The Archbishop of Canterbury today expressed deep concern about the stress for the Anglican Communion following the US Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops’ resolution to change the definition of marriage in the canons so that any reference to marriage as between a man and a woman is removed.
Not surprisingly, the conservative evangelical organisations GAFCON and Reform went further in their objections, focussing less on the process of Anglican decision-making, and more on the significance for Anglican doctrine and understanding.
The problems for the rest of the Anglican Communion have already been noted by the Archbishop of Canterbury. But the fundamental reason that it is a mistake – and the reason why it is so destabilizing – is that it is a significant departure from Holy Scripture. This is a departure which Christians are not at liberty to make.
With this action, TEC has officially rejected the Anglican Communion’s standard, Lambeth Resolution 1.10, which expresses the Communion’s received and historic understanding of marriage and sexual relationships. TEC has now taken the pattern of behaviour which Lambeth describes as ‘incompatible with Scripture’ and equated it with Holy Matrimony. (GAFCON)
The unity for which Jesus prays is built on the foundation of the teaching he revealed and entrusted to his apostles, recorded for us in the Scriptures. Jesus is not silent on the definition of marriage. “Haven’t you read,” he said to the religious leaders who sought to redefine marriage in his own day, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’, and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?” (Matthew 19.4-5)
In rejecting this definition of marriage, the bishops of the US Episcopal Church have rejected Jesus’ own teaching. (Reform)
There are several interesting things about these statements. First, they are actually quite moderate in tone, and they are located not just in a biblicist reading of Scripture, but within the context of previous Communion discussions. Secondly, although the Reform statement is ‘authored’ by Susie Leafe, there is no doubt that this would have been agreed by Rod Thomas, who is Chair of the Reform council but also has been appointed at the next Bishop of Maidstone. To that extent, the Reform statement answers my call for an episcopal voice countering the idea that the Church’s doctrine of marriage is a ‘busted flush.’ I still wish that more moderate voices were willing to put their heads above the parapet (to mix my metaphors).
But if you doubted that the status of Scripture is a key issue at stake, there is confirmation from some other, perhaps unexpected, places. John McGinley, Vicar of Holy Trinity, Leicester and a New Wine regional leader, offers this reflection on the regional Shared Conversation in which he took part:
I returned with great concern that the majority of the participants had lost any clear understanding of the Bible as authoritative in their lives. The approaches were shocking to me, and, as a result, my approach was shocking to them. This confirmed that we are already two churches, one which sees the Bible as a helpful collection of writings from which to draw inspiration but which can be used to say whatever we want it to, or simply be ignored. The other seeks to submit to Scripture as we interpret it and apply it to our lives and trust in its goodness as God’s word to us, even when it is painful and challenging. The result of this is that there were many moments of incredulity expressed by people from different positions as they realised others in the room held a belief so far from their own.
Simply, for evangelicals (whose identity is centred around being ‘Bible people’) to make a very public shift in their biblical interpretation on a controversial issue necessitates having a serious discussion about how we read the Bible, and at present there is little sign this is happening.
Given its current official position, the challenge for the Church of England is to hold together these two issues as stake—the pain and rejection felt by those disagreeing with it, and the consistent teaching of Scripture which underlies the Church’s position. In a sense, the Shared Conversations are aimed at closing this perceived gap, but all the evidence I have seen is that they have just confirmed the distance between two views, as McGinley highlights above. But the problem is more widespread than that. We appear to be on the edge of a complete failure of communication within both Church and culture. Vasey-Saunders goes on to comment about Open Church:
I should say clearly that I would defend to the utmost the need for gatherings like this, which are safe spaces for LGBTI Christians and their allies, but it concerned me that even the conference organisers seemed unable to recognise the extent to which it was not safe for others.
(And this is why I declined to attend.) And this ‘lack of safety’ has even encroached into the Shared Conversations. John McGinley was taken aback by being taken aside:
I will share one particularly difficult example of this. In a facilitated session one person said that the orthodox position was responsible for their friends’ suicide. While I showed concern for their loss, and acknowledged the hurt caused by prejudice and judgemental attitudes within churches, I rejected the direct link between holding an orthodox understanding of sexual relationships and their friends’ decision to end their life. I then shared how I felt that the celebration of same-sex relationships was deeply damaging to society through the confusion it brings to issues of identity, relationships, gender, sin, etc. and how it undermines the position of heterosexual marriage which is God’s intended pattern for sexual relationships. Following this facilitated discussion the facilitator approached me privately to say that a complaint had been made against me for expressing the above views. The facilitator explained that they had answered the complaint by saying that they didn’t think I had expressed that view and didn’t believe I held it. When I confirmed that I did they were surprised as they didn’t think anyone would hold such views and then suggested that what I had shared was unhelpful. I suggested this was exactly the purpose of these conversations, to share our views feely, and stood by my views.
Increasingly, in public discourse there is no ‘middle voice’ allowed between two ends of the spectrum. For the wider media, polarisation is the stuff of circulation numbers and sales, so pitching the argument as between liberated and liberal gay men and women and homophobic, racist bigots makes for good copy. But the problem is wider than that. In an otherwise intelligent piece on the challenge facing the Church, Cole Morton manages to avoid any reference to principled, intelligent defence of the Church’s current teaching. And this is in a context where Christians in Oregon, USA, were not only fined an eye-watering $135,000 for ’emotional damage’ in refusing to support same-sex marriage, but were then barred from speaking of their views in public. It is a context where our own Secretary of State for Education reaches for same-sex marriage (now on the statute books for just over a year!) as the expression of British values, against which we should test children for signs of religious radicalisation.
All this is going to make it harder to have the discussions we need to. As recent conversations have made clear to me, for most ordinary Christians (i.e. not those in full-time ministry) there is still some way to go to really understanding the issues, let alone coming to some sort of conclusion about them. And the danger here is a loss of confidence in Scripture as a pastoral document which, on sexuality as on other issues, expresses God’s deepest and gracious concern for our lives, for us to be the best that we can be.
This article originally appeared on Ian Paul's blog, Psephizo, and we are grateful for permission to republish it here.