THE next sessions of the General Synod approach. Given the issues at stake, is it possible to hold together well?
I write this as someone who currently holds a traditional view of marriage and who, personally and as a matter of conscience, would not bless same-sex couples, at least while I hold my current theological conviction. I find resonance, however, with the theological rationale outlined in Annex H of the recently published GS 2328 (News, Letters, 27 October). In support of this, I believe that there is an often overlooked truth about Christian discipleship which could still bring together parties on different sides of the debate.
Traditionalists who argue that the decision to bless same-sex couples is a first-order theological issue (with red lines and all of that) are taking a particular theological step. First-order theological issues are irrefutable truths about God and about God’s means of our salvation, not questions about human works or morality.
The theological step is taken because of scripture: specifically, because of the concern that scripture could be trumped by other sources of authority, such as the current Zeitgeist, perhaps. This then becomes a first-order issue worth splitting the Church over, because we need a high view of scripture to know who God is and how we might be saved. It is an entirely reasonable argument, I would suggest.
It assumes, however, that the Bible is undeniably clear on the question whether monogamous, lifelong, sexual relationships between people of the same gender are prohibited. Now, while I and others who hold more traditional views think that they are, it is a different thing altogether to suggest that other Christians, filled with the Holy Spirit, couldn’t take a different view in good conscience before God.
The primary reason for that is because the Bible doesn’t come to us as a rule book. It comes to us as a series of texts of remarkably different genres, written in very different contexts, with the invitation to apply the texts to our lives in a personal way. God is interested in our hearts and our acts of conscience, and so a very particularly Christian truth — dare I say, evangelical truth — is that discipleship space has been created for us to work out how we live as we participate in dialogue with scripture.
Through the work of the Holy Spirit within us, in community with those around us and who have gone before, and through our life in the world, we enter a continuous process of change, as we apply the word of God to our lives. Our consciences and characters are continually being reshaped. Anglicans acknowledge scripture, reason, and tradition at work in this process. Scripture in a clear ascendancy, but with the interpretative exercise unavoidably connected with the other sources.
In short, freedom to act in good conscience is a vital aspect of authentic discipleship; and our consciences do speak differently to us, and this isn’t necessarily a result of misinformed teaching, as is already accepted in a variety of ways across our existing Communion.
Examples are contentious, because they are never exact parallels, but take murder. The Bible seems to be clear that killing another human being is wrong. Every Christianised society in history has, however, created theological space to take up arms and kill in the name of a just cause. Of course, there are conscientious objectors, whom we honour. And we also honour those who sacrifice their lives in combat for the good of others. Who does right? Whom does God commend? I would suggest that it is those who act in line with their consciences.
Before this becomes a homage to the subjective conscience, however, we must recognise the communal nature of both our faith and our expressions of Church. It isn’t adequate just to let everyone play the conscience card and do what they like. We have a communal structure in which we decide what falls within the boundaries of legitimate acts of conscience.
An example of this is polygamy. Polygamy abounds in the Old Testament. But it is generally understood that any conviction of conscience which someone might profess to hold in favour of polygamy is really a veil for something that doesn’t line up with God’s best plan for us. Thus, polygamy is illegal in most countries where Christian influence has been significant.
So, we uphold the place of conscience, but we also have the authority of the institutional Church, and the latter has a particular part to play in brokering the placing of the former’s boundaries.
Now, it seems to me, and this is something picked up by Peter Heather in his recent book Christendom (Books, 18 November 2022), that the way in which the institutional Church has typically done this is to gather a group of representatives together and to decide, within an ordered and ultimately democratic process, what the Church decides to affirm.
This might seem all well and good, and appropriately human, but one of the limitations is that it is dangerously binary. We push ourselves to arrive at defined positions, when on some issues it is very possible for people to arrive at different theological conclusions.
In our contemporary moment, we are seeing some of the binary decisions of the past superseded by a recognition of different opinion. A significant example of this is infant baptism: many families prefer dedication before an adult baptism, to say nothing of the varying decisions on when children can participate in holy communion. My point is that we are already publicly bending historic and significant binary theological decisions to cater for individual conscience.
The underlying question that the Synod has been wrestling with is whether monogamous, lifelong sexual relationships between people of the same gender are theologically permissible before God. Historically, we thought that we had a binary answer to that question. No. Now, in the light of cultural changes, pastoral concerns, and a very big discussion about biblical interpretation, we are re-examining that answer afresh, with the painful conflict that results.
We still need to wrestle with that question. But what if the underlying question was related but different: Despite our doctrine of marriage and the weight of traditional views, is it also possible that a whole swath of people can read the Bible in good conscience before God, and develop a conviction that monogamous, lifelong, sexual relationships between people of the same gender are theologically valid and can be part of God’s plan for us?
If the answer to that question is yes, then we need to look at ways of making provision for those who choose different paths through conviction. Just as we have done with infant dedication and adult renewal of baptism vows, and as well as, on a very different issue, making arrangements for episcopal ministry to those who disagree with the ordination of women.
Granted, in making that provision, we will need to identify important provisions and caveats as we think through the next steps for our wider Communion, just as we did on those other issues.
iStockiStockMy perception is that, in their wisdom, the Bishops answered this question for themselves in the spring, without perhaps naming clearly enough the question that they answered or the process by which they came to that conclusion. This is, perhaps, part of the frustration that both sides have felt over recent months.
So, I, for one, find myself in a strange place. I disagree with same-sex blessings from a place of personal conviction. I wrote to my Bishop, aligning myself with concerns over the LLF process raised by the broadly Evangelical group of church leaders in the summer. I am supportive of the 12 bishops who dissented over the withdrawal of the commitment made to bringing the prayers, the pastoral guidance, and pastoral reassurance to the Synod together (News, 20 October).
But I have also sat with enough Bible-believing Christians who think differently from me, to be at a point where I am generally supportive of the motion before the Synod in November as we continue to make space for people with different convictions. And it is this clarity around authentic discipleship, and why space for varying biblical conviction is so important, that is my personal reason for supporting it. It is that which motivates me to write.
To hold together well, it is vitally important that we be clear about what we mean by authentic discipleship, and why space for varying biblical conviction is so important — indeed, important enough sometimes to trump specific ethical viewpoints in any given cultural moment.
So, how might this space be made, in such a way that we don’t end up somewhere more damaging for our wider Communion? Answering this question is the focus of debate for the coming months, and I would suggest there are some things we could acknowledge, and contend for, to help us navigate our way into a better future.
Acknowledge reform, contend for scripture
IN A sense, the Church always needs to reform itself, because we are always trying to identify better the essence of the gospel for us and the implications for our activity in the world, given the varied influence of those who are around us or who have gone before.
All but the most cloistered Evangelical would have to admit that we are navigating some new territory when it comes to biblical interpretation. Just read Tom Wright’s How God became King (now more than ten years old) to see how we have allowed narrow points of emphasis — inherited from the Enlightenment, the Reformation, and even the early creeds — to propagate a reductionist gospel, which still dominates much of our discipleship, missiology, and ecclesiology.
If Christians in the workplace over the past two centuries had understood a gospel that declared Jesus as Lord and King of everything, as opposed to a heavenly passport ticket that came into use only at the end of this life, then so much of our excessive capitalism, global poverty, and environmental destruction, as well as modern slavery, would never have got a foothold.
We have got some things wrong, and we are reading some things new. Consequently, a pressing reformation is around this need for appropriate discipleship space for varied biblical conviction. That means listening to people who are different from us, and humbly, and without fear, engaging in fresh thinking, in the confidence that engaging will either reinforce our existing views or lead us to accept degrees of change.
So, acknowledge reformation, but contend for scripture in that process. One aspect of our Anglicanism means lining up with Richard Hooker’s assertion that scripture is our primary source of authority. Scripture isn’t like other texts, where we simply project our own thoughts or ideas on to them, in the same way as post-Enlightenment universities would teach us to engage with a historical text. It was written with purpose, God-breathed for our salvation and to shape our lives. The Holy Spirit wants to speak to us when we read it, and when we engage with our contemporary and historic community of faith in making sense of it.
It is, therefore, appropriate to call out mishandling of scripture, as we see it, and to call out those exercising structural leadership in our Church who are moving too far from Hooker’s foundations. But our challenge and our success will be based on our ability to do this clearly and in love.
In practical terms, we need both more rigorous theological resources on the question of same-sex relationships, and much stronger discipleship resources on how to honour the development of romantic relationships in general. Across the Anglican Church, we should be able to download small-group resources to explore all aspects of human relationship through the lens of the Bible. We’ve got the ones we produced in our Church to offer; let us organise together something more substantial and far reaching.
Acknowledge problems, contend for unity
WE ALSO, in our current historical moment, need to acknowledge some of Evangelicalism’s recent problems. One of the ones, it seems to me, is that we have allowed legalistic behaviour within the leadership of some of our church structures. Like other institutions, we have suffered from the emotionally unintelligent types, often white males like me, who have declared forcefully what we all need to sign up to — at least, if we are to be considered proper Christians.
We haven’t listened enough, or loved enough, those are different, or who think differently from us. The consequence has been a compression of the authentic discipleship space needed for healthy growth. Historically, at the local level, too many people who identify as LGBTQ+ have been made to feel unwelcome and effectively denied the gospel by the immediacy of their rejection by the church — or pushed into harmful corrective experiences by well-meaning but often misinformed Christians.
Some of our failures as Evangelicals illustrate how much we benefit from church unity. Every wing of the Church does. It is the charism of the Church of England, a broad Church with a multitude of historic influences, called to be a blessing to the wider fabric of our whole society.
Part of my own calling to Anglican ordination was a realisation that our peculiar history has led us to a place where we have had to take Jesus’s prayer in John 17.20-21, that we would be one, very seriously. Contending for unity is in line with his prayer and keeps us anchored in that rich heritage.
This means, as a starter, that very clear protection needs to be afforded, both to traditionalists who are uncomfortable with giving same-sex blessings, and to progressives who want to implement changes. This has been part of the climbdown from going forward under Canon B5, because of uncertainty surrounding the legal protection that it would offer. Taking time to proceed more robustly under Canon B2 should allow fears to be allayed. How this protection is afforded in the interim, if space is being created to experiment liturgically, will need some governance and restraint.
Contending for unity also means that we must conduct our decision-making in the knowledge that most Anglicans now live in the global South. We can’t make decisions in a British pastoral bubble, and we can’t assume any kind of superior, progressive biblical understanding. We need clear communication strategies, therefore, and a willingness to tie our processes to these global relationships, to make sure that we are properly understood.
Fortunately, it seems to me that orientating the debate clearly towards the question of biblical conviction and personal relationship with God presents a global discipleship opportunity set against the more clerically directive processes of revelation which are held up within, say, certain forms of Islam.
Acknowledge idolatry, contend for sexual ethics and marriage
EVERY age has specific forces of idolatry which lead to the destruction of our shared humanity. It would be difficult to argue against there being a current idolatry of sex. Our peculiar contemporary understanding of freedom has opened the gates to the commercialisation of sex and cultural promiscuity.
No doubt we are throwing off some quasi-religious shackles that would keep sex always hidden and shameful, but the result is that many of us now live as harassed people, either constantly fed and craving sexual expression, or at the mercy of others who have been, and certainly taught by the world that our sex and sexuality define who we are.
This is why some of the debate on sex and sexuality has caused the depth of reaction that it has within the Evangelical community, because many of us can see the destruction that is caused when we take sexual ethics out of the discipleship — indeed, the human — conversation.
For myself, I look back on sexual choices that I made as a non-Christian young adult and can see how they damaged both me and others. I can also remember becoming a Christian and refraining from pursuing sexual relationships until getting married some years later — and then thanking God for walking with me during times of desire and longing as I waited for something better and more lasting.
My experience is one of a heterosexual person. The conversation that we should encourage is whether a person identifying as LGBTQ+ believes, as they go on the Christian journey, under scripture, in community with others, in good conscience, that God’s best for them includes a monogamous, lifelong, sexual relationship with someone of the same gender. Because, if you’re a Christian person and you hold that conviction, then I’m going to do my best to love and support you, help you to stay committed in your local church, and grow and develop in your discipleship — as we would do for those choosing celibacy, as many, down through the ages, have.
As an aside, part of upholding marriage seems to me to be about understanding the sacramental depth of its calling. Anglican clergy, in the context of establishment or something like it, have presided over countless marriages in which couples faced the high bar of Christian marriage without having any real personal Christian conviction. Some C of E weddings cannot but undermine the moral high ground that we like to claim in defence of holy matrimony.
Acknowledge distraction, contend for Jesus
AS A final point, given that our world seems to be collapsing into global conflict, environmental catastrophe, unrelenting inequality, and possibly, with the advent of cognitive AI, technological wipeout, you might think it unnecessary for me to suggest that our current debate feels like a distraction from the main issues of the day.
As the Synod takes its seats in the middle of November, if we and our representatives think that the adoption of prayers of blessing for monogamous, lifelong, sexual relationships between people of the same gender is one of the great spiritual and moral challenges of our day, then I suggest we really have been living in a strangely sheltered religious world.
On a purely practical note, what I observe as I walk around contemporary Britain is that the world badly needs more loving commitment, not less. I also say “God bless you” to pretty much anybody I bump into. While there are currently reasons that I might not participate in a service to bless same-sex couples, it is hardly something to leave the Church over, or spend years of debate and agony on.
So, we certainly need to find healthy ways to keep talking about sex, but this particular focus has surely distracted us from other important things. If nothing else, take this as a pragmatic and yet, I hope, measured proposal for moving us towards more fruitful discourse and decision making.
I’m reminded of the remarks of one of my colleagues when asked their response to the direction of travel on this issue. I’ll be focusing on preaching the gospel, they replied, as well as baptising and discipling more people, and raising up others to continue the work. Amen to that.
The Revd Jude Padfield is Vicar of St James in the City, a Resource Church in Liverpool, and author of Hopeful Influence: A theology of Christian leadership (Books, 29 January 2021) and the Hopeful Influence podcast.