THE new General Synod meets next week, a month after the conclusion of the Roman Catholic Synod on the Family. Many have commented that the RC Synod was remarkable not for any new teaching, but for the glimmerings of recognition that experience has a part to play in forming the sensus fidelium. What constitutes a godly life cannot simply be prescribed from above.
In theory, Anglicans know this. Anglicans have always been open to the way in which experience and practice inform one another. To Richard Hooker’s triangle of scripture, reason, and tradition many would want to add experience, and some even see it implied in the way in which Hooker understands the place of tradition, seeing it as unfolding wisdom, continuous in essence while changing in expression.
During the next five years, the General Synod will have to respond to the recent conversations about sexuality. What happens will show whether the Church of England can manage “good disagreement” (Comment, 16 October). Experience has something to say on both sides.
There is the experience of gay clergy and laity who have lived fulfilled lives while remaining sexually abstinent. There is also the experience of gay clergy and lay people who thank God for life-giving partnerships. Both sets of experience are “true”, in that there are still gay people who claim to flourish in the Church while being unpartnered, and there are those who now feel free to be both Christian and committed to a relationship.
The traditional rejection of homosexual practice has been supported by myths about homosexuality which are no longer thought to be true in our context. Wider society has discovered (if it did not already know) that most gay people are not disordered, promiscuous perverts, but ordinary people who crave the same social acceptance as society offers to others.
To most people under the age of 40, this is so obvious as not to be worth mentioning. Justice and reason support equality for gay people. Those who still argue that active homosexuality is unacceptable to God can no longer rely on the widely held social prejudice that is still normal in some parts of the Anglican Communion. In fact, they must increasingly rely on scripture alone.
Of course, sola scriptura is an honourable Reformation principle. But it is arguable whether the scripture passages usually relied on to condemn homosexuality can bear the weight that they are being expected to carry when they no longer express what the wider culture believes, or what the law upholds. Experience has a part to play in the way we interpret scripture, as Hooker well knew.