A 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.
Sociologist 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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