Sexual Revolution: Responding Reasonably and Faithfully

Andrew Goddard explores the challenges facing the Pilling Group

Sexual Revolution:

Responding Reasonably and Faithfully

by Andrew Goddard

A Revolutionary Context

Just over eighteen months ago the membership was announced of the House of Bishops Review Group on sexuality chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling. Its work was never going to be easy but, with the recent passing into law of same-sex marriage, the Church of England now faces even greater challenges. As Archbishop Justin told General Synod “we must accept that there is a revolution in the area of sexuality, and we have not fully heard it”. In the face of this “we are called by God to respond radically and imaginatively to new contexts – contexts that are set up by revolutions”
The report of the Pilling Group (due to go to the House of Bishops in December) will play a major part in shaping any radical or imaginative response. They have taken evidence from a range of individuals and groups. My own submission just over a year ago (text and outline summary as PDFs) tried to map out the challenges then facing the Church of England and I’ve recently been thinking about how the report might help us in our revolutionary situation and the importance of reason in its work.

Four areas we must address

There are broadly four key challenges the church needs to address: doctrine, discipline, diversity/disagreement and division/differentiation. How it handles each of these and the relationship between them is crucial. It will need to acknowledge where we are and set out a vision or perhaps alternative visions as to where we should go in each of these areas.
In relation to doctrine the Church of England has clear teaching on the substantive issues of sexual ethics. This is set out in the 1987 General Synod motion, 1991 Issues (and 2003 Some Issues) and the 2005 House of Bishops Statement on Civil Partnerships reaffirmed in December 2012. It agrees with the teaching of the Communion in Lambeth Resolutions and with wider catholic moral teaching.
Those same sources set out the church's discipline or practice, particularly in relation to requirements for ordained ministers and liturgical provision. This clearly follows from the doctrine although other patterns of discipline would also be consistent with it and the discipline is currently not always followed.
The challenge is that there is a diversity of views and disagreement about the truthfulness of the doctrine and the faithfulness, integrity and wisdom of the discipline. The key questions here were set out by Archbishop Rowan in 2005: “What is the nature of a holy and Christ-like life for someone who has consistent homosexual desires? And what is the appropriate discipline to be applied to the personal life of the pastor in the Church?”. Our diversity is about “what the Church requires in its ordained leaders and what patterns of relationship it will explicitly recognise as unquestionably revealing of God”. There is similarly diversity in response to civil partnerships (as General Synod noted in a Feb 2007 motion) and, to a lesser extent, in response to the new legal definition of marriage barely on the horizon when the Pilling Group started its work.
The problem is that this diversity increasingly risks pushing the church nationally and internationally into division or at least increased structural differentiation. Facing this, General Synod, in another Feb 2007 resolution, commended “continuing efforts to prevent the diversity of opinion about human sexuality creating further division and impaired fellowship within the Church of England and the Anglican Communion”.
We need a report which can help us reason together by defining and explaining the theo-logic of our church doctrine and discipline and relating these to our diversity and potential division.

Three possible ways forward

A year ago the choice seemed a simple, stark either/or. We could maintain the doctrine, explaining why, despite the diversity of opinion in the church and changes in society, it is right to uphold it. We could then offer a clear account of the discipline that flows from this position in the hope such restatement will prevent diversity producing further division. Alternatively, the current doctrine could be replaced with a new teaching and pattern of discipline. This would likely result in further division. This seems a circle even more difficult to square than women bishops with adequate provision!
Faced with this stark choice from its equivalent of the Pilling Group which could not agree a way forward, the Church of Scotland General Assembly adopted a third way earlier this year. Recognizing the diversity it sought to avoid division by reaffirming the traditional doctrine but loosening the discipline and allowing a greater range of practice to be sanctioned within the church than previously (in relation to ordained ministers, not liturgy).
These would appear to be broadly the three options now open to the Church of England. Whichever it follows, or in setting out the strengths and weaknesses of each, the report will clearly have to defend its conclusions carefully from Scripture and tradition. It must, however, also offer something marked by Christian reasoning. The world undergoing revolution will not be interested in listening to any argument that it can see lacks internal rational coherence.
This commitment to careful reasoning, especially in the light of previous authoritative reasoned statements, creates certain constraints and obligations in relation to the four areas and the relationship between them. Leaving aside the crucial tests in relation to Scripture and tradition, where our differences are well-rehearsed, there are eight crucial tests of reasoning in relation to these three ways forward, in particular the challenges raised by the new option now being explored by Scotland’s national church.

What does it mean to be reasonable?

1. In relation to doctrine there needs to be either (a) a theologically reasoned defence of the current teaching or (b) a theological rationale for changes to that teaching.
2. If the doctrine changes then discipline should change to be consistent with the new doctrine and reasons given connecting the two.
3. If the doctrine does not change but the discipline does change (either to be more restrictive or more permissive) then reasonable arguments need to be given showing that the new discipline remains consistent with the doctrine.
4. A change in discipline cannot simply appeal to the existence of a diversity of opinion as the basis for greater diversity in authorised discipline. It must also offer reasons why (a) officially acknowledging and sanctioning that greater diversity in discipline remains consistent with the stated doctrine and (b) the new discipline is now the best way of responding to longstanding diversity.
5. It is unreasonable to change the discipline while claiming to uphold the doctrine unless it can be convincingly shown that the new discipline remains consistent with the doctrine.
6. If a change (including authorising greater diversity) in discipline cannot be shown to be consistent with the doctrine then the only reasonable conclusion is that the doctrine has been effectively abandoned. It has been replaced in practice either by (a) no doctrine and the purely pragmatic authorization of an expression of a “diversity of opinion” or by (b) a new but unstated doctrine.
7. Faced with the diversity of views, a reasoned argument needs to be offered in response to Archbishop Rowan’s argument at the ACC in 2005 that a change in either doctrine or discipline also requires “an exceptionally strong critical mass to justify it” (and he meant in the Communion and ecumenically not just within one province). This reasoning would need to show (a) that within the longstanding diversity there now exists such “an exceptionally strong critical mass” or (b) describe what would constitute it and so justify the change or (c) show why this criterion should no longer be applied.
8. More specifically, in relation to division, attention needs to be given to the judgment of General Synod in February 2007 that the commended “continuing efforts to prevent the diversity of opinion about human sexuality creating further division and impaired fellowship within the Church of England and the Anglican Communion” would (italics added) “not be advanced by doing anything that could be perceived as the Church of England qualifying its commitment to the entirety of the relevant Lambeth Conference Resolutions (1978: 10; 1988: 64; 1998: 1.10)”. Unless this recent commitment of Synod (including the House of Bishops) is simply ignored, the reasoning behind any changes therefore needs to address each of these areas:
(a) Can the changes in doctrine or discipline reasonably be perceived as the Church of England qualifying its current commitment to Lambeth Resolutions?
(b) If they can, are there now reasons to overturn General Synod’s judgment and argue that the changes nevertheless advance efforts to prevent diversity creating division?
(c) If the changes in doctrine or discipline can be perceived in this way and there are no good reasons to overturn the Synod’s judgment, why is it reasonable now to act in ways that we acknowledge would not advance efforts to prevent our diversity creating further division?

Responding reasonably and faithfully to a revolution

Archbishop Justin made clear that in the face of revolutions we respond in different ways:
In some things we change course and recognise the new context. Revolutions change culture. In others we stand firm because truth is not set by culture, nor morals by fashion. But let us be clear, pretending that nothing has changed is absurd and impossible. In times of revolution we too in the church, in the Church of England, must have a revolution which enables us to live for the greater glory of God in the freedom which is the gift of Christ.
The difficulty is that some in the church genuinely believe that the “revolution in the area of sexuality” is Spirit-led and we need to catch up with God’s work in the world. Others genuinely believe the Spirit is calling us to resist and embody a life-giving counter-revolutionary alternative. Whether opting for one of these responses or some variant of the Church of Scotland’s “third way”, recast as an Anglican via media, we need to be clear about our reasoning. We also need, however, to be realistic.
There can come a point, particularly in revolutionary times, at which almost any offered solution simply papers over the widening cracks. That is because our diversity extends to mutually exclusive responses which cannot be held together as reasonable, coherent and faithful. Instead of being generative of creative tension such diversity renders us incoherent (to each other and the world) or makes us fall silent. In the face of a revolution we then find we are paralyzed or, worse, trapped in a house divided against itself.
We need to hope and pray that the Pilling Group’s work will enable us to discern whether or not that is where we now find ourselves as the Church of England and how – in relation to doctrine, discipline, diversity/disagreement and division/differentiation – we can “live for the greater glory of God”. We now face a new and revolutionary missionary context – can we find a way of together recognizing the mind of Christ and so responding radically, imaginatively, biblically, faithfully and reasonably?

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