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Issues that must be addressed

23 June 2017

Andrew Davison and Simon Sarmiento propose questions for the Bishops on sex


IN FEBRUARY, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York wrote to General Synod members sketching out how they hoped to move forward after the Synod voted not to take note of the House of Bishops’ report Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations (News, 3 February, 17 February). The Archbishops said that a teaching document suggested by the Bishops, which would offer guidance to the clergy on both same-sex relationships and marriage, should go ahead, and be prepared in conjunction with a wide range of people, lay and ordained.

A group of academic theologians, scientists, and others, sponsored by the LGBTI Mission, have written a paper identifying questions and themes which they believe the Bishops will need to address when writing the document. A selection of the questions is set out below.

The paper is written by the Revd Dr Andrew Davison, University of Cambridge, and draws on a panel comprising: the Revd Dr Christina Beardsley; the Revd Professor Chris Cook, Durham University; Dr Susannah Cornwall, University of Exeter; the Revd Duncan Dormor, St John’s College, Cambridge; Dr Ruth Jackson, University of Cambridge; Professor Robert Song, Durham University; Professor Adrian Thatcher, University of Exeter and Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry.

Some theological questions

What bearing does eschatology have upon sexual ethics?

What is the meaning of purity in Christian theology and ethics, and what are the limits of its application and usefulness? What does it mean for the concept to have gendered implications, and how is that significant?

How, and to what extent, is human identity necessarily and inherently both biological, and culturally informed and expressed? What about that is good, and what is prone to sin? How does the life of grace relate to our natural inheritance, and how does Christian identity relate to natural identity or identities? How do themes in the doctrinal area of “grace and nature” bear upon our questions?

What is the theological meaning of celibacy, particularly in relation to vocation?

What does it mean to bless people, commitments, endeavours, and states of life: what are the meanings and purposes of blessing, and how do they relate to the questions in hand? What can we bless, and what can we not, and on what do we base such decisions?

What is the meaning of “complementarity” in relationships? What are the aspects, dimensions, and criteria by which it is discerned? How does it, or does it not, relate to gender?

Questions relating to Church and society, mission, Anglican identity

What is properly or distinctively Anglican about our situation and the proper shape of any response? What does “Anglican” mean in this context, and how does it relate to our more local and immediate context as the Church of England?

How is the mind of the Church of England expressed? How do previous statements inform the ongoing work of theological and ethical discernment?

To whom, and for whom, are the Bishops of the Church of England most fundamentally responsible? If there are competing claims between concerns for wider unity and concerns for local mission, how should they be judged or settled?

What line does the Church take on controversial, ineffective, and widely condemned attempts to change sexual orientation?

What does the Church wish to say about the status of stable, faithful, long-term heterosexual relationships? In what sense might marriage be understood as coming into being over time in these or other settings, outside formal legal or religious recognition? Are all couples in a sexual relationship outside of marriage “living in sin”? If not, what are the criteria for judging this?

Which aspects of sexual ethics deserve or require particular attention today? Which questions are, in fact, most asked of those who currently teach the Christian faith in parishes and other settings?

Questions relating to transgender and intersex

Will the teaching document draw on the experience of transgender people, including Christian trans people, and consider their needs in relation to marriage? If so, will the document be using the most up-to-date terminology as it is emerging among transgender people? Will consideration be given to this growing phenomenon of a rich range of gender identities, including among married people, which question the notion of a rigid dichotomy between male and female, man and woman?

What is the Church of England’s understanding of the marriage of a couple, one of whom has transitioned but has not obtained full gender recognition?

What is the Church of England’s view on the controversial matter of spousal consent in relation to gender recognition introduced by the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013?

Questions relating to sex and marriage

What is the bearing of Article XXXII (“Of the Marriage of Priests”) on these discussions?

How does the Church’s definition of marriage square with divorce and remarriage, and especially the emphasis (for instance in GS 2055) that marriage is “lifelong”?

When it comes to consideration of the proper setting (or best, or only suitable setting) for sexual intercourse, what is the status of a civil partnership? More widely, how is a civil partnership to be understood theologically, for instance in relation to the legal point that couples who convert their civil partnerships to marriages are considered to have been married from the time at which the civil partnership took place?

What is the particular moral bearing of a couple finding themselves in a situation where they would marry if they could, but where they are unable to do so for some reason? Are they under the same strictures as those who simply do not wish to marry, although they could?


The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, and a fellow of Corpus Christi College.

Simon Sarmiento chairs the LGBTI Mission.


A Teaching Document on Sexuality and Marriage from the Bishops of the Church of England: Some initial suggestions as to questions and themes is available to read at lgbtimission.org.uk.

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