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Sexuality: the case for a conservative approach

08 July 2016

Pastoral, anthropological, and missional arguments should not displace biblical authority, says Julian Henderson

IT IS with reluctance, and yet conviction, that I sense the need to enter the current debate about sexuality in a more public way — but from a personal point of view rather than with a diocesan or Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) mandate.

The recent publication Journeys in Grace and Truth, edited by Jayne Ozanne, and written in preparation for the General Synod, gives an account of Evangelicals who have come to view the scriptures differently from the traditional understanding (News, 24 June). This requires a response from those in the Evangelical constituency who hold to the traditional view, so that the Church can listen to all the voices in the Shared Conversations.

There are three introductory points about these conversations. First, they must be clear in their use of terminology. Just as care needs to be exercised in interpreting words in the biblical record, similarly, we must be careful in our use of language in these Shared Conversations, so that speaker and hearer understand each other correctly, including the use of terms such as “gay”, “sexuality”, “same-sex relationships”, and “the LGBTI community”. Different contributors to this book use the same word to mean different things.

Second, there must be no room for hatred, rudeness, or violence towards anyone, regardless of their sexuality. Legislation against those with same-sex attraction, purely on the basis of their sexuality, must be strongly opposed. The Orlando massacre is rightly to be deplored.

Third, the conversation must take place with an open mind on all sides, to hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church today through scripture. As John Stott, a highly respected Evangelical, used to say: “My endeavour is to bring out of scripture what is there, and not to thrust in what I think might be there.”

I have always said that I am open to changing my view, if I can be persuaded by scripture that such a change is warranted. None of the texts that I have read thus far has given sufficient evidence to prompt such a change. The main reason for this is not stubbornness or hardness of heart, but that the arguments come from outside scripture. Three emerge again and again in this recent contribution.


THE main appeal for a change in the Church’s teaching focuses on the responsibility to show love, welcome, and compassion to all, regardless of their sexual identity. The telling of stories has been at the centre of the Shared Conversations process, with the consequence that to leave the Church’s teaching and practice unchanged is felt by some to be uncaring, unjust, and discriminatory.

This powerful voice of experience is, however, becoming a more important driver and authority than scripture itself in our ethical decision-making. The life of the Christian is to be fashioned by what God has revealed. We always have to make sense of our experience within some frame of reference, and, for the Christian, that is provided by the teaching of scripture. “Let it be to me, according to your word” (Luke 1.38) was not an easy prayer.


A FURTHER appeal is made to the human desire for intimacy and sexual fulfilment, concluding that it is unreasonable to ask for celibacy outside heterosexual marriage.

This argument fails to recognise the times when a heterosexual person has to live as a single person, or when, in a marriage, a couple have, for several possible reasons, to abstain from sexual activity. Learning to live without sex and physical intimacy is not uncommon.

Little reflection is offered in the book on the experience of those with same-sex attraction who, of their own free will, choose to live a celibate life, at great personal cost. The testimony of Living Out is to be admired and supported, not undermined by a suggestion that such faithfulness to scripture is unnecessary. And, of course, sexual abstinence does not preclude deep friendships, which give warm companionship and a sense of emotional belonging.

Dr Stott taught unequivocally that the only alternative to heterosexual marriage is sexual abstinence. As a bachelor, he wrote: “I think I know the pain of this.”

The call to deny ourselves and take up our cross is not popular these days, even though we often pray in our liturgy that we may be sent out as a living sacrifice for his praise and glory. But this is the call of Jesus.


A THIRD key argument is the concern to remain connected with our culture for the sake of mission. Believing and teaching something that is at odds with the cultural norm will, it is argued, alienate the Church from our communities; and, therefore, for the sake of sharing the gospel and being credible, we must adopt the norm of society. The articles speak of the foolishness of defending an untenable counter-cultural position.

The Christian community has never been called to popularity, however. The gospel is an offence because of its call to repentance, and because of its focus on what Jesus has done for us that we could not do for ourselves.

Jesus said: “Woe to you, if all people speak well of you” (Luke 6.26). In fact, he called his disciples to be different, to stand out, to be salt and light — not losing saltiness, and not hiding their lamp under a bowl (Matthew 5.13-16).

This current debate is, therefore, not so much about sexuality, as the place, interpretation, and application of the Bible in our life as a Church. Its authority must not be superseded by pastoral, anthropological, and missional arguments, if we are to maintain a faithful witness to Jesus Christ and the gospel, in this generation and for those who follow.


The Rt Revd Julian Henderson is the Bishop of Blackburn.

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