As the Church of England begins two years of Shared Conversations focussed on sexuality, probably the most vocal episcopal critic of current teaching and practice, Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham, has set out his case for change in More Perfect Union?: Understanding Same-Sex Marriage (DLT). For those still unclear about the substance and tone of Anglican arguments for same-sex marriage this is a short, readable guide. Although helpful in giving a sense of much revisionist rhetoric and argument it suffers the fatal flaw he levels against his opponents (40) - preaching to the choir and cutting almost no ice with anyone else.
The book’s main arguments
The central arguments are clear and starkly set out. Fundamentally, the church is in a mess and serious error in rejecting equal marriage and its approach to sexuality more generally (a constant theme particularly focussed in the first and last chapters). The church has ignored scientific evidence in relation to biological sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, preferring simplistic “Janet and John” falsehoods (chpt 2). It has lost sight of the fact that “equality is the ground bass of the Bible story from the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem” (53, argued throughout chpt 3). Even the most basic understanding of how to read the Bible (“Scripture 101”, chpt 4) would show that traditional claims about biblical teaching on homosexuality are wrong and “based on a tiny handful of words and sound bites” (67, opening chpt 5). In fact, the Bible shows us marriage is constantly changing and its definitions “always come from lived experience of its realities, in the different social contexts of the Bible story” (99, concluding chpt 6) as Jesus himself taught (121). Marriage’s evolving character is evident too from its four phases in Christian history (chpt 7) although we can now see that “the Puritan concept of it as a personal partnership of equals has stolen the show” (121). In the context of globalisation, faced with enormous diversity in understandings and evaluations of homosexuality and marriage, we need, for the sake of mission and to bear witness to the gospel of reconciliation, to view these questions as the apostolic church viewed attitudes to food laws, allowing respect for conscientious judgments and diversity in different contexts (chpt 8). Wilson’s own judgment, though, is clear – opening marriage to same-sex couples is right and will enrich not endanger it because, in his closing words, “the gold standard for human relationships is not control or hierarchy, but self-giving love” (164).
Not a fence but a chasm
In relation to these matters of substance, the book makes very clear just how deep and wide-ranging the differences often are between supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage in relation to world view, theology, methodology, and understanding of the biblical and historical evidence and its implications. Despite his apparent belief the church can remain united with some form of “reconciled diversity”, Bishop Alan is also clear, having tried to perch on it, that “there is no fence to sit on” (135, also xvi). I would agree the church is in a mess and cannot, now it is faced with same-sex marriage, continue to muddle on as it has done. On almost all the other book’s central claims I would find myself on the other side of the fence from the author. I finished reading it feeling alienated rather than attracted by his style, and so unconvinced by his evidence and the conclusions he draws that it feels we are in danger of being reduced to shouting across a chasm. In the hope that there may still be some value in ongoing dialogue about our differences, I will set out a few of the substantial disagreements with his main claims.
Evaluating his main arguments
It is far from clear to me that “the science is pretty much nailed” (157) in all the four categories he identifies (as shown by, for example, Stein’s conclusion in The Mismeasure of Desire). Furthermore, unlike the bishop, I think Scripture and theology can contribute something in the disagreements he highlights (particularly in relation to behaviour or “gender expression”), because, even if we reach consensus on biology, it is neither destiny nor, in a fallen world, an infallible guide to God’s purposes.
Turning to the book’s handling of Scripture, the privileging of equality as “the ground bass” and “broad gauge” in Scripture is asserted rather than defended. Its plausibility in part depends on how the term is understood. However, the complex meanings of equality (a contested term in political philosophy and practice) and how it relates to evaluating different patterns of life is similarly left largely unexplored, apart from claims that the litmus test is interchangeability (48). Even more seriously, there is no recognition that the traditional reading is not a matter of the five or six texts he examines but rather an alternative “broad gauge” biblical theology. The further fact that he then spends five pages on Sodom and three on Leviticus but only two each on Romans 1 and the other Pauline texts shows what a misleading presentation of traditionalist exegesis and hermeneutics he offers.
The account of marriage in the Bible helpfully highlights the diversity of forms of marriage. The claim, however, to find “at least seven different definitions” (84) in the Old Testament – like his astonishing assertion that most biblical marriages seem to have been polygamous or his appeal to Solomon without regard to Scripture’s negative judgment on his multiples wives (85) - is never really explained or defended. His stronger claims that Scripture’s diversity therefore authorises us to accept society’s evolving accounts of marriage raise even more questions. Just as any appeal to the constancy of marriage needs to account for its diversity, any account, such as this, which stresses change, needs to explain what provides continuity. Continuity is needed if all these historical forms can be identified as variants of a single created institution. Furthermore, if there are no trans-cultural norms then there is no basis for a critique of social changes. These issues are simply not addressed.
Jesus’ sayings in the gospels may be of help here, but not in the way claimed. Bishop Alan highlights the fact that Jesus taught that marriage is “of this age” and not present in the age to come. He seem to conclude from this that Jesus wants us to understand that “as the ages unfold marriage changes all the time” (88). A non-eschatological view seemingly justifies historicist, often progressivist, understandings: Jesus means that “marriage was a formally secular matter – bound to each passing age in turn” (101). In fact, faced with competing social understandings relating to dissolving marriage, Jesus critiques historical forms. He does so in the light of God’s spoken past revelation and his purpose in creation, including the creation of male and female (Mt 19.4-5). Wilson notes this but simply dismisses “those who believe in the Janet and John binary theory of sex and gender” and who (like, it should be noted, the Church of England canon and liturgy) see Jesus’ reference to Genesis “as importing gender into his definition of marriage” (89). Instead he claims that “before the Fall the prime purpose of Eve was friendship not sex”. But if this was Jesus’ intention then he could have more easily taught it by joining Gen 2.24 (“For this reason a man shall leave….”) with 2.18 (“It is not good for the man to be alone…”) rather than with God’s differentiation of humanity into male and female in Genesis 1.27.
In his overview of Christian history, it is encouraging to see Augustine treated positively rather than (as in many accounts) being dismissed as the problem. Wilson is, however, not persuasive in claiming him for a definition of marriage which downplays or eliminates procreation. This minimising of the physical and the privileging of spiritual union, earlier claimed to be biblically based (in the Bible, marriage’s “spiritual and relational aspects developed beyond consideration of sex, gender or children” (99)), can appeal to some writers within the tradition. Here, though, it is given too prominent a place, thereby distorting the tradition, in order to justify a development – extending marriage to same-sex couples – which lacks support in both Scripture and tradition.
The penultimate chapter discusses how to handle Christian disagreements over marriage. Bishop Alan discusses the role of a bishop in such situations, offering an analogy of a father with a pacifist son and a soldier son (136f). Leaving aside questions of the value of the analogy and his conclusion, it is far from clear to me that in this book he acts in the manner he here commends. This leads, finally, to the crucial question of the book’s tone.
The book’s tone
From start to finish the bishop expresses disdain and contempt for those with whom he disagrees. The misrepresentation of opponents to Jeffrey John’s appointment on the second page (“personal abuse and vilification of his sexual orientation”, xiv) is followed by constant negative and inaccurate descriptions of a “stance against gay people” (5) from a “self-righteous conservative rump” and “tiny clique of reactionary activists” (7) who hold a “homophobic theology” (44). Rather than articulate and respond to their serious arguments, those who defend the Christian doctrine of marriage are frequently presented in the worst light as extremists and nutters: he appeals to what he admits was “one of the stranger letters I received” (86) asserting Jesus would have boycotted the Cana wedding if it was a same-sex marriage and quotes those who blame bad weather on the change in the law (147) and who fear the human race will soon die out (148). In contrast, the weaknesses in his own stance and the views of its advocates are totally ignored. He can even quote Malcolm Johnson being a guide to “the reality of gay clergy lives” and part of the process which “opened people’s eyes” to the faithfulness of gay relationships (6) without acknowledging that Johnson, in the very book he quotes, states that his own long-term quasi-marital relationship was a sexually open one (and that he believes most male same-sex partnerships are of this form).
The reasons for Wilson’s vehemence and dismissive attitude to those who oppose his views is revealed in his discussion of equality. He sees same-sex marriage as fundamentally a matter of combating injustice and prejudice. Indeed, even those who support civil partnerships but oppose same-sex marriage are compared to racists and supporters of apartheid (49-50), an astonishing analogy for a bishop to draw in relation to the long-established teaching of the Christian church about marriage. Would he really have agreed to serve and continue to serve as a bishop in a South African church defending apartheid?
In the face of such language, methodology and comparisons, it is hard to take seriously the book’s occasional attempts to reassure traditionalists they will be respected if the church accepts same-sex marriage. Nor will readers be convinced by the bishop’s call for “honest disagreement that takes everyone as seriously as everyone else” (146). Given the book’s various glowing commendations it seems it may be taken as a guide by those seeking change. If so, then its tone makes it very hard to approach the conversations with much hope or enthusiasm. This concern is strengthened by the fact that on at least three occasions (13, 50, 137) the bishop is clear that as long as the church does not change then he will simply conclude that people have heard nothing rather than consider whether the arguments for his view have not proved persuasive.
In conclusion, the book will give readers a clear sense of the areas the church has to wrestle with and the style of arguments advanced by many Christians who favour same-sex marriage. It fails, however, even to describe accurately, let alone evaluate fairly, the arguments of those who remain committed to the church’s teaching as biblical. It is thus neither a helpful guide for those who are confused and seeking to weigh the arguments nor a book able to win over those who approach it sceptical of its position. Although not addressing same-sex marriage, and not without its own problems, those wanting to read a Church of England bishop engaging critically with the arguments and concluding against the tradition are still better served by Michael Doe’s Seeking the Truth in Love, also from DLT back in 2000. Is it too much to hope that, before the Shared Conversations are over, it might be possible to recommend an accessible book from at least one Church of England bishop which articulates and defends, graciously and respectfully, what the church teaches about sex and marriage and why it is good news?