You need to read the whole Pilling Report, but the Bishop of Birkenhead’s dissenting statement spells out all the issues much better than I could.
415. It is with much regret that I have concluded that I cannot sign the report of the House of Bishopsâ€™ Working Group on Human Sexuality (â€˜the Reportâ€™). I offer this dissenting statement to set out another vision and explain why. Those who have been part of the Working Group on Human Sexuality have gone out of their way to listen to my views. They have sought to produce a report that, in their view, goes as far as possible to meet those concerns. I am supportive of many of the Reportâ€™s recommendations and share many of the concerns driving the Report as we wrestle with being faithful to Christ in our changing culture. For the sake of the peace and unity of the Church I would have loved to have put my name to a unanimous report. I have no desire to see issues of human sexuality distracting us from proclaiming the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. However, after much prayer and soul searching, I have concluded I cannot sign.
416. Why have I reached this conclusion? For a number of reasons which I try to set out in more detail in this statement:
- I believe Scripture and Christian tradition offer a clearer and better vision from God for the world in his gift of our sexuality as men and women and that this is sufficient for directing the Church at this critical time of major cultural change. In particular, I am not persuaded that the biblical witness on same sex sexual behaviour is unclear.
- I believe the trajectory in the Report will undermine the discipleship and pastoral care of many faithful Christians and, by leading the Church into the kind of cultural captivity which much of the prophetic writings warn against, weaken our commitment to Godâ€™s mission.
- I believe in the unity of Christâ€™s Church and think the Report has not heeded the view of General Synod expressed in February 2007 that â€˜efforts to prevent the diversity of opinion about human sexuality creating further division and impaired fellowship within the Church of England and the Anglican Communion… would not be advanced by doing anything that could be perceived as the Church of England qualifying its commitment to the entirety of the relevant Lambeth Conference Resolutions (1978: 10; 1988: 64; 1998: 1.10)â€™.
417. Although this lack of agreement is painful for me and all of us who have been part of the Working Group, no one who has listened, as we have, to so many, can fail to be unaware of the pain of many in the whole Church. I think a unanimous report with my colleagues would suggest that the differences between us do not continue to be deep and real. By submitting a dissenting statement in this way, I pray the House and College of Bishops will continue to be able to bear the pain of the Church in our own life together, and continue to seek and trust God for his better way.
The mystery of human sexuality
418. It is important to begin by stressing there is much in the Reportâ€™s analysis and recommendations with which I agree and hope the Church will accept. I want to make clear at the outset that I am in agreement with Recommendations 5 â€“7 and absolutely committed to challenging prejudice against or exclusion of those we may perceive as being â€˜differentâ€™ from ourselves, whatever form of difference that may take. We are talking about friends and family and the body of Christ. This raises the issue of the many kinds of sexual â€˜differenceâ€™ now encountered among us in our society and how we speak about that difference. Over the last eighteen months the Working Group has heard from those who are committed, with passion and conviction, to wanting the Church to revise her teaching and some who were actively campaigning for that change. There was also passionate argument, including argument from those with bisexual and same sex attractions, that the traditional teaching of the Church should remain unchanged. Whilst there were encouraging accounts of affirmation and acceptance by church communities on all sides of this debate, many had more painful stories to tell, stories of shame, ignorance and exclusion. The need to repent of our readiness to exclude, judge and patronize those who are different from ourselves, whatever those differences may be, has become even clearer to me. This is a challenge that faces all of us involved in this conversation because, sadly, prejudice and intolerance sometimes have a strange tendency to flourish among those who were once their victims.
419. We need as a Church to recognize that this isnâ€™t only about â€˜homophobiaâ€™. I strongly agree with the recognition in Paragraph 181 that â€˜Human sexuality is not simply and irreducibly binaryâ€™. The challenge to radical inclusion and acceptance must extend well beyond the categories of what once we called â€˜homosexualityâ€™. We live today in a pluralistic sexual culture that explores and celebrates a kaleidoscopic range of sexual interests and practices. With evidence that more women may identify as â€˜bisexualâ€™ than â€˜lesbianâ€™ we need as a Church to recognize that this is not simply a matter of learning more about â€˜homosexualityâ€™. The term â€˜homosexualâ€™ gave way some time ago to â€˜LGBTâ€™ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered) and is already being supplemented by â€˜Qâ€™ (Questioning/Queer), â€˜Pâ€™ (Post-label) and â€˜Aâ€™ (Asexual). This coalition of sexual minorities has banded together to resist and repudiate the stigma and prejudice of the past. One positive development of this has been the challenge to the Church to respond with a renewed conviction that the love of God is extended to all, whatever their lifestyle, interests or patterns of relationship.
420. I also agree that we need to be clear about what can be learned from the social and biological sciences and must examine the question of the relation between the findings of science and the Churchâ€™s traditional teaching and reading of Scripture (Paragraphs 193â€“219 and 329â€“335). My understanding is that, in recent years, attempts to discern the causes of different sexual interests have moved well beyond the false polarities of â€˜natureâ€™ versus â€˜choiceâ€™ which still sadly shape much popular discussion. I believe that these recent insights need to be integrated into our conversations on these matters. The magnetic draw of sexual desire, whether towards people of the opposite sex, same sex or both, is rarely â€˜chosenâ€™ in any straightforward or simple way.
421. Human desire is experienced from deep within the self and sexual desire is clearly a complex phenomenon shaped by a mysterious interplay of genetic disposition, environmental events and unconscious habits formed from previous behaviours and choices. We should not be surprised, therefore, when we meet some people who tell us they have experienced same sex attraction from their earliest memories of sexual awakening, others who describe more recent developments in adulthood, and still others for whom their experiences are more flexible and â€˜fluidâ€™. Whilst the evidence seems to suggest that the overall genetic contribution to same sex desire is relatively weak, there may be significant variation between individuals and we still have much to learn.
422. In evaluating claims about genetic or other biological contributions to our different experiences of desire and attraction, the field of modern genomics (not least in the fascinating new field of epigenetics) suggests that there is complex gene-to-environmental interaction at play in a wide range of personality characteristics and human behaviour. Although a great deal remains uncertain and contested, it is thus possible that genetic factors contribute to characteristics such as empathy and humility. This poses questions about the limits of human responsibility in relation to a whole range of personality characteristics and not just the nature of oneâ€™s sexual interests. For example, personality characteristics that dispose toward promiscuity or unfaithfulness may well be shown to be linked, at some level, to background genetic and environmental factors.
423. Whatever the background factors, however, what we do in response to our desires and attractions is something for which we are all responsible. The scientific questions do not remove or negate the ethical claims of the gospel. Radical inclusion is followed by the call to radical holiness. The gospel often calls us to challenge the â€˜desires of the heartâ€™ and it seeks to discipline our responses around a pattern of life that expresses obedient love for God.
â€˜Loving to the endâ€™ (John 13.1): Gospel love, inclusion, transformation and obedience
424. Jesus never discriminated among those who could be invited to the gospel banquet of grace, forgiveness and renewal. For Jesus, there was no difference between the person caught in behaviour that was sexually immoral and those who misused property and wealth, exploited relationships or wielded unjust power. He could be found eating and drinking with those at the very margins of culture. The call to â€˜repent and believeâ€™ was applied equally. Indeed, it is the ultimate â€˜inclusionâ€™ of the Christian gospel. The spirit of self-righteousness, discrimination and ignorance that has sometimes characterized the Churchâ€™s approach to issues of human sexuality in the past is a violation of the Spirit of Christ and of the Christian gospel.
425. But the gospel never leaves us where we are or without direction for life in Christ or without power to be transformed. We need to be clear that although Godâ€™s love meets and accepts us as we are, offering forgiveness and redemption in Christ, the inclusive call of the gospel is to radical discipleship and obedience. Whatever our life experience, The House of Bishops Working Group on human sexuality therefore, we are summoned to a new life, a life of love for God that is no longer â€˜conformed to the worldâ€™ but characterized by the pursuit of holiness as the image-bearing children of God. This means that for the Christian, whether â€˜straightâ€™, â€˜bisexualâ€™ or â€˜gayâ€™, our identity can never be rooted in the pattern of our sexual interests and the identity categories that have evolved in the last few decades. As one theologian puts it:
…those of us who have been baptized into Christ can own no identity except â€˜Christianâ€™. Biblical discipleship is not trying to conform oneself to a â€˜straightâ€™ identity, anymore than it is trying to conform oneself to a â€˜gay identity; it is being conformed to Christâ€™.
426. In Paragraph 327 the Report rightly says â€˜the debate within the Church [about human sexuality] focuses on divine and human love. What does a loving creator God ask of his people? What does the love of Christ mean for fallen humanity?â€™ These are the right questions to ask, but I do not think the Report gives an adequate answer to them. Before turning to some of the specific details and critiques of the Report I wish to offer an alternative theological and pastoral perspective.
427. One of the crucial lessons we are learning through our conversations on sexuality is that this is not simply abstract theological debate or argument about biblical texts but about real human lives with poignant stories all around us which we need to hear. The story of one couple known to me is Greg and Margaret: during his teenage years Gregâ€™s first sexual stirrings were focused strongly on another young man. He said he developed a love with all the passion and drama that comes with adolescence. But that magnetic pull of love and affection conflicted deeply with Gregâ€™s faith in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour. After a time of crisis in that friendship, Greg began to find that women were included in his attraction, and much later he met Margaret. They were married and had two children, Rob and Jenny.
428. Jesus said â€˜Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruitâ€™ (John 12.24). Greg sought to apply this to his attraction to his friend, and through many ups and downs there was a death and fruit. Gregâ€™s prayer to Jesus became and remained thankful for his words, without which he wouldnâ€™t have known love for Margaret; and Rob and Jenny wouldnâ€™t have been born. The question is â€˜Can Jesus rightly ask us to let our sexual attractions and interests be part of the wheat that dies?â€™ Even if the story does not end like this but with a life of singleness? John 12.24 is followed by John 13.1: â€˜Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.â€™ This means quite simply his death (no one has greater love than this, John 15.12), his willingness to be that grain of wheat himself; what he offers of himself, he asks of us, every part of us, including our attractions and desires.
429. Jesus teaches that love and obedience go together in the gift of God and the gospel. Loving as he loved means keeping his commandments (John 14.15). The structures of sexual relationships given by God in creation and re-affirmed in the law and the gospel are given because of love, love for us and for all life which will come into the world because of such love. Whatever our attractions, the key is whether we have heard and responded to Jesusâ€™ words to receive eternal life. Such life comes from receiving his washing, receiving him and doing what he says: â€˜Abide in me as I abide in youâ€™ (John 15.4). There will be pruning and much fruit. Gregâ€™s story witnesses to this, and not just because of Margaret, Rob and Jenny, but because, he says, in learning that Jesusâ€™ words applied to sexual attraction he learned they applied to everything else in life too.
430. In todayâ€™s culture, it is not easy to insist on self-denial. We have been seduced (as the Prologue to the Report explores) by popular philosophies spinning the illusion that the uninhibited expression of our desires (â€˜being who you areâ€™) is the key to human flourishing. It is claimed that for healthy psychological development a commitment to sexual abstinence is neither possible nor desirable. But the Christian gospel insists that we are fallen creatures, the â€˜devices and desiresâ€™ of our hearts having been deeply corroded and corrupted by sin. Christian discipleship, in all areas of life, whether same sex desire, â€˜heterosexualâ€™ desire, or other non-sexual desires, is always a call to radical submission, discipline and re-ordering of our errant desires in the way of Christ. This, I believe, is the key to human flourishing according to the gospel.
431. It has always been difficult for human beings to grasp the gospel principle that less equals more; that the denial of self could possibly result in life abundant. But that is what is at stake here, life in all its fullness for ourselves and for future generations. â€˜We love because he first loved us.â€™
Following Jesus faithfully in the present time and culture
â€˜If a trumpet does not sound a clear callâ€™:The Reportâ€™s lack of clarity
432. So what does it mean to follow Jesus today and how does the Report contribute to that call? I hope to show what I believe are intellectual and theological problems within the Report which, however well-intentioned, will make the cost of discipleship more difficult to know. It is important to recognize that this question of faithful discipleship is a distinct question from that of what our society should legislate in a particular area. It has long been recognized that the Church may in some circumstances accept certain changes in the law, and even acknowledge some positives (such as harm reduction) in them, while maintaining a clear and distinct witness in the Churchâ€™s teaching and discipline to a higher calling for those who accept Christ as Saviour and Lord. Archbishop Justin has referred to a â€˜revolutionâ€™ in relation to societyâ€™s view of sexuality which is now reflected in the current law on marriage. Does the Report help us in the pastoral and missional challenges we face in explaining to the Church and wider society what it means to follow Jesus? With much regret I believe it does not do so and may even prevent the Church speaking clearly, faithfully and prophetically into the cultural debates about human sexuality. A question that has haunted me is whether Greg would have been helped by the Report to know what following Jesus meant, and my conclusion is that he would not. He would not have been encouraged to â€˜dieâ€™ and consequently there would have been no new life, no marriage to Margaret and no birth of their children. If we do not sound a clear call there will be negative personal and pastoral consequences in peopleâ€™s lives.
433. In reading the Report two key questions for me are:
- What, in the light of this report, would the Church of England say to someone â€“ perhaps a Christian, perhaps someone considering discipleship â€“ who says they identify as gay or lesbian or (increasingly likely) as bisexual, and asks how as a follower of Jesus to respond to their experiences of sexual attraction and whether they can enter a same sex sexual relationship or some other relationship structure?
- What, in the light of this report, would the Church of England offer to wider society as the call of Christ when it is experiencing rapid rejection of traditional Christian sexual morality and asking major questions about sexual relationships?
434. I have concluded that the Report does not offer a consistent or coherent response to these questions in three key respects which shape the discussion that follows:
- The claim to â€˜abide by the Churchâ€™s official teachingâ€™ could give the impression that the Church still believes, as I do, that everyone should remain single and abstinent unless and until they find themselves able to marry someone of the opposite sex. But readers are not given reasons why they should do this. I do not see in the Report a clear Christian account of what it means to live a life of obedient love, a vision of the shape of holiness, a way of setting our story as sexual creatures in the biblical story of salvation, a message about what the gospel call to die and rise with Christ means (Paragraphs 436â€“448 below).
- Conversely there are statements in the Report that undermine confidence in traditional Christian teaching and give the impression that the Church has little or nothing to say about same sex relationships (Paragraphs 449â€“471 below).
- Examples of these two elements in the Report are its development of a Christian sexual ethic that says nothing about marriage between two people of the opposite sex (Paragraph 442) and its proposal that in public services recognition should be given to permanent same sex relationships. (Paragraphs 472â€“482 below).
435. As a result of these three features, I believe the Report will cause confusion to many faithful Anglicans, particularly those who experience same sex attraction. As a pastor and friend to such people I believe the Church should support and not undermine them. Two quotations from friends of mine, both of whom experience same sex attraction, will serve to illustrate this point:
â€˜To Anglicans like me who are same sex attracted, the Church of Englandâ€™s increasingly ambiguous position on homosexuality is deeply confusing and distressing. It leaves us feeling unsupported in our loyalty to the Churchâ€™s previous clear teaching that sex is exclusively for the marriage of a man and a woman â€“ and gives the impression that generations of believers wasted their lives in orientating their lives around this core biblical truth. It unlovingly gives men and women like me unclear signals as to how we should best live our lives in a Christ-like way, and raises the suspicion that the Church is keener on appeasing the world around us â€“ rather than protecting us and preserving what it previously said was in our best interests.â€™
â€˜As someone who has experienced same sex attraction since my teens, I was so grateful that my Church showed me unconditional acceptance whilst gently guiding me to live according to the teaching of the Church of England. This pastoral care has enabled me and the many people in the same situation whom I know to flourish. We agree that the church’s failure at times to show unconditional acceptance to same sex attracted people is pastorally disastrous. But a dilution of the Churchâ€™s teaching would be equally disastrous, and a slap in the face to those who have quietly sought to live faithful lives.â€™
I The need for, and lack of, a biblical vision
436. In â€˜Scripture and Same Sex relationshipsâ€™ (Appendix 3) I attempted to set out the â€˜big pictureâ€™ of what Scripture teaches about sexuality and how this relates to the situation we face today: the integral nature of our existence as men and women in Godâ€™s good creation, the significance of the negative texts on homosexual practice, the renewing of the world in the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus with marriage as a sign of that new creation in the union of the new heaven and earth, and the warnings to the people of God not to be assimilated into their culture. I concluded that when the New Testament passages concerning sexuality are read in their historical context what is striking is the universal expectation that Christians will be different in their sexual behaviour from their pagan neighbours.
437. The first Christians believed that a distinctive pattern of sexual behaviour was an integral part of Christian discipleship because they believed that the one true God, the God of Israel, had lovingly created human beings to be sexual creatures who would come together in marriage as men and women in joyful obedience to the first command (â€˜be fruitful and multiplyâ€™). Sex was important to the first Christians (as it was to their Jewish forebears and contemporaries) not because they were sexually obsessed, or paranoid, or psychologically damaged. It was important because they saw being made male and female as a vital part of the true identity of human beings as those called by God to bear his image and share in his rule over the created order.
438. The historical evidence also tells us that this view of sexuality continued to be the view of sexuality upheld by orthodox Christianity during the early centuries of the Churchâ€™s history. It was the alternative sexual morality taught and practised within the Church that was one of the Churchâ€™s most distinctive features and a major source of its missionary success.
439. Scripture teaches us (and experience confirms) that all of us, and all our relationships, are, in different ways, and to varying degrees, distorted and fall short of Godâ€™s goal for our flourishing. We all have to acknowledge that we are sinners in every area of our lives (including our sexual lives). However, the good news is that all sin is dealt with through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. As Paul declares in Romans 6.1-11, Jesus died to put to death our old, sin-centred, selves and rose again so that we might share with him in a new life where sin no longer controls us and we can live in the way that God desires.
440. This is the heart of the Christian faith. In learning to live it out in our own fellowships, with all the pain, misunderstanding and anger that will inevitably result, we are enabled to bear witness not just to â€˜a different way of lifeâ€™, still less to â€˜a set of rulesâ€™ which we are just about (or not quite) managing to â€˜keepâ€™; we witness to the Lord of creation and covenant, of new creation and new covenant: the loving creator and life-giver himself, who has broken into our world in Jesus Christ to bring life out of death.
441. In discerning what patterns of behaviour need redeeming and the pattern of the resurrection life we are called to live out, it matters profoundly that the truth of God given to us in Scripture shapes the Church in her life and practice. This is because it is through Scripture that we learn from God about the old sinful life to which we have died and about the new resurrection life which we are summoned to inhabit.
442. Learning to live the resurrection life involves learning to say â€˜noâ€™ to all forms of sexual sin, both in terms of sinful thoughts and in terms of sinful behaviour, as taught by Jesus himself in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5.27-30). This truth was also taught by the Early Church and so, for example, St Paul reminds the Thessalonians of the teaching they had received that â€˜Godâ€™s plan is to make you holy, and that entails first of all a clean cut with sexual immorality. Every one of you should learn to control his body, keeping it pure and treating it with respect, and never regarding it as an instrument for self-gratification, as do pagans with no knowledge of Godâ€™ (1 Thessalonians 4.3-4, J. B. Phillips, New Testament in Modern English).
443. In line with these two quotations and the overall biblical teaching which they reflect, the Christian Church has consistently taught from biblical times that the sexual holiness which the resurrection life entails involves the restriction of sexual activity to the context of marriage between one man and one woman. All other forms of sexual activity (whether heterosexual or homosexual) are to be rejected by Godâ€™s people as incompatible with their love for God. As C. S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity, â€˜There is no getting away from it; the Christian rule is â€œEither marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinenceâ€.â€™
444. The motion passed by General Synod on sexual ethics in 1987 (which remains the most authoritative Church of England declaration on the subject) followed this unbroken tradition of Christian teaching faithfully when it stated that:
This Synod affirms that the biblical and traditional teaching on chastity and fidelity in personal relationships is a response to, and expression of, Godâ€™s love for each one of us, and in particular affirms;
- that sexual intercourse is an act of total commitment which belongs properly within a permanent married relationship.
- that fornication and adultery are sins against this ideal, and are to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion.
- that homosexual genital acts also fall short of this ideal, and are likewise to be met with a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion.
- that all Christians are called to be exemplary in all spheres of morality, and that holiness of life is particularly required of Christian leaders.
445. Some will argue that I should not be concerned as the Report declares that it abides by this traditional teaching. Paragraph 349 declares â€˜we are agreed that there is not sufficient consensus to change the churchâ€™s teaching on human sexualityâ€™ and Recommendation 11 talks about â€˜abiding by the Churchâ€™s traditional teaching on human sexualityâ€™. Regrettably, however, I do not think these commitments to abide by the Churchâ€™s traditional teaching are reflected in the case made out in the rest of the Report.
446. If we ask â€˜What substantive arguments does the Report advance to defend the truth of the existing teaching it claims to uphold?â€™ then it is hard to find them. Given the cultural â€˜revolutionâ€™, and the criticisms levelled at Christian teaching, any desire to uphold this teaching requires the Church, and particularly her bishops, to re-state and promote that teaching and proclaim it afresh in our new context. Those seeking to live out this teaching also need practical encouragement and pastoral support. I donâ€™t think the Report offers this to them. I believe it is time to speak again with conviction; not singling out same sex or bisexual attractions and behaviour especially, but to set out the whole attractive biblical vision for the ordering of human relationships that I believe holds such good news for human flourishing.
447. The Prologue and Paragraphs 123â€“148 contain much wisdom and truth. But here and throughout the Report, it is striking that whenever permanence, faithfulness and openness to the nurturing of family life are commended and it might be expected that the gift of our creation as men and women and the blessing of their sexual union in marriage might also be celebrated, there is silence (see Prologue p. xv, Paragraphs 136, 140, 144, 148). Our embodiment as men and women is treated as marginal to permanence and faithfulness and the nurturing of family life, not as intrinsic to them.
448. Rather than upholding the Churchâ€™s teaching by rooting sexuality in Godâ€™s loving creation of human beings as male and female and in the God-given institution of marriage, the Report (as shown more fully below) undermines that teaching by commending a sexual ethic based solely and simply on the values of permanence and fidelity. This is the approach advocated in Permanent, Faithful, Stable and it is an ethic that makes no distinction between homosexual relationships and heterosexual marriage. If the Church were to adopt this ethic she would be failing to abide by her traditional teaching and would undermine the theological basis for her rejection of same sex marriage.
II Undermining the Churchâ€™s teaching
449. The Report also leaves the impression that the Church has no reason to believe the Churchâ€™s traditional teaching. This aspect of the Report is summarized in Paragraph 68:
We have certainly met with many respondents across the spectrum of viewpoints who radiated great certainty on many aspects of the subject. But wherever we have turned â€“ whether to Scripture, theology, science, or social trends â€“ we have encountered divided views, sincerely and prayerfully held. Any suggestion, therefore, that the arguments are so conclusive that further discussion of the issues is no longer necessary does not do justice to the integrity of the theological convictions that are held or to the significant areas of scientific uncertainty that persist.
450. As the Report as a whole makes clear, this statement is not saying that the arguments are conclusive enough to support the truth of the Church of Englandâ€™s current teaching, but not conclusive enough to shut down any further discussion. It is saying that there needs to be open discussion about sexuality in the Church of England because the Working Group has not found the arguments from Scripture, theology, science or social trends to be conclusive either for or against the Churchâ€™s current teaching. As far as the Report is concerned the jury is still out. That is a conclusion and a rationale and basis for further discussion which I do not share. It represents a shift from the current position that I believe will actually make fruitful discussion about sexuality more difficult.
451. I believe that we need to continue with the vision of Lambeth I.10 as a whole. I am therefore keen for there to be continuing listening to the varied experiences of gay, lesbian and bisexual people. I do not believe this requires the Church to say, as the Report does, that this listening is the means by which we may be able to learn what we currently do not know, namely whether or not what the Bible teaches and the Church has held for two thousand years is true. Rather, I believe such listening needs to be part of continuing discussion and discernment concerning how the biblical teaching about sexuality should be applied pastorally in relation to the full range of peopleâ€™s life situations and a constructive engagement with the arguments and concerns of those, both inside and outside the Church, who are not yet convinced of the truth of this teaching.
452. The argument that the current debate in the Church about sexuality needs to be seen as inconclusive is central to the Report. The contents and structure of Parts 2 and 3 and the juxtaposition of two contrasting views of the biblical material in Appendices 3 and 4 are meant to lead the reader to accept the conclusion that the current debate is inconclusive. This conclusion is what underlies the Reportâ€™s key recommendation, namely that the Church needs to embark on a process of â€˜facilitated conversationâ€™ about sexuality. According to the Report it is because the current debate is inconclusive that we need a facilitated conversation to help the Church â€˜to think afresh how its traditional teaching on sexuality can commend itself to a culture which is increasingly relaxed about same sex relationships, or whether the teaching itself does not sufficiently represent the gospel imperative and must be refreshed by new insightsâ€™ (Paragraph 348). The claim is we cannot reach any conclusions at the moment, but holding facilitated conversations may help us to do so in the future.
453. As I try to set out below, the way that the Report links the proposal for facilitated conversation with the argument that the present debate about sexuality is inconclusive will in fact undermine the chances of what I also seek, namely successful conversations taking place.
454. The Report knows (because it sets out the evidence in Paragraphs 101â€“122) that the Church of England has previously held that the relevant evidence does allow the Church of England to reach clear conclusions about sexual ethics. This can be seen, for example, in the first principle set out in Issues in Human Sexuality:
Homophile orientation and its expression in sexual activity do not constitute a parallel and alternative form of human sexuality as complete within the terms of the created order as the heterosexual. The convergence of Scripture, Tradition and reasoned reflection on experience, even including the newly sympathetic and perceptive thinking of our own day, make it impossible for the Church to come with integrity to any other conclusion. Heterosexuality and homosexuality are not equally congruous with the observed order of creation or with the insights of revelation as the Church engages with these in the light of her pastoral ministry.
455. In contrast, the Report holds that at the moment the Church is not in a position to make this affirmation. I think it is in effect saying, â€˜We do not know what the proper Christian approach to the issue of sexuality is.â€™ If that is right I do not see how to avoid the conclusion that the Report holds that there are no conclusive arguments for believing that the Church of Englandâ€™s current teaching on sexuality is true. Will that not mean, if the Report is adopted, that the Church of England will continue formally to abide by its existing teaching while at the same time having declared that it has no good reason to think that this teaching is true? This is a position I cannot support. It is also a position I doubt will win the respect of those who conscientiously reject the traditional teaching and offer an alternative vision.
456. The Report concludes that the current debate about sexuality in the Church of England is inconclusive, and it gives evidence to support that assertion by looking at social trends, science, theology, theological method and the teaching of Scripture. In what follows I would like to offer a brief critique of this evidence to raise the question as to whether the conclusions are as inconclusive as the Report asserts. I hope this will help in the discernment process in whatever facilitated conversations take place in the next two years.
457. On social trends the Report surveys statistical data about attitudes to sexuality in society and the Church and argues that we need to be open to the possibility that these are the result of the work of God (Paragraphs 14 â€“173 and 336â€“344). However, the Report does not offer criteria for deciding whether the changes of belief and practice are the result of the Spirit at work in the Church and society or whether they are the result of society and the Church becoming increasingly disobedient to God and deaf to what God is saying (cf. Hosea 4.13-14, Amos 2.6-7 and Romans 1.18-32).
458. On science the Report surveys the evidence submitted and considers the differences between scientific and theological method (Paragraphs 193â€“219 and 329â€“335). It also argues that continuing scientific uncertainty is one of the reasons that the debate about sexuality must be judged to be currently inconclusive. However, what it does not do is explore questions about the relation between the findings of science and the Churchâ€™s traditional teaching that were raised during the course of the Working Groupâ€™s discussions. An example would be whether what causes some people to be sexually attracted to members of the same sex should be seen as part of Godâ€™s action in giving forms of sexual attraction and activity as part of his glorious gift, or seen as one of the ways in which the disorder of creation and the fallen autonomous nature of human beings has found expression. It may have simply been impossible, given the limitations of time and expertise among us, to have addressed these questions, but without addressing them, I donâ€™t see how the scientific argument can be used for not having confidence in the Churchâ€™s traditional teaching.
459. On theology the Report summarizes the presentations to the Group made by Fr Timothy Radcliffe and Professor Oliver Oâ€™Donovan (Paragraphs 254â€“278 and 313â€“315). It emphasizes that they warn us to take seriously the things that we do not know and to avoid closing down the debate about sexual ethics prematurely. But remaining open to debate is not the same thing as claiming that the Church no longer has a basis for what it has taught until now.
460. I wish there had been time and means to engage with the large amount of other theological evidence submitted to the Group. The brief was â€˜to draw together and reflect upon biblical, historical and ecumenical explorations on human sexualityâ€™ (Paragraph 5) but we didnâ€™t engage with the discipline of â€˜queer theologyâ€™ which, though highly problematic to me, is a significant part of the current academic study of sexuality.
461. If these assessments are in any way accurate then the Church will need great care in any future facilitated conversations as to the adequacy of theological resources for discussion in dioceses, deaneries and parishes.
462. On theological method the Report gives one view of the traditional Anglican understanding of the relationship between Scripture, Tradition and reason (Paragraphs 279â€“300). An outline is then given as to how Anglican ethics has been characterized by a â€˜conciliarâ€™ approach in which Scripture, Tradition and reason are held in proper balance. The Report concludes that the position I am advancing is an example of reading Scripture â€˜independently of the Churchâ€™s tradition and reasonâ€™ and â€˜to adopt it would make one wing of the Anglican family the sole arbiter of Anglican ethics and bring an end to the conciliar approach which has for so long characterized Anglicanismâ€™ (Paragraph 318). I do not accept that characterization as a summary I would recognize, for the reasons Iâ€™ve set out in this statement and in Appendix 3. This is not at all to focus on a narrow reading of Scripture, or to exclude a proper place for Tradition and reason; on the contrary, Iâ€™ve tried to set out the view that does most justice to the joint witness of Scripture, Tradition and reason in relation to matters of sexuality.
463. It is in relation to the teaching of Scripture that the â€˜inconclusiveâ€™ judgement presents the most radical undermining of the Churchâ€™s traditional teaching by which the Report declares it abides, and again I offer these comments for the future facilitated conversations. I donâ€™t think the Report shows why previous Anglican statements (and the Christian tradition as a whole) have been wrong to hold that we could say what Scripture has to say about homosexuality. The argument it produces is to suggest briefly in Paragraphs 227â€“253 that three types of arguments used in the debate about Scripture all point to our inability to say conclusively what Scripture teaches. In each case I believe those arguments are very weak.
464. In relation to how to translate the words in the Bible commonly seen as referring to homosexuality it is said we should be cautious about concluding that we know what such words mean (Paragraphs 23 â€“241). Unfortunately, the example the Report chooses to illustrate its argument â€“ the issue of how to translate the noun arsenokoitÄ“s in 1 Corinthians 6.9 and 1 Timothy 1.1 â€“ does not support its case. This is because there is an overwhelming case, well-documented in the literature, that the word means someone who sleeps (i.e. has sex) with other men.
465. The Report concludes that the biblical text does not allow us to decide whether cultural differences between biblical times and today mean that the sort of homosexual conduct described in Scripture is different from the form of homosexual relationships practised by faithful Christians today (Paragraphs 242â€“246). In its view we cannot know precisely what St Paul means when he talks about homosexuality. However I do not see the evidence to support this claim or the engagement with the views of biblical scholars who argue in detail that we can know what St Paul and the Bible as a whole are talking about when they refer to homosexual activity.
466. In relation to the creation of human beings as male and female in Genesis 1 and 2 as a basis for sexual ethics the Report claims (Paragraphs 247â€“253) that Genesis 1 focuses on sexual difference whereas Genesis 2 focuses on companionship and that â€˜if the stress is more on companionship, the difference between male and female may be less centre-stageâ€™ (Paragraph 250). This does not recognize that the two creation stories both focus equally on the relationship between men and women, and that in his teaching (recorded in Matthew 19.3-12 and Mark 10.2-12) Jesus appeals to both chapters and is clear that Genesis 2 is concerned with God uniting the man and woman in marriage, not simply â€˜companionshipâ€™. The further claim that we cannot read off â€˜unambiguous rules for the conduct of human affairsâ€™ (Paragraph 252) from the opening chapters of Genesis does not address the fact that Jesus appealed to these texts to teach on marriage and sexual behaviour as has the Church for the whole of its existence over two millennia.
467. For the reasons I have just given, I do not believe the Reportâ€™s attempt to prove the lack of clarity in biblical teaching about homosexuality succeeds. I think those claims are also further undermined by the clarity with which the traditional reading is widely acknowledged as valid even amongst scholars and theologians who reject it. Thus Walter Wink writes â€˜Where the Bible mentions homosexual behaviour at all, it clearly condemns it. I freely grant that. The issue is precisely whether that Biblical judgment is correctâ€™. Similarly, Dan O. Via writes in response to the work of the conservative American scholar Robert Gagnon: â€˜Professor Gagnon and I are in substantial agreement that the biblical texts that deal specifically with homosexual practice condemn it unconditionally. However, on the question of what the Church might or should make of this we diverge sharplyâ€™. Likewise, the Oxford Church historian Diarmaid MacCulloch declares â€˜This is an issue of biblical authority. Despite much well-intentioned theological fancy footwork to the contrary, it is difficult to see the Bible as expressing anything else but disapproval of homosexual activity.â€™
468. I conclude with great regret that the Report thus does not give an adequate account of biblical teaching. As a result, if adopted, it will cut the Church adrift from her Scriptural moorings and, by depriving her of a prophetic vision, allow her to be swept along by the currents of contemporary Western culture. This is something which I cannot support.
469. The Report will I fear undermine the teaching it claims to uphold by what it says about social trends, science, theology, theological method and Scripture. It doesnâ€™t show that the evidence from these fields demonstrates that the theological debate about sexuality is inconclusive, or provide sufficient grounds to overturn the Churchâ€™s of Englandâ€™s previous reports and established teaching.
470. At this point a comparison with the theological debates that took place in the Church of England in the twentieth century may be instructive. During the twentieth century there were many in the Church of England, including ordinary Christians, eminent scholars and even a number of bishops who held with deep and sincere conviction that the traditional teaching of the Christian Church about the Trinity and the person of Christ needed to be reconsidered because it lacked a proper biblical basis, was intellectually incoherent and constituted a major stumbling block to mission.
471. Faced with this challenge to its traditional theology from many within its own ranks the Church of England did not declare that it needed a period of open debate to discern what it should believe and teach about the nature of God and the person of Christ. Instead it continued to uphold its traditional teaching, and expected its authorized ministers to do the same, on the grounds that examination of the matter showed that that the arguments offered against this teaching were not convincing. Even if it is argued that the doctrines of the Trinity and the person of Christ are more fundamental to the life of the Church than questions of sexual ethics, this still does not address the question of why the Church of England should take a different approach over the issue of human sexuality than it took in relation to the debates about these doctrines.
III Affirming non-marital sexual relationships theologically and liturgically
472. In addition to the difficulties already discussed, I believe that while the Church must welcome all and acknowledge the good that exists in all relationships, it cannot commend and affirm non-marital sexual relationships in its teaching or practice. This is the teaching summarized in resolution I.10 of the Lambeth Conference 1998 to which the terms of reference refer, and to which the Working Group is asked to give attention. I have come to the conclusion with great regret that the Report if adopted will undermine this teaching both in its theological argument and in its proposals for the recognition of permanent same sex relationships.
473. The Report undermines Lambeth I.10 theologically when it declares in Paragraph 312 that:
In the face of conflicting scholarship, as well as conflicting beliefs, we believe that the Church should be cautious about attempting to pronounce definitively on the implications of Scripture for homosexual people. We do agree that, as all Christians are called to faithfulness, exclusivity and life-long commitment in their sexual relationships, same sex relationships which do not seek to embody those aspects of vocation cannot be right. We learn from what previous generations of the faithful have understood the Holy Spirit to be saying to the Churches, wait for the Spiritâ€™s guidance in our own generation and commit ourselves to finding ways for the Church to continue to listen for his voice.
474. This does not show why the previous statements from the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion (summarized in I.10) have been wrong to teach as they have in relation to homosexual behaviour. These statements have been clear that what is wrong with same sex activity is precisely the fact that it is same sex activity, regardless of whether or not it takes place in the context of â€˜faithfulness, exclusivity and life-long commitmentâ€™. In saying this, these statements have followed the teaching of Scripture which scholars are overwhelmingly agreed is always negative about sexual behaviour between people of the same sex and says nothing at all about whether such relationships should be faithful, committed or exclusive.
475. On the recognition of same sex relationships, Lambeth I.10 said that the Conference â€˜cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unionsâ€™. But the Report in Recommendation 16 says that priests should, with the agreement of their PCC, â€˜be free to recognize a permanent same sex relationship in a public serviceâ€™. I understand very well the desire for pastoral accommodation but I cannot see how this can be the right way forward for at least six reasons.
476. First, the Church cannot hold a public service for a couple simply on the basis that it discerns virtues and good qualities in their relationship. It must also be confident that the pattern of relationship it is affirming is in accordance with Godâ€™s will. It expresses that confidence liturgically by proclaiming a form of life which is in accordance with Godâ€™s will and asking the couple to affirm publicly that they seek to live faithfully within this way of life. This means that as long as the Church of England continues to â€˜abide by its current teachingâ€™ it cannot with integrity offer or formally allow a service for any pattern of sexual relationship other than marriage, even though Christians can recognize moral goods, such as love and fidelity, in particular non-marital sexual relationships and qualities of character in the partners. Good, compassionate pastoral care requires the Church to help people to respond obediently to Godâ€™s love by living rightly before him and thus it cannot be pastoral to affirm a form of relationship which is contrary to Godâ€™s will.
477. Secondly, Paragraphs 372â€“399, and Recommendation 16 which follows from them, are ambiguous about the commitments and disciplines of holiness in relation to sexual life, in particular whether the proposed services would be open to those in a sexually active relationship or only to those whose relationship is a celibate one. This means that the recommendation does not fit with either the Churchâ€™s teaching, which the Report says it abides by, or with the demands for sexual exclusivity (with which not all gay couples would agree) set out in Paragraph 312. The recommendation also does not recognize that such a service will not meet the stated needs of many same sex couples who reject the Churchâ€™s teaching. They want the whole of their relationship (including its sexual aspect) to be affirmed by the Church and, increasingly, wish their relationship to be affirmed as a form of marriage. Ambiguity will not be enough and there will thus be continuing pressure for the full acceptance of their understanding of their relationship by the Church.
478. Thirdly, Paragraphs 369â€“399 talk about the recognition not only of civil partnerships but also of same sex marriages. If the Church did celebrate in a public service the fact that two people had just entered into a same sex marriage this would be incompatible with its doctrine of marriage (which says that a marriage can only be between a man and a woman) and would inevitably be understood in both the Church (nationally and globally) and wider society as the Church of England affirming same sex marriages even if refusing to solemnize them in church.
479. Fourthly, by proposing that priests should, with the agreement of their PCC, â€˜be free to recognize a permanent same sex relationship in a public serviceâ€™ the Report undermines a bishopâ€™s authority within his own diocese, bypasses the need for formal authorization and opens the possibility for a range of services to be offered. The Primates of the Communion in 2003 stated: â€˜The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke for us all when he said that it is through liturgy that we express what we believe, and that there is no theological consensus about same sex unionsâ€™. The Report, in contrast, acknowledges the lack of consensus but then proceeds to suggest the development of new liturgies at a parish level in a manner which risks producing liturgical anarchy in this controversial area and pressure being put on individual bishops and priests to permit and offer such public services.
480. Fifthly, liturgical ambiguity and authorized diversity will lead to the cultural captivity of the Church, inhibiting her ability to proclaim the biblical and Christian teaching about sexual ethics and the power of Jesus Christ to liberate people from all sin, including sexual sin. The Church will lack credibility in declaring that sexual activity is given exclusively for heterosexual marriage, or in declaring that people can and should refrain from same sex sexual activity, once it is holding authorized services that affirm sexually active gay and lesbian relationships. Pressure is also likely to grow for liturgical recognition of non-marital heterosexual relationships.
481. Sixthly we need to be clear that, even if what is proposed are not called blessings, that is what they will in fact be. They will be occasions when Godâ€™s blessing is invoked upon a same sex relationship. The theological reasons why we should not bless sexually active same sex relationships in this way are highlighted in the following quotation from the Canadian theologian Edith Humphrey who asks what such blessing would mean:
It would be to declare that these so-called â€˜unionsâ€™ are in themselves pictures or icons of Godâ€™s love, to say that they display the salvation story, to rejoice that that they are glorified or taken up into Godâ€™s own actions and being. It would be to declare that they have a significant and fruitful part in creation, and that they are symbols of the in-breaking and coming rule of God, in which the Church now shares and in which we will eventually participate fully. It would be to â€˜speak a good wordâ€™ about this sort of relationship, explicitly declaring it to be a condition in which the way of the cross and the way of new life come together. Precisely here, the Church would be saying, you can see the love of God in human form, and the glory of humanity. It would be to name God as the one who blesses an act for which in fact repentance is required. So we would replace God with an idol, and so we would rend the Church.
482. Earlier, in Paragraph 435, I quoted two Christian friends who experience same sex attraction. Their words, along with those that follow from a third Christian friend, offer a final reason why I cannot, as a pastor, support this recommendation:
â€˜I would feel hugely undermined and discouraged if the Church of England was to affirm the kind of gay relationship which I believe the Bible teaches is sinful and should be resisted. Christians like me who experience same sex attraction need our Church to encourage us to stand firm against the pressures of the world, rather than providing an example of accommodation. I already feel isolated in the world, holding the position I take, and I fear that any change in the Churchâ€™s teaching would make me increasingly lonely in the Church as well.â€™
Unity, Listening and continuing discernment
483. The Reportâ€™s proposal for facilitated discussions about sexuality (Paragraphs 55â€“83, 352â€“368 and Recommendation 2) is one with which it is hard to disagree. Who can object to further conversation? However, there are two problems with the current basis on which it is proposed it should be conducted. First, as I have already indicated, the proposal for facilitated discussions rests on a false premise, namely that we cannot currently be sure what the Church should believe, teach and practise in the area of human sexuality. Secondly, and stemming from this, to attempt such a discussion shaped by this Reportâ€™s proposals and on the basis of its arguments is likely, I believe, to be highly damaging and may prove impossible. I reach this conclusion because I remain convinced that General Synod was correct to state in February 2007 that while â€˜continuing efforts to prevent the diversity of opinion about human sexuality creating further division and impaired fellowship within the Church of England and the Anglican Communionâ€™ are to be commended and opportunities for â€˜an open, full and godly dialogue about human sexualityâ€™ to be welcomed:
â€¦ such efforts would not be advanced by doing anything that could be perceived as the Church of England qualifying its commitment to the entirety of the relevant Lambeth Conference Resolutions (1978: 10; 1988: 64; 1998: 1.10).
484. As I have attempted to show, much in this Report will be legitimately perceived as a qualification of the Church of Englandâ€™s commitment to a central element of these resolutions, namely their re-affirmation of the traditional Christian sexual ethic. Most importantly, the Report effectively distances itself from the position that â€˜abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriageâ€™ and â€˜homosexual practiceâ€™ is â€˜incompatible with Scriptureâ€™ and â€˜cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unionsâ€™. Continuing discussion, without clear reference to the authority of biblical teaching and its place in the evaluation of tradition, reason and experience in the life of the Church will create further division and impaired fellowship within the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. Those who uphold traditional teaching will not be encouraged to engage in discussion when they believe that the Church of England has already effectively decided to walk away from this teaching.
485. The Report will also damage relationships between the Church of England, the Evangelical and Pentecostal Churches, the Black Majority Churches, between the Church of England and the Churches of the Orthodox tradition and between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. In terms of the relationship between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, the approach taken by the Report goes against what was said in the 1994 ARCIC II report Life in Christ which declared:
Both our Communions affirm the importance and significance of human friendship and affection among men and women, whether married or single. Both affirm that all persons, The House of Bishops Working Group on human sexuality including those of homosexual orientation, are made in the divine image and share the full dignity of human creatureliness. Both affirm that a faithful and lifelong marriage between a man and a woman provides the normative context for a fully sexual relationship. Both appeal to Scripture and the natural order as the sources of their teaching on this issue. Both reject, therefore, the claim, sometimes made that homosexual relationships and married relationships are morally equivalent, and equally capable of expressing the right ordering and use of the sexual drive. Such ordering and use, we believe, are an essential aspect of life in Christ.
A better way forward: â€˜Loving to the endâ€™
486. I believe that the proper way forward for the Church of England is to proclaim the biblical teaching about the liberating power of Jesus Christ, and its implications for sexual ethics, however costly. This must be coupled with the establishment of effective structures of pastoral care for those wrestling with sexual attractions that fall outside the boundaries set by Scripture. We need to be a community in which everyone, whatever their pattern of sexual attraction, can feel as at home as anyone else, because we have all been â€˜washed and sanctified and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our Godâ€™(1 Corinthians 6.11). This, I believe, can and should go alongside continuing dialogue and continuing listening to those who experience same sex or bisexual attractions and other sexual minorities. This is a faithful and pastoral way to help maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace and to safeguard the holiness and unity of the Church, equipping her for effective mission in the twenty-first century.
487. The vision set out here embodies an approach which I believe would be more in line with Scripture, with the Reformed/Catholic ethos of the Church of England, and with the witness borne to Scripture by the Christian Church down the ages and across the world than that recommended by the Report. It would also keep the Church of England in step with the wider Christian Church across the overwhelming majority of denominations today as it is a vision shared by both the Roman Catholic Church in its moral teaching and by Evangelical churches as recently summed up in the ten affirmations contained in the report Biblical and Pastoral Responses to Homosexuality from the non-denominational Evangelical Alliance.
488. What are the hallmarks of this better vision?
a. It affirms Godâ€™s love and concern for all, whatever their sexuality, recognizing we are all sinners whose only hope is in the love of God shown to us in Jesus Christ and poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
b. It seeks to be marked by love, truth and grace in ongoing debates, repudiating and regretting all attitudes and actions which victimize or diminish people whose sexual attraction is directed towards people of the same sex or towards people of both sexes.
c. It commends marriage as an institution lovingly created by God in which one man and one woman enter into an exclusive relationship for life, believing this to be the only form of partnership approved by God for sexual relations and thus the only form of sexual partnership that properly expresses love for God.
d. It encourages churches to be safe spaces where everyone, including those with same sex attraction or bisexual attraction, is able to share and explore his or her story with fellow believers for mutual encouragement and support as we help each other grow together into maturity in Christ.
e. It commends and encourages all who experience same sex or bisexual attraction and have committed themselves to chastity by refraining from homoerotic sexual practice, welcoming as leaders those of them God calls to ordination.
f. It supports all those who responsibly seek to help Christians who experience sexual attractions in conflict with their commitment to live in accordance with biblical teaching, encouraging the Church to offer all Christians counsel and pastoral support to live a chaste life.
g. It calls on churches to welcome and accept all, whatever their sexuality and whether or not they follow the churchâ€™s teaching on sexual behaviour, in the hope that, like all of us who are living outside God’s purposes, they will come in due course to see the need to be transformed and live lives of loving obedience in accordance with biblical revelation and orthodox Church teaching.
h. It calls on churches not to be conformed to the prevailing sexual culture, but to seek to resist and transform it so that both the Church and wider society will flourish by more closely reflecting Godâ€™s standards in their beliefs about sexuality and their sexual behaviour.
489. Because our society increasingly rejects limiting sexual intercourse to marriage and sees any opposition to homosexual practice as morally reprehensible, if the Church of England were to commit herself afresh to this vision then there would undoubtedly be strong criticism. Like Christians in many other contexts we would have to learn to be confident in holding beliefs that many in our society did not share or even understand. Dissent within the Church of England would also likely continue, but a process of facilitated conversation framed by this vision would give plenty of opportunity for honest debate and the confronting of the sins of homophobia of which the Church must repent. But fidelity to Godâ€™s way means learning in our own generation what it is to carry the cross (Mark 8.34-38).153 â€˜When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and dieâ€™ said Bonhoeffer. Death is never easy, but being willing to accept the criticism that this approach will attract is, in my view, an unavoidable part of being faithful to that call of Christ and thus an unavoidable part of our loving obedient response to Godâ€™s love for us. Jesus loved us to the end and, as he loved us, he calls us to love one another.