SIX months ago, in his presidential address to the General Synod, the Archbishop of Canterbury described the “need for some thoughtful engagement that will help us understand how people who read the same Bible and share the same baptism can come to strongly diverse conclusions”. He was talking about same-sex unions.
In six months’ time, the Church of England will mark the 20th anniversary of Issues in Human Sexuality, in which the then House of Bishops established the Church of England’s current position.
The Anglican Communion is not, of course, the only denomination in which this subject is bitterly divisive. Next week, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland will debate the subject. There are lessons to be learned from the way it has proceeded.
After a divisive debate two years ago about the induction of a minister who was in a same-sex relationship (News, 29 May 2009), the General Assembly, “for the sake of the peace and unity of the Church”, appointed a commission, representing a breadth of opinion, to consult and prepare a study.
Its report is illuminating. Although its nine members mention “many discussions in which we have not reached unanimity of view”, they note that this “has not prevented us from working together closely and with mutual confidence”.
The large-scale consultation that they undertook, throughout the Church of Scotland and beyond, was probably unprecedented. About three-quarters of the nearly 25,000 people involved had a clear position on same-sex relationships. When elders of the Kirk were asked whether a person in a civil partnership should be permitted to be an ordained minister, 46.2 per cent said yes; 47 per cent said no.
The perception of the importance of this issue is also revealing. Ten per cent of the elders questioned said that they would regard a decision to ordain people in a committed same-sex relationship as “heretical”, and 28 per cent said that it was unjustified by scripture. On the other hand, refusing to ordain was seen as heretical by four per cent, and unjustified by scripture by 24 per cent.
When asked whether certain situations would make them “consider it obligatory to leave the Church of Scotland”, 19 per cent of elders said that this would be the case, “if the General Assembly were to allow people in committed same-sex relationships to be ordained as ministers”; eight per cent would consider leaving if the General Assembly forbade such ordinations.
Nor is sitting on the fence comfortable: 12 per cent of elders said that they would leave if “the General Assembly were to decide not to make a clear statement on this issue”.
WE SUSPECT that similar findings would result if the Church of England were brave enough to undertake a similar consultation. That is, of course, one reason why it has shied away from an orderly, constructive, nationally led conversation. The questions now are whether such an avoidance strategy remains wise, and, if not, how best to discern the mind of Christ.
In addition to its survey, the Church of Scotland commission consulted with other Churches. It also explored the science, something often ignored (although it was thoroughly explored in the sadly under-used guide The Anglican Communion and Homosexuality, edited by Philip Groves, SPCK, 2007).
The Kirk’s commission concludes that the Church should not determine the ordination issue “unless and until it has reached a view on the status of such relationships and the appropriateness or otherwise of allowing a minister to recognise and celebrate a life-long committed same-sex relationship in a form of a blessing or other liturgy”. This is because the matter “is essentially a theological dispute about whether same-sex activity in a committed relationship is contrary to the will of God”.
Despite its differences, the commission reports that, “through discussion and patience, there was a great deal on which we agreed.” It is unanimous that “it is contrary to God’s will that Christians should be hostile in any way to a person because he or she is homosexual by orientation and in his or her practice,” and also that traditional teaching should not be classed as homophobic.
The commission calls for preserving the current moratorium on ordaining those in same-sex relationships, but it wishes to establish a theological commission to enable “a sustained theological addressing of the matters before the Church”. It also asks the General Assembly to signal the trajectory it wishes the Church to take. Should it consider an indefinite moratorium, or lift the ban, and ask for a theological report, which could include advice on a form of service for blessing same-sex relationships?
AS TWO people who hold opposing views on this question, and want the Church of England to follow different trajectories, we believe that we can learn from our Presbyterian brothers and sisters. We need to move beyond the current stand-off, and engage in substantive conversations, not just talks about talks.
As the Archbishop of Canterbury said, part of the problem is that the subject “has become a cardinal example of how we avoid theological debate”. We urgently need an “opportunity of clarifying” how different perspectives “see the focal theological issues”.
Some formal structure therefore needs to be established to enable “robust but respectful debate” in the context of deepening relationships. As in Scotland, this is unlikely to resolve disagreements, but it may enable greater respect between opponents, and help us to move beyond the current options of either staying silent (as most bishops have) or joining a political campaign on one side or the other.
We believe that the Church of Scotland report helps to identify vital areas that we need to explore. It also highlights the urgency of addressing our divisions over them. We need to find new and better ways of doing this, if, as we hope and pray, we are to find a faithful way forward together.
The Revd Dr Andrew Goddard is a member of the leadership of Fulcrum, the centre-Evangelical network; Canon Giles Goddard chairs Inclusive Church. They are not related.