Think: you may be mistaken, sex-talks participants urged

06 February 2015

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Divided opinion: Hamo Thornycroft's statue of Oliver Cromwell (1899), outside the House of Parliament, in London

Divided opinion: Hamo Thornycroft's statue of Oliver Cromwell (1899), outside the House of Parliament, in London

OLIVER CROMWELL is recruited in a new booklet written to assist the forthcoming "shared conversations" about sexuality in the Church of England.

The two sides in the debate about the acceptability of gay relationships are reminded of Cromwell's plea to the General Assembly of the Church in Scotland in 1650, in which he urged it to break its alliance with the Royalists: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken."

The booklet, Grace and Disagreement, shortly to be published, provides a candid assessment of the extent of the current conflict, but suggests that the conversations may be fruitful if participants enter them with open minds.

There is ground between the two polarities in the debate, it suggests, and the conversations are designed to take people "deeper into these nuances, not to line up two sides as if in metaphorical trench warfare".

The unnamed authors of the booklet are frank about what might constitute success in the project, which will attempt over the next year to bring the two sides in the sexuality debate together in a series of regional conversations, and they acknowledge the possibility that some may wish to leave the Church of England over the matter ( News, 30 January).

There will be 13 regional conversations. At present the booklet suggests a two-day meeting, with 50 or 60 participants and seven professional facilitators, but organisers are believed to favour extending the meetings for a further night, given the extent of the divide separating the two polarities, and the potential for conflict.

The booklet's authors warn participants in the conversations not to expect to change the minds of those who take an opposing view.

But if participants "can come to trust one another enough to believe that they are all motivated by a desire to follow Christ and to promote the mission of God and of the Church, that would be by no means a negligible achievement. . .

"The paradox of conversations of this kind is that they do not require that any participant changes his or her mind. On the other hand, they do require that participants approach the process in a spirit which allows the possibility that their mind may change as a result."

The booklet recognises the size of the task. "The more the argument has become polarised, the harder it has become to understand the sincerity with which conflicting views are held," it states. "Accusations of bad faith have abounded."

Even a lack of acrimony if some end up leaving the Church over the issue might be regarded as evidence of improved relations, the booklet suggests. History has shown that it is possible for people to leave "with the affirmation and love of those they leave behind, trusting that they are not lost to Christ".

While insisting that separation is "far from a foregone conclusion", it acknowledges previous splits: "Anglicanism has always left a great deal of space - but not limitless space - for theological, ethical and ecclesiological diversity. Tolerance and capaciousness, though part of our history, can never be the last word if a Church is to be true to the gospel.

"The question now testing members of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion is whether the current differences around human sexuality are of the kind which can be accepted as legitimate within the Church, or whether it is impossible for some to remain in the same Church as others whose views are so different as to imply, as they see it, a radically different faith."

There is no set structure for the conversations. But four essays have been prepared for study. The first two explore scripture, on which, the booklet says, a "deliberate emphasis" has been placed.

All who take part will be encouraged to read these essays and ask themselves whether anything in them causes them to "think afresh - whether to deepen your commitment to a position or to challenge it". They will also be prompted to consider whether it has caused them to "take more seriously the position of those with whom you disagree".

They will be assisted by professional faciliatators who will "know how to give participants the reassurance that the process will be fair to every viewpoint and position".

Leader comment

GAY Christians should be seen as a solution to the Church's problems, not the problem itself, participants in the shared conversations will be told.

In one of the four essays to be read by all participants, Canon Phil Groves writes of the "values gap" between the Church's teachings and society's mores.

"Gay Christians are already counter-cultural. Many speak of the intense difficulty of 'coming out' as a Christian in a society that regards their sexuality as something to be accepted, but their faith as something objectionable. They are the ideal people to ask and answer the question of Christian identity in contemporary society. It is these people who are the evangelists: presenting the gospel to the world."

Canon Groves, directs the "Continuing Indaba" in the Anglican Communion. The "values gap" he refers to was coined by Professor Linda Woodhead, as a result of her research into the way the Church was perceived (News, 31 January, 2014). Such a gap "cannot be maintained in any missional Church", Canon Grove argues.

His essay is one of four included in Grace and Disagreement: A Reader, which reflects the extent of the polarity of views within the Church. The first essay, by the Revd Dr Ian Paul, Honorary Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham, is entitled: "The biblical case for the 'traditional' position". This concludes that the Bible offers "a strong, consistent and linked disapproval of all forms of same-sex activity.

Dr Paul writes: "We are certainly not in a position to claim, without debate, that sexual 'orientation' is a social rather than a moral category. The most recent longitudinal surveys indicate that 'orientation' is not universally fixed, but often fluid and changeable."

His conclusion casts doubt on the possibility that the two ends of the spectrum might be able to "agree to disagree". This would mean "detaching theological thinking from the testimony of scripture", he argues, given that same-sex activity is "linked decisively with acceptance of rejection of God's redeeming purposes".

A very different argument is put forward by Canon Loveday Alexander, Emeritus Professor of Biblical Studies at the Univer sity of Sheffield, in the essay "Homosexuality and the Bible: reflections of a biblical scholar". She argues that the Bible "says nothing about 'homosexuality' as it is understood today".

She goes on: "We have to recognise the ambiguity of the biblical material - and its embeddedness in its own social context. . . we have to use our God-given powers of discernment ('reason') to interpret what it means for our own context. . .

"Paul's condemnation of homosexual acts is a logical consequence of his construction of sexuality - and that construction is derived from his own first-century cultural world. Sever the connection, and the moral condemnation is without foundation."

The fourth essay summarises the experience of the Church of Scotland, in which a "mixed economy" means that a traditional 'default' position is maintained but diversity of belief and practice is accommodated.

This has prompted a minority of ministers, elders and members to leave the Kirk; yet the authors, the Very Revd Professor Iain Torrance, the Revd Dr Frances Henderson, and Pauline Weibye, argue that the Church's stance reflects "an honesty and integrity . . . in its recognition that the Church, whether national or worldwide, has never held the same position across time and space on all matters of faith and doctrine.

"The unity of the Church often needs to withstand deep disagreement and to provide safe space for honest and sometimes painful exchanges."

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