Andrew Goddard critiques the Bishop of Salisbury's re-presentiation of his views on same-sex marriage
Misrepresenting same-sex marriage:
The Bishop of Salisbury
By Andrew Goddard
When those with power seek to pass legislation explicitly contradicting church teaching and thus face strong and united opposition from denominations across the Christian church, one tactic is to seek out one or two Christian leaders who are happy to disown their church’s teaching in order to provide support for the views of the political elite. It is, therefore, no surprise that Lord Alli of Norbury, in the week before the Marriage Bill is debated in the House of Lords, should seek out a bishop who might be willing to contradict the Church of England’s clear, consistent and critical voice, a voice which will doubtless be raised by bishops and others during the Lords‘ debate.
It is also, in one sense, no surprise that Lord Alli should turn to the Bishop of Salisbury given he has previously expressed his support for same-sex marriage. The tensions that intervention caused in the diocese and with partners in Sudan had, however, led him to reaffirm his commitment to “supporting marriage as it is currently understood”. It was therefore far from certain Lord Alli would get the response he sought. He was, however, supplied with a short two-page statement in the form of a letter, quickly made public, including on the diocesan website. This sets out “why I am sympathetic to the possibility of equal marriage and have a different view from that stated in the Church of England’s response to the Equal Civil Marriage consultation”. Unfortunately for Lord Alli, the statement is flawed in almost every area it addresses and so simply confirms the weakness of the Bishop of Salisbury’s case.
Its main weaknesses relate to five central areas in the debate: history, theology, theological method, the character of human sexuality, and logic.
First, in relation to history, the bishop argues against the church’s position on marriage being between a man and a woman on the basis that “sometimes Christians have had to rethink the priorities of the Gospel in the light of experience”. The example cited is that “before Wilberforce, Christians saw slavery as Biblical and part of the God-given ordering of creation”. In fact, as has been quickly and pungently pointed out, far from advocating slavery as “part of the God-given ordering of creation”, Christians, including several Popes, were, counter-culturally, condemning slavery for centuries before Wilberforce.
The account of more recent and specifically Anglican history is also weak. The bishop claims that “the widespread availability of contraception from the mid-twentieth century onwards took several decades to gain acceptance for married couples by the Lambeth Conference in 1958”. Leaving aside how “several decades” can be found between “the mid-twentieth century” and 1958, it was in fact the bishops at Lambeth 1930 who made the first decisive step towards accepting contraception within Christian marriage. In addition, most historians would describe the Church of England’s evidence to Wolfenden and Archbishop Ramsey’s subsequent contributions in favour of decriminalisation in the Lords as much more than “cautious support from the Church of England” for homosexual law reform in the 1950s and 1960s. Their support for the change was, however, based on drawing a distinction between crime and sin with a clear affirmation that although consensual same-sex sexual behaviour should not be the former it remained the latter.
Second, in relation to theology, parallels are drawn between supporting opposite-sex marriage and supporting apartheid and slavery. These seem to depend on the view that a Christian consensus, equivalent to that on marriage being between a man and a woman, saw these two practices as, like heterosexual marriage, “biblical and part of the God-given ordering of creation”. Clearly some Christians historically have been supportive of slavery and more recently of apartheid but they represent a small minority of Christians. Their stance is one taken against the wider church and often based on their conforming to and offering ecclesial legitimacy for their dominant cultural context, thus bearing some similarities in form to the stance of the Bishop of Salisbury as regards same-sex marriage. However, to defend these views, most supporters of these social institutions appealed not to a good creation order but to God’s permissive or punitive will in response to a fallen and disordered world.
There is a further problem with this argument. What if it were true that these beliefs were as historically central and consistently propagated within Christian teaching as the teaching about marriage? That could not in itself prove that the teaching on marriage was also wrong. To show that requires reinterpretation of the Scriptures and tradition in relation to both homosexual behaviour and the nature of marriage.
The bishop deals briefly with Scripture. In referring to “the six Biblical passages about homosexuality”, he seemingly embraces a “proof-texting” approach normally associated with fundamentalists, rather than reading Scripture as a whole. He also offers a text-count which while understandable is minimalist. The last major House of Bishops report, Some Issues in Human Sexuality, listed seven texts in its first passing reference (1.2.25) and proceeded to note four others relating to Gen 19 (at 4.2.11) and six referring to male cult prostitutes which need to be considered (4.2.33). Others have suggested further possibly relevant texts. His claim that all of these verses “are concerned with sexual immorality, promiscuity, idolatry, exploitation and abuse” is a remarkably dogmatic statement. It is also one which most scholars, including many who support same-sex relationships, would seriously question or strongly reject. So, for example, Oxford University’s Professor of the History of the Church, Diarmaid MacCulloch has been quite clear that “This is an issue of biblical authority. Despite much well-intentioned theological fancy footwork to the contrary, it is difficult to see the Bible as expressing anything else but disapproval of homosexual activity”.
Third, the Bishop of Salisbury perhaps tacitly acknowledges the weakness of his case here in relation to Scripture. In discussing his theological method he makes clear that he believes that “Christian morality comes from the mix of Bible, Christian tradition and our reasoned experience”. In reducing these sources to an undifferentiated “mix” he further demonstrates the weakness of his position and his departure from Anglican theological method. The 1998 Lambeth Conference, in line with previous conferences, reaffirmed “the primary authority of the Scriptures, according to their testimony and supported by our own historic formularies” (III.1). Similarly, the contemporaneous Virginia Report was clear that “Anglicans affirm the sovereign authority of the Holy Scriptures as the medium through which God by the Spirit communicates his word in the Church”.
Bishop Richard Harries, not a noted conservative evangelical, in introducing Some Issues in Human Sexuality to General Synod in February 2004, similarly made clear that Anglicans do not simply have a “mix” of authorities. He described how “in order to read the Bible in a Christian way we have to allow ourselves, whatever our views, to be challenged, modified or confirmed by the voice of God addressing us through the ‘given-ness’ of the text itself”. He made clear that although reason is used “in interpreting the Bible with our God-given minds” the report was “rejecting reason as an independent source for the knowledge of God’s will”. He also rejected “the idea of tradition as a second and separate source of revelation alongside scripture”.
The character of human sexuality
Fourth, the Bishop of Salisbury is on equally thin ice when he touches on the character of human sexuality and its relevance to the debates about same-sex marriage. He claims that “The possibility of ‘gay marriage’ does not detract from heterosexual marriage unless we think that homosexuality is a choice rather than the given identity of a minority of people”. This seems to assume that we all must view homosexuality either as a “choice” or a “given identity”. This forces a false division: embrace either a highly voluntarist or a strongly determinist and essentialist understanding of human sexual attraction. All the evidence is that human sexuality is much more complex in its personal formation and schooling and in its social construction. It also has a much greater diversity and fluidity of forms and objects of attraction. Crude dichotomies between “homosexual” and “heterosexual” and “choice” and “given identity” are of very limited value. For example, the fact that in recent surveys those identifying as “bisexual” (particularly among women) are now a larger group than those identifying as “homosexual” shows that the possible effects of redefining marriage cannot be so easily predicted or dismissed.
Fifth, in relation to logic there is the recycling of a dominant myth behind the proposed new legislation. This is that in order to oppose bullying and discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation we must approach the debate about marriage from the perspective of a “greater sense of equality and fairness”. The case for same-sex marriage thus becomes “primarily a matter of justice” and opposition to it akin to racism. This argument only has force if one accepts as a premise precisely what is at dispute: that marriage is defined by the qualities of committed relationship between two people (eg a loving commitment) rather than being one particular form of relationship between a man and a woman. If marriage is simply about love and commitment it is indeed unfair and discriminatory to exclude same-sex couples. That “logic”, however, presupposes a particular view on what is the heart of the debate: the nature of marriage.
The Bishop of Salisbury’s decision to abandon the commitment made to his diocese last year to support “marriage as it is currently understood” and to break the collegiality of the House of Bishops by rejecting the church’s teaching on marriage as set out in canon law and the Book of Common Prayer is regrettable. He has rushed to head the campaign of those Christians whose commitment to the crudest form of Christendom politics leads them to advocate new forms of “civic religion” by providing a theological gloss to legitimate the desires of those in secular authority who want to use their state power as they see fit. In so doing he may, however, also have done a great service. He has helpfully highlighted the number and range of flaws and errors in the main arguments of those claiming there is a genuinely Christian case for redefining and reconstituting marriage in English law.