Bible by candlelight

This is about the Church of England’s position on gay marriage and the authority of the Bible

General Synod, meeting last week, at last produced an overwhelming majority in favour of speeding up the introduction of women bishops, thus at last accepting that persistently opposing modern society isn’t a good idea.

In the case of gay marriage, we are moving more slowly.

The Pilling Report proposed a two-year period of ‘facilitated conversations’. The College of Bishops endorsed the proposal. General Synod met last week and on Friday the Bishop of Sheffield answered questions about it. Clive Scowen asked for ‘assurances that… the conversations will not be premised on the proposition that scripture is not clear about these matters’. Andrea Minichiello Williams asked ‘Why, in light of the Statement on the Pilling Report… which emphasises upholding the Church of England’s commitment to biblical orthodoxy… is a two-year process of facilitated conversation taking place, if such a process is not intended to change the orthodoxy?’ John Cook asked for ‘an assurance that the process and additional materials will focus first on scripture and its perspicuity, so that experience and culture are responded to in the light of a clear understanding of Scripture’.

You get the message. The Bible is clear and perspicuous. We know what it says. Sex outside marriage between one man and one woman is forbidden. We already know the answers. Why do we need to discuss it? The Bishop replied:

The statement made clear that the Church of England’s ‘pastoral and liturgical practice remains unchanged during this process of facilitated conversation’ and that ‘no change to the Church of England’s teaching on marriage is proposed or envisaged’. It also stresses that our task, in taking counsel together, is ‘to read and reflect upon the Scriptures and to continue to discern together the mind of Christ.’
What is the point of all this reflection and conversation, some ask, if Scripture is clear and the truth unchanging and unchangeable? The answer is that the substantial shift in attitudes in society to same sex relationships inevitably raises significant questions for the Church of England. In every generation the Church is called to proclaim the faith afresh, not refashioning it but nevertheless wrestling with the interpretation and application of Scripture as the Spirit who inspired it continues to lead us into all truth.

This response is a fudge. It does not deny that scripture is clear and perspicuous. Instead it distinguishes between ‘the faith’ on the one hand and continuing ‘to discern together the mind of Christ’ and wrestle ‘with the interpretation and application of Scripture’ on the other, with the emphasis on the continuing process of discerning and wrestling. However, if ‘the faith’ is clear and perspicuous, what are we interpreting, applying and wrestling about? The logic of the bishop’s position seems to indicate that the discerning and wrestling is only about how to choose pastorally sensitive words when absolutely forbidding all sex outside heterosexual marriage. We all know that that is not the real agenda.

The bishop would have done better to meet the challenge head on. Why not reply, loud and clear, that the Bible is not clear and perspicuous? The rhetoric of perspicuity is now 500 years old, but it has its origin in a theoretical problem, not an empirical observation about the Bible. At the beginning of the Reformation, Catholics and Protestants alike accepted the supreme authority of the Bible. Catholics argued that God has also provided an authority to interpret the Bible, namely the pope. Protestants argued (rightly) that the Catholic Church’s interpretations of biblical texts were often wrong. But that left the problem: how should people interpret the Bible? Eventually new answers developed, including biblical scholarship as we know it now; but at the beginning of the Reformation there was no other candidate for the office of biblical interpreter. Many of the Reformers therefore argued that Christians should accept the Bible as it was, completely uninterpreted. How do you do that? By accepting each text absolutely literally.

So opposition to the Catholic Church led to the principle of rejecting interpretation. All that was left was the uninterpreted words. To make this doctrine work in practice, Reformers developed the theory that every text was easy to understand, so anybody who found any text difficult to understand was making the mistake of interpreting it. Of course, the Bible was as difficult to understand then as it always had been; but the theory demanded that it was not.

It is one thing for historians to explain why the theory of biblical perspicuity developed in the sixteenth century; it is quite another to explain why anyone should be so ill-informed as to maintain it today. And another again to explain why bishops do not point out the error. There are indeed conservative evangelicals who think the question of sex outside heterosexual marriage simply boils down to whether we accept the authority of the Bible; but they are just not listening to what their opponents are saying.

Church leaders really do need to be more honest about the Bible’s lack of clarity. Here’s an illustration of my point. Yesterday the House of Bishops produced a statement of pastoral guidance on gay marriage. It admits that the bishops do not all agree with each other, and we must be grateful for that; but otherwise it merely restates the formal position. However they append sources for the official position, the first of which is Canon B30:

The Church of England affirms, according to our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.

What, we ask, was our Lord’s teaching? Here are the only two relevant biblical texts, Mark 10:2-9 and Matthew 19:3-12. If you can deduce Canon B30 from these two passages, let me know how you did it. Oh, and you have to do it without interpreting them.

To save you looking them up, I finish with the texts. Mark 10:2-9: 

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate’.

Matthew 19:3-12:

Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning “made them male and female”, and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’ They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?’ He said to them, ‘It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but at the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.’
 His disciples said to him, ‘If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.’ But he said to them, ‘Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can’.