Excerpt: Mapping the Terrain for Engagement on Human Sexuality

This is an excerpt from an article by Oliver O'Donovan on livingchurch.org. The rest of the article can be read here

In the mid-twentieth century the Church of England used to attract admiration for its treatment of challenging contemporary moral issues. The form it used was the working-party Report: a small group of members with intellectual authority would weigh the conflicting arguments and come to common conclusions that would be offered to the General Synod.

The first thing to understand about Living in Love and Faith (LLF) is that the conception is quite different. To confront the stubbornly unyielding disagreements on sexuality and marriage, there were good reasons not to follow the classic pattern. We face an emotionally fraught issue resistant to any kind of “expertise,” a synod entrenched in opposed positions, a church feeling constantly wrong-footed by a morally censorious society. The strategy, shaped by the courageous missionary and pastoral ambitions of the two archbishops, was to widen the discussion.

The theologians and other experts were not forgotten, but they were made to listen more carefully and at greater length to the strong feelings of ordinary worshippers — “the cries of their hearts,” as they are rather flowerily referred to. A network of interlocking task forces was deployed under the patient coordination of the Bishop of Coventry, Christopher Cocksworth. No formal conclusions were sought, and the extensive reflections on the consultation are presented not for “adoption” but to be “engaged with.” The engagements are meant to be as wide as possible, and the work is disseminated in multi-media format, the text of the book being supplemented by on-line and video resources. (I should mention that I have had access only to the book.) The success of the enterprise will stand or fall by whether these wider engagements succeed in building on its work or simply go round the old circles again. At 468 pages, it presents a dangerous incentive to careless skim-reading, and it will fall to the Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally, to ensure that the text is engaged with as carefully as it deserves.

It is immediately obvious that LLF is conceived as an undertaking internal to the English church. From the quotation of statistics to the quotation of liturgy — and there is a lot of both — the horizon is bounded by Herefordshire on the west and Northumbria in the North. Though some notice is taken of ecumenical, even inter-religious considerations, these, too, are set in the national context. The underlying question is, of course, nothing if not international and intercultural. It is bound up, in ways that are evident, if hopelessly complicated, with the spread of global capitalism, communications technology, and human rights. Its church dimensions are globally ecumenical, and its Anglican dimensions have threatened the life of the worldwide communion. Those who look for suggestions as to how the international and ecumenical commitments of Christian faith can be reinforced in the face of this solvent will find little to satisfy them. But where there are limits, there are also opportunities. Doing things nationally has been broadly an Anglican principle, and the English church has sought to exploit its national potential for a discussion among those who belong to a common context. In place of a global overview it offers a purchase on the state of discussion as it stands in one church.

What initially promises to be a rather dispersed and ill-focused address to the question turns out, happily, to be the opposite. There is intellectual integrity to these reflections. If the paradox is permissible, they are “classically post-modern.” Reflection begins from the church’s doctrine as found, unchallenged until recent days: marriage is a lifelong union between one man and one woman. This is not presented as a problem to be got round, but as a deep-rooted existing commitment bound up with Christian faith in the place of both men and women in God’s creation.

In the opening section of the study the doctrine of marriage is presented with a clear conviction of its strengths, its adaptability to human aspirations and experience, and its sacramental openness to the experience of God’s love in Christ. That some members of the church think it “ripe for development” does not invalidate it, but neither is the suggestion of development ruled out. Our current situation simply demands that we undertake some exploratory questioning around it. The doctrine we have received affords a rich Christian starting-point for a hopeful Christian exploration of what it is possible for the church consistently to think and do.

Living in Love and Faith does not pretend to complete that exploration, only to guide its first steps. Written in a comparatively popular style — plainly, but without slumming — it adopts a reassuring homiletic tone, addressing its readers in the second person. Argumentative material is laced with constant acknowledgment of the feelings involved, and on its own account, too, it tends to emotional expressiveness. Its most striking departure from a traditional format is to interweave discussion with short personal profiles of Christian people — how many of them, I wonder, drawn from clergy families? — who illustrate different angles from which readers of the book may be expected to experience it. These profiles are called “encounters” and “stories.” They are in fact little statements of personal conviction, not directly taken up in the argument but allowed to speak for themselves and stretch the reader’s imagination to encompass the breadth of the assumptions brought by those who live and worship in the church.

The rest of this article can be read here.

3 thoughts on “Excerpt: Mapping the Terrain for Engagement on Human Sexuality”

  1. What is the doctrine of the Church of England?

    It is naïve to think that the LLF process can be conducted from beginning to end in complete and painful honesty and integrity without this question also being answered with the same painful honesty and integrity.

    According to Canon A5:

    “The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal”.

    This Canon is supported by Canon C15, which sets out the Declaration of Assent (which all Ministers of the Church are required to make) and its Preface.

    Are all agreed that these two Canons do enable us all to agree that the Doctrine of the Church of England does include the doctrines set out in the Articles?

    Alas, No.

    In two posts to

    Walking Together at Lambeth 2020? | Fulcrum Anglican (fulcrum-anglican.org.uk)

    I trace the trajectory from the Reformation onwards to water down the assent to the Articles and conclude that it cannot be assumed that all who have made the Declaration of Assent mean the same thing in what doctrines they believe.

    In the LLF book on pages 317-318 there is a section headed ‘The Articles of Religion’. It mentions the new form of the Declaration of Assent introduced in 1975 and quotes from the Preface to it and from the Declaration. It then concludes with

    ‘Opinions around the Church of England differ about the implications of this form of the Declaration for appeal to the Articles in disagreements like ours. Similarly, although the church’s canon law says that the doctrine of the Church of England is ‘found in’ the Articles and the other historic formularies, recent legal cases have raised similar questions about the implication of that wording for the Articles’ status in the church’s disputes.318’

    I am clear that a thorough engagement with LLF will involve the relevance of Article 9 (The Fall and Original Sin) of the 39 Articles for this whole debate. This raises the question of how that Article and the wording of the Declaration of Assent should be understood and the Articles’ status in the church’s disputes. In my view a key question is whether an appeal to Article 9 is absolutely rock-solid from a legal point of view in the light of the legal case referred to in note 318 of the LLF book
    “(Arches Court of Canterbury, In Re St Alkmund, Duffield: Judgement (2012) Fam 51; available at https://www.ecclesiasticallawassociation.org.uk/judgments/reordering/ duffieldstalkmund2012appeal.pdf (accessed 10/03/2020). Citing also Re St Thomas, Pennywell (1995) Fam 50, section 58; and Re Christ Church, Waltham Cross (2002) Fam 51, section 25)”.
    This refers to a Consistory Court appeal concerning an item of church furniture but includes several references to the Articles. This is an extract :

    “Then in Re Christ Church, Waltham Cross [2002] Fam 51 at para 25 the same chancellor said:
    “ … the Articles of Religion are now to be seen primarily in the same way as the other historic formularies, although Canon A 2 of the Canons Ecclesiastical 1969 states: “Of the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion. The Thirty-nine Articles are agreeable to the Word of God and may be assented unto with a good conscience by all members of the Church of England.” They are no longer a definitive formulation of Anglican doctrine, even though they bear witness to that faith.”

    (h) In other words, “the Articles of Religion are no longer seen as definitive arbiters of the doctrine of the Church of England” (per Chancellor Bursell, QC in Re Christ Church, Waltham Cross at para 24). With this we agree and would point out that the view expressed by Sir Jenner Fust in this court in Gorham v Bishop of Exeter (1849) 2 Rob. Ecc. 1, 55; 163 ER 1221, 1241 (“Prima facie, …the Thirty-nine Articles are the standard of doctrine; they were framed for the express purpose of avoiding a diversity of opinion, and are, as such, to be considered, and, in the first instance, appealed to, in order to ascertain the doctrine of the Church.”) preceded the repeal of the 1571 Act and was necessarily based upon the wording of the relevant Canon then in force.

    25. It follows that, although Dr Pickles believes and is entitled to affirm (as he does) that his own theological position is still defined by the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, other clergy of the Church of England may equally affirm that those Articles are not for them the definitive arbiters of the doctrine that they are required to believe. This is of importance not only for all clergy who have to make the Declaration of Assent with a clear conscience but also in relation to the jurisdiction of the consistory court. In so far as it may, the consistory court must strive in the exercise of its faculty jurisdiction to ensure that any decision it makes permits the proper reflection of the doctrinal beliefs of the priest and congregation. Equally, however, it must strive to ensure that nothing is done in the exercise of that jurisdiction which may limit the proper reflection of the doctrinal beliefs of a different priest and congregation within the confines of the same ecclesiastical building.”

    I have asked Church Society whether there are any similar cases and whether the cases in Note 318 have ever been challenged. I have not read in detail all 45 pages of the Judgment but on a quick analysis I don’t see that the phrase ‘…in particular…’ in Canon A5 is given its due weight.

    Phil Almond

  2. In one of his ‘Reflections of an Anglican Theologian’ titled ‘The Thing that Matters Most’ Dr. Martin Davie explains that he was prompted by Bill Clinton’s successful slogan ‘It’s the economy stupid’ to reflect on what should be an equally clear, brief slogan for the Church of England. He concludes:

    “When all is said and done, the Church’s core business is saving souls, and the only way that souls will be saved is if people come to realize that this life is not all there is, and that they need to put their trust in Jesus in order to avoid an eternity of damnation and enjoy an eternity of blessedness instead. The Church’s calling is to be God’s instrument to bring people to this realization, and for this to happen the leaders of the Church need to switch the focus of their message to the thing that matters most, the life of the world to come.”

    “It’s eternity, stupid”.

    Surely, then, to focus clearly on ‘The Thing that Matters Most’ the Church must believe, teach and preach both the terrible warnings, some from Christ’s own lips, as well as the wonderful invitations and promises to submit to Christ in his atoning death and life-giving resurrection, which are the two essential parts of the Gospel, the Church’s core message. As Warfield commented on Elijah’s experience in the cave,
    ‘….it is not the Law but the Gospel, not the revelation of wrath but that of love, which saves the world. Wrath may prepare for love; but wrath never did and never will save a soul’
    But wrath may prepare for love. And an honest, faithful preaching of the gospel has to include that warning. After all, Christ and his apostles gave us the warnings as well as the loving invitations and promises. The Church needs to believe and teach and preach both to be faithful.

    Only thus can the Church as a whole say with Paul, ‘Therefore I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God’; only thus can the Church as a whole take seriously the solemn warning God gave to Ezekiel that the appointed Watchman who ‘does not blow the trumpet to warn the people’ will be held accountable by God for the blood of the unsaved.

    With the publication of the LLF material the Church is about to spend considerable time and effort on the Human Sexuality disagreement. This disagreement is important. But it is definitely not “The Thing that matters Most”. What matters most is that the whole Church should believe, teach and preach both parts of her core message, the terrible part and the wonderful part, and the failure, as I see it, of the majority of the Church to preach the terrible part – the warnings.

    The LLF disagreement and this more fundamental and more important (as I see it) failure are linked: by the doctrine of the Fall and Original Sin. So I think that the present LLF situation is an opportunity for those who agree with me to challenge the rest of the church, both evangelicals and non-evangelicals about this most serious failure. I realise it is easy for me to suggest this challenge – I am not dependent on the Church for my livelihood and I have not promised to be obedient to any Bishop in all things lawful and honest. But I want to see that challenge take place, because I want those I dearly love to hear that warning, not just from me, but from the whole Church, before there is any talk of going separate ways on the sexuality disagreement. Put it this way: suppose at the end of the LLF process the church reaffirms the ‘traditional’ view on Human Sexuality. That would leave this most fundamental and most important failure unaddressed.

    According to General Fuller’s account of the battle of Waterloo in ‘Decisive Battles…’ there came a moment when ‘Napoleon still had in hand eight battalions of the Old Guard and six of the Middle, and had he sent to Ney but half this force, Wellington’s centre must inevitably have been overwhelmed…..’. But the decisive moment passed.

    I suggest that if evangelicals are ever going to challenge the rest of the Church about what she believes and preaches about Original Sin, the need to preach the warnings as well as the Good News, about wrath and retribution – this is the decisive moment to do it, by pointing out in the LLF debates that LLF is part of a wider, deeper issue. I suggest writing an Open Letter to challenge all ordained Ministers, including Bishops and Archbishops, and please, please, let the ensuing debate be on the internet open to all, and not behind closed doors.

    Phil Almond

  3. “It sets us the challenge of discussing the topic in a way that leaves the old pre-emptive solidarities behind. It will become clear over time whether the church is capable of rising to the challenge.” (From the full article)
    After a full participation in the LLF project, listening to the strongest arguments from all sides, there may remain some “old pre-emptive solidarities” which cannot, in conscience before God, be left behind. The challenge is then to hang onto them in the face of pressures to leave them behind.
    Phil Almond

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