Steven Croft, the bishop of Oxford, yesterday published a booklet Together in Love and Faith, in which he sets out his thinking about same-sex relationships, and proposes that the Church of England should provide public services for the blessing of same-sex civil partnerships and marriages, but allow a conscience clause for those who dissent, and eventually conduct same-sex marriages. This is a view he shares with the three suffragans in the diocese, which is telling; despite most of the large churches being evangelical, Steven did not appoint any bishops who agree with the Church’s current doctrine. Steven realises that this will be divisive, and so proposes a structure of differentiation—something that he says the other three do not agree with.
I have known and worked with Steven on and off over the years, on Synod and Archbishops’ Council, and particularly in relation to ordination training. Up until now, he has only offered hints about his thinking, and his change of direction on this issue, and so it is helpful to now know where his thinking has got to. This short piece cannot offer a full critique of his booklet, but there is a similar length commentary by Vaughan Roberts, who leads St Ebbe’s, one of the largest churches in the diocese, available for free download from the Latimer Trust. I simply offer here some observations about some of the language used here and some of the arguments made.
Before considering the content of the booklet, it is worth asking why Steven has decided to publish this at this moment. The College of Bishops (consisting of all diocesan and suffragan bishops in the C of E) have just met for three days, will be meeting again in December, and there will then be a meeting of the House of Bishops (diocesans plus elected suffragans, who form one of the three houses in General Synod), in order to bring a proposal for a way forward to General Synod in February. John Inge, the bishop of Worcester, has just published a letter supporting Steven, so this has clearly been coordinated. But it seems very odd for two bishops to appear to be driving a coach and horses through an existing process. More than that, I don’t think there is any doubt that Steven’s proposal, were it tabled, would not reach the 2/3 majority required by Synod, so it has no real hope of being delivered. What, then, is Steven hoping to achieve?
We start with the booklet’s title: ‘Together’ in Love and Faith. This is rather odd, since Steven is completely clear that what he proposing will not command consensus, and in fact will bring division into his diocese, to the point at which he notes many bishops will be uncomfortable with his proposals. In fact, it will bring division not just to his diocese, and not just to the C of E, but to the Anglican Communion. I do find it remarkable that he is writing this hot on the heels of the Lambeth Conference, where it was abundantly clear that the move of some Western provinces to do what Steven is proposing has divided the Communion, perhaps terminally. When this was first mooted by The Episcopal Church in the US, it was believed by the majority to be a ‘tear in the fabric of the Communion’. And, as Darrin Snyder Belousek highlights, in his excellent Marriage, Scripture, and the Church:
The creational-covenant pattern of marriage…is a consensus doctrine of the church catholic. Until the present generation, all Christians everywhere have believed, and every branch of the Christian tradition has taught, that marriage is man-woman monogamy’ (p 52).
So Steven is proposing division within the Church, division from the Communion, and division from the beliefs of the church catholic. It doesn’t look very ‘together’ to me.
As he begins to explain the background to the booklet, he makes some strange assertions about where we have reached. First, in relation to LLF:
Most of the comments in Listening with love and faith that were on the theme of same-sex relationships and marriage expressed the hope that the LLF course might contribute to the acceptance of same-sex marriage or blessings of same-sex partnerships (page 76). (p 1).
Church Society issued a critique of the ‘Listening’ document for exactly this reason—that it presented views as if they were representative when there had been no proper sampling process. Eeva John, who has been convening the LLF project, replied to say that the book was not intended to be representative, and just offered a sample of views. So Steven is here using this book to draw a conclusion expressly ruled out by those leading the process.
He then suggests that his is something of a lone voice:
There are not many examples of bishops who advocate for change having set up either their proposals or the rationale for them. This can give me an inaccurate impression of a House of Bishops that is uniformly conservative. (p 2)
If that is so, then Steven must be the only person in the C of E who thinks this. Ten years ago, Nick Holtam, then bishop of Salisbury, ‘came out’ in favour of same-sex marriage and ‘split the Church‘. There has been a steady stream of comments on social media, of attendance at Pride events, of rainbow flags flying from cathedrals with episcopal approval. It is true that no-one has set out a rationale—but that is because the House of Bishops were supposed to be thinking about this together, not each one ploughing his or her own furrow!
Steven concludes his introduction by saying that his contribution ‘is offered hesitantly’ and that ‘I may be wrong’. I suppose this could sound like appropriate modesty—yet he knows his clergy, and he knows this is going to split his diocese. At his ordination, he was called to ‘share with their fellow presbyters the oversight of the Church, speaking in the name of God and expounding the gospel of salvation’, and he made vows to ‘teach the doctrine of Christ as the Church of England has received it, … refute error, and … hand on entire the faith that is entrusted to you’ as well as ‘promote peace and reconciliation in the Church’. So why create division and disunity on something on which he is not yet confident, but might still be wrong? Would it not be better to keep his own counsel until he is sure?
In Part 1, Steven recounts his own journey. He notes that when he came to Sheffield, he found ‘the diocese has a broad spread of views among its clergy’. This is a situation common across the C of E, but it is worth reflecting on what it means. What he is telling us is that there were many clergy who did not actually believe the doctrine of the Church of England on this matter, their own ordination vows notwithstanding. Has this been created by a failure in ordination training, or a failure in selection and discipline within the Church? It has certainly been exacerbated by a complete vacuum of episcopal teaching over a very long time. It does not appear that Steven’s response to this situation was to help his clergy understand, own, and teach the Church’s doctrine on marriage.
He then comments:
But I was already finding (I would find increasingly) tension between my commitment to this interpretation of scripture [‘orthodox and generous’] and my vocation as a priest and pastor and evangelist. (p 5)
Steven repeatedly calls himself ‘evangelical’, but this is a very long way from an evangelical understanding of Scripture. What he appears to be saying is that, on the question of marriage, sexuality, and sexual ethics, scripture is a hindrance to him and not a help. It is inhibiting his ministry in every area. This isn’t just at variance from an evangelical approach; it appears to be at odds with what the C of E states about scripture. Again, in the ordinal we find:
Will you be diligent in prayer, in reading Holy Scripture, and in all studies that will deepen your faith and fit you to bear witness to the truth of the gospel?
All our liturgy and formularies appear to assume that Scripture is an aid, not a hindrance—in fact, the greatest resource we have in shaping us and equipping us for ministry. Steven appears, in this area at least, to think differently.
Now you don’t have to read Scripture for long to realise that it is hardly an off-the-shelf, pastoral handbook. There are some very difficult things to read there, and since the context of Scripture is at some historical and cultural distance from us, it needs careful reading and interpretation—something this blog is dedicated to. Yet, as Queen Elizabeth II was told at her coronation as she was handed a Bible: ‘Here is Wisdom; this is the royal Law; these are the lively Oracles of God.’ If Scripture is not our foundation, formation, and guide for what it means to minister, then what is?
Steven notes that the 2017 report by the bishops, GS2055, was not ‘taken note of’ by Synod. He wishes now he had spoken out in dissent, though I am not sure what that would have achieved. What he does not comment on is the reason why this report was not received: some thought it too ‘conservative’, and others too ‘progressive’, pointing to the lack of an available ‘middle way’ even then. Neither does he recognise that, were it presented today, it would be received by Synod because of the shifts in Synod’s make up. (This variability in itself raises a question about the theological role of synodical government.)
In Part 2, Steven embarks on making the case for change. He starts by stating that ‘as an evangelical, I retain a high view of the authority of Scripture’—yet he has already made it clear that he is finding that Scripture undermines, rather than resources, his work as a ‘priest, pastor, and evangelist.’
He talks about the question of the pain of those who are LGBTQ+, and Vaughan Roberts engages well with that issue in his response. Steven then goes on to say some striking things about the relation between the Church and culture. There is a ‘divergence’ between the Church and society (p 13); this disjunction has grown sharper in recent years; ‘we seek to serve everyone, whatever their beliefs’ (p 14).
After commenting on ‘faithful, stable’ gay relationships, he returns to this theme in chapter 3 ‘Our culture’s moral view of the Church’s present policy.’ Culture sees same-sex attraction as a given, and therefore any limitation of sexual expression in this context is unjust.
We now have a profound dislocation between the Church of England – the establish church, and to serve the whole of our society – and the society we are called to serve… We are seem to inhabit a different moral universe. (p 20)
I confess I find this such strange language, I hardly know where to begin. What does it mean for the Church to ‘serve’ the society in which it is located? Is it to affirm that culture’s moral outlook, and accommodate itself to it? Such a claim completely ignores the historical reality of the church, not least the way that the the early church grew rapidly throughout the Roman Empire in the first three centuries—precisely by offering a radical, shocking alternative that was certainly viewed as immoral by the culture of the time, not least in the area of marriage and sexuality (Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity is very good on this, as is The Patient Ferment of the Early Church by Alan Kreider). Surely the way we serve our communities and culture is the same way that Jesus did: by proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God, with its radically inverted values, and inviting, challenging even, people to ‘repent’, that is, turn away from their current way of living, assumptions, and beliefs, and believe in this good news. I am puzzled that someone who has been so involved in evangelism could miss this.
Secondly, Steven’s language appears to ignore the basic orientation of Scripture, in particular, the New Testament, with its eschatological outlook. This sinful world is facing the judgement of God, yet the future kingdom has broken into the present, and God’s gracious invitation is that we should die (to sin, to our own selfish preoccupations, and to our previous way of seeing the world) and live a new, resurrection life after the pattern of Jesus. This isn’t a marginal idea; it is central to baptism (see Romans 6), the Christian rite of initiation. If we are not ‘living in a different moral universe’ from our surrounding culture, then we are not even at the starting gate. I wonder what on earth Steven thinks Jesus means when he says ‘If the world hates you, know that it has hated me first’ (John 15.18). The Johannine motif of ‘the world’ captures just this tension: on the one hand, God ‘loves the world’ (John 3.16), and we are therefore to be engaged in the world in loving service, but this world that God loves often rejects his invitation and in doing so is opposed to him. We should expect exactly the same response—offering loving service, but often finding ourselves at odds—as Christians always have.
Thirdly, Steven appears to have an odd view of what ‘culture’ believes. It is not the case that ‘culture’ merely thinks gay people should be able to marry; this is just the tip of the sexual revolution iceberg. Our culture is far from monochrome, but some of the major themes are expressive individualism, which includes the idea that we are primarily autonomous individuals, and that what we feel tells us what we should do and have the right to do. Sex is seen primarily as a leisure activity, which we can engage in without any restrictions and ties, as long as there is consent—though, paradoxically, which can also do great harm and so is view warily. Our bodies are containers for the real person, which is found by looking in, and so the body can be manipulated and changed to conform with our feelings about ourselves. I don’t think it is really possible to separate attitudes to gay marriage from these wider themes—and if a radical feminist believes it is high time to push back against this, why won’t a bishop? Does Steven think we should accommodated ourselves to these views? If not, why not, and if so, why not on gay marriage?
Two comments on Twitter this morning highlight the basic problems here.
The Bishop of Oxford's concern: "a radical dislocation between the Church of England and the culture and society we are attempting to serve"
Morning prayer: the faith of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; the lukewarm church in Laodicea; prayer "to reject the world’s deceits".
— Christopher Landau (@talkChristianly) November 4, 2022
I look with interest to seeing the Bishop’s defence of extreme patriarchy in the Middle East, the defence of the caste system in India, and of polygamy in Africa for ensuring that Anglicanism remains consistently and universally against radical cultural dislocation…
— Joshua Penduck (@JoshuaPenduck) November 4, 2022
Steven then goes on to make particular claims about the nature of same-sex sexual partnerships. He compares a gay relationship with his marriage, and sees many similarities (p 17). That is hardly surprising, if friendship, shared interests, and a commitment to journeying together are part of traditional marriage—but what does this tell us ethically? And why does sex need to be part of such a partnership, when such qualities are often present in committed celibate friendships? What he avoids is the things that set his marriage apart: bodily and therefore psychological differences; and the inherent possibility of procreation, leading to (biological) family. Steven does a similar misleading parsing when he talks about the ‘goods of marriage’ in Augustine (p 21). He lifts the goods of marriage completely out of their context, as if they are goods that might apply to any form of relationship, and ignores the context in Augustine and in the C of E Marriage Service of male and female, and sexual union as a reuniting of what God divided in the creation account of Gen 2. Why should we not apply these ‘goods’ to friendships? What does sex have to do with it? And if we ignore the form of ‘male and female’, why pay attention to ‘two’? Could this not apply to sexual groups? None of these questions are even hinted at, let alone answered.
Part of the rationale for the approach here is what Steven thinks culture believes about sexual orientation, which he appears to think we should believe too.
It is clear that we inhabit a broader culture in which attraction to a member of the same sex is believed not to be a matter of choice but genetic. This is the way you are. It is not something that could be changed or mitigated. (p 19)
Steven is here making a number of remarkable claims. The first is that genetics determine our sexuality. You don’t have to pause for many minutes to realise how improbable that claim is; perhaps the colour of my eyes might be genetically determined (setting aside the question of epigenetics) but how could something as complex and relational be fixed by my genes, when babies are not even born knowing there are two sexes, but have to learn this in their early months and years? In fact, research (mostly done by gay campaigners) suggests that genetics contributes around 11% to the determination of sexual orientation (if such a thing can be measured) and various environmental factors (parenting, relational experience, age differences, even social environment) all contribute. And, particularly in women, orientation is far from settled, and can be highly changeable through life. These things are all well established in the literature, so I wonder about Steven’s claim to have ‘read widely’; he appears to have not read much of this.
The second remarkable claim is that because something is not chosen, it must be morally acceptable. In what other area of life do we believe that? I cannot think of any connection with any mainstream system of Christian ethical thinking which would claim any such thing. And which ‘traditional’ Christian thinkers at the moment argue that we choose our orientation? I can think of none.
Steven then claims that the sense of injustice in the belief that marriage is between one man and one woman has caused ‘anger and alienation among a whole generation’. Yet research shows it is older church members, not the younger ones, who mostly agree with him. And even within his own diocese, the largest churches and those with most young people are almost entirely ones who hold to the current doctrine of the Church. In my city, Nottingham, there are many large and growing churches attracting young people; every single one of them holds to the Scriptural, traditional view of marriage. That is not to say that there are no issues there, or that the view of young people in these churches is uniform. But it does show that Steven’s claim here—that we must change to reach young people—is without foundation.
In part 3, Steven looks at the scriptural evidence which might support a change in the Church’s teaching. He suggests a range of principles for interpreting Scripture well, but I don’t think any of these follow either accepted evangelical or even academically respectable approaches, such as looking at context, reading the whole canon together, attending to the detailed content, or noting different kinds of writing which I have set out elsewhere.
His first principle is ‘Christ at the Centre’, but rather than focussing on the actual teaching of Jesus here, he collapses this into ‘the test of love’. That would be helpful, except that we live in a context where people claim that ‘love is love’ when there are many ways this word is used, and a culture which appears to believe that, if you don’t give someone what they want, that is ‘unloving’. So it is not a very helpful test.
Steven’s second principle is ‘The Primacy of Mercy’.
I realise that, of course, Jesus calls everyone to repentance and a change of heart, throughout his ministry. There is a strand in Jesus’ teaching about upholding righteousness and the law – sometimes setting out a much stricter interpretation than the rabbis of the day. But repeatedly in the gospels, judgement and mercy are brought into contrast with one another, through the encounters of Christ with the Pharisees and teachers of the law. In every instance, Christ prefers and privileges mercy, grace and gentleness. (p 28)
This is another point in the booklet where I had to ask myself which gospels Steven is reading. Jesus’ call to repentance isn’t a mere introduction; it sums up his ministry. He spent time with ‘toll collectors and sinners’ but precisely in order to bring them to repentance and change (Luke 5.32). Those who do not follow his teaching will find their lives destroyed like houses in a storm. The way to life is hard and the gate narrow, and few find it. Those who don’t listen to him will be thrown into outer darkness. He does not hold back in his stern judgement of those who disagree with him. And judgement will come on Jerusalem because the people did not recognise in Jesus the coming presence of God himself.
Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, is a parody and a distortion of the Jesus we meet in the gospels—but it appears to be the Jesus that Steven wants to follows.
Even more startling is Steven’s next claim—that Jesus was ‘largely silent on the matters of human sexuality’. Curious then, that in the Sermon on the Mount in Matt 5, he chooses to put questions of sexual propriety as the second and third specific issues he addresses, in between murder and lying as core issues relating to discipleship. Curious too that, when the question of food laws and impurity arise in Mark 7.21, Jesus talks of the ‘evil thoughts’ which come from the heart and defile people, and lists three things related to sexuality amongst the 12, in first, fourth, and eighth position in his list. As John Nolland has shown, sexual ethics mattered to Jesus!
It is true that Jesus did not respond directly to the question of same-sex relations—because no Jew would need to raise that question with him. Rejection of all same-sex sex, in whatever context, was a uniform conviction in first century Judaism, and it was one of the main things (along with Sabbath observance, food law, and circumcision) which marked Jews out from gentiles. He does, though, in response to the question of divorce in Matt 19.3–6, go out of his way not just to focus on marriage, but to focus on God’s creation of humanity as male and female as the basis of marriage—exactly the issue that Paul picks up in Romans 1.
Steven’s cursory reading of Levitical texts on the basis of the fictional conversation in The West Wing is quite bizarre; the claim that ‘everything has changed’ so we pay no attention to Old Testament commands and ethics is breathtaking, and seems to follow the pattern of Marcion rather than Jesus. What is strange is that, every week in Confession in Communion in the C of E, we are reminded of Jesus’ summary of the greatest commandments—one of which comes from Leviticus, right between the two prohibitions on same-sex sex.
His discussion of the Pauline terms in 1 Cor 6.9 and 1 Tim 1.9 follows discredited readings of people like gay NT scholar Dale Martin (who goes on to argue that all forms of sex can be ‘Christian’) and appears to be out of touch with the mainstream consensus. For the avoidance of doubt, I repeat again here the list of scholars, all of whom think ‘traditional’ teaching is wrong, but who are all quite clear that they disagree with Scripture.
It is very possible that Paul knew of views which claimed some people had what we would call a homosexual orientation, though we cannot know for sure and certainly should not read our modern theories back into his world. If he did, it is more likely that, like other Jews, he would have rejected them out of hand….He would have stood more strongly under the influence of Jewish creation tradition which declares human beings male and female, to which may well even be alluding in 1.26-27, and so seen same-sex sexual acts by people (all of whom he deemed heterosexual in our terms) as flouting divine order (William Loader, The New Testament on Sexuality pp 323–4).
Professor Gagnon and I are in substantial agreement that the biblical texts that deal specifically with homosexual practice condemn it unconditionally. However, on the question of what the church might or should make of this we diverge sharply (Dan O Via, Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views p 93).
Where the Bible mentions homosexual behavior at all, it clearly condemns it. I freely grant that. The issue is precisely whether that Biblical judgment is correct (Walter Wink, “Homosexuality and the Bible”).
This is an issue of biblical authority. Despite much well-intentioned theological fancy footwork to the contrary, it is difficult to see the Bible as expressing anything else but disapproval of homosexual activity. (Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490-1700, p 705).
Homosexual activity was a subject on which there was a severe clash between Greco-Roman and Jewish views. Christianity, which accepted many aspects of Greco-Roman culture, in this case accepted the Jewish view so completely that the ways in which most of the people in the Roman Empire regarded homosexuality were obliterated, though now have been recovered by ancient historians…
Diaspora Jews had made sexual immorality and especially homosexual activity a major distinction between themselves and gentiles, and Paul repeated Diaspora Jewish vice lists. I see no reason to focus on homosexual acts as the one point of Paul’s vice lists [in 1 Cor 6.9] that must be maintained today.
As we read the conclusion of the chapter, I should remind readers of Paul’s own view of homosexual activities in Romans 1, where both males and females who have homosexual intercourse are condemned: ‘those who practice such things’ (the long list of vices, but the emphasis is on idolatry and homosexual conduct) ‘deserve to die’ (1.31). This passage does not depend on the term ‘soft’, but is completely in agreement with Philo and other Diaspora Jews. (E P Sanders Paul: The Apostle’s Life, Letters and Thought pp 344, 373).
The task demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says. But what are we to do with what the text says? I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good (Luke Timothy Johnson).
Steven does come clean at one point, when he comments (p 34):
Has our understanding of same-sex desire and attraction changed significantly because of advances in science, social science and culture, such that we would now offer a more nuanced interpretation for gender and same-gender relations? In my view that case can be made and, in the light of that increased and better understanding, justifies a careful revision to the doctrine and teaching of the Church.
In other words, no, Scripture does not tell us the truth about sexuality, and that presumably includes the teaching of Jesus. We need to look elsewhere, he believes.
He signs off the discussion of scripture with comparison between the debate about marriage, and previous debates about the ministry of women and slavery—but does so without actually attending to the very different nature of the issues, the biblical texts involved, and the differing things those texts say. In particular, he avoids the obvious reality that, on these other issues, the texts appear at first to pull in different directions. By contrast, on the question of male-female marriage and the implications for same-sex relations, the texts are univocal.
He claims that the trajectory of justice requires that we reject the teaching of Scripture on marriage—but fails then to notice that neither Jesus nor Paul, nor any of the OT prophets, with their insistent focus on justice, believed that the one followed from the other. He appeals to the Council of Acts 15, but ignores the fact that the Council’s decision was made in the light of scripture, not in defiance of it, and that admission of the gentiles fulfilled OT prophecy of God’s eschatological goal. Slightly inconveniently, the Council also ask that one of the key OT commands they adhere to is that of avoiding sexual immorality, which would of course have included same-sex sex.
Steven claims that the creation account in Gen 1.27, ‘God made humanity in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them’ puts our common humanity above our sexed nature, and allows for fluidity—against I think every single commentator who has written about this text, and in defiance of the way this text is read in the rest of Scripture.
He also cites the argument about relationships that produce ‘good fruit’, while setting aside both Paul’s contrast between the fruit of the Spirit and sexual immorality in Gal 5.19–22 (where, again, Paul includes not one but three terms related to sexuality), which for Paul would certainly have included same-sex sex. And the purpose of ‘fruit’ is the production of new plants and growth, as Jesus sets out in the parable of the sower in Mark 4. What has happened to Western churches who have abandoned historic teaching on marriage, and chosen to bless same-sex relationships? Every single one has experienced division and decline, with falling attendances actually accelerating. That is the ‘fruit’ test we should be paying attention to.
This post has ended up being much, much longer than I ever intended! The reason for this is that, as I wrote, I found so many bizarre claims in what Steven has written—and there are more that I have not commented on. His approach appears to be completely at odds with the processes that were agreed in the Church and by the bishops; he repeatedly makes quite implausible claims; he appears to be entirely out of touch with key areas of debate in relation to psychology, culture, and the biblical witness; and he offers the most peculiar interpretation of the relation of the Church to the world.
But, following the article title, I need to ask one final question: what is Steven Croft thinking?
The Church has long been facing a decline in attendance, which is rapidly coming to a crisis point in many dioceses. At the same time, these dioceses were also already facing acute financial pressures, which were then exacerbated by Covid. In response to the missional challenges, there has been proposed from the ‘centre’ a rethinking of the Church’s focus and activities, and this has faced stiff opposition from many quarters for a variety of reasons. Clergy have been increasingly feeling under pressure. And both churches and dioceses are now facing stern challenges with the cost of living increases, including energy prices. At the same time, on a wider scale, the Anglican Communion appears to be in its dying days as a meaningful fellowship.
Into this context, Steven now wants to bring division and disunity. This will have a direct impact on confidence, on mission and growth, and on finance. It feels as if the good ship Church of England is running on one engine, listing to port, holed at or below the waterline—and Captain Croft wants to grab the helm and steer her onto the rocks.
Lord have mercy.