INTO the turbulent waters of Evangelical debate on human sexuality, Mark Vasey-Saunders has cast a very large stone. The internal Anglican discussion on homosexuality in particular, intensified by the ongoing Living in Love and Faith process, has seemed to onlookers for a long time static, if not even sterile. Little new material has been produced to shift the “liberal” and “conservative” strategies of interpretation an inch either way for many years.
Vasey-Saunders concentrates on just the “conservative” Evangelical Anglican arguments against a change in the Church’s policy on same-sex relationships, and his critical handling of them is oblique. He does not directly contradict Evangelical criticism of same-sex relationships; nor does he advance explicit arguments for a different position. Instead, what he seeks to do is to subject the underlying presupposition of modern Evangelical argumentation to a series of challenges, which, in effect, disable some (but not, I think, all) of its central points.
His target is what he calls the “consensus position”, in summary: “that the only permissible patterns of sexual life for gay or straight people are heterosexual marriage or abstinence”. Defenders of this line, he suggests, assume that this has always been the normative teaching of the Church, that this amounts to a first-order issue of faith (in other words, to teach or hold to a different view is a contradiction of a core element of faith), and that they are only articulating the same arguments, using the same scriptural passages, as the Church traditionally has in the past.
For Vasey-Saunders, the key problem with this position is that it is not an ancient argument at all, but a strikingly modern one, advanced in the face of what some writers assume to be the “monstrous” arguments of modernity against Christian faith. In response to a perceived existential threat to Christian faith, conservative Evangelical writers on both sides of the Atlantic have sought to externalise and valorise their interpretation of scripture, driving internal diversity and disagreement out of the range of legitimate diversity of opinion.
But their use of biblical texts does not correspond to the forms of argument made in the past on sexual matters, and they have actually incorporated a significant accommodation to modernity in their acceptance of sexual orientation as a relevant human fact, and of mutuality rather than procreation as the primary goal of marriage. Their so-called “traditional” position, far being from being a counter-movement to modernity, is a development within modernity. We are all modern now.
Vasey-Saunders deals deftly with acknowledged authorities in the field, and it is very difficult in a short review to do justice to his position. Is it convincing? To this reviewer, he certainly brings a fresh eye to a stale debate, and casts the entrenched positions of opponents of a change in church policy in an altogether different light. Not all will agree, but his book is surely a new and vital contextualising of Evangelical arguments on sexuality. The sheer fact of continuing contention ought to make anyone hesitate to claim that only one argument is sustainable and that no disagreement can be countenanced on the matter.
Yet, his opponents will also feel that some necessary blows do not quite land. It is one thing to contextualise the arguments of conservative Evangelicals by showing changes in the use and resonance of particular biblical texts over time, changing ideas about marriage, and changing understandings of what actually constitutes sexuality, but it is another matter to draw from that — and, to be fair, Vasey-Saunders himself does not do this — the idea that the vast majority of church teaching in the past was anything other than hostile to what is being proposed now.
In a final chapter, he puts forward a series of guidelines by which he hopes future debate can be steered in a more peaceable direction, and from this reviewer it is “Amen” to that; but there is no question but that the debate will go on.
The Revd Dr Jeremy Morris is the Church of England’s National Adviser for Ecumenical Relations.
Defusing the Sexuality Debate: The Anglican Evangelical culture war
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