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God, Gender, Sex and Marriage, by Mandy Ford, and Scripture, Ethics and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships, by Karen R. Keen

11 October 2019

Adrian Thatcher reads two contributions to current discussions

MANDY FORD, Canon Chancellor of Southwark Cathedral, has taken part in the Church of England’s Shared Conversations, and seeks “to resource people in continuing to reflect on the issues, and to offer some further questions”.

There are chapters on “Gender, Sex and Marriage Today”, “Making Decisions”, “Gender”, “Desire”, “Same-Sex Desire”, and “Marriage”. A final chapter, “Looking Forward”, commends living with a diversity of approaches to the issues, and to the sources.

The tone of the book is cautious, informed, progressive, and yet well balanced, and the style is commendably clear. Ford is well aware of popular youth culture, and that a younger generation thinks of gender “in a very different way”. The level is appropriate for group discussion. The topics of each chapter are loosely divided into three sections, in which what scripture, tradition, and reason “say” about them is explored.

I especially appreciated the depiction of sex and gender as intrinsically related, and the insistence that “sex determination”, like desire, exists on a spectrum rather than in convenient binaries. Ford is aware that most of what she says has been said before, but it needs to be said again, and she does it in a convincing and contemporary manner. She may over-emphasise individual choices and how Christians make them, but that is a small reservation.

Karen Keen is a gay celibate woman recovering from the trauma of her upbringing in a conservative Baptist church. She writes for people who, like her, have switched sides in the gay-marriage controversy in the United States, while retaining and deepening their faith at the same time. She believes that “it is possible to imagine a new response to the gay community — and to do so with faithfulness to God’s Word”.

She identifies at least four “essential issues” that she thinks conservative Christians have overlooked. These are “the overarching intent of biblical mandates”; using an appropriate “deliberative process” for understanding the Bible, and “creation ordinances” in particular; recognising that the requirement of celibacy for gay people is unjust and sometimes impossible; and, in an illuminating chapter drawing on the sciences, concluding: “Instead of treating same-sex attraction as a symptom of moral corruption or even natural fallenness, we can appreciate it as diversity within the whole.”

Two of these essential issues are about biblical interpretation, specifically “How do we get ethics from the Bible?” Her “key interpretive principle” is “discernment of human need”. Comparing same-sex marriage with traditional teaching about slavery and divorce, she argues for a similar shift in interpretation. The particular insight that she is keen to pass on is that such a shift is already biblical, because the biblical authors are doing the same thing already: that is, “Pre-existing divine revelation was applied with a pastoral eye for the suffering of those involved,” and the biblical authors “interpret scriptural texts with consideration for circumstances”.

The possibility of reading the Bible differently has clearly come to this author with a sense of relief and revelation. “I found that Scripture offers a life-giving vision I had not seen before.” What she has discovered is what Keith Ward (in What the Bible Really Teaches) called “sublation”: the sense that “Christian teaching is not given complete and fully worked out in the Bible itself,” but “needs to be developed in ways for which the writers did not have the vocabulary . . .”.

Keen’s material is more advanced than Ford’s, and contains detailed and very useful endnotes. Both books deserve a close reading from their intended readerships, and a place on already crowded reading lists in universities, colleges, and training courses. I hope they get them.

Dr Adrian Thatcher is Honorary Professor of Theology in the University of Exeter. His latest book is Redeeming Gender (OUP, 2016).

God, Gender, Sex and Marriage
Mandy Ford
Jessica Kingsley £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9

Scripture, Ethics and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships
Karen R. Keen
Eerdmans £13.99
Church Times Bookshop £12.59

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