The purpose of this post is to look at some recent comments by the Bishop of Worcester here in the UK. However, before I get to that, I want to provide some introductory comments describing the context of these remarks, and why I feel compelled to address them.
As some readers of this blog will know, I have a great deal of respect for at least some aspects of Medieval Catholic theology, and the Roman Catholic theologians and philosophers who defend that philosophy today. However, I am by conviction, and enthusiastically, an Anglican; and usually describe myself as belonging to the catholic end of the classical evangelical tradition of that denomination. I worship, a little less enthusiastically, in a Church of England congregation. My reservations in the place of worship is not due to the vicar, ministers, staff or congregation at my local parish -- who are uniformly excellent in every respect -- but due to the wider situation in the Church of England. The Church already crossed my own personal red lines a number of years ago; I continue to worship in a Church of England parish because I am still closer theologically to them than the other congregations in my neighbourhood (I would go to a continuing Anglican Church if there was one nearby, but there isn't so I take the second best option), and due to my conviction that I ought not to act alone, but together with those of similar theological world-view.
Why am I an Anglican? I do not wish to go into detail. But the main reason is because I believe, and have yet to be convinced otherwise, that the doctrine contained in the 39 Articles of Faith, the attached homilies, and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, are, out of all the movements that came out of the reformation, both protestant and catholic, the closest to the apostolic and catholic faith. That is obviously a bold claim, which requires justification, but I don't intend to justify it here. I am just reporting where I am coming from. The Articles are not totally rigid and precise -- they allow for a range of views on various less important matters -- but are firm and clear-cut when it comes to the doctrines of God and Christology, and the matters of dispute of the time of the reformation. They stand against both Roman Catholic teaching, and the more extreme protestants (the ancestors of today's baptists and free evangelicals).
I should say that usually in my work I don't rely on the Anglican formularies. My goal is to present the scientific, philosophical and theological truth as best as I am able, and thereby (assuming my investigations continue to lead in the same direction) to in part help people to come to Christ, or strengthen those whose faith is wavering. If those people end up in an orthodox Anglican Church, then that's great. And if they end up in some other denomination which has a good claim to be preaching the apostolic faith, then that's also great. The important thing is that Christ's gospel is preached and accepted, and not any denominational rivalries. As such (while undoubtedly some bias creeps in from time to time), my work is intended to be non-denominational, focusing on those issues on which all orthodox Christians agree (which is the overwhelming majority of Christian doctrine). In this post, I will make an exception. Since all the protagonists in this dialogue are members of the Church of England, they ought to accept the Anglican formularies, which all clergy and bishops swear to uphold. As they form part of the commonly agreed deposit, I thus feel free to also refer those formularies in this discussion. The 39 Articles are not scripture, and do not have the authority of scripture even for Anglicans, and as such I expect that Christians outside the Anglican Church would reject certain parts of them. That's fine with me. The areas of dispute concerning the reformation are often difficult, and I understand that people can honestly come to different interpretations. But every Anglican ought to believe that the correct interpretation of scripture is consistent with and reflected in the Articles, and that will be part of the basis of my discussion.
I should also say that this post is directed towards Christians, and not atheists and agnostics. I will assume without proof the truth of the Biblical text. Atheists and agnostics (and those of other religions) will obviously disagree with this, but since I am describing a discussion between Christians, I feel permitted to take this step.
It is clear that, over the centuries, the leadership in the Church of England has been gradually moving away from the faith described by its formularies. Not officially: these documents, inasmuch as they are in agreement with Holy Scripture, still remain the formal statement of doctrine. But unofficially, by turning a blind eye and appointing to positions of leadership those who argue against it. This started before the nineteenth century with Anglo-Catholicism; those who favour beliefs closer to the Church of Rome. While I belong to the evangelical side of the Church, I do have a great deal of respect for the genuine Anglo-Catholics (by whom I mean those who sit between the Anglican reformers and the Roman Catholic Church, without any tolerance for the liberal innovations of the twentieth century), although, unfortunately, very few of them now remain in the Church. Most people who now label themselves as Anglo-Catholics are just liberals with extra smells, bells and robes.
In the nineteenth century, German liberal Protestantism started to make headway in the Church of England, and by the early twentieth century began to become an influential movement. This flowed out of the source, form, and redaction criticism of the Old and New Testament, which challenged the traditional understanding of the inspiration and authority of scripture. In particular, it uses the philosophies of the continental enlightenment -- Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, and their successors -- as an interpretive guide to the scriptures. In effect, therefore, treating these philosophies as a higher authority than the Biblical text. This is, in my view a big mistake, partly because those philosophers were wrong about a great many things, but mainly because it elevates human philosophy above divine revelation. Or, in terms more familiar to scientist, elevating untested theory above observation and experiment, and to discard those experiments which challenge the prejudice. It stands against the classical Protestant position that (aside from God) the Biblical text is our only infallible authority (and thus the clear sections of the Bible should be used to interpret those which are less clear), and also the Roman Catholic position that invests supreme authority in the Magisterium.
And the liberal movement has continued to be in thrall to secular philosophy, trying to drag the Church away from its apostolic position on numerous issues -- including on issues concerning the nature and work of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, the nature of sin, and on ethical issues. It is the ethical issues which concern me today.
I recognise that many of my readers will not be so interested in the affairs of the Church of England. And if this is not of interest to you, then that's fine. But, if you are in a Church in a Western country, it is very likely that either these concerns have come or will be coming in the next few decades to your own Churches.
When I was growing up, the house of Bishops of the Church of England contained a number of notable and world-class theologians. I did not agree with any of them on everything, and with some of them I agreed on very little, but I had to respect them for their intellect, conviction and how they communicated their teaching. Today, while there are a few orthodox Bishops in the Church (14 out of 110 by the last count), I struggle to think of any who maintain a clear public presence. The overwhelming majority of public statements that emerge from the House of Bishops are just intellectually and theologically insipid. So I am left to wonder whether these really the best we can do.
The issue in question concerns sexual morality, and in particular same sex relationships. Not surprisingly, as this is one key practical areas where secular culture has really moved out of step with orthodox Christianity. The history is long and complex, but I will start in 1998. At a gathering of all the Bishops of the Communion, the US Church tried to introduce a resolution permitting them to affirm same-sex relationships, or to allow clergy to be ordained in such relationships. This was opposed by the African delegates (and some others), who turned it around to a resolution which was largely orthodox in its wording. The US Church did not relent. Five years later, it nominated someone unashamedly in an active homosexual relationship to become Bishop in New Hampshire. At the same time the Canadian Church proposed services of blessing for active same-sex relationships. This caused a crisis in the communion. An emergency meeting of the Church leaders was held, where again the African leaders took control, and produced an agreement, which the leaders of the US and Canadian Churches signed, in effect forbidding them from going ahead. They returned home, and did it anyway. This led to a split in the North American Churches, with a new orthodox province established by the Africans.
The response of the communion to this was to hold various meetings, and issue a report, the Windsor Report, which, while far from being perfect, issued various recommendations, which while weak were at least something. Those recommendations were promptly ignored. The other Western Churches were also compromised by liberalism. The Archbishop of Canterbury has in this time held by two rather weak leaders, neither firm believers in theological orthodoxy themselves. The house of Bishops has tended to be more liberal, and grown more so over the years. However, the larger and growing Churches (or at least the Churches declining less slowly) have been more conservative, and thus the clergy and laity have tended to be more orthodox in their theology. Throughout this period, the goal of the Bishops has been to maintain organisational unity. The official line is that all views are brought about by strong and careful reflection on the scriptures, tradition, and experience, and thus should equally be respected. In practice, that respect has been more one way than the other. For example, the previous crisis was over women's ordination and then consecration. A compromise was made, where a space was given to those who could not accept the change. However, those (such as myself) who hold to the traditional complimentarian position have found ourselves increasingly marginalised since that happened. Most Anglo-Catholics have since left to join the Church of Rome. The Church of England is thus split down the middle, and any movement to one side or the other will tear the Church apart. However, society in the UK (at least among the political and cultural elites) has become more influenced by postmodernism and critical theory, and as it has moved so has the liberal wing of the Church. Scotland, Wales, and New Zealand have recently joined the North American Churches in affirming blessings of same-sex relationships.
The situation came to a head in 2017, with general synod (the Church's governing body) unable to progress. The result of that was to institute the "living in love and faith" process. This was intended as a long sequence of dialogues, where people of different traditions listened to each other. Of course, the discussions were moderated, and the final result was notable by its weak theology and gave the overall message that both sides were held with a good conscience, so why can't we all just get along? This, naturally, was not accepted by either side. The liberals by now cannot stand by and watch the "hateful" conservatives continue to oppress and dehumanise gay people. The orthodox, on the other hand (while rejecting that characterisation of themselves), see a primary purpose of the Church as guarding and reflecting the truth of God (which is the only way of expressing genuine love for God and our neighbour), and the booklet went too far in conforming to the patterns of the world (as well as being very poorly argued).
Last week (as I start to write this; I imagine it will take me several weeks to finish) the house of Bishops published their guidance concerning blessings of same-sex civil-marriages and civil-partnerships in Church. The document recommends that the Church should not conduct same-sex marriages, but nonetheless contains various experimental liturgies to bless those which have had ceremonies in a civil setting. These liturgies are, for now, optional for members of the clergy who can choose whether to use them or not. The documents still have to be affirmed by general synod (which will be a close vote in the house of laity), although several bishops have indicated that they will go ahead regardless of the decision in general synod.
We are united in our desire for a church where everyone is welcome, accepted and affirmed in Christ. With joy we cherish and value the LGBTQI+ members of our churches and celebrate the gifts that each brings as a fellow Christian. We are united in our condemnation of homophobia. We commit ourselves – and urge the churches in our care – to welcome same-sex couples unreservedly and joyfully. (A pastoral letter from the Bishops of the Church of England.)
With this statement (among others), the Bishops have condemned themselves. With language of affirmation unaccompanied by a call to repentance they have stepped outside the gospel. Yes, everyone is welcome. Nobody should be hated or despised, whether for their sexual attraction, or even their sexual behaviour, or anything else. We all come under the love of Christ, and need to respond to that love. Theological liberals and the theologically orthodox are in perfect agreement so far. The difference is in how we should display and respond to the love of Christ. In other words, what the actions displaying that love ought to lead us to do. Agape love (liberals tend to equivocate between the different senses of love, but this is the sense in play here) means to desire goodness. So how one reacts depends on how one understands what is and isn't good. So the orthodox and liberals diverge here because of their different understandings of love, sin, and the gospel. From the orthodox perspective, the gospel of Jesus is not one of affirmation, especially for those practices understood as sinful, but of repentance, sanctification, and a new life in service to holiness. (There is also, of course, here the now standard confusion between the people and the action: the Church is called to love and welcome the people by encouraging them to become aware of and repent of their sin, which involves condemning sinful behaviour, including sinful sexual behaviour.) So the question is can same-sex activity be holy in the eyes of the Church? That's something I will address (in part) below when I turn to the comments of the Bishop of Worcester. If it can (in certain contexts) then the liberals are correct, and the Church ought to be celebrating same-sex relationships. If it cannot (in any context), then same-sex activity is against God's purposes, is harmful for those who practice it, and love would compel us to condemn it, and certainly not affirm it or bless it. The problem with the Bishops' statement is that it tries to be neither one thing nor the other, and as such offends everyone.
I should emphasise as well that the orthodox do not single out same-sex activity and say that everyone who practices it are especially bad or it is a worse sin than others. Everyone is equally bad in the eyes of God, but that badness manifests itself in different ways. If it isn't same-sex activity, it would be something else that the person needs especially to repent of. (Or it could be multiple things.) The problem is the Church affirming rather than calling to repentance. If the Church were planning services of blessing for the greedy or drunkards, then the reaction of orthodox Christians would be the same. And someone who is greedy or drunk is just as bad as someone who engages in sexual immorality, and needs equally to be called to repentance rather than affirmed. But that's not where we are, so we have to discuss the problem as it presents itself today.
This document is not a surprise. It is precisely what most people have predicted for some time. Now, however, it is official. An update to the pastoral guidance will follow later in the year, no doubt overturning the current (mostly orthodox) Issues in Human Sexuality.
The position is, of course, an incoherent mess. It offers no theological or reasoned justification for its position. It is trying to mediate between two contradictory positions. Partly to appease those adhering to the apostolic position, and partly because it won't have the votes to get a change in doctrine or liturgy through synod, it states that there is no change to the official doctrine that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that sexual relationships outside such marriages are sinful. On the other hand, to appease those who approve of same-sex "marriages" (I use quotation marks to indicate that these are not marriages under the Church's doctrine), it allows for the blessing of same-sex people who practice same-sex intimacy, thus declaring that such activity is not sinful. Its attempt to get around the contradiction is to claim it is blessing the people rather than the relationship, despite offering liturgies which mimic the marriage service and bless the relationship. This position is obviously incoherent -- not surprising, as it is trying to construct a synthesis from a contradictory thesis and anti-thesis -- and thus unstable. Within a few years it will have to collapse into one position or the other. The decision has outraged people on both sides of the debate.
To those accepting of same-sex relationships, it does not go far enough, and by relegating these to a second class status it shows itself to be hateful of those people. To those on the other side, it is affirming of sin rather than calling to repentance, a denial of the gospel, and thus by going as far as it does is hateful towards those with same-sex attraction.
I, personally, belong to the orthodox camp (by which I mean the side that follows the traditional and apostolic view of the Church). I have no doubt that this document moves the House of Bishops into outright heresy. Any Bishop who does not recant of this document (as some now have) has violated their ordination and consecration vows, and as such is no longer fit to serve in the Church. Of course, it isn't just this document, or this issue of same-sex relationships, that is the chief problem. The Bishops were heretics before this on this and other matters; several of them through public statements. This is just the presenting issue of a much deeper problem, but, for whatever reason, it is the place where the classical Anglicans have decided to draw the line. I personally regret that this is the point where the battle is fought. The differences between liberal and orthodox run through the whole of Christian doctrine -- different understandings of the incarnation, the nature of God and his relationship with creation, the resurrection, the work of Christ on the cross, wider views of ethics including the fundamentals of moral theory, the authority and nature of the Bible, what the "good news" in the gospel is, sin -- in particular original sin, judgement and the wrath of God, the future life, the sources of revelation, and the Church's relation with the non-Christian world. In each of these areas, the same words are often used by both sides, but with different meanings. And I wish that the showdown had happened fifty years ago over these more fundamental issues. But we are where we are, and have to face today's problems.
The Bishop: Will you be ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God's word; and to use both publick and private monitions and exhortations, as well to the sick as to the whole, within your Cures, as need shall require, and occasion be given.
Answer: I will, the Lord being my helper. (1662 BCP, ordering of priests.)
The Archbishop: Are you ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God's word; and both privately and openly to call upon and encourage others to the same?
Answer: I am ready, the Lord being my helper. (1662 BCP, consecration of bishops.)
As well as violating their consecration vows (and their calling as Christian ministers), the Bishops' actions will cause schism in the Anglican communion. I have no doubt that the African and Asian provinces will break away from Canterbury over this, and they are right to do so. There will also be division in the Church: a handful of Bishops will distance themselves from the document, and the split in the laity will be greater still.
I would like to have commented on the document produced by the house of Bishops itself, and discuss its reasoning. Unfortunately, that is not possible, because, despite 17 pages, it does not contain any hint of justification for the position adopted. The main inference I get is that the Bishops are primarily concerned for Church unity, by which they mean the organisational unity of the Church. In other words, they consider doctrinal difference to be less important than that we all remain part of the same club. They have made an idol out of the organisational unity of the Church, and they hope by this compromise to keep it together at least for a few more years.
This emphasis on unity (without defining precisely what it means) has been stated by the Archbishop of Canterbury himself on numerous occasions. For example, in his address to the February 2023 general synod, the archbishop of canterbury stated:
Unity comes first not from doctrinal unanimity but by mutual love released by the Holy Spirit.
This statement is, of course, a false dichotomy: one can have, and ought to have, both doctrinal unimity (at least on matters of God, faith and morals) and mutual love. It is a mistake to set one against another. Equally, I am not sure that the Archbishop understands the meaning of the word love when used in a Christian context. This is the desire for goodness. Clear doctrinal error is an evil, so love itself calls us to correct and call to repentance those who hold to an incorrect doctrine. To focus on unity with someone while not calling them out for their doctrinal error, and not being prepared to discipline them if they do not repent is in itself a violation of the love that is released by the Holy Spirit. But the whole speech (of which this passage is the one that particularly caught my eye) is most of all troubling, in that it undermines any doctrinal borders. If a group of Arians, Marcionites, and (perhaps most pertinately) Nicolatians tried to set up parishes, but promised to be nice to everyone else, would the Archbishop sit back and welcome them in? If this speech was all we had to go on, I would say yes, since there is nothing in there which suggests any bounds to doctrinal disunity beyond the vague "so long as we seek the glory of God and to obey the commandment to make disciples." Arius, Macion and the Nicolatians sought the glory of God and tried to make disciples: but disciples to a mistaken view of Christ, God, or of Christian freedom as a consequence of grace. I am just glad he wasn't chairing the council of Nicea.
It strikes me that if an Anglican believes that the need for organisational unity trumps doctrinal consistency, then they should repent of their protestant inclinations and rejoin the Church of Rome. The Church of England broke away from Rome (during the reign of Elizabeth I, not the Henry VIII split, which was for somewhat more dubious reasons, albeit one that gave the opportunity for the reformers) because it teaches that "As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred, so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith." In other words, unity in organisation is subservient to unity of doctrine. Not perfect unity of doctrine, of course -- there is room for disagreement over minor matters ("for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognised"). But unity in all matters which are regarded as essential. And as the heirs of this tradition, the Bishops can hardly consistently disagree.
Now it is true that Jesus prayed for the unity of the Church. But the word "unity" can be understood in various respects, and it is important to note which of those senses is meant. This is the prayer, frequently cited by the Bishops,
I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them. (John 17, from verse 14, ESV.)
This passage calls on people to be "perfectly one." But who? Those who believe in Christ through the words of the apostles. The purpose of this is so that the world may know that Jesus was sent by God, and that these people are under God's love. And that the people made one by the hearing of the word might be where Jesus is and see God's glory. Immediately before this verse we see the importance of truth -- that the apostles should be made holy in the truth. Jesus not only asks that for the apostles themselves, but also those who come to believe in Jesus through the apostolic ministry.
There is mention here of belief, truth, love and witness. There is no mention here of Church hierarchy or structure. This unity transcends Church structure. By this measure, I am more united to Baptists and Roman Catholics who faithfully preach the gospel of Christ, than to Anglicans who preach another gospel. Yes, I have my disagreements with both the Baptists and the Papists (and the issues which divide us are important), but I can see in them the same knowledge and understanding of Christ through the apostolic word that is absent in theological liberals of any denomination. But note also that Jesus states that the apostles (and those who believe the apostles word) are hated by the world, and that he has taken them out of the world and protected them from it. Theological liberals, on the other hand, are noted for their tendency to try to accommodate secular philosophy. They seek the world's love ahead of the love of Christ. (We see this in the some defences made for same-sex activity: "We need to do this because this is what the wider society believes, and we need to be attractive to them.") The liberals are thus excluded from those for whom Christ is praying for unity.
So the unity of Christians is first of all centred in Christ (those who will believe in me). This then leads to a common belief in the apostle's word. The results of this are truth, witness and love, as well as a reflection of the internal relationships of the Trinity in the Church. This all gives glory to God, and stands in opposition to and distinct from the world and its ways of doing things. The unity is thus based on a common Lord which mandates a common belief, a common love, a common commitment to the truth, and a common witness.
Alternatively, we can look at the words of Paul, when he speaks of Christian unity:
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1, ESV)
Again, the emphasis is on doctrine, not organisation. One body, one spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God. There is no mention of being under the same archbishop or one bishop.
As J. Gresham Machen pointed out in his notable work Christianity and Liberalism, theological liberals are a different religion to Christians. They (or at least the most extreme of them) do not share the same hope; they do not worship the same Lord; do not share the same faith, and do not worship the same God. The orthodox and the liberals are thus not united according to Paul's criteria.
And, of course, this emphasis on unity of doctrine rather than of organisation explains why the New Testament calls on us to expel people from the Church who do not live up to its beliefs or standards.
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15)
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. (1 Corinthians 5:9)
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:6)
As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. (Titus 3:10)
And so on. There are many more examples.
And it is not just the false teachers themselves who are condemned, but those who tolerate false teaching. Take, for example, the letter to the Church in Thyatira, where Jesus is saying
I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve. (Revelation 2:19, ESV)
Whether Jezebel is an actual person, or a metaphor for a school of thought or a group of people is not clear (given the nature of the book of Revelation). But what is clear is that there are two groups of people being here. Firstly, there is Jezebel herself, and those who follow her (her children) into sexual immorality. This is, presumably, a relatively small number of people. But the biggest problem, who Jesus primarily address, are those do not practice such things themselves, but who tolerate Jezebel in the Church. And in particular it is a toleration of the false teaching which is called out. In other words, a toleration of false doctrine. This passage is particularly pertinant for the presenting issue today, since it is toleration of false teaching about sexual morality which is condemned by Jesus.
The point is that doctrinal and behavioural purity is more important than organisational unity. We are to cast those who publicly repudiate the gospel, either in word or through their deeds such as unrepentant sexual immorality out of the Church. This makes sense if the goal of the Bishop is "to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God's word." It does not make sense if the goal of the Bishop is to maintain organisational unity in the face of doctrinal division.
That does not mean that organisational unity is unimportant. But it is the consequence of doctrinal unity, not something which comes first or apart from it. Our unity is first of all based in Christ and our obedience to the one God. This leads to unity in doctrine and worship. One can hardly be united in Christ if one has different ideas of who Christ was, or his purposes in becoming incarnate, or his purposes for us (which includes the moral commandments and the need for repentance). From that comes bonds of love between Christians, both in the same congregation and outside the congregation. (Of course, there is also love for those outside the Church, but in a different sense -- a desire that they repent rather than arising from a shared passion for the gospel.) From those bonds of love arises the organisational unity and the diocesan and cross-diocese accountability that follows. But in the contemporary Church of England there are at least two Christs (an orthodox Christ, and various liberal ones), and thus the unity is broken at its source. Indeed, while trying to maintain the unity of the organisation at the expense of discipline and clear apostolic teaching, the Bishops are working against rather than in support of the intent of Christ's high priestly prayer. The Church is, after all, "a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ's ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same." (Article 19.) Whichever side of the debate one takes, that does not describe the contemporary Church of England. It does describe various groups and parishes within it, but not the Church as a whole. My preference is that the Church of England stays together but returns to orthodoxy. But that doesn't look like it is going to happen in the near future, particularly with the House of Bishops dominated by liberals. So we have to do the best we can in the situation we are in.
Of course, the doctrinal unity is not perfect agreement in every detail. There is room for difference on minor matters (Romans 14 is the classic passage here). There is no room for difference on the articles of faith (summarised, for the Anglican, in the 39 articles for the older controversies, and the Jerusalem declaration for the more modern disputes). The question then is on how we distinguish which matters we can agree to disagree on, and which we have to split over. That has to be decided. As an Anglican evangelical, I would look at what is written in scripture first, followed by what can be reasoned from premises drawn from scripture, and then from the historical consensus of the Church, or philosophical argumentation. On all four grounds, it is clear that sexual immorality is something we should not tolerate in the Church -- 1 Corinthians 5 makes that clear, and there are many other passages which say the same thing. Unrepentant sexual immorality sends people to hell. As the job of the Church is to act as ambassadors of Christ in rescuing people from hell, differences in opinion around sexual immorality are something important enough to divide over. As that is the presenting issue, this is not a matter of adiaphora, but something where we ought to be casting out the heretics. But regardless of what I think, if the Bishops want to regard this as a matter indifferent, then they need to justify that; and I have not seen any attempt at justification either in this document or the materials that preceded it.
So the only concern raised by the Bishops is for the unity of the Church, but the Church is already split, in the only way that matters. The continued infighting over this issue, which has proceeded for at least the past thirty years, is not to the glory of God. With this document, a point of no return has been reached. The evangelical and catholic wings of the Church cannot remain if it stands. The liberal wing will not remain if it is revoked (or not progressed to its ultimate conclusion in the near future). That the division will become formalised has been inevitable for some time. Let the Church divide, and God will bless the side that he favours and diminish the side he does not. My prayer has always been that the formal split, when it inevitably comes, would be organised and amicable. The ongoing efforts of the Bishops to keep the church together past the breaking point make it more likely that it won't be. The Bishops claim to have listened to the Church, but if they do not understand such things then clearly they have not.
All of which was more of an introduction than I had intended, but I am now reaching the main point of this post. Shortly before the House of Bishop's decision, a number of individual Bishops broke ranks to advocate for same-sex marriage within the Church. The Bishop of Oxford came first, but as his document lies behind a paywall, and I have neither the funds nor inclination to purchase it, I will leave that for others to respond to. The Bishop of Worcester's open letter is, however, publicly available. I think it a useful exercise to work through this letter, to understand precisely how a typical liberal -- not at an academic level either in its authorship or intended readership, but I think representative of most people in that camp -- thinks, and the sort of mistakes they make.
The Bishop of Worcester's open letter
I should say, first of all, that there is nothing new in the Bishop's arguments. The same arguments have been made for at least the past thirty years. Equally, there is nothing new in my responses to those arguments. These responses have been made for just as long. And this in itself gives pause to the claim that the Bishops have been listening. If the Bishop of Worcester listened to and understood his critics, he would either have re-framed his arguments so they did not have the same weaknesses, or responded to the criticisms and shown why they failed, or abandoned the weakest parts of his case and found stronger arguments to take their place. As he has not done this, I can only assume that he has not been paying attention to the other side in the debate.
My intention in this post is to point out every blatant logical, hermeneutic, or error of fact I notice in the letter.
This is going to be a long post. And a little bit dull in places -- I haven't had time to properly tidy it up.
I cannot promise to have spotted them all; but, as you will quickly discover by reading on, I have found a fair number of them. As such, I will directly cite most of his letter. It should not be thought that because I do not cite a passage that I agree with it; it might just show that the error was sufficiently subtle that I would have to put more work into arguing against it than I was prepared to for this post. I am just going for the easy pickings here.
The Bishop opens with a rather strange statement.
I should perhaps respond to those who have wondered why I am questioning church doctrine when, as a bishop, I should be upholding it. I want to make clear that I consider it my duty to uphold church doctrine even when I argue for it to be changed.
What he says is that he follows the church practice, even while he disagrees with it and tries to change it. The question comes then whether "upholding" doctrine means actually defending the doctrine, or merely going along with it even when you think otherwise (in other words, acting as a hypocrite -- believing one thing, and doing another). The ordination vows of the Bishop make it clear that his duty is to banish strange and erroneous doctrine from the Church. In other words, he is to actively oppose those who would seek to promote views which are not in line with Church doctrine (which he has just admitted, included himself). He first of all summarises the rather clear vow with the euphemism "upholding doctrine", a weaker statement. But the dictionary defines uphold as "To support or defend, as against opposition or criticism." One can hardly defend against criticism if you yourself are the one doing the criticism (which is what "argue for it to be changed" implies). One can follow the doctrine (which implies the practice) while disagreeing with it, but not uphold it.
This is the fallacy of equivocation. In the first place, when discussing his duty, he is using the word "uphold" to summarise his consecration vows, where it has the clear meaning of "defend." But when discussing his actions, he uses the meaning in the sense of "follow" or "practice in line with." In other words, he is changing the meaning of the word from one sentence to the next, and using that to cover a leap in his logic.
The Bishop next goes on to suggest that Church doctrine has changed in the past. First of all, he notes the criticism once levelled against one of his predecessors, Charles Gore, which he equates to creationism. So at the start of the twentieth century, the Church was effectively creationist. Now that would be an embarrassment to the Church, and ammunition for its secular criticism. I note, however, that the Bishop of Worcester's summary of the book Gore edited (and for the reason for the criticism of him) is somewhat superficial. Lux Mundi also promoted (for example) higher criticism, and an increased engagement with Enlightenment philosophy. It was, in short, one of the founding documents of liberal theology within the Anglican tradition. The Bishop's next example of Church doctrine changing was with regards to contraception, marriage of divorcees and women's ordination (which were accepted by the Church of England from the 1930s to the 1990s).
The Bishop's point in all of these statements is to say "The Church has changed its mind in the past, so it can do so again in the future."
There are two problems with this argument. Firstly, before the argument is established, two things need to be demonstrated.
- That the Church did in fact change its mind.
- That the Church was right to change its mind.
These are just assumed without proof by the Bishop. The issue of creationism and evolution is sufficiently complex that I don't want to discuss it here. I note, however, that elements of the Church have for a long time advocated an allegorical interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis. This tradition goes back at least as far as Augustine's Literal Interpretation of Genesis. Furthermore, I have no doubt that the theory of evolution and theism in general are compatible. After all, evolution by natural selection reduces the origin of species to physical processes, which are governed by the laws of physics, which are a description of how God sustains the universe. In other words, for the theist who accepts evolution, it is no more than a description of the mechanism by which God brought about the diversity of species. The question for the Christian is harder, because of how Genesis chapters 2 and 3 is tied into the doctrines of the fall and original sin, which are essential to the faith. While there is certainly allegory in these passages (the snake representing Satan, for example), there also has to be a sense in which we need to take a literal understanding. But, as stated, this topic is far too involved for me to discuss in detail here. The lesson one would draw from this is that where there are multiple possible interpretations of a passage, the latest science can help us to decide which interpretation to favour. As our knowledge of science changes, so can the favoured interpretation. So I will concede, in the absence of more detailed arguments, that on this issue the Bishop might have a point.
The issue of remarriage of divorcees is less clear cut, because the Biblical text gives two cases where it is permissible -- where the marriage was broken by adultery (and the innocent party seeks remarriage), and where an unbelieving spouse sought separation and divorce. Otherwise the teaching is clear: do not remarry after divorce, and this comes from the lips of Jesus himself. So if parts of the Church have come to support remarriage beyond these two circumstances, then that is clearly a change in doctrine, but it is equally clearly a mistake, as it goes against the direct words of Jesus. The damage done by divorce (for example to children) makes it clear why the Church ought to take Jesus' stance in general. In most minor cases of divorce, there are better options -- counselling, and reconciliation. There are, of course, more difficult cases, such as when physical or mental abuse occurs. Separation might be necessary to protect the abused -- but the conversion of the abuser (who, as a Christian -- as we are discussing Christian marriage -- should be willing to admit his or her faults when confronted by them) is still a better option than divorce. So this isn't a good example.
The issue of contraception is interesting because there is no Biblical discussion of it (either permitting contraception, or opposing it), unless one counts Numbers 5:11-31, which discusses a different circumstance, and is not clear that there was any contraception involved. The argument against contraception is drawn from natural law ethics, and with no strong Biblical argument against it, I see no reason to abandon this view (unless there are strong extenuating circumstances in a particular relationship, such as pregnancy would endanger the life of the woman). I personally find the natural law argument very powerful. So this was a change, but again it is dubious that the change was correct. But without Biblical mandate, this is not something a Protestant Church should have especially strong opinions on.
The acceptance of "higher" criticism by certain portions of the Church was again a novelty, but equally clearly a mistake. Arguments against the findings of the source, form and redaction critics are mounting up. Furthermore, "Higher" criticism assumes a secular philosophy, where miracles are not possible (Bultmann, admittedly after the example the Bishop of Worcester gave, is openly explicit about this). One can accept these assumptions, but the only honest way of doing so would be to simultaneously abandon Christianity and leave the Church. With regards to the Old Testament criticism, the Egyptian language and cultural influences in the Pentateuch (as documented by Hoffmeier, for example) make it clear that those books (or the first edition of them) were written by people familiar with New Kingdom Egypt, well before the time supposed by Graf-Wellhousen and their successors, but perfectly consistent with the traditional view that the books were (baring some minor additions and updating) written by Moses (and others of his generation for the framing narrative of Deuteronomy). We are no longer in the nineteenth century, and the assumptions of nineteenth century scholarship ought to be questioned. As the findings of form, source, and redaction criticism are far from secure, it was clearly a mistake for the Church to tolerate them.
The case of women's ordination to the presbytery and consecration to the episcopate is also clear-cut (at least to my mind). Yes, the Church of England changed its practice. But, given its accelerated decline since the 1990s, it will be difficult to say that this was good for it. The Biblical witness is reasonably clear-cut. The mental contortions one needs to make to interpret 1 Timothy 2:12 differently gives us little choice but to adopt its straight-forward meaning (and this isn't the only passage against women's ordination, but there is a reason why it was brought out by the likes of Aquinas and Hooker as a swift rebuttal). The passages raised in favour of women's ordination are either unclear or do not address the subject. The Greek of Romans 16:7 is ambiguous. Galatians 3:28 is on an entirely different topic. Under the principle that unclear passages should not override the clearer passages, 1 Timothy 2:12 should guide our thinking. Then we add in the unanimous voice of tradition, and the strong evangelical (headship) and catholic (sacramental representation) theological arguments. Theological arguments in favour of women's ordination generally assume secular notions of equity (not the same as the equality in value between men and women, which the complementary and Biblical text fully supports), which are contrary to Biblical values and thus ought to be rejected. Thus again, the Church of England changed, but was wrong to change.
The second reason why this argument fails is that it commits the fallacy of unreasonable analogy. Just because the Church was right to change its mind over X says nothing about whether it is right to change its mind over Y, unless X and Y are based on the same principles. As this is not the case with respect to same-sex sexual activity, discussing changes in views with regards to contraception (for example) is irrelevant to the subject at hand. After all, one can equally well (which is not very well at all) raise the far more numerous examples of where the Church of England has not changed its doctrine, and respond that just as it has not changed in those matters, neither should it in the matter of same-sex sexual activity.
The one example I have conceded above is if scientific advances can make us reconsider which interpretation of a difficult passage to prefer. The Bishop of Worcester takes this up.
The above shift involved a reappraisal of the scriptures in the light of what was happening in the world of science. I was trained as a scientist – my first degree is in chemistry – and I have had to ponder hard and long how science and the biblical witness can be reconciled. I suggest that something similar to Gore’s time is happening now. Until recently it was thought by many that the expression of homosexuality was simply a perverse lifestyle choice. Though, as yet, there is no scientific certainty about what factors determine sexual orientation, there is general consensus that it is not a choice.
This discussion is misleading. Note first of all the shift from "lifestyle choice," suggesting behaviour, to "orientation," suggesting desire. The evidence I have seen suggests that people do not choose to have same-sex attraction. As the Bishop stated, the causes of it are unclear. But it is still a choice whether or not you practice same-sex sexual activity. One can remain celibate. Equally, it is well documented that some people's orientation can change over time (and I believe this is usually towards heterosexuality). It is not fixed and immutable. Of course, something can still be mutable and not a choice. And something can be forced and not chosen, and still be an evil. Questions of whether or not same-sex attraction are a choice are irrelevant to the question of whether same sex activity can be a good in some circumstances.
But the main reason why this passage is misleading is that the issue in question is an ethical one, not a scientific one. The question is whether same-sex sexual activity can, in any circumstances, be a good. Science can describe what homosexual activity is, and can in principle (although it hasn't as yet) find natural casual explanations for same-sex attraction, but none of this gives any value judgement. This was pointed out by David Hume, not usually a friend of orthodox Christianity, who argued that you cannot get from a statement of what is to what ought to be. The best that a scientific analysis can tell us is what something is, or what its natural causes are. There is a jump to construct value statements from this.
This does not mean that science has no contribution to make to discussions of ethical theory, but it is very indirect. Physical science can and should inform our metaphysics, at the very least by eliminating theories of metaphysics that are inconsistent with its findings. Some approaches to ethical theory are grounded in metaphysical principles. And from ethical theory, we derive the practical aspects of ethics, such as whether or not same-sex activity can be good in any context. But this is not the argument that the Bishop of Worcester is making, and if he did try to make it I don't think that it would help his case.
Nor, I should point out, does Hume's maxim rule out all ethical thinking (as is sometimes claimed). Goodness is usually defined as being fit for purpose (where in this definition, purpose can mean either an intellectual desire or a natural tendency towards some particular end). (To justify this definition, just think of some cases where the use of the word "good" is uncontroversial: a good teacher, a good footballer, a good apple, and so on. It does not take long to realise that the connecting factor is that they are all fit for the purposes that describe that person or object.) If that purpose or tendency is part of the definition of what something is, then one can get from that purpose to what something is, and also to what it ought to be. For example, a living being is defined in part by its natural tendency towards reproduction. Sexual desire, in animal species including our own, contributes to that purpose, and so if sexual desire encourages the sort of coupling that (if there are no other impediments) would lead to reproduction then it is a good, and if it is directed differently it is an evil. Not necessarily a moral evil. Moral evils relate to those things we choose or have control over, and not all evils are moral (or impute guilt). But whether or not to act on a misdirected desire or impulse is something we do have control over, and thus a moral evil.
So there are four basic ways to avoid Hume's is/ought maxim. The first (Kant's approach) is to try to find an ethical theory which to deny would involve a logical self-contradiction. This is generally regarded as impossible: one needs data about the moral agent and circumstances in which he operates to develop a practical ethics, and at this point Hume steps in and stops you. The second approach is to define the various substances we observe in part in reference to inherent natural tendencies. This is the natural law approach to ethics, one of the major Christian moral theories, but the Bishop of Worcester cannot claim this theory because it comes to the opposite conclusion to which he is seeking. Then there is the idea that our purposes arise from some intellect external to us, and which has a claim over us. This is divine command ethics; which for a Christian involves analysing Biblical passages. Finally, one can try to use our own intellectual purposes to develop a sense of the good for ourselves, moral relativism. The problem with this is that ethics is intended to judge whether or not our desires and characters are good. To use our desires in the definition of goodness is just circular reasoning. Whatever we desire becomes good, which is another way of saying that there is no distinction between good and evil (since we can swap them just by changing what we want). Thus moral relativism collapses into moral nihilism; a position which, I hope, the Bishop of Worcester would not subscribe to.
So why does the Bishop of Worcester think that claiming that same-sex attraction is not a choice contributes to his case? He does not specify that in the text, and since I cannot read his mind, I cannot respond to a case he does not make. Others have expressed that they think it indicates that it is the way God made them, and therefore the attraction must be good, and to act in accordance with it also a good. However, in terms of Christian anthropology, this argument is a mistake because it ignores the effects of the fall and of original sin. The doctrine of original sin is often rejected by liberals, and those outside the Church, which puzzles me since is is proved every day in our observations of humanity (and, if we are honest, ourselves). Neither is it something which a faithful member of the Church of England can deny (Article 9). We do not need go as far as the Calvinist total depravity to acknowledge that everyone suffers from impulses, which can affect any area of our character, which direct us away from the good. Same sex attraction is (in the orthodox view) just one of those; the impulses towards adultery, lust, greed, cruelty, and dishonesty are others. The point is not that possessing same-sex attraction is any better or worse than any other sinful impulses and desires, or that it is comparable to those other ones I mentioned. Simply observing an aspect of someone's character is not by itself sufficient to determine whether that arose from God's originally good creation, or is a result of sinful corruption.
Secondly, one could argue that because same-sex attraction is not a choice, and moral evil does not depend on our choices, there is no moral guilt involved in having same-sex attraction. I would agree with that argument. However, just because it is not a moral evil does not mean that it is an evil in a more generic sense. And equally, it would still be a moral evil to choose to act on that desire. We are not machines, and can (particularly with the support of the Holy Spirit) learn to control our various impulses and desires, and decide whether or not to act on them.
The Bishop then makes an expression of his methodology.
My understanding of Anglican polity is that we are bound by the scriptures, interpreted within the living tradition of the Church through the application of reason and experience. Reason and experience have caused me to come to the scriptures anew and reassess my reading of them. Scientific insight is part of that experience.
The origin of this Anglican polity is usually traced back to the great Elizabethan scholar Richard Hooker, who observed in book 5 of his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity:
What Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience are due; the next whereunto, is what any man can necessarily conclude by force of Reason; after this, the voice of the Church succeedeth. That which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity of reason overrule all other inferior judgements whatsoever.
Whether this is (indirectly) the source of the Bishop's polity is less clear to me. (It is, however, obvious that the Bishop of Worcester has several points of disagreement with Hooker: for example Hooker stated in the same work that it was obvious that women could not be ordained.) But this passage is well known among Anglicans, and frequently referred to as a description of our polity. But note that the Bishop has diverged from it in several ways. Firstly, he has added experience to the three legs of Scripture, Reason, and the voice of the Church. Indeed, since he uses experience to reinterpret scripture and overrule the historical voice of the church, he has not only added it but moved it to the primary place. Secondly, he has ignored the ordering: what scripture plainly delivers comes first. Thirdly, there is no discussion of the phrase "plainly deliver." This indicates that there are some places where scripture is plain; others where it can be used to interpret itself, and still others where it needs assistance from reason or the voice of the Church to understand, or on which it is silent. Later on, the Bishop will try to argue that certain passages of scripture are not plain (as I will show, he argues unsuccessfully). Finally, we should not forget that "reason" as understood by the Bishop (shaped as he is by modernist and post-modern values) is almost certainly not what Hooker would have understood by the term. Reason is the development of arguments from premises to conclusions which are not obvious from any of those premises individually. Right reason occurs when those premises are beyond reasonable doubt; if there is doubt over the premises, then the conclusions should not be accepted. For the reformers, the only premises beyond reasonable doubt (aside from the basic axioms of logic or geometry) would be those drawn from what "scripture doth plainly deliver." Reason allows us to extend that to places not covered by scripture, or where its interpretation might be unclear. But obviously it takes second place, because there is still that human element and therefore the possibility of mistakes.
The Bishop thus misstates Anglican polity, and this leads him to the various errors which he makes.
The Bishop then moves to his central point.
Over the years I have observed good, faithful, monogamous relationships between people of the same-sex which I cannot believe to be inherently sinful.
He does not give any justification for this belief, so we are left to guess. The use of the word good here is, of course, committing the fallacy of begging the question. Whether or not the relationships are good depends in part on whether or not they are inherently sinful (I say in part because of that modifier inherently).
Firstly, something is only good if it is good in every respect. James made this clear,
For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not murder." If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. (James 2:10, ESV)
So just observing that the relationships are faithful, monogamous, and maybe contain other virtues such as kindness and generosity, is not sufficient to determine whether or not it is inherently good. If same-sex sexual activity is sinful, and the relationship involves same-sex sexual activity, then clearly the relationship fails on that point, and therefore fails on all points. Equally, many of the other qualities mentioned are only good in certain contexts. Faithfulness is only good if it involves being faithful to something that is itself good. Otherwise it only adds to the evil. Romantic love, as apposed to the charitable love -- the desire for goodness (Romans 12:9) -- which is set as the highest virtue in Christian ethics -- is only beneficial if it directs us towards those relationships which fulfil our God-given purposes, which in orthodox Christianity are expressed in a man-woman marriage. In other contexts, romantic love is an evil, as it directs people away from a marriage, or to be unfaithful to a marriage.
But I think that most of all, the Bishop has again fallen into the is/ought fallacy. He observes something, and concludes from the observation that that is the way it ought to be. He does not give any explanation for how he avoids this, so without that I have to suppose that he did not think of it and committed a basic philosophical error.
Equally affectingly, I have been moved by the pain inflicted on gay people by the Church. That pain has remained constant even though society, in my view, has become more enlightened.
To say that society has become more enlightened is, once again, the fallacy of begging the question. If orthodox Christianity is correct, then society has been moving in the wrong direction.
A more subtle fallacy of begging the question in this passage is in the use of the phrase "gay people." This uses "gay" as a modifier of "people," in other words it divides the set of people into various subsets, one of which is defined by "gayness." Of course this can be done, but to say that it is useful in this context requires that that distinction also entails something beyond that criteria. For example, that something else might be a different ethical standard, or a common experience of pain, or a common experience of oppression, and so on. (I also not that this meaningful separation between "gay people" and "not gay people" is also assumed by those labelled as being homophobic.) However, this is only valid if there is a necessary connection between "gayness" and the criteria (whatever that is). Otherwise, there is the chance of variation in the subset of gay people, and some of them would not be in pain, or oppressed, or have a different moral value applicable to them. This would then to be to commit the fallacy of treating an accidental property of the subset as though it were an essential property. I would hope that the Bishop would not argue that "pain," "oppression" or even "worthy of being hated," is an essential property of those with same-sex-attraction. So, in this context, he is probably arguing that the essential criteria attached to "gayness" is having a different moral standard applicable to them. But that is just begging the question.
In practice, the Bible makes no distinction concerning "gay people." There are just people. There are distinctions between male and female, and between those inside and outside of the covenant community, but no more than that. To take an identity based on sexual attraction goes beyond the Biblical text. Indeed, it is obviously problematic -- we are individuals, and so much more than our sexuality. To accept any such label and make it the defining feature of how we look at ourselves is to limit ourselves; to put ourselves into someone else's box. We were formed to give glory to God (Isaiah 43:7); and the beatific vision is a far greater calling than our sexuality. So to define ourselves by our sexuality is constraining; it creates an idol of a feature of our life which is less important and distracts us from what is more important. The concept of a "gay identity" is something that has come in from a secular philosophy. It might be correct, or it might not. Since the same philosophy (critical theory) gave birth to that conception of identity is fundamentally atheistic, it is not obvious that a Christian minister ought to accept its terminology. Many orthodox Christians would not. Thus by using the terminology of a disputed philosophy is begging the question of whether or not that philosophy is correct. It is better to use a more neutral terminology, which is not so associated with the identity theory concerning "being gay". There is also ambiguity in the term "gay," since it does not distinguish between those with same-sex attraction and those who practice same-sex sexual activity. That distinction is, as noted, important to the orthodox position. The lack of distinction is, once again, a consequence of the philosophy of critical theory, which has adopted the views of Freud, and considers sexual activity to be a core part of our identity. To deny someone sexual activity is, in this view, an evil, and thus to have a particular attraction necessarily leads in what this philosophy regards as a healthy individual to its practice. Thus the distinction between attraction and activity is minimised, as to admit it opens up the possibility of an unfulfilled sexual desire. Once again, by using the terminology of a particular disputed philosophy -- a terminology which fails to allow for distinctions that its alternative considers important -- is to beg the question as to the truth of that philosophy.
I should note the difference between "gay people" and my own term, "people with same-sex attraction." Am I saying the same thing in different terms, and thus making the mistake I just condemned? The difference is that "gay people" places the emphasis on the "gay." It thus concentrates on that which divides humanity, and treats gayness as an essential property of one distinct group, with everything else subordinate to it. "People with same-sex attraction," on the other hand, places the emphasis on what unites us, that we are all people, while treating same-sex attraction as an accidental property of that set (similar to "people with dark hair", or "people who are tall"). Thus discussing "gay people" contains within itself the implicit assumption that it is a separate group which ought to be treated differently to other groups (which is starting down the road to dehumanising those people), while "people with same-sex attraction" is more philosophically neutral.
The Bishop is grieved by the pain given to those who are "gay" (whatever that means) by the Church. But there is a logical jump here to get to his conclusion. He assumes that the pain is an evil. Most of the time, of course, pain is an evil. But there are exceptions. Even when we put our hand on a hot cooker, the pain we feel is unpleasant, but a good, since it encourages us to move away from the damaging situation. The administration of discipline or justice can involve administering pain (I do not mean torture, but simply the pain associated with driving someone beyond where they naturally want to go, but ultimately for their good). Both discipline and justice are acknowledged goods (e.g. Proverbs 13:24, Amos 5:15). Another sort of pain which is beneficial is involved in the call to repentance. As Paul put it,
For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it -- though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. (2 Corinthians 7:8, ESV)
Being confronted with one's sin (as Paul confronted the Corinthian Church in his first letter) is painful. But it is not an evil, but a necessary step in overcoming evil. Of course, it is only beneficial to the person involved if it leads to repentance (just as the pain experienced by someone who puts their hand on a hot cooker is only beneficial if it causes them to move their hand away). And as such, calling someone to repentance has to be handled lovingly and carefully. But whatever pain is caused by it, to not do so is an even worse evil. It is like a watchman who fails to warn the city when the enemy is approaching. The fundamental truth is that the gospel is painful for those living in sin. (I am not writing this to argue that those who practice same-sexual activity are living in sin; merely to point out that the Bishop's argument is not sufficient to show that they are not living in sin.) That pain can go in two ways: a godly grief which leads to repentance and then the joy and liberation that comes with accepting the gospel; or a worldly grief which continues in the same direction and eventually leads to further separation from God. Of course, telling someone that they are sinful when they are not sinful will also cause pain. The point is that the creation of pain is not sufficient to determine whether or not we are correct in our identification of someone's sin. The Bishop is begging the question, as he assumes the people were not guilty of sin and thus accused unjustly.
Of course, it is also possible that the pain the Bishop refers to was not of this sort, but also a type of pain that is genuinely ill-intentioned and harmful. Whether this is the case I don't know; it would have to be judged for each individual. If this did happen, then the Church is at fault.
There is thus a jump in the Bishop's argumentation. Just because the Church's teaching caused pain does not mean that that teaching is wrong and ought to be abandoned. After all, calling someone greedy, and saying that is morally wrong, will frequently invoke pain in them. But if they are genuinely greedy, then it is not wrong to do so: you are just confronting them with the truth. (Of course, how you say it is important.) Should the Church change its doctrine that greed is vicious because some people are pained by that doctrine? No, of course not. Just because you have caused someone pain does not mean that you should change your beliefs. It should, perhaps, mean that you change how you present those beliefs, but nothing is implied more than that. But particularly for a Church to change its doctrine requires a substantial argument, and that some people dislike that doctrine is not in itself a substantial argument. There need to be scriptural or logical reasons why the belief is wrong.
The Bishop continues:
My nomination as Bishop of Huntingdon was announced at the same time as that of Jeffery John to the See of Reading. That is almost exactly twenty years ago. He is one of the many casualties of our present discipline. His book, Permanent, Faithful, Stable, was first published in 1993. He has suffered for nearly thirty years for expressing the approach I am now proposing. Friends of mine have resigned as priests and many have left the Church altogether because of the attitude towards and the treatment of them by significant numbers of Church members. I have been forced to ask myself the question, how is the Church’s teaching good news for gay people, created in God’s image? I feel bound to say, rather late in the day, that it is not.
That Jeffery John and the others were rejected by the Church is not necessarily an evil. It depends on whether or not their views were correct. For example, the Church rejected Arius and Eusebius of Nicomedia, and was right to do so because their views were wrong and ultimately undermined the internal coherence of Christianity. Tolerating Arius would have been far more harmful to the Church in the long run. Doubtless that rejection caused Arius great pain, and I doubt that Alexander and Athanasius were particularly diplomatic about it. But there is a more important issue at stake: the truth and consistency, and faithfulness to the apostolic deposit, of the Church's teaching.
I am not writing this to compare Jeffrey John with Arius. But to make a wider point. Jeffrey John's teaching was rejected by the wider Church (although, of course, he still had a great many supporters within it, but not, at that time, the required critical mass). Since the two positions are not reconcilable, that means that either his teaching was incorrect, or the orthodox position he opposed is incorrect, or that both of them are incorrect. One cannot argue that just because there is a division of opinion, that the side producing the novel doctrine is correct in his argumentation. Or, to put it another way, if Jeffrey John had been accepted as Bishop of Reading, it would have caused many orthodox believers pain and distress. (Indeed, this is what happened in a similar time in the Episcopal Church, where the decision did go the other way, and the orthodox were driven from the Church with a great deal of pain and suffering, at least until they found solace in their own new denomination.) Would that pain now lead the Bishop of Worcester to adopt the orthodox view? If not, then it is just a double standard for the Bishop to use the pain felt by Jeffrey John as his views were rejected to argue for the truth of those views.
How is the Church's teaching good news for those who practice same-sex activity? In the same way that it is good news for any sinner (which, I should add, is everyone: there is nothing special about same-sex activity or attraction in this regard). It gives us the chance for repentance, forgiveness, atonement, sanctification, joy in the union with Christ, and to have one's sins covered by Christ in the final resurrection and judgement, to come to a fully fulfilled new life in the presence of God. That is the good news of the gospel, and it is open to everyone who is able (through God's grace) to take the first steps of belief, repentance and faith. Anyone addicted to a particular sin will, of course, find it difficult to take that first step of repentance. Even more so for someone who has been taught to take his identity in terms of a sinful attraction. But that does not change the good news that there is forgiveness and mercy for those who do -- with help from the Holy Spirit -- manage to repent.
The Bishop obviously disagrees, although he does not explain why he disagrees. It is difficult to understand how, if he had the above conception of the gospel, he would conclude that the good news was unavailable to "gay people." For a sinner to reject the gospel does not make the gospel invalid. There were plenty of people who rejected Jesus, but that does not invalidate Jesus' life and teaching. That suggests that he has a different conception of the gospel, and perhaps teaches a different gospel. But, in any case, this is not an argument for the Church to change its teaching. There would indeed be no good news if we affirmed sin, because without the acknowledgement of sin, and that it comes under God's wrath, there can be no forgiveness and restoration. The gospel would not be good news to anyone, because there would be no initial bad news which it overcomes. The bad news is that our sin separates us from God (Isaiah 59:1), and our pride excludes us from God's future Kingdom, consisting of people with a pure heart (Zephaniah 3:11, Psalm 15).
The Bishop continues:
My reticence was motivated by a commitment to the unity of the Church. I believe the time has come for all of us to be honest about the convictions we have reached after prayer, study of scripture and theological reflection, often over many years. My prayer is that such honesty might lead us into a deeper understanding of one another and so into a richer unity. How can we expect the Spirit to lead us into all truth if we are less than honest with one another?
Finally, we have found something I can agree with: The time has come for honesty. It is better than keeping the disagreements under cover and hidden. It is also good that we come to a deeper understanding of each other. However, I must then depart from him again. Firstly, supporters of same-sex activity in the Church have hardly been quiet in defending their views; nor have the orthodox been quiet in rebutting them. This discussion has been happening in the Church of England for the past thirty years. We already know where both sides stand. The second question is what he means by the unity of the Church. As stated above, this can mean different things to different people; but the Biblical principle is focused around unity in Christ and consequently doctrine, with the sacraments a witness to this unity, and the definition of the Church in the Articles makes a similar point. I fail to understand, then, how making our disagreements clearer will increase our unity (or make it richer). Surely the natural consequence would be to increase our disunity? This is then a non-sequitur.
Personally, I would say that recognising our disunity is good. It exists; we have to deal with it. Personally I think that if the Bishop has come to reject the Church's teaching, then he should in conscience leave the Church of England, and perhaps found a new denomination more in line with his own views. He will have plenty of other Bishops for company, though possibly not enough laity to support them. But that would require placing honesty above his desire for Church unity, which is possibly a little too much honesty for this Bishop.
Equally, while honesty is good, the work of the Holy Spirit does not depend on human honesty. This is to make God subservient to man. It is also wrong to say that the Holy Spirit is guiding us to all truth. There are two contradictory positions (and no middle position); only one side can be true. The Holy Spirit can thus at most be guiding one side of the debate. The other side is working against the will of the Holy Spirit. Of course, we won't know which side is which without the careful analysis of the scriptural and traditional sources, and observing which faction of the Church has the blessing of God. The Bishop seems to think that just throwing out an entirely disconnected allusion to John's gospel shows that he is on the side of the Holy Spirit. This is again a non-sequitur.
The Bishop continues:
It will be clear from the above that I do not think there is anything wrong with re-examining the scriptures in the light of science and what is happening in the 'secular' world. God is quite capable of speaking to the churches from outside them.
By outside them I assume that the Bishop means outside the scriptures. Is there anything wrong with re-examining the scriptures? Not in itself. Indeed, we ought continually to do so, to check whether our understanding is in conformity with them. But I think the Bishop means re-examining more in the sense of re-evaluating. His purpose is not to use the scriptures to judge his own views, but to use his new views, derived from the secular world, to judge the scriptures, and decide which parts he can take and which parts he cannot. One wonders why, if the secular world is the guide to what is and is not true, he bothers with the scriptures at all. Of course, all of this is contrary to the Anglican doctrine of the primary position of the scriptures.
Is God capable of speaking to the Church from outside the scriptures? I would say yes. The gift of prophecy did not stop with the apostles; there have been those who have received visions and revelations from God. There has been inspired preaching. Doctors of the Church have created inspired works of theology. Much of that has been helpful, and could well be genuinely inspired by the Holy Spirit. But the point is that there have also been false visions, false preaching, and false works of theology. We have to distinguish between the true and the false, and that is not always easy. Particularly for those who do not have the luxury of living centuries later, and able to see the fruits of the works. The one sure guide we have is Holy Scripture, which is known to be reliable. The second, (for the Protestant) less sure but still important guide is the historic position of the Church. So God does speak from outside the scriptures, but that does not mean that everything outside the scriptures is God speaking. What we do know is that God does not speak in contradiction to the scriptures. Everything that is in contradiction to the scriptures must be rejected (or, if we cannot do that, we should reject Christianity). Everything that is in conformity to the scriptures, we should keep an open mind, and neither reject nor firmly accept as coming from God.
Of course, when reading the scriptures, we have to be aware that there is imprecision, caused in part from the natural vagueness of language, and also from interpretation (for example, did God bless this behaviour described in the Old Testament when it doesn't explicitly say so). One has to compare different passages, which might approach a topic from different angles. So, on every issue which scripture addresses, there are bounds of possible interpretation, where there is legitimate room for disagreement. In some cases those bounds are quite broad, and in other cases very narrow. To say that something is not in conformity to scripture means that it lies outside those valid interpretive bounds.
As regards to listening to secular society, I think Paul had something to say about that:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1, ESV)
Even in the gospels, particularly John's writings, we see a clear distinction between the world and his own disciples. The world hates the disciples; the disciples need to leave the world in order to follow Jesus. Clearly then, that something is accepted in secular culture does not mean that it ought to be accepted in the Church or used as a guide to interpreting the Bible.
And we have this in common with Paul's time: the secular culture is not Christian. If the early Christians conceded to the secular culture, they would have sacrificed to Caesar, or worshipped the idols -- but that would have been a betrayal of the gospel, so (for the most part) they did not. Today, secular culture is atheistic. The post-modernist and critical theory philosophy which today is the main driver towards acceptance of same-sex activity is explicitly atheistic. It is based on premises which contradict the premises of Christian philosophy. It denies the incarnation, resurrection, original sin, atonement, a great deal of Christian ethics (including the notion that sin is individual rather than communal), and even the existence of God. One can, of course, accept critical theory and reject Christianity, or accept Christianity and reject critical theory, but one cannot have both. If we are to re-evaluate Biblical text in the light of secular thought, why stop at just matters of sexuality? Why not throw out all of Christianity, except a commandment to love (which even then redefines the meaning of the word love)? The point is that the Bishop is being inconsistent here. He is deferring to the Bible in some matters, and secular culture in others. What justification, other than his own opinion and pride, does he have that secular culture is right about this, but not about (for example) the existence of God?
So the Bishop's statement that we should incorporate anti-Christian philosophies into the Church is both inconsistently applied and against the commandments of Jesus and the apostles. If he did want to apply it consistently, then he is quite welcome to try to create a syncretism between Christianity and critical theory; but not while representing a Church that claims to be apostolic, and not while calling himself Christian. Whatever religion he comes up with will certainly differ greatly from Christianity.
Methods of Scriptural interpretation
The Bishop continues by citing various authorities:
In reassessing my understanding of what they have to say to us on this issue I have been helped by the brilliant Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, who tells us that we should start 'with the awareness that the Bible does not speak with a single voice on any topic. Inspired by God as it is, all sorts of persons have a say in the complexity of Scripture, and we are under mandate to listen, as best we can, to all of its voices.'
This is, of course, an argument from human authority, which is notoriously weak. I could, if he likes, raise other authorities which make the opposite point, and emphasise the overall consistency of the narrative throughout scripture.
If, by many voices, he means that there were numerous human authors of the Biblical text, and they all brought their own styles and angles to look at the various topics being considered, then that cannot be denied. Of course, a Christian will add that as well as the human authors, they were guided by the Holy Spirit to ensure that everything they wrote is in conformity with the divine purpose and message. The Articles of faith allude to this in a very general way in Article 7 (admittedly just demanding consistency between the testaments rather than within them, and only in the one point, probably in response to the views of Marcion and others like him):
The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man.
And the consistency of scripture is implicitly affirmed in Article 20:
The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.
Of course, one can choose to reject the doctrine of the Church of England contained in the Articles, and that's fine. But not if you are called to be a Bishop in that Church tasked with defending that doctrine.
So the Bishop of Worcester's citing of this authority is troubling, because the text contravenes the doctrine of the Church. The quotation is raised in order to try to make the point that on many issues there are conflicting passages of scripture, so you should not just take one passage in isolation, without looking at what other voices in scripture say. I certainly agree that we should take into account of all of scripture when coming to a decision. I disagree, of course, that it, when interpreted correctly, says different things in different places applicable to the same context.
But the other problem with citing this passage is that it tries to use a general point to make a specific claim. Even if it is true that on many topics there are different views expressed in the scriptures, the question at hand is whether or not the scriptures are consistent in the particular matter of same-sex activity. Thus to defend the overall consistency of scripture is beyond the scope of this post: I only need to do so for this particular matter. And to attack the overall consistency of scripture goes beyond the Bishop of Worcester's purposes (aside from its role in undermining the Protestant Christian faith by attacking the divine inspiration of its source of authority: but if that is his goal, he saws off the branch he is sitting on). What he needs to do is to attack the consistency of scripture in this one area.
So what do we see? First of all there are explicit condemnations of same-sex activity in the books of Leviticus, Romans, 1 Corinthians, and 1 Timothy. The Bishop will discuss these later in his letter, so I will defer my response to his comments until then. There is also the narrative of Genesis 19. Some have tried to water down force of this passage, saying that the crime of the Sodomites was showing a lack of hospitality, and that accounted for the judgement against them. But that misses the point. The case against Sodom wasn't based on a single sin, but a cumulative case of depravity from multiple directions. Everything within that passage is recorded to add to the case against Sodom, and that includes that it is attempted homosexual rape rather than just simply attempted rape. So the story of Sodom adds to the case from the direct commandments against same-sex sexual activity, and (for example) Jude 7 with its mention of the indulgent of sexual immorality and pursuit of unnatural desire confirms this interpretation. (The parallel passage in Judges 19 and 20 I consider weaker as a source of doctrine, since obviously there is a lot going on there which goes against God's will. It is not explicitly stated which precise acts God does and does not approve of, and we are left to infer that.)
But in addition to those passages, we have the whole sweep of scripture which assumes a male-female norm. Genesis 1 states that God created us as male and female, with the purpose of us being fruitful and filling the earth. This is repeated with the idealised marriage, the union between Adam and Eve, which is the one pre-fall relationship directly created by God. Indeed, even if we did not have the direct commandments against same-sex activity, the reason given for the creation of sexuality in humanity in these early chapters of Genesis, for procreation, would be enough to conclude that same-sex intimacy is a mockery of God's purposes for ourselves, and that would be enough for the Church to maintain its opposition to same-sex-activity. And as we go on, we find time and time again the norm of male-female sexual relationships, with no counter-examples. The relationship between David and Jonathan was that of close friendship: as other passages make clear, both of them were rather too strongly attracted to women (and, of course, even if the passage does indicate same-sex attraction, just because David did something does not mean that it was approved by God). Using Naomi and Ruth, or Jesus and the "beloved disciple" as examples is even more inferring things into the passage that are simply not there. There is, in those passages, no inference of sexual intimacy, or even of sexual attraction. Every time children are mentioned, they are always taught to honour their father and mother, assuming heterosexual parentage. The wedding which Christ blessed at Cana was a heterosexual one. His discussion of marriage in Matthew 19 refers back to Genesis 2 and the Adam-Eve paradigm. Even when marriage is used as a picture of the relationship between God and Israel or Christ and the Church, it is expressed in terms of a male-female relationship, with Israel or the Church figuratively taking on the role of the bride. There is, in short, a consistent picture of not only condemning and never condoning same-sex relationships, but also of affirming opposite-sex relationships.
Furthermore, both the Old and New Testaments are consistent in condemning fornication (sometimes translated as sexual immorality, or pornea in the Greek). Given the Jewish context, this would refer to the entire set of commandments concerning who we should lie with, which includes those of Leviticus 18 and its condemnation of homosexual activity. And there is no sign in the Old or New Testament of God weakening His stance on sexual sin. If anything, Jesus strengthens it by not just making it about action, but also about looking at people with lust.
So if we do look at all the voices in scripture, we find that, on this matter, they speak with a very consistent voice. But not the voice that the Bishop of Worcester wants to listen to.
The Bishop goes on by citing another human (and thus potentially flawed) authority, the biblical scholar R T France:
A truly biblical hermeneutic must not confine itself to the overt pronouncements …, but must be open to the biblical evidence as a whole, including its narrative and incidental parts. When this broader approach is undertaken it may lead us to re-examine the way in which we have read the more 'obvious' texts … If this makes deriving guidance for the real world from the biblical text more complex than it might at first have seemed, so be it. Let us hope that by embracing the wider range of biblical evidence we are enabled to be more responsible in offering biblical guidance for the issues of our generation.
The first part of this statement, I agree with. We should base our views on the whole of scripture. However, when it implies that the broader approach can undermine overt pronouncements, then this is more problematic. Firstly, it directly contradicts Article 20, cited above. Secondly, it undermines the historical principle of interpretation, which dates back at least as far as Iranaeus, but I will cite from the first of the set homilies for the Church of England:
A good rule for the understanding of Scripture. If we reade once, twice, or thrice, and understand not, let us not cease so, but still continue reading, praying, asking of other, and so by still knocking (at the last) the door shall be opened (as Saint Augustine says.) Although many things in the Scripture be spoken in obscure mysteries, yet there is nothing spoken under dark mysteries in one place, but the self same thing in other places, is spoken more familiarly and plainly, to the capacity both of learned and unlearned.
The principle is that we use those passages which are clear and plain in their meaning to interpret those which are harder to understand. In this case, we have certain direct commandments, which (most would affirm) are clear and unambiguous. Against this, we have not a specific passage, but France's broad approach. The problem is that broad narrative of scripture is constructed via an interpretation of numerous passages. Clearly different people have interpreted those passages in different ways; for example orthodox Christians will say that the direct prohibitions against same-sex sexual activity are perfectly in line with the wider narrative of scripture. Clearly liberal Christians have a different understanding of that wider narrative and disagree. If we suppose that both interpretations of the broader narrative are equally valid (which I do not accept -- the liberal narrative of inclusion ignores and misinterprets far too much -- but suppose it for the sake of argument), then the dispute suggests that the passages which give rise to each narrative are difficult and unclear. In that case, we should use the plainer passages to judge between the narratives.
In other words, French has got things the wrong way round. We should use the "obvious" or direct passages to challenge our wider understanding of the gospel, and bring it back into line. The question then becomes which presentation of the gospel is the most consistent with the various "obvious texts." Since the orthodox claim perfect consistency between the texts with a plain meaning and their understanding of the gospel, and the liberals have to resort to ideas such as French's which purport that there is a conflict between them, I think it clear which interpretation has the upper hand.
In other words, with regards to Biblical interpretation, the Bishop of Worcester is advocating that we make the mistake of overriding the raw evidence (the obvious texts) on the basis of a constructed opinion (his broader approach), rather than modifying his opinion on the basis of the data. Now he is doing this because he believes that he has other data (namely his witness of same-sex couples) which reinforces his new view, which supports his broader approach to scripture. As stated, I think he is mistaken in both the way he interprets his experienced data, and in how he puts it as a higher authority to scripture. But the very point that he is finding contradictions should be enough to alert him that he has got something wrong somewhere (whether that is in the conclusions he has drawn from the witness of same-sex couples, or his allegiance to the scriptures and thus Christianity). The correct view ought to have no contradictions.
The Bishop then turns back to Brueggermann
All interpretation filters the text through life experience of the interpreter. The matter is inescapable and cannot be avoided … we read the text according to our vested interests. Sometimes we are aware of our vested interests, sometimes we are not. It is not difficult to see this process at work concerning gender issues in the Bible.
There are, I think, two claims being made here. The first is that all people interpret the Biblical text subjectively. The second is that all biblical passages are interpreted subjectively. I think that it is indubitable that some people looking at some texts have let their subjective life experiences guide them in interpreting that text. The question comes to whether this can be extended to all people and all texts. (If it is only some texts that are affected, then the Bishop has to show that those in question are among them.) Another question is how much this bias affects us. If it leads to only an insignificant difference, then there is still a great deal of objective commonality in the reading. Of course, the idea that interpretation is invariably subjective is one of the bedrocks of postmodernism. But, for those of us who reject that philosophy (which includes Biblically faithful Christians), it is far from being obviously true.
Of course, if true, this statement would equally mean that the Bishop of Worcester reads the Bible through his own life experience and vested interests. Indeed, he is explicit that that is how he has approached the text. The unevidenced claim he wants to make, however, is that this is also true for his opponents. It is obvious why he wants to make this claim. An impassionate and objective reading of the text is obviously superior to a subjective one. His own reading is, by his own admission, his own subjective view derived more from his experiences than from an honest approach to the text in itself. He has to project his own limitations onto his opponents, so at least he is on an equal footing with them, if he is to have any chance of being taken seriously.
In practice, of course, there are many texts in scripture which are so clear that whatever our life-experiences are, any honest reader will extract the same meaning from them. Take, for instance, the following statement:
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:23, ESV)
Once we understand the definitions of sin, justification, grace and so on (which is just a matter of understanding Greek; what minor disputes there are are relatively insignificant in this passage), then the meaning of it is clear and obvious. "All have sinned" is clear enough, especially since the surrounding context makes it plain that "all" is indeed universal in its application, omitting only God (and thus the incarnate Christ). Understanding this passage is just a matter of reading it. There is no room for life-experiences to affect an honest interpretation, unless one wishes to find some convoluted way to insert one's own beliefs into it. I can, of course, reflect on my own life experiences when reading it. Do I understand that I have sinned? Then this passage is in accordance with my life-experiences. Do I believe that I have never sinned? Then this passage should either make me reconsider, or reject its claims. But in either case, the interpretation of the passage is not influenced by my life-experiences. Whether I believe the passage might be influenced by it; but that is not a matter of interpretation but of acceptance.
And, as the homily states, there are enough clear and obvious texts that require no difficulty in interpreting that we can construct a clear understanding of Christian doctrine.
In practice, understanding a text is or ought to be an objective process. And the process is well defined. It might involve some initial word-searches to determine the range of meanings that particular words have. One would also have to look at the historical and cultural context in which the text was written to understand the sort of questions that were circulating at the time, and also take note of any textual variations. These, of course, can lead to some imprecision in the final results. Then it is just a matter of logical and grammatical analysis. The final result is a range of possible interpretations. This process is wholly mechanical, and whoever does it correctly would come up with the same result, regardless of their own personal biases. In some cases the range of possible interpretations is narrow. We then bring together different passages, and constrain that range further. We can then check our work by comparing against others, particularly those of different schools of thought. The only point, if we proceed honestly, where our personal biases (informed by our life experiences) intervenes is in the final selection of which interpretation is preferred. But, in the case of the core message of the New and Old Testaments, as well as most applications of it, there isn't much of a choice, and what there is isn't very significant.
We must also, of course, acknowledge that there are people whose underlying philosophy and beliefs have changed through their reading of scripture. But how would that be possible if they interpreted those texts based on their underlying philosophy and beliefs, as formulated by their life experiences?
And then, of course, we do not read or interpret the Bible alone. We consult others for their insights. And there is a curious thing here, because it turns out that a great many people, spread across a great range of time, and from different cultures and places (including some cultures which have been affirming of same-sex sexual activity), and thus with a great variety of life-experiences have all read the Bible and came to the same (or, on most topics, similar enough) conclusion about its meaning. Obviously there are difficult passages, with disputes which have sometimes taken centuries to resolve. But the passages relevant to this topic (or, indeed the overall gospel message of salvation from sin) have not historically been among them. On the other hand, those who argue as the Bishop does are not notable for their variety of life-experience: they are all products of contemporary Western society, and greatly influenced by the modernist and post-modernist philosophies of the culture they live in, and have adopted interpretations which accord well with the beliefs of their surrounding secular culture. Thus I think it fair to conclude that the only people who are letting their life-experiences shape how they read the text are those who in recent times have sought to challenge it, and not those who have adopted the orthodox interpretation.
But, of course, it is difficult to speak about generalities. One has to look at specific passages, and how they are determined, to see who is reading things into those passages, and who is reading them to understand what was meant by the author. Fortunately, (and at last) the Bishop now turns to specific passages of scripture. He begins by reiterating the point he made earlier, that the Church of England has changed its mind on other topics.
This process enables some of us who would think of ourselves as 'Bible believing Christians' to question the teaching of what others would describe as 'the plain meaning of scripture'. For example, what St Paul says about women not praying with their heads uncovered (1 Corinthians 11.1-13) and not speaking in Church (1 Corinthians 4.34-35). It is very difficult to reconcile these passages with women taking an equal part in church worship, let alone being ordained. Taken at face value it would mean all Christians who are female wearing head coverings in church or in prayer. It is necessary to point to other texts and produce arguments to suggest that these should carry more weight. In fact, looking at these passages together with what Paul says elsewhere about there being neither male nor female in Christ, it becomes more difficult for Christians to use the texts to bolster patriarchy or even to subjugate women.
I think a little context is needed here. The Church of England debated whether or not women should be ordained back in the 1980s. The final decision to do so was made in 1992, with provision set aside for those who could not in conscience accept it. Back then, I was a relatively young Christian, and my response was "Why on earth would anyone oppose this?" The Church I was raised in (while evangelical in its approach, for which I have always been grateful as it gave me a solid grounding in the faith) was supportive of the measure. But in subsequent years, as I read through the Bible, I encountered passages such as those referenced here. Immediately I saw a clear dissonance between them and women's ordination (note that I adopted an orthodox interpretation despite my life experience pointing me in the opposite direction). But I led the matter slide; I (naively) assumed that the Bishops knew what they were doing. The story then shifts to over a decade later, when I was on my first post-doc, and had (alongside my studies in physics) started to study theology and philosophical theology in detail; I was beginning my studies of Augustine, Aristotle, Aquinas and the reformers. But I had, from my initial studies, always had a soft spot for CS Lewis, and I came accross his collection of essays. His essay Priestesses in the Church? at first angered me. But then I remembered my own previous doubts when reading scripture, and I started to ponder if it was Lewis who was correct, and the Bishops who were wrong. I also found that the great minds of the Church agreed with my own interpretation of those passages, and it was only a few modern (and, with only a few exceptions, lesser) theologians who dissented. It was easy to see which side I should take. Other events at the same time (including the Church's deliberations over women Bishops) came together to conspire to force me to consider the matter in detail, and look at the arguments on both sides, including the attempts to reinterpret these passages or the 1 Timothy passage. That is when I recognised the strength of the arguments against women's ordination, and the weaknesses of the arguments in favour of it. For example (and there is much more to the discussion than this, but this is the relevant part for this post) the attempts to reinterpret the passages always struck me as special pleading: attempting to read a pre-determined conclusion into the passage rather than honestly extracting the meaning from it. So I changed my position. But my natural instincts still are in full support of women's ministry, and the importance of women in the Church. It is only the weight of evidence -- not my life experiences -- that swayed me.
I write this because back in 1992 (for women's priests, although I was not aware of it at the time) and in 2004 (for women's bishops) we were constantly assured that these passages in 1 Corinthians were unclear, and did not necessarily say what the plain meaning implies. But now we have the Bishop of Worcester admit that they are clear and obvious, and that the Church is deliberately going against them. I am not surprised by this conclusion, since I hold to it myself. But it interesting to see a Bishop admit it.
The Bishop of Worcester has asserted two premises. 1) That these passages are inconsistent with the ordination of women. 2) (Implicitly) the Church of England was nonetheless right to ordain women. There are then four possibilities.
- The Bishop of Worcester is correct in both his premises (this is his view) and therefore there is a clear precedent for the Church to overrule the plain meaning of scripture in light of the broader narrative.
- The Bishop of Worcester is correct that the passages are clear and plain, but wrong in his belief that the Church was right to ordain women (this is my view). In this case, the precedent was a mistake by the Church which ought to be reversed, and certainly should not be repeated.
- The Bishop of Worcester is correct in his belief that the Church ought to have ordained women, but incorrect in the interpretations of these passages (this was the view presented in 1992 and 2004). In this case, no precedent was set concerning women's ordination.
- The Bishop of Worcester is incorrect in both his beliefs, in which case no precedent was set, and the Church should still reverse its earlier decision and not repeat it.
So there is an inconsistency between the argument being made now, and the argument being made back in 2004. This leads me to suspect that inaccurate methodology is being used, with scripture twisted to mean whatever is needed to support the current cause. The second point is that the only reasonable possibilities for a "Bible-believing Christian" are options 2, 3 and 4. If you accept option 1, then you do not believe the Bible, at least on this point. So the Bishop has committed another fallacy here, claiming to be something he is not. He is also, of course, guilty of violating Article 20.
The Bishop's justification that the ordination of women is correct is weak. Galatians 3:28 is about salvation, not Church order, and irrelevant to the question of women's ordination. To use this passage is to make the mistake of using a passage which is on a different topic to infer something to override a passage which directly affects the issue at hand. He could at least have cited the stronger Romans 16:7 if he wanted to make this case.
Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me (Romans 16:7, ESV).
The Greek text here is ambiguous, and some have read it to mean that Junia was an apostle. Of course, this is still not sufficient to establish women's ordination (although it is the best argument its supporters have), because it is using an ambiguous passage to interpret a clear one, breaking a standard hermeneutical rule. Consistency with the rest of Paul's writing, as well as the idea that Junia being the best known of the apostles making little contextual sense, suggest that the interpretation implied in the ESV translation is the correct one. As stated, I regard this as the best argument in favour of women's ordination, and it isn't very good.
Finally (for this section) I have to discuss the last point made by the Bishop, where he seems to equate the complementarian view concerning women's ordination with the Patriarchy or suppression of women. This is just an ad-hominem attack, or name-calling, and suggests that he does not understand the complementarian position. This position states that men and women are of equal value, equally in the image of God, and of equal importance in the Church (see Genesis 1:27, and, yes, Galatians 3:28), but are not interchangeable. Instead they are distinguished by how they relate to each other, particularly in the family but also wider society. 1 Corinthians 11 is a key passage here, but it also follows from direct observations of biology and human nature. This leads to the idea that there are different roles for men and women in the family and also the Church. There is no sense of suppression or oppression here: while leadership and congregational teaching positions (such as the offices of presbyter and bishop) are reserved to men, there are equally important offices which are reserved to women (such a deaconess and, perhaps most importantly, being a mother).
This difference does not mean oppression or suppression. Christian leadership is not like pagan leadership (Mark 10:42). It is not about domination, but service to build up the congregation as a whole. Thus to take a position of authority in the Church is not to elevate oneself, but to diminish oneself (or at least that is how it ought to be). Indeed, consider the following passage, one of the key texts in the evangelical argument against the ordination of women.
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Ephesians 5:22, ESV)
With regards to women's ordination, the key debate revolves around the meaning of the word translated as head. The word is obviously intended in a metaphorical sense in this passage, but it was rarely used as a metaphor in ancient Greek, so there is discussion over precisely what it implies. If I was discussing women's ordination, I would have to go in details, but I just mention it to point out that a) these subtleties exist; and b) from what I have seen, the meaning of leader (which is the most common metaphor in Hebrew, Latin and English) is the most likely resolution of this problem. But my reason for citing this passage is actually a little further down, where it describes the responsibilities of the husband. He is to love his wife (meaning to desire for her good), to sacrifice himself for her, and help her flower into perfection. In return, the wife is to respect her husband (and I know that some husbands are difficult to respect). The point is that this is not a relationship of domination or oppression, but two people working together for their mutual good and mutual interests. They have different roles in that process, but each have the same goal. Similarly, in the Church, men and women have different roles, but those roles are intended to mutually benefit each other, and build up the whole congregation. What a man lacks, the woman provides, and vice versa.
Does the complemetarian view suppress women? No, because the orthodox Christians take into account the whole sweep of scripture. We see women as co-workers of Paul, supporting Jesus, teaching privately, or prophesying. Women are encouraged to use their gifts and actively contribute to the Church. Just that contribution is not in the ordained ministry of the presbyter or bishop, or holding a congregational teaching role (although it could be in other ordained offices, including those reserved for women). Why is this restriction in place? There are various theories (both Catholic and Evangelical), but none of them are based on the idea that women are weak or to be suppressed. If anything, it is as much to compensate for the weakness of men as it is anything to do with women.
In short, to say that the complementarian view is Patriarchal or suppresses women is to misunderstand it. But this is just a side issue, and a full discussion of this subject would require far more space than I can give here.
The Bishop gives one more example, that of remarriage after divorce, where he cites Jesus' teaching, but for some reason seems to find it confusing. But the Biblical picture is clear: remarriage after divorce to a still-living spouse should not be performed, by direct command of Jesus, except in the case of adultery (or possibly a prior marriage to an unbeliever, although it is unclear whether Paul is discussing remarriage here, or as a concession). If the Church of England is disobeying this standard, then it is disobeying God and should repent of it.
Individual scriptural passages
So, finally, having set the scene of why he thinks he can disregard the clear teaching of scripture, he turns to the passages in question and explains why he thinks they are unclear.
Some would say that whereas the scriptures are ambivalent about divorce and the role of women in the leadership of the Church, they are unequivocal in their condemnation of homosexuality. I do not think that is true. I do not think that the oft quoted passages in Leviticus and Paul refer to anything comparable to the faithful, monogamous same-sex relationships which some of us are suggesting the Church should celebrate. …
It must be admitted that wherever instances of same-sex sexual activity are found in the Bible they are unequivocally condemned but what I believe the Bible condemns is something that every gay person in the Church today would also condemn - abusive, oppressive, exploitative relationships.
So the bishop states that the passages are not unequivocal in their condemnation of homosexuality, and then in the very next paragraph that they are unequivocal in their condemnation. There is a blatant contradiction here. (Of course, he tries to qualify this statement by stating that they don't condemn today's relationships; but that qualification does not change that he is saying that the scriptures both don't unequivocally condemn and do unequivocally condemn something, even if that something is not, in his view, what most people have read into the passage.)
But there is, of course, a deeper problem here. What the Bishop does and does not think is of little import in the grand scheme of things. The question is what God does and does not think, and for that we need to look at the scriptures, with a proper understanding of the historical context, of course. Right reason, meaning philosophical conclusions drawn from sound premises and tested against empirical evidence (where relevant, which it isn't largely for ethical questions such as this) and scripture his its place, but is less certain (to the Christian) than the Biblical text as it is one further step away from the source: there is a greater possibility of a mistake.
The Bishop's assertion that the passages condemn only abusive relationships is an opinion. He offers some arguments to support it, which I will discuss presently, but there are several reasons why we ought to be suspicious of it. The Bishop states (in a passage I will cite below) that the Biblical text does not give any reason for the prohibition. But if true, this does not mean that we should be free to just make something up. For example, the Biblical text also gives no reason for its prohibition against bestiality. Does that mean that we are free to conclude that there might be contexts in which bestiality is acceptable? I am not comparing same-sex activity to bestiality; I am just pointing out the double standard. If we do not know the reason, then we cannot just propose something random and then continue on the assumption that that reason is correct; especially if there are rival explanations (such as that given by natural law theory) which are more consistent with the Biblical text as a whole.
Were there abusive and exploitative same-sex relationships in Paul's day? Yes, there certainly were. But there were also same-sex relationships which were not abusive and exploitative, and I suspect that even many of those that we today would characterise as abusive and exploitative were not seen like that in the ancient world. So there is a definite historical problem here, which does not back up the Bishop's point.
But the biggest problem with arguments such as this is that they violate one of the basic hermeneutic rules: for any speculative interpretation we have to ask "If that is what the author meant, then why isn't it what he wrote?" If the Biblical authors were concerned with abusive relationships, then why didn't they say so explicitly? Why didn't they use the word for "abusive" or "exploitative"? They would surely have been just as concerned with abusive heterosexual relationships, of which there have always been numerous examples. I am sure that Paul was opposed to these relationships (for example, he promoted the opposite in Ephesians 5), but why, if he meant abusive, did he use words derived from the Greek translation of Leviticus 18:22, with its obvious connotation? The only way I think you can make this interpretation work is if Paul thought that all same-sex relationships were necessarily abusive, and opposite-sex relationships were necessarily not abusive. He was certainly not that stupid! In other words, if Paul was thinking as the Bishop proposes, he would have used a different word to describe those he was condemning. The text is inconsistent with the Bishop's proposal. On the other hand, if he meant same-sex relationships in general, regardless of whether or not they were abusive or exploitative, he would most certainly used a phrase that denoted a same-sex relationship, as, indeed, he did.
Thus the idea that Paul was concerned with abusive relationships is not consistent with the actual text that he handed down to us, and ought therefore to be rejected.
The Bishop continues:
The Bible never explains why same-sex sexual activity is condemned: it may well be the exploitative nature of the activity described. Leviticus 18 is a case in point and 1 Cor 6.9 is another. Both texts are difficult to translate with any certainty but one clue of how to do so may be the other vices on Paul’s list. They are all examples of abusive, domineering, self-seeking, exploitative and even criminal behaviour, which are rightly condemned. Paul clearly has Leviticus in mind.
I have not seen any argumentation that Leviticus 18 is difficult to translate. It's meaning is plain. There is a case concerning 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10. The Greek words Paul uses here are unusual in that language. But it has been, I think decisively, shown that the words Paul uses are a contraction of the words used in the LXX translation of Leviticus 18. Plus, of course, there has never been any dispute in the Church over the meaning (at least until the present day), and that includes by the native Greek speakers of the early Church and the Byzantine Church. With this in mind, I think that it is clear that Paul means to condemn same-sex relationships.
I don't quite understand what the Bishop means by "Leviticus 18 is a case in point." In context, the text lies alongside other sexual sins, such as incest, adultery, and bestiality (along with sacrificing children to Molech). There is no indication here that these other sins are condemned because they are exploitative. The full list that the Bishop refers to in 1 Corinthians 6:9 reads,
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
While you can argue that some of these are exploitative (such as swindling), that is not true for all of them. Is idolatry exploitative? Or drunkenness? Is the worst part of adultery the exploitation? Even greed need not necessarily be exploitative; after all, in a market economy (which admittedly is anachronistic, but not entirely: the subjective theory of value, which is the basis of a market economy, was well understood by the ancient Greeks as the principle by which the economy functioned) one becomes rich by making other people wealthy. Even with thieving, it is not the exploitative nature of the act which is condemned, but simply that you are taking someone else's property without working for it. Equally, I can think of no passage where Paul rages against exploitation as such; so saying that it was his central concern here, rather than just listing certain sins that were prevalent in Corinth, strikes me as a rather bold claim. So the Bishop has just thrown this claim out even though it is against the evidence he cites.
The Bishop also states that the Bible offers no reason why same-sex activity is condemned. So let us start by taking a look at Leviticus 18. The condemnation of same-sex activity describes it as an abomination. A few verses later, we have the following:
Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. For everyone who does any of these abominations, the persons who do them shall be cut off from among their people. So keep my charge never to practice any of these abominable customs that were practised before you, and never to make yourselves unclean by them: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 18:24, ESV).
This might not be especially clear to our eyes, but several points emerge: 1) the actions concerned are detestable to God. 2) They make the person and people unclean. 3) They bring about punishment of the people -- the Canaanites were driven out because of their iniquity, of which this was part. 4) It makes the land unclean. 5) It cuts them off from the people.
These are reasons, albeit not particularly well explained. The clear implication, though, is that such acts as described in Leviticus 18 (as a whole) are detestable to God, i.e. particularly against God's purposes and intentions for mankind. This might not be satisfying to the modern mind, but this is only because the modern mind does not reflect deeply enough. In divine command ethics, ultimately every evil act or attitude comes down to that. We might explain it in other terms, but then we have to ask why that is an evil, which requires a further explanation, until eventually the chain of reasoning ends with a comment that it is simply against God's immutable purposes for mankind. So, for example, we might say that something is evil because it leads to harm and suffering. But why do we regard that particular type of harm and suffering evil? That requires a further explanation. To avoid an infinite regress, the chain of explanation must terminate at some point. But, so that stopping point is not seen as arbitrary, it must rest in some absolute that is inherent to the nature of humanity, and not a matter of mere human opinion. That would have to be a purpose or goal (as only purposes can lead to a notion of goodness), and if our species was indeed created by God, then that act of creation would mean that any purpose inherent to our nature was also created by God. (That purpose can, of course, also be discovered from the principles of natural law ethics properly applied, but that doesn't change the overall point.) In other words, for anyone who believes in God (which I hope includes the Bishop) any question of morality ultimately boils down to whether or not it has God's favour. This favour of God is, of course, not arbitrary: it is motivated by His love and the display of His glory. But it is constant in time (due to God's immutability) and universal across mankind: the same rules apply to everyone, as everyone is in the same image of God and everyone is equally loved by God.
The New Testament uses different language. Jude, in verse 7, describes the homosexual activity as "unnatural." Paul in Romans 1 uses similar language.
For this reason God gave them up to dishonourable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. (Romans 1:26, ESV)
We should understand the term natural according to what it meant in the classical society in which Jude and Paul operated. It means according to one's nature, in this case the nature of men and women. Nature here means what is proper to the class of being in question. But to properly understand this, we need to look at the previous verses, which discuss idolatry. The language mirrors that of Genesis 1, particularly the sixth day. The text of Genesis 1 is clear: God creates man as the pinnacle of creation, and below him the birds, animals and creeping things. But man, in his rejection of God, has inverted this, and directs his worship towards the lowest things, rather than to God. Then we come to the verses I have just cited, and Paul is again thinking of the sixth day of creation, and in particular the creation of Man, male and female. As with idolatry, the acts contrary to nature are an overturning of the order of creation, instituted by God back when things were good.
So the Bishop is wrong when he states that the condemnation is unjustified. It is tied in with the whole theology of creation and its rightful ordering. In other places, we see this theology expressed in different ways. For example, Malachi describes the purpose of why God created sexual unions:
Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. (Malachi 2:15)
Clearly, a same-sex union is intrinsically infertile, and cannot satisfy what God was seeking. Consequently, it is against God's purposes, and thus immoral.
At this point in the argument, those with the Bishop's views invariably ask, "What about infertile opposite-sex unions?" And they are right to ask it, just as those on my side of the debate are right to answer it. The response is that such relationships are not intrinsically infertile, but only so because of some disease or damage. As such, their infertility is not the fault of the people concerned, as it is beyond their control. But in a same-sex relationship, the infertility is not due to the ill-health of the participants, but due to the choice of a partner with an incompatible nature for the fulfilment of the purpose. There is still the inherent tendency in the male-female relationship towards offspring; but that tendency is blocked by whatever damage or decay caused the infertility (i.e. blocked as a consequence of some corruption, which ultimately, like all corruption, arises from original sin). In a same-sex relationship, the tendency is not blocked by some corruption, but because there is no such tendency towards fulfilling God's purposes in the first place. So there is a difference between the two cases, and this difference is crucial. An opposite sex infertile marriage is unfulfilled (in this sense), but not because of a nature incompatible with God's purpose. A same-sex relationship cannot even have that purpose, because of the nature of the people involved. There is also, of course, for an opposite sex couple always the possibility of a miracle, as with Abraham and Sarah. Furthermore, even if this counter-argument fails, then the conclusion would be not that the Church ought to bless same-sex sexual relationships, but that it ought to stop blessing opposite-sex infertile sexual relationships. So raising the question of infertile couples does not even lead to the conclusion that the Bishop and his supporters desire.
But the Bishop is clearly of a different opinion concerning the book of Romans.
When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, he pinned nearly all that was wrong with Roman polytheism on the empire’s sexual morality. Kyle Harper has shown that he had good reason to do so. The world into which Christianity was born was a slave economy. In particular, you could call yourself free if you could do what you wanted sexually with your body and with other people’s bodies.
Paul had discovered a different kind of freedom. It was based not on bodies but on wills. Freedom in Christ was about the transformation of the mind.
The one sentence given to Romans 1 misreads the passage. He has it the wrong way round. Note that the condemnation of same-sex activity begins with the phrase "For this reason." The reason is, of course, given in the immediately preceding text, which concerns Roman religion, and in particular its rejection of God and worship of the created beings. In other words, the rejection of God is ultimately what is wrong with Roman polytheism. The consequence of this is the perversion of sexuality. And from the same spirit that gives rise to that perversion, we see the debased mind that leads to all manner of unrighteousness.
So while sexual immorality was a feature of Roman polytheism, that was not Paul's main concern. (There were, of course, female temple prostitutes available to men as well as male ones; if he was concerned with temple prostitution, he would have condemned that directly rather than discussing unnatural desires contrary to nature.) The connection between the condemnation of idolatry and of same-sex sexual activity is that they both represent an overturning of the order of nature; not that the same-sex activity was religious in intent: there is no hint of that in the passage. After all, the passage goes on to condemn other sins, attributing them to the same ultimate cause.
They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. (Romans 1:29)
Are these only wrong if they are performed as part of pagan temple worship? If not, then how can we claim that Romans 1 states that same-sex sexual activity is only wrong in that context?
The Bishop goes on to discuss Paul's notion of freedom. However, his connection of this to the Roman slave culture is a very peculiar reading of the relevant passages. Paul, as is well known, very rarely discusses the slavery of people directly. 1 Corinthians 7:21 encourages freedom from slavery, and 1 Corinthians 7:23 forbids Christians from becoming slaves; 1 Timothy 1:10 condemns those who kidnap people into slavery, and the letter to Philemon undermines the philosophy behind slavery by stating that the slave and the master are equals. So Paul was certainly not in favour of the ownership of people. But equally obviously he did not consider it to be that important (or as important as it is seen in the modern world). "Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it." Far more important is somebody's spiritual state: better to be a slave but in Christ, than a master without Christ (and best yet to be a freeman with Christ). There is certainly nowhere where Paul (or any of the New Testament writers) equates literal slavery with a sexual constraint on the body.
Nor does, when Paul writes about sexual immorality, he discuss it in terms of physical slavery. For example, in the discussion of the incestuous man in 1 Corinthians 5, there is no indication that either he or his mother in law were anything but freemen. There are indications that when submitting to Christ, we submit our bodies to the Holy Spirit (e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:19). This idea is the closest I can think of to the idea concerning sexual freedom and slavery that the Bishop mentions. But it is saying the opposite of what the Bishop is implying: when we become Christians, our bodies become (in a metaphorical sense) slaves to Christ; and how we use our bodies ought to reflect that. In other words, the image that Paul has is that we are owned by Christ, and therefore our bodies are restricted in what they do. This has vague similarities to the old freedom that the Bishop stated that Paul was opposing. But here Paul is saying that when we become Christians we lose this freedom; how we act sexually is constrained by our moral duties as Christians (and, indeed, our will should confirm to want to follow the moral code in this area, so being "bought at a price" is not seen as a burden). Thus this passage is saying the opposite of what the Bishop states that Paul believes. It is going beyond reasonable bounds to extrapolate the core of Paul's understanding of (literal) slavery (in terms of a constraint on sexual freedom) from a passage which is on an entirely different topic.
Paul does frequently discuss the gospel freedom. There is, however, no indication that Paul's new freedom was influenced by the slavery in Roman society, other than as a useful metaphor. It is not clear which passage (or passages) the Bishop of Worcester (and his sources) are alluding to. The first passage which comes to mind when Paul discusses slavery and freedom is the following:
What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:15, ESV)
There is also a lengthy discussion of freedom in 1 Corinthians 8-10, but here Paul discusses how we are to constrain our wills. The passage concerns the eating of food offered to idols. Some of the Corinthians are questioning the apostolic injunction against this. Do we not know the pagan idols are fiction? Are we not then free to do what we like, in this regard? Paul offers three responses in defence of the apostolic prohibition. Firstly (in chapter 8) he discusses that we should constrain our freedom for the sake of others in the Church. Then (in chapter 10:23-11:1), he discusses that our freedom should be constrained by the effect that our deeds have on our ministry to those outside the Church. In Chapter 10:1-22, he states that our freedom should be constrained by the moral requirements that a Christian ought to live by. The pagan gods might be fiction, but they were still inspired by demonic influences, so to participate in that worship (even indirectly) is to participate in something which is contrary to our life in Christ. In the middle of this, chapter 9, he gives a digression on how his own freedom is constrained by the nature of his work, and how he has to not let any rights he has get in the way of his ministry proclamation, or that he cannot abuse his freedom. The Paul who wrote "'All things are lawful,' but not all things are helpful. 'All things are lawful,' but not all things build up" has a radically different idea of freedom to what the Bishop is suggesting.
Returning to the Romans passage, the language of slavery to sin is also used by Jesus in John's gospel. What Paul is concerned about here is a slavery to sin. And we are to be set free from that -- but set free to become righteous. There is no reference here to slavery being a matter of being denied sexual choice. That is simply not Paul's concern. Sex just doesn't come into this discussion (or any discussion on slavery), except indirectly in that misdirected sexual activity is one of the sins we are being set free from.
The freedom that Paul is concerned about is freedom from sin (which also implies a slavery to righteousness). This does, as the Bishop states, involve a transformation of the mind (Romans 12:2, for example). But the transformation that Paul speaks of is one away from sin and towards virtue and righteousness. The Bishop contrasts the freedom of the will with sexual ownership of the body. This is a false dichotomy. Paul is equally concerned that both our minds and bodies should glorify God (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 6:18-20). (Actually, I think the Bishop has done quite well here, given my low expectations. In my experience, liberal Churchmen's writings are usually saturated with false dichotomies. I have got half way through a lengthy text, and this is the first one I have spotted.)
It is also difficult to consider Paul's long lists of moral obligations associated with the new life in Christ with the Bishop's radical new freedom. But it is consistent with the more conventional idea that Paul is saying that we become free to pursue righteousness; free to follow the moral law without the bondage of sin.
So when the Bishop mentions Paul's new doctrine of freedom, firstly he does not discuss freedom from sin or freedom to righteousness. This is a big omission, and mis-characterises Paul's meaning. Indeed, he does so in a very serious way: freedom of will without righteousness can be construed by those who don't know better as the freedom to sin; the very opposite of what Paul is wanting to say. But equally, in disregarding the body in this freedom, he is omitting to mention that Paul is just as concerned with the righteousness of our bodies as he is with the righteousness of our minds and will. It is clear why he has done this: a focus on the righteousness of our bodies, with its connotations of protecting against sexual morality, goes against what he wants to imply concerning same-sex activity.
The only explanation that I can think of for the Bishop's statement here is that he (following his sources) is putting his own thoughts into Paul's head. He is not reading the letters to try to understand Paul, but to try to use Paul's name to give authority to ideas which Paul did not have, but the Bishop wants him to have had. This is a very dangerous way of approaching the Bible (or, indeed, any text), and a very dishonest one.
And we see how this develops in the next segment. The Bishop goes on to argue:
The condemnation of homosexuality and, in fact, all sexual acts save those that were necessary to procreate, followed because to indulge in them was gratuitously to exercise your freedom as if you were rejecting the new freedom of mind and will to be found in Christ. This is what Paul focused on.
Nowadays, the slave economy has gone, at least as an official policy. In a liberal society, no one has the right to anyone else’s body. Similarly, the Church no longer teaches that the best sex is no sex, as it did for much of its first 1500 years. Those who adhere literally to Paul’s injunctions have, therefore, lost sight of the spirit of the gospel. Christian freedom, based upon will, is now commonly expressed in the notion of consent. Love is the basis for sexual relationships, not ownership. Celebrating sexual love is now to witness to the freedom to be found in Christ.
There are numerous problems with this excerpt, but I will start at the end of the passage where the Bishop takes the notion that Paul's freedom was just freedom of will to its extreme. The freedom of will that the Bishop has constructed from Paul just means consent. The logic of this is presumably that given the premise that if there is no consent, then there is no freedom of will, then it follows that if there is freedom of will then the only thing we need is consent. If Paul's notion of freedom requires consent plus some other things, then the rest of the Bishop's argument collapses. Thus the Bishop has made another logical error.
But, of course, the biggest problem with this part of the Bishop's argument is that he is building on the earlier errors he made in his characterisation of Paul's thought. For Paul, freedom is the redirecting of the will, mind and body towards righteousness. And in this context, it is clear that consent alone, or consent and "sexual love" is not a sufficient requirement for a relationship to be good. It has to also be according to God's purposes, and thus not committing sexual immorality. This is stated clearly by Paul throughout his writings, and the rest of the New and Old Testaments.
Now for the other problems with this passage. I ought to start by pointing out another false dichotomy in the statement that "Love is the basis for sexual relationships, not ownership," as if those were the only options. It is certainly not true that orthodox Christian marriage is about ownership. Nor is it only about the romantic love that the Bishop is discussing -- that's just a bonus. Consent is important, but there are other things equally important.
I also fear that the bishop has also fallen into the fallacy of equivocation in this sentence. The sort of love that the Bishop is referring to here is romantic or erotic love. This is the the strong attachment to a particular person which involves sexual attraction and particularly strong emotions. A few paragraphs later, the Bishop will relate this to the "gospel teaching about love." When the gospel teaches about love it refers to charitable love, or agape: the desire for goodness. The two concepts are (rightly) distinguished in Greek, but the same word is used for them in English. Agape is the highest of the virtues, and always beneficial. In the New Testament, it is agape, not eros, which is meant to be the basis the relationship between husband and wife (c.f. the Greek of Ephesians 5:25). Eros can be good or bad depending on the context. There are clear examples of eros going bad in the Biblical text. For example, in 2 Samuel 13, we read of one of David's sons who fomented a passionate eros for his half-sister. This led to a great evil. The Bishop might respond that this love wasn't reciprocated nor consensual, but it is still an example of eros going astray. Another example which comes to mind is the adulteress in Proverbs 7. The eros felt there is certainly consensual, and mutual. Yet it is strongly condemned as an evil, because it breaks the man's marriage vow: the agape he ought to feel for his wife. Equally an abusive relationship has eros without agape. As seen in the examples, you can have eros without agape.
Note that I am not in these examples comparing same-sex sexual relationships to the unfaithful and abusive ones described here. Some are unfaithful or abusive, but, of course (as the Bishop has well observed) many aren't. I am just making a general point that eros is not always aligned with agape. I have offered a few examples, but it should not be supposed that they are the only ones. It therefore cannot be assumed, in any circumstance, that where a relationship contains eros that that romantic love is in conformity to charitable love or agape. This must be shown for each individual relationship, whether same-sex or opposite-sex. The question to prove is whether the romantic love leads the people in the relationship towards or away from the purposes (all the purposes) for which God created physical expressions of sexuality. If it does, then the eros is good. If it does not, then it is not good. In too many liberal presentations on this subject the connection between eros and agape (and the goodness related to it) is assumed rather than proved; and from that assumption lead to all sorts of errors. (It is worth re-reading Romans 1:27 in the context of this discussion.)
You can also have agape without eros (we are after all, asked to show agape towards our neighbour and his wife, but to avoid erotic love towards our neighbour's wife). They are clearly different concepts, and it is wrong to confuse them. So eros can be either good or bad. It can also fade in time, or redirect itself elsewhere. It is fleeting and fragile, difficult to control and can reverse itself in a moment. As such it is a poor foundation for a marriage relationship, by itself a poor reason for getting involved in a sexual relationship (as the strong passion overrides our reason, and is no guide as to whether the relationship is for our benefit or harm), and an especially poor determination of whether or not a relationship is a good, including good for the people involved. We don't need the Biblical text to tell us that: we see it in society around us. The orthodox understanding, where marriage is based on a mutual sense of agape whether or not there is eros, is a much firmer and better foundation. The Bishop seems to be making the mistake of arguing as follows: 1) Agape is always good. 2) The concepts of agape and eros are represented by the same word in English. 3) Therefore eros is always good. This is, of course, a clear and basic error.
Then we have the problem that the Bishop is referring to modern secular ideas, and using them to override orthodoxy. It might have slipped the Bishop's notice, but modern society is not handling relationships especially well. The high rates of relationship breakup, fatherless children, increased crime, gangs and drugs in the sink estates, domestic abuse and exploitation (even in the Church). It is hardly a good record; but hardly a surprise when the straws of pleasure, eros, and consent are given priority, and the prerequisite of a foundation in virtue, or the true purposes of marriage (as expressed in the Book of Common Prayer) sidelined. The Bishop is putting his faith in secular ideas which have already been proven false.
I also fail to see why the fact that we no longer practice slavery is relevant to the discussion. The Bishop needs some contextual change in society to justify why things have changed. But his whole point was that Paul's new idea of freedom was a rival of the old idea where slavery led to sexual control. But if it is a rival, then it should continue unscathed even after slavery died. Furthermore, the abolition of slavery is not a recent thing in some parts of the world. In Northern Europe, slavery was abolished in medieval times; yet the numerous great theologians of and since that time postulated no change to the Church's teachings on sexual morality. Is the Bishop bold enough to say that they were wrong? Why should a change to how society was ordered 700 years ago lead to a change in how we consider sexual morality today?
I should comment on the phrase "The best sex is no sex." Has this been taught by the Church? I think that there is a half-truth here, but only a half-truth. The basis for this statement is Paul's discussion in 1 Corinthians 7. Verses such as "So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better" suggest that the unmarried state is (in Paul's view) better than the married state. But this has to be put into context. The same chapter also states, "Because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband." And, "If his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry — it is no sin." And, with regards to the married life, "Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control." Paul also mentions that his teaching favouring singleness is not a command.
Paul's point is that the best life is the one in full service to God. Being married, however, leaves one anxious about other things: you have to care for your wife, or husband, and children. You therefore cannot devote your full energies to God. Being unmarried also gives you a fuller freedom in ministry: it would, for example, have been particularly difficult for Paul to travel around as he did if he had a wife and children to look after.
So the Bishop's statement that "the best sex is no sex" is misleading because it is not virginity in itself which is superior to marriage, but that the higher good (which is only attainable for a few people) is the contemplative life in service from God, which marriage can distract us from. Virginity without that particular devotion to God would be worse than marriage; because you have neither the goods of marriage nor the good of a life fully devoted to God. And this, I think, has been the consistent teaching of the Church. Take, for example, Aquinas:
I answer that, According to Jerome (Contra Jovin. i) the error of Jovinian consisted in holding virginity not to be preferable to marriage. This error is refuted above all by the example of Christ Who both chose a virgin for His mother, and remained Himself a virgin, and by the teaching of the Apostle who (1 Corinthians 7) counsels virginity as the greater good. It is also refuted by reason, both because a Divine good takes precedence of a human good, and because the good of the soul is preferable to the good of the body, and again because the good of the contemplative life is better than that of the active life. Now virginity is directed to the good of the soul in respect of the contemplative life, which consists in thinking "on the things of God", whereas marriage is directed to the good of the body, namely the bodily increase of the human race, and belongs to the active life, since the man and woman who embrace the married life have to think "on the things of the world," as the Apostle says (1 Corinthians 7:34). Without doubt therefore virginity is preferable to conjugal continence.
Though virginity is better than conjugal continence, a married person may be better than a virgin for two reasons. First, on the part of chastity itself; if to wit, the married person is more prepared in mind to observe virginity, if it should be expedient, than the one who is actually a virgin. Hence Augustine (De Bono Conjug. xxii) charges the virgin to say: "I am no better than Abraham, although the chastity of celibacy is better than the chastity of marriage." Further on he gives the reason for this: "For what I do now, he would have done better, if it were fitting for him to do it then; and what they did I would even do now if it behooved me now to do it." Secondly, because perhaps the person who is not a virgin has some more excellent virtue. Wherefore Augustine says (De Virgin. xliv): "Whence does a virgin know the things that belong to the Lord, however solicitous she be about them, if perchance on account of some mental fault she be not yet ripe for martyrdom, whereas this woman to whom she delighted in preferring herself is already able to drink the chalice of the Lord?"
[Referring to the good for humanity as a whole in having children.] The common good takes precedence of the private good, if it be of the same genus: but it may be that the private good is better generically. It is thus that the virginity that is consecrated to God is preferable to carnal fruitfulness.
The corollary to the final paragraph quoted is that the virginity that is not consecrated to God is not necessarily preferable to carnal fruitfulness. The implication (of the whole section) is that it is worse, because one does not fulfil the proper end of virginity, and so loses the goods of marriage and the goods of virginity. Aquinas also, of course, at another point speaks very highly of the state of matrimony.
But the big problem with this statement is why include it at all? What relevance does it have to his overall argument? It says nothing about same-sex sexual activity. Perhaps the Bishop intended it as an example of how Church doctrine has changed, or we no longer follow Paul's writing. (The reference to 1500 years suggests that he is thinking of a change that occurred at the reformation.) But this doctrine, that the life fully devoted to God's service is better than the one split between God's service and a spouse, remains part of the Protestant faith. It is too embedded in scripture to be neglected. As a Protestant, I agree with almost everything Aquinas wrote on virginity and marriage. The only exceptions I can think of is that he regards matrimony as a sacrament rather than a mere holy estate (primarily due to different definitions of the word sacrament), and his discussion of holy orders being a bar to marriage (which did change at the reformation). But this was only ever a discipline of the Church, not a dogma. The discipline was not held by the apostles themselves, nor commanded by them (1 Timothy 3:2; 1 Corinthians 9:5). Given the Church of England's dictum that the Church has no authority to impose what is not required by scripture (Article 6), it is clear that the Church is right not to regard Holy Orders as an impediment to marriage, but leave it to the conscience of the ordinand. Some other denominations take a different view, as they have the right to do. But this issue does not affect the understanding of marriage in any way; that remains constant since the apostles and across the orthodox denominations (baring minor details such as whether or not it qualifies as a sacrament). The Church has always held up two estates of life: celibacy, or a life-long marriage between a man and woman; and the question only revolves around whether or not some people should be required to select celibacy. A man who does not want to get married to a woman can always choose celibacy and devote all his energies to God instead. A man with same-sex sexual attraction is still free to marry a consenting woman if he so chooses; like everyone else, he is not required by the force of the church into celibacy, although he may choose that (and a life fully devoted to God's service) as the better of the two paths open to him and everyone else. So the Bishop can't appeal to a precedent as a change in doctrine, because no significant enough change has occurred compared to the one that he is trying to advocate for.
The statement "The condemnation of homosexuality and, in fact, all sexual acts save those that were necessary to procreate, followed because to indulge in them was to gratuitously to exercise your freedom as if you were rejecting the new freedom of mind and will to be found in Christ" is of course correct, if one ignores the wider context of the Bishop's letter. To commit sexual immorality is obviously a rejection of Paul's concept of freedom from the slavery to sin. The problem is that the Bishop, as already shown, has rejected Paul's understanding of freedom to one that just means to follow one's will. The exercise of this sort of freedom does not lead to the same sort of rejection of immoral sexual activity. The Bishop's argument seems to be that now that we know better, we should follow his notion of freedom to its logical extent. But this passage just shows the Bishop's error. If Paul's notion of freedom was as the Bishop has claimed, then why would homosexuality and other forms of sexual immorality have been against this freedom in Paul's day as well as our own? That we have greater knowledge now (if indeed we do) does not change basic morality. Reality is not shaped by what we know, or what we believe. As God is unchanging, and human nature is unchanging, if freedom today meant that consensual same-sex activity is good in God's eyes, then the same would have been true in the days of Paul and Jesus. So this suggests that if the various sexual acts contravene Paul's true notion of freedom in his day, they would also do so in our day. The Bishop cannot have it both ways, unless he claims that something has changed in fundamental human nature since that time. And if he believes that same sex activity was moral at the time of Jesus and the apostles, but they taught otherwise, then he is in effect accusing God of teaching moral error.
And we see this when the Bishop claims that "Those who adhere literally to Paul's injunctions have, therefore, lost sight of the spirit of the gospel." The call to the spirit of the gospel is, of course, just a rhetorical trick. The gospel itself does not support the Bishop's argument, so he has to refer to some ephemeral spirit which means whatever he wants it to mean. But note in particular what he has just done. Paul, presumably, adhered literally to his own injunctions (there is no indication that he meant them as hyperbole or metaphor). So the Bishop is accusing Paul of having lost sight of the spirit of the gospel. This is particularly problematic with regards to Romans 1. Romans is seen as the fullest expression of the gospel (meaning in this sense Christian doctrine) in the New Testament. Romans 1 is a key part of the argument; the inclusion of the condemnation in there is not an unintentional mistake. So the Bishop is stating that Paul lost sight of the gospel while presenting and describing the gospel. This gospel of Paul's, of course, was the same as those of the other apostles (Galatians 2:6, 2 Peter 3:15). And unless they completely misunderstood their teacher's meaning, this would be the gospel of Christ.
There are then only three conclusions we could draw: 1) The spirit of the gospel that the Bishop preaches is an alternative gospel that is contrary to the gospel of Christ; or 2) The Bishop believes that the gospel has changed over time, even though "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever;" or 3) The Bishop believes that we now know the mind of God, and thus the meaning of the gospel, better than those of the generation who walked this earth with Him. Whatever he means, he is in trouble (or ought to be). I don't think that the Bishop intended to go in this direction -- he clearly thinks he is a faithful Christian and follower of the scriptures -- but it is the obvious conclusion to draw from what he has written.
The Bishop then attempts to dig himself further into the hole:
Equally, Paul is not talking about what we would term sexual orientation, a very modern concept.
The terminology might be modern, but Paul did not fail to notice that some people are attracted to those of the same-sex. This is clear in the discussion in Romans 1.
The men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. (Romans 1:27)
By saying the men were consumed with passion for each other, Paul is indicating a strong sexual desire. We might today call this a sexual orientation; I doubt that the idea would have made any difference to Paul's analysis had he been familiar with the terminology. The point is nonetheless that men are directed away from "natural relations with women," as a consequence of how original sin plays out in their lives. (And I must reiterate, this does not make people with same-sex attraction any worse than other people as we are all equally corrupted by original sin, and thus equally unworthy for God's Kingdom of the perfectly righteous, although it manifests itself in different ways in different people.) However we might analyse same-sex sexual attraction today, Paul's point still remains that same-sex sexual activity is against God's purposes for human sexuality.
Arsenokoites and malakos describe roles being adopted in same-sex sexual acts. To be a man in the ancient world was to be assertive and dominant; to be a woman was to be passive and receptive. Men who were malakos in the relationship were a scandal, ‘effeminate’ and mocked. When Leviticus 18 specifically condemns lying with a man ‘as with a woman’ there seems to be a similar concern with roles.
I think this is an exaggeration (Plato's Phaedrus, for example, which largely concerns itself with the love between an older man and a younger boy makes no mention of the passive partner being humiliated); but the issue is not what ideas were prevalent in Greek and Roman thought, but in the Jewish thought of Paul. There is no evidence that he himself thought in this way. 1 Corinthians 6 condemns both sexual partners. Equally, homosexual pederasty was reasonably common and tolerated in gentile society; it was not widely seen as a scandal. Jewish society was unique in its universal condemnation of same-sex sexual activity. Casting back the ideas of Greek and Roman society into Leviticus, over a thousand years earlier, is just an unevidenced anachronism.
So let us put the Bishop's argument in a clearer form.
- Some people at the time of Paul looked down on one of the partners in same-sex sexual activity due to reason X.
- Paul was opposed to all same-sex sexual activity.
- Therefore Paul was opposed to all same-sex sexual activity for reason X.
- Today we know, and both sides agree, that reason X is invalid.
- Therefore Paul was mistaken to be opposed to all same-sex sexual activity.
This argument, however, is dependent on two logical fallacies. Firstly, point 3 is unsupported from points 1 and 2. To demonstrate point 3, one would need to argue it from the basis of Paul's writings, or the writings of people he advocated for. But there is nothing there which suggests that he thought that women were inferior because they were the passive partner. The final step of the argument is also unsupported. To refute a bad argument for a proposition does not mean that that proposition is false, because there could be another good argument to support it. Indeed, orthodox Christians do use other and better arguments than this to support their case. Those arguments need to be understood and refuted.
God willing, we don’t nowadays understand love-making and sexual intimacy in terms of active and passive roles, with men as active and dominant and women as passive.
Neither does the Biblical text, nor (as far as I recollect; although I could be mistaken here -- if anyone knows better, I would welcome hearing it) the Church Fathers, and neither does contemporary orthodoxy. The Christian and Jewish condemnation of same-sex sexual activity is not cast in these terms, so why discuss it in this way? This is just setting up a straw man.
Surely a Christian understanding of love and relating is about mutuality and partnership? I would suggest that gospel teaching about love redefines ancient assumptions about hierarchy and role, both socially and theologically.
A Christian understanding of (erotic) love and relating might well be about mutuality and partnership, but it is not only about such things. The Bishop hasn't demonstrated that it is only these two things. The orthodox understanding is (for example) that a desire for procreation is also essential to marriage; and the Bishop has not refuted that. So he cannot legitimately say a Christian marriage is restricted to just these two concerns without taking the effort to show that nothing else matters.
Secondly, the discussion is concerning marriage, and in which contexts sexual activity is good, not erotic love, so the Bishop is again changing the subject. You can have a valid, successful and happy marriage without erotic love (although agape is essential), and can have erotic love apart from and leading away from a marriage. The Bible says very little about eros outside the Song of Songs, and not all of it is positive.
Thirdly, the gospel itself is an ancient concern, dating from the same period as the ideas which he condemns. How can it be used in the modern era to redefine assumptions which (according to the Bishop) were part of the culture which informed the gospel? Either the gospel challenged those assumptions from the beginning, or it does not do so today. Redefine implies some sort of change. If the gospel does not challenge those assumptions, then there is no redefining. If it did challenge them at the beginning, then the assumptions weren't ancient at the time, and secondly that challenge has become part of Christian orthodoxy (built on the apostle's rule of faith built around the gospel) and thus cannot be used to justify a change in doctrine today. The Church of England has maintained that all that is necessary for salvation can be understood from the plain meaning of the Biblical text (Article 6), so the gospel would have been understood correctly from the first.
I can think of three ways in which the Bishop's statement could make sense. Firstly, he could be claiming that the gospel itself (and in particular its understanding of apage) has changed since ancient times. This means that he thinks that he has found a better gospel and a better knowledge of God than those who walked this earth with Him, which is just prideful rebellion against God. Secondly, he could be claiming that the gospel has remained fixed, but the context in which it is applied has changed; so the effects are the opposite to what they were in the past. But human nature hasn't changed. There were presumably people with a fixed same-sex attraction in Paul's day. If we understand same-sex attraction better today than was in the past, then that is just our knowledge of human nature improving, not human nature itself. So to say that the context has changed, leading to a change in how God's purposes should be realised, when the only thing which has changed is human knowledge would make God's purposes dependent on the extent of human knowledge. But since God is defined as the being which is immutable (Malachi 3:6), and the only truly self-sufficient being, God cannot be dependent in any way on creation. The Bishop is thus claiming that human thoughts -- his thoughts -- can inform God of what is and isn't right. This is again just prideful usurpation of God's place. Or he could be claiming that the apostles (and by extension Jesus, who taught them) did not correctly understand the mind of God, but he now does. But then, why be a Christian at all? If the apostles misunderstood the gospel teaching about love, and its implications, and communicated that misunderstanding to their successors, then why could they not have misunderstood anything that they wrote? The guide then to what is true in their writings would just be what modern society finds acceptable. In which case Jesus would no longer be Lord and consequently the ultimate authority, but modern society would be Lord (which in practice means the opinions of those individual human people whom the Bishop respects -- society doesn't find things acceptable or think or have an opinion, only individual people can do those things).
The Bishop continues with an appeal to the broad sweep of scripture overruling individual passages,
I believe Walter Brueggemann is right when he writes that the reason the Bible seems to some to speak 'in one voice' concerning matters that pertain to LGBTQ persons is that 'the loud voices most often cite only one set of texts, to the determined disregard of the texts which challenge vested interest. Serious reading does not allow such a disregard, so that we must have all of the texts in our purview.'
I agree. The problem the Bishop faces is that a purview of all the texts supports rather than undermines the orthodox position, and undermines rather than supports his own understanding of Christianity, as I have already discussed.
The standard miscellaneous arguments used to support same sex activity
Jesus made no mention of homosexuality, though the fact that he refers to a man leaving his father and mother and cleaving to his wife in the same passage as he prohibits divorce (Mark 10. 7-10), with a reference back to Genesis, leads some to suggest that the marriage of one man to one woman is a creation ordinance. But Jesus is here answering a specific question about divorce.
Yes, Jesus is answering a specific question, but he does so by referring to a general principle. That general principle has a wider applicability than just concerning divorce.
Remember: this passage is part of the Bishop's attempt to show that the wider sweep of scripture supports his position rather than the orthodox one. So how does Jesus' no mention of homosexuality support this conclusion? It quite clearly doesn't.The claim that "Jesus never mentioned it" is often made, but I am never quite sure what it is meant to show. Does Jesus' purported silence on the matter provide evidence that he was in favour of same-sex sexual activity? Clearly not. Does it show that he was indifferent to it? Again not -- there are plenty of topics which Jesus is not recorded as mentioning in the gospels, and we do not suppose that he was indifferent to them.
- If it were true that Jesus said nothing on the subject, and there was nothing we could infer from that from the wider social context, then this silence could not be used to infer any particular position. It cannot be used to support the idea that same-sex sexual activity is good in some contexts. We would not be able to draw any conclusion from it. In view of the lack of mention from Jesus (as with everything else), we would have to turn to see what the other Biblical writers wrote, and take our doctrine from them.
- However, we do not know that Jesus said nothing (directly) on the subject. Not every word that Jesus spoke is recorded in the New Testament. The best that might be said is that Jesus is not recorded as having spoken on this subject.
- Jesus lived and worked in a society which was shaped by a strong adherence to the Jewish law, which contains a strong condemnation of same-sex sexual activity. The societal assumption was that same-sex sexual activity is immoral. So an obvious reason why Jesus might have remained silent (or any words he spoke not recorded) is that the issue simply never came up, as there was no controversy. Obviously, as the Church spread into the gentile world, the societal context changes, which is why Paul then had to explicitly restate the condemnation to the gentile Churches.
- Jesus came from a society (second temple Judaism) which strongly and consistently condemned same sex sexual activity, and founded a society (the church) which also strongly and consistently condemned same-sex sexual activity. It would be most peculiar if Jesus held the opposite view. From this we can deduce that it is more likely than not that Jesus was opposed to same-sex sexual activity. It is not as good an argument as a direct statement, but in the absence of that, it is the best we have.
On the other hand, if Jesus supported the liberal position, he would
almost certainly have raised it (as he did in his relaxation of the
sabbath rules), and it would have caused controversy, which surely
would have had an impact in the gospels or the Talmud. None of them
contain any hint of controversy in this area. On the contrary, Jesus'
general position is one of firm support of the Torah's commandments.
For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:18, ESV)
Jesus' purported silence then, rather than evidence of Jesus' indifference to same-sex sexual activity, instead more has the implication that he was opposed to it, like Jewish culture and like the Church.
- The statement also splits up the Trinity. The laws in Leviticus were supplied to Moses from God the Father through the Spirit; Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit. To give Jesus a different view to the Father and Spirit is a Trinitarian mistake.
And finally, Jesus was not silent about the subject in what is recorded
in the gospels, even if the
reference is indirect.
But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. (Matthew 5:18, ESV)
In the Jewish context, sexual immorality was defined in terms of the Torah commandments, which included the prohibitions of Leviticus 18. That is how Jesus would have been understood by the people he was speaking to. The Greek word porneia was also understood by the Church to include all sexual immorality, including same-sex sexual activity. Jesus did not provide any caveats. This verse, and its parallel passages in the other gospels, thus shows Jesus' opposition to same-sex sexual activity.
Thus Jesus' purported silence does not support the Bishop's case, and, if anything (though like all arguments from silence this is not a particularly strong case) undermines it and supports the orthodox position.
The Bishop continues with his survey of how the other voices in scripture undermine the direct condemnations of same-sex sexual activity,
The trouble is that there is no such thing as a fixed 'biblical' view of marriage. We know that the Bible countenances men having quite a few wives – Solomon, we are told, had 700 – so the witness is mixed, to say the least. The number of marriages in the Bible which can be held up as examples of what we would understand to be a 'good' marriage is surprisingly few.
The Old Testament text contains history, which means that it describes a mixture of things which happen according to God's will, and examples of people going astray. Indeed, it is mostly people going astray -- even otherwise faithful people. As is stated in Psalm 14,
The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one. (Psalm 14:2, ESV)
And the Old Testament history is a good example of it. It contains its good moments, but mostly it is a history of disobedience and decline. God does not always condemn explicitly the various sins that the people commit (especially in the historical books; while there are more general condemnations in the prophets); but unless God praises or commands an event which is described in the text, it should not be assumed that He is in favour.
Solomon's wives is, in fact, a classic example of it. The book of Kings is quite explicit that it was his many wives which led his heart astray, and ultimately led to the fall and break-up of the United Kingdom. Solomon also broke a specific command of the Torah:
When you come to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, 'I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,' you may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. Only he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the Lord has said to you, 'You shall never return that way again.' And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold. (Deuteronomy 17:14, ESV)
I think, therefore, it fair to say that God did not approve of Solomon's polygamy. Other cases of polygamy in the Old Testament are not so explicitly condemned, but it is notable that they invariably cause conflict and friction.
But, despite this, it is to be noted that all of the examples of polygamy are male-female marriage. The best that can be argued from them (and, as stated, this would not be a very good argument, given the New Testament teachings) is that the Church should adopt polygamous marriage. This is not what the Bishop is advocating for, so it is not clear why he thinks that these examples bolster his case. He states that there is no fixed view of Biblical marriage. But this is an oversimplification. Everything consists of essential and accidental qualities. The essential qualities remain constant in all instances of the thing. The accidental qualities vary from one instance to another. For example, the particular form of the wedding ceremony is accidental to the nature of marriage. It is hardly likely that Isaac and Rebecca used the Book of Common Prayer marriage service. This does not make their marriage invalid; nor any conducted under the BCP. But the essentials of the marriage: that is is a lifelong union between a man and a woman, institutionalised by a public and sacred vow, established by God for all the purposes listed in the BCP marriage service as a symbol of the union between Christ and the Church, remain true for both Isaac and Rebecca, and also anyone married under the BCP service.
When the bishop references a "fixed" form of marriage, since he does not make this distinction, he is presumably referring to both the accidental and essential elements of marriage remaining constant. But this is an error. What we need to do is to look at the common thread running through all the (good) examples of Biblical marriage. And that rules out any same-sex relationship. Saying that the Biblical view of marriage has not been fixed, even if it were true, would not help the Bishop's case. The accidents have not been fixed, as is their nature; but the essentials of marriage remained constant throughout the Bible (even if they were not always followed by the people of Israel). And, of course, the Church has been steadfast in its condemnation of polygamy, and remained constant in its understanding of marriage.
The Bishop continues
Sophisticated arguments concerning which parts of scriptures must be taken literally are made to deny affirming monogamous homosexual relationships. So, for example, the prohibition in Leviticus on ‘a man lying with another man’ is said to form part of the moral law whilst other prohibitions in Leviticus can be disregarded – tattooing, for example! Such an approach involves intellectual gymnastics to produce an interpretation which avoids the ‘plain meaning’ of scripture and explain why some injunctions can be ignored, which is exactly what some suggest I am doing concerning same-sex relations.
Article 7 makes clear the distinction between civil, ceremonial and moral commandments, so the Bishop is again challenging clearly stated Church of England doctrine. This distinction is, of course, historical and held by Churches beyond Anglicanism, and it was developed as a useful summary of the Christian understanding of the Old Testament law. But I agree that the three-fold division is only implicit in the Bible, rather than explicit.
However, what is clear in the Biblical text is that there is a division between those commandments which are binding on Christians, and those which are not. This is not intellectual gymnastics -- the New Testament is perfectly clear and explicit. And this is basic Sunday-School Christianity, which the Bishop seems to have forgotten. So I ought to start from the beginning.
In the Bible, the interactions between God and Man are defined in terms of covenants. In the Old Testament, there are covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham and David, but it is the covenant with Moses which is predominant. A covenant is a set of stipulations which agree how both parties should act towards each other. So, for example, in the covenant with Moses, there are various commandments set forth by God which the people are expected to obey, and in return God promises various blessings on the Israelites (and also curses should they disobey). Of course, the stipulations on the people are motivated by God's love, and the commandments represent what a good person would by natural inclination do anyway. It also describes the sacrificial system whereby if they should fall short, they can receive atonement for their sins. This is, of course, a foreshadowing of the perfect atoning sacrifice made by Christ. The covenant is binding on both the people who agree to it, and their successors.
However, the covenant with Moses was not sufficient for God's purposes to redeem mankind (the book of Hebrews goes into detail here). Thus there is the need for a newer and better covenant. This is pointed out by Jeremiah,
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:31, ESV)
This covenant was instituted by Jesus,
And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, "Take; this is my body." And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God." (Mark 14:22)
Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 is explicit that this is the new covenant promised by Jeremiah. If it is a new covenant, then it has new terms and stipulations. The old, Mosaic, covenant was only binding on the children of Israel; this covenant is for everyone. In particular, the sacrificial part of the Old Covenant has become superseded by the more perfect atonement of Christ (again, explained in detail in Hebrews); it no longer has to be followed. The festivals of the Old Covenant are made more perfect in remembrance of the life of Christ. The laws organising society were again just for Israel. The initiation ceremony of circumcision is replaced by Baptism.
But gentile believers are still bound by the covenants with Adam and Noah. We still exist primarily to give glory to God. What is good for us is still determined by God's purposes in creating humanity. Thus there are elements of divine law which are still binding on Christians. Thus Paul could point to the law, and describe how it made him aware of his sin.
Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, "You shall not covet." (Romans 7:7)
And Paul is equally clear that we, as Christians, are to avoid sin. Indeed, the perfectly transformed Christian would not desire to sin: that is a goal of the Christian life (albeit that none of us have achieved perfection, or will until the resurrection).
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
Paul could hardly be clearer. So if some of the commandments of the law point us to understand sin, and Christians are bound and inclined to avoid sin, then those commandments of the law are binding to Christians. So the law of Moses contains some aspects we are to follow, terms which are repeated in the New Covenant, and other aspects which are not present in the New Covenant; which a Christian need not follow (and as Paul repeatedly pointed out, would be wrong to follow if he thought be doing them he would gain sufficient favour with God).
The matter of to what extent gentile believers need to follow the laws of Moses, of course, came to a head in the council described in Acts 15. The question which this council addressed was
But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.
And the verdict of the council was
For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell. (Acts 15:28)
So again it is clear that there are portions of the Mosaic law which are part of the New Covenant and binding on Christians, and parts (such as circumcision) which are not. Of the four requirements here, there are no further mentions in the New Testament about eating blood or that which has been strangled. These have tended to be ignored by Christians (although it is not clear to me that they should have been). The command against eating food sacrificed to idols was questioned by the Corinthian Church, and defended by Paul in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10. Sexual immorality is vigorously condemned throughout the New Testament. It should not, of course, be thought that this list of requirements is exhaustive: one should not, for example, think that Christians should be free to commit murder. But there was no need for the apostles to repeat that commandment, as it was also disapproved of in gentile society.
So the question remains which portions of the Torah are binding on Christians, and which are not. Our first guide to this is the New Testament. There are some aspects of the law which the New Testament explicitly states are not binding on Christians, such as circumcision and the dietary requirements. There are other aspects of the law which it explicitly states are binding. Other portions are a grey area. This includes the prohibition against tattoos, which the Bishop noted. We are not completely blind in this grey area: philosophical ethics based on principles consistent with Christian doctrine, such as natural law ethics, can guide us, as can various hints in the Old Testament law itself.
With regards to tattoos, this seems to be a legitimately disputed issue among Christians. The New Testament does not mention them; nor am I aware of discussion of the topic in the Church Fathers (again, I would welcome correction). I personally would not recommend taking the risk (as there is little positive reason for getting a tattoo), but it is clear, given the Church of England's polity and the lack of clarity in scripture, that it cannot forbid the practice.
The case of same-sex sexual activity, on the other hand, is different. Sexual immorality is repeatedly condemned in the New Testament; it might not necessarily be one of the most serious ways in which we can violate God's purposes, but it is one of the most easily fallen into given the strengths of the passions involved. It is condemned everywhere in the Bible; it is a betrayal of God. The condemnation is even made explicit in Acts 15, to leave no doubt. The conversation in Acts 15 specifically concerns which sections of the law are binding on Christians, so there can be little doubt that the Torah's teachings on sexual morality need to be followed by Christians. They are part of the new covenant, as well as being part of the Old Covenant. Nobody at the time would have excluded the prohibition on same-sex sexual activity from the Torah's treatment of sexual morality. The direct condemnations by Paul merely confirm what was already clear from the rest of the New Testament and its context.
Furthermore, it is made clear in Leviticus itself that these commandments are not just for the Israelites. Immediately following the passage, as already cited, is a statement that the Canaanites were under God's condemnation because they practised such things. The commandment therefore cannot just be for the Jews alone. It has to be a more general commandment applicable to all of humanity, and consequently a moral commandment that remains part of the New Covenant.
So no mental gymnastics required: just a straight-forward reading of the text as a whole (which is what the Bishop has repeatedly implored us to do). And consequently this is the understanding which Christians have consistently maintained since the time of the apostles.
Questioning sexual difference
The Bishop continues with another diversion from the main issue:
It is also suggested that Genesis 2.24-26 concerning a man leaving his father and mother and being united to his wife is a 'creation ordinance'. That is to say, it is one of the principles that God gave to humanity at the beginning of creation before the fall. I have come to think that we tend to overplay the significance of gender in God's scheme of things. In Genesis we read 'male and female he created them, in the image of God he created them.' It is not gender which is essential in reflecting the image of God, though. God has no gender and both men and women are equally made in the image of God.
Note that the Bishop offers no answer to the claim that Genesis 2:24-26 (which, don't forget, Jesus based His doctrine of marriage on) is a creation ordinance. The Bishop just changes the subject.
Nobody (connected to this debate) is disputing that both men and women are made in the image of God. But this is not the same as the question of the proper context for sexual activity. It does not provide any evidence to support the contention that Genesis 2:24 is not an important passage in determining God's plans for humanity with regards to sexual activity and marriage. Is "gender" (it would be better to use the biological term, "sex") overplayed in its significance in God's plans? Even if true (and it will depend on which theologian you are discussing), it does not mean that it has no significance in God's plans. Given the analogy between marriage between a man and a women, with the different roles they have to play in the marriage, and the union between Christ and the Church, it is clear that the division of humanity into two sexes does have an important symbolic role in illustrating the nature of God, at the very least. Equally, given how we were created, it is important for the commandment to be fruitful and multiply.
The Bishop spends the next few paragraphs citing sources which suggest that sexual differentiation is not important in certain contexts. This is to support his statement that "we tend to overplay the significance of gender in God's scheme of things." He doesn't explicitly state how this claim contributes to his overall argument, but I suppose that he is thinking of something along the following lines:
- The Biblical text states that sexual differentiation is unimportant in certain contexts.
- Therefore, by extension, sexual differentiation is unimportant in the context of marriage or sexual activity. (In other words, it doesn't matter who the sex of the person we marry or have sexual relations with is).
To back up this argument, he cites a number of sources, some Biblical, some secular, and an allusion to a Church Father. The obvious problem with the argument above is that there is a jump from point 1 to point 2. So the sources he cites would need to both a) justify point 1; and b) justify its application in point 2. In practice, though, these sources are read as supporting either the end of, or the failure to start, the importance of sexual differentiation; but at the same time they also (more clearly) speak of the cessation of all sexual activity. So in practice, the references the Bishop provides link sexual differentiation to sexual activity. If the need for sexual differentiation is abolished, then so is sexual activity, and vice versa. So rather than justifying the jump from point 1 to point 2, they undermine it.
For example, the Bishop cites Gregory of Nyssa as stating that (among other irrelevant points) "sexual differentiation came about only as the representation in the flesh of the fall from grace." Unfortunately, he only gives a citation to a secondary source here, so it is difficult for those of us without access to that source to know which passage he is referring to. Others, however, have cited from On the Making of Man, particularly chapters 16 and 17, to make a similar point, so I shall assume that this is the passage which the Bishop (via his source) is relying on.
There are a few points to make here. Firstly, Gregory of Nyssa, while a notable figure in the Church, is just a single human authority. As such his writings should not be taken as authoritative (especially in the Church of England), unless his views are clearly reasoned from scripture. Genesis 1 and 2 clearly speak of sexual differentiation before the fall. The passage describing the consequences of the fall (Genesis 3:14-19) indicates that the relationship between men and women is marred as a consequence of the fall, but presupposes rather than introduces the concept of sexual differentiation. Galatians 3:28 and Matthew 22:30 are sometimes also seen as relevant; I will discuss those below. But, just referring to Genesis, the idea that sexual differentiation came about as a consequence of the fall from grace is clearly contrary to the plain reading of the Biblical text.
Secondly, Gregory's main idea (as the Bishop interprets it) is opposed by the overwhelming majority of orthodox Christian theologians and scholars. If Gregory of Nyssa supported it, then he was practically alone. For example, I can cite Augustine, from the 13th book of his Confessions which discusses the pre-fall act of creation, and states that men and women are alike in their rational mind, but distinct in the nature of their bodies:
We behold the face of the earth furnished with terrestrial creatures, and man, created after Your image and likeness, in that very image and likeness of You (that is, the power of reason and understanding) on account of which he was set over all irrational creatures. And as in his soul there is one power which rules by directing, another made subject that it might obey, so also for the man was corporeally made a woman, who, in the mind of her rational understanding should also have a like nature, in the sex, however, of her body should be in like manner subject to the sex of her husband, as the appetite of action is subjected by reason of the mind, to conceive the skill of acting rightly. These things we behold, and they are severally good, and all very good.
So, according to Augustine, sexual differentiation is not a consequence of (or response to) sin, but part of God's very good original creation.
Thirdly, it is not clear to me that Gregory of Nyssa did, in fact, write something which supports the Bishop's argument. This is what Gregory wrote in the key sections:
16.8. Thus the creation of our nature is in a sense twofold: one made like to God, one divided according to this distinction: for something like this the passage darkly conveys by its arrangement, where it first says, God created man, in the image of God created He him Genesis 1:27, and then, adding to what has been said, male and female created He them Genesis 1:27,— a thing which is alien from our conceptions of God.
16.9. I think that by these words Holy Scripture conveys to us a great and lofty doctrine; and the doctrine is this. While two natures— the Divine and incorporeal nature, and the irrational life of brutes — are separated from each other as extremes, human nature is the mean between them: for in the compound nature of man we may behold a part of each of the natures I have mentioned — of the Divine, the rational and intelligent element, which does not admit the distinction of male and female; of the irrational, our bodily form and structure, divided into male and female: for each of these elements is certainly to be found in all that partakes of human life. That the intellectual element, however, precedes the other, we learn as from one who gives in order an account of the making of man; and we learn also that his community and kindred with the irrational is for man a provision for reproduction. For he says first that God created man in the image of God (showing by these words, as the Apostle says, that in such a being there is no male or female): then he adds the peculiar attributes of human nature, "male and female created He them (Genesis 1:27)."
16.18. For this reason the whole race was spoken of as one man, namely, that to God's power nothing is either past or future, but even that which we expect is comprehended, equally with what is at present existing, by the all-sustaining energy. Our whole nature, then, extending from the first to the last, is, so to say, one image of Him Who is; but the distinction of kind in male and female was added to His work last, as I suppose, for the reason which follows.
So here Gregory is stating that there are two distinct aspects of man. Firstly, there is intellectual nature, which takes after the divine. In this, there is no distinction between man and woman. But there is also the animal nature, and here we see the bodily distinction between male and female. Gregory states that this distinction was added to his creation last, but that does not necessarily mean that it was added as a consequence of the fall; indeed the implication of his whole argument is that it was not. Sexual distinction is secondary, but still part of created human nature. Both of these are part of our created nature. So Gregory does not deny sexual differentiation in the pre-fall garden.
In the next chapter, Gregory goes on to discuss the means of procreation, and in particular whether it would have happened had there been no sin. He argues (I think mistakenly -- the resurrected life is not a restoration of the original innocence, not least because that contained the possibility of a fall while the resurrected life does not; the reference to the angels means in certain respects but not others -- we have to put the passage in the context of everything written about the resurrection to understand the details) that without the fall, mankind would not have reproduced sexually, but instead by some more mysterious means.
17.2 Now the resurrection promises us nothing else than the restoration of the fallen to their ancient state; for the grace we look for is a certain return to the first life, bringing back again to Paradise him who was cast out from it. If then the life of those restored is closely related to that of the angels, it is clear that the life before the transgression was a kind of angelic life, and hence also our return to the ancient condition of our life is compared to the angels. Yet while, as has been said, there is no marriage among them, the armies of the angels are in countless myriads; for so Daniel declared in his visions: so, in the same way, if there had not come upon us as the result of sin a change for the worse, and removal from equality with the angels, neither should we have needed marriage that we might multiply; but whatever the mode of increase in the angelic nature is (unspeakable and inconceivable by human conjectures, except that it assuredly exists), it would have operated also in the case of men, who were made a little lower than the angels, to increase mankind to the measure determined by its Maker.
Then we come to the main point:
Now that we have thus cleared up these matters, let us return to our former point — how it was that after the making of His image God contrived for His work the distinction of male and female. I say that the preliminary speculation we have completed is of service for determining this question; for He Who brought all things into being and fashioned Man as a whole by His own will to the Divine image, did not wait to see the number of souls made up to its proper fullness by the gradual additions of those coming after; but while looking upon the nature of man in its entirety and fullness by the exercise of His foreknowledge, and bestowing upon it a lot exalted and equal to the angels, since He saw beforehand by His all-seeing power the failure of their will to keep a direct course to what is good, and its consequent declension from the angelic life, in order that the multitude of human souls might not be cut short by its fall from that mode by which the angels were increased and multiplied — for this reason, I say, He formed for our nature that contrivance for increase which befits those who had fallen into sin, implanting in mankind, instead of the angelic majesty of nature, that animal and irrational mode by which they now succeed one another.
So Gregory is saying that God's main plan was that mankind should remain sinless, and reproduce in whatever mysterious way the angels do. But he built in a contingency plan in case we should fall, namely sexual reproduction. But this contingency plan was put in place before the fall (as the reference to "foreknowledge" and "beforehand" makes clear). One could say that sexual distinction and sexuality was put in place in response to the possibility of the mankind sinning. But it still remains a creation ordinance and part of our pre-fall created nature. If Gregory was correct, then God's purpose in creating sexual distinction and sexuality was that (if required) between the fall and resurrection mankind could use it in male-female unions to reproduce.
I don't find Gregory's argument especially convincing, but regardless of that the question is whether or not it supports the Bishop of Worcester's case (if this wasn't the passage the Bishop was indirectly arguing from, then I would be grateful if someone could point me to the correct passage so I can update this section). The Bishop is using this to support his argument that using Genesis 2:24 to show that the role of sexual distinction in marriage is a created ordinance overstates the case. Instead, the pre-fall situation denied the importance of sexual differentiation. But Gregory argues that it is a created ordinance, albeit one that only comes into effect should mankind fall from grace. Since we have fallen from grace; Gregory supports what the Bishop is trying to use him to deny. Furthermore, looking at the bigger picture, this in no way supports the case for same-sex marriage. For Gregory contemplates two scenarios. Firstly, the original pre-fall plan, where sexual activity is not required for reproduction, and there is no sexuality at all -- opposite sex, same-sex, or otherwise. Secondly, should this fail, plan B is to have opposite sex marriage for the purpose of reproduction. And while most orthodox Christians would not use the same reasoning to reach this point, we have ended up in the standard position: that sexual activity and marriage is primarily (albeit not only, but primarily) for the purpose of reproduction, and thus intended to be between a man and a woman, and therefore same-sex sexual activity is a perversion of God's purposes in creating sexuality and consequently a sin which separates us from God. There is nothing in Gregory of Nyssa that can be used to bolster the case for same-sex marriage or same-sex sexual activity. The only thing it could be used to support is complete abstinence from sexual activity.
Gregory's argument relied on Galatians 3:28 and Matthew 22:30, and the Bishop turns himself to these passages a little later
Equally, neither sex nor gender have eternal significance. Jesus tells his hearers that ‘at the resurrection they will neither marry nor be given in marriage, they will be like the angels in heaven.’ (Matt 22.30) This correlates with what Paul writes to the Galatians, that ‘in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, no slave nor free, no male nor female’. (Gal 3.28) St Paul gave his life’s ministry to enable Gentiles to be fully accepted as Christians. It was not until the Nineteenth Century that – as now seems obvious to us – the fact that slavery is an abomination became clear to Christians. I feel the Spirit is now convicting us of the truth of the third proposition.
These passages, however, do not contribute to the Bishop's case. I should note that the statement with regards to slavery is factually incorrect. There has always been Christian opposition to slavery -- Gregory of Nyssa the classic example, albeit a rather isolated and extreme voice for his time. This opposition increased in the middle ages, until slavery was eradicated in Northern Europe. The council of Bishops in London denounced slavery in 1106; and while it took a while for that to be realised, by the end of the century slavery was in effect banned in Britain, as well as other Northern European countries. The point is not that all Christians opposed slavery; clearly that is false. The point is that until a much later time, pretty much the only people who opposed slavery were orthodox Christians (I think I read somewhere that there were some Buddhists who also opposed slavery, but their movement never amounted to anything and soon died out), and they based their opposition on principles derived from the Holy Scriptures. It was not until the colonial age that Christians were able to export this opposition into other cultures. The reintroduction of slavery, after the Renaissance turned its back on everything Medieval (including the opposition to slavery), came from business interests and secular sources, who argued on the basis of Greek and Roman sources that "inferior" people deserved to be enslaved. It was opposed by Christians, firstly Spanish Roman Catholics (and successive Bishops of Rome offered numerous bulls condemning the practice and slave trade over the centuries), and then evangelical Anglicans and Quakers in Britain took over the battle. Eventually the Christians persuaded their wider societies. My intellectual ancestors, as an orthodox Christian, were the first to propose the end of slavery and enact it. The Bishop's intellectual ancestors, as a liberal, were the last (in Western society) to jump on the bandwagon.
Galatians 3:28 discusses our salvation in Christ, and it states that in that respect men and women are regarded equally. There is no rule that says that men (or women) are to be particularly preferred when it comes to entering the Kingdom of heaven. However, it does not say that men and women are interchangeable in all respects. The distinction between men and women with respect to the family and marriage is clearly of importance to Paul and the other apostles, as other passages show. Our common salvation does not negate our distinct but complementary natures in other areas. To say that this passage undermines the importance of sexual differentiation is to read it out of context against other passages which are both clear and directly on topic. The Bishop's reading of this passage ignores what the other voices of scripture say.
The Holy Spirit certainly leads us to appreciate scripture more. But this scripture does not, as I have shown, lead us to the conclusion that men and women are interchangeable as the Bishop seems to demand. 1 John 4:1 rightly warns us that not every spirit comes from God; so the Bishop needs to be careful which spirit he is listening to: the Spirit that has informed the Church throughout the ages, and the bulk of the Church today, or the spirit of the age, transmitted through secular society, which denounces Christ and denies that He came (in the sense that it denies the truth of who Jesus was -- or, in some extreme cases, denies the existence of Jesus at all).
Equally, the Bishop applies Galatians 3:28 to our eternal fate. But we are not yet in the Kingdom of God in its full realisation. The question of same-sex marriage is not about life then, but how we should live our lives now, before the resurrected life. In other words, the Bishop is taking the passage, and applying it out of context.
The same argument applies to Matthew 22:30. That passage relates to God's purposes for mankind after the resurrection, and as such does not directly apply to the situation now. Equally, this passage describes the abolition of marriage, and with it sexual activity, after the resurrection. So if one were to use this passage to derive moral rules for today, those rules would be that we should not engage in sexual activity or marriage at all, not that same-sex sexual activity or marriage should be encouraged, or that sexual differentiation is unimportant with respect to marriage today.
So, to expand on what I presented before, and apply it to this particular passage, I think the argument the Bishop is trying to make is the following:
- Matthew 22:30 shows that there is no distinction between male and female in God's perfect society after the resurrection.
- The post-resurrection society, as the exemplar of God's intentions for mankind, should be mimicked as closely as possible today before the resurrection.
- There therefore ought to be no distinction between male and female now.
- Male and female should therefore be seen as interchangeable in the context of acceptable sexual partners.
This argument, however, is flawed. Firstly, as stated, point 2 is problematic. The resurrection involves numerous changes in our bodies, how we relate to God, our character (including the removal of all sin) and consequently also the functioning of human society. Not every aspect of that society can be mirrored before the judgement, and as such it does not follow that we should seek to mimic it in every respect. This is particularly true if we combine this with point 1 to get to point 3. (I do not think one can get to the Bishop's desired conclusion, in point 4, without going through the more general point 3.) Clearly there is a biological distinction between male and female now, which relates in particular to matters of reproduction and sexual activity.
Point 1 is also problematic. The reference to angels is unclear, and the main focus of the statement is on marriage (and thus sexual activity). It does not state that sexual distinction is removed. Augustine made this clear in his City of God:
(Book 22, Chapter 17) From the words, "Till we all come to a perfect man, to the measure of the age of the fullness of Christ," (Ephesians 4:13) and from the words, "Conformed to the image of the Son of God," (Romans 8:29) some conclude that women shall not rise women, but that all shall be men, because God made man only of earth, and woman of the man. For my part, they seem to be wiser who make no doubt that both sexes shall rise. For there shall be no lust, which is now the cause of confusion. For before they sinned, the man and the woman were naked, and were not ashamed. From those bodies, then, vice shall be withdrawn, while nature shall be preserved. And the sex of woman is not a vice, but nature. It shall then indeed be superior to carnal intercourse and child-bearing; nevertheless the female members shall remain adapted not to the old uses, but to a new beauty, which, so far from provoking lust, now extinct, shall excite praise to the wisdom and clemency of God, who both made what was not and delivered from corruption what He made. For at the beginning of the human race the woman was made of a rib taken from the side of the man while he slept; for it seemed fit that even then Christ and His Church should be foreshadowed in this event. For that sleep of the man was the death of Christ, whose side, as He hung lifeless upon the cross, was pierced with a spear, and there flowed from it blood and water, and these we know to be the sacraments by which the Church is built up. For Scripture used this very word, not saying He formed or framed, but built her up into a woman; (Genesis 2:22) whence also the apostle speaks of the edification of the body of Christ, (Ephesians 4:12) which is the Church. The woman, therefore, is a creature of God even as the man; but by her creation from man unity is commended; and the manner of her creation prefigured, as has been said, Christ and the Church. He, then, who created both sexes will restore both. Jesus Himself also, when asked by the Sadducees, who denied the resurrection, which of the seven brothers should have to marry the woman whom all in succession had taken to raise up seed to their brother, as the law enjoined, says, "You err, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God." (Matthew 22:29) And though it was a fit opportunity for His saying, She about whom you make inquiries shall herself be a man, and not a woman, He said nothing of the kind; but "In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven." (Matthew 22:30) They shall be equal to the angels in immortality and happiness, not in flesh, nor in resurrection, which the angels did not need, because they could not die. The Lord then denied that there would be in the resurrection, not women, but marriages; and He uttered this denial in circumstances in which the question mooted would have been more easily and speedily solved by denying that the female sex would exist, if this had in truth been foreknown by Him. But, indeed, He even affirmed that the sex should exist by saying, They shall not be given in marriage, which can only apply to females; Neither shall they marry, which applies to males. There shall therefore be those who are in this world accustomed to marry and be given in marriage, only they shall there make no such marriages.
Of course, Augustine is not an apostle, and just a human authority. He is not infallible (although in this case I take his argument to be correct). But he is, as one of the Doctors of the Church, and renowned as one of Her greatest ever theologians, a significantly greater authority than the Bishop of Worcester and the sources on which he relies. Augustine makes the same point that I do here concerning Matthew 22:30: that the passage does not indicate an end to sexual differentiation. Instead we should take (as the Bishop himself implores us to do) a wider view of the scriptures, which indicates that women will remain women after the resurrection.
The Bishop further supports this part of his argument by citing a few sources which state that the ancient world had some rather strange ideas concerning how men and women differed biologically. He uses these to make "clear how modern are our assumptions about the differences between the sexes." But that there is a difference between the sexes, particularly with regards to reproduction and marriage, has been clear since ancient times. This is obvious from any reading of ancient literature, from any society, including the Bible. So, yes, the ancients got some things wrong, and we now know better. That doesn't mean that they got everything wrong; and in particular that they got wrong the differences that are crucial to the argument that same-sex sexual activity is immoral. A further problem with the Bishop's argument at this point is that he ignores the divine inspiration of scripture. Yes, Galen was mistaken about the biology of sexual differentiation. But Galen didn't write or inspire scripture. Unless the Bishop is claiming that God was ignorant of human biology until modern science corrected him, I fail to see how our increased knowledge has any relevance to God's commands or purposes for us, as recorded in the Bible. And, of course, the views of Galen, which the Bishop references, are an attempt to explain sexual difference to an audience which already accepted it. Thus this source undermines the contention that the idea about the differences between the sexes is a modern assumption.
The Bishop notes that he himself has changed his mind on the issue of same-sex marriage, and then states:
Since then, I have come to see that all the traditional 'goods of marriage' except procreation can be enjoyed by those in a same-sex marriage. The latter, in any event, is bracketed out in the Common Worship rite and, as we all know, not all heterosexual marriages produce children. The other two 'goods of marriage' which, after Augustine, are mutual love and support and sexual intimacy, are available in a gay relationship. If the Church were to accept equal marriage it could hold to its teaching that sexual activity properly belongs within marriage and it could give all the support it gives to heterosexual couples to homosexual ones.
I have addressed the issue of childless marriages above. The Bishop here argues from the modernised prayer book, Common Worship. But that is not the official standard of doctrine of the Church of England, which is the far superior Book of Common Prayer (built, of course, on the Biblical text as the superior authority). The marriage service in Common Worship is particularly disappointing, and offers a much watered-down doctrine than the original service. Sexual intimacy is not one of the three goods of marriage as expressed in the BCP; instead it lists the Biblical "Protection against fornication" (1 Corinthians 7:2) So, assuming that the Bible is correct in saying that same-sex sexual activity is a type of fornication, those relationships fall short of the second requirement as well. The purpose of procreation is not bracketed out in the BCP (there is one blessing later in the service which can be omitted if the woman is infertile; but the purpose of the marriage remains the same regardless of fertility as it is derived from Biblical principles). The point is that there is still an "except" then the relationship has failed the criteria. Even if the relationship scores two out of three (or, more properly, one out of three); or ninety nine out of a hundred, it still falls short of the ideal. To be "good" it needs to be directed towards all the purposes.
Furthermore, the BCP marriage service makes clear that marriage was blessed by Christ at Cana (heterosexual), instituted by God at the time of man's innocency (heterosexual), modelled after our first parents, Adam and Eve (heterosexual), and signifies the relationship between Christ and the Church (which, unless the Bishop wants to claim that the Church died for Christ's sins, or that Christ should regard the Church as Lord, also has differentiation between the partners as a key part of the union). These requirements are also not satisfied in a same-sex marriage.
The Bishop's statement here simply begs the question that same-sex sexual relationships are not in themselves intrinsically immoral, and thus something which the Church could support. I agree that the Church should support people with same-sex attraction. But not by encouraging them to sexual immorality -- that is not support, but laying out the red carpet away from God and into hell. Instead it should support them to live as Christ commands, and according to God's purposes: either a life of celibacy in full devotion to God, or marriage to someone of the opposite sex. If they (as is likely) go for the first option, then they need support and encouragement; and the Church ought to be there to provide it. The Bishop of Worcester, though, is trying to discourage the Church from providing the support they need; and instead offer something which will not help them develop their relationship with Christ at all.
The Bishop then turns to how the conservative position is interpreted by some people with same-sex attraction. It is clear that not everyone with same-sex attraction interprets the position in this way. Many accept that same-sex sexual activity is not part of God's plan for their lives, and devote themselves to celibacy. In this, they are in no way unfulfilled.
We need to recognise that gay Christians today, seeking to live consecrated, faithful lives in the way of Christ, simply do not find themselves described in these texts [which condemn same-sex sexual activity]. They do not advocate or practise those exploitative sins of which Paul speaks. Indeed, the suggestion is deeply offensive. This must be taken with full seriousness. What they want is something different, very different: for the Church to bless their monogamous, committed, loving, faithful relationships. Withholding such blessing is experienced as punitive, and understandably so:
In refusing to bless our relationships, it says there is nothing good in them – that we are unable to reflect the love of God in the same way that heterosexuals are. It says that we are somehow, innately, disordered. We are 'less than'. Our love and its human expression is something that needs to be 'excused', something we should be 'slightly embarrassed about.'
First of all, the Bishop is begging the question. If those Christians with same-sex sexual attraction seek to live following Christ, then, if the orthodox argument is correct, would keep themselves apart from sexual relationships with the same-sex. The Bishop is assuming that they ought to have these relationships, or people in these relationships are faithful Christians (in this regard), which assumes that same-sex sexual activity is not immoral. This argument thus assumes what it is attempting to conclude. No doubt the man (and woman) who Paul condemned in 1 Corinthians 5 believed himself (and herself) to be a faithful Christian; but his (and her) actions made it clear that he (and she) was not, and he needed Paul's reprimand. He again relies on his earlier unproved statement that Paul wrote only concerning exploitative relationships. Equally, they might want the Church to bless these relationships, but that does not mean that the Church ought to do so, if those relationships are contrary to God's purposes for those people. The Church is here as an ambassador for Christ. It's mission in this world is to call people to repentance, not to affirm or to bless sinful behaviour. Yes, there will be some people who will not like this message. There always have been. But this does not absolve us of the responsibility to preach it. After all, Christ reminded us that to because we were chosen by Him out of the world, the (secular) world will hate us. No doubt we will be called names, such as "homophobic" (although in practice the orthodox Christian has a greater love for those with same-sex attraction than the secular world or liberal Christian can ever comprehend). But that does not mean that we can dilute the message of Christ, because to dilute the message is not to give the people we minister to what they need: to know and to love Christ in its fullness, which leads to obedience to his commands (John 14:15).
Now onto the specific complaints that the Bishop cites. In refusing to bless the relationships, orthodox Christians are not saying that there is nothing good in them. There are goods in them. A great many of them; perhaps exhibited better than in many heterosexual marriages. But the orthodox Christians are saying that there is, in addition to those goods, something intrinsic to them which is not good. This is not a mere accidental imperfection (as is seen in all opposite sex marriages), which can be made perfect through the sanctification of the Holy Spirit, but something essential to the relationship. It is on account of this that the relationships do not have God's approval, and cannot be blessed by the Church.
Neither does a refusal to bless the relationships mean that we regard the people as unable to reflect the love of God. There is, once again, the old confusion between eros and agape. The love of God is agape, the desire for goodness: it is not tied to sexual relationships. While it can be (and ought to be) expressed in those relationships, that is only a special case in the general requirement that it ought to be expressed in all relationships. This can be seen from the gospels. There is no case where Jesus discusses love where it is tied specifically to marriage or a sexual relationship. A few examples:
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:44, ESV)
And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. (Matthew 22:9, ESV)
Jesus wept. So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!" (John 11:35)
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34, ESV)
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. (John 15:12, ESV)
And I could go on. Clearly, the type of love that Jesus commands of us, and models for us, does not require sexual expression. Nor is it made perfect in sexual expression. And this is true for both people with opposite sex and same-sex sexual attraction.
There are two ways in which we can interpret the statement we are unable to reflect the love of God in the same way that heterosexuals are. It could refer to the people themselves being unable to reflect the love of God. The orthodox Christian would, however, disagree -- people with same-sex attraction are just as able to reflect that love as anyone else. But this has nothing to do with whether or not same-sex sexual relationships can be blessed. Or it could refer to the relationships not expressing the love of God in the same way that opposite sex relationships do. The love of God is the desire for goodness (Romans 12:9). Goodness means being fit for purpose. So a same-sex sexual relationship can only institute the desire for goodness to the same extent as an opposite sex relationship if same-sex sexual activity is only in line with God's purposes in creating human sexuality as an opposite sex sexual relationship. This the orthodox Christian would deny. Thus the orthodox Christian is saying that same-sex relationships cannot in this respect show the same degree of love as opposite-sex relationships, for the simple reason that it is the truth. An uncomfortable truth, to be sure, but one that it is still better and more loving to say than to deny. Again, the people the Bishop are citing are begging the question that they are not engaging in sexual immorality.
It says that we are somehow, innately, disordered. Yes, because for the orthodox Christian everyone is innately disordered. We are called to recognise that and repent, and not act on our sinful impulses. I am in no way saying that someone with same-sex attraction is a worse person than I am on account of that. I may not be same-sex attracted, but I have my own deep-seated temptations which I battle with. My own flaws are equally bad. The question is not whether we are tempted or disordered, but how we approach our lives in the face of that, whether we recognise our disorder as a failing in our character, and whether we trust in God's grace and sanctification to bring us through that, and, if not remove the sinful desire, at least give us the strength and self-control to overcome the temptation.
We are 'less than'. As people? No. If that is what you understand the Church to be saying, then you have misunderstood the message. You are in the image of God -- an image obscured by sin, but still there -- and of infinite value, as is everyone else. But the image is obscured by sin, and to sin more -- to follow one's desires which run against God's purposes -- is not the solution to your problems. As a relationship? Yes. This is precisely what is being said. The question is whether it is wrong to say it. Just because saying it has made people hurt does not mean that it is wrong. Something's goodness is measured by it being fit for purpose and conformity to an ideal, and the purpose of human sexuality is not directed towards a same-sex relationship, a same-sex sexual relationship is clearly diminished in respect to an opposite one. Again, this is an uncomfortable truth to hear, but to not say the truth when it causes pain is against the path of genuine love.
Our love and its human expression is something that needs to be 'excused', something we should be 'slightly embarrassed about.' Again, begging the question that this eros is correctly directed, and the human expression is good. If that is not the case, then it indeed would be something to be embarrassed about.
It is certainly not the case that sexual expression is essential to a fulfilled life and the vocation to celibacy should be taken very seriously in the Church. I just do not believe that it should apply to all homosexual people any more than it should be applied to all heterosexual people. For the majority of both, the life in all its fulness which Jesus offers involves the freedom to form a monogamous, faithful relationship with one other person in which their sexuality may be expressed physically.
Note how the Bishop here again contradicts himself within a few sentences. He starts by saying that sexual expression is not essential to a fulfilled life (without qualification), and concludes that it is for most people. He is again begging the question. The position that he is opposing states that Jesus offers two options for us to be fulfilled -- a celibate life in full devotion to God, or marriage to someone of the opposite sex. Those options are available to everyone, without distinction between the same-sex attracted and opposite-sex attracted. Monogamy and faithfulness are merely two of the requirements required for a relationship which Jesus offers: there are others, including the requirement that it is with someone of an opposite sex. In particular physical sexual expression is not necessary for the fulfilled and happy life. Jesus is the obvious example of someone who lived a good life without any sexual expression. There are plenty of others of both sexes throughout Church history, as the Bishop well knows. Is everyone called to that life? That is difficult to argue in light of Matthew 19:10-12. But if someone with same-sex sexual activity does not want to marry someone of the opposite sex, and find sexual expression through that, then the celibate life is all that is open to them if they want to be faithful to Christ. A same-sex sexual relationship consequently is not a life in all its fullness as Jesus offers it. That is the orthodox position. The Bishop, obviously disagrees, but he only asserts his conclusion rather than showing it. His argument seems to rely on the premise that sexual expression is necessary for a fulfilled life, but as he himself notes this premise is not drawn from but opposed to Christian principles. It cannot, therefore, be a reason for the Church to bless same-sex sexual relationships.
Finally, the Bishop argues that the Church, by refusing to bless same sex sexual relationships, will become even more alienated from wider Western culture. It is thus a hindrance to our fulfilment of the great commission.
There are two responses to this. Firstly, secular Western culture (at least the part that dominates academia, politics and the media) is dominated by the union between critical theory and postmodernism. This philosophy is founded on the hatred of all religion, but Christianity in particular. Appeasing it in one respect will just make it hungry for more. We should have learnt that lesson with Neville Chamberlain (and we do not even have Chamberlain's excuse that we needed to buy time to prepare for war). Appeasing society in this respect is not going to convince it of the resurrection of Jesus, or His incarnation, the need for repentance and reliance of God's grace in the face of his oncoming judgement. Only preaching the gospel will do that. And once people have heard and accepted the gospel, and believed it as an evangelical or catholic, then matters concerning sexual ethics will fall into place. However, surrendering parts of the Bible to secular whims just makes the Church appear weak, lacking confidence in itself, and less appealing. After all, if Paul was wrong on same-sex sexual activity, could he not also have been wrong on the resurrection? Surrendering on this aspect is not going to win the world to Christ. The world will still hate Christianity and Christians. But we would no longer be able to point to our consistency and integrity in order to win people over.
Secular society is collapsing: the low birth rate, declining educational standards among the bulk of the people, increasing state bureaucracy (i.e. too many non-productive people putting a burden on the sector of society which uses their labour to create wealth), and ageing population means that soon enough we will have too few productive workers to support the economy. When that inevitable crash occurs, people will realise the flaws of the culture which led to it, and the Church needs to be there as an attractive alternative to pick up the pieces. It will not be an alternative if it abandoned its principles to ape everything that is wrong in society.
But the biggest problem with the Bishop's proposal is this: if the Church compromises its principles to appease to the world, then even if it wins converts, those converts will not believe in Christianity but whatever the theological liberals make of the Church. Jesus spoke to the Pharisees, and I think the same principle applies here, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves." (Matthew 23:15) Harsh words, but the reasoning behind them is clear. The scribes and Pharisees which Jesus was addressing had departed from the true worship of God. In their case, they had added to God's word numerous additional rules and traditions that served to distract people from genuine obedience to the commandments. As such, if they won a convert, then that convert wouldn't be to authentic Judaism, but to whatever we want to call the Pharisees' new religion. The convert would gain nothing by it. In the same way, if we were to dilute the gospel by merging it with non-Christian values, then even if we were to win a convert, we will not be winning them to Christ, but to whatever new religion we have founded. To argue for the gospel in the face of a hostile culture makes fulfilling the great commission difficult. To change the gospel to appease a hostile culture, as the Bishop recommends, makes fulfilling the great commission impossible.
Is just changing the views on same-sex sexual activity equivalent to founding a new religion? Isn't saying that a bit much? But, as should be obvious from my discussion above, to get to the point where you can change one's view on same-sex sexual activity means denying numerous other aspects of the true gospel, including essential parts such as the inerrancy of the scriptures, covenantal theology, the need for repentance, doctrine of original sin, and to accept a diminished view of the incarnation. The issue of same-sex sexual activity is just the surface of a much deeper problem (although the surface issue in itself enough to keep people from the Kingdom of God); so, yes, it does qualify as a new religion.
Will Christians be hated by the world around us if we refuse to budge here? I think it is obvious that we will be. But there is nothing new in this. Jesus himself warned us to expect hatred. Jesus himself was hated. The early church was hated by Roman and Parthian society. It is unlikely that we will have to face what they faced, but they still stood firm. The Church today in Islamic and Communist cultures is hated and faces intense persecution from the dominant culture -- churches are being burnt down, people are being imprisoned, raped, kidnapped and killed. Hatred of Christians is nothing new, or unexpected. Indeed, when Christians are living in a non-Christian society, if we are not hated, we are doing something wrong.
But we should not forget that the Church is not a purely human institution. It is powered by God. It is Jesus who calls people to him (John 10:16). It is God who gives growth (1 Corinthians 3:7). Our task is only to be there, and preach faithfully, and send those who will preach, and God will touch the hearts of those who will receive the word. Without God's touching, our evangelism counts for nothing. But the Church will only have God's blessing if it is truly of God (Acts 5:38). If we abandon God by compromising the message, even on this point, then no matter how hard we work, we will bear no fruit.
I have reached the end of the Bishop's letter, and I have cited almost all of it, and made reference to almost all of the rest. Before I conclude, there are two general points to be made.
Firstly, in various places, the Bishop has stated that he has maintained a "desire to live my life under the scriptures" and has "engaged the scriptures." But it is one thing to claim that, and quite another to demonstrate it. As my discussion hopefully makes clear, the Bishop has not handled the scriptures honestly. He has generally relied on non-scriptural authorities to try to undermine passages, read things into passages which are not present (such as his asserted positions which he thinks motivated Paul), and misinterpreted passages that address different topics to try to make them undermine the passages that directly address the subject at hand.
The second general point is this: nowhere in his open letter has the Bishop tried to make a valid case that same-sex sexual activity is moral, and ought to be blessed by the Church. He has not made any first-principles philosophical argument for this position. Nor has he argued it from the Biblical text. He has argued from his experiences of talking to people in these relationships. He has argued from hurt feelings. But neither of those are reliable guides to what is right and wrong (the is/ought fallacy). To say that a same-sex sexual relationship displays good fruits is to presuppose rather than demonstrate an ethical position which accepts same-sex sexual activity as moral (begging the question). He has also attempted to argue that in some respects the differences between men and women are unimportant, but he has not argued that this extends to sexual differentiation in sexual relationships: he just assumed that without proof. And most of his arguments here would (if successful) lead to the conclusion that we ought not to engage in any sexual activity, not that same-sex sexual activity can be good in some contexts. Instead he has attempted to attack the texts that the orthodox position relies on; made some sweeping statements concerning the scope of scripture without demonstrating how that applies to the question at hand; and based a lot of his arguments on the assumption that same-sex sexual activity is moral. He has described what caused him himself to change his mind. But nowhere that I can see has he made the argument for the morality of same-sex sexual activity, as an orthodox Christian would argue from both first-principles philosophy and the scriptures for its immorality. This is a major and significant omission in his argument.
I should say that this is just one example of what I have seen written by liberal clergymen. I only pick on the Bishop of Worcester because his work happens to be pertinent to what is happening in the Church as I write. But other works are similar in their quality and (on this topic) their arguments. I should also say that I am only referring to the writings of clergymen to their laity (or subordinate clergy), or books written for a popular rather than academic readership. (And, of course, it should be noted that I am working from a relatively small sample: while I do read liberal writers to try to see if they have anything useful to say; I generally concentrate my reading on the more rigorous orthodox writers and their atheist and agnostic opponents. I would rather spend the limited time I have consulting the best and most relevant arguments.) Academic liberal discourse is, naturally, considerably tighter and better presented, though still clearly flawed in certain respects.
I should also point out what I have not done in this post. I have not argued for the orthodox Christian position on this topic -- I have described what that position is, and outlined why it is, but not gone to the detail required to rigorously make the case. Nor even have I argued against the position that same-sex sexual activity should be affirmed. I have responded to one set of arguments supporting that position. There might well be superior arguments that make the case better than the Bishop of Worcester. I have never seen any, but that does not prove that they don't exist. My sole point in this post was to outline how a typical liberal clergyman presents his case.
And I hope that I have demonstrated that it is not done very well. I have identified numerous logical fallacies: non-sequiturs, begging the question, the false dichotomy, the fallacy of equivocation, the is/ought fallacy, straw men, and so on. In two places, he directly contradicts himself a few sentences later. He glosses over fine but important distinctions, such as the difference between same-sex sexual attraction, same-sex sexual activity, and the people who participate in it. He also does not define key terms, which makes his work harder to read; and in places lifts terminology from an non-Christian philosophical system (a system whose assumptions his opponents oppose) without questioning whether it can be adapted into Christian use, or whether the assumptions on which that philosophy is based are consistent with Christianity. If they are not consistent, then he would indirectly be introducing contradictions into his argument.
His handling of scripture is poor; while the Bishop (correctly) appeals to taking into account the wider sweep of scripture he does not show how that it supports his case; while ignoring his opponent's use of the wider sweep of scripture. He uses passages which are unclear or on entirely different topics to overrule those passages which are clear and direct. He takes passages out of context, and applies them to circumstances where they are not applicable. He ignores the "Is this what the writer meant, would he have expressed it in this particular way?" rule. He reads motivations into the Biblical writer's position which aren't there in the text in an attempt to undermine the Biblical writer's views. He uses his own opinions to rule on which themes from scripture to favour, rather than letting scripture -- including those passage he dislikes -- shape his opinions. He ignores and does not seem to understand major themes in the Biblical story, such as what precisely is meant by love and the covenantal theology.
His handling of human authorities is also poor. The one ancient writer he cited (indirectly, via a secondary source) undermined rather than supported the argument which the Bishop was trying to make, and the Bishop did not note that this writer was rather extreme and outside the theological mainstream. (Note that I did observe this when referring to Gregory of Nyssa on slavery, where again he was something of a lone voice. You can refer to the writer, but you have to also mention the bulk of the other witnesses disagree with him on some of his premises.) Even the more secular sources he handles badly: the discussion on Galen's views on sexual differentiation were used to support the idea that recognising sexual differentiation is a modern innovation, when clearly they show the opposite. Otherwise, he generally relies on modern sources not recognised as authoritative by his opponents, without justifying their overall argument.
With regards to Anglican polity, the Bishop is little better. He frequently contradicts the 39 Articles and homilies. He refers to common worship rather than looking back to the Book of Common Prayer, which contradicts the point he was trying to make. His reference to the standard triumvite of scripture, reason and tradition is handled badly, failing to give scripture the primacy, a misunderstanding of what is meant by reasoning, and adding "experience" to the mix, presumably because scripture, right reason, and tradition alone don't get him to where he wants to go.
And these errors pervade his whole open later. In pretty much every paragraph which had some substantive content, from the start to the end, I found either a logical error, or factual error, or some poor reading of the scriptures. In most cases more than one. And I cannot claim to have found and highlighted every problem in the open letter; there are bound to be more that I missed.
Arguments as poor as this do not favour anyone. They do not help the wider Church, as they only spread confusion. They are no use for the orthodox theologians: I would much rather spend my time sharpening my views against a more substantive case for the opposing view than have to respond to something as blatantly flawed as this. If a good enough case is presented, I may even change my mind; but I certainly won't with arguments like this. This is not helpful to the liberal cause either. My reaction to reading a treatment containing as many blatant flaws as this is "After thirty years of thinking about it, is this the best you can come up with?" Reading the Bishop's open letter only strengthens my orthodox convictions. But, perhaps most of all, a letter like this undermines confidence in the house of Bishops as a whole. How am I meant to accept their guidance, or trust their statements that, regarding those who have come to accept the Bishop of Worcester's position, "They are not careless about scripture. They do not reject Christ. But they have come to a different view on sexuality after long prayer, deep study and reflection on understandings of human nature," when it is apparent from this letter and the statement of the Bishop of Oxford that at least some of those people are very sloppy in their thinking and very careless in how they handle scripture. For his own sake, and that of his episcopal authority, the Bishop of Worcester needs to either resign or improve.
So I titled this post "How to reason like a liberal clergyman?" The answer now seems clear, if this letter is any guide. Commit numerous logical fallacies, read into scripture what you want it to say while claiming that you are being faithful, mishandle human authorities, construct straw man representations of what your opponents say without regard to the detail of their arguments or their counters to your points, make some vague assertions which aren't really relevant to the topic at hand, and mix it all together until you get something that agrees with whatever fashionable and unorthodox cultural views you happen to favour today. I hope the Bishop will excuse us evangelicals and catholics for sticking to the, somewhat old fashioned, methods of faithful exposition and arguing with logical rigour and clarity from sound premises drawn from scripture, or the raw data of empirical observation.
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