IN HER new book, Clare Herbert is trying to push the Church of England’s all-too-familiar conversation on same-sex relationships into new territory. Instead of setting the authority of particular biblical texts against the integrity of personal experience, the author wants the Church to look at the unique experience of same-sex couples through the lens of “queer theology”. She wants to square the unproductive circle of current debates.
Herbert’s style is not polemical. She sensitively explores the relationships of 13 gay and lesbian Christian couples in civil partnerships in order to see what their experience tells us about committed same-sex love between thoughtful, articulate Christians who bring their faith fully into their relationships.
The author starts by telling us how her own experience motivated her for the research that she undertook. She then identifies the sacramental quality of the research participants’ civil partnerships and considers how they point towards an enriched theology of marriage.
This leads Herbert to the heart of the book, where she invites us to grapple with what to many will be the little-known approach of queer theology, a variety of liberation theology which questions and subverts the traditional “hetero-normative” understanding of marriage as represented in the official statements that emanate from the Lambeth Conference or the House of Bishops.
The author contends that this approach allows us to discern God’s presence and action in “outsider” people and places, beyond the boundaries of heterosexual relationships.
The book moves on to identify fragments of a theology of same-sex marriage which emerge from her research interviews. This leads inevitably to the question: Are these experiences of civil partnership really marriage or not?
Only then does Herbert take on conservative readings of biblical texts and natural theology, using the methods of queer theology which favour the overarching story of God’s love in creation, covenant, salvation, and Church rather than the methods that have sometimes led to the misuse of the Bible and the abuse of LGBTQ Christians.
She concludes, “We are less likely to misuse the Bible if we ask of our interpretations: who is excluded here? Why, and how may they be included?”
This is a compassionate study, but purposeful in its intent and wide-ranging in its implications. If the language of queer theology is new and faintly disturbing, this might be of genuine value to the individual reader and to the wider Church, because something needs to disturb the stale air of contemporary debate if the process of Living in Love and Faith is to be productive.
This wise and courageous book opens another window and lets in some welcome fresh air.
The Rt Revd John Pritchard is a former Bishop of Oxford.
Towards a Theology of Same-Sex Marriage: Squaring the circle
Jessica Kingsley £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18