'My primary feeling on reading the document was "here we go again"', Miranda Threlfall-Holmes remarks on her excellent response to the latest report from the Church of England’s House of Bishops on the apparently never-ending issue of same-sex relationships.
The report is called Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations. I hope Miranda’s arguments carry some weight in the forthcoming General Synod meeting.
I’m not going to repeat what she says. This post focuses on why the Church of England’s leadership time after time comes out with statements like this, making no real changes while knowing perfectly well that the pantomime will have to end one day.
What the bishops think
We are told that the bishops’ views ‘covered a very wide spectrum. No position or approach commanded complete unanimity.’ Still, there was ‘a substantial degree of consensus’ (§17) on two matters. One is the inevitable concern for window-dressing: ‘There was a strong sense that existing resources, guidance and tone needed to be revisited’ (§18). Much is said about this, but the other is the real business: no change to ‘the Church of England’s teaching on marriage’. (§18, cf. §26).
The relevant text in Canon Law is cited in a footnote:
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 (Canon B 30.1).
So no change, except for another bout of hand-wringing. Their proposal, they tell us, represents a compromise between the differing views of bishops. To be constructive, however,
It needs to have a theological coherence which those with different perspectives may all recognize (§56).
That’s the problem. There is no such theological coherence. The bishops have completely misread the theological situation.
Misuses of the Bible
The problem, they tell us, is that different people read the Bible differently (§§3 & 8).
When they locate the problem like this they confuse theology with rhetoric. It is true that opponents of same-sex partnerships claim that they are being true to the Bible, and most of them probably think they are, but it is easy to see that they are not. Simply to focus on the most obvious point, there are thousands of commands in the Bible, of which only a handful – seven at the most – are anything to do with same-sex partnerships. When we are told that these partnerships are wrong because the Bible condemns them, and when the people telling us are men who shave their beards off contrary to Leviticus 19:27, or women contrary to 1 Corinthians 14: 34-35, we smell a rat. These are but examples: there are many hundreds of biblical commands which even the most biblically-committed Christians ignore in Britain today. Absolutely nobody is making a serious effort to live as though all the commands in the Bible are binding. Their decision to make a song and dance about the anti-gay passages must come from some source outside the Bible.
Let us be realistic for once. The biblical texts on same-sex partnerships have been debated for decades, to no effect. It was shadow boxing. The real reasons for the disagreements are to be sought elsewhere.
They are easy to find as they have been trumpeted for 20 years. Since the Reformation there have been elements within Protestantism committed to believing that the Christian’s duty is to accept the truth of every biblical text and obey its commands. However the Bible contains lots of unclear, irrelevant, immoral and conflicting texts, so the idea has never worked. The people trying to make it work have always fallen out with each other because different sects focus on different texts and denounce each other for not accepting the ‘clear, plain teaching of Scripture’.
A way round this was proposed in 1997 at the Global South conference at Kuala Lumpur. They agreed to combine forces to oppose same-sex partnerships. This was confirmed by the Dallas Statement later the same year. We really do not need to fall out over same-sex partnerships. Nobody needs to police the domestic arrangements of other adults. We can agree to disagree. What causes the falling-out is that same-sex morality was chosen as the battle-ground over conflicting theologies.
A campaign was planned, to threaten schism unless the Anglican Communion upheld their views. In 2002 it sprang to life with heavily publicised threats. The occasion was the announcement that the ‘liberal’ Rowan Williams was to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. The threats persisted, and for ten years the disputes made front page news. The Anglican Communion’s leadership caved in. The Windsor Report (2004) proposed an Anglican Covenant to ‘discipline’ Anglican provinces which refused to condemn same-sex partnerships.
Eventually in 2012 the diocesan synods in England rejected it. Things then quietened down but nothing has been resolved.
Church leaders are still trying to hold together two conflicting theologies. One side finds it adequate simply to repeat, over and over again, that the Bible forbids same-sex partnerships. Their point is that absolutely nothing can take precedence over a biblical command. The Bible is God’s Word, directly revealed, and is therefore more reliable than human reason. Christians should just accept it.
As soon as it is allowed that some biblical texts are unclear or contradictory, this position collapses. So the tradition has invested heavily in interpreting the Bible as though it was a seamless whole.
For those who accept this view, there is absolutely no reason why any two Christians should disagree about any matter of faith: on principle, there must be a biblical answer.
The other side takes a more historical view. The Bible was written by 30-odd authors or groups of authors over around 1,000 years. Each text got into the Bible because later generations judged it worthy. Along the way there was plenty of scope for divine inspiration, but the story is one of continual change within a developing tradition. Since then Christians have accepted the Bible as a canon out of which the Christian tradition has grown, and have used their reason to develop the tradition over the centuries. Thus scripture, reason and tradition all have their place in a flourishing movement. As none is infallible, we need them all to balance each other.
The two theologies contradict each other. They cannot both be right. The bishops, however, duck the issue. Instead they stress on the need for unity.
We… seek to make steps together that will allow us to act together while retaining doctrinal coherency (§10).
It is logically impossible. One side is willing to discuss, learn and change their minds if convinced. The other side is not. When the disagreement is of this type the only possible resolution would be for those who are willing to change to capitulate to those who are not.
The bishops’ desire to retain unity can only be achieved on the basis of this capitulation. This is the decision they have once again made. If the whole Church of England ever follows the lead of the bishops, it will have been taken over by a narrow exclusive sect.
Of course, this stance does not preserve unity. Whether LGBT or not, people who long for an accepting church have left in droves. The bishops have noticed the decline in church numbers and have spent a lot of time agonising about it, but are yet to realise that they themselves are largely to blame by producing documents like this.
Both sides can appeal to sixteenth-century texts to argue that the Church of England is founded on their theology. We can argue about those texts as long as we like, but the fact remains that no movement, no project, no institution can operate on the basis of both models at once. On one side is the idea that each question can be settled once and for all by the appropriate biblical text, so those who disagree are just plain wrong. On the other, nothing is settled once and for all, as we use our resources to enhance the tradition and the Holy Spirit leads us into new and unforeseen futures. The two theologies contradict each other. We have to choose. Ignoring the need to choose, the bishops have made the wrong choice.
What should they have done instead? They should have reaffirmed the theological method which has come to be known as Classic Anglicanism, as promoted by leading theologians from Richard Hooker to Henry McAdoo. They should have insisted that Christianity is not, and never has been, an unchanging monolith. No dogma, no text, not even one’s favourite biblical text, is God’s command to everyone at all times. No single source is infallible. In every age we bring the resources available to bear on the issues we face. Our understanding is always limited and uncertain. The only people who are certainly wrong are the ones who claim to be certainly right. Such people become intolerant and deaf.
The forthcoming General Synod meets on the 20th anniversary of that Kuala Lumpur conference. For 20 years, intolerant exclusivists have threatened the Church of England with a takeover bid by threatening schism unless we all do as they say. For 20 years, the Church’s leadership has in effect capitulated to them. During this time many churchgoers have turned away, disgusted by the leadership’s discriminatory policies. Nevertheless, even today the overwhelming majority of churchgoers still want the Church to be open, inclusive and tolerant of different opinions.
The bishops can, if they choose, carry on like this for another 20 years. By then, perhaps, so many of the present churchgoers will have left for another church or joined the ranks of ‘no religion’ that the intolerant dogmatists will be in a majority, left with the buildings and the capital assets to run a mausoleum.
Or they could change. Those of us who have been brought up in the Church would like to remain, and many of us are prepared to stay and struggle to defend the best of Anglicanism. We would like to share our church with people who think same-sex partnerships are wrong. They are welcome, even though we disagree with them.