The Oxford Union, Thursday 3 November 2005
by Andrew Goddard
On Thursday 3rd November the Oxford Union at Oxford University debated the motion "This House believes that a homosexual lifestyle is no bar to becoming a Bishop". After opening speeches from students, the guest speakers were Richard Kirker (LGCM) and Gene Robinson (Bishop of New Hampshire) proposing and Andrew Goddard (Wycliffe Hall) and Colin Buchanan (former bishop of Woolwich) opposing. The following is Andrew Goddard's prepared speech for the debate.
Mr President, Ladies and Gentleman. The last time I debated a very similar motion it was in the debating chamber of another University Union. The main guest speaker opposing me then was our own Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries. I somehow doubt that it helped my case but it was very gratifying to open my speech by congratulating the Cambridge Union for turning to Oxford to help them understand both sides of the debate! Comparing the two evenings, I have to say we have done better here tonight. Not only am I fortunate to have a bishop willing to speak on this side but we will soon hear from the bishop at the heart of the current controversy.
But of course these factors may make us lose sight of the substantive and specific issue before us. They may mean we fail to think clearly when we come to vote. In appealing to you not to support the motion let me first remind you what it says and how many of the arguments from those proposing it are therefore either unconvincing or irrelevant.
"This House believes a homosexual lifestyle is no bar to becoming a Bishop"
Note first that the issue is a homosexual lifestyle - a chosen pattern of life. It is not strictly about 'gay bishops'. It is important to realise there are many Christians whose sexual attractions are primarily homosexual but who are fully convinced by and live according to traditional Christian teaching. Sadly they often feel unable to speak up in contexts like this but they would join this side in strongly opposing this motion.
Secondly, this is not a debate about the virtue of honesty or the sincerity or other qualities of Gene Robinson. It has been said he is only different from many other bishops because he is honest. But that does not address the issue. What would we make of a bishop who claimed that there have always been adulterous, stealing or wife-beating bishops so there should be no fuss when he is honest about the fact that he behaves that way too? Honesty is commendable but the fact someone is honest about their actions cannot on its own justify those actions. Moral justification has to be given on other grounds.
Thirdly, the motion is about becoming a bishop. It is NOT about becoming a Christian. At the heart of the Christian message is that all our lifestyles are a mess in all sorts of ways. That is no bar to becoming a Christian - it's a requirement and it's one thankfully we all meet. No lifestyle of any sort is a bar to becoming a Christian. The only bar to becoming a Christian is refusing to admit we're in a mess and refusing to accept God's solution to that mess in Jesus. The problem is never where we are now. The only problem is refusing to turn from where we are and failing to accept the forgiveness and transformation God offers us through trusting and following Jesus. That is the real good news, the real inclusiveness of Christianity, [not what we have heard from the proposition].
But that final phrase "no bar to becoming a bishop" is crucial for another reason. And if we do not see this and its implications we might make a final false and irrational step. We might think we are being asked simply whether we personally believe a gay lifestyle is right or wrong or whether it should be a bar to public office in wider society. We are not. We are being asked if we believe a gay lifestyle should be a bar to becoming a leader in the Christian church. That is crucial. It makes it a strange motion. Almost something like 'this House believes commitment to Thatcherite policies should be no bar to leading a socialist party'.
We can all agree I assume that there are various beliefs and lifestyles that should be a bar to becoming a bishop. Even if they should not be a bar to holding secular public office. Indeed, you might agree they should be a bar to becoming a bishop even if you share the beliefs or lifestyle. Being a Muslim for example or having a mistress or two. Those should surely be bars to being a bishop. The question tonight is whether a gay lifestyle is another such bar.
To decide the answer to that question it is necessary to know what the church teaches about the mind of God on sex and why it teaches that. In fact, the Christian church's teaching about sex upheld by us on this side is a matter of widespread agreement across different Christian denominations. That is why Gene Robinson's appointment has so badly damaged moves for greater unity among Christians - and indeed inter-faith dialogue. This Christian teaching is based on the Bible and on the wisdom of thousands of years of Jewish and Christian tradition. The view of those opposite can claim no such pedigree. It is a novel idea of a small number of Christians in the contemporary Western world. It is generally based on disputed science and on a poor Christian ethic that appeals to 'love' reduced to acceptance and to nothing else. It is also often remarkably arrogant - almost fundamentalist - in its confident assertion that it has heard the voice of God saying something the wider church has never heard and still does not hear God saying.
Christians believe that humans are made to be images, representations of God on earth. Part of being that image is seen in us being made as male and female. Part of it is also seen in God making us for loving relationships with one another. Among these is marriage. An exclusive relationship in intention life-long between one man and one woman. A relationship that - however faintly - mirrors or images God's passionate, powerful, permanent love for us. And it is in that relationship and only in that relationship God intends us to give ourselves totally and exclusively to another person. Give ourselves in various ways including in bodily, sexual union. What Genesis and Paul and Jesus call 'becoming one flesh'. All other forms of sexual relationship - even if consensual, even if loving, even if involving sincere Christians - fall short of that. And among those that fall short are same-sex sexual relationships. That, in summary, is the biblical and Christian vision.
That positive picture also helps explain the biblical texts which speak about homosexuality. Just to remind you of three key points. First, they're all negative. If the church is to look to the Bible to find out how God wants to shape and reshape our messed-up lives then - however much we might wish otherwise - we will only hear God speak to us negatively about homosexual conduct in the Bible. Second, the texts are not just a few texts in Leviticus that might make homosexuality like eating prawns or black pudding. The texts are part of this bigger picture of what it means to be human. And the texts appear in both Old AND New Testaments. Third, this understanding is not that of a small minority. It is the view of 2,000 years of church thinking and most Christians alive today. Nor is it just the view of bigoted, small-minded fundamentalists. In the words of the recent Church of England report on sexuality 'the traditional understanding of these passages remains the most convincing one in the minds of most biblical scholars' (4.4.34). The bishops conclude that it is therefore difficult for 'a Church that takes the scholarly reading of Scripture seriously…to alter either its traditional teaching about homosexuality or its traditional practice' (4.4.35). Put simply, those Christians supporting the motion tonight stand against the scholarly reading of Scripture. Those of us who oppose it stand with biblical scholarship.
Having said all that, though, I guess most here are not Christians. If you think there is nothing wrong with same-sex partnerships, quoting the Bible and sketching a Christian view may appear irrelevant. But remember again what our motion says. It is about 'becoming a bishop'. That means all this is far from irrelevant because we are thinking about what might legitimately bar someone from becoming a bishop. A central part of the bishop's job is being an example of godly living, teaching the Bible, and guiding the church in obedience to it. Is it therefore surprising that the Anglican Communion is quite clear that among the many bars to becoming a bishop is living in any sexual relationship outside marriage?
If I was voting on a motion about possible bars to becoming a rabbi or an imam I would want to know something about the belief systems of Judaism and Islam. If I was a non-Christian here tonight I would think I had two options and I hope whichever you take you will be persuaded not to support this motion but to oppose it or at least to abstain.
On the one hand, as a non-Christian you could pretend you are in the church wanting it to be faithful to God and his will. You must then judge which side has presented the best Christian case on Christian terms. Both sides claim to represent Christian views - which one is most convincing in that claim? I hope you will agree with the gay atheist Matthew Parris who wrote
"Knowingly to appoint gay bishops robs Christianity of meaning. It is time that convinced Christians stopped trying to reconcile their spiritual beliefs with the modern age and understood that if one thing comes clearly through every account we have of Jesus's teaching, it is that His followers are not urged to accommodate themselves to their age, but to the mind of God. When the row over the appointment of gay bishops first blew up I expected, being gay, to join the side of the Christian modernisers. But try as I do to summon up enthusiasm for my natural allies...passion fails me".
On the other hand, you might prefer not to pretend but to reach your own moral decision as a non-Christian. But then you have another question: How sure are you that you are right and how totalitarian are you in imposing your moral views on those who clearly disagree with you? Are you so convinced that when you see a religious body in your society thinks differently you will demand them to conform? Remember the three great monotheistic faiths all believe homosexual practice is wrong. Do you really want to tell them they cannot put their beliefs into practice in choosing their leaders because you - a non-believer - disagree with them?
You're not being asked to let them impose their religious views on secular society. You're being asked tonight whether you should impose your secular views on their religious society. Surely it is not unreasonable for Christians to expect church leaders to seek to live by church teaching? Should you - an outsider with different ideals and values - deny them that? Should you restrict their freedom to determine on the basis of their beliefs what patterns of conduct are bars to office within the church and impose your own morality based on your beliefs?
So remember the wording of the motion. And, on the grounds of scholarly reading of the Bible. On the grounds of thousands of years of united Jewish and Christian tradition. On the grounds of the modern principle of religious freedom. I ask you then to oppose it.
Andrew Goddard has been on the Leadership Team of Fulcrum since its launch in 2003. He is currently a Senior Research Fellow of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics based in Cambridge (where he was previously Associate Director). He has taught Christian Ethics at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and Trinity College, Bristol and is also an Adjunct Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. He is a canon at Winchester Cathedral and Assistant Minister at St James the Less, Pimlico where his wife, Lis, is Vicar. He is author of a number of books, most recently Rowan Williams: His Legacy (Lion, 2013) and co-editor with Andrew Atherstone of Good Disagreeement? Grace and Truth in a Divided Church (Lion, 2015).