The Lambeth Listening Resource – A Review

For a few weeks I’ve had a copy of the book to the right sat on my desk. it was sent to me as a review copy and I’ve been slowly going through it, a bit every day, time allowing. I’ve finally come to the end of reading it and have a simple, clear thing to say.

"The Anglican Communion and Homosexuality" is very, very good.

The book is edited by Phil Groves, the co-ordinator of the Anglican Communion Listening Process, and in his introduction with Andrew Goddard he sets out clearly the intent of the resource that he has created. It is simply this:

"To explore together the complex mystery of human sexuality and the shape of faithful human discipleship in this area."

and the book more than meets this remit. Through eight sections Phil Groves colates the thoughts and stufies of a number of academics and theologians, interest groups and Anglican bodies to provide what is probably the best general reader on this subject from an Anglican perspective. The contributions are varied and provide an insight into both the wide range of opinion on this subject and also a clear exposition of what the current Anglican position is and possible ways forward.

The opening section, "Listening and Mission", provides the framework for the rest of the compilation by laying out the clear understanding that issues around human sexuality are issues of mission. Unless as Christians we listen to the experience of those who have identified at some point as being homosexual, we cannot really produce an answer foucsed in Christ for them. This approach then focuses us in our study of the rest of the book, for we are not just reading for reading’s sake but for the sake of understanding what Christ would have us do in the world with those who are homosexual.

Chapter three, "The Witness of Scripture", takes us on a detailed journey through not just the "clobber passages" but also the general framework that the Bible presents for the exercising of human sexuality. The Scriptures are handled fairly, with all sides of the argument expressed so that the reader can understand the current international debate . The chapter is followed by one on "The Witness of Tradition" where issues such as marriage and polygaymy are explored as examples of the development of Anglican theology in areas of controversy. This leads us to understand how the formation of biblical theology is not a static, once and for all, process but rather evolves within the context of wrestling with the latest contextual socieal issues. This chapter is then followed by some fantastic contributions on the subject of "Homosexualities and Culture" from the Church of Uganda, North America, South Africa and England. This section is far from being a capitulation to liberal notions of the primacy of experience over objective understandings of revelation in Scripture and instead is a marvelous exercise in understanding where many in this debate across the globe are coming from as regards their own cultural contexts.

Issues of identity and spirituality are also examined before the closing chapter on the scientific debate where David de Pomerai provides a brilliant summary of the current research into biological causation of homosexuality. He hits the nail on the head with his summary of the research when he concludes:

"Only a complex and highly variable mixture of underlying mechanisms – some biological, as well as some psychosocial – seems adequate to explain the relaity of homosexuality in human society, and no single mechanism can claim to hold the key to homosexuality."

This provides a natural lead in to the last section of the book, a study by Glyn Harrison of whether pastoral and counselling techniques can help homosexuals to change, a section that is fair in exploring not only the complaints about abuse in this area, but also the remarkable number of testimonies that change can really happen.

So what is my overall verdict of this book? Well as I expressed above, it is really a very good compilation. As an initial Reader to help the uninitiated understand the complex parts of this discussion there is simply nothing to come close to the usefulness of this volume. And while it is fair and balanced, conservative readers will be encouraged that there is no surrender to a revisionist agenda. If I had my way, I would bundle it with the 2003 Church of England House of Bishops’ report "Some Issues in Human Sexuality" as the two essential pieces of reading on this fractious subject. If you are at all interested or involved in this subject, you need to have read Phil Grovess excellent volume sooner rather than later.

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  • ryan

    Will look into them. A lot of (theological!) conservatives have recommended Robert Gagnon to me; are you a fan? Was talking to someone going through the ordination selection process, and I agree that the rules seem to state that canditates should agree with the Church’s “teaching” on sexuality.  Of course this doesn’t preclude the possibility that BCP style ordination vows are primarily understood symbolically by those taking them, or that what is meant by “teaching” is something different from a magisterium equivalent.

  • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

    I think Gagnon’s theological stuff on this is brilliant and heartily recommend it.

  • ryan

    Peter:
     
    I know you don’t believe in evolution, but I do find it curious that many evangelicals regard genesis as primarily symbolic poetry, but take the “scriptural echoes” in Paul’s sexuality writings that Gagnon’s writing emphasises so straightforwardly.  If the first text isn’t to be understood literally then why is a secondary reference to it so clear cut? Didn’t ++Rowan (perhaps in The Body’s Grace) mention that Gagnon-style complentary theories aren’t inherent in the biblical text but are read in from other sources ( e.g. Plato’s origin story in the Symposium) ? It does sound like the sort of thing that reference to church history would help answer, but I’m not entirely sure on what the evangelical understanding of tradition is (and I concede that many christians *may* have *assumed* the complentary nature of the sexes and corresponding unique legitimacy of heterosexual marital sex theory  that, in today’s more pro-homosex context, needs to be spelled out by the likes of Gagnon).
    Not long to Doctor Who :-) !

  • james noble

    Gagnon is definitive.

    While there are some good people in this book – Poon in particular – there are also lots of “liberals” and pseudo-Christians from TEC and NZ.

    The whole point of the GAFCON meeting last week is that – as Gagnon puts it – this issue is closed: it is not possible for Christians to debate this topic. Any advocacy of homosexual rights, unions, recognition, communion, or marriage is simply outside Christianity.

    So while parts of this book are good, you’d do better to save up for Gagnon’s magnum opus, or simply consult the vast amount of his material online at http://www.robgagnon.net/. I assume Gagnon wasn’t involved in this book simply because of misplaced notions of
    “dialogue” or “fairness” – noone has ever won the argument with Gagnon, and no-one ever can.

  • Blair

    Just a response to your post above, james – no surprises that I think it’s problematic, but I suggest there are good reasons for thinking so.

    If “this issue is closed”, and “it is not possible for Christians to debate this topic”, why does Dr Gagnon spend so much time doing just that? From what I have read of his articles (although I have not read his book), he is not arguing that the issue is closed and the debate shouldn’t be happening, but that there is grave danger of the church taking an utterly ‘wrong direction’ if it officially sanctions and blesses gay relationships (or indeed suggests that there is such a thing as a gay identity, or that one can be a gay Christian, etc) as this he says is indisputably against the Scriptural witness. He seems to me remarkably zealous in making his case, and indeed trying to make it watertight – which may itself be problematic.
     
     
    I would suggest that to say, “Gagnon is definitive” and that “noone ever can” win an argument with him, is to elevate Dr Gagnon (or at least his work) to a Godlike position, which seems to me very dangerous. If I’m not being unfair to you it would make of his work something sacred, so that any objection to it is simply anathema, period. This ignores the cogent objections and ‘reasonable doubts’ that can be raised about his work, and the fact that in places Dr Gagnon seems to me to overstate his case. (One example: his piece from ‘God, Gays and the Church’ alludes to “The universal witness of Scripture to a two-sexes prerequisite for valid sexual unions” (‘GGC’, p108). But there is no such universal witness – if there were, sex between women would be prohibited in the Torah. A two-sexes prerequisite is not the reason given in the text for any sexual prohibition in Lev 18, nor is it the rationale for the list in 1 Cor 6 – again, if it were, sex between women would have to have been mentioned there).

    To be frank, to talk about Dr Gagnon’s work as you do above, sounds like a straightforward grab for all the power and legitimacy in this ‘debate’. The implication of what you said is that the rug’s simply pulled from under anyone who disagrees with him, because disagreeing with him is impossible. This raises the question, on what basis do you judge, and silence, those who disagree? Also, denying them a voice is problematic: in his Temple Address in 2005, Rowan Williams said this –
    “I think that real respect begins when I recognise that everyone – and for that matter every bit of our universe – has a relationship with God that’s quite independent of their relationship with me, or with any system of earthly dignity or power. And if God speaks and listens to each one, each person has the right to claim a listening ear from the rest of us”. It seems to me that what you say above, effectively denies this.
     
     
    Lastly, if the implications of what you say above were acted upon, any ‘pastoral care’ offered to those of us who identify as gay Christians, could not involve any listening – indeed the whole listening process this thread’s about, would have been futile. If “it is not possible for Christians to debate this topic”, there could be no listening and no conversation, only one-way traffic where those holding to a conservative view declare the truth, and gay Christians silently take it that we’re deceiving ourselves. Is that really what you would want to see?

    I fear I’ve been too harsh, but hope you understand why what you say might be found a little hard to take by some.

    in friendship, Blair

  • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

    James,

    The book doesn’t pretend to be a conservative volume. Rather, it is a guide to listening to those on all sides of the debate. It does that task exceedingly well.

  • alex

    In reply to Ryan,
    I think the point you miss is that there are different types of writing in the bible. Paul writes letters of direct instruction to the churches, whereas Genesis describes the key elements of creation – God as creator, man as created by Him but placed in charge of the earth, man and woman as created for one another, man and woman as rebelling against God etc. For conservatives, Genesis is not “simply symbolic poetry” (it’s not even poetry, in fact). It gives the fundamentals of the created order and of how it was polluted. For issues of biblical theology, there are few books you have to return to more.

  • ryan

     Alex,

    The genesis is poetry observation was made by an evangelical; I think it’s a fair generalisation to say that many evangelicals use similar arguments to allow them to concede the validity of things like evolution and to prevent lapsing into overt fundamentalism. 

    Poetry is the best words in the best possible order thus making it an appropriate definition for Genesis ;-)

  • Alex

    Ryan,
    I like your last line very much! There are two fundamentalisms, it seems to me. One involves adding one’s own culture’s interpretation to texts, from treating heliocentrism as heresy to insisting on 6-day creation (neither of which are biblically specified – the “day” of Genesis 1 can also be translated “era” from the Hebrew.) [I suppose Islamic equivalents are the hijab and female circumcision.] The other fundamentalism is seeking biblical faithfulness without cultural add-ons. Either way, however, Genesis is not poetry! I myself am an evangelical (in the sense of viewing scripture as clear divine revelation of good news) and am certainly not familiar with others referring to Genesis as “primarily symbolic poetry”. I would have to disagree with your friend.
    The bible’s first poem is Adam’s and concerns Eve: “Ode to my left lower rib”
    The first poem in the bible is Adam’s and concerns the creation of Eve: “Ode to my left lower rib”

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  • Christopher Shell

    Gagnon continues to debate because, whereas he has reached the level of understanding he has (and the more one learns, the more one realises how much there is to learn), many of his opponents and indeed supporters have not, and therefore need to be responded to. The arguments of those who have thought less about an issue naturally need to be refined by those who have thought more about it.

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