Accepting Ethical Diversity?: A Critical Appraisal of the Bishop of Liverpool’s Presidential Address

Abstract Summary

The Presidential Address of the Bishop of Liverpool is a significant development in the evangelical and wider Anglican debates about sexuality. It draws attention to key questions and is driven by a passionate concern for unity and more Christ-like patterns of discussion. It is, however, seriously flawed in its response to these concerns, unconvincing in its arguments and offers a way forward that in reality threatens to create greater incoherence and division.

This response sketches Bishop James Jones’ journey over the last decade before demonstrating the flaws in his central argument that Anglicans should “accept a diversity of ethical convictions about human sexuality”. Both in what it says and in what it fails to say the address apparently marks a significant step away from the traditional biblical, evangelical and catholic understanding of sexuality and the church’s teaching and discipline in this area. The heart of his case is an appeal to differences between Christians over just war and pacifism. This argument is shown to be inadequate in various ways but most basically because an appeal to diversity on one ethical issue cannot justify diversity on a quite different ethical issue.

Given its focus and central argument, it is particularly alarming that the address offers no engagement with Scripture or Christian tradition or Anglican teaching either in relation to sexuality or in its attempt to argue that ethical diversity in this area is legitimate. Although many of the practical implications of his argument for diversity remain rather vague it is clear that he is seeking to move the Church of England and the Communion away from its current position. In so doing he also makes a number of claims in passing that raise deeper theological questions about the nature of sin and grace and the relation of church and society.

In summary, the general position advocated is one which would move the Church of England away not only from its current teaching but also from its methodology of careful, rigorous engagement with the complexities of this subject rooted in Scripture, tradition and wider ecumenical reflections. What is being advocated instead is the sort of approach taken by the North American provinces which has moved from the seemingly uncritical (and theologically undefended) acceptance of a diversity of views on sexuality within a small part of Christ’s church to the inevitable abandonment of traditional teaching and discipline within the Anglican province and then to the marginalisation and exclusion of those who seek to uphold the biblical and traditional Christian sexual ethic. It is, sadly, for that reason, that the address is of such significance and concern and merits careful analysis, critique and engagement from the wider church, including others in episcopal leadership.

Introduction: The Journey of James Jones

The Bishop of Liverpool’s Presidential Address to his Diocesan Synod opens up a new phase in the Anglican, and particularly the evangelical Anglican, discussions about homosexuality. In it he calls for Anglicans to "accept a diversity of ethical convictions about human sexuality". This is the latest in a number of statements from Bishop James Jones that show a clear trajectory in his thinking. Just over a decade ago, there was little doubt about his commitment to traditional teaching. Indeed, when in the late 1990s, St Oswald’s and their prospective curate, Ed Moll, were unwilling for the Bishop of Newcastle to ordain Ed Moll as a deacon because of the bishop’s “unbiblical views on homosexuality”, it was Bishop James who was acceptable to this strongly Reform church.
Back in 2000 (only a few years after the 1998 Lambeth I.10 resolution and in relation to debates about Section 28) he was in print stating a very traditional conservative (even if not distinctively biblical or theological) position. He argued that “Kant said we should test the ethics of an action by applying to it the maxim: act as if this were to be the law universal. If homosexual practice were to become such, the species would not be in a position to recreate itself. Furthermore, physiologically, the genitalia are manifestly designed for the opposite and not the same gender”. He also argued that “Although it is uncomfortable to hear it, the debate needs to acknowledge that in the act of gay sex, there are serious health issues. It is one of the major differences between practicing homosexuality and practicing heterosexuality. And the fact that one can lead to the procreation of children and the other cannot emphasizes the difference between the two”.
In 2003 he was one of nine diocesan bishops whose open letter questioned the appointment of Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading. He also wrote an article on this in the Daily Telegraph in which, although it focussed on the timing of the appointment and raised some of the concerns about diversity and respect found in this weekend’s address, also complained that the problem was that the appointment “alters the Church's position on human sexuality and may force a damaging split in the Anglican Communion” and complained that Jeffrey John was “using his public role to undermine the position of the House of Bishops”.
An early sign of a shift in his position was his Presidential Address of 2005 which sought to propose “a shift in the way we discuss human intimacy....I want to move away from the polarised positions and ask for us to have the debate in a 4-sided forum”. Then, in 2007, prior to Lambeth he contributed an article entitled ‘Making Space for Truth and Grace’. This developed some of the ideas from his 2005 address and also expressed deep regret for joining the episcopal opposition to the appointment of Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading (‘I am sorry for the way I opposed it and I am sorry too for adding to the pain and distress of Dr. John and his partner’).

The significance and aim of the Presidential Address

Although Bishop James has for some time been developing his thinking and teaching, this latest contribution appears to make a significant and qualitatively different step further away from traditional biblical, evangelical and catholic understanding of sexuality and the church’s teaching and discipline. It is important to say that it “appears” to do this because, as with some of the earlier contributions, one of the difficulties is in pinning down exactly what Bishop James is arguing for in practice and on what basis. It is, therefore, best to work through the address, paying particular attention to those areas of controversy where he is advocating change, especially those highlighted in the shorter press release about the address which clearly signal where he hoped reports would focus their attention.
After setting his words in a wider social and ecclesial context he justifies his focus on the subject on the basis that “for some in the church homosexuality has become the defining issue of orthodoxy; it has become the benchmark on how you interpret Scripture and apply it authoritatively to the modern world” while for others it is “the touchstone of the church’s seriousness in wanting to include in the Kingdom all God’s children”. His concern is “whether we in the church can have a division of opinion without bitterness and a diversity of conviction without enmity”. Leaving aside how adequately the summary of positions captures the complex debate the goal here is clearly admirable and vital – bitterness and enmity are vices or works of the flesh which should have no place in the church and in lives marked by the fruit of the Spirit. The question is whether his proposed way forward has coherence and theological integrity and whether and how it counters these vices.

The central claim and the analogy of war

The central argument that follows can be summed up as “there are other important ethical issues where we accept a diversity of ethical convictions so we should now do this on human sexuality”. His case study for this position is “the taking of human life” which is where “the most basic and fundamental” questions centre. A nod is given to this question in relation to abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia but the focus is then turned to the question of war. This is the first highly questionable move in the argument. The focus on war is not defended and clearly the question immediately arises as to whether and in what sense the church should accept “a diversity of ethical convictions” in relation to abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia. In many ways these would be better analogies for issues relating to marriage and homosexuality in that there is a much more consistent, uniform and negative moral stance in these areas than there is in relation to questions of just war and pacifism and yet, as with sexuality, there is a minority voice, particularly in Western churches, which is seeking to challenge that mainstream tradition. For example should there be a diversity of convictions expressed through blessing abortions and ‘mercy killings’? The worked example of war is therefore clearly selected as the easiest one to defend his desired conclusion but even here the argument leaves much to be desired and raises more questions than it answers.
The treatment of the debate, although self-confessedly “a cursory glance”, is weak. It is, for example, not at all clear there are “the famous five principles of a just war” (Aquinas who is cited lists three and the tradition has expressed its understanding in various forms with textbook summaries of principles derived from that tradition varying in the number of principles, though most have more than five). Furthermore, the central ethical debate is never really examined in the address: how, in the light of biblical texts such as Romans 13 and the Sermon on the Mount (not to mention the Old Testament where clearly the commandment was not understood to entail a total prohibition on taking life!), should the church bear witness to the limits placed on the use of coercion by secular authority in its pursuit of justice and its actions against injustice and oppression? Instead the debate is cast simply as “whether or not it is ever justified to take the life of another”. This is then described as “the most fundamental of all ethical issues”, clearly in an attempt to relativise differences on other ethical issues. There is also no acknowledgment that the 39 Articles take a clear (and the majority Christian) stance in Article 37 – “It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars” - nor that the Lambeth Conference has, despite this, in the past approved more pacifist leaning resolutions, notably in 1930 and reaffirmed in subsequent conferences that “war as a method of settling international disputes is incompatible with the teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ”.

The analogy with war: strength but fatal flaws

Despite these limitations, clearly the central point of the argument stands that Christians and Anglicans have taken different views in relation to war without it necessarily being communion-breaking. (It must, however, be recognised that ‘diversity’ here is within a context where ‘just war’ has ‘won’ the official position and predominates; hence there are the historic peace churches such as the Mennonites for whom this has been an issue which has greater significance and that reality of church division cannot be forgotten or ignored). What is also not fully factored into the argument is that this is a process that has been wrestled with over many centuries (given the legal requirements in relation to adherence to the 39 articles, committed pacifists could not have been ordained for most of the Church of England’s history) and it relates to a question where the church has had to wrestle with divergent voices within Scripture in a way that is not found in relation to homosexuality.
Questions of war also concern how political authority (and hence citizens within political society) responds faithfully to the realities of a fallen and not yet fully redeemed world. In contrast, the major argument in relation to homosexuality is in relation to anthropology with the claim (which, as discussed below, the bishop seems to share) that same-sex sexual desire and relationships are part of God’s good and diverse creation of humans made in his image. From this it often follows that same-sex relations are thus to be viewed as marriage (or as equivalent to marriage), a divine institution and ordering of relationships which has a special even sacramental significance within Scripture and Christian theology as a type of the relationship between God and Israel, Christ and the church.
The much more fundamental problem with the appeal to diversity in another area of ethics is that simply because Christians have accepted, to some degree, ethical diversity on one issue is not a sufficient argument for doing so on another issue. Leaving aside the wider area noted above of diversity in relation to other ethical controversies about taking human life or issues in relation to economics or truth-telling or global warming, there are clearly philosophies of war that presumably should not be tolerated as part of acceptable Christian diversity (eg those which called for indiscriminate slaughter and hatred of the enemy, although both in the CofE and in other parts of the church such views have been expressed by Christians). This is the fundamental weakness and flaw in the whole argument of the address. Just because the church has, in some areas, reached a considered conclusion that it can recognise a legitimate range of ethical stances compatible with Christian discipleship, does not give any guidance as to whether it should do so or in what form it should do so in relation to other areas, including sexuality. Each case needs to be treated in its own right. What is signally lacking from this address however is any attempt to address the issues of sexuality in its own right from a biblical and theological perspective or to demonstrate why and in what ways ethical diversity on sexuality is legitimate.

What follows from the argument?: A major ambiguity

The discussion of differences over war also makes it unclear exactly what the bishop envisages in terms of the practices that follow from accepting a diversity of ethical convictions. Hence my opening caution that it “appears” this address makes a major shift. He talks about the fact that pacifist and just war Christians can ‘sit comfortably with each other, recognise each other’s integrity, respect one another’s faith and moral judgement and enjoy communion in Christ with one another’. He also notes that they can acknowledge moral qualities (such as courage) in each other’s stances. It is unclear how this is to translate into the proposed diversity over sexuality.
Like most people, I know and respect Christians who take a different view from me on same-sex relationships and believe they are seeking to be faithful to Christ. I do this even though I believe them to be in error and think their teaching has to be challenged and corrected. I do this even though I am convinced that their attempts to reform the church and change its teaching and practice must be resisted as a departure from Scripture and destructive of the church’s united witness to the truth. It appears the bishop is asking for more than such respect and recognition of others as brothers and sisters in Christ combined with resistance to their error and reaffirmation of biblical and church teaching. It appears he is asking for more than this but whether or not he is asking for more, and what more exactly he wants, remains unstated.

Sexuality and theology

Having set out his argument from analogy, there follows a paragraph which notes that the analogy between war and sexuality “is not an exact moral parallel”. However, Bishop James then explains this in a statement which misses most of the significant differences (some noted above) and instead makes the astonishing claim that “our sexuality like ethnicity is not a matter of choice. It is a given. In Christian terms a grace”. This reduces conceptions of sexuality to “either a choice or a given” in a simplistic manner that ignores all the evidence of much greater complexity. What is more it fails to recognise both the range of sexualities that might claim to be “a given” and the fact that many people’s sexuality, without being simply a matter of “choice”, is far from a “given” that is fixed and unchanging.
Much more seriously, leaving aside whether and in what sense sexuality is a given, his statement implies that anything which is “a given” is “a grace” (perhaps also implying sin is always and only simply a matter of choice?). This, unless it is much more carefully explained and nuanced, reflects a major departure from not just the evangelical but the Anglican and catholic understandings of the reality of sin. It is hard to understand how anyone praying the Prayer Book confession could say that the fact that experiencing some aspect of human experience as “a given” means that it is “a grace”. Although a brief aside, this short paragraph helpfully illuminates the fact that there are serious and deep theological questions underlying our differences on sexuality. That, of course, is another reason why we cannot simply accept a diversity of ethical convictions on sexuality in the hope that this might somehow lower the tensions within the church.

A vision of the future of Anglicanism

The paragraph that follows is, in effect, a claim to prophetic insight or inspiration based on the argument from analogy about war. This is a form of claiming to know the leading of the Spirit which has unhelpful echoes with other statements often made in relation to developing Christian understanding in relation to sexuality:
Just as the church over the last 2000 years has come to allow a variety of ethical conviction about the taking of life and the application of the sixth Commandment so I believe that in this period it is also moving towards allowing a variety of ethical conviction about people of the same gender loving each other fully. Just as Christian pacifists and Christian soldiers profoundly disagree with one another yet in their disagreement continue to drink from the same cup because they share in the one body so too I believe the day is coming when Christians who equally profoundly disagree about the consonancy of same gender love with the discipleship of Christ will in spite of their disagreement drink openly from the same cup of salvation.
Again there is much here that is vague and slippery – what does it mean to allow “a variety of ethical convictions” and what would it mean to prohibit them? Already Christians “who equally profoundly disagree about the consonancy of same gender love...drink openly from the same cup of salvation” – probably in almost every single parish church in the Church of England! More worrying than the unclarity is the implicit claim that the view being advocated about ethical diversity is for some reason (a special revelation of the will of God? An insight into the path of historical progress?) destined to win the day. A much wiser approach is that of Oliver O’Donovan in his Reading the St Andrew’s Day Statement who, noting that Christian tradition does develop, warns a development of the tradition cannot take place just by announcing that it is going to. It is the result of a deepening understanding on the part of the whole church, the outcome of serious and prolonged engagement with theoretical questions, practical problems and successful and unsuccessful experiments. It is not simply a matter of Bishops or Synods deciding that they will change their line.
The present sign of this prophesied future is then held to be the Diocese of Liverpool and its links with both a TEC diocese (Virginia) and a Nigerian diocese (Akure). This is a link in which Bishop James describes his own diocese as one “moving toward embracing a range of ethical convictions on this issue”, clearly aligning it with the stance of Virginia, despite the fact that many evangelical Anglicans have felt they must leave that diocese to join ACNA.

Homophobia and the limits to diversity

The address continues with a commendable and important treatment of homophobia but even this is not without its problematic elements. Clearly “a diversity of ethical convictions about human sexuality” is here limited. Certain proposed laws are classed as abhorrent and repugnant and certain patterns of (non-sexual) behaviour condemned. While sharing this stance – and the Don’t Throw Stones initiative in the Communion is an encouraging example of how, despite “a diversity of ethical convictions about human sexuality” common ground can be found – the address fails to address why and where the limits of diversity must be drawn. Can we, for example, while opposing the original Ugandan bill, nevertheless allow diversity over whether homosexual practice should be subject to criminal prosecution and imprisonment? What is lacking, once again, is any clear statement of principles by which to determine which differences are differences that matter and which are strictly adiaphora, matters indifferent.

Church and society: a further theological divide?

The nearest statement amounting to a rationale for the church accepting diversity in sexuality is another rather disturbing one – ‘If from a Christian point of view we can advocate this breadth of moral conviction for society at large I believe it is consistent theologically and ethically to allow the same diversity of moral conviction within the Church herself’. Leaving aside the lack of exact clarity about what is meant by ‘this breadth of moral conviction for society’ to then argue that “the same diversity of moral conviction” (italics added) should be allowed ‘within the Church herself’ is again to appear to deny some fundamental Christian theological convictions. What about the holy and distinct nature of the body of Christ? What of being in but not of the world? Of being salt and light?. The use of language of “diversity of moral conviction” which is so central to the address as a whole gives the impression that the Church is here being told by one of her bishops that she must not offer a less diverse, a more exclusive and a more narrow moral stance than the church has learned to accept exists in wider society. There are here disturbing echoes of the stance taken by the Bishops of the Church in Wales in relation to civil partnerships when they pronounced, "The Bishops of the Church in Wales cannot and would not wish to prevent what the law allows for Church members, both lay and clerical". I am sure that this is not what Bishop James intended to say or argue but I struggle to understand what else he is saying here.

Defending “traditionalists”

Having addressed the rights and dignities of gay and lesbian people and the need for their protection, Bishop James explains how he has also sought to defend “those who out of theological and moral conviction believe that the gift of full sexual expression is given only to those in marriage”. Here he offers a welcome tribute to those who experience homosexual attraction and yet embrace traditional teaching. Many of these Christians have been supported by the important work of True Freedom Trust and were the Church of England to take the path of diversity over sexuality which he proposes it is these faithful brothers and sisters above all who will feel abandoned, betrayed and undermined in their costly discipleship and forced to bear an even more “agonising cross”. If the church gave, as Bishop James calls it to, “sufficient attention to their situation or to their theological, ethical and spiritual insights”, then it would steadfastly reject the central proposal of his address and his vision of the Anglican future.

The Anglican Communion and the style of debate

The wider Anglican Communion context is then briefly discussed, though with no specific comment on the moratoria or the likely consecration of a partnered lesbian in Los Angeles in two months (it now being reported that she needs only one more consent from a diocesan standing committee to reach a majority, although the votes from bishops with jurisdiction are not known). This silence again makes it hard to judge exactly what is being advocated here: would such a consecration be acceptable within the “diversity of ethical convictions about human sexuality”? Is this part of “where I hope that the Church of England and the Anglican Communion might also move”? It is perhaps inevitable that the silence here (in contrast to the warnings of the Archbishop of Canterbury) will be interpreted as signalling that this is exactly the future pattern of ‘diversity’ he envisions and welcomes.
The warning against debating “through megaphones” and need for relationships is another welcome aspect of the address and the Anglican Communion’s Continuing Indaba Project holds out the prospect of doing this. Given this principle, however, it is unfortunate that having shared his thinking with his Bishop’s Council back in January, it would appear that the Bishop of Liverpool failed to share it with many of his fellow bishops in the House of Bishops. He must surely have been aware its argument might benefit from their input and that its position certainly places many of them in a difficult position as they seek to know how best to respond to such a public attempt to undermine the current Anglican consensus by articulating “where I hope the Church of England and the Anglican Communion might also move”.

What is missing....

That apparent weakness in collegiality in this important area must be connected to two other major and related concerns about the address and its unclarity and hence potential dangers. Firstly, there is the dog that does not bark. At no point is there any clear affirmation of the Church of England’s official teaching and discipline (in the 1987 General Synod motion and 1991 Issues in Human Sexuality) or that of the Anglican Communion in Lambeth I.10. Nor is there any biblical reflection either on sexuality or on “how we handle disagreements about ethical principles within the Body of Christ”. Both of these omissions are disconcerting when the address contains repeated pleas “that the Church of England and the Anglican Communion must allow a variety of ethical views on the subject”. To make such pleas for reform within the church without reference to Scripture or official church teaching is not a pattern of reasoning normally associated with an evangelical or an Anglican approach to discernment and development of doctrine and discipline.
Secondly, the language is consistently of “ethical convictions” or “ethical views” but the problem we face in the church is much more to do with practice. The penultimate paragraph simply notes that “I have not addressed today the implications of this position for the ordering and governance of the church” although it is promised that this will happen “recognising that decisions belong ultimately to the General Synod and to the House of Bishops”. Nobody can seriously doubt that the Church of England is going to contain a diversity of views within it on sexuality and not even the most conservative traditionalist seriously believes it will be possible to eliminate that. The question is how that diversity is interpreted and what the discipline and public teaching of the church will be and how it will be upheld. The whole tenor of the address is that the issue of sexuality is relatively unimportant - the differences are minimized to a possible “sin” that “in a world of such little love two people sought to express a love that no other relationship could offer them” or a “sin” that “in a church that has forever wrestled with interpreting and applying Scripture they [conservatives] missed the principle in the application of the literal text”. As a result, the view appears to be that this diversity is to be welcomed and the discipline and public teaching of the church will have to adapt to this new reality. This is in order to “allow for the development of a more humane pastoral theology” (clearly implying that current pastoral theology is in some sense ‘inhumane’ and suggesting that “humane pastoral theology” is to be determined not by Scripture and the wisdom of tradition but by accepting diverse and incompatible ethical views – in a small part of Christ’s church at the start of the twenty-first century - and a view of “love” that may disregard “the literal text”). It is hard to see how this fits with the teaching of Issues in Human Sexuality in relation to the Bible and sexuality which states(2.13) that “there are clear rules for conduct...there is a conscious focusing, in Paul especially but not exclusively, on breach of the sexual rules as one of the sins most likely to endanger the security of salvation for Christians”.
These omissions and the central argument of the address mean that the whole pattern of reasoning is disturbingly like that of the North American churches – weak on biblical and theological reasoning, emphasising the reality of diversity of views found within the local or national church, and calling for seemingly uncritical acceptance of that diversity and hence abandonment of traditional teaching and discipline. A similar approach has been evident in statements from the bishops of the Church in Wales (2005) and the earlier 2003 statement of the Church of Ireland. It is exactly such a pattern that over the last few decades has destroyed the unity of the American and Canadian churches and ultimately led not to unity with proper diversity but the marginalisation and exclusion of those who seek to uphold the biblical and traditional Christian sexual ethic. It is exactly such an approach that now threatens the unity of the Communion. In contrast, the Church of England in its various engagements (perhaps best exemplified by Some Issues in Human Sexuality) has followed a much better pattern of serious and rigorous study, upholding Scripture and tradition while engaging thoroughly with substantive issues biblically, theologically, sociologically and experientially. James Jones’ proposals seem to wish to abandon that traditional CofE methodology and instead embrace the North American (and Welsh and Irish) approach.


It cannot be denied that many of the aims of the address are admirable and many of its warnings and its passion for unity in mission need to be heeded. The central issue with which it grapples is indeed where attention and energy needs to be directed among evangelicals and Anglicans as a whole: how do we conduct ourselves given our differences and how do we understand the nature of those differences? In daring to speak out on these matters the Bishop of Liverpool has done what few bishops have dared to do and it is to be hoped this may enable a more open and honest debate in the church, including among its episcopal leadership.
However, the lack of clarity about what he is seeking in terms of practice and the major weaknesses in both the main arguments and various passing comments means that his contribution is a very disappointing one which fails to convince and also raises major concerns. Certainly, much, much more will need to be said to convince those committed to Anglican teaching and discipline in sexual ethics – evangelicals (of all streams!) and others - that his approach has a biblical basis and theological integrity. As it stands, it looks too much like simply amounting to an abandonment of that teaching and discipline and a capitulation to the growing pressures from secular society and an “inclusive theology”.
While rhetorically embracing plurality, diversity, development, and unity through focus on mission the address does so without biblically based reflection and theological rigour in relation to the issues in dispute. It thus leads not to greater unity but to incoherence and division and, if more widely embraced, a church whose teaching and discipline departs from Scripture and from the wider church catholic. In short, if the proposal from the Bishop of Liverpool were followed it would threaten to set the Church of England down the destructive path which other provinces have taken as, in the words of Ephraim Radner’s perceptive article “Truthful Language and Orderly Separation”, ‘a dynamic has been set loose that can move in one of only two directions: either the extinguishing of the traditionalist party itself as a vital ecclesial existence, or the dissolution of a church that holds both parties together’.

Leave a comment