I know Andrew Davison, and had enjoyed theological conversation with him in the past. I was planning to post a review of his short book (which was sent to all members of General Synod prior to the session which included Shared Conversations) next week. But I was sent this review by Peter Sanlon, which I think is fair and interesting, and post it here with permission.
This aim of this book can be given in the authors’ own words: ‘This short book explains why we think it’s good for Christians to embrace their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, and to celebrate their relationships … We think that the Church should be willing—delighted even—to hallow and strengthen such commitments.’ (75) The authors believe such a course is virtuous: ‘We are convinced that gay and lesbian relationships can be very good for people, and that they can be all about people living in the ways Christian theology has long marked out as excellent (or ‘virtuous’).’ (12) So questions are posed in a way that presupposes the Church must embrace same sex relationships:
What would happen if the question posed was not, ‘same-sex relationships: right or wrong?’—which is a limiting, brittle question—but rather something like ‘What is the significance and purpose of sexuality and marriage in Christianity? What does sexuality and marriage look like in the way of Jesus Christ?, with consideration of same-sex relationships as part of that?’ (56)
The context of this book’s origin is noted as being the Shared Conversations in the Church of England. However it is observed that those are but ‘one example of the listening process … we hope that it will be of use further afield too. (2)
This review will firstly summarise and comment on the argument of the book, as structured by the six chapters. It is helpful that each chapter has a thesis and the work as a whole does therefore make a coherent argument. In a follow-up to this review, I will offer some reflections on both the rhetorical and theological significance of the book insofar as it pertains to its original context—the Church of England. It will be seen that the book explicitly aims to achieve something far more audacious than even the celebration of same sex relationships.
There are six chapters to the book. The chapter titles are followed by a summary of the chapter thesis, along with critique.
1 Being Followers of Jesus: A crucial aspect of being a disciple of Jesus involves accepting the world as it is. In the words of the authors we must focus on ‘attending to what things are really like’. (8) We must do the ‘hard work of paying attention to how things really are.’ (10) This attention to the way things really are is given theological justification on the basis of Augustine’s vision for science (10) and it is argued for on the grounds that God’s Word in the Bible cannot contradict his Word in creation: ‘What God has spoken in the Bible relates to the world that God also spoke into being. No divine word of moral instruction is at cross-purposes with God’s creative Word.’ (9) As Christians work to understand the world as it truly is, they are warned that the Church has in the past been egregiously wrong on matters such as Just War (4) and slavery (5). Those wrongs are presented as equivalent to thinking that same sex relationships are sinful. While others are to doubt their understandings the authors have reached a place of assured certainty as regards the way Anglicans should view homosexuality.
The plain fact of the matter is that it is possible to take a very positive view of love between gay people and believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Similarly, you can be glad when a lesbian friend finds someone to commit herself to—giving her whole self, including her body—and believe exactly what the Thirty-Nine Articles say about God. (6)
2 Being Human: This chapter is about science and argues that the scientific ‘evidence is conclusive’ (13) on three matters. Firstly there is diversity and complexity in sexual desires. Secondly, homosexual desires are not chosen by the individual. Thirdly, same sex desires are not easily changed. None of these claims are technically incorrect in and of themselves, however their abstraction, presentation and rhetorical deployment means the claims of the chapter are in the end misleading to the uninformed reader.
The chapter has an embarrassingly simplistic view of ‘science’. The following terms are used as if their meaning is straightforward and obvious: biology, psychology and science. So we read of ‘psychological facts’ (20), ‘psychiatric conditions’ (17), conclusive evidence (13) biological cause (24) and more varied matters such as population studies (25). The nature of evidence and conclusion in these fields is necessarily complex and certainly not the same in each one or simple. Yet the authors claim their conclusions are conclusive and based on ‘clear evidence’ (24). They inform us that ‘scientists agree almost universally that there is a biological basis to same-sex attraction.’ (29) When any of the claims made in this chapter are approached by a moderately informed reader they fall apart. So for example the informed reader will be aware that claiming biological evidence for human sexual desire is ‘clear’ when the basis for that is same sex activity in animals is dubious on many levels (24). The claims that it is difficult and rare for a person to change their sexual disposition is technically true on the basis of certain studies—but that discounts the more expensive and significant longitudinal population studies that show considerable fluidity in sexual desire.
On numerous points matters of major relevant significance are ignored. So for example the removal of homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association’s ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ was a pivotal step for the homosexualist movement. This is described by our authors as if it were merely a purely rational decision taken on the basis of ‘the psychological facts’ (20) and in light of ‘psychological reality.’ (21) Failure to include information about what actually occurred in the APA is disingenuous. In reality the organisation was subject to exactly the same kind of manipulation, bullying and pressure that homosexual activists now use against any institution that refuses to celebrate their lifestyles. The details of this are given at length by Dr. Ronald Bayer (a pro-homosexual psychiatrist) in the book, Homosexuality and American Psychiatry: The Politics of Diagnoses (1981). That historical narrative is only one of many areas that are so partially covered in this book as to present a misleading whitewash of history. Readers are not told that the studies of Alfred Kinsey of which much is made (23) were not done upon representative samples of the population, but rather on convicts and horrifically on babies and children who were sexually abused in the process. To present conclusions from Kinsey without mentioning this is grotesque. The disgraceful matters involved are widely documented, summarised in reports such as this: http://icolf.org/fact/ecosoc-the-kinsey-institute-and-child-sexual-abuse/
The second major problem with the chapter is the assumption throughout that the ‘certain’ conclusions summarised within it are actually clear. Clarity of the simplistic science presented in this chapter is central to the thesis. So for example, ‘That a proportion of the population is attracted more or less exclusively to people of the same sex, and that this attraction cannot be changed, is clear.’ (25) The import of this claim of clarity for the overall argument is seen in light of the subsequent chapter.
3 Being Biblical: This chapter ostensibly argues that the Bible does not teach clearly on the topic of homosexuality as to whether it is good or sinful. If we wish to be Biblical we must accept the Bible is not clear:
What we should be willing to contest is the sense that there is only one, settled, and unquestionable human understanding of precisely what the Bible says on a given issue, including this one. (38)
The argument given most space to demonstrate the Bible’s lack of clarity on homosexuality, is that some in the past thought the Bible justified slavery, and that view turned out to be wrong (39-42). If the Church can be wrong on that point, then the Bible must be unclear and we could be wrong if we think the Bible teaches homosexuality is sinful. Incidentally the slavery argument occurs so frequently throughout this book that at one point it is even acknowledged that ‘Slavery [has been] mentioned in this book a number of times.’ (71)
Further arguments for lack of clarity on this topic include the idea that many texts traditionally thought relevant are not (43). The Old Testament Laws are dismissed since we do not keep all the food laws (45). Sodom is about gang rape, not monogamous same-sex relationships (43). Paul’s teaching is set aside due to the assumptions of his day which colour his words (51). The condemnations in Rom. 1 are contextualised within the wider narrative of Romans to suggest that they mean the opposite of what they seem to say due to the ‘overarching argument of Romans that God, in God’s goodness, acted against nature, to include, unexpectedly, those who had been outside the covenant.’ (52) Incidentally this is an excellent example of handling the Bible in a manner which contradicts Article 20 which tells us the Church may not ‘so expound one place of scripture that it be repugnant to another.’ The lack of academic credibility in the chapter is evident in the fact that not one of the arguments has not been more than adequately handled in standard academic treatments such as those by Robert Gagnon. No alternative views or counter-arguments are mentioned or noted at any point.
So on the face of it this chapter states that its thesis is that (in contrast to the plain simple science of the previous chapter), the Bible is unclear on whether homosexuality is sinful. When the actual argument is traced through it can be seen that the thesis is something more bold. The authors do not think the Bible is unclear on homosexuality—they think it is clear that it can be blessed by God. Those conservatives who think otherwise are caricatured as guilty of what C. S. Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery.’ (55) They hold a ‘one-dimensional’ (55) view. A theological basis for the claim that scripture means the opposite of what it appears to say is that we must interpret scripture in light of God’s voice elsewhere:
Much less can we imagine that the God who inspired these texts, and inspires the church today, can be contained in our limited understanding of Scripture. We must be open to the continuing movement of God, within the Church and out, to bring us into truth. (42)
So the true thesis of the chapter is that God is clear in communicating to us about the potential goodness of homosexual relationships. It is recommended that we should stop asking whether same sex attraction is right or wrong, and instead ask ‘What does sexuality and marriage look like in the way of Christ?, with consideration of same-sex relationships as part of that?’ (56) In other words the Church should stop asking if homosexual relationships are wrong and just accept that they are to be celebrated. Academic and spiritual engagement is shut down under the guise of ongoing academic and spiritual engagement.
There are, then, two arguments within this chapter. On the one hand scripture is unclear whether homosexual relationships are sinful. On the other hand it is clear that they can be virtuous. This rhetorical strategy shall be commented on further below.
4 Being Part of the Story: This chapter presents a vision of how believers can embrace homosexual relationships as being in line with a new definition of the Church’s tradition.
We are told that ‘The Christian tradition is dynamic, not static.’ (57) It is argued that ‘We can understand Christian tradition, in part, as the readings of Scripture that each generation makes afresh.’ (58) Examples are given of areas where the church has changed its mind. These are thought to support the dynamic view of tradition, and include contraception, clerical celibacy, slavery (again!) and female roles. Setting aside the complexities of the examples given, it must be said that the understanding of tradition given by the authors is not one that any Church Father, Medieval Schoolman, Reformer or Anglican divine would have recognised. Given the idea of tradition being something that is handed on through generations, this is problematic. From earliest days the tradition of the church was to do with a central apostolic message comprised of loci that were recognised as the Rule of Faith. The emphasis was not on it changing as one generation died and another arose – quite the opposite. As Irenaeus wrote,
The Church having received this preaching, this Faith, though scattered through the whole world yet carefully preserves it. She believes these points of doctrine as if she had but one soul and one heart. She proclaims them, teaches them and hands them down with perfect harmony.
The tradition of the church concerns a message that must be stable if it is to be tradition, and if the church which hands it on is to remain recognisably a church. When it comes to the actual topic of homosexual practice, even though it is not properly speaking a matter of the Rule of Faith, it is still the case that the Church has universally and consistently through time insisted that scripture teaches same sex relationships are sinful. This is demonstrated in some detail in Fortson & Grams. Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition. B&H (2016).
The chapter concludes by asking how a believer can be a part of the ongoing dynamic story that is the Christian tradition. The answer given is that we must discern the ‘revolutionary message of the Bible’ and distinguish that from what ‘simply reflects the common assumptions of the time.’ (72) This would, one might imagine, be a massively complex and convoluted task—perhaps comparable to relating Q to the priority of the Gospels. Not at all. The authors are able to explain breezily how ‘we think the principle applies to discernments about same-sex relationships.’ (73) The timeless unchanging revolutionary core of scripture (i.e. what the Church has traditionally called Tradition) is that ‘we are most truly ourselves when we live for others.’ (73) As regards the topic in hand: ‘We learn that this living-for-others underlies the truest meaning of sexuality.’ (73) And so it is argued that a same sex relationship which is engaged in for the good of the other, is in the final analysis an embodiment of scripture’s revolutionary call to live for the other. Anything that the Bible appears to say which contradicts this can be dismissed as merely being the assumptions of people in the past, who were out of step with both the revolutionary message within the Bible and what God is currently saying through the culture and church. The inconsistencies and difficulties with this vision of how God speaks are legion.
5 Being in Love: This three page chapter argues that ‘love is love’ (76) wherever it is found and in whatever form it is experienced. Since it is the role of the church to welcome love wherever it is found,
This book explains why we think it’s good for Christians to embrace their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, and to celebrate their relationships … We think that the Church should be willing—delighted even—to hallow and strengthen such commitments. (75)
The argument that love must be celebrated wherever it is found is stated with a striking boldness and naiveté.
We can rejoice in love between two women, or two men, simply because it’s love. We can take this love—these relationships, these people—into the heart of the Church because that’s what we do with love, with relationships, and with people. (77)
The difficulty with this completely unqualified vision of welcoming love is that it fails to recognise that some loves are sinful because they are love for sinful things. The love of somebody married to another is but one obvious instance. The possibility and location of sin is something our authors struggle to articulate. While in Chapter 5 there is no room for sin in loving desires, in Chapter 1 sin is granted a potential but undefined role. So we are told, ‘Sex isn’t sinful in itself, nor is desire sinful in itself, but we can sin in this part of life.’ (6) The obvious way to bring clarity to this is to say that desires can themselves be tainted by sin – most obviously if they are desires for something that is straightforwardly forbidden by scripture, or (more subtle) if we are seeking something that is in itself good (e.g. sense of belonging) too much or in a place God says we ought not look for it. Furthermore the Christian doctrine of sin is not restricted to consideration of that which is fully conscious, chosen or volitional.
Insofar as the specific example of love between two same sex attracted persons is concerned—on what basis would the authors say that such love ought not be extended to include a third or fourth willing partner? Most fundamentally this vision of unqualified acceptance fails to account for the fundamental nature of Christ’s welcome. The point is that all are welcome into the Church but all are commanded and empowered by the Spirit to be changed by his ongoing welcome. Whatever the world assumes is love and sees as an unqualified good is not necessarily so viewed by Jesus. One of the most loving gifts Jesus gives us is the daily work of repentance and mortification of sin.
6 Being Missional: The final chapter argues that the Church is viewed as a ‘toxic brand’ (82) due to its refusal to celebrate same sex relationships. Changing this is essential to reverse decline in the Church of England (79). Needless to say the fact that every denomination that has embraced same sex marriage has seen catastrophic and in most cases near terminal decline is not mentioned. No explanation as to why the outcome for the Church of England would be different is given, since the arguments used to justify the innovation elsewhere are identical.
It is claimed that a vision of mission which embraces the culture’s acceptance of homosexuality will be Biblical since it follows the Pauline example.
Paul’s mission did not impose alien values from afar. He became all things to all people … This is how Christianity spread in all cultures, taking everyone seriously as the people they were. (83)
It is difficult to see how this is a faithful summary of the message which demanded that all hearers repent and which was accused by observers as having ‘turned the world upside down.’
The chapter concludes by focusing not on the mission to the watching world, but on the real mission which this book is concerned with—that of forcing the Church of England to submit to the homosexualist agenda. More must be said about the rhetoric and theology which underlies this mission to the Church, but for now we can note that Chapter 6 quotes a letter written to a Bishop by a lay person. The letter complains about a vicar who has sought to uphold the traditional view of homosexuality. What is astonishing about the letter is that it is reproduced in an academic book without any qualification or clarification, and within it associates a conservative Anglican group with the desire to execute homosexuals. I shall quote the relevant paragraph in full (The three usages of ‘…’ are original to the book):
‘I am 48, happily married, one son, but do have gay friends and family and I don’t view them as sinners who need to be put to death … Our vicar … posted on the church website that ‘we’ were proud to support Anglican Mainstream … Obviously this was not the view of the PCC.’ (90-91)
It is not possible to tell from the excerpt published whether the original letter accused Anglican Mainstream of supporting the execution of gays, but as reproduced in the book that is the implication. Furthermore, the letter concludes by accusing the vicar’s sermon on Romans 1 of extreme prejudice and possible criminality:
How can a simple layman like me prevent this type of extreme prejudice (and possibly criminal offence) from happening again. Should one just walk away and find a Church, or vicar, who is, quite frankly, more Christian? (92)
The way this letter is reproduced without any critique or clarifications is a long way from responsible journalism, never mind academic writing! The highly emotive and irresponsible conclusion to this book demonstrates that the authors’ mission is to change the Church of England—and the methods utilised will be not balanced reasoned academic argument, but a form of deceptive and manipulative rhetoric that ought to have no place in the Church. I shall say more about the rhetorical strategy and theological significance of this book as a whole in the follow up.
What in summary is the argument of this book for the Church celebrating same sex relationships? Taken at face value it is as follows:
Disciples of Jesus must learn what the world is really like. We do so from a simplistic caricature of science. That which in the Bible appears to condemn homosexuality is unclear or not really about homosexuality or reflects prejudices of people in a primitive culture. There is a clear revolutionary message of welcome to the outsider in the Bible which means the Church should celebrate same sex relationships. The tradition the Church has which offers an ethical vision that does not accept homosexuality is not really the Church’s tradition. The tradition is whatever each generation finds when it brings its experiences into conversation with scripture. God continues to speak through the culture and Church as it engages in this process. Love is love and is good without any qualification. We believe that same sex love is therefore something the Church is obliged to celebrate as the Church should celebrate love. Celebrating same sex relationships is essential if the Church is to engage in a mission that faithfully reflects that seen in the Bible, and that is effective in today’s culture.
Rev’d Dr Peter Sanlon is Vicar of St. Mark’s Church, Tunbridge Wells. He read theology at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. He has published books such as Simply God (IVP) and Augustine’s Theology of Preaching (Fortress). He enjoys the creative chaos of normal parish life.
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