THE Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd James Jones, has had a Damascus-road experience about homosexuality.
Writing in a new book, A Fallible Church, he describes how a close reading of the love between David and Jonathan, and between Christ and the beloved disciple, has changed his outlook.
Bishop Jones was one of nine bishops who, in an open letter, denounced the appointment of the Revd Dr Jeffrey John as Area Bishop of Reading (News, 20 June 2003). The offer of the post was subsequently withdrawn.
In a chapter in A Fallible Church, Bishop Jones writes: “I deeply regret this episode in our common life. I regret, too, having objected publicly without first having consulted the Archbishops of York and Canterbury, and subsequently apologised to them and to colleagues in a private meeting of the House of Bishops.
“I still believe that it was unwise to try to take us to a place that evidently did not command the broad support of the Church of England, but I am sorry for the way I opposed it, and I am sorry, too, for adding to the pain and distress of Dr John and his partner. I regret, too, that this particular controversy narrowed rather than enlarged the space for healthy debate.”
The notion of space for debate is central to Bishop Jones’s essay. He describes a formal consultation between Liverpool and its two linked dioceses, Virginia in the United States and Akure in Nigeria. Two years of exchanges, and two conferences, between people “whose mutual trust and affection [prompt them] to think the best and not the worst of each other”, have given him “a deeper and more affectionate understanding” of their cultures.
The dialogue, he says, has taken place between four “walls”: to recognise the biblical emphasis on the uniqueness of marriage as a divine ordinance; to acknowledge the biblical examples of love between two people of the same gender; to register the central place of conscience in the Anglican tradition; and to understand that disunity saps the energy of the Church.
Bishop Jones severely criticises the press for its desire to “polarise the debate into simply two clear-cut oppositional positions”. He goes on: “This is not to deny that in the end an ethical decision has to be taken. What it recognises is that there needs to be more space along the way for people to view the terrain from different vantage points.”
For Americans, this means that homosexuality is set in the context of civil rights. For Nigerians, its acceptance would allow Islamic critics “to portray the Church as compromised, weak, and in moral decline. These are serious missiological issues which need to be recognised and addressed.”
Bishop Jones says that his change of understanding came through his study of David and Jonathan. It was spiritual, physical, and covenantal. He declines to consider whether the relationship was sexual: “Immediately you start using such words you conjure up stereotypes and prejudices. . . Is it not possible to say that here are two men with the capacity to love fully, both women and men?”
Again, he cites the gospel accounts of Christ’s relationship with John, which describe the disciple “leaning against the bosom, breast, chest of Jesus. . . Here is energising love, spiritual, emotional, and physical.”
Bishop Jones compares the present controversy in Anglicanism to the dispute in the Early Church about circumcision. Even though a section of the Church argued that circumcision was necessary for salvation, undermining the doctrine of justification through faith, St Luke refers to them as “believers”.
“It is clear that controversy can impair friendship, can affect ministry, and even undermine mission, but only Christ can determine communion.”
A Fallible Church, edited by Kenneth Stevenson, is published by DLT (£10.95; 978-0-232-52730-X).