radio studio

The BBC’s Today programme this morning interviewed Simon Sarmiento and Susie Leafe on the Church of England House of Bishops’ recent report on same-sex partnerships. If you want to listen to it it’s here, 1:21:45 in.

Simon was very polite about the bishops, much more than I would have been, but this post is about Susie’s contribution. Susie is the Director of Reform. I apologise in advance for the bitchy nature of my critique, but I strongly believe people who misrepresent the Bible while claiming to be its most fervent supporters should not be allowed to get away with it.

Reform has a statement of beliefs on its website. Among other things it claims to believe in

  • the infallibility and supreme authority of ‘God’s Word written’ and its clarity and sufficiency for the resolving of disputes about Christian faith and life,
  • the divine order of male headship, and
  • the rightness of sexual intercourse in heterosexual marriage, and the wrongness of such activity both outside it and in all its homosexual forms.

No doubt there is a reason why the head of the organisation promoting male headship is a woman, but head or not, by arguing her case Susie is disobeying 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 which forbids women to teach. The good news is that this was a radio interview so we cannot check that she was wearing a veil as instructed by 1 Corinthians 11:5-13.

Is it reasonable to assume that the Director of Reform believes in its position as described on its website? If so, we can expect her to believe the Bible is clear and sufficient for the resolving of disputes. Which might have helped her in that radio interview.

I’ve typed out verbatim her main points.

If we follow the teachings of Jesus and we believe that he is God, then what he says is eternal. It’s not something that is fixed in time… And it doesn’t mean that if you’re not married, whether you are heterosexual or homosexual, that you can’t have a fulfilled life. Jesus himself was a single celibate man.

When the interviewer referred to ‘The Susie Leafe view of things’ she corrected him: her view was ‘the Jesus Christ view of things’.

We might expect someone so committed to the Bible to know what it says. However,

  • There are no known teachings of Jesus about same-sex partnerships, either within the Bible or anywhere else.
  • The Bible never describes Jesus as God just like that. Son of God, yes, and Bauckham and Hurtado have produced substantial evidence that the early Christians worshipped Jesus as divine; but Susie will search Scripture in vain for the simple identification she proposes. For the writers of the New Testament, it would have implied an insoluble problem: if God was on earth for 30 years, who was governing heaven?
  • Nowhere in the Bible are we told that the teachings of Jesus are eternal. We may think some, like the Golden Rule, are indeed eternal, but the Bible makes no such specification.
  • Christians have usually assumed that Jesus never married, but there is no serious evidence either way. The Bible does not tell us.
  • Even if Jesus was single, the Bible does not tell us he was celibate. Christians have usually assumed he was, and maybe some Christians would take offence at the idea that he wasn’t; but my point is that the Bible does not give us the information. If Susie believes it, she believes it for reasons that are not based on the Bible.

That’s five errors about what the Bible says, in just four sentences. Coming from someone whose qualification to speak is her commitment to the Bible, it hardly inspires confidence.

I am drawing attention to these errors not because I have an axe to grind about Susie herself but because religious discourse is full of this kind of misinformation.

What Susie has done is a kind of collage. She has taken some biblical ideas, cut them out of their contexts, and sewn them together to create something new. Today there are many such collages masquerading as what the Bible teaches.

Characteristically, liberal Christians are content to belong to a church where opinions differ. We do not have that driving urge to stamp out heresy that so infects dogmatists. All too often, therefore, we allow them to dominate the air waves, presenting their theories as though they were mainstream Christianity. With misinformation like this presented on the BBC as though it was mainstream Christianity, it is hardly surprising that churches are losing members.

Despite our quieter voices, liberals still attract people who value an enquiring approach to Christianity, a willingness to reject what is not of value and an openness to new insights when they come along. We are more worth listening to.