WARNINGS that it has become “impossible” to oppose faithful gay relationships without being regarded as an extremist, and that an entire generation is being “lost to faith in Christ” are included in a new book published in the run-up to the Shared Conversations on sexuality taking place at the General Synod in York.
Amazing Love: Theology for understanding discipleship, sexuality and mission, edited by Canon Andrew Davison, the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, was published last week by DLT.
In the same week, senior Evangelical clergy shared their positions on theology and sexuality in a new book edited by Jayne Ozanne, a member of the General Synod. Among them is the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, who writes about being “profoundly changed” by his interaction with the LGBTI community, and his desire to “make room and to extend the table”.
Both books are being sent, free, to members of the General Synod, who are preparing to participate in the Shared Conversations next month (News, 17 June).
Journeys in grace and truth: Revisiting scripture and sexuality, published by Ekklesia on behalf of Via Media Publications, features ten essays by Evangelicals. Many call for a shift in the current debate within Evangelical circles, and an end to the dismissal of those who have reached a different conclusion on sexuality.
The Bishop of Dorchester, the Rt Revd Colin Fletcher, argues for “an openness amongst Evangelicals to discuss a range of differing beliefs to their own, and to engage biblically with those who hold them without just writing such people off as ‘revisionsts’ or, as described by a previous generation, ‘woolly liberals’.”
Bishop Fletcher also challenges the assertion that questions of sexuality are “on an equal footing with the great credal truths of the Trinity or the humanity and divinity of Christ”. He is not arguing for a change in the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman, he writes. “I still think that it is a strong position to defend theologically.”
Much of Bishop Bayes’s essay focuses on the time he has spent with Open Table, a Fresh Expression in his diocese that serves the LGBTI community, and how this has left him “profoundly changed”. He describes how he “respects” both those LGBT Christians who feel called to celibacy and those who “feel . . . that their sexuality is a gift from God, to be celebrated”.
He mentions that his own extended family includes the children of a civil partnership and of a same-sex marriage, and that the parents of some of these children “have had difficulty in finding a welcome in the Church of Jesus Christ”. He concludes that the Church must “make room and to extend the table”.
The Very Revd David Ison, the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, also describes his journey to the conclusion that it is important that LGBTI people “have access to what I’ve termed ‘the virtues of marriage’”.
Although he is “not convinced that the theology of marriage can be separated from its roots of being between a man and a woman”, he calls for further work on “what ‘marriage’ means in Christian understanding in a very different social context”. His essay warns that “the fruits of our current views and practices have too often been destructive. . . There is a lack of honesty about people’s sexuality or situations. There is inconsistency between public and private policy, which corrupts church life and brings the gospel into disrepute.”
The Vicar of St Michael & All Angels’, Harrow Weald, the Revd Jody Stowell, writes about the link between gender and sexuality, and suggests that “the charge that ordained women are ‘the wedge’ through which gay sex will be accepted in the Church has kept many women silent. . . Most have a sense of having already risked enough by being ordained, especially when their tribal family is ambivalent about the reality of their existence.”
She has come to the conclusion, she writes, that it would be “sheer hypocrisy . . . to say that I was included and they [LGBTI people] were not.”
On Thursday of last week, Ms Ozanne said that it had been “very difficult” for Evangelicals to discuss the issue, “because people feel that the moment they start sharing honestly where they are, they get labelled as liberal or unsound”. She hoped that the collection of essays would help those who disagreed with her to learn about the theological journeys of its contributors, and that it would facilitate “deep, honest conversations”.
The authors of Amazing Love also contend that they can differ from Christians who disagree with them “without being ‘extreme liberals’” and that “many leading advocates are really quite conservative theologians”. The book is part of the wider programme of LGBTI Mission, a new coalition launched this year (News, 5 February). The Mission’s ultimate goals are same-sex marriage in churches, and full access to all three orders for those in such marriages.
The book includes reflections on science. While emphasising that the sciences “can never provide a ‘trump card’ in ethical discussions,” the authors warn that: “We would lose credibility in mission if we still proclaimed that the world was made in six 24-hour days. We risk looking foolish if we talk about same-sex attraction and relationships without paying full attention to the full range of what there is to know on that score.”
They also draw on previous shifts in the Church’s teaching, including beliefs about slavery (“It took time — far too much time — for Christians to connect their understanding of the good news with their views on slavery.”). A study of key biblical passages concludes that they pose questions that “make it difficult to build a solid case against same-sex relationships”.
The book addresses perceived weaknesses in the arguments of both sides, warning that “many of the loudest voices . . . have been arguing in a one-dimensional way”. While one side has “talked about scripture as if interpretation was not a demanding task”, the other has “too often made experience its one source, and has too often treated scripture as a problem, rather than as the Christian foundation.
“Similarly, it has often treated reason as almost synonymous with feelings and fallen foul of what C. S. Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery’ in its willingness to elevate itself above the tradition of Christian theology, philosophy and ethics.”
The final chapter focuses on mission. It argues that “equality and diversity are not normative values in almost all public contexts, except the Church. Getting its house in order about them will not necessarily attract new members, but it may help stem the drain.” It also highlights a recent YouGov survey that found that 93 per cent of unaffiliated 25-35-year-olds believe that same-sex marriage is right.
“Unless there is a really good reason for opposing same-sex relationships — and we don’t believe that there is — we are shooting ourselves in the foot in the worst possible way.” An entire generation is being “lost to Christ”, and to elevate a “hard line” against gay marriage or relationships to the status of the creeds would be “suicidal”.
The authors go on to reference the execution of gay people by ISIS, and to warn that: “A Church that is seen to deny equality to gay people will have to work increasingly hard to distance itself from fundamentalist extremism in the public imagination. In fact, it has become well-nigh impossible to articulate a theological conviction that loving and faithful gay relationships are wrong without seeming extreme and fundamentalist.”
The need for change is “urgent”, it says. “Dragging our feet is neither sensible, nor ethical.” The celebration of gay relationships in church is the “litmus test” for the true inclusion of gay people.
Canon Davison’s co-editors include the Bishop of Buckingham, Dr Alan Wilson; and Dr Jane Shaw, Dean for Religious Life at Stanford University and Canon Emerita of Salisbury Cathedral. The book also includes a foreword by the chief executive of Church Army, Mark Russell.