In his speech to Liverpool Diocesan Synod today, Bishop James Jones has argued that the Church should view the debate over human sexuality in the same way that in the past we have agreed to disagree over Just War. He says,
A cursory glance at the history of the just war theory and the ethics of pacifism show that for the last two thousand years the church has been exercised about whether or not it is ever right for a Christian to take up arms and to take the life of another human being.Â Although it has been agreed that the early church (from the period of persecution within the Roman Empire until the conversion of Constantine) was the age of pacifism, since then the church has not only allowed but embraced a breadth of ethical opinion on the taking of life.
Augustine made the point that Jesus ruled out Malatia (hatred) not Militia (military service) and the church, without compromising the principle of the sanctity of human life, has made space within the Body of Christ for a variety of ethical positions.
I suspect that within our Synod there is a similar spectrum of moral conviction about whether or not it is ever justified to take the life of another.Â No doubt should our nation ever find itself in another period of compulsory conscription to military service we would have lively debates on the floor of this Synod to argue the case and to discern the truth.Â Meanwhile, on this the most fundamental of all ethical issues in spite of any divergent views, we sit comfortably with each other, recognise each otherâ€™s integrity, respect one anotherâ€™s faith and moral judgement and enjoy communion in Christ with one another.
I have to say that I am not fazed by this for with you I recognise that in a complex world of absolute moral principles the application of them is rarely a straightforward process.Â That is why our courts are presided over by people and not computers.
Even though we live in a society tempted to reduce every decision to a box-ticking exercise that can be processed through a computer, when it comes to making moral judgements about a personâ€™s behaviour we have to hear the human story and form a moral judgement with regard not only to the nature of the action but also to the intent and the consequences.Â And although I am not a lawyer I know enough to see that context frames a deed and can either mitigate or aggravate the seriousness of an action.
The histories of the First and Second World Wars when conscription was in force show how many wrestled with their conscience as they sought to apply moral principles to their own particular context.Â As we look back, our society and the church both approve and salute the courage shown by both pacifists and conscripts even though at the time there were passionate debates, fierce division of opinion and great hostility shown to conscientious objectors.
The fact that conscripts and pacifists divided along one moral line does not detract from our admiration now nor deflect us from acknowledging now the moral courage of both.Â We may sympathise with the soldier yet we can salute the pacifist; we may identify fully with the pacifist yet admire the sacrifice of the soldier.
In other words, we can now stand on either side of the moral argument and still be in fellowship despite disagreeing on this the most fundamental ethical issue, the sixth of the Ten Commandments.
I know that especially for those who are gay this is not an exact moral parallel for our sexuality like ethnicity is not a matter of choice.Â It is a given.Â In Christian terms a grace.Â Yet, conceding that important distinction, here is an area of ethical dispute where the church has contained disagreement.
Just as the church over the last 2000 years has come to allow a variety of ethical conviction about the taking of life and the application of the sixth Commandment so I believe that in this period it is also moving towards allowing a variety of ethical conviction about people of the same gender loving each other fully.Â Just as Christian pacifists and Christian soldiers profoundly disagree with one another yet in their disagreement continue to drink from the same cup because they share in the one body so too I believe the day is coming when Christians who equally profoundly disagree about the consonancy of same gender love with the discipleship of Christ will in spite of their disagreement drink openly from the same cup of salvation.
Naturally those on the revisionist side of the argument are loving this, and who can blame them? Ruth Gledhill in the Times reports Colin Coward of Changing Attitude as saying,
This is both a strong affirmation of gay relationships and a confirmation of Anglican tradition, that differences in attitude to homosexuality are not church-dividing and that Christians can live together in one church community respecting each otherâ€™s convictions. This is the church into which I was baptised and which Changing Attitude advocates.
Whilst I understand fully where Bishop Jones is coming from, I want to suggest that his analysis and comparison of issues around human sexuality and just war is incorrect for a number of reasons, some theological and some sociological and biological.
First, issues around human sexuality cut deep to the core of anthropology in a way that the pacifism/militarism debate does not. The traditional human sexual moral is not just about how human beings should behave sexually but on a much deeper level about core issues of identity. As Bishop Jones himself recognises in his speech, human sexuality is an ontological identification in a way that an ethical position on war or peace can never be. Sexual orientation and identity lies at the heart of a person’s sense of being, and often this is misunderstood by those in this debate, especially on the conservative side of the argument. To often we try to make clean and clinical divisions between sin and the sinner, but when one’s attractions are integral to our sense of person-hood such a dichotomy is difficult to maintain. We are created sexual beings and sexual activity is vital and essential to the procreation of the human race – it is something that we simply cannot do without. The argument over war and peace is a discussion about how to resolve issues on a corporate level – the argument over sexual activity and identity is a discussion about the very depth of our created beings. People never define themselves as “born pacifist” or claim to have “pacifist genes”, but when it comes to sexual orientation these fundamental propositions are constantly presented and appealed to. The discussion is not just about how we should act, it is about who we were created to be.
Second, this is a Christological issue in a way that pacifism / Just War is not. Who we are as sexual beings and how we behave sexually is not just an anthropological argument, it is about how human beings have been created to signify Christ and his union with the Church. As I have written previously
Sex is about Jesus. Surprised? Donâ€™t be because EVERYTHING in the world is about Jesus. But specifically, sex has been designed by God to tell us something about what Jesus has done. Look at what Paul writes in Ephesians 5:31-32. Put your cursor over the bible reference to read the Scripture. Then think about this. The model that Paul clearly demonstrates is that husband and wife represent Christ and the Church. Now, I canâ€™t find any other explicit modeling of sexual activity in Scripture (though Iâ€™m happy to be corrected by you guys) so I think this is the place to start.
Paulâ€™s argument is very simple â€“ the union of husband and wife is a signifier of Christ and the Church. The way that they connect, that they live in mutual existence, even the dynamics of the relationship speak of what Christ has done for those whom he is saving (the Church). A lot of theologians agree with this, but are hesitant to ascribe the roles of husband and wife explicitly to Christ and the Church (i.e husband only equals Christ, wife only signifies the Church) but when you examine the biology of male/female sex you see that God has designed even that to speak of Jesusâ€™ relationship to the church.
To make a positive statement about same-sex sexual unions is not just to take an ethical position similar to that around war and peace. To make such a statement is to make a Christological statement and to declare a position on the work of Christ in the Church and how that is to be revealed.
If husband and wife in their biological distinctiveness signifies Christ and the Church, then the lack of that biological distinctiveness in homosexual sex means that such a relationship cannot represent the saving work of Jesus. Male and male would signify Christ and Christ, the clear interpretation of which is that Christ is not interested in saving the Church. Female and female sex (Church and Church) signifies that humans donâ€™t need Jesus to save them.
There is however a second dimension to how homosexual union denies the saving work of Jesus. Not only does the physical act of homosexual activity in itself says something wrong about the saving work of Christ, those who enter into a same-sex partnership place themselves in a position where they cannot speak of the saving work of Christ, for they have created a relationship where hat isnâ€™t possible.
In this light the correct analogy in the work of Augustine of Hippo is not issues around war and peace but rather the debate with Arius, Eusebius and Pelagius over the nature of Christ and his atoning work. I’m sure that on these core issues of Christology and Soteriology Bishop Jones would not permit discord in his diocese (for example, I don’t believe he would permit a vicar to preach consistently that we are saved by works, nor permit an incumbent to teach that Christ was a created angel). The problem is though, that since sexual expression signifies truth about the atoning work of Christ, to permit “wrong sex” is to permit idolatry. Either one accepts that sexual union within marriage is a sign and symbol of the union between Christ and the Church (in which case sex outside of this context, the position consistently taught throughout Scripture) and that there is no mandate for other forms of sexual practice since they would indicate something false about the work of Christ, or one has to remove portions of Genesis 1 and Ephesians 5, together with Jesus’ ethical teaching in the Synoptics from the Bible. Marcion, eat your heart out.
Third, whilst Bishop Jones is correct to call for a more reasonable debate in this area, the reality on the ground is that in the places in the Anglican Church where the revisionist side has advanced its cause, the side-lining and ejecting of those with a conservative theology has always followed. Philip Ashey of the AAC last month produced a magnificent cataloguing of the way that in North America those who follow a traditional sexual theology have been persecuted (the word is not an exaggeration) by liberals in power.
In the secular arena it is very clear that groups like Stonewall are prepared to create such a situation here in the UK. Whilst it is alarmist to currently suggest, like the Bishop of Winchester has, that the changes proposed by Lord Alli’s amendment on Civil Partnerships will allow clergy right now to be sued, the trajectory of the progressives is clear in the words of Ben Summerskill of Stonewall when he says:
Right now, faiths shouldnâ€™t be forced to hold civil partnerships, although in ten or 20 years, that may change.
Colin Coward of Changing Attitude agrees.
Is Lord Alliâ€™s amendment a Trojan horse as some claim? I very much hope so.
And this is not simply about “alternative interpretations” of the Bible. I have sat in a meeting with one of the leading proponents in this country of the revisionist position. That person was asked, “If it could be demonstrated beyond all doubt that the Bible permitted no other sex for Christians then sex within a marriage of a man and a woman, would you change your position?” The answer was a clear, unequivocal “No”. For this person the issue had already been decided a priori to engaging with the Scriptures and no amount of Biblical theology would change their mind. So much for a conversation about what God was saying.
I commend Bishop Jones for wanting to have a graceful and compassionate conversation in this area, but the evidence is that those who are revisionist are not in this just for the mutual exploration of ethical dilemmas, they are in it to change the very face of the Church, regardless of what Conservatives think.
Fourth, Bishop Jones is simply incorrect to sweep away the scientific debate in a manner that assumes that sexuality is a fixed given. The best scientific research indicates that human sexuality is a complex interaction of nature and nurture, and thus it is probable that for each person that experiences same-sex attraction there is a unique interplay of various factors. That is why recently I have written against the imposition by some conservatives of particular development models of human sexuality on all those who self-identify as homosexual. While the “absent father” narrative is deeply insightful for some (including this author) leading to healing and orientation change, for others it is not relevant, and indeed can be damaging if one attempts reparative activities based upon its assumptions. At the same time the insistence by some revisionists that sexuality is biological in origin and therefore cannot be changed is a scientific naivety and flies in the face of good evidence that for some sexual identity and ever orientation is fluid and malleable.
Ultimately one cannot rest an ethical argument on “I was born this way, so it must be good”. We would not treat paedophilia, or alcoholism, or kleptomaniaÂ or polygamy or any other number of sinful desires in that manner and therefore neither should we homosexuality.
Fifth, where Bishop Jones makes a great point though is his highlighting that sometime the traditional position has been presented in such a way to encourage, rather than diminish, homophobia. He says:
The heartache for those who take the traditional stance is that it can be used to fuel homophobic attitudes.Â This is particularly painful for Christians who are homosexual and who accept the traditional ethic for themselves; they feel the negativity personally.Â It is an agonising cross.Â As you can imagine, they do not come lightly to the interpretation that their homosexual condition is a call to celibacy.Â In my view, the debate over the last twenty years has not given sufficient attention to their situation or to their theological, ethical and spiritual insights.
The problem though with this argument is that Bishop Jones is encouraging us to create a clear illogical paradox within our pastoral teaching. While all of us would agree with him that we should do everything to not propagate homophobia (and I have on a number of occasions picked up fellow conservatives on this very issue), I cannot see how one could support two diametrically opposed moral stances. Either the Church teaches that those who are unmarried should be celibate, or it doesn’t. What it cannot do however is say to one woman that she is correct in her reading of the Bible that she should not engage in sex with someone of the same sex, and to another woman in exactly the same position that she is equally correct in her decision to form a sexual union. If Bishop Jones wants to support those who make the choice for celibacy (and in doing so he would do well to refer many to the great ministry of the True Freedom Trust), the moment he affirms someone who has chosen for a same-sex union he has completely undermined his support of the former.
What then is the road forward? Bishop Jones recognises that currently we in the Church encompass a wide range of opinions.
That which I have stated explicitly in this address I believe we are already living out implicitly, namely that we do already as a Diocese accept a diversity of ethical convictions about human sexuality in the same way that the church has always allowed a diversity of ethical opinion on taking human life.Â Within our own fellowship we are brothers and sisters in Christ holding a variety of views on a number of major theological and moral issues and we are members of a church that characteristically allows a large space for a variety of nuances, interpretations, applications and disagreement.Â I know that sometimes it stretches us, but never to breaking point, for it seems to me that there is a generosity of grace that holds us all together.
The difference is that currently officially we do not accept the equal validity of this “diversity of ethical opinion” when it comes to human sexuality. I’m quite happy with the idea that some in the church may want to push differing understandings of Scripture; such is the nature of theological discourse and it is how we move forward in our understanding of what God has said for thousands of years. But what Bishop Jones is suggesting is different from that, for by having side-by-side with equal validity contradictory opinions which strike at the very heart of what it means to be human and what it means for Christ to be Christ is to create an unstable and contradictory message. This is not a missional approach.
Bishop Jones says,
If on this subject of sexuality the traditionalists are ultimately right and those who advocate the acceptance of stable and faithful gay relationships are wrong what will their sin be?Â That in a world of such little love two people sought to express a love that no other relationship could offer them?Â And if those advocating the acceptance of gay relationship are right and the traditionalists are wrong what will their sin be?Â That in a church that has forever wrestled with interpreting and applying Scripture they missed the principle in the application of the literal text?
Do these two thoughts not of themselves enlarge the arena in which to do our ethical exploration?
Well yes, but these are not just matters of ethics but soteriology. A brief look at 1 Cor 6:9-11 tells us that we are not just dealing with moral issues but mortal souls and their eternal future.
The place for that discernment is the Body of Christ where the different members, differentiated by the diversity of our graces, gifts and experiences, are called to be in harmony and love with one another.
True, but I believe Bishop Jones is in danger of confusing theological discourse and theological validation, a mistake that could have hellish (rather than heavenly) consequences.