The holiness of nation statesAugust 24, 2022
James Woodward: In praise of a life well lived.September 13, 2022
On 1st September the long-awaited report on the Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith process was published: Listening with Love and Faith.
It’s not exactly a heavy read. There are lots of pictures, graphs, stories and quotations. Most of the rest is statistics. To read it, you download a pdf from here.
What was it for? The organisers conceive of Living in Love and Faith as a four-stage process: Creating Teaching and Learning Resources; Discerning and Deciding; Learning Together; and Listening and Gathering. Listening with Love and Faith is the conclusion to the third stage:
Its aim is to reflect back – as faithfully, impartially and accurately as possible – what those who have engaged with Living in Love and Faith have said… [It] also includes the voices of those who chose not to engage with LLF and explained why.
The ‘impartially’ bit must have been the most painful: the organisers must have found the results disappointing.
The comments and stories represent both sides. Comments on the use of the Bible include these:
The CofE needs to be clear about what the Bible says, how to love all people, how we treat the LGBT community. We must not shy away from upsetting the LGBT community just because it makes our life easier.
The course could have engaged more directly with some of the ‘difficult’ passages of scripture. At times it felt like we went out of the way to avoid discussing these even though our group were keen to!
My plea is that the biblical view of marriage changes all over the Bible. I’m nervous of people who just pick verses – to allow apartheid, allow slavery, stop those who died by suicide to be buried in hallowed ground. The Bible is so important, but it is so complex; there is no one view of marriage in the Bible at all.
And the inevitable:
Stick to what the Bible says: marriage is between a man and a woman.
Someone said it so it gets quoted; and far be it from any senior member of the Church of England to point out that the Bible says no such thing.
You get a photo of a hassock someone made with the words ‘Christ is better than sex’. It sticks in my mind: if I was kneeling on it, in the middle of the Intercessions, with my elbows leaning on the top of the pew in front, what would I be praying for?
The whole process feels like using a marshmallow to crack a nut. The views of both sides are reported, often with touchy-feely sympathy, but the reasons for the dispute aren’t examined. While I disagree with the anti-gay lobby I quite see why they feel their case isn’t being heard. It is as though serious theology is no longer of interest to the Church of England.
So here is my attempt to get to the root of it. I am keeping it as simple as possible to clarify the core issues.
500 years ago the Catholic Church taught that God has given us the Bible. The Bible is difficult to understand, so God has also given us the Church as a living authority to interpret it. Protestants agreed about the Bible but denied that the Catholic Church had authority to interpret it.
So how should Protestants interpret the Bible? We have ended up with two main answers.
Answer 1. We need an authority but not the Pope
Some argued that we do need an authority to interpret it, but the Catholic Church was getting it wrong. Over time some Protestants have studied the Bible and built up the scholarly approach typical of universities today. If you want to know what a particular New Testament sentence means, read books by scholars who have spent their careers on this kind of thing. At the very least, they will probably be more fluent in Greek than you are.
In this answer, at any one time there are disagreements about what some texts mean. Disagreeing is a normal part of research. Scholars defend their case by publishing their evidence and arguments. Evidence about the meanings of biblical texts can be sought from anywhere relevant: from the Bible itself, other ancient texts, archaeological digs, sociological studies, literary analysis. On sexual ethics we can learn from psychological studies and personal experiences. God has given us minds capable of thinking through what we need to think through. As scholars collaborate there is always some disagreement, but over time some theories get refuted and others get established.
Answer 2. The Bible is all we need
On the second theory human reason is much more limited, at least on matters of Christian believing. Mere human reason is contrasted with the Bible, which is God’s revelation. Therefore:
- • The Bible’s truths can be known with absolute certainty, transcending anything the human mind works out for itself. So we should not attempt to interpret the Bible: we should just accept what it says as it is.
- • Christian truths are limited to what is in the Bible. New information on matters of faith must be wrong unless it can be deduced from the Bible.
- • Moral commands are to be accepted purely because God so decrees in the Bible. Since God’s commands are known quite independently of our own well-being, it’s not at all surprising if our desires conflict with God’s commands.
In the sixteenth century these principles were spelt out clearly. For many, they were the ‘common sense’ of the time.
Today most people have a much more positive view of human reason. So these anti-rational principles don’t get spelt out so simply and clearly. But they are still the logic behind the claim that a biblical text can answer today’s questions with certainty – so once the ‘biblical’ answer is established, there is no more to discuss. Biblical texts function as the full stop replacing every question mark.
In principle, therefore, all the people who accept Answer 2 should believe exactly the same things as each other. In practice they differ. None of us are perfectly consistent; most of the time we don’t think through the presuppositions behind our beliefs. But these are the principles that have historically nurtured the different factions.
To summarise: the issue is ethical – the moral permissibility of same-sex sexual activity. The ethical positions are based on different theological accounts of how to read the Bible. And the different theologies are based on different philosophies of knowledge.
Can we reconcile the two traditions?
No we can’t. They quite openly contradict each other. This is why church reports have made absolutely no progress.
If we want to seriously analyse which side is right, we don’t need to quote biblical texts or motions passed at General Synod or Lambeth Conferences. The question is: which account of knowledge is correct? Does the Bible, or doesn’t it, transcend all human reason and reach us in a completely non-rational way?
Calvin and the Old Princeton theologians thought it did. They addressed the problems of incomprehensible and contradictory texts, but they never settled on an adequate theory of how God made sure the right words were written – let alone provide evidence that this was what happened.
Personally I accept the mainstream scholarly view that every book in the Bible was written by one or more human authors. Later generations preserved it because they thought it was good. Eventually it was included in the canon of holy scriptures.
My suspicion is that, when we get down to the real cause of the disagreement, we can see why church leaders don’t want to address it. The anti-gay cause will collapse quickly. People in high places don’t want that.
But others do. Here is what I thought the most telling comment in this publication:
It has been hard for our people to engage with a process that seems to be asking them to put their identity into dialogue with another person’s opinion… our people speak of feeling assaulted and bruised when they are asked to allow their identity to become a subject of others’ rejection and condemnation.