Vicky Beeching is a reasonably well-known figure in media circles. She often comments on Sky News about Christianity in the public sphere, is a contributor to Thought for the Day, and (rather occasionally now) blogs. Vicky studied theology at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford, then spent 8 years in the States where she established a reputation as a singer-songwriter. She is now enrolled for a PhD programme in Durham.
Vicky recently announced that she is supportive of those who want the Church of England to change its teaching on same-sex unions, and has become an ‘Ambassador’ for Accepting Evangelicals. The dynamic of this and the debate around it illustrates some important issues in this discussion.
She recently published a blog post entitled ‘LGBT Theology: what does the Bible say?’ But the curious thing is that she never actually answers the question. After commenting on the (often unpleasant) reaction to her announcement, she says she had concluded that blogs are not the best way to explore the issue. However, she then goes on to draw some parallels:
Many people argued that the Bible supported slavery until they put time into prayerful study and realised they were wrong.
Many used to (and some still do) argue the Bible says women should have no place within the priesthood, and should never preach or teach in church. Lots of people have realised from prayerful study that this is not what the Bible actually says.
Superficial readings of texts should never be the foundation of our arguments. Nor should parroting off the things we’ve simply been told by others in church.
The quite strong implication of these comments is that the traditional view is simplistic, and equivalent to supporting slavery or opposing women’s leadership, neither of which is true. The best response to these observations comes from Baptist theologian Steve Holmes—but you won’t find this, because his comments are buried under the more recent avalanche of unmoderated comments.
The slavery/women comparisons. These are often made, and really interesting. As you know, I’m sure, slavery was more-or-less eliminated from the Roman empire quite quickly as a result of Christian ethical reflection; come the ‘European discovery of the world’ (the world knew it was there all along, as far as I can see…), there was a huge economic compulsion to engage in slavery, and as a result a series of (well-studied) exegetical gymnastics to try to get around what seemed to many to be a clear prohibition. To cast the history as a uniformly pro-slavery hermeneutic one day being overcome is to badly misunderstand it. (The history could, if one was being provocative, actually be read the other way up: in the West (only) we currently face a huge cultural pressure to revise classical Christian understandings of sexuality, and the exegetical gymnastics engaged in by some – only some – of the books on your list might be compared to those offered by the pro-slavery writers of five and two centuries ago…)
On gender, again as I’m sure you know, the lasting Christian opposition to female priests came from an adoption of Aristotelian biology, which saw being female as being defectively human; once we, thankfully, got over that misbegotten idea, things changed fairly quickly in some places, and a whole variety of, often rapidly shifting, arguments got made in others to try to shore up the tradition. The first application of this is to note that we never read Biblical texts outside of our cultural context, and our interpretations are always coloured by our assumptions (we probably shouldn’t condemn earlier theologians too harshly for accepting the best science of their day…). Drawing an analogy to our present debate over sexuality, we might suggest a parallel argument to the effect that we didn’t used to understand sexual orientation, but now do, and so our readings need to be revised. Apart from the exegetical problems with the analogy (see Webb for the still-standard treatment, of course), this places huge weight on our understanding of sexual orientation, which anthropologists of sexuality would tell us is very locally culturally constructed, and post-Foucauldian queer theorists would want to deconstruct thoroughly as oppressive. So there’s an entire argument to be had about what we mean by ‘sexuality’ before we turn to the texts, and which will seriously affect our reading of the texts.
Vicky then lists some resources for people to read, headlining Matthew Vines, James Brownson and Jeffrey John, and mentioning Robert Gagnon as a kind of footnote. Holmes again responds helpfully:
Gagnon’s book is the best on detailed exegesis, but ought to come with a health warning; the tone is often unpleasant (& when he strays off exegesis into other fields he is often badly wrong). We really need something as detailed but written with more grace…
Vines and John – really? Two of the poorest books on that side of the debate, surely? (better than Robinson’s God Believes in Love, but that is hardly saying much…)
I have offered a critique of Brownson’s reading of the Genesis texts—which I don’t find very convincing. Tom Creedy has offered a more lengthy comment on his blog, where he also very helpfully gives a wider list of resources. The best thing about Steve Holmes and Tom Creedy’s comments is that they ask hard questions—but do so in the clear context of mutual respect and affirmation. Nevertheless, the hard questions remain, and Tom highlights a central one: how are we reading the biblical texts, and (how) are we discussing them?
He notes the importance of Richard Davidson’s Flame of Yahweh: sexuality in the Old Testament. ‘Magisterial in its treatment…this 800+ page doorstop is brilliantly thorough, and gracious in tone.’ On the NT he recommends work from a ‘revisionist’ scholar, William Loader, Sexuality in the New Testament: understanding the key texts. Both of these, from quite different perspectives, argue comprehensively and coherently that the position Vicky is advocating is not supported by a responsible read of the texts.
This all highlights something vital in this debate. In an interview in Christian Today, Vicky says she still wants to be known as an evangelical:
CT: Do you still consider yourself an evangelical?
VB: It’s important to me to retain evangelicalism as part my Christian identity. I don’t think the two [evangelicalism and supporting same-sex relationships] are incompatible. I don’t want to lose what evangelical means; there are so many good aspects of it. The Bible is as important as ever; my LGBT theology comes from a high view of scripture, not throwing the Bible out the window. People have accused me of watering down what the Bible says, but for me it’s about using the brain God has given us to put the verses [about homosexuality] into their proper historical context.
This means that, as someone who has established herself in a role of leadership, at least in terms of public presence, she will need to offer an account of her reading of Scripture. But how to do it? She plans to write a book, but not blog about this issue—which I think is exactly the wrong way forward. There are already a good number of books out there, so another one will only be good news for the publishing industry. But, critically, a blog discussion could achieve precisely what a book might well fail to do.
When you write a book, you can choose who you want to listen to, and who you want to ignore—you can carefully select your dialogue partners, and choose not to engage with those who are too challenging or awkward. And this is precisely what Matthew Vines appears to have done in his influential book. On a blog, you cannot do this, as it is much harder to avoid being challenged to engage with the tough questions—and this works all ways. I have here hosted some very awkward questions from people who disagree with me—and as a result, my view has changed and developed, and I think some of theirs has too. Of course, you then are open to abuse and hostility—but there are really easy ways to manage that:
- moderate comments—i.e., delete ones that breach standards of respect
- restrict who can comment
- turn comments off altogether
- host a debate between yourself and someone with the opposite view
- post your views as a guest on someone else’s blog, so they have to deal with the nasty comments.
Vicky’s other stated aim is to ‘host a genuine debate, with people talking to, rather than past, each other’. I think she is quite right here—this is exactly what is needed. But in writing a book, rather than putting her views out for debate, I think she is encouraging the sceptics who think that her views won’t be offering anything original or persuasive, and won’t stand up to scrutiny, even of the most charitable kind. Steve Holmes’ comments already hint at that.
Vicky’s is clearly an important voice for Christians and the Church in the media. I worry that her approach to this issue has already clearly alienated a good number. Those she refers to who have boycotted her songs might be being vindictive. But if a genuine debate is going to happen, surely some of them need to be won back. As with the EA’s decision about Steve Chalke, it is just possible that they have thought through the issues carefully and have good, pastoral, biblical and theological reasons for their decision. So my hope and prayer is that, as she says, Vicky’s discussion might indeed foster more dialogue rather than more division—and to do that, I think it will need to be offered online.
If you find this blog of value, would you consider becoming a patron to support my work?