A NEW network for Evangelicals, committed to both the “high view of scripture” characteristic of their tradition and support for same-sex relationships, is growing fast, a convener reported this week.
Inclusive Evangelicals was launched in August, after a group of clergy met to discuss their frustration with recent discussions about sexuality. “The loudest public voices from our tradition were conservative ones,” the Revd David Runcorn, a priest in the diocese of Exeter, writes in an account of the group’s formation. “Indeed, the common perception was that this was the Evangelical position. We knew it wasn’t. A wider theological exploration was needed. So, we decided to create a place where that could happen.”
A private Facebook group was created, and, as of this week, has 1000 members — testament, Mr Runcorn writes, to “the significant presence of open, questioning, and exploratory thinking within our Evangelical world”.
A website has also been created, with the strapline: “We joyfully proclaim the biblical affirmation of equality and inclusivity.” It includes articles written to help those who “hold, or simply wish to understand further, the biblical basis for including approaches to same-sex relationships and marriage”, and those who are “leading churches towards inclusion and/or managing strongly different viewpoints within their fellowships”.
The group is not a formal organisation, but a network for those with a shared commitment to an “open exploration of the theology of same-sex relationships from an Evangelical Christian perspective”, Mr Runcorn said last week. “We are trying all the time to be positive in our tone rather than combative, campaigning, or reactive.”
The group’s conveners include four members of the General Synod: the Vicar of St Michael and All Angels, Harrow, the Revd Jody Stowell; the Vicar of St Paul’s, Stockingford, Canon Kate Massey; the Archdeacon of Sheffield and Rotherham, the Ven. Malcolm Chamberlain; and the Area Dean of Battersea, Canon Simon Butler, a member of the Archbishops’ Council.
“We respect fellow Evangelicals who disagree with us, and hope for their respect in return,” Ms Stowell says in the written account. “ We do not believe any should be forced to act against their conscience. We are committed to walking together in this. We do not believe it is a matter to divide over.”
While members of the Facebook group say that they are at “different stages in our theological and biblical journeys”, the website states that Inclusive Evangelicals “affirm the decision of General Synod to support the Bishops’ proposals for services of blessing for same-sex couples. Many of us would support same-sex marriage.” It also argues that, to divide over views on sexuality “is without precedent and founds our ecclesiology on sex. This has no mandate in the Bible, the historic creeds, and councils of the faith.”
Mr Runcorn is a member of the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) implementation group tasked with refining the Prayers of Love and Faith (News, 5 May 2023). The Archdeacon of Dudley, the Ven. Nikki Groarke, referred to his book Love Means Love: Same-sex relationships and the Bible (SPCK, 2020), and The Possibility of Difference (Kevin Mayhew, 2018; Features, 15 February 2019) by the Revd Marcus Green, another Inclusive Evangelicals convener, as key texts on her “journey towards a more inclusive interpretation of scripture” (Comment, 13 November 2020).
She is one of the archdeacons who, alongside other General Synod members, established the Evangelical Forum, after the formal Evangelical Group of the General Synod added to its basis of faith “the unchangeable standard of Christian marriage between one man and one woman as the proper place for sexual intimacy and the basis of the family”, prompting a number of members to resign (News,12 July 2019; Letters, 3 March). Some of these members are also conveners of Inclusive Evangelicals.
Last week, Mr Runcorn suggested that parts of the Evangelical world needed reminding of the contention of Max Warren (a former general secretary of CMS), that an Evangelical was “no more Christian than others who, in understanding and practice, have worked out a different balance, another proportion of faith”. The “historic, creative diversity” of the tradition had become “increasingly narrowed” in recent years, he feared.
He had “often” been told that he was no longer an Evangelical because of his views on same-sex relationships. Yet like many, he wished to stay in the tradition: “For me, in a way I can’t surrender, it is my spiritual home. It is family. This stubborn, passionate, argumentative and diverse way of believing called ‘Evangelical’, keeps drawing me and recalling me to the way of Christ like nowhere else.”
The tradition was “perennially unsettled . . . very difficult to define precisely, even for Evangelicals themselves”, he argued. “It accepts a degree of provisionality about the faith once received in the light of new challenges and questions in every generation. Evangelicals are therefore open to change under the compelling of the Spirit and in the light of new questions.”
The Facebook group (though private, anyone sharing the group’s convictions can ask to join it), has highlighted the need for fellowship and support, and the extent of pastoral as well as theological need, he believes. One member had written: “I am just leaving a community I have been part of for twenty years.” Another wrote of the “many perplexed, intelligent Evangelical laypeople who feel completely under-resourced to do the necessary hard, personal thinking over the issues.
“In their day-to-day context they accept, mix with, and socialise with gay friends and family, while their church context states that such people are sinful, disordered, and in need of healing.” There were also positive stories of growing churches.
During the course of the LLF process, bishops have been among those describing journeys towards affirming same-sex relationships, including the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, a former Warden of Cranmer Hall (News, 4 November 2022).
“Wherever things go post-November Synod, I believe that Evangelicals in the C of E are at the beginning of period of significant and difficult change,” Mr Runcorn writes. “We seek to be a constructive part of the process.”
In addition to podcasts and local meetings, a national conference is in the diary for September 2024.