THE book Living in Love and Faith: Christian teaching and learning about identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage carries a firm archiepiscopal imprimatur in the shape of a foreword by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York; an invitation by the Bishops of the C of E “to join us in using this book”; and a closing appeal to join in a period of discernment as they lead the C of E “into making whatever decisions are needful for our common life”.
In between, the book is divided into five parts, each of which ends with a short section of “Encounters”, in which a variety of individuals is introduced to tell their personal stories. The editors invite readers to skip to any areas that interest them, but ensure that they return to unread sections for a full picture.
Reflecting: what have we received?
The first part lays down some basic principles: that life is a gift from God, and is lived in an array of relationships, “some of them, especially those made possible by the mobility and technology of modern life, unimaginable in Jesus’s time”. Friendship is commended, and singleness by choice and circumstance acknowledged. Marriage is regarded as yet another gift, one that should be lifelong but can be lost.
The Bible is seen as central to Christian understanding, although it should be recognised that history and culture were involved in its writing, and, equally, are involved in its present-day interpretation, since both are inspired by God, who is also responsible for the material world, which can be known through the work of science.
Paying attention: what is going on?
Part Two looks more closely at the contemporary world, including statistics about marriage, in particular the average age at which people first marry (38 for men, 35 for women), the likelihood of divorce (35 per cent), attitudes to singleness, the correlation between marriage and the well-being of children, and the relationship between identity and gender.
It asks: “Should we focus on encouraging particular kinds of relationship? Or should we be enabling many different kinds of relationship, and many different kinds of family, to flourish? Are we able to be honest about the consequences of our choices?”
Attitudes to sex are explored, with more statistical material (average lifetime sexual partners for men is 11.7, for women, 7.7; the percentage of people who have had same-sex experiences is seven per cent for men, 16 per cent for women; 82 per cent of Anglicans/Roman Catholics say that sex outside marriage is “not wrong at all”). Abortion, pornography, domestic abuse, and child abuse are listed.
It looks at what modern science can contribute to understanding about sexual orientation, gender, and variations in sexual characteristics. It quotes the view that sexual orientation is determined approximately one third by genetic factors, and two-thirds by biological or social environment. Issues of transgender and gender dysphoria are explored, including their occurrence in adolescence. Chromosomes come into play in a discussion of variations in sexual characteristics.
Finally, part two attempts a survey of Anglican positions on sexuality, including the 1998 statement from the Lambeth Conference, and the growth of GAFCON.
The authors challenge readers here, as they do elsewhere in the book, to reflect on their reactions to the description of contemporary mores: “Did you hear this as a story of progress — however uneven and fragile that progress might be? Did you hear it as a story of decline — of the erosion of important institutions or the forgetting of important truths? Did you hear it as describing something too messy to be thought of as either progress or decline?”
Making connections: where are we in God’s story?
Part Three looks at the work of salvation, how it includes the body, and the value of relationships in scripture, singling out the story of David and Jonathan and their “intense mutual affection”. The prevalence of stability and exclusivity in sexual relations in the Bible is pointed out, as is the importance of the family, but also the absence of mutuality in many relationships, including marriage. “The process by which we discover our identities in Christ should be one in which we discover that each one of us is loved and valued by God as fully, as lavishly, as every other.”
The need for repentance and reform, however, is acknowledged — and disputes within the Church about what behaviour this applies to. Diversity is affirmed, but also the way in which sin can mar God’s purpose.
It is here that the passage in Issues in Human Sexuality (1991), which became the touchstone of Anglican responses to same-sex matters, is quoted: “Homophile orientation and its expression in sexual activity do not constitute a parallel and alternative form of human sexuality as complete within the terms of the created order as the heterosexual.”
The authors put these words in the context of more recent discussions about disability: what is healthy and what is not, what is deemed normal or “unnatural”. They acknowledge that difference is often seen as a threat. However: “The love of God is displayed in human lives not despite their being different, but in and through their differences.”
This is explored in terms of identity, which is split into three parts: core aspects of character that will prove to be eternal; temporary accommodations that will one day no longer define us; and elements that are broken or sinful, and not compatible with our true identities in Christ.
The Church’s response to diversity is surveyed, including attitudes to holiness, justice, unity, and disagreement. Although all are called into Christ’s Church, “We disagree about the kinds of change called for from the people who are welcomed into this community.” Celibacy, marriage, chastity, and sex are re-examined in this light.
Seeking answers: how do we hear God?
The book returns to Christian approaches to sexuality outlined in Part One, but looks at these in the light of hermeneutics, and the lessons from creation, cultural context, and personal experience.
This section looks at the key biblical texts about sexuality, and dissects each in relations to textual, canonical, and historical context. It acknowledges various prohibitions, but questions their scope and applicability. Marriage and relationships are once again examined, and traditional, proof-text approaches are compared with an approach “derived . . . from deeper underlying principles that scripture gives us for the whole of life”. Seven gradations of attitudes to biblical authority are suggested.
This part also looks at authority: who makes decisions about how God wishes his Church to act, and how are those decisions made? Non-Anglicans might find the discussion of the Articles and Canons, the Book of Common Prayer, the Lambeth Conference, and the 1938 report of the Doctrine Commission hard to negotiate. Importantly, the authors ask of these decision-making bodies: “Who is not in the room?. . . The Church of England has not typically been good at tackling the dynamics of power and exclusion that damage its processes of discernment.”
Science is brought back into play: “When we are talking about human identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage, we should listen to the best of what the natural and social sciences have to tell us.” Also, culture, acknowledging different attitudes to sexuality and gender around the world. (Anglican divisions over polygamy are rehearsed.) The gospel must be “transcultural and inculturated”. “Church culture” is warned against, and should be judged, alongside secular cultures, on how restricted its vision of humanity is. Individual conscience and experience are affirmed, as is prayer.
Conversing: what can we learn from each other?
Here the idea of the Encounters sections is developed, and the reader is invited to eavesdrop on conversations between several speakers on the more contentious issues where the editors consider that a single, authorial voice does not do justice to the complexity of opinions. Topics are marriage, sex and relationships, gender identity and transition, and the life of the Church.
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