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By Martin Davie
July 1, 2021

The keynote address given by the Bishop of Liverpool, Paul Bayes, at the conference of the new MoSAIC[1] network in the Church of England entitled 'Sex on the brain' [2] has attracted headlines because of his argument that the Church of England should adopt a 'gender-neutral marriage canon' that would allow the Church of England to fully endorse and celebrate same-sex marriages. As the headline to the Guardian report puts it. 'Church of England should recognise same-sex weddings, says bishop.' [3]

What is interesting about the Bishop's address, however, is not only the conclusion that he reaches, but the argument that he employs in order to get there. In this response to his address I shall explore why the argument that he puts forward is unconvincing, and why, therefore, it does not provide grounds for the Church of England to amend its teaching on marriage in the way that he suggests.

Why inclusion is code.

The Bishop begins his address by declaring that MoSAIC is a 'valuable and indeed necessary part of the Church' [4] and that the reason this is the case is because 'inclusion is a Gospel matter. Inclusion speaks of love, and inclusion is seamless.'[5] The problem with this part of the Bishop's argument is that he fails to explain what he means by the term 'inclusion.' As it stands the statement runs the risk of saying 'we should be in favour of everything.' If inclusion is 'seamless' this would seem to mean that the Church should provide a home for every kind of belief and practice, in which case the logical outcome of the Bishop's argument would be the Church's acceptance of Neo-Nazi ideology and the racist practices that flow from it.

Now, of course, the Bishop does not mean this. As his comments later on in his address make clear, inclusion is a code word which means being not only anti-racist and supportive towards people with disability, but also in favour of same-sex sexual relationships and gender transition. The question becomes, therefore, why it is important to be inclusive in this specific sense.

What should set the Church's agenda?

The answer that the Bishop gives to this question can be summarised in the words 'because the world says so.' He quotes with approval what he says was the understanding of mission developed by the Would Council of Churches in the 1960s, 'Let the world set the agenda,'[6] and goes on to argue that in our day this means accepting the forms of inclusion I have just described, and embracing same-sex sexual relationships in particular.

There are five major difficulties with his argument.

First, the Bishop misrepresents what the World Council of Churches said. If you take the time to look at the report of the 1968 Uppsala meeting of the WCC to which the Bishop is obliquely referring, you will discover that what the WCC actually said was not, as the Bishop suggests, 'Let the world set the agenda' in the sense that the Church must follow the moral agenda set by the world. What it said was 'The world sets the agenda' in the sense that in its mission to the world the Church has to discern how to respond to what is happening in the world at any given moment of time. In other words, mission always has to be contextual. [7] The Church's God given mission and message remain constant down the ages (Matthew 28:19-20), but the form of its activity will necessarily vary in the light of the different situations it encounters in the course of its journey towards the city of God, as we see from the paradigmatic account of the history of the early Church in the Book of Acts.

Secondly, the claim that the Church should follow the moral agenda set by the world begs the question what we mean by the world's moral agenda. If what we mean by this is that the Church should accept what people in the contemporary world believe to be right the obvious question is 'which people'? There are a very large number of people in the world, probably the majority of the world's population, who do not agree with all or some of the inclusive agenda that the Bishop advocates. On closer inspection, it turns out that, like 'inclusion,' the 'world's moral agenda' is a piece of code. What he really means is the approach to ethical issues that has become dominant in Western society from the latter part of the twentieth century onwards and which includes acceptance of same-sex sexual relationships.

Why the appeal to the arc of history does not work.

This brings one to the third difficulty with the Bishop's argument, which is the issue of why the Church should accept this approach to ethical issues. The answer the Bishop appears to give is because 'the arc of the moral universe keeps on bending towards justice.'[8] This phrase, which the Bishop takes from Martin Luther King, is rather opaque, but the argument that the Bishop seems to be putting forward is that history is on a trajectory towards justice, therefore our ideas of what constitutes justice are necessarily developing in the right direction, therefore more recent ideas of justice are better than older ones.

A little thought shows that this argument is extremely difficult to accept. This it because it would mean that every new idea of justice would automatically be right. In 1917 the Bolshevik idea that it was right to institute a dictatorship of the proletariat was new. Was it therefore correct? In the 1930's the Nazi idea that it was right that the Aryan race should rule over the Untermensch was new. Was it therefore correct? In our day the interpretation of Islamic justice put forward by Islamic state is new. Is it therefore correct? One could expand such a list of examples almost indefinitely, but the point is clear. The rule new = right does not allow for sufficient moral discrimination between different forms of belief and practice. The point is not that new ideas are never better than old ones. Sometimes they may be. The point is that we have to discern whether they are better or not.
The only way that we can engage in such discernment is if there is a transcendent and unchanging standard of justice standing outside the flux of history against which new ideas of justice can be measured, and as the Christian faith tells us, this standard is provided by the will of God. On the basis of God's self-revelation through Scripture and the created order, we know that God is unchangeably perfect in goodness, love and wisdom, and because this is the case what he tells us about what it means to behave justly is the plumb line that establishes whether we are behaving justly or not.

In thinking about justice what we need to do is engage the brains that God has given us in order to understand what God has said about how we should behave, and therefore what justice requires, and behave accordingly.

Why we have to use our brains.

This brings us to the fourth difficulty with the Bishop's argument which is that he advocates abandoning the use of the brain when engaging in sexual ethics. As the Bishop sees it, our bodies and our loves are 'mysterious' in the same way that God is mysterious[9] and this means that it is wrong to 'have sex on the brain' in the sense of seeking to determine rationally how people ought to behave.[10] According to the Bishop: 'People grow up and fall in love and their mysterious bodies lead them to love as they love, and they will love whom they love, and no amount of harrumphing is going to change that.' [11]

There are two problems with this argument.

First, although God is certainly mysterious in the sense that (in this life at least) we only have incomplete knowledge of what God is like, this does not means that what we do know about him does not provide us with a reliable guide as to how we should behave. Similarly, although we do not fully understand ourselves or our fellow human beings, this does not mean that we do not know enough to understand how we and others should behave.

The Bishop clearly does not in fact believe this, or else he would give up on all attempts to instruct people on how to behave, and hence would cease his advocacy of liberal religious and social causes. His advocacy of such causes only makes sense if he thinks that we can understand how people should behave and can cause people to change their behaviour accordingly.

Secondly, it is certainly true the people do not choose the sexual desires they have or the people they fall in love with. However, (a) this does not mean that people cannot choose how they behave and (b) it does not mean that people cannot be led to behave in ways that go against their desires. If either were true we would simply have to give up on sexual ethics entirely. We would simply have to say that people will behave as they want to behave and there is nothing that we can or should do about it.

The question the Bishop's argument begs is whether he really wants to adopt this position. Does he really want to say, for example, that casual sex, adultery, incest, polyamory, paedophila, and sexual violence are things we just have to accept and that we should stop 'harrumphing' about? After all, in all these cases people can and do claim that their conduct was motivated by love.

I suspect that the Bishop would claim that these forms of behaviour are not truly loving and that for this reason people should not engage in them, but he would have to make a rational argument in order to make good this claim. The brain would have to make a comeback and so his argument that we should not use the brain would be fatally undermined.

In reality, as I have said, sexual ethics is, or at least should be, a rational branch of human intellectual enquiry in which we employ the reason (the 'brain') that God has given us to determine how God wants us to behave in relation to a given situation. To give a basic example, I discover by rational enquiry that God forbids adultery (Exodus 20:14). I further discover that adultery means sex with someone who is not my spouse. I conclude as result that I should not have sex with a person who is not my spouse.

Why there is no good argument for changing the Church's position on same-sex marriage.

This brings us to the fifth and final difficulty with the Bishop's argument which is that although he tells us he wants the Church of England to adopt a gender-neutral marriage canon and as an interim measure he wants 'conscientious freedom for the Church's ministers and local leaders to honour, recognise and, yes indeed, to bless same-sex unions whether civil partnerships or civil marriages,'[12] he fails to give any reason why the Church should do any such thing.

As we have seen, his appeals to seamless inclusion, to following the world's moral agenda, and the need to give up the use of our brains simply do not work, and he offers nothing else.

Furthermore, the Bishop cannot in fact make a convincing Christian argument for either marrying people in same-sex relationships, or blessing such relationships, because no such argument exists.

The reason for this is very simple. As both nature and Scripture tell us, God has created human beings as male and female creatures designed to have sexual intercourse with members of the opposite sex and by this means to propagate the human species (Genesis 1:26-28). God has also established life-long marriage between one man and one woman as the context for sexual union between men and women and for the begetting and raising of children (Genesis 2:18-25, Matthew 19:3-6). In addition. God has instituted marriage between men and women as a living witness to the eternal relationship of loving communion that exists between God and his people and that will be fully enjoyed in the world to come (Ephesians 5:21-33, Revelation 19:7). Because all this is the case, marriage cannot be between two people of same-sex and all sex outside marriage (including sex between two people of the same-sex) is contrary to God's will and therefore sinful.

To put it in the form of a logical argument. God wills that sex should take place solely within marriage, marriage is between two people of the opposite sex, therefore people of the same sex cannot be married, therefore same-sex sex is sinful.

What follows from this is that the Church of England cannot institute a marriage canon saying that marriage can be between two people of the same-sex when this is simply not the case, and it cannot bless same-sex sexual relationships as though they were not contrary to God's will.

None of this means that the Church should not welcome those who are same-sex attracted, give them appropriate forms of love and support, and gratefully receive the range of gifts which they have to offer. The Church can and must do all these things, but in so doing it cannot compromise on the pattern for sexual relationships that God has laid down. This pattern is the agenda to which the Church must adhere as it engages with the challenges posed to it by the contemporary world using God's good gift of rationality as it does so.

As Paul teaches us in Romans 12, if we submit to God and allow him to work in our lives he will renew our minds through the work of the Holy Spirit so that we are able to discern rightly his perfect will for our lives and how we are to serve him in the world in which he has placed and to which he calls us to bring the good news of Jesus Christ.

'Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect'. (Romans 12:2)

We need to have sex on the brain.

Note: the anthropology of the Uppsala Report

In view of Bishop Paul's appeal to the WCC's 1968 Uppsala Report it is worth noting what that report had to say about what the Christian faith teaches about what it means to be human.

In the section of the report on 'Renewal in Mission' we find the following words:

'Men can know their true nature only if they see themselves as sons of God, answerable to their Father for one another and for the world. But because man refuses both the obedience and the responsibility of sonship his God-given dominion is turned into exploitation, and harmony into alienation in all his relationships. In this condition man, with all his amazing power, suffers an inescapable dread of his own helplessness and his deepest cry, albeit often unrecognized, is for the Triune God.

Jesus Christ, incarnate, crucified and risen, is the new man. In him was revealed the image of God as he glorified his Father in a perfect obedience. In his total availability for others, his absolute involvement and absolute freedom, his penetrating truth and his triumphant acceptance of suffering and death, we see what man is meant to be. Through that death on the Cross, man's alienation is overcome by the forgiveness of God and the way is opened for the restoration of all men to their sonship. In the resurrection of Jesus a new creation was born, and the final goal of history was assured, when Christ as head of that new humanity will sum up all things.

But the new manhood is not only a goal. It is also a gift and like all God's gifts it has to be appropriated by a response of faith. The Holy Spirit offers this gift to men in a variety of moments of decision. It is the Holy Spirit who takes the Word of God and makes it a living, converting word to men. Our part in evangelism might be described as bringing about the occasions for men's response to Jesus Christ. Often the turning point does not appear as a religious choice at all. Yet it is a new birth. It sets a pattern of dying and rising which will continually be repeated. For we have to be torn out of the restricted and perverted life of 'the old man'. We have to «put on the new man» and this change is always embodied in some actual change of attitude and relationship. For there is no turning to God which does not at the same time bring a man face to face with his fellow men in a new way. The new life frees men for community enabling them to break through racial, national, religious and other barriers that divide the unity of mankind.' [13]

These paragraphs are an excellent summary of the teaching of the Bible about what it means to be human. To be human is to be disobedient to God's call to sonship, to be restored to sonship through the saving work of Jesus Christ, and to converted and renewed through the work of the Holy Spirit and thus called into a life marked by a new pattern of relationship with other people.

If we go on to ask what the New Testament tells us about how human sexuality fits into this picture, Paul tells us in no uncertain terms in 1 Corinthians 6:18-20:

'Shun immorality. Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the immoral man sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.'

The word translated 'immorality' in the RSV is the Greek word porneian which is a catch all phrase referring to all types of sexual activity outside marriage (same-sex sexual relationships included). What Paul is saying is that as Christians we have been redeemed from sin and death by the work of Christ ('you were brought with a price') and our bodies have become places where God dwells through his Spirit. We are to live accordingly and this means that all sex outside marriage is strictly off limits.

What Bishop Paul is hoping that the Church of England will do flies directly in the face of this teaching and for this reason it should not happen.


[1] Movement of Supporting Anglicans for an Inclusive Church.

[2] Paul Bayes, Sex on the brain' (MoSAIC keynote, June 2021) at


[3] 'Church of England should recognise same-sex weddings, says bishop,' The Guardian 26 June 2021.

[4] Bayes, p.1.

[5] Bayes, p.1.

[6] Bayes, p.1.

[7] The World Council of Churches, The Uppsala Report, 1968 (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1968).

[8] Bayes, p.1.

[9] Bayes, p.3.

[10] Bayes, p.3.

[11] Bayes, pp.3-4.

[12] Bayes, p.5.

[13] Uppsala Report, p. 28.

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