Were the Shared Conversations just a Con?

Amongst the rush of responses to the report from the House of Bishops last week, one of the more considered came from Miranda Threlfall Holmes (vicar of Belmont and Pittington on the outskirts of Durham, but soon to move to Liverpool Diocese) and it was widely circulated on social media. It offers (along with other comments) some insight into the different approaches to this issue, and the nature of the chasm between the viewpoints in the debate.

MTH makes two opening observations. The first is that the process we have been engaged in has strong parallels with the process undertaken in the discussion about women’s ordination as bishops. There seems to be an assumption that ‘we all know where we are going to end up’, suggesting an inevitability about the final decision, as well as the implication that the issues are the same, despite the evidence to the contrary. The second observation is that you cannot ‘change tone’ without ‘changing underlying assumptions, doctrines and rules.’ In other words, anything short of change in doctrine will not be enough. MTH then goes on to offer ten suggestions for the planned teaching document which might make it useful beyond the Church, in response to the invitation in the report.

1. ‘Stop talking about sex outside marriage being inherently sinful’. Because heterosexual couples coming for marriage are mostly already living together, so don’t see sex outside marriage as sinful, we should not only stop saying this, we should stop believing it. This seems an odd way to do our theology of the body—determined by the contemporary morals of those outside the Church. It ignores the biblical theological vision of humanity as a psychosomatic unity, so that what we do with our bodies both expresses and reinforces our beliefs and commitments, an idea which lies behind not only Paul’s understanding of sexual ethics (1 Cor 6.16) and Jesus’, (Matt 19.5, debates about indissolubility notwithstanding), but also Anglican liturgical language about marriage (‘may the joy of their bodily union strengthen the union of their hearts and minds’). MTH also seems oblivious to the impact of the sexualisation of relationship, not least on girls and women who are consistently disadvantaged by it.

2. To claim that ‘Marriage isn’t primarily creating something new…’ is very odd indeed. Apart from creating something new in law (contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as Common Law Marriage in England), a basic understanding of speech act theory tells us that when we make promises, something does actually come into being that did not exist before. Marriage vows create a commitment and security that was not there before—as both the statistics on break-up of cohabitation, and the reluctance of many (usually men) to enter a marriage commitment testify. Again, it is more often the women (and children) who benefit from the increased sense of permanence that marriage affords.

3. MTH is quite right to point to the historical use of marriage—but (like others in the debate) she is in danger of assuming that marriage law and marriage practice equal marriage theology, which they clearly don’t. For example, on the question of property, both the BCP marriage rite and its modern translation in Common Worship are remarkable and consistently egalitarian—which suggests that the historical problem was not with the theology, but with the lack of it.

4. Recognising that ‘perceptions, images and understandings of marriage are historically, geographically and socially context-bound’ doesn’t imply that absolutely everything is ‘changeable’—unless you sign up to a critical dogma that no person or text can ever speak beyond his, her or its historical context. If you do sign up to this, then you end up with some rather large problems with orthodox Christology, since you have decided that God cannot speak with transcendent significance in a particular historical context.

5. I have no real idea why MTH thinks that the idea of ‘biblical marriage’ is jeopardised by the narrative depiction of faulty and failed marriages throughout Scripture. It suggests a bizarrely wooden way of reading narratives and their theology, as if what is depicted is what should be, and an ignorance of how biblical texts actually have functioned in theological debates about the nature of marriage.

6. If MTH thinks that concern about sex outside of marriage prevents discussion about other issues in sexual relations, I would like to invite her to the next New Wine seminar that I offer on a biblical theology of sexuality, where these other things are addressed specifically. Or could it be that she relies for her information on one particular online debate without actually engaging in what goes on in other parts of the ecclesial world?

7. The question of sex difference is a contested one, but part of that contesting is some odd denials of demonstrable differences between the sexes, as if interchangeability was necessary for equality. Where is the vision for women’s equality which does not depend on women ‘leaning in’ like men would do? Why do we not seek to value activities more highly in which women excel rather than men, and instead allow a male employment scenario to set the agenda for women?

8. ‘Taking love seriously’ in a fallen world must involve taking seriously both the fact that we look to God to know what love looks like (so that Christian ethics cannot abandon deontology in favour of situation ethics) and that simply giving me what I think I want cannot define loving action. Ask the parents of any spoilt child. In this area, as any other, human life might act as a mirror of God’s life, but it is a distorting mirror, and we need to know by God’s revelation of himself what the truth really is that will set us free.

9. I would love MTH to point me to a single ‘conservative’ commentator who believes that ‘we need to be perfect to be acceptable’. Is this a wilfully ignorant statement, or just ignorant? Most observers would note the opposite problem: that ‘conservatives’ talk too much about how sinful we are, and continue to be, and so ever in need of grace and forgiveness. I would also be interested to hear MTH’s comment on Jesus’ demanding ethic of holiness: ‘Be perfect, just as your Heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt 5.48).

10. MTH would like us to use the Bible ‘more intelligently’—and then dismisses the theological reading of the creation narratives as an aetiological myth outlining a theology of marriage as nothing more than seven-day creationism. Perhaps, then, we need to add ‘Read those who read the Bible intelligently with some intelligence.’ The least intelligent reading of Scripture we were offered in Synod was the idea that same-sex sex, which is everywhere in Scripture spoken of in the strongest and most negative terms, was in fact the eschatological goal towards which marriage and sex in the Bible were pointing—but the problem was that not one of the Bible authors or characters (including Jesus and Paul) had quite got round to spotting this marvellous insight which we, with the assured results of modern scholarship, can now see as plain as the nose on our face. More intelligent reading? I am up for that!

(Even if you disagree with the agenda, do look at Martin Davie’s observations for some more serious theological substance.)

Implicit in all this seems to be an assumption that we all knew where this was going, and that the HoB report is unexpected because it is not continuing on the same journey. This was sometimes expressed in the language of ‘direction of travel’—despite the fact that those who were concerned about pre-emptive change were repeatedly assured that there was no assumed ‘direction of travel’, and that the conversations were about listening to one another for greater mutual understanding, with no particular outcome anticipated. That was directly contradicted by Vicky Beeching, who explained that ‘we shared our experiences on the understanding that this would lead to change in the church.’ If the SCs were set up with the promise to one group that change would result, and to another group that there was no assumption about changed, it was surely inevitable that one side or other was going to be bitterly disappointed by the outcome, and raises a serious question about the integrity of the process.

I remain hopeful about the next moves, and the idea of a teaching document. In answer to MTH’s question about its value, I think that it is perfectly possible for a teaching document to articulate a biblical theology of sexuality and look like good news to many people. For me, it would need to include:

  1. Sex is God’s good gift in creation. The Church has often struggled with that but, as Diarmaid McCulloch pointed out, that was often because the Church paid too much attention to Greek philosophical ideas, and too little to the teaching of Jesus and Paul.
  2. Human life is bodily, and our bodies are inherently good. We are not spirits (or internet browsers) trapped in an unfortunately material world.
  3. Sex differentiation is a normal, natural and inevitable part of this bodily life.
  4. Our sexual lives should form one part of an integrated physical, emotional, relational, communal and spiritual life.
  5. Sex is powerful—powerfully good when used right, and powerfully damaging for so many people when it goes wrong.
  6. Humanity is fallen, and this affects all aspects of our sexuality as well as every other area of our life.
  7. Sexual activity is therefore bounded, not because sex is bad, but because sex is powerful and we are fallen. The boundaries God has put in place are, rightly understood, there for our flourishing and well-being, and in particular serve to protect the weak from exploitation by the strong.
  8. Sex is penultimate—it is not the most important thing about us, and there are more important ways to understand who we truly are.

There is much here which offers good news to a world and a culture in which the misuse of sex does so much harm.

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45 thoughts on “Were the Shared Conversations just a Con?”

  1. Thanks Ian, I appreciated this analysis. I read MTH’s analysis with growing disbelief. As a pastor I see the negative effects of the decline of marriage almost every day. I cannot fathom how any Christian, let alone an ordained priest, could jettison the foundational Christian ethics of marriage. (As an aside, I think the Marriage Foundation do an excellent job at trying to get the message out about marriage.)

  2. Ian
    I agree with your 8 points. Especially point 6, since I believe this whole disagreement has lacked the essential backcloth of the Fall and Original Sin and acceptance of Article 9 (even with its omission of reference to Adam’s sin as the reason for God’s wrath and condemnation) as common ground.

    Phil Almond

  3. Thanks for this, it’s a really good response.

    My understanding is (and has been for some time) that the purpose of SC was always more than simply ‘discussion’ for the sake of idea-exchange/story-sharing, and that there was an implicit aim from the start to express an intent over weather current teaching needed to be changed. In this respect the direction of travel was obvious; either the church would be prompted to change or it wouldn’t. Neither option was guaranteed, or binding, but a strong mandate towards one or the other was inevitable.

    Therefore I can understand people looking back on the process and being frustrated that change didn’t occur, I empathise with them even if I disagree, but I cannot understand the idea that the process was set up specifically to engineer one of those outcomes. Were people explicitly told so, and if so, by whom?

    The most concerning phrase of MTH though is this one;

    “you cannot change tone’ without ‘changing underlying assumptions, doctrines and rules.”

    And it is concerning because in today’s climate of debate I feel she is entirely correct, even though she should not be. For so long as the current teaching remains upheld and in force, those who uphold and ‘enforce’ it will always be attacked (from within the church and without) primarily on the basis of tone, rather than substance.

  4. Great post Ian, I agree with all of it.

    A cheeky tangential observation if I may: if you believe that in marriage ‘something does actually come into being that did not exist before’, why are you so opposed to the idea of ontological change in ordination? Ontology just refers to the theory of being. So why in ordination is it not also true that ‘something does actually come into being that did not exist before’? And if it does, why is it invalid to describe it as ‘ontological change’? Perhaps you think that it only changes in the eyes of people, whereas ontology is in the eyes of God. But then marriage surely brings something into being in the sight of God. Since you clearly don’t sign up to a subjectivist understanding of social and personal phenomena, I can’t see how you can hold to one and not the other.

    • Because the C of E does not believe so! This is reflected in the language used in the respective rites. In marriage, the celebrant says ‘I now pronounce you man and wife’. At no point in the service of ordination does anyone say ‘I now pronounce you a priest/presbyter.’ Instead, the bishops invokes the Spirit on the person for the work to which called has called him or her.

      It is not an accidental different in wording, and it means that the changes involved are quite distinct.

      • “The form and manner of making, ordaining and consecrating of bishops, priests and deacons, according to the order of the Church of England”.

        The ordination service makes priests, according to the BCP. But this is a tangent from the discussion issue…

          • The whole idea of being ‘a literalist’ or ‘metaphorist'(???) is ideological and incoherent. One can only accurately interpret one way: according to the genre that the writing is written in. There are many literal genres, very few metaphorical ones. Fiction per se is neither of the two.

      • That’s a fair point. But your actual claim above was that promises in general make things real: ‘when we make promises, something does actually come into being that did not exist before’. Which should surely cover ordination?

        I guess I’m just confused about what your ontology is. In the earlier thread on ordination you stated that ontologically we are simply human, not even male and female, let alone priest and laity. I thought that this was a very bare ontology, but at least had the virtue of consistency – effectively limiting itself to Aristotelian natural kinds. In the above, however, you appear to be drawing on a much richer ontology, in which promises and other speech acts can bring things ‘actually into being’. That’s much closer to my thoughts on this, but it isn’t clear then how you can retain such a reductionist stance towards ordination. Maybe this just needs some finer distinctions, such as in terms of ‘kinds of being’ – maybe we are ontologically human in a stronger sense than we are ontologically male (or female), married, or ordained. It all starts to get a bit metaphysical at this point, but I just wonder whether your observations on marriage here suggest a more nuanced ontology than your observations on ordination would suggest by themselves.

        • Will,

          Without re-hashing our exchange on the earlier thread on ordination, there are significant differences between an order and an estate.

          By the former, authority is bestowed on a person to carry out specified functions )as described in the ordination rite).

          I would suggest that an estate, ipso facto, implies that a person is in possession of a far more broadly recognised set of social goods than just being granted authority to perform specific functions for the Church.

          Of course, this distinction doesn’t prevent the clergy from considering their role in society to be an estate (as the ancient regime did).

          • Yes you’re right we need a typology of ways of being. Modern reductionist utilitarian language lacks this. We need to distinguish between the kind of reality we’re participating in when we’re human, male or female, married, and ordained – and anything else I guess, such as entering contracts and covenants. I think these all have a real existence though, and so come under our ontology. (Just because something is functional doesn’t mean it isn’t a real thing.)

            This is all a tangent though. But it is nice to talk about something else for a bit!

  5. Very good

    There’s surely little chance of revisionists adhering to the report despite the fact that they would have lambasted the orthodox for not doing so had the outcome have been different. Which reveals that the participants in the discussion and controversy are asymmetrical in a whole variety of ways

  6. Ian, first, a defence of Miranda’s ten points from your criticisms.

    1. The aim was to get the document heard beyond the church. Miranda did not suggest a change in theology. She did suggest that telling people that they were sinful would lead them to stop listening. If people aren’t listening, what’s the point in the document at all?

    2. If a couple have already committed to living together for the rest of their lives (as many unmarried couples have), then at what point do they theologically become married? Yes, the legal ceremony does change things. But for many couples, the committed relationship exists before the service. I know of a couple whose main motivation in getting married (after many years) was to make inheritance legally easier if one/both of them should die. The main change as far as they were concerned was purely legal. How does the church speak to them?

    3. I see no evidence for the suggestion that Miranda “is in danger of assuming that marriage law and marriage practice equal marriage theology”.

    4. I am sure Miranda would agree with you. It doesn’t affect her point.

    5. I suspect that Miranda is fed up of people talking glibly about ‘biblical marriage’ without actually using the Bible or taking the biblical material on marriage seriously. Because this happens quite a lot (and yes, I am sure that there are equally people on the progressive side who misuse the biblical material).

    6. If we start off talking about sex outside marriage as sinful, and if people immediately switch off or start arguing about that, then that inevitably does mean that we’re not talking as much about all the things Miranda lists, and that others won’t be listening to what is said anyway. Some of which might be higher priority than a couple committed to each other living together before legally marrying. (And a New Wine seminar doesn’t really count as reaching ‘beyond the church’).

    7. Miranda was arguing to be very, very careful about what we say on gender. Surely she’s right? You will be aware (as you have blogged on them) on the Trinitarian controversies in evangelical circles that have arisen in part because of views on gender.

    8. I am sure Miranda would agree. But I am sure you must agree with Miranda’s point about taking love seriously.

    9. OK, I’m not sure what this is about.

    10. Miranda nowhere ‘dismisses the theological reading of the creation narratives as an aetiological myth outlining a theology of marriage as nothing more than seven-day creationism.’ She does, however, have a gripe with those who simply say ‘because it says so in Genesis’. Surely you too want a more intelligent reading of scripture?

    • Thanks Jonathan! Following your comments I have gone back and read her list again. I would agree with you that, if it is read purely as an agenda for outward communication alone, we are probably closer on one or two points.

      But actually quite a lot of what she says is directed internally. I am not sure she anywhere says ‘I believe X, but I am aware that merely presenting X would be misunderstood, so I tend to focus on Y.’

      On point 10, if MTH is concerned about intelligent reading, why did she pick on this example, when the main feature of the SC in Synod was a complete failure to attend to the biblical texts—mostly on the part of those seeking change?

    • I think I would also add that people are often more aware of the damage that sexual relations have done than we give them credit for. Men will almost universally had more sexual partners/experience than women, and previous sexual histories can bring all sorts of pastoral issues into a marriage relationship.

      I also feel your assumption that cohabitation is really just marriage in all but name is not actually true to experience, not least because of the much higher level of break-up.

    • “She did suggest that telling people that they were sinful would lead them to stop listening”. And yet, the book of Acts shows Peter and Paul engaging in evangelism by doing exactly that. Similarly, Paul sharply rebukes the Corinthian church for a variety of sins, James rebukes the greedy, and the first part of the revelation to John contains multiple rebukes.

      And indeed, sometimes this does indeed cause the audience to stop listening. This happens quite often in Acts, and yet Luke does not present this as a failure or disaster on Paul’s part.

      Perhaps the true problem is that the Church has lost sight of the home it is to be seeking? Being aliens and strangers is hard, so it wants to settle down.

    • Ian,

      Perhaps it’s unsurprising that I see Miranda Threlfall Holmes’s post somewhat differently from most here.

      To my mind, MTH is both remonstrating the bishops on their diminishing credibility and rallying the ‘troops’ to re-group into the kind of broad coalition which supported ‘women bishops’ legislation.

      It’s clear that a broad alliance is needed to lobby Synod to remove the key obstacle preventing the church from holding services which affirm same-sex sexual relationships.

      In the BRGS Report, we read that ‘the Church of England teaches that “sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy, properly belongs within marriage exclusively” (Marriage: a teaching document of the House of Bishops, 1999). Sexual relationships outside marriage, whether heterosexual or between people of the same sex, are regarded as falling short of God’s purposes for human beings”.

      If that remains the Church of England’s teaching, then, as the Report explains, a service which *sanctioned or condoned* such a sexual relationship would not meet the requirement that a service must “edify the people” and would probably also be contrary to, or indicative of a departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in an essential matter.

      Ergo, if the proposed Teaching Document provides a theological basis for mellowing the Church’s stance on sexual relationships outside of marriage, then it would open the way for the Church to affirm publicly same-sex sexual relationships.

      To some extent, MTH has taken her cue from the bishops’ ‘hand-wringing’ desire for the Church ‘to permit maximum freedom within it, without changes to the law’ So, she has accepted the challenge, stated in the report, ‘to explore how that affirmation in the case of both celibate and non-celibate relationships might be more fully articulated in our theological ethics and better communicated in our pastoral and missional practice, while maintaining the current doctrine of the Church of England on marriage and relationships

      So, a re-evaluation of the Church’s stance on sexual relationships outside of marriage would open the way for the Church to escape accusations of connivance as it begins to publicly affirming stable non-marital sexual relationships, whether gay or straight.

      For MTH, if the bishops want to be understood as genuine, then the solution is that simple.

  7. Hi Ian,
    Thank you for this thoughtful and informative post. I have just read Miranda T-Holmes post and the comments on that. What I have to say here is not a theological point and is probably not even helpful to anyone, but here’s my response – I feel exasperated by this final sentence in point 10 of Miranda’s blog:
    ‘ The Church seems to have gone backwards in understanding this in the twenty years that I’ve been a Christian – show some leadership here, bishops!’
    I wonder what gives Miranda the authority to offer such an exhortation to the majority of bishops who chose to maintain the integrity of the Church’s doctrine on marriage?
    Yes, I feel exasperated!

  8. 1. The idea with this point is not to propose a ‘culture first’ view of morality, or to deny the psychosomatic wholeness of human beings. It is to draw attention firstly to the reality that sex before marriage is not as harmful or damaging as is often made out, and secondly that a ‘wait until marriage’ approach may not actually be the best way for human beings to develop the maturity and emotional intelligence needed for relationships of integrity and love. It’s also true to say that culture is not a bad thing per se- there are plenty of examples of secular morality having been being right when the religious morality of the day was wrong. A critical (and self-critical) openness is needed to accompany scriptural rootedness- not a bunker mentality.
    2. The point does say marriage is not PRIMARILY creating something new. While I would agree with what you say about promises changing things, they would hardly make for the kind of marriages worth having if they were not underpinned by a pre-existing, loving relationship with all the hard work that has (in many cases) already gone into that. An over-emphasis on the promises and under emphasis on the relationship is both wrong and a turn-off to honest people. The balance needs to be right, especially in an evangelistic context.
    3. I agree with you. But the problems with the historical use of marriage are worth repeating again and again lest we fail to learn from the mistakes of the past.
    4. I agree with you in principle. But the real purpose of the point is to encourage a self-critical attitude towards any claims we may have about the rightness of our particular understanding of marriage. If we have really considered the cultural, temporal and geographical situatedness of our understanding of marriage and then decided that, yes, our view is still the correct one, then fine. But have we really?
    5. I basically agree with you on this. I don’t know of many Christians who would argue that we should model our ideal of marriage on the realities of the marriages of particular biblical characters. But some prominent Americans do sometimes sound like they take this kind of approach and that’s a big turn-off to people.
    7. Complimentarity is again a huge issue. Suffice to say I would probably deny the existence of certain differences which you believe to be demonstrable, and would say that a ‘different but equal’ view has tended throughout history to be a ‘discriminator’s charter’.
    8. In this area we disagree. I accept that love does not mean just giving someone what they want. Drugs, excessive alcohol, 6 wives….if someone really wants these then that’s not a good reason to give them to them. But we have to be careful to distinguish between these things, which are plainly bad, and things which are good and reasonably desired, I believe God builds a desire for good things into humans and that we have to discern the wheat from the chaff when it comes to our desires. I think this necessarily involves and element of looking to reason and experience, and that it won’t all be covered in the bible. I don’t even think the bible tries to cover specifics except in general terms. This would obviously need a much longer discussion. But what I would say is that I think any desire God disapproves of should be discernably negative (when we are being honest with ourselves), and that it should be possible to give reasons for why it is bad. I think this can be done with, say drug abuse, but not with homosexuality. It’s this attentiveness to reality that constitutes ‘taking love seriously’- in conjunction with scripture, yes, but not accepting what is evil because it fits with our current understanding of the bible. It’s reasonable to question our biblical interpretation in response to empirical and rational developments.
    9. I think the point here is not about what commentators say. It’s about what ideas imply- overly strict rules on sexual behaviour imply that human beings are able to achieve success in relationships easily and without experimentation. Unless said experimentation is very harmful, that cannot be the right view. People mess up in all sorts of areas of life- there is no ban on very rich people being ordained. Why sex?
    10. This is too big a point to discuss here- but the argument you imply – ‘spoke about negatively in scripture, therefore wrong’ is indicative of the kind of vague biblical argument that MLH (and I) dislike. I’m sure you would have much more to say in defence of your approach, as I would I.

  9. And now, a response to your own ten points.

    1. Agree.
    2. Agree.
    3. Agree for most people (intersex tends to get left out of all the discussions, and would want to nuance on transgender).
    4. Agree.
    5. Agree.
    6. Agree.
    7. Agree.
    8. Agree.

    If a teaching document just says this, it may indeed be seen as good news (or at least not as bad news) by many outside the church. Except it will be in a context where much more is being said through canons, and claims about doctrine.

    Fundamentally I think Miranda is right. There will be no perceived change in tone if nothing of substance changes.

  10. I think your responses 1-10 are excellent, likewise your proposals 1-8. I found only one point to question: I think aetiology is a unifying key to understand so many otherwise puzzling things in Genesis.

    Conversations, like discussions, like debates, are always good. The longer they go on, the more points and perspectives we see.

    The idea that they are allowed to conclude only a certain way is not only wrong by definition, but psychologically juvenile. There is one factor only that determines how they conclude: evidence.

    There are several sub-issues in the homosexuality question. For example:

    -If we are talking the biblical texts, then the evidence is stacked very heavily indeed one way.

    -If we are talking about the quite appalling effects of the sexual revolution, and ithe SR’s degree of cross-cultural / multi-era correlation with homophile sexual relationships, then the evidence is again stacked very heavily one way.

    -If we are talking about willingness to be led by evidence, then I have found far too often among the culture-bound a huge absence of that.

  11. If we adopted MTH’s point 1, I feel physically sick about what sort of undisciplined and harmful chaos might transpire, given what we know of human nature. As ever, women would probably be chief losers – but children most certainly would be. Don’t people care about that, and why is the children-related point so often brushed under the carpet?

    The ‘argument’ that if something is widely happening that makes it more plausible is obviously from a logical point-of-view baseless; but it is easy to see that people have only so much toleration of how counter-cultural they can be without feeling like social lepers.

  12. The ‘argument’ never is as you characterise it. When liberals argue ‘get with the times’, this is always predicated on the belief that the practice or attitude in question is right in itself. THEN, we go on to point to the way in which society has coped perfectly well following the acceptance of the practice in question. That’s the essence of the claim- it’s an invitation to look at the world around you and think seriously about whether the harm you ascribe actually manifests itself. You’re of course free to disagree, but please don’t characterise liberals as making a simple ‘argument from wide acceptance’.

    • ‘THEN, we go on to point to the way in which society has coped perfectly well following the acceptance of the practice in question.’

      Well you’re talking in the abstract there and you’d find it a very hard task to show that Western society is bounding forward with ever greater joy and contentment as restraint after restraint on individual latitude is deconstructed. And that’s before ever you might start to consider whether Christians should look first to what is God’s intention for human behaviour, both individual and as a society. If you discover it to be counter-cultural it’s at that point that you have to decide who or what you serve; easy for robots but never for us humans!

      There are two particular things you might also want to ponder: technological advances, particularly in the medical field, may well cause people to think they are ‘coping very well’, when in fact they are masking an underlying problem. An obvious example is the necessity for use of antibiotics in response to various aspects of ‘sexual freedom’.

      Secondly, the psychological well-being of children has to be of paramount concern if a civilised society is to continue to flourish. Children need coherent family structure and long-term certainty, along with innocence, if they are to become emotionally secure adults. There is every sign that our children are not coping perfectly well, and the ‘Equal Marriage’ legislation (for example) which institutes fatherless or motherless children is a case where the best interests of children are being sacrificed in the process of ‘acceptance’ of a new practice.

    • James – quite the reverse is true. As soon as secularism and the sexual revolution came in, everything connected with them that I can think of went up by at least 400% in a fairly short space of time. Abortion, divorce, illegitimacy, cohabitation and/or alternative households, u16 intercourse, media swearing and indecency, pornography, degrees of promiscuity, not to mention drug use and so on. Which of these has good effects upon people, and which of these fails to have bad effects? U16 intercourse is heavily correlated with large numbers of sexual partners and an inability to settle down into a stable relationship i.e. a marriage which is the only *typically* stable *type* of sexual relationship that exists. Divorce is on average more stressful than anything whatever apart from bereavement and occasionally house-moves. Wallenstein shows (as though anyone doubted it) how horrible it is for children. Abortion kills a human and scarcely fails to harm at least one or two other humans. Promiscuity and depression links. Pornography being a leading factor in break-up of relationships and inability to enjoy real-life intimacy.

      We could go on, but you cannot compare two things or options that are not presently side-by-side, because it is difficult to see them both simultaneously. All we see is the present day, which seems normal to us obviously because we are always surrounded by it.

      To be a liberal is an ideological position. There are thousands of issues – how can the correct answer to *all* of these be a ‘liberal’ one, or a ‘conservative’ one or whatever? Isn’t it clearly better to be an evidence person?

      • These things are so obvious to us, Christopher (and Don) that it still staggers me that liberals/progressives can be so blinkered and think that there have been no negative consequences to society’s setting aside of God’s standards. The problem is that people who live in squalid conditions become accustomed to them and cannot see that there is anything wrong or that there is a better way.

        In my experience liberals use some combination of three arguments if these things are pointed out to them. The first is inevitability: they argue that it is impossible to expect anyone to resist their sexual urges, and that any attempt to do so is doomed to fail and just makes them do things in secret and stigmatises them when they are discovered.

        The second is linked: they argue that ’twas ever thus, and that any apparent difference now is just a result of greater awareness, openness and honesty about what was happening all along and behind closed doors.

        The third bolsters the inevitability with a normative claim: they contend that more harm than good was done by the attempt to maintain standards – bad marriages held together by social and legal restrictions on divorce, emotional harm from being stigmatised or suppressing one’s sexual urges, back street abortions etc..

        All of these arguments are spurious and can be answered convincingly by defenders of good morals and decency in sexual relationships. But they are, I have found, the way that liberals tend to maintain their position in the face of what is surely overwhelming evidence of the harm caused by our society’s permissive sexual ideology.

        • When you say there is overwhelming evidence, I think you will find that not a single one of the long list of harmful things I listed failed to rise 400%+ within a few years of the start of the sexual revolution.

          This makes secularisation – to the large extent to which it overlaps with the sexual revolution (but of course other parts of it like ignorance of Christianity, depriving children of the rich Christian heritage, and rising drug-use, are also bad) not only harmful and wrong, but harmful and wrong to an unparalleled extent, unless anyone else can name something else that makes so many different harmful things rise so steeply so quickly. But it is worse than that. It actually claimed superiority over the alternative worldview and lifestyle that was ”400% better” (to speak coloquially) in all these respects.

          I have never been able to understand why anyone could be so duped as to let this pass or fail to stand firmly against it, let alone large numbers of people, let alone apparently good people.

  13. I accept there are problems involved in a more sexually permissive culture- of course. However, as a liberal, I’m afraid I think rights and freedoms are important. I think it’s palpable nonsense to suggest that the sexual revolution has been bad for women overall, notwithstanding the difficulties which liberalisation brings. It completely changed the power structures in society. We are now facing the problems we jolly well ought to be facing as a more equal, civilised society- (STIs and so forth, though I disagree about abortion) and I think we should face them rather than using them as an excuse to go back to the controlling dark ages.
    And I agree that one should be evidence-led. But this isn’t in conflict with being a liberal or a conservative. How I interpret the evidence to make moral decisions will be affected by the prominence I give to individual rights, conscience, the importance of free rather than coerced flourishing and so on… What ‘evidence’ could determine my ideological position on these matters?

    • You’re wrong that sexual freedom is better for women overall, and certainly it is not better for children (though I note that you deny the humanity of human life which is currently on the wrong side of the uterus wall). Sexual freedom and the family breakdown it engenders creates havoc for women emotionally and practically. It is certainly not a more decent condition of life! There are many reasons why 1 in 5 women currently report a mental health problem, but this is most certainly one of them.

      The truth is you’re ideologically committed to sexual permissiveness and so you’re impervious to evidence, as you yourself admit.

      And if we take liberalism to start with Locke then it existed for nearly 300 years before anyone thought it was sensible to add sexual licence to its doctrines.

    • One shouldn’t have an ideological position at all, only a position that is evidence-led. One’s so-called position and the evidence should be one and the same.

      This leads us to the question of rights. There cannot be evidence for rights because rights are not real entities but legal/conventional ideas. So in the reality stakes (and of all stakes, those are the most all-embracing) they will often have to defer to things which actually are real. Wrongly, this does not always happen. In the privileged west one regularly comes across people who seem to think that invented and imposed rights, however good and right they often are, are somehow more real than the actual tangible and verifiable biological life of a baby, for example.

      That is not to say that rights should not be embraced at a purely legal level. They should and must be. But because they are not real, it will always remain impossible for people to agree on what they are. Why can’t people just admit that?

      People also tie themselves in knots by not recognising the most basic right of all ON WHICH THE OTHERS ALL DEPEND, the right to life. Where they don’t recognise this right they don’t allow any rights at all, or only for the privileged ones like themselves who were fortunate enough to be born.

      If you prioritise rights you have moved beyond things that are measurable, verifiable or even real, into ideology which is likely to be self-serving. You can’t prioritise unreal things over real: that is a basic undeniable principle.

      You begin ‘as a liberal’, but of course any position worth anything is a conclusion not a presupposition or starting-point. Any conclusion will also be at the *end* of searching (to date), which means it will be a great deal more nuanced than ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ etc..

      It does not matter what things are good ‘for women’ or ‘for men’, but that things should be better for people in general. Are you in danger of elevating one gender above the other? Men who can have their cake and eat it and rarely commit are good for women? Virtuous five-star women being regularly left on the shelf is good for women (90% of whom want children and the vast majority of whom -and particularly the virtuous ones- aspire to marriage)? The kind of damage to conscience that could kill one’s own child is good for women? Broken families are good for women? have-it-all lifestyle is good for women? Being allowed to do the bad things that men do is good for women? Being less happy (see the recently flagged-up 1957 stats, General Household Survey, I think, re the peak-happiness year) is good for women? Aren’t we supposed to want people to be happy, just exhausted, even in an era of labour-saving devices? Living in a world where feminine virtues are less valued and it’s all about more selfish things like empowerment (when what is good for both genders is *giving*) – is that good for women? Working away from your children and having another woman nanny them instead does not lessen the number of women in childcare (and why is it a good thing to lessen it anyway?), it just moves from the obvious and simple option to an over-complicated one.

      • Christopher – rights are real things. They’re as real as the dignity we have on account of the image we bear. The moral law is a real thing. Your ontology is too reductionist if it can’t recognise this. You start to sound like a logical positivist, denying that morality is real because you can’t measure it!

        • Will, they are not real in the same way that hydrogen has to occupy place 1 and no other in the periodic table.

          One can’t consistently say that rights (as opposed to dignity – and even dignity is an inevitable deduction rather than a prime or independent reality) are real and deny that it is possible to disagree about list of which particular rights exist and apply. Consequently to say that rights are real is to say that there is only one possible list of rights (of which things are on the list and which things are not), and that this is not to *any* extent a matter of opinion. It is the fact that rights are not precisely a reality that makes such partial disagreement inevitable.

          What if someone says ‘humans being in the image of God being written in a text does not make it a reality’? It is not fair to say that everyone has to accept a text or else. The reason texts are honoured is because they were hand-picked for being true to the pre-existing realities.

          The moral law is real – yes. Rights are a direct consequence of it – yes. But that does not enable us to enunciate the moral law, or the correct list of rights, completely or perfectly. The edges will be fuzzy, and that in itself proves that the reality they bear is not a reality of the same order (though it is of the same importance) as that borne by more measurable, tangible things.

          • I think you’re mixing up what is real and what we can know about what is real – ontology and epistemology. Things can be real without certainty or clarity about them being available to human beings. The fact that our knowledge of the structure of hydrogen is clearer than our knowledge of morals and rights tells us nothing at all about how real morals and rights are; it tells us only that our capacity to apprehend them is weaker.

            Morality and rights are as real as the divine image we bear and the dignity that bestows on us. The moral law is hardwired into the design of the human being; it is ‘written on our hearts’. The fact that not all people see it the same way, and that some people are barely rational at all, doesn’t change that, because it is about how we are meant to be, in God’s design, not how we necessarily always are.

            Let me try to put it another way. Human beings have four limbs: two arms and two legs. But some people are born without these appendages, or with malformed ones. Does that mean they are not fully human? Of course not. But does that change the definition of the human being as being a creature with four limbs? Of course not. It just means the definition of the human being is not always perfectly attained by every individual; it has an ideal aspect. This ideal aspect of reality is no less real than the material aspect; if it was there would be no such thing as a human being, let alone a good human being. The key is to realise that God’s design for the universe extends beyond protons and elementary particles to patterns for all aspects of it, including (especially) human beings. These higher order patterns are no less real than the elementary ones – even if they are less clear to us in their details, and less frequently perfectly achieved.

          • Great! Your holism and multi-dimensionalism are clse to my heart.

            Of course Owen Barfield ended up, rightly, convincing CS Lewis that all sorts of things cannot be denied the ‘right'(!) to be called ‘real’. But as soon as we say that rights are real without further qualification, we are at the mercy of those who want to ascribe greater authority to things which have become legal rights with or without justification. There is no authority in being passed into law – it just means that more people walked into one lobby than into the other, for whatever motive, and whether clued-up or not.

            It is not at all an easy question what things are ‘rights’ – and more importantly it is not even an answerable question. That undeniable fact tells us the degree to which rights are and are not real.

          • I share your worry about the way rights talk can be and is abused in our own day. But I can’t agree that ‘what things are ‘rights’…is not even an answerable question’. If it isn’t answerable (in the sense that it cannot be answered because its truth conditions do not exist, rather than because of a limitation in our capacity to perceive whether those truth conditions hold) then rights do not exist and are not real, and human beings have no inherent rights. But since inherent rights are just one aspect of the moral law (the other being duties) that would imply the moral law does not exist and is not real. But that is not the case: human beings (and their lives and the honourable features of their lives) are entitled to respect on account of the inherent dignity they possess due to the divine image they bear.

            I agree that it is not easy satisfactorily to identify a comprehensive list of rights, and that this exercise in recent years has led into some grave moral errors. But I can’t agree that that implies the non-existence or non-reality of rights in general. And if, as on your account, law cannot make things true, then any genuine rights recognised in law must be inherent natural rights which preexisted the law.

  14. “The boundaries God has put in place are, rightly understood, there for our flourishing and well-being, and in particular serve to protect the weak from exploitation by the strong.”

    Ian, if those boundaries include a ban on all sexually intimate relationships (emphasis on relationships) outside heterosexual marriage, it’s demonstrably untrue: it causes gay people misery and self-loathing; and it turns them into an oppressed minority, bullied into conformity by society and its authorities.

    This is why, whatever the bishops say, LGBT Anglicans and their allies will continue to fight for equality, and why, given the inherent justice of the cause (which exists independently of its popularity: until very recently, gay rights were a despised position), they’ll ultimately triumph.

    And despite all that’s gone before, there should be magnanimity in victory, with the consciences of those who take a traditional position recognized, and their positions safeguarded. Tempting as it may be, what’s been done shouldn’t be returned in kind.

    • James,

      A gracious response on your part, but, there must be some comfort in the bishops pretty much spelling out (and MTH understanding) the kind of change which would pave the way for churches to be able to conduct services which affirm LGBT relationships.

      The Church celebration of the latter will be provisionally subsumed into guidance and resources for holding covenanted relationship ceremonies, after a bit of fancy theological footwork.

      No, it’s not church marriage, but the adoption of a fresh ‘tone’ would involve Tippex-ing out the bit about sex outside of marriage falling short of God’s purposes.

      And inserting something like ‘sex is a wonderful gift from God which finds its optimal expression through marriage’.

      That would provide a very Anglican compromise.


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