I contributed a chapter on “Sexuality and Communion” to the recently published Oxford Handbook of Anglican Studies and this article offers a short summary of its argument.
The media obsession with homosexuality gives the impression of an Anglican death wish on sexuality and texts in Leviticus. This not only fails to do justice to the complexities of the contemporary debates but forgets that the English Reformation was itself bound up with debates over texts in the same two chapters of Leviticus (Leviticus 18 and 20) but concerning marriage to a deceased brother’s wife. Like the English Reformation, today’s debates involve a range of political and cultural factors but like then they also reflect deeper disagreements over authority in the church and especially the authority of Scripture. Only by addressing these as Anglicans can we hope to resolve the current crisis.
Though commonly offered as interpretations, we need to avoid simple perspectives that the problem is caused simply either by un-Anglican, narrowly Biblicist fundamentalism invading global Anglicanism or by departure from orthodox Christianity and capitulation to secular liberalism. Both analyses have some truth but are also seriously flawed. A much more complex multi-factorial analysis is needed in which at least seven factors can be identified.
It is clear that the 1998 Lambeth Resolution on sexuality (I.10) has played a decisive role but this also points to the first factor explaining tensions. This resolution was simply restating and amplifying earlier statements in 1978 and 1988 and was overwhelmingly carried but the conference as a whole clearly contained a greater variety of understandings than explicitly expressed in the final motion. The reality was already more complex and fragmented and the cracks soon began to show and spread following the conference.
Second, it is less than forty years since any church in the Communion began even limited engagement with the claim traditional sexual ethics needed to be reconsidered. Those which have done most work – notably the American church – have often had limited scriptural and theological engagement between different perspectives and have not involved the wider Communion in their discussions. This timeframe contrasts with debates over women’s role in the church – a subject of nine resolutions as far back as 1920.
Third, despite frequent calls for study and reflection the Communion, faced with this new and potentially divisive question, has failed to implement these in many provinces and only in recent years has such work been facilitated in the Communion. With hindsight the years between 1978 and 1998 were a major missed opportunity for the Communion and since 2003 issues have hardened and conflict increased due to controversial actions being taken unilaterally.
Fourth, related to this it was already noted in 1978 that while “there are other places (eg in the Church in Africa) where homosexual behaviour has not emerged as a problem”, in some provinces “the status and rights of homosexuals are being reconsidered”. In 1978 there was reference to “socio-cultural factors that lead to the different attitudes in the Provinces of our Communion”. This cultural diversity, however, was also never really addressed even though again noted in the 1991 Primates’ Meeting.
Fifth, these differences created different contexts for mission and understandings of the demands these place on the church’s response. This was evident in competing claims about what would be “evangelical [sic] suicide’ in the 1998 debate and have been further exaggerated in recent years as seen in some accepting same-sex marriage while others strengthen criminal laws against homosexual behaviour.
Sixth, there have been significant actions by and within the North American churches, the rise of the Global South and interaction between these two groups. The story of the Communion’s struggles may well have been different if differences over homosexuality were not also the period of its geographical and theological reconfiguration and the struggle of its structures to come to terms with this.
This is not to say that the crisis is simply a matter of church politics and cultural differences – the seventh and most deep-rooted factors in the crisis are theological. Some of these questions are ecclesiological – the limits of provincial autonomy, the nature of interdependence – but others relate directly to this debate. For example, two contrasting paradigms are at work. Some see the issue in terms of the church’s attitude to gay and lesbian people and a gospel focussed on God’s justice and inclusion. Some see the need for a redemptive ethic shaped by divine revelation in Scripture and willing to be counter-cultural in relation to sinful sexual behaviour. Even deeper, as noted in the 2002 report of the inter-Anglican conversations, there are different perceptions of the relationship of the authority of Scripture to that of reason and tradition and contemporary experience.
This final factor means that while it is necessary to understand and address the other six factors they alone are not sufficient to explain or resolve the crisis. Unless and until those who believe they are being led by the Spirit into prophetic action can persuade the majority of Anglicans that their claims and actions are consonant with Scripture and not incompatible with it, these disagreements will be seen as simply the tip of the iceberg. Crises about sexuality are serious because ultimately they touch on deeper questions of biblical authority and thus theological matters decisive to Anglican identity since the Reformation.
A summary of Chapter 29, “Sexuality and Communion” in Mark Chapman, Sathianthan Clarke and Martyn Percy (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Anglican Studies, pp. 413-426.