I respect David immensely and he has influenced my life and spirituality in ways he does not know. I consider his input into the Pilling Report to be one of integrity in seeking to comes to terms with life and faith knowing that this is an attempt by him to match his strong evangelical heritage with a changing cultural dynamic through a deep commitment to pastoral theology.
I really welcome his reiteration that the very complex area of human sexuality is far more than the use of key biblical texts. It sits within theology and hermeneutics. This paper will re-emphasize this and argue that hermeneutics is the key is opening a way forward to this debate.
Where we begin
‘The theologian is always beginning in the middle of things’ writes Rowan Williams, an assumption I share in the outset of this response. In terms of theological reflection I bring to any situation my history, my assumptions, my sociological and cultural heritage, which act like lenses as I begin the process of understanding and seeing where God is at work.
Trying to unpack any a knotty pastoral and theological issue as homosexuality is, saying we always begin in the middle at least brings some sense of vulnerability to any response.
To begin in the middle acknowledges that the task of theological reflection is concerned about the ideas, words, themes, metaphors that we inherit and which have been used in the past. It is about allowing them to create the possibility of a new reality and a new understanding by drawing on present experiences and being open to future realities. This avoids the charge of plucking words, ideas and narratives from the air and disbanding with traditions and informed wisdom from the past. It is a model and method of reflection that is canonically based, culturally informed and eschatologically sensitive.
Walter Brueggemann likens the act of reading scripture to ‘re-describing reality’. It is a call to our imaginations. Scripture is to capture our hearts and transform them. Yet so often we try to capture Scripture and try to transform it. By settling with a ‘standard’ reading we can become caught up in defending, at all costs, the ‘settled’ understanding. This equation works whatever side of understanding you take on the ‘key texts’ from the Bible on the issue of homosexuality.
If we learn anything about Jesus we know he did not bring much settlement - he often ‘midrashed’ his way through a large selection of OT texts often adding “you have heard it said..but I say to you.” So it is inherent to the Christian faith that the task of interpretation goes hand in hand with the task of engaging with our world. Scholastic reductionism where the settled meaning is not open to further interpretation is the worst use of words and language. Scripture in its use of language and metaphors brings with it the clash of meanings that create the potential for the new. We begin in the middle, inherit our past and are open to the future.
I think we can safely say that we are past the days of hurling texts at one another with the aim of inflicting critical damage. David quite rightly quotes R.T France that in a faithful reading of Scripture we must be ‘open the biblical evidence as a whole’. More acerbically, Anthony Thistelton writes in New Horizons in Hermeneutics that the biblical writings often
‘become primarily institutional mechanisms to ensure continuity of corporate belief and identity...’ affirming ‘...the community identity and life-style [the readers] already enjoy’ (p.8)
So with these warning in place I now join in with David in looking at a way forward in a biblical understanding of the current key issue, homosexuality.
Where we go
How we come to interpret these key texts is becoming a dividing line between what is seen to be truly ‘evangelical’ and what is considered to not to be.
The over simplification of two disciplines helps to see some of the tension. The task of biblical scholarship to keep ‘within the text’ and the task of pastoral theologians to apply the context to the text are often seen to be at odds with each other. The two ‘horizons’ emerge in seeming conflict. Yet both have questions to address: can we know the context of the past and is that reading of it applicable and correct for today? By over privileging the present in what ways have we succumbed to social and psychological theories which then inform our reading and understanding?
Paul Ricoeur offers a way forward in his theory of hermeneutics (a complex philosophy) in that truth and knowledge are found in an analysis in the words and metaphors we inherit. An exploration into truth is actually an exploration into who we are as well. He wrote
‘the object of hermeneutics is not the text, but the text as discourse, or discourse as text’ (Biblical Hermeneutics, 1975, 65).
How we engage with the text is as important as the text itself. And by this act of engaging with the text we expand our own horizons. It has the potential to change us and transform us as we willingly accept the discourse of ideas and meaning, being part of the journey to discover what the text is saying. The text we inherit, which we find ourselves in the middle of, is the text of Scripture (canon), the text of our culture and the text (hinted at by some of Jesus words and Paul) of a new creation.
The Pilling Report is about a beginning in the middle, more explicitly in the structures of the Church of England, of a process and discourse. If this is going to work then the differing sides of the debate must have this hermeneutic as a model. There must be honesty about where we are from and a vulnerability about where we go. It will not work with either side (simplifying the position here) saying this is what we think and we will not budge.
Where we turn to
So to the texts as presented in Appendix 4. For brevity I will only focus on two key passages (Genesis and Romans). This offers a constructive theological dialogue rather than a grammatical / linguistic analysis where others are far more able to offer biblical criticism than me, and incidentally have been rehearsed to the nth degree.
The attempt to include the narrative of Sodom, for instance, into this issue has been warmly rejected by many. To openly accept that same-sex relationships are nowhere supported by textual evidence in Scripture is an honest place to begin (§220, .p67 of the Pilling Report). The process of interpretation and then application is a task that needs to be revisited and reworked in every generation, as our own Evangelical history and heritage bears out. How we respond to the texts in the light of this is the more pressing issue. Scripture does have a view on what it means to be human and sexual and as Christians we must turn to it to see what it says. However in saying that Scripture does have a view on being human and on sexuality is different to saying it has only one view and for ever it will remain. What we do with those texts and the interpretation and any claim for informing the norm or challenging it, is the key issue.
Genesis 2 - human origin and vocation
To understand the vocation and identity of humanity we must see the two creation poems are the beautiful call of God to bring life into the world. The ‘image’ language in Genesis 1 is just as important to the narrative of humanity in the world as is, so often referred to, the ‘creation order’ of Genesis 2. This language of the ‘image of God’ - is important in several respects:
- humanity, both male and female are made in the image of God. There is no isolation here. The language of ‘image of God’ refers to both - not individuals.
- It is very much related to identity. Nothing else in all the creation story can be referred to ‘image of God’ - interestingly this is held in contrast to the OT prohibition of making images of God. The only OT image of God allowed is humanity created by God himself.
- There is the plurality of God in reference to ‘let us’ - a trinitarian understanding is given as the context of this creation. Out of the relational God a relation being is created.
- v 27 reads “God created ‘adam’ in his image, in the image of God he created them.”
The textual nuance here refers to a singular use of the word adam and the plural use of ‘them’ - reinforcing the one of a kind humanity but that this image is expressed in community of both man and woman.
- The language of image of God transfers to the NT and to Jesus himself in 2 Cor 4.4 and Col 1.15. This aspect of the new creation must not be ignored as Christ comes to form in us a new pattern of living together and a new way of being human.
- This ‘image of God’ anthropology this image of God is very much in the flesh. Our bodies matter. This is not just mental faculty or emotion that is being referred to. The embodiment of God’s image is very much part of this passage.
So in relation to this narrative human relating as seen in the eyes of Genesis 1 and then explored in Genesis 2 is expressing the relational God who has created man and woman, who both and together reveal the image of God.
The coming together of man and woman as expressed in Genesis 2 is thus an outworking of the ‘image of God’ understanding of human relating. Marriage is the expression of man and woman together and at its most intimate expressing the creative beauty and truth of man and woman being made in the image of God and having that creative power themselves. They are “made for each other”.
This is translated into the eschatological hope of the NT where this image of God, in Christ is fully revealed and celebrated as the wedding of the lamb - the new humanity of God - becoming wed as a bride for her husband. Two becoming one.
Drawing out any implications for sexuality will be hindered by some of the cautions that David Runcorn raises. Yet this narrative of the ‘image of God’ and human relating as expressed in marriage is an important one to think through. It becomes a chief metaphor of salvation and future hope. It becomes a key to unlocking God’s dream for humanity.
It must also be said however that any theological construct must be recognised as just that. The metaphor may well be used to express a truth but we must always be wary of extending that theological claim to other areas of life unless we can also see that in other texts in the NT.
The distinctive place for heterosexual marriage can be strongly deduced from this narrative. But what of same sex partnerships? Where can they fit in? Where can the longing for love and relating be explored in this metaphor? In my own opinion this needs further exploring. At present I can not see an extension of civil-partnerships towards marriage being scripturally or theologically defended.
Civil Partnerships help to bring some aspect of celebrating and cementing a relationship between two people of the same sex. In one degree it celebrates that human longing for community, companionship and intimacy (both sexual and non-sexual). How we faithfully work towards that in pastoral life is I think the challenge of the Pilling Report.
Paul is trying to make sense of a godless and disorderly world which will soon see the power of the gospel. This chaotic world is one in which reason itself has been abandoned. (a base mind (1.28)). Paul uses one expression of exchanging glory (doxa) for images. This thread of Paul’s teaching will come up again later in Romans 3.23 a verse which acts as the hinge swinging open the gate of God’s grace. In this particular case in 1.23 the ‘glory of the immortal God’ has been exchanged for man made things. This glory given to humanity is like the image of God given to them as creation. It is the glory of God that is lost when idolatry is given into. And idolatry is where we worship the creature not the creator. This direction of life leads to uncontrolled desire. Uncontrolled desire leads to all sorts of sin and misguidance. This area of life in modern society needs to be taken heed of urgently as we have a culture so fixated on the creation of and the immediacy of satisfying that desire. This too is expressed sexually in modern culture.
What we do with our bodies thus becomes important. and leads into Paul’s other thinking relating to sexual practice. How we physically live as bearers of God’s glory/image is important.
The emphasis is no doubt on the unbridled lust and practice of a godless society. Work is therefore needed to show how this passage relates to current views of homosexuality. Does this passage relate to homosexual permanent faithful relationships?
If one sees that the passage refers to homosexual activity per se - then yes it does and it condemns it.
If one sees the difference between uncontrolled sex and homosexual faithful relationships then the understanding will be more nuanced.
The Gamaliel Principle - ‘By their fruit...’
David offers us a testing principle in seeing the fruits of relationships and faith. There are many ways in which this principle can be applied to many areas of church life and governance. What is the fruit of those Churches where decisions have been made to adopt some provision of ‘pastoral accommodation’ to same-sex couples? In the context of the Anglican Communion some of this fruit comes out of the way this issue has been handled globally or moved ahead without a consensus view becoming adopted. Perhaps this is more of a reflection on the way difference has been dealt with rather than this issue itself causing dissent.
There has been pain in which views and people have clashed over this difference. There have been hurtful things said and assumed.
ECUSA has seen division and energy spent in sorting out costly legal battles over property and ministry.
When these differences have been dealt with publicly often characterizations reduce the often sometimes carefully thought through positions.
Yet at the same time there are other signs of fruit that is bringing hope. Despite the deeply held differences there can be another way.
At the Faith in Conflict conference held at Coventry Cathedral in Feb 2013, Revd Tory Baucum, Rector of Truro Fairfax and Rt Revd Shannon Johnston, audio file and transcript met on stage to talk about the experiences of being on both sides of this debate.
One very moving quotation from Revd Baucum, whose church is from the conservative spectrum says:
“I don't preach against the Episcopal Church. You know, I differentiate. We have differentiated at a great cost. But I still love the Episcopal Church. I've grown to love Shannon. I do consider him a friend. I do consider him to be a brother. But a brother who I think has taken a wrong turn. It's not the same thing as ceasing to be a Christian.”
This is fruit that has grown in a way that is often overlooked or even unlooked for. Dealing with the differences is one fruit that perhaps we all need to learn to grow.
Dealing with it in a public way will either help us a Church speak out with a Gospel that speaks about reconciliation and maturity in honouring Christ in our sister and brother, even though we disagree with them. Or we will tread a different and damaging path that sees Christ’s Body being wounded and broken in the way we speak of one another.
In my own opinion, this is not a ‘line-in the sand’ moment. This is an expression of how we as the Church are called to engage with what and who is around and within us. We must be open to be changed. The hermeneutic that is as much about discourse as well as the text, which in the end becomes the text for us, is something that I think holds out a possible way forward. In that discourse we must hold out the potential for all of us to change.
John is the Vicar of St Paul’s, Tupsley and St Andrews, Hampton Bishop in Hereford Diocese. He’s also currently doing Doctoral Studies at Kings College London.