Why is the debate on sexuality and marriage in the Church of England (and other churches) such a big deal? Why can’t we just agree to disagree—to get on together and learn to live with difference?
Two groups regularly say that to me. The first is those who want change in the Church’s teaching. Why are evangelicals making such a fuss? they ask. The Church has altered its practice on marriage in various ways in the past? Why can’t we make this adjustment now?
But the other group are those who are busy getting on with the business of planting new churches, growing current ones, and reaching young people. They are often younger, and have not been engaged so much with the ‘politics’ of the Church (lucky them!). Why can’t we just get on with the business of ministry? Will this issue really make much difference? After all, we have continued with gospel ministry in the past when the leadership has believed all sorts of questionable things—so why is this different?
An immediate response to both groups might be to say—you are right, it is not such a big deal. We are not talking about central Christian doctrines like the incarnation, salvation, or the Trinity. But here’s an interesting test case: suppose the bishops of the C of E starting saying ‘Lying is ok. It is really about an alternative way for expressing authenticity. And the Bible isn’t as clear as you think on this.’ This would not be attacking a ‘central Christian doctrine’—it is not mentioned in the Creed! Yet I am sure many would feel the need to separate themselves from such leadership.
In fact, in surprising ways, the debate about sexuality is connected with many of these primary questions. So I would like to set out the reasons why this is a big deal, and why it is different from disputes in the past, under ten headings.
1. Sexuality is a big deal. Full stop.
Our bodies matter. In particular, our sexed bodies matter. We can see this in all sorts of ways—not least in the often lasting damage that is done to people who experience sexual abuse. How people treat our sexed bodies has a huge impact on how we feel about ourselves, especially so for women. For Christians, this is confirmation that we are body-soul (‘psychosomatic’) unities, and not spirits or souls who happen to have bodies. Our bodies are who we are, not what we have.
Because our sexed bodies are such a big deal, this has often made issues around sex, marriage, and sexuality very difficult to talk about, since they are deeply personal, and talking about them with others risks exposing our deepest hopes and fears. In reaction to that, our culture is currently engaged in a furious debate about these issues, precisely because they are so important. In fact, many both within the Church and outside it do not believe that we can ‘agree to disagree’, since they believe that the Church changing its teaching is essential for the wellbeing of sexual minorities, and is non-negotiable. Whichever way you look at it, sex matters.
Given that sexuality is so important to us, and in our culture, it would be odd for the Church not to have something important to say.
2. There have been huge changes in culture
When cultures and societies are in stable periods without much change, then there is not much need for discussion. But when change happens, there needs to be conversation and exploration, since we do not know what the implications of change might be.
Since at least the Second World War, Western culture has been convulsed by changes relating to sex, sexuality and marriage. The war itself challenged social roles for women and men; this was followed by a conformist reaction; and this in turn was challenged by the ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s and beyond. Feminism challenged the social significance of bodily difference, and this in turn challenged the importance of motherhood and therefore parenting—a move which some feminists now think was bad for women.
The challenge to the importance of bodily form has been exacerbated by the rise of the internet. It is now possible to have what feels like a meaningful relationship with another person without ever being in their bodily presence. The reinforces a sense that our ‘true’ selves are our inner selves, detached from our bodies, and so it is our feelings and emotions that tell us the truth about who we are. This approach has been described as ‘expressive individualism‘, and it has huge implications for culture, ethics, ideas of truth, and for Christians, what we think the gospel says.
It is this change which is behind many of the arguments for accepting same-sex marriage. If we are defined by our interior desires, and not by our bodies, why shouldn’t two people who desire each other get married, regardless of their bodies? It is fascinating to note how recent this change is; I was at university with both Evan Davies, a prominent gay campaigner within the BBC, and Angela Eagle, a gay member of Parliament, which is the world’s gayest—yet same-sex marriage wasn’t even on the agenda when we were students.
Since this call is founded on massive changes in understanding what it means to be human, this raises big questions for Christians, because…
3. In the biblical narrative, what it means to be human mirrors the truth about God
To put it in more theological terms: anthropology is the mirror of theology. The story of Scripture is the interwoven thread of the actions of God towards humanity and his people, and their response to him. For every truth about God, there is a corresponding truth about what it means to be human. God is creator, which means that we are creatures; we are finite and limited, unlike God, and there is a givenness about who we are which means we cannot simply create ourselves. God is holy, and calls us to holiness—but we are sinful, and in need of forgiveness. God is saviour, one who graciously rescues all who call on him—and so on.
This means that, when we change significantly in the way we think about what it means to be human, without realising it we end up changing the way we think about God. I have noticed, in engaging in the debate about sexuality, something curious: almost all the people who are arguing for change in the Church of England’s doctrine of marriage are universalists, that is, they believe that ultimately all people will be saved, whether or not they respond in repentance and faith to the call of God found in the good news about Jesus. I think the connection here is that acceptance of gay sexuality as a parallel to other-sex marriage is based on the idea that what is, is what ought to be. We should affirm people as they are rather than call them to any kind of change. This seems to me to be at odds with the core message of the Scriptures, and the central preaching of Jesus, who called people to ‘repent and believe’ (Mark 1.15), that is, turn away from what is, and live a new life; he came to ‘call sinners to repentance’ (Luke 5.22) and not merely affirm them as they were and are.
In particular, the creation story of male and female, affirmed by Jesus as the basis of our understanding of marriage (Matt 19.4), becomes in the biblical narrative a metaphor for God’s relationship with his people. Many have argued that this is about hierarchy, but in fact there is no sense of hierarchy at all between the sexed in either Genesis 1 and 2. Rather, this is about the unity of difference; the man and woman are ‘bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh’, but are also distinctively different from one another. God is repeatedly described as Israel’s husband (Is 54.5); Hosea’s marriage to Gomer offers a picture of God’s relationship to his people; Jesus describes himself as the bridegroom who will be united with his bride, the people of God (Matt 9.15 and parallels; Matt 25.1); and the return of Jesus, the making of all things new, and the presence of God with his people is described as the ‘wedding feast of the lamb’ (Rev 19.7, 9) with the New Jerusalem, the people of God, as the bride (Rev 21.9, 22.17). All this imagery is lost when marriage is between two people of the same sex.
4. Jesus’ teaching on marriage was clear and consistent
When Jesus was challenged in Matt 19 and Mark 10 about the interpretation of a regulation about divorce in Deuteronomy 24.1, his response is instructive. The debate was between the school of the rabbi Shammai, who read the text as saying ‘he should not divorce his wife except he find an indecent thing’, that is, she has been unfaithful; but the school of Hillel read it as saying ‘…except he find in her indecency [and a] thing’, that is, either she has been unfaithful, or there is any other displeasing thing. The question Jesus is asked is not ‘is there any reason why a man can divorce a woman?’ but ‘Do you agree with ‘any reason’ divorce or not?’. Instead of getting into the minutiae of this textual debate, Jesus stands back and looks at the big picture—not just of the creation of woman and the institution of marriage in Gen 2, but further back to the creation of humanity in Gen 1. Marriage should be understood as arising from God’s creation of humanity as male and female. After all, if there was not sex difference, there would be no sexual desire in the first place!
Jesus’ view of marriage as between a man and a woman was entirely typical of first-century Judaism, and consistent with the rest of Scripture. All ancient cultures (and many modern ones) recognised that a small minority of the population were different, in having a settled attraction to those of the same sex. In the ancient world, marriage and procreation were seen as key to the survival of society, so such people could be perceived as a threat, but there was often some sort of provision made for them. The Old Testament is unique amongst Ancient Near Eastern texts in not doing so—on the basis of God’s creation of male and female as the basis for sexual relationships. That is why all mainstream, critical scholars agree that the biblical texts and the teaching of Jesus is clear and consistent—though many of them think it is wrong.
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”).
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).
It is common to hear people claim ‘Jesus never said anything about homosexuality’. But he did not need to—just as he did not need to say anything about incest, or other specific aspects of sexual immorality, since there was a clear consensus in Judaism on these questions, rooted in the sexual prohibitions in Leviticus. Jesus was concerned about issues of sexual immorality, and his reference to porneia would have been heard by anyone listening to him as including same-sex sex within that category of immorality.
5. Paul took the teaching of Jesus into the gentile world and made it explicit
We do find explicit rejection of same-sex sexual relationship in Paul’s writings—but not very often. Again, the reason is that Paul assumed that both Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus followed Jesus’ own teaching about marriage, and accepted Jewish sexual ethics, rejecting same-sex relationships of all forms, which had wide acceptance in the first-century world. William Loader has probably written more than any other scholar on the questions of sexuality in the New Testament.
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).
Some claim that the ancient world did not know what we do, that some people appear to be ‘born gay’. But that is not the case. Virgil’s Aeneid includes a narrative about Nisus and Euryalus, male warriors and lovers, who are depicted as exhibiting the same manly virtues as Aeneas himself. Centuries earlier, in Plato’s Symposium, the speech of Phaedrus depicts same-sex sexual desire as more virtuous than men’s love of women, and notes it is a desire for life-long commitment, whilst the speech of Aristophanes offers a ‘biological’ explanation for settled same-sex attraction. Tom Wright comments:
As a classicist, I have to say that when I read Plato’s Symposium, or when I read the accounts from the early Roman empire of the practice of homosexuality, then it seems to me they knew just as much about it as we do. In particular, a point which is often missed, they knew a great deal about what people today would regard as longer-term, reasonably stable relations between two people of the same gender. This is not a modern invention.
The late E P Sanders, a major Pauline scholar of the last generation, in his 2015 book on the Apostle Paul included specific sections on sexuality in the first century, and Paul’s teaching.
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 ‘fathers’ of the early church were consistent in rejecting all forms of same-sex sexual relationship, frequently citing both Jesus’ teaching that marriage was based on the creation of male and female, and Paul’s teaching in Romans 1 and 1 Cor 6.9. And this was one aspect of the early church’s distinct, counter-cultural approach to sexual morality—which most Romans and Greeks found deeply offensive, because it challenged their cherished ideals of masculinity. Rodney Stark, in The Rise of Christianity chapter 5 ‘The Role of Women’ demonstrates not only how counter-cultural this ethic was, but how it was a key part of church growth, both by attracting many to its ethic, and leading to greater fertility amongst Christians, so that the community of faith grew from one generation to the next.
7. The doctrine of marriage is embedded in the Church of England
For Anglicans, the doctrine of marriage is embedded in the structure of the Church of England in surprisingly strong ways. Not many Anglican clergy spend their leisure hours reading the canons of the Church—but this debate has put the spotlight on them. Here is the relevant canon (which means rule, or law) on marriage:
B 30 Of Holy Matrimony
1. The Church of England affirms, according to our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.
2. The teaching of our Lord affirmed by the Church of England is expressed and maintained in the Form of Solemnization of Matrimony contained in The Book of Common Prayer.
3. It shall be the duty of the minister, when application is made to him for matrimony to be solemnized in the church of which he is the minister, to explain to the two persons who desire to be married the Church’s doctrine of marriage as herein set forth, and the need of God’s grace in order that they may discharge aright their obligations as married persons.
Three things to notice here. First, this canon is quite clear that the Church’s doctrine of marriage is directly derived from the teaching of Jesus. Secondly, the possibility of remarriage after divorce with the previous partner still living has not changed the doctrine of marriage: when I conduct a wedding, I still believe that the couple are making a lifelong commitment, even if sin might threaten that. Thirdly, because the Church of England is established by law, this canon is part of the law of the land, and was approved by Parliament.
The reason why this is such a big deal comes from the reference in the second paragraph to the Book of Common Prayer. As Canon A5 makes clear, this, along with the other formularies, forms the constitution of the Church of England:
A 5 Of the doctrine of the Church of England
The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures.
In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal.
If we change B30, then we are going to have to rewrite A5. If we do so, then it would be hard to argue that whatever we end up with remains the ‘Church of England’ in any meaningful sense. It will have a completely different constitution, foundation, and basis for doctrine.
8. Marriage between a man and a woman is the teaching of the church catholic
In his outstanding book, Marriage, Scripture, and the Church, Darrin Snyder Belousek makes this observation:
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… Marriage, the whole church has always confessed, is not only a monogamous union but also a man-woman union.’ (p 52).
If the Church of England changes its doctrine of marriage, it will be distinguishing itself from being part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church on this important issue—as it has already forfeited its place in and leadership of the Anglican Communion.
9. The teaching of Jesus that marriage is between one man and one woman is a gift the world desperately needs
The Christian sexual ethic, including the core claim that marriage is between one man and one woman, has served in the past to restrain men’s desires, given women security, and protected children. It is no accident that the sexualisation of anthropology, and the belief that having sex is a key part of human fulfilment, has led to some appalling material being used in schools, exposing children to inappropriate sexually explicit images and ideas.
Mark Regnerus, in Cheap Sex, has analysed the massive shift in approaches to marriage and sexuality in the West since the 1960s. He notes that, in the past, there was a kind of social contract: men wanted sexual intimacy, and women wanted security. Marriage was the structure in which each party’s needs were met. The liberation of sex has undermined this, so that men ‘pay less’ in commitment for sexual intimacy, and women lose the security they had. Both end up as losers.
Feminist atheist Louise Perry also thinks that changes arising from the sexual revolution, and its rejection of both marriage and motherhood, has been a disaster for women, and ‘made modernity sterile’. Our detachment of sex from procreation is leading to a catastrophic decline in fertility and childbirth; in South Korea, the fertility rate is the lowest in the world, at 0.78, which means that every 100 people will have only 15 grandchildren. In the UK the rate is 1.53, which means that 100 people will have only 58 grandchildren—the population will nearly halve after two generations.
Of course, none of this is the result of agreeing with same-sex marriage. But all of them spring from the assumptions that lie behind the affirmation of same-sex marriage—the shift to seeing sex and sexuality as identity, ideology, and pleasure, in contrast to historic Christian and biblical understandings. I am not suggesting here that traditional approaches to marriage are without their (sometimes serious) problems, or that marriage solves all the world’s ills. We are fallen, sinful people, and sinful people in marriage still sin. But the loss of a cultural belief in male-female marriage, shaped by Christian doctrine in Christendom, has been very damaging.
10. Only churches which continue to believe that marriage is between a man and a woman are growing
Churches which have changed their doctrine of marriage have all divided and declined, often catastrophically. The Episcopal Church in the States is facing terminal collapse in attendance, whilst bishops take clergy and congregations to court to sue for possession of their buildings. The Methodists, Presbyterians, and Mennonites in America are all splitting on this. In the UK, the Methodists decided last year to agree ‘contradictory doctrines’, and in the short time since, there has been widespread collapse in attendance. The Scottish Episcopal Church affirmed same-sex marriage in 2017; membership has declined from 32,141 in 2015 to 24,039 in 2021 (a 25% drop) and Sunday attendance has fallen from 12,596 to 7,644, a 40% drop in six years. Affirmation of same-sex marriage has accelerated, not reversed, the decline.
Whilst attendance in historic denominations who are debating this is plummeting, church-going overall in England and Wales is not in decline. It is the ‘new’ churches, who consistently uphold the historic teaching on marriage, who are growing, and attracting young people. I see this in my own city: the only churches in Nottingham which are growing and attracting young people hold to the teaching of Jesus on this question. There are some individual churches around the country which affirm same-sex marriage and are growing, but they are relatively few and far between, and they buck the trend at denominational and national level.
So those are my reasons for believing that this debate is a big deal for the Church of England.
To my first group of critics, who seek change in the Church’s doctrine, I say: you are pressing us to turn from the teaching of Jesus and the consensus of the church catholic on an issue which is of great importance to people, which will do them harm, and which will ultimately change the fundamental nature of the C of E.
To my second group of critics I say: yes, this might not yet have a direct impact on your important ministry—now. But this debate, and the pressure for change, will bring division, decline, and self-destruction on the Church in which you minister. It is cutting away at the very foundations of what you want to do—and unless you add your voice to those who feel compelled to resist, this will end badly.