Is the Southwark Legal Opinion Biblical?

That title is a formal way of asking whether the legal opinion that was offered by Church House as part of the discernment process for the appointment of a new Bishop of Southwark was unfair. A large amount of comment has focussed on the right or otherwise of the Church of England to be exempted from certain portions of the Equality Act in this regard, but I’m interested in this post in exploring whether there might be a biblical basis for the list.

Here again is the list of items.

  • whether the candidate had always complied with the Church’s teachings on same-sex sexual activity
  • whether he was in a civil partnership
  • whether he was in a continuing civil partnership with a person with whom he had had an earlier same-sex sexual relationship
  • whether he had expressed repentance for any previous same-sex sexual activity
  • whether (and to what extent) the appointment of the candidate would cause division and disunity within the diocese in question, the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion

It strikes me that the pertinent Scripture to address this issue is in the Pastoral Epistles. Here are the relevant passages.

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.
1 Timothy 3:1-7

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.  He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
Titus 1:5-9

Let’s go through the five points of the legal opinion and see if there’s any grounds for them from these passages.

  1. Whether the candidate had always complied with the Church’s teachings on same-sex sexual activity – Surely this is covered by the commendation to be “self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined”? I think this one is obvious
  2. Whether he was in a civil partnership – Both pastorals have the instruction that an overseer should be “the husband of one wife”. Clearly this is a bar on polygamists being Bishops, but until recently it has also been used to bar remarried divorcees from preferment. Given that a single man (of whatever sexuality) can also be a Bishop it is difficult to assume “husband of one wife” straight away prohibits those in a Civil Partnership. Of course, it would need to be a celibate Civil Partnership to comply with the Church’s teaching on sexual morality and with the 2005 House of Bishops’ Pastoral Statement. The issue around celibacy is picked up in the next item.
  3. Whether he was in a continuing civil partnership with a person with whom he had had an earlier same-sex sexual relationship – Perhaps the most obvious comparison in terms of handling those who have had previous sinful behaviour when being remarried. For example, though many of us clergy are increasingly open to the possibility of remarriage after divorce, most of us would take a negative view to performing a remarriage when the sexual liason of the couple presenting for marriage was part of the reason for the breakdown of a previous marriage. Similarly, it might be argued by some that the previous sinful activity undermines the validity of the present relationship being presented as “upright, holy and disciplined”. Of course, the next point picks up this idea.
  4. Whether he had expressed repentance for any previous same-sex sexual activity – What do we mean by repentance? “I repent of engaging in sinful behaviour” is different from “I repent of disobeying the Church’s teaching”. Although there has been much criticism of this aspect of the legal opinion on revisionists sites (especially focussing on whether “straight” candidates are asked similar questions) it is I believe one of the strongest Biblical points of this list. The call to be “above reproach” in both passages cannot mean perfection, so it must imply integrity in godly living. There must be nothing in the candidate’s life which could cause reproach, and if there has been then the obvious conclusion is repentance for that. This is a real Gospel clause in the legal opinion, the desire that the man being suggested as a candidate recognises sinful behaviour and repents of it. Is there a need for public repentance? Well, perhaps that is covered by the fifth point.
  5. Whether (and to what extent) the appointment of the candidate would cause division and disunity within the diocese in question, the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion – One might argue that someone who has sinned in the past and is not willing to admit publicly repentance for that sin is likely to cause division and disunity. If Bishops are chiefly Gospel men then they need to be seen to be those who take the good news of repentance and forgiveness seriously. Confess your sins to each other says the Apostle and whilst there is place for private confession, in some senses a Bishop who was not repentant of sin could not be the representative of all the presbyters of the Church in their Gospel mission.
    That said, is the concept of “Focus of Unity” a Biblical one? Well we are told that the Bishop must be “well thought of by outsiders” and this might point towards the “Focus of Unity” requirement. Granted, a Bishop doesn’t have to please everyone, but if aspects of his life cause division amongst the Church, is he really a suitable candidate?

One final interesting point. One part of the Pastoral Epistles’ “rules” for overseers reflects on another aspect of the debate over same-sex relationships. In some places some anger has been expressed over the issue as to whether a Bishop should be required to hold a particular doctrinal position on sexual morality. This concern asks why a “gay” candidate should be excluded for teaching a revisionist position when other “straight” bishops already hold to such views. In response to this, Paul writes, “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” The question for the Church of England is whether it has settled on what “sound doctrine” in this area is.

These are just thoughts to open up the conversation, focussed on the Bible. I would welcome comments staying on-topic of whether this legal opinion has Biblical basis.

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