in the room together for the whole week, something which not one single commentator had anticipated. Although the final Statement was leaked prior to the release of the full communiqué of which it was a part (which therefore put undue emphasis on sexuality at the expense of other key issues that were discussed), the Primates did address the question of discrimination against LGBTI people in the way they were asked to. And they went much further, engaging with a wide range of issues facing humanity and the global church.

Predictably, most news media outlets focused on sexuality (clearly the most exciting thing that is ever discussed by Christians) and on the possibility of conflict. After all, ‘Nice Christians actually agree on a lot, and even when they disagree, they continue to respect one another’ is hardly a headline grabber. (Of all the coverage, perhaps Channel 4’s was the most ill-informed and skewed.) So far, so predictable. But what is of more consequence, and less often explored, is the impact of the debate about sexuality on the nature of Anglican theological discourse.

Without lapsing into paranoia, I observe two major impacts of this discussion. First is, like a many-tentacled octopus, the issue of sexuality appears to find its way into every nook and cranny of discussion. (I don’t use this metaphor pejoratively; I am fascinating by these remarkably intelligent creatures.) In the church where I am Associate Minister, we have just started a sermon series on the Creed, and I preached the opening sermon on ‘God, maker of heaven and earth.’ Immediately the question arises ‘What does it mean to be a creature, created by God as loving Father?’ Is human fulfillment about (re)inventing ourselves (a la David Bowie) or about discovering how we have been created? Questions about sex identity lurk behind every sentence, waiting to ambush us. Major theological themes all seem to have a bearing on issues of sexuality—was Jesus inclusive in his ministry, and of what? What does it mean to repent and believe? Does grace make any demands of us, or (as Justin Welby tweeted last week) is it freely given without any expectation of return?

I don’t attribute the omnipresence of this issue of sexuality to any conspiracy theory. To be human is to be sexual, and so it is not surprising that the debate about sexuality touches on some of the deepest questions about theological anthropology—what it means to be made, male and female, in the image of God. But this immediately raises a question over any suggestion that we can easily ‘agree to disagree’ within the Church. If we do, we are going to start finding ourselves ‘agreeing to disagree’ on a wide range of others issues, and there will come a point when we are wondering exactly what we agree to agree on, if anything.

The Corrosion of Theological Discourse

This leads to my second observation about the debate’s impact. Wherever it reaches, it appears to me to have a corrosive effect on the integrity, seriousness and depth of the theological discourse that it reaches. Angus Ritchie highlights an obvious example of this—the exchange between myself and Martyn Percy, former Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, that took place during the Primates meeting.

So what is the nature of the obedience and obligation to which God calls us? That is the crucial question in the debate, and as Ian Paul observed, none of Martyn Percy’s essays offered anything to substantiate the assertion that same-sex relationships are compatible with the obedience to which the Scriptures call every Christian. Instead, Percy’s main focus was on the inclusive nature of God’s love and forgiveness.

There are several worrying signs in this debate, as Ritchie highlights. The first is that so significant a theological thinker as Percy can be satisfied with so partial and thin an expression of a theological position. The second is that he is either unwilling or unable to respond to critiques of his position; I am not the only one to have found his position problematic. (See the responses of Martin Davie, former Theological Consultant to the House of Bishops here, here and here) but (in Ritchie’s words) these have simply been ‘sidestepped.’ The third worrying sign (as Ritchie highlights) is that so many of the choir to whom Percy is singing found his tune convincing and satisfying.

1451504427_675885_1451509881_noticia_fotogramaSociologist Zygmunt Bauman recently lamented the way that social media, rather than connecting people and fostering dialogue, isolates us and stifles debate.

Real dialogue isn’t about talking to people who believe the same things as you. Social media don’t teach us to dialogue because it is so easy to avoid controversy… But most people use social media not to unite, not to open their horizons wider, but on the contrary, to cut themselves a comfort zone where the only sounds they hear are the echoes of their own voice, where the only things they see are the reflections of their own face. Social media are very useful, they provide pleasure, but they are a trap.

The parallel in the debate about sexuality in the Church is almost too painful to bear. The two sides of the debate seem to excel at listening to those on their own side, without much discernment, whilst failing to comprehend those on the other side.

The corrosion of theological discourse is evident elsewhere in the debate. Perhaps the most sophisticated theological proposition in this area is Robert Song’s Covenant and Calling. It was hoped that it might offer a ‘genuinely fresh contribution to well-worn debate’, pointing to a theological way forward that didn’t collapse into proof-texting. Indeed, the first two-thirds of the book offer some profound insights into a scriptural theology of marriage and relationships, and arguing for recognition of the importance of non-procreative covenant friendships, made possible by the in-breaking of the eschatological kingdom of God into the created order. All the logic of this powerfully reinforces ‘traditional’ Christian ethics of marriage and celibacy (and Song freely admits this) until, inexplicably and without theological justification, Song suddenly proposes that such covenant friendships should involve sexual expression. What looked like a promising way forward took a sharp and unexpected left turn. (Song promised some response to my extended review of the book, but thus far none has been forthcoming.)

Similar problems extend to the heart of the process of ‘Shared Conversations’ in the Church of England. I contributed the first chapter of the ‘reader’ for the conversations process, setting out the case for a ‘traditional’ view of marriage and same-sex relations, and Loveday Alexander, Emeritus Professor at the University of Sheffield, offered an alternative interpretation of the biblical material. In amongst some excellent reflection on Paul’s sexual ethics come two extraordinary claims. The first is that ‘We know what the science says: some people are born gay.’ We actually know nothing of the sort; psycho-sexual development is a complex and contested area, and if we can be sure of anything, it is very different from what Alexander supposes. First, from large-scale studies in Denmark, we know that social and relational environments have a statistically significant impact on whether people are same- or other-sex attracted. Secondly, from longitudinal studies in New Zealand, we know that there is significant fluidity in whether people remain same- or other-sex attracted over their lifetime.

The second extraordinary claim Alexander makes is that ‘Paul knew nothing of loving, same-sex relationships, and therefore the Pauline texts cannot address the situation today.’ This is a remarkable attempt to flatten the evidence of the variety of attitudes to sex in the ancient world which defies the evidence, and has no warrant in the Pauline texts. That Alexander’s argument should rest so centrally on this assertion makes us reach for Ritchie’s assessment of Percy: ‘surely there must be better arguments for the ‘affirming’ case?’

A Better Case?

So has Angus Ritchie then offered us just such a ‘better case’? Unfortunately, I am not sure that he does.

He helpfully distinguishes between what he calls a ‘concordance’ approach to the biblical texts, and a ‘contextualized’ approach. The ‘concordance’ approach, which he sees as characteristic of conservative theology, simply reads for the ‘plain’ meaning of the text and from this deduces the ‘traditional position’ on women in leadership, on remarriage after divorce, and therefore also on same-sex relations. Since we have changed our view on the first two by moving from a concordance to a contextualized view (the logic goes) we can then also change our view on the third.

Unfortunately, Ritchie here is badly misunderstanding the conservative reading strategy on all three issues. On the question of divorce, evangelicals have not been concerned simply to understand the social context of Jesus’ sayings, but the particular context of the theological debate between the schools of Hillel (who was more liberal) and Shammai (who was stricter). As David Instone-Brewer has demonstrated, Jesus was not answering the question ‘Are there any grounds for divorce?’ but ‘Is it possible to divorce someone for any old reason?’ Answering ‘no’ to this second question has a very different effect from answering ‘no’ to the first question; divorce is possible, but is not trivial—the current position of the Church of England. Thomas Renz takes Ritchie to task for failing to understand evangelical thinking more clearly:

I do not know of a single evangelical defence of remarriage after divorce which works from the assumption that while Jesus condemned remarriage we should lift this condemnation because the practice of divorce is different today. No, not one.

And Renz also gives him short shrift for his failure to understand the teaching of the Church of England more fully:

In short, the assumption behind the claim that remarriage of divorcees goes against an affirmation that marriage must be “between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union” is highly controversial. To present the claim as self-evident betrays either an astonishing ignorance of other Christian views on the matter or a breathtakingly arrogant confidence that other views can be dismissed without even being mentioned.

When it comes to the debates about women’s ministry, Ritchie’s argument is even weaker. For one, evangelicals have always understood the context of a verse to be part of its ‘plain meaning’ not something additional to the plain meaning; without this you wouldn’t be able to translate the NT from Greek, let alone make sense of it. For another, one of great exegetical battles has been on the meaning of the term ‘have authority’ in 1 Tim 2.12. The research of Linda Belleville has shown how close the meaning of authentein is to the related autodikein, with its overtones of ‘taking the life of’. So the ‘plain meaning’ of this text is very far from a straightforward prohibition of the teaching ministry of women. Put that alongside Paul’s apparent support of women in leadership in Romans 16, and his encouragement of women praying and prophesying in 1 Cor 11, and you have something close to a ‘concordance’ endorsement of women in leadership.

Agreeing to Disagree?

Having misunderstood theological thinking about divorce, and misread the debate about women’s ministry, Ritchie finally comes to the question ‘Why can’t we agree to disagree on the issue of same-sex marriage as we have on others?’ I suppose it might be possible set aside the fact that the respective biblical texts on the three questions are of a completely different kind, with the texts on same-sex sexual activity universally negative, regardless of context, something not true of either divorce or women’s leadership. It might even be possible to ignore the connection made in Paul between sexuality and both idolatry and the inheritance of the kingdom of God, again also a connection absent from discussion on divorce and leadership. But it is hard to ignore the fundamentally different nature of the debate in practice.

I could quite imagine two adjacent dioceses within the Church of England permitting or prohibiting divorce, and recognizing or not recognizing the leadership of women. It wouldn’t be comfortable, but it would be possible. It is simply impossible, though, to imagine one diocese celebrating same-sex sexual unions as equivalent to other-sex marriage, and a neighbouring one holding that this is outside of Christian moral teaching, and therefore (amongst its clergy) a cause of discipline. These two different views are simply incompatible; two such dioceses could not co-exist in the same Church. That is why the question for the Church is not about polity alone, but about the Church’s doctrine of marriage, and within that its understanding of human sexuality. There is no middle ground to stand on.

Ritchie appears to share the view of Jayne Ozanne (former Director of Accepting Evangelicals whom he cites) that change in the Church is ‘inevitable’. To that end, Ozanne cites survey evidence showing that popular opinion amongst those identifying as ‘C of E’ is changing, and changing fast. That is one way for the Church to decide its doctrine—on the basis of popular opinion (without considering the meaning of ‘membership‘).

Historically, though, the Church of England has pursued a patient engagement with Scripture in order to shape its theology, in the light of what previous generations have understood (‘tradition’) and in the light of how we make sense of these Spirit-breathed texts of ancient wisdom (‘reason’). Given the lack of better arguments, all the signs are that this process will not lead to a change in the Church’s theology of sex and marriage, and at the very least not ‘inevitably’. The question for the Church is whether we are will continue this patient engagement—or whether, giving up on theology, we decide it is time to move on regardless.

(This article was first published on 1st February at ABC’s Religion and Ethics blog.)

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44 thoughts on “Theological discourse and the sexuality debate”

  1. “…not least the fact that all but one of the Primates actually remained in the room together for the whole week”

    But they didn’t! Foley Beach made it quite plain that he and the majority of the Gafcon primates left on Thursday evening because they didn’t get what they asked for. Please read what he said.

    • Andrew, Ian writes an article about many liberals showing a poor level of theological engagement when it comes to the sexuality debate.

      You respond with a political point about the primates gathering.

      Ian’s point is proved QED, no?

      • Peter: not a political point. A crucial factual correction, no? Maybe Ian was making a political point by giving incorrect information?

  2. Ian, your choice of ‘no middle ground’ is unnecessarily polarising. It would be relatively easy to envisage a case where different parishes have different views on this and are allowed to follow their own convictions – as is already the case over women priests and remarriage of divorcees (and being remarried and in holy orders). Opponents of these practices consider the first heretical and/or impossible, and the second to be adultery. Yet the Church of England encompasses the range of views. Why is same-sex marriage worse than remarriage, if both can be seen as sexual immorality by some within the Church of England?

    • Jonathan, you say: ‘It would be relatively easy to envisage a case where different parishes have different views on this and are allowed to follow their own convictions – as is already the case over women priests and remarriage of divorcees…’

      As far as I am aware (I’m not a lawyer) this would require the removal of the CofE quadruple lock exempting it from conducting SSMs because the 4 elements of the quadruple lock are not enacted individually. So there would at least need to be a pretty tricky rewriting of some legislation, something which is very unlikely to be positively viewed by parliamentarians today. Beyond that, if we remain subject to any European courts, individual clergy who refused to conduct SSMs would almost certainly still be vulnerable to losing their right to refuse on the basis of personal prejudice.

      I believe the CofE would be extremely naïve if it tried to change the terms of the quadruple lock while still expecting individual clergy to be protected. Clearly some would see this as no big deal, whereas for others it would be momentous!

      • You are right, this would involve change to legislation. I suspect that a majority of parliamentarians would actually welcome such a change, given voting on same-sex marriages in the first place.

        I differ in your view on how European courts would treat clergy. They allow a wide margin of discretion to individual countries.

        I should also note that this would only bring the Church of England into line with every other denomination in England, which is already in this position, with (to the best of my knowledge) no legal pressure to conduct same-sex weddings.

        In short, I don’t think the legislation would be a particularly large obstacle were the Church of England to decide to move this way. I believe these points have been addressed at different times on the excellent Law and Religion blog – a trawl through their archives might give more information if you are concerned.

        • Sorry Jonathan but you have completely muddled up people with countries and with organisations when you wrote:

          “I differ in your view on how European courts would treat clergy. They allow a wide margin of discretion to individual countries.

          I should also note that this would only bring the Church of England into line with every other denomination in England, which is already in this position, with (to the best of my knowledge) no legal pressure to conduct same-sex weddings.”

          Of European Courts you wrote: “They allow a wide margin of discretion to individual countries.” … so that is saying they allow a wide margin of discretion to COUNTRIES, i.e. member states, but your opening statement was “I differ in your view on how European courts would treat clergy.” CLERGY is NOT a member state or country.

          You then say that “I should also note that this would only bring the Church of England into line with every other denomination in England”… showing that the Church of England is an ORGANISATION which is neither a person, i.e. CLERGY, nor a member state, i.e. a COUNTRY.

          Your response is truly muddled.

          If a Church declined to treat children with indifference as is required under SSM legislation in the UK and therefore did not agree to undertake Same Sex Marriages then some candidates would simply ask why other churches allowed it and take the matter to Court as alleged discrimination. Theology would not come into it on the basis that some churches allowed it.

          • Clive, my apologies if my reply seemed muddled to you. Full disclosure – I have no legal training. For clarity:

            The discretion is given to countries as it is the individual countries which frame laws. For example, the exemptions relating to same-sex marriage are in both the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 and the Equalities Act 2010. When the courts of this country uphold the straight-forward intent of these Acts, any appeal to Europe would fail because this area would fall within the discretion of a country. Please feel free to look at the exemptions that are already present in the Marriage Act.

            In other words, clergy would be protected by the laws of the UK. European courts would not overrule them.

            My reference to other denominations is that they are not under a ‘quadruple lock’, which is unique to the Church of England. However, they are under existing locks (a triple lock?) which seem to provide them all the protection they need, and could do so for the Church of England.

            Legal issues will not be an obstacle.

  3. Hi Ian, I read this when it was posted first time, I thought it was very helpful then and I still think so!

    I think one of the key problems with this ‘debate’ is that it is not at all theological. Conservatives, for want of a better word, want to discuss what the Bible says, history, tradition, etc. It seems that ‘revisionists’ (and I don’t like using the term but for want again) have already decided that the theology must come to the right answer before even approaching the question. When you start from the premise ‘same-sex marriage is right, now let’s work backwards to find how we get to that correct answer’ it’s not surprising that there is serious and irreconcilable conflict between the two positions.

    And presupposing the right answer is the antithesis of theology because it essentially silences God, whose will should be the only thing we are really concerned about.

    • Funnily enough Phill, I find that exclusionists, for want of a better word, have already decided that the theology must come to the right answer before even approaching the question, whereas inclusionists want to discuss what the Bible says, history, tradition, etc. When you start from the premise ‘same-sex marriage is wrong, now let’s work backwards to find how we get to that correct answer’ it’s not surprising that there is serious and irreconcilable conflict between the two positions. And presupposing the right answer is the antithesis of theology because it essentially silences God, whose will should be the only thing we are really concerned about.

      • The fact both sides can use the same point/argument to describe each other’s view with a reasonable accuracy, as above (Phil & Johnathan), exactly vindicates Ian’s position, which is that the debate IS Polarised, for good or ill, and we shouldn’t pretend that it isn’t.

      • Jonathan, there is clearly lots to be said here, but can I make one observation?

        Although ‘revisionist’ is (like all terms here) is inadequate, it has a claim to description inasmuch as such people are asking for change, or revision, of the Church’s teaching.

        By contrast, I am not wanting to ‘exclude’ anyone. So the term ‘exclusionists’ expresses a value judgement on my position, rather than being descriptive, and is ideologically loaded. I’ve noticed the increasing use of this term, and pejoratively e.g. on the Changing Attitude Facebook page, and this asymmetry also says something about the nature of the debate.

        • Ian, I used it deliberately for the reason that it is ideologically loaded, because so is the term ‘revisionist’. “Revisionist’ is usually opposed to ‘traditionalist’, and carries the implicit baggage that Church teaching is up generally for revising. In fact, I think that many of the assumptions, arguments and biblical readings of the ‘traditionalists’ are not traditional, but were born in modernity (and some much more recently than that). I also think that this is an issue that the church has not faced before, therefore to use terms like ‘traditional’ or ‘revisionist’ are inappropriate.

          I can also point you, if necessary, to the term ‘revisionist’ being used pejoratively more and more frequently (eg ‘You revisionists do spout some utter nonsense, but what do you expect when your stock in trade is twisting meaning in Scripture?’). (I note that you do not yourself use the term in this way). ‘Revisionist’ is not a neutral term, and tends not to be used by those who are ‘revisionist’.

          ‘Inclusionist’ and ‘exclusionist’ can claim at least equal grounds for validity. You are seeking to exclude those in same-sex marriages from ordination, you are seeking to exclude the possibility of the church conducting same-sex marriages.

          In short, it is difficult to find neutral language. But we notice it more when we are on the receiving end of the baggage that goes along with the terms used.

          • I agree with everything you say here Jonathan. But I am happy to (re)claim ‘revisionist’ as people formerly reclaimed ‘queer’. Even Ian has admitted to being a revisionist on some doctrinal matters. The first revisionist was, of course, Paul, followed by the writers of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John……

        • “By contrast, I am not wanting to ‘exclude’ anyone.”
          Again, another correction is needed here I think. For example, there are many ‘conservatives’ who want to exclude TEC from the Anglican Communion unless they repent. That is exactly what Foley Beach and the majority of the Gafcon Primates asked for at the Primates meeting, and because that didn’t happen, Beach and the Gafconites left the meeting on Thursday evening and did not, according to Beach take any part in agreeing the final communique. I think the term exclusionist has arisen for that reason and also because some, you included I think Ian, want to exclude people in same sex marriages from holding any office in the church.

      • On the contrary, Jonathan, I would love to be persuaded that same sex marriage was God’s will. If nothing else because I’d do anything for an easy life! There are many like myself, who have only come to this conclusion after a lot of prayer, soul searching, and reading of scripture.

        The thing is, the revisionist case is almost comically flimsy. I’ve read just about every argument going and none of them stand up. I think this is actually demonstrable by the fact that there is no widely accepted Biblical revisionist understanding of marriage. It’s easy to criticise the traditional position, or at least a caricature of it, it’s much harder to actually come up with a solid position and defend it.

        I think your usage of the terms inclusion/exclusion demonstrate my point pretty well. As Ian wrote about a week or two ago, inclusion isn’t really a word which is theologically justifiable. You just use it and assume the correctness of your argument without justifying it theologically.

        • And there are those who disagree with you who have also come to their conclusions after a lot of prayer, soul searching and reading of scripture.

          Have you read Tobias Haller’s ‘Reasonable and Holy’? You may disagree with arguments like these, but it is hard to claim that it is ‘comically flimsy’.

          You talk about the ‘traditional position’ as if there was one version of it. There isn’t. For example, I have seen multiple interpretations of Genesis and what it means for human sexuality and relationships (Andrew Symes from Anglican Mainstream is name-checked on this comments thread – his interpretation will be different from Ian Paul’s). Few of these interpretation bear any resemblance to any of the interpretations of the early church. Some of them Ian has himself argued tend (at the least) to Arianism. I could describe some of them as ‘comically flimsy’.

          You also note the use of inclusion/exclusion. This was deliberate, as indicated above – I try normally to avoid labels or to put them in inverted commas as they carry baggage. Your use of ‘revisionist’ and ‘traditional’ carry as much baggage which is unexamined theologically.

          I make these points to try to keep the argument from being polarised. It is incredibly easy to say ‘their arguments are rubbish’. It is a form of preaching to the choir – convincing no-one but those who already agree with you.

          I think the arguments are worthwhile, particularly in two areas:
          1. Continuing the argument over specific points of theology/interpretation
          2. Continuing the argument about how to carry on if we can’t agree on 1.

          I don’t think broadly condemning one side of the debate is at all helpful.

          • ….I think the arguments are worthwhile, particularly in two areas:
            1. Continuing the argument over specific points of theology/interpretation
            2. Continuing the argument about how to carry on if we can’t agree on 1….

            Great point, but are these not the ONLY areas?

            My perception has been (as someone well outside the CofE) that Question 1 already has the feel of a question answered. It’s clearly not unanimous, but the.. general impression I get from people commenting on the shared conversations process (not just Ian) is of a convincing, but not overwhelming, majority in favor of the traditionalist/exclusive position.

            Therefore the bulk of the current debate, reflected in many ways by the conversation here on Psephizo, is actually about Question 2; what do we now do about it? The problem though is that there is not recognition that we are actually at this point (partly because neither side is conformable being here), therefore the conversation is speculatory in nature and we’re going around in circles?

            Is this not the true point of contention?

            Basically, one side feel that Question 1 has been answered sufficiently, yet are wary of what this will mean when it comes to seeing it out practically/pastorally, whereas the other side are engaging in far greater detail with question 2, but worried that the great work being done in accepting and loving people will be undermined by the answer to question 1.

            I do not know where to stand on the terminology for both sides, I find both descriptors needlessly pejorative, but if I had to choose I’d favour the revisionist/traditionalist distinction.

          • Hi Jonathan,

            I appreciate there are those who have come to their conclusions over soul searching, reading of Scripture etc – but most of the people who I see ‘change their minds’ on this issue seem to cite not Scripture but ‘matters of justice’ or the like. Their understanding of Scripture is shaped by their understanding of justice / equality / etc rather than the other way round.

            To put that another way, my sense is that people change their minds about SSM and then go looking for Biblical justification.

            I haven’t read ‘Reasonable and Holy’, it looks like a thoughtful treatment of the issue. But ultimately I think all attempts to write the male/female nature of marriage out of the Bible are doomed – if the male/female nature of marriage is not basic to marriage, and it’s only about covenant faithfulness, then you could define it pretty much any way you like – so long as it falls within the bounds of ‘permanent, stable, and faithful’. So – incest, group marriage, polygamy, maybe even things like time-limited marriages – all could be seen to fit within that framework.

            I’m not trying to bulldoze any complexity or shades of grey out of the interpretation of Genesis 1-2 etc, but I think it is disingenuous in the extreme to ignore the fact that the church has only ever interpreted Genesis 1-2 to say marriage is between a man and woman. The church has never disagreed on that – and most of the worldwide church still doesn’t. There’s a new book Unchanging Witness which talks about the history of interpretation on marriage throughout 2000 years of church history, I haven’t read it yet (I plan to) but I think it would disagree with you.

            I apologise if my using the word ‘revisionist’ carries baggage – but I don’t intend it as such. Revisionist, in my book, is simply someone who wants to revise the teaching of the church. Perhaps I’m a revionist because – you might want to have a cup of tea and sit down for this one – I’d like the church to allow lay presidency at the eucharist… but I don’t intend it in a pejorative sense. Neither do I particularly like the label conservative of traditionalist – but hey, what can you do? I think they are less loaded terms than inclusive / exclusive.

            Is it helpful to broadly condemn one side of the debate? I don’t know. What it helpful for Paul in Galatians 5:12 to tell the false teachers to emasculate themselves? Was it helpful for him in Acts 20:29 to talk about false teachers being ‘savage wolves’? False teaching is a serious business and deserves no place in the Church of Christ. And from where I stand, anything other than what the church has taught for 2000 years about marriage is false teaching.

          • Matt, I’d be wary of your perception about where the balance of the debate lies in the CofE on this issue. I move in a variety of circles. Leaders of evangelical churches tend to assume most Christians think like them; so do leaders of churches outside that tradition. Without a properly conducted poll everyone is just guessing. For various reasons, a poll of weekly churchgoers is probably too expensive to commission. So we just don’t know.

          • “Matt, I’d be wary of your perception about where the balance of the debate lies in the CofE on this issue.”

            Yes, I apologise for making it sound like it was a forgone conclusion, it isn’t, and I wasn’t trying to convince anyone that it is. I don’t think anyone, whatever their position, wants to jump the shark and make the SC say something it hasn’t said yet.

            “Without a properly conducted poll everyone is just guessing.”

            Yes. I don’t pretend to know the answer with any certainty and wasn’t meaning to imply that I did. My perception is just that; a personal, subjective and largely intuited ‘feeling’ based on a limited, but varied, sample of what’s been written.

            But, while I’m not building a case or presupposing answers on such shakey ground, I do still think there’s value in trying to gauge where things are, especially in the absence of a poll, which I agree is both difficult and unlikely. I was asking because I wanted to know what others felt, not because I am convinced I am right.

            Anything is better than throwing abuse at each other.

        • On the contrary Phill, there is a widely accepted Biblical revisionist understanding of marriage. It is the one we have today for different sex couples, which in its parity, equality and generativity (which need not be procreative) bears little resemblance to the civil marriages (of various kinds) described in the Bible.

          • Hi Penelope, can you point me to a book or a blog post which would outline that position, specifically how it would deal with the key passages such as Genesis 1-2, Romans 1, Ephesians 5 etc?

            It seems to me that there are a number of scholars who argue for SSM from the Bible in very different ways, and I don’t think any one of them has really achieved a consensus.

            That’s what I mean: there may be a consensus about what SSM is, but I don’t know that there is a consensus about how you get there from the Bible. What baffles me is that surely for evangelicals this should be the primary concern!

          • Hi phill, I wasn’t talking about same gender marriage but about marriage in the contemporary west between couples of different genders (I.e. a woman and a man). This may ‘look’ like the biblical model, but is very different from marriage in the ANE, which were civil, contractual and had little equality or parity between the partners.

          • Phill, if you want a reasoned approach to SSM, which does work with Genesis 1-2, Romans 1, Ephesians 5 etc, then again I recommend Tobias Haller’s ‘Reasonable and Holy’. It was written when The Episcopal Church was considering SSM, and is therefore written within an Anglican context. In particular, it aims to show how SSM is consistent with what that Church has historically considered important in marriage. In other words, the starting point is the church’s understanding of marriage.

            Ian – I don’t think you’ve reviewed this book. Some time or other, a subject for a blogpost?

          • Penelope, I’m really not convinced that marriage in the ANE was as different from marriage today as you claim. Besides, the creation pattern – which Jesus endorses, and Paul in Eph 5 – is Genesis 1-2. Whether marriages in the ANE held up to God’s standard is immaterial really – marriage is defined by the creation pattern rather than how a particular society has implemented it. No-one is claiming that marriage today should be as it was implemented in the ANE, rather it is how God designed it “from the beginning” (as Jesus said) which is what matters.

            Jonathan, thank you for your book recommendation. If it does genuinely present a new and compelling case then it would be worth someone like Ian reviewing.

        • Phill ….there seems to be an implication inn what you write that you came to your views all by yourself. But I would venture to suggest that your views are also shaped by the community in which I presume they were formed, namely the evangelical community. And I know that in other posts you’ve made much of the idea that the church’s views on this matter have been constant for nearly all of the church’s history, so clearly your views have been formed within the context of the church at large. So it’s entirely unclear to me how abandoning these views would give you what you describe as an “easy life.” It would mean abandoning not just a particular view on a particular sexuality, but of acting out of line with the community in which you belong, and confounding the expectations of those with whom you share your life and ministry. The point I would want to make is that all views are formed within a particular community, a particular tradition, and abandoning them is not just a matter of being persuaded by a particular argument. It’s likely to be much more costly.

  4. Ian, thank you for post. I too seem to be drawing the same conclusion that whatever we preach, God’s will for humanity runs as a thread. I have been looking at Philippians. St Paul is dealing with Gnostics within the church, who said that only the Spirit matters and the body can be used and abused as you wish. St Paul refers to these with sorrow and anger and begs the Christian church to follow his pattern of obedience to Christ in how you live your life.

    I was also reading a post by Andrew Symes on Anglican Mainstream concerning the LGBTI group launch of a publication on 4 February. He says if we adopted the ideas in this document:

    “The church would need to adopt a new anthropology of what it means to be human”.

    That the publication “has more in common with Gnosticism and Plato than Judeo Christianity”.

  5. Hi Ian,

    Thank you for another thoughtful, informative and well-researched post.

    I would like to say something about divorce, as it seems to crop up in this debate and has cropped up again here in Jonathan Tallon’s comment: ‘Why is same-sex marriage worse than remarriage if both can be seen as immorality by some within the Church of England.’ I think that Jonathan’s point is that we already live with division within the church regarding attitudes to remarriage of divorced people, therefore why not also live with division with regard to SSM?

    I don’t know much in general about the remarriage of Christian divorce(e)s, but I believe that ‘circumstances alter cases’, and that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. For instance, people who divorced and re-married before becoming Christians can find themselves in a catch 22 situation, where they might be regarded as ‘living in sin’ by remaining married to a second spouse, and would also be regarded as wrong (on the grounds that the Lord hates divorce) if, in order to end the ‘adulterous’ relationship with the second spouse, they divorced the second spouse! We have a merciful, redemptive God, and I do not believe that He wants such people to be trapped in a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation.
    [My marriage ended in divorce before I became a Christian. I have not re-married, but my ex-husband has. We have three adult children who remain in contact with both parents]

    I don’t think that the situation I outlined above bears comparison with, for instance, two Christians who embark on a same-sex marriage in the full knowledge that it is against the doctrine of the church.

      • That’s a good question, and I am not sure how I can best answer it. Nor am I sure that I know how it might be answered by many others – as we are aware from discussions here and elsewhere, people have different ideas about what Christian marriage actually is, anyway. I think the existence of children in a marriage is a significant factor, and children are not born to same-sex couples in the same way as they are born to hetero-sexual couples*, so in this respect, comparing same-sex couples who were married before becoming Christians does not, in my opinion, bear comparison with hetero-sexual couples who married (maybe for the second time!) before becoming Christians, and who may have children, of whom they are the biological parents.

        I also know a number of heterosexual couples where one spouse became a Christian after the marriage and the other didn’t and the Christian spouse has remained in the marriage, sometimes unhappily, because he/she believed that divorce was wrong.

        *I am aware that some heterosexual couples also have children by artificial means (IVF, for instance), but the vast majority procreate children naturally – children are the natural, God-given fruit of the sexual union between a man and a woman, and a sexual relationship between a man and a woman is unique in this respect. As I understand it sexual relationships for Christians belong in marriage, so this unique, God-given, natural procreation of children belongs in Christian marriage, yet it cannot belong in a same-sex marriage, where there can be no procreation of children without the involvement of a third party.

  6. If the Church of England goes for a “no middle ground” approach (and since Ian’s a member of the Archbishop’s Council, in effect the church’s cabinet, it must, at least, be giving this serious consideration), it’ll cease to be a broad church, as it would’ve if it’d continued its Victorian war against “ritualism.”

    This’ll have sweeping implications for its establishment and all that goes with it. It’s inconceivable that in, say, 50 years, an English confessional church that condemns as a sin and a “salvation issue” what is, to an overwhelming majority of the population, totally normal and accepted, will stay the state church. That’ll have knock-on implications for property: why should a disestablished confessional church get to keep the cathedrals seized by the English state?

    If the CoE follows this uncompromising path, I can see something like France’s Laïcité resulting, with the English church disestablished and its cathedrals and other historic churches taken over by the state, perhaps rented out to whoever wants to use them, perhaps sold back to the Catholic Church, or perhaps turned into museums where some religious theater occasionally takes place.

    It may be that such change is the right way to go, but going in, all should be under no illusions about the likely consequences.

    • “It may be that such change is the right way to go, but going in, all should be under no illusions about the likely consequences.”

      No one is under illusions about the likely consequences and I think you are bang on with your implications.

      However, I do disagree with you with what we should do with this warning: given the pace of a secularist agenda, even if the church does enact SSM there is no reason why some other issue may not force the church to become disestablished in the foreseeable future.

      This is the church of Christ, the church is his, and he builds it and rules it. Our task is obedience, not conformity to a secular agenda and society who may become hostile to the church even if things change on this issue.

    • The 39 articles was (is) the foundation of the Church and it says nothing about being “a broad church”.
      The current meaning of “broad church” is a modern invention.

      The 39 articles show that truth is to be found in Scripture and in Jesus Christ. The truth is that disregarding the words of Jesus Christ and dispensing with Scripture due to its inconvenience means that the body isn’t a church, whether or not it was broad, lean or any other adjective. The CofE couldn’t be CofE because it wouldn’t be “C”.

      • Clive there is only foundation of the Church, and only ever has been, and it ain’t the 39 articles.

        The 39 articles are very clearly a document of their time. They were written so as to write out any sense that Roman Catholicism would once again gain ground in the English reformation. They have to be read against that historical backdrop of religious war and hatred. They give us a glimpse of that time. That’s why were refer to them as ‘historical formularies’. In no sense are they taken as normative for what Christians believe 500 years later. There is still a great deal of anti catholic feeling around of course, and it’s taken a long time for their to be a Roman Catholic service again in Hampton Court Palace. But the Bishop of London said ‘welcome home’. The 39 articles don’t do that. They say ‘keep away’. Younger people don’t care for the religious tensions that existed 500 years ago – and most sane people regard them as dead and gone. The 39 articles are not taught to ordinands as the foundation of the church and in licensings we simply assent to them as historical formularies. There is only foundation of the Church, and only ever has been. And it ain’t the 39 articles.

        • Dear Andrew

          The declaration of assent says:

          “The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation. Led by the Holy Spirit, it has borne witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons. In the declaration you are about to make, will you affirm your loyalty to this inheritance of faith as your inspiration and guidance under God in bringing the grace and truth of Christ to this generation and making Him known to those in your care?

          I, A B, do so affirm, and accordingly declare my belief in the faith which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds and to which the historic formularies of the Church of England bear witness; and in public prayer and administration of the sacraments, I will use only the forms of service which are authorized or allowed by Canon.

          The declaration of assent can be found on the Church of England website. You similarly won’t find any encouragement from the Book of Common Prayer.

          No I don’t agree that the 39 articles are merely relevant for their time as they are still used even now.

          • Wow Clive, you really know how to make mountains out of molehills.

            The 39 articles are important statements that contributed (and in many ways still contribute) to defining the beliefs, structure and identity of the CofE. Andrew is not disagreeing with that (I think), in fact I think he is very much affirming their value, like yourself. However, something can be foundational in the sense that it drives or defines a movement, an organisation or an idea, but not be foundational in the sense that it defines the origins or central belief of that group. That latter foundation is, always has been, and always will be Jesus.

            The purpose of the declaration of assent is that, as a result of truth revealed through the scriptures, the church recognises a responsibility to proclaim it, and to proclaim it authentically. The method of that proclamation (not in itself a “revealed truth” as in the prior sentence) is through the 39, the BCP and ordained ministry. The declaration of assent is not a proof text of the validity of the 39, but a recognition that the church has an established and worthy ‘structural methodology’ for achieving it’s purpose. There is nothing in it that expressly prohibits the possibility of change/revision to those methods.

          • To clarify,

            I do not disagree at all with your opening point: that “The current meaning of “broad church” is a modern invention.” It is. But I think appealing to the 39 articles as any sort of permanent and unchangeable authority is tenuous ground. They are not scripture.

  7. If there is no middle ground, Ian, presumably there is no need for the further patient engagement with Scripture and theology. You have made your position clear in this article. Presumably then , for you all that remains is to do all you can to prevent change. In other words, for you, it’s about politics now, not theology. Care to comment?

    • “That is why the question for the Church is not about polity alone, but about the Church’s doctrine of marriage, and within that its understanding of human sexuality. There is no middle ground to stand on”

      I think Ian states pretty clearly that there’s an overarching doctrinal dimension.

  8. Without going into the arguments above I want to suggest that while those in the C of E have a “standard” of doctrine that is historically fixed – evident in the declaration of assent – those of us in TEC have a very different standard. Indeed doctrine and discipline are found in the BCP and every few years – 1789, 1928, 1979 the BCP is changed to reflect “new revelation.” Indeed last year TEC’s General Convention began the process towards the next generation BCP.
    As close as we get to conformity is in the following:
    The Bishop says to the ordinand
    Will you be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of
    Christ as this Church has received them? And will you, in
    accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop
    and other ministers who may have authority over you and
    your work?

    I am willing and ready to do so; and I solemnly declare that I
    do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments
    to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to
    salvation; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine,
    discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church.

    Revisionism creates a moving standard.

    For those of us left who oppose the recent marriage changes the new teaching is a salvation issue and thus something on which there is little room for “good disagreement.”

    Thank you Ian for your excellent piece.


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