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Anglican Mainstream questions Oxford’s ‘neutrality’ in Shared Conversation process

Anglican Mainstream questions Oxford’s ‘neutrality’ in Shared Conversation process

By Andrew Symes
Nov. 2, 2014

In September the Bishop of Oxford, now retired, issued an ad clerum reflecting on the process of shared conversations which he had undergone with other Bishops, and which he had discussed with senior Diocesan staff. The document can be viewed here.
It contains ten “themes” which, it is claimed, provide background context to the discussion about sexuality in the Diocese which will apparently begin next year. It is now an appropriate time to look critically at this document and see how, rather than being neutral, it gives a clear steer towards the acceptance of the Pilling recommendations.

God’s faithfulness, the Bible’s transforming power

In the first couple of points there is an attempt to ground the reflection in theology. God’s “faithfulness” is interpreted as being an unfailing guarantee that whatever conclusion we come to in the debate on same sex relationships, God will not desert us. The role of Scripture is seen as “starting a conversation with us as it inhabits us, shapes us and takes us deeper in our faith…If we are engaging honestly with Scripture its truth is never just handed down, it’s always freshly minted.” While all Christians would agree with the concept of God as faithful, and Scripture as effective change in those who engage with it, this is dangerously thin theological reflection on which to base such a crucial discussion.

God’s faithfulness in the Bible is tied to the idea of his people being obedient to him; his forgiveness in response to turning away from sin and error, it is not unconditional, to the point of blessing deliberate disobedience as this seems to imply. The Diocesan document is correct in identifying interpretation of Scripture as the key issue. But the ‘freshly minted’ soundbite is misleading. It suggests a new coinage. But to continue the metaphor, the gold standard of Scripture and its teaching as received by the church Catholic, though requiring fresh understanding in each generation and context, is not freshly minted in the sense of a new currency. It does not entail an interpretation of what the Bible says which means the opposite of how it has always been interpreted. Both theological paragraphs, about God and Scripture, omit any reference to authority outside ourselves to which we must conform, and instead sees them as ideas to work with and shape experimentally. This reflects a liberal theological premise: that as long as we include God and Scripture in our discussion we are doing theology and remain within the boundaries of the church, whereas a confessional understanding would insist that the task is to discern and obey God’s will as revealed in his Word.

Justice and abundant life for gay people

“It’s broader than ‘gay’ or ‘straight’, it’s about being human and how to flourish in our humanity; this is a justice issue”. Here are three more of the ‘themes’. The first asserts that sexuality is on a “spectrum”, and the second, taking Jesus’ promise of abundant life, says that all people, whatever their sexual orientation (which is a fundamental part of our identity), are called to the flourishing of which Jesus speaks. Without any preamble, or biblical, scientific, psychological background, the idea of fluid sexualities as a morally inert fact and crucial part of our identities is simply asserted. Scripture and historic Christian faith, however, does not recognize categories of sexual orientation, but focuses on behaviour. The important distinction between attraction and behaviour is studiously ignored in this document. While it is true that Jesus is our starting point for understanding what is human, his teaching of sexuality and marriage and singleness is clear. The challenge of how to describe God’s glorious intention for humanity as male and female, and enable all of us pastorally to live the lives of holiness to which Jesus calls us, is not addressed.

Having established by assertion the ‘fact’ of sexual identity and the right to ‘flourishing’, the document demands ‘justice’, quoting Micah 6:8. Unfortunately it is not properly explained, but I presume it means that biblical justice requires the full inclusion and blessing of homosexual people in the church. If this is what the paragraph means, it is foreclosing the debate. In which case ‘justice” is here being used as a slogan, to throw at those who have a different point of view. Of course there are issues of justice in this debate. For example the ‘right’ of a child to grow up in a stable family with male and female parental role models, the right of ex-gay and celibate same sex attracted people to be heard in the debate; the right of citizens to express a respectful opinion disagreeing with the LGBT rights agenda without harassment or employment insecurity. But these are not mentioned in the document.

Addressing sexual confusion through ‘being real’ and ‘covenanted partnerships’

‘Themes’ 5, 6 and 7 move to the important area of witness and mission to society. Because many people in society regard the church’s official position on homosexual practice to be ‘less than moral’, the answer is seen as being ‘real’ with each other ‘at the foot of the cross’. But in response, the “missional fracture” has occurred not because society is ahead of the church in moral understanding, but because of the drift of society away from basic understandings of the Christian faith, part of the responsibility for which lies with the church. This does not seem to be addressed in the document – rather there is an assumption that somehow by being “real” with each other in the church about sex (whatever that means) we will get closer to society? Also, the way to encounter others at the foot of the cross is not by a generalized discussion about sex from different perspectives, however ‘honest’, but to look at the crucified Christ, to admit our sin before him, and believe that his sacrifice has taken away sin.

Having said that society regards the church as unjust and immoral about sex, the document paradoxically complains about the alarming breakdown and confusion regarding sex and relationships in society. The solution seems to be that the church goes on a journey of discussion and reflection which becomes our witness to society: “The Church is part of this confusion and shares society’s corporate struggle to live well before God and each other. The Church needs, however, to try and model creative disagreement…” The suggestion here is that the church is simply a subset of society, not different from it, and that all it has to offer is a discussion about the problem, not the Gospel. It is not explained how the solution proposed here, ie the modeling of “good disagreement” while meanwhile moving quickly towards tolerance and blessing of sexual immorality, will result in reduced confusion about sex in society. There has been confusion over the centuries about many things – infanticide and abortion in the Roman Empire, slavery and racism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Church did not attempt to model creative disagreement. Instead it took a contrary stance, a different moral starting point from society. How we do that should be the topic of conversation.

The document does actually suggest a way of offering an example to society to help reduce relationship breakdown and promiscuity, and that is “Covenanted relationships”. It asserts that “whatever different views we have about active gay relationships, we can find common ground in a firm belief in covenanted relationships that are lifelong and faithful.” Well, it is true that historic Christianity is agreed on the goodness of covenanted relationships – we call them “marriages”. The Diocese of Oxford’s leadership, however, in supposedly neutral guidelines, creates an unbiblical category of covenanted relationships in which male-female marriage becomes a subset along with same sex relationships. Jeffrey John did not become a Bishop in the Diocese in 2003 but his influence here is plain to see. However, there is no universal Christian agreement on this issue as the document asserts. Also, while the majority of society may agree with the notion of faithfulness in a relationship, many would not accept that exclusive relationships should always be permanent. Increasingly people are arguing that covenanted relationships should not be restricted to two people. Is this likely to cause a “missional fracture”, causing the church to re-evaluate its teaching again in future?

Good disagreement – quickly!

The last two themes describe the aim of “good disagreement” and emphasise the need for urgency. The way to respectful disagreement, we’re told, is not to regard the other’s views as ‘perverse, ignorant or immoral’, but to recognize that both views, though apparently opposite to us, both contain elements of transcendent truth. This shows a kind of Gnostic thinking behind the theory of negotiation on which the shared conversations are based. I believe X, you believe Y. The truth is not somewhere in the middle, but somewhere above us both, on a higher plane which we can call God or Christ. So if I say “but the bible says clearly X”, I am refusing to look up and see the greater truth of which my insight is only a part.

There are several objections to this: here are three. A) If one is against slavery or racism or apartheid, why does the church not seek for ‘good disagreement’ on those issues also, or any others? B) This puts forward a view of Christian epistemology more akin to an Eastern “blind men and the elephant” pluralist understanding of truth (where each one grasps a different part but none sees the whole) than biblical revelation. It is more John Hick than John Stott. C) It is a thinly disguised trick, to get the church to accept same sex relationships and dressing it up as successful negotiation based on profound philosophy.

Finally, “Time is not on our side”. The “dis-connect with large sections of society on the issue of same-sex relationships means that we haven’t got the luxury of endless internal debate.” Of course, even were this unevidenced sociological analysis true of parts of western society, it is not true of the vast majority of the world. Is the church then to find itself rushing to espouse contradictory positions in different parts of the world? Where is the notion of the church Catholic ( let alone the Anglican Communion) in this supporting theme? Its true that there is urgency, but this calls for more intentional and effective proclamation of the Gospel, not the abandonment of biblical principles which will divide the church further. Sadly, the urgency called for by the Bishop of Oxford and his staff has more to do with the embarrassing pressure of media and potential court cases from same sex couples wanting to marry than it does from concern about peoples’ eternal destiny. This paragraph translated says “come on, we’ve talked enough, let’s get with the programme, have gay marriage and then move on to the real problems.”

In conclusion, these “supportive themes” are not simple neutral reflections but alarmingly biased towards a revisionist approach to sexual morality, expressed with an often poorly thought out theological basis. They give more evidence as to why some of those wanting to maintain the historic Christian approach to sex and marriage are very cautious about engaging in conversations , the result of which appear to have been predetermined: an interim “two integrity solution” before eventual complete acceptance of Western society’s sexual morality by the church. And they show why the shared discussions should be about the future of the church of England in the light of radically differing accounts of what the Christian faith is.

Anglican Mainstream offers further themes for the ‘shared conversations’

Nov 2, 2014

The Ad Clerum to Oxford clergy (see the document and discussion here) offered some themes to inform the ‘facilitated conversations’. Anglican Mainstream would like to offer further themes as follows:
1. Human beings are the creatures of God, created to love and serve him. How does this truth challenge the emphasis in our society on individual people having the right to shape their own lives just as they see fit?
2. Today’s society believes that love is all you need. In the context of sexuality what does ‘love’ mean? Does love need boundaries? Is the prime measure of love faithfulness or is marriage inherently a loving physical union of potentially procreative bodies? “With my body I thee honour…in sickness and in health.” In what is our identity found? As individuals? In relationships? By our health, wealth or sexuality? In relation to God?
3. God created human beings as male and female with a mandate to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:26-28). How should this shape our thinking about sexual ethics?
4. What are the key truths taught in Genesis 2:18-25 and how should they find expression in our individual lives and in the life of the Church and wider society? What is the best environment for the nurture and care of children? What is the nature of the relationship between marriage and children?
5. How does the teaching of Leviticus 18 apply to Christians today?
6. What do we learn from Romans 1:18-32 about the link between humanity’s alienation from God and human sexual behaviour?
7. In New Testament passages such as 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 and 1 Corinthians 6 18-20 the call to sexual holiness is seen as a basic part of Christian teaching and Christian discipleship. Is this true in the Church today? If not, why not? As disciples of Jesus how do we express holiness of living in today’s society? How do we show that our bodies are ‘temples of the Holy Spirit?’
8. In 1 Corinthians 5 St. Paul calls for the exercise of Church discipline in the case of unrepentant sexual sin. Why has the Church of England largely ceased to exercise such discipline? Should it try to restore its use?
9. In Matthew 5:13-16 Christians are called to act as salt and light in a corrupt and dark world. How can the Church best exercise this calling in relation to the prevailing attitude to sexuality in our society?
10. In all areas where we struggle with temptation and fall short of God’s best for us, how do we offer sensitive pastoral support to those who find the church’s teaching profoundly challenging? Does the area of marriage and human sexuality present particular difficulties in this respect and if so, how can we deal with them?
11. If we cannot agree on the fundamentals of the church’s teaching as currently expressed on sexuality, what are the options for the ongoing institutional life of the Church of England?

Andrew Symes is General Secretary of Anglican Mainstream in Oxford, UK

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