A response to the letter from the Bishop of Bangor

A new letter from the Bishop of Bangor

In his new episcopal letter to the Diocese of Bangor on 2 February 2019[1] Bishop Andy John does three things.

  • First, he sets out the result of the voting on the issue of same-sex relationships that took place in the Governing Body of the Church in Wales in September 2018 and September 2015.
  • Secondly, he notes the divisions over the issue of same-sex unions within the Anglican Communion and the Christian Church as a whole, the persecution of LGBTI+ people and the way in which for many LGBTI+ people ‘the attitudes and assumptions of the Church today makes a hostile environment in which to survive let alone participate and thrive.’
  • Thirdly, he sets out his own thinking on the issue of same-sex relationships and way forward for the Church in Wales on this matter.

In this response I shall focus on what he say about his own thinking, but I shall also return at the end to the important point about the way in which attitudes and assumptions within the Church create difficulties for people with same-sex attraction.

A critical analysis of his argument

The bishop begins his account of his own thinking by noting what is said in the Old and New Testaments about marriage being between a man and a woman and about the prohibition of same sex sexual activity as a consequence of this. He comments:

‘Those Christians who urge the Church to adhere to traditional teaching believe that these texts, taken together, provide a broad and comprehensive prohibition. They rightly point out that whenever the Bible deals with this matter [i.e. same-sex sexual activity] it is always in negative terms and is properly summed up in the oft-repeated phrase: ‘The Church cannot bless what God does not.’'[

What the Bishop does not then do is explain how the biblical texts to which he has just referred can be understood if his preferred approach of supporting same-sex unions is adopted. He notes that these texts exist, but subsequently ignores them. This is highly problematic because if, as the Church has always held, these texts are part of God’s revelation of his will to the human race, then the bishop needs to offer some account of what they mean for us today. How are we to understand and apply the biblical rejection of all forms of sexual relationship outside marriage (same-sex relationships included)? The Bishop simply does not say.

What he does instead is move on to a number of other biblical texts which other Christians see as supportive of same-sex relationships.

The first text he appeals to is Galatians 5:22-23. He explains that those who are same-sex attracted experience in their relationship with their partner of the same sex ‘the very fruit of the Spirit identified by St Paul as a mark of God’s presence and blessing.’ What he fails to acknowledge however, is that Galatians 5:16-24 needs to be read as a literary unit in which St. Paul contrasts walking by the Spirit to living by the ‘flesh’ (by which he means the desires of fallen human nature.

In Galatians 5:18 Paul specifies that among the works of the flesh are ‘fornication, impurity and licentiousness.’ These are all general terms for sexual immorality, which in the New Testament context means all sexual activity outside marriage. Those who engage in such immorality, he says, ‘shall not inherit the kingdom of God’ (5:21).

By contrast, one of the fruits of the Spirit specified in Galatians 5:23 is egkrateia which means self-control (including sexual self-control) and which in context means avoiding the kind of immoral behaviour previously specified including sexually immoral behaviour. Furthermore, Galatians 5:24 declares ‘those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires’ and in context living this out must mean avoiding sexual immorality since this has been specified as a work of the flesh.

What all this means is that however much those with same-sex attraction may feel they experience the other fruits of the Spirit, according to Galatians 5:16-24 as a whole they are not living according to the Spirit but according to the flesh if they engage in same-sex sexual activity and if they do so they risk exclusion from God’s eternal kingdom.

The second text he appeals to is Matthew 5:16-17 which, he says, declares ‘fruitfulness’ to be the litmus test ‘which reveals the authenticity (or not) of any claim to communion with God and grace.’ In his view this means that we have to ask ‘If the fruit of a relationship is growth in godly character, in what sense can such a relationship could be considered ‘against the will of God’?

The first problem with what the bishop says here is that Matthew 5:16-17 does not say anything about fruitfulness. The text he is actually referring to is Matthew 7:16-17. The second problem is that Matthew 7:16-17 forms part of the Sermon on the Mount and the opening part of this sermon makes it clear that the ‘good fruit’ referred to in Matthew 7:17-18 is a life which fulfils the ‘law and the prophets’ (Matthew 5:17), by which is meant the teaching of what we called the Old Testament, and that Jesus interpreted the teaching about sexual ethics contained in the Old Testament more rather than less strictly than his Jewish contemporaries (Matthew 5:27-32).

Given the Old Testament’s rejection of same-sex sexual activity it is therefore impossible to envisage that the good fruit in Matthew 7:17-18 includes a relationship involving such activity.

The bishop then goes on to line up three texts, Acts 10, Acts 15:20-21 and Colossians 2:20-21. His argument is that in Colossians 2:20-21 St. Paul argues on the basis of the gospel that Christians are now free to ignore the teaching of Acts 15:20-21 that Gentiles admitted into the Church on the basis of God’s revelation to St. Peter in Acts 10 should abstain from eating blood and the meat of animals sacrificed to idols. Given this precedent, asks the bishop, is ‘it inappropriate for the church to ask whether the boundaries and limits of this new freedom have been properly explored and understood?’ In other words, can we not claim a freedom from restriction on sexual relationships just as St. Paul claimed a freedom from restriction on eating certain kinds of food?

The problem with this argument is that once again the bishop has ignored the context of the verses to which he refers. As David Gooding explains in his commentary on Acts,[2] what the restriction in Acts 15 is about is Gentiles respecting the consciences of Jewish believers for the sake of the unity of the Church. St. Paul too underlines the importance this principle of respecting the consciences of others regarding food (see Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8-10). However, in Colossians 2 the issue is different. Here St. Paul is facing teaching which says that it is necessary for Christians to observe the Jewish law in its fullness in order to be saved. He rejects this for the same reason he rejects similar teaching in Galatians, namely that salvation comes through dying and rising with Christ and not through legal observance.

On closer inspection, therefore, the supposed development from Acts 15 to Colossians 2 collapses and therefore so too does this part of the bishop’s argument.

The bishop’s next move is to argue that we have now moved beyond biblical teaching with regard to slavery, the position of women, divorce, usury and the belief that heaven is above and hell below us. The problem with this line of argument is that for the argument to be convincing the bishop would have to establish, rather than simply assert, that the Bible gives teaching in these areas which we are right to reject and that the principles that would lead us to reject it should also lead us to accept same-sex relationships. The bishop, however, fails to do this.

What he does instead is appeal to the idea that discerning the will of God includes ‘includes reading the Scriptures as well as other sources of authority such as reason, scientific evidence and in serious dialogue with other disciplines.’

There is no problem with the idea of making use of reason and scientific evidence and theology engaging in dialogue with other intellectual disciplines. Christians have been doing this since the Patristic era. However, because Scripture is directly inspired by God in the way that other human thinking is not, we have to avoid seeking to correct Scriptural teaching on the basis of human ideas. It is important to allow reason and science to challenge and refine the way we read the Scriptures, but in the end we have to accept that the Scriptures themselves are supremely authoritative as our basis for understanding God and what it means to live rightly before him (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

In addition the bishop fails to give any explanation of why reason, science and dialogue with other disciplines should re-shape the way we read Scripture on the issue of sexuality.

The bishop goes on to declare that having ministered alongside those in same-sex relationships:

‘I have come to believe that the Church should now fully include without distinction those who commit to permanent loving unions with a person of the same sex. I further believe that the best way to do this is for the Church to marry these people as we do with men and women.’

What this declaration does not tell us is the reasons why he has come to believe this. The fact that he has come to believe this does not mean that anyone else should unless he can show cogent reasons, in line with Scripture, why it would be right for them to do so.

As the Bishop sees it, allowing people of the same sex to marry in Church:

‘…will strengthen our witness to a world which longs to see justice and fairness for all, regardless of gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation, and cannot understand how the Church is still wrestling with an issue that most people have accepted long ago.’

What he is basically saying here is that the Church should conform to the world. The world has a particular understanding of what justice and fairness involves and we need to conform to it. The problem here is that this appeal to the principles of justice and fairness backfires.

What is normally meant by justice and fairness is giving people what is their due and treating equal cases equally. Contemporary society thinks this involves accepting same sex relationships and being willing to call them marriages. Anything else is seen as unjust and unfair.

However, if God has in fact created a world in which men and women are designed to engage in sexual relationships only with members of the opposite sex and has instituted marriage as a relationship between two people of the opposite sex then we do not owe it to people to say that same-sex relationships are morally acceptable and the principle of treating equal cases equally does not entail calling a relationship between two men or two men a marriage.

We cannot get away from the basic issue of what kind of a world has God made, and to know that we need to not only look at the evidence of biology which indicates that human bodies are designed for heterosexual sex (which is the point being made by St. Paul in Romans 1:26-27), but supremely the testimony of Scripture which teaches us that our bodies are designed this way by God and that it is God who created marriage as the proper context for heterosexual sex to take place.

Although he personally supports same-sex marriage the bishop also suggests that:

‘… there are good arguments for developing the Church’s teaching in other ways, for example by introducing a service of life vows or revisiting the question of blessing same sex unions.’

However, yet again he does not say what these arguments are or explain how such vows or blessings would be compatible with Scripture if they involved giving official church recognition to same-sex relationships.

Conclusion

For the reasons given above the argument presented by the Bishop of Bangor in his letter is not convincing. He simply does not make out a convincing case for changing the Church’s teaching and practice.

Where he is right, however, is in saying that many people with same-sex attraction experience the Church as a hostile place. However, the proper way to address this is not to change the Church’s teaching.

As the Ed Shaw, himself same-sex attracted, argues in his important book The Plausibility Problem,[3] the problem lies not with the Church holding that sex should only take place within heterosexual marriage, but with the way in which people within the Church collude with the culture in suggesting that you can’t be happy without sex, value marriage and family life above singleness, and wrongly identify godliness with heterosexuality.

What the Church needs to do, he argues, is recapture the importance of celibacy and singleness and provide a place where everyone is valued, loved and supported regardless of their sexual attraction. That is what is needed, not same-sex marriage.

[1] https://bangor.eglwysyngnghymru.org.uk/newyddion/2019/02/03/llythyr-esgobol-newydd-esgob-andy/

[2] David Gooding, True to the Faith, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1990, pp.237-238.

[3] Ed Shaw, The Plausibility Problem, Nottingham: IVP. 2015.

 

 

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Believing in the body

Dr John Shepherd and the denial of the bodily resurrection.

It was revealed last week that the new interim head of the Anglican Centre in Roman, John Shepherd, appears not to believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead.

In an Easter message from 2008 unearthed by the conservative Anglican commentator David Ould, Dr Shepherd, who was then the Dean of Perth Cathedral in Western Australia, declares:

‘The Resurrection of Jesus ought not to be seen in physical terms, but as a new spiritual reality. It is important for Christians to be set free from the idea that the Resurrection was an extraordinary physical event which restored to life Jesus’ original earthly body.’

He goes on to say that:

‘Jesus’ early followers felt His presence after His death as strongly as if it were a physical presence and incorporated this sense of a resurrection experience into their gospel accounts;. But they’re not historical records as we understand them. They are symbolic images of the breaking through of the resurrection spirit into human lives.’

As he sees it, the truth behind the bodily imagery used to describe Jesus in the resurrection accounts in the Gospels is that ‘Jesus lived … as a transformed spiritual reality.’[1]

In response to criticisms of what he said in this message, Dr Shepherd has now stated: ‘It is my faith that Jesus rose from the dead and I have never denied the reality of the empty tomb.’[2]

How is one to square this new statement with what he said in 2008 (and which he has never repudiated)? As far as I can see, the only way to make sense of his position is to say he believes that the tomb was empty because Jesus’ physical body came to be transformed into a new form of existence which was entirely spiritual, and therefore non-corporeal. There was no body in the tomb because the body had ceased to exist.

The problems with his teaching.

This account of Jesus’ resurrection is clearly at variance with classical Anglican teaching which holds, in the words of Article IV of the Thirty Nine Articles, that ‘Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature.’

More importantly, it is contrary to the witness of the New Testament which uses the term ‘resurrection’ in its first century Jewish sense of the bodily resurrection of those who have died. The belief witnessed to consistently in the New Testament is that resurrection means neither a purely spiritual mode of post-mortem existence, nor a reanimation of our bodies into the same state that they were in before they died. Rather, the belief found in the New Testament is that following the pattern of Christ’s resurrection our bodies will be given new life by God, a new life in which they will be animated by the Holy Spirit and free from the decay and mortality which afflicts them in this world.[3]

This is what St. Paul means when he writes in 1 Corinthians 15:43-44 that the body of the Christian ‘…is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.’ As Tom Wright notes, the contrast here is not between our present physical existence and a future non-physical one. ‘The contrast is between the present body, corruptible, decaying and doomed to die, and the future body, incorruptible, un-decaying, never to die again.’[4] It is the self-same body, but in two very different modes of existence. [5]

Why people have ceased to believe in the bodily resurrection.

If we ask why Shepherd and many other theologians, members of the clergy and ordinary lay Christians, have ceased to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus the answer is twofold.

Firstly, there is the influence of the scepticism about the possibility of miracles that has become a central part of Western thought since the Enlightenment. Nature is seen as closed system which God (if he exists) either cannot, or does not, alter. Within this closed system bodies die and then decay and the same, it is held, must have been true of the body of Jesus.

This, however, does not seem to be the road which Dr Shepherd has gone down. What his thinking reflects is another prevalent strand of Western thought, one which denies the unity of the human person.

The Christian tradition, following the Bible, has taught that human beings have been created by God as a ‘psychosomatic unity.’ That is to say they, are neither purely spiritual (like angels), nor purely material (like rocks), but an inseparable combination of a spiritual soul and a material body. In the words of Karl Barth, a human being:

‘…is soul as he is a body and this is his body. Hence he is not only soul that ‘has’ a body which perhaps it might not have, but he is bodily soul, as he also besouled body.’ [6]

Much modern Western thought, however, has denied the unity of the human person. Following a tradition going back to Plato it has held instead that the true self is a purely spiritual entity which is only tangentially and temporarily attached to a body.

On this view of the matter it does not matter if the body of Christ ceased to exist because the real Jesus was his immortal soul which entered after his death into a new form of purely spiritual existence and the Christian hope becomes that the same will be true for us.

For orthodox Christianity this notion is heretical because it denies the reality of how God has made us and the hope which he has given us through Christ’s resurrection that this reality will find its fulfilment in the world to come. As we have seen, the New Testament witness is that we who have an embodied existence in this world will also live for ever in a glorious embodied existence in the world to come, and genuine Christian hope is based on the conviction that this witness is true.

Disregard of the body and the acceptance of same-sex sexual activity and gender transition.

The disregard of the importance of the body which results in this form of denial of belief in the resurrection of the body is what also lies behind the modern arguments for the acceptance of same-sexual activity and gender transition.

Modern liberal arguments for the acceptance of both are based on the belief that whatever the immaterial self desires should be viewed as good. Thus if I want to have sex with a member of my own sex that should be viewed as good because it is what I desire. [7] Thus also, if I desire to adopt a gender identity that is at variance with my biological identity this too should be viewed as good because it is what I desire.

At the heart of this approach is a belief in freedom as absolute self-determination. In the words of John Webster:

‘Modern accounts of freedom identify freedom as unfettered liberty for self-creation and therefore contrast freedom and nature: freedom is the antithesis of the given, a move over and against any sense that I have a determinate identity.’ [8]

From an orthodox Christian perspective, however, simply focusing on what we desire is insufficient. This is because, to quote Webster again, being human is not about ‘an utterly original making of life and history.’ Rather ‘to be human is to live and act in conformity to the given truth (nature) of who I am.’[9] This given nature of who I am is good like everything else that God has made (Genesis 1:31) and true freedom is the ability to accept this given nature as God’s gift and live accordingly.

Central to what God has given us is bodies which have a particular sex (Genesis 1:26-27) [10] and which are designed by him for sexual intercourse with a member of the opposite sex in the context of marriage (Genesis 2:18-24).[11] The path of Christian virtue consequently lies in working to conform our desires to this key aspect of our embodiment rather than disregarding our embodiment for the sake of our desires.

In specific terms what this means is that we need to obey St. Paul’s injunction to ‘glorify God in your body (1 Corinthians 6:20) by accepting the sex of our bodies as our sex and restricting our sexual activity to the opposite sex marital end for which it was designed.

This is a hard calling for those who suffer from gender dysphoria or who are same-sex attracted, but it is not a calling that the Church is free to say that they can therefore disregard. This is because it is a particular form of a general calling to all Christians to die to self in order to live for God. It is the concrete meaning for them of Jesus’ declaration ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’ (Matthew 16:24).

Believing in the body and living it out.

In summary, the Christian faith tells us that we are embodied beings. We have no self outside the particular embodied self God has created us to be. On this basis our hope lies in the belief that, like Jesus, we shall be raised from the dead to live a new embodied life free from corruption, decay and death in God’s eternal kingdom. On this basis also our present calling is to live out our embodiment according to the sex of the bodies that God has given us and to engage in sexual activity only with a member of the opposite sex and in the context of marriage.

These are the truths by which, with God’s assistance, we are called to live in the midst of the theological and moral confusion of our day and these are the truths we are called to make known to those around us so that they may live by them too.

[1] David Ould, ‘New head of Anglican Centre in Rome is denier of Jesus’ resurrection,’ at https://davidould.net/new-head-of-anglican-centre-in-rome-is-denier-of-jesus-resurrection/.

[2] Anglican Communion News Service, ‘Interim Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome rebuffs “resurrection” Criticism,’ January 15, 2019, at: https://www.anglicannews.org/news/2019/01/interim-director-of-the- anglican-centre-in-rome-rebuffs-resurrection-criticism.aspx.

[3] For this see N T Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, London: SPCK, 2003.

[4] Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, London: SPCK, 2007, p.167.

[5] An analogy would be the way in which the self-same body is in both continuity and difference the body of a baby, a child and an adult.

[6] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.2, London and New York: T&T Clark, 2004, p.350.

[7] The contemporary emphasis on consent fits into this approach because it says that sex is something that both people involved should desire.

[8] John Webster, Holiness, London: SCM, 2003, p. 88.

[9] Ibid, p.88.

[10] The only exceptions are the tiny number of people (some 0.018% of live births) who due to a disorder in their sexual development are genuinely intersex in the sense that they have both male and female elements in their biology.

[11] When St. Paul says in Romans 1:26 that same-sex activity is ‘unnatural’ what he means is that it goes against the way that human bodies are designed. For this point see Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001, pp.254-270.

 

The House of Bishops and transgender: Fifteen wasted years.

Introduction.

In 2018 the House of Bishops issued two statements on the transgender issue. The first of these was GS Misc. 1178, ‘An update on ‘Welcoming Transgender People,’’[1] and the second, which built upon the first, was ‘Pastoral Guidance for use in conjunction with the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith in the context of gender transition.’[2]

Although these are the two most recent House of Bishops statements on the subject, they were not the first material produced by the House on the transgender issue. In 2003 the House of Bishops published a discussion document entitled Some Issues in Human Sexuality[3] which, among other topics, looked at what it called ‘transsexualism’ and in the same year the House issued a memorandum on the matter.[4]

In this paper I shall compare and contrast what is said in these four documents. I shall argue that they show us three main things. First that the House’s position changed from one of neutrality in 2003 to one of support for gender transition in 2018. Secondly, that that the House failed to give adequate theological justification either for the position it took in 2003 or for the position it adopted in 2018. Thirdly, that for fifteen years the House has avoided answering the key questions about the transgender issue identified in Some Issues in Human Sexuality and that is this failure that has prevented it from reaching a theologically justifiable position on gender transition.

I shall also argue that the House has failed to make a proper contribution to the public debate on the transgender issue, and has failed to give guidance on pastoral care for people with gender dysphoria and their families, on the marriage of those who have gone through gender transition and on the issue of whether those who have gone through gender transition should be ordained.

Finally, I shall suggest where we need to go from here.

Some Issues in Human Sexuality 2003.

As its subtitle suggests, Some Issues in Human Sexuality was written as ‘a guide to the debate’ about human sexuality as this stood at the time when this report was written. The report was intended to enable members of the Church of England to better understand the matters under discussion so that when they came to make decisions about them they would do so in a properly informed fashion.

Chapter 7 of the report is concerned with the topic of ‘transsexualism’ (what we would now call ‘transgender’ issues). The chapter looks in turn at what is meant by the term ‘transsexualism,’ the history of transsexualism, the growth of the debate about transsexualism in society as a whole and the nature of the Christian debate about transsexualism. It also highlights the issues about the nature of the human person, divine order, the interpretation of the Bible, the appropriateness of medical intervention, marriage and birth certificates, and the place of transsexual people in the life of the Church that are raised by the Christian debate.

At the end of the chapter two key questions are identified as lying at the heart of the Christian debate about transsexualism.

The first question concerns what it means for a transsexual person to live in obedience to Christ.

The report asks:

‘Does such obedience mean learning to accept and live with their given biological identity because this is the identity which God has given them, or does it mean seeking a new post-operative identity on the grounds that it is this which will enable them to more fully express the person God intends them to be?’[5]

What is said in this quotation reflects the fact that back in 2003 sexual reassignment surgery was the centre of the discussion of transsexualism. Today we would be more aware that many transgender people find ways of expressing their sense of their true identity without undergoing surgery. However, the fundamental issue raised in the question remains as relevant today as it was then. Does the path of Christian discipleship for transgender people involve accepting their biological identity, or does it mean seeking a new identity which they think more fully expresses the person God intended them to be?

The second question concerns what constitutes our God- given identity as human beings. The report states:

‘It has traditionally been held that one of the implications of the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body is that it shows that our bodies are integral to who we are before God. We are not simply people who inhabit bodies, rather our bodies are part of who we are. If this is the case, what are the theological grounds for saying that in the case of people with gender dysphoria their ‘true’ identity is different from that of the body with which they were born? Can we go down this road without moving to a new form of gnostic dualism in which the body is seen as separate from the self? ‘[6]

Although the report itself does not say so, because it is raising questions rather than answering them, the answer to the question in the last sentence of this quotation is ‘no.’

As Robert George explains in his 2016 article ‘Gnostic Liberalism,’ despite the differences between them the various Gnostic heresies that existed during the early centuries of the Church all held to an anthropology that sharply divided:

‘….the material or bodily, on the one hand, and the spiritual or mental or affective, on the other. For Gnostics, it was the immaterial, the mental, the affective that ultimately matters. Applied to the human person, this means that the material or bodily is inferior—if not a prison to escape, certainly a mere instrument to be manipulated to serve the goals of the ‘person,’ understood as the spirit or mind or psyche. The self is a spiritual or mental substance; the body, its merely material vehicle. You and I, as persons, are identified entirely with the spirit or mind or psyche, and not at all (or in only the most highly attenuated sense) with the body that we occupy (or are somehow ‘associated with’) and use.‘ [7]

The anthropology of the modern transgender movement is based on a similar division between the self and the body. The often repeated transgender claim that someone is a man trapped in a woman’s body, or a woman trapped in a man’s body (or someone who is neither male nor female trapped in a man or woman’s body), only makes sense if it is held that that there is a self which has an identity which is separate from, and different to, the body to which it is attached. I can only meaningfully say that my sexual identity is different from the biological sex of my body if in fact I am not my body, but a distinct spiritual or mental substance which exists apart from my body.

Orthodox Christianity, however, rejects this kind of body-self dualism. Scripture, reason and the Christian tradition all teach us that in his goodness and wisdom God made human beings as a unity of body and soul. Rocks are purely material, angels are purely spiritual, but human beings are a unity of a material body and an immaterial soul. This unity means that we are our bodies and our bodies are us, which is why it makes sense to say I got up in the morning, I ate and drank, and I went to bed at night. All these are actions of the single self who is both body and soul. It is this combination of body and soul that we see exhibited in the stories in the Gospels about the humanity of Christ. Christ is one self in whom a human body and soul exist and act together.[8]

It is as this unity of body and soul that we are either male or female. To be male or female is to have certain bodily characteristics that are designed by God to enable us to fulfil his command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28) by playing a particular role in the procreation and nurture of children.

Although death leads to a separation of the body and the soul, so fundamental are our bodies to who we are that, following the pattern of Christ’s resurrection, God will resurrect our bodies at the end of time so that we will exist for all eternity as the male and female human beings God created us to be (see 1 Corinthians 15).

There is a very tiny number of human beings (around 0.018% of live births) who suffer from a developmental disorder stemming from the Fall that means that they either have elements of both male and female in their biology or have a body whose observable physical characteristics cannot be classified as either male or female.[9] However, these intersex people are the exceptions that prove the rule. The vast majority of human beings fulfil God’s original creative intention by being clearly and indisputably either male or female in their biology and therefore in who they are.

Those who suffer from gender dysphoria are part of this majority. They find it psychologically difficult to identify with the sex of their bodies, but the sex of their bodies is physiologically unambiguous. They are men and women who, for reasons which are still not clearly understood, struggle with being men and women.[10]

All this being the case, it follows that the answer to the previous question in Some Issues about Christian discipleship is that it is not compatible with the path of Christian discipleship for people with male or female bodies to claim either that they are really a member of the other sex, or that they have some other kind of sexual identity. Our responsibility as God’s human creatures is to acknowledge and accept with gratitude the sex God has made us to be as this is manifested to us in the nature of our bodies, and this remains true even in the case of those who struggle with gender dysphoria.

In the words of Oliver O’Donovan:

‘The sex into which we have been born (assuming it is physiologically unambiguous) is given to us to be welcomed as the gift of God. The task of psychological maturity – for it is a moral task, and not merely an event which may or may not transpire – involves accepting this gift and learning to love it, even though we may have to acknowledge that it does not come to us without problems. Our task is to discern the possibilities for personal relationship which are given to us with this biological sex, and to seek to develop them in accordance with our individual vocations. Those for whom this task has been comparatively unproblematic (though I suppose that no human being alive has been without some sexual problems) are in no position to pronounce any judgement on those for whom accepting their sex has been so difficult that they have fled from it into denial. Nevertheless, we cannot and must not conceive of physical sexuality as a mere raw material with which we can construct a form of psychosexual self-expression which is determined only by the free impulse of our spirits. Responsibility in sexual development implies a responsibility to nature – to the ordered good of the bodily form which we have been given.‘[11]

The House of Bishops Memorandum 2003.

Following its meeting in Leeds early in 2003 the House of Bishops issued a memorandum on transsexualism which runs as follows:

‘The House recognised that there was a range of views within the Church on transsexualism and accepted that (as matters stood at present) both the positions set out below could properly be held: a) some Christians concluded on the basis of Scripture and Christian anthropology, that concepts such as ‘gender reassignment’ or ‘sex change’ were really a fiction. Hormone treatment or surgery might change physical appearance, but they could not change the fundamental God-given reality of ‘male and female He created them’. b) others, by contrast, whilst recognising that medical opinion was not unanimous, were persuaded that there were individuals whose conviction that they were ‘trapped in the wrong body’ was so profound and persistent that medical intervention, which might include psychiatric, hormone, and surgical elements, was legitimate and that the result could properly be termed a change of sex or gender.

The House agreed that the Church should continue to engage in discussions with the Lord Chancellor’s Department with a view to safeguarding the position of bishops unwilling to ordain transgendered candidates and, once marriage of transsexuals became possible in law, securing an exemption for clergy not willing to solemnise such marriages.’ [12]

As the second paragraph indicates, the context of this memorandum was the discussions which the Church of England was then having with the Lord Chancellor’s Department to safeguard the freedom of bishops not to ordain transgender candidates and the right of clergy not to marry transgender people in their chosen sex once such a marriage became possible in law (as it did under the Gender Recognition Act the following year).

In this context the purpose of the first paragraph was to make clear that the view that ‘gender reassignment’ or ‘sex change’ was a fiction could properly be held by members of the Church of England and that therefore freedom of religion meant that such a view should be protected in law with the consequence that bishops should not have to ordain transgender candidates or clergy have to marry people in their assumed identity.

From an orthodox Christian standpoint it is easy to see why the bishops state that this position (position a) can properly (i.e. rightly) be held within the Church of England. As we have seen, orthodox Christian anthropology holds on the basis of Scripture, reason and tradition, that the unity of the human person means what makes someone male or female is their biology. Because this is immutable it follows that any claim to have changed sex is a fiction. Someone can adopt the role of a member of the opposite sex (or of someone who is neither make nor female), but this is not who they truly are.

What the bishops do not make clear, however, is why the alternative position (position b) can also properly be held. There is a growing body of evidence that medical intervention is not necessarily the best way to help people who find it difficult or impossible to accept their sex.[13] Furthermore, it is difficult to see on what basis the results of such intervention could rightly be called a change of sex. Hormones and surgery can mask someone’s biological sex, but they cannot fundamentally alter it. It follows that a change of sex does not and cannot occur. As John McHugh puts it, ‘Transgendered men do not become women, nor do transgendered women become men.’[14]

The only way it could be held that someone’s true identity was different from their biology would be to go down the route of dividing the self from the body and, as we have seen, this approach involves a gnostic dualism which is incompatible with orthodox Christian anthropology. The bishops’ memorandum suggests that it is possible for medical intervention to change someone’s sex by changing their body, but for the reason noted in the previous paragraph this suggestion does not work. This means one either has to buy into body-self dualism, or say that the claims about their identity made by those who have undergone gender transition are indeed fictitious.

Although the memorandum was produced prior to the publication of Some Issues in Human Sexuality, the bishops were aware of what that report was going to say. However, they decided not to address the questions it raises about whether the claims made by the transgender movement can be upheld without accepting a gnostic anthropology and whether, therefore, gender transition is compatible with Christian discipleship. Because the memorandum does not engage with these questions the bishops fail to establish that Christians can properly support gender transition.

GS Misc. 1178 – ‘An update on ‘Welcoming Transgender People’’ 2018.

After 2003 the House of Bishops produced nothing further on the transgender issue until January 2018 when it published GS Misc. 1178, ‘An update on ‘Welcoming Transgender People.’’

This paper was a response to a motion on ‘Welcoming transgender people’ that had been passed by the General Synod in July the previous year. This motion ran:

‘That this Synod, recognising the need for transgender people to be welcomed and affirmed in their parish church, call on the House of Bishops to consider whether some nationally commended liturgical materials might be prepared to mark a person’s gender transition.’[15

In response to this motion, GS Misc. 1178 suggests that rather than create new liturgical materials Church of England ministers should respond to requests to mark a transgender person’s new identity ‘in a creative and sensitive way’ by making using of the existing rites of Baptism and Confirmation, or the service for Affirmation of Baptismal Faith, which the paper suggests is an ideal liturgical rite which trans people can use to mark this moment of personal renewal.’

Unlike the 2003 memorandum, which declares that those in the Church of England can properly hold both that the identity claimed by someone as a result of gender transition is a fiction, and that a change of sexual identity has in fact occurred, GS Misc. 1178 talks only about the affirmation of gender transition. The idea that someone might properly be unable to affirm that gender transition has occurred, or might properly hold that a person’s rejection of their biological sex was incompatible with Christian discipleship, is absent from the picture.

If we ask why GS Misc. 1178 thinks that gender transition should be affirmed we are not given an answer.

The two places in the paper in which the bishops give justification for what they propose are in paragraphs 3 and 6. They run as follows:

‘The House of Bishops welcomes and encourages the unconditional affirmation of trans people, equally with all people, within the Church, the body of Christ, and rejoices in the diversity of that one body, into which all Christians have been baptized by one Spirit.’

‘The image of God, in which we are all made, transcends gender, race, and any other characteristic, and our shared identity as followers of Jesus is the unity which makes all one in Christ (Galatians 3.27-28).’

What is said in these two quotations is in itself true and helpful. It is right to welcome and affirm unconditionally as people those who identify as transgender and it is right to rejoice in the God given diversity of the body of Christ. It is also right to say that all human beings are created in God’s image regardless of their gender, race, or any other characteristic and that it is being followers of Jesus that unites Christians together.

However, none of this tells us why it is right to affirm gender transition. Welcoming and affirming people as those whom God has created and redeemed, rejoicing in the contribution they make to the diversity of the body of Christ, and acknowledging that they have been made in God’s image and that we are united to them as fellow followers of Jesus, does not mean that we have to accept every claim that people make about themselves or everything that they do. Indeed the warning given by St. Paul in Romans 1:18-32 about the way in which human thinking and behaviour has been distorted by the Fall means that we have to accept that some of the claims people make about themselves will be untrue and some of things that they do will be wrong.

This means that we cannot simply accept at face value the claim made by transgender people that they are trapped in bodies which do not express their true identities, or that it is, or has been, right for them to undergo a process of gender transition. Reasons have to be put forward for accepting either of these claims and GS Misc. 1178 does not offer such reasons.

Furthermore, like the 2003 memorandum, GS Misc.1178 fails to engage with the key questions raised in Some Issues in Human Sexuality. Just like in 2003 the bishops fail to address the questions Some Issues raises about whether the claims made by the transgender movement can be upheld without accepting a gnostic anthropology and whether, therefore, gender transition is compatible with Christian discipleship.

As we have seen, had they looked seriously at these questions they would have had to say that the answer to both of them is ‘no’ and that for this reason it is not right to use the Church of England’s liturgy to affirm gender transition regardless of what was said by General Synod about the matter.

Pastoral Guidance for use in conjunction with the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith in the context of gender transition 2018.

The Pastoral Guidance published by the House of bishops in December 2018 follows on from what is said in GS Misc. 1178. This guidance explains in more detail what would be involved in using the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith (or the rites of Baptism and Confirmation if these are felt to be more appropriate) in order ‘to recognize liturgically a person’s gender transition.’ [16]

Like GS Misc.1178, the Pastoral Guidance gives unequivocal support to affirming gender transition. The guidance insists that rites marking gender transition ‘should have a celebratory character’[17] and once again the idea that someone might properly be unable to affirm that gender transition has occurred, or might properly hold that a person’s rejection of their biological sex is incompatible with Christian discipleship, is conspicuous by its absence.

The Pastoral Guidance is also like GS Misc.1178 in failing to explain why gender transition should be affirmed. The justification that is offered is word for word identical with what is said in the previous document[18] and is unsatisfactory for exactly the same reasons.

The Guidance that has not been given

Part of the role of the bishops is to contribute a Christian voice to debates about important issues taking place in British society. When it comes to the issue of gender transition the bishops have failed in this role.

They have, rightly, spoken out against violence and hatred directed towards transgender people. However, they have not contributed to the public discussion about whether it makes sense to say that people are ‘trapped in the wrong body’ or can ‘change their sex,’ or to the discussion about how acceptance of male to female transition affects the issue of women’s rights, or to the discussion about whether gender transition is the best treatment for gender dysphoria, or to the discussion about the potential medical and psychological effects of launching children and young people on a path of gender transition that may involve the use of hormones to block puberty.

All these are serious issues on which there has been, and still is, vigorous debate. However, the bishops have failed to make a Christian theological or ethical contribution to this debate and have therefore left the impression that these are issues on which the Church has nothing worthwhile to say.

There has, for example, been no contribution from the bishops to the vigorous public debate around the Government’s proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act. The sole official Church of England response has been a note from Dr Malcolm Brown, the Church of England’s Director of Mission and Public Affairs, explaining that the Church was not going to respond to the Government’s questionnaire because this might cause difficulties for the Living in Love and Faith Process – a consideration which did not, as we have seen, prevent the bishops agreeing to a change in the Church’s liturgical practice to allow the celebration of gender transition. [19]

The bishops have also failed to give any guidance on pastoral care for people with gender dysphoria and their families. Gender dysphoria is a condition which can have a devastating effect on the people involved and on their families and friends. Clergy and laity need guidance on how to provide, or arrange, appropriate spiritual, emotional, psychological and medical support which is in line with Christian teaching for people in this situation. Sadly the bishops have failed to provide, or commission, any material to provide such guidance.

A final failure by the bishops has been to provide guidance on the issues of marriage and ordination. The position of the Church of England is that clergy may, but do not have to, marry those who have gone through gender transition in their new identity, and that bishops may, but do not have to, ordain transgender candidates.[20] Some Issues in Human Sexuality sets out the arguments around the marriage and ordination of transgender people,[21] but the bishops have failed to engage with these arguments and have not produced any material which gives a theological justification for the Church’s current policy. As a result the Church’s position appears simply arbitrary.

Where should we go from here?

The transgender movement has taken over from the gay rights movement as the leading progressive social cause of our time and conversation with those involved in ministry, particularly ministry among young people, will soon show that the number of people who identify as transgender is growing exponentially. This is therefore an issue which the Church has to get to grips with and the bishops have the responsibility to provide the Church with leadership and guidance on the matter. Unfortunately, as this paper has shown, their track record in this area has not been good.

After fifteen years this needs to change. The bishops should take the opportunity provided by the Living in Love and Faith process to produce detailed teaching and guidance on this issue, teaching and guidance which covers all the matters noted in this paper and which starts from the basic Christian beliefs that human beings are a unity of body and soul and that the human calling is to accept with gratitude the sex we have been give through our bodies as a good gift from God (however challenging we may find such acceptance to be) and to live accordingly.

This is, of course, very hard teaching for those with gender dysphoria, but, as we have seen, it is teaching that we cannot avoid unless we want to go down the gnostic path of dividing the self from the body. We are called to show the maximum amount of compassion for those with gender dysphoria, and give them the maximum amount of support, but we cannot do this by simply setting aside what Scripture, tradition and reason tell us about the way God created his human creatures to be.

M B Davie 2.1.19

[1] General Synod, GS Misc. 1178, ‘An Update on ‘Welcoming Transgender people’’ at https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2018-01/GS%20Misc%201178%20-%20An%20update%20on%20Welcoming%20Transgender%20People%20%28003%29.pdf

[2] House of Bishops, ‘Pastoral Guidance for use in conjunction with the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith in the context of gender transition.’ at https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2018-

12/Pastoral%20Guidance-Affirmation-Baptismal- Faith.pdf

[3] House of Bishops, Some Issues in Human Sexuality, London: CHP, 2003.

[4] House of Bishops Memo HB(03)M1 text at http://changingattitude.org.uk/archives/8542

[5] Some Issues, pp.248-9.

[6] Ibid, p.249.

[7] Robert George, ‘Gnostic Liberalism,’ First Things, December 2016, at  https://www.firstthings.com/article/2016/12/gnostic-liberalism

[8] In the words of the Athanasian Creed, Christ was (and is) ‘Perfect God and Perfect Man: of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.’

[9] For details see Leonard Sax, How common is intersex?’, Journal of Sex Research, 1 August, 2002, text at http://www.leonardsax.com/how-common-is-intersex-a-response-to-anne-fausto-sterling/.

[10] It is sometimes suggested (and even taught in schools) that there are people who have female brains in male bodies and vice versa and that this is what leads them to identify with the opposite sex from the rest of their body. However, at the moment there is no reliable scientific evidence which shows that transgender people have distinctively different brains or that it is the form of their brains that gives them their sense of sexual identity (see the   summary of the relevant studies in Lawrence Meyer and Paul McHugh, ‘Gender identity’  New Atlantis, Fall 2016, pp.102-104 and the discussion in Mark Yarhouse, Understanding Gender Dysphoria, Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015, Ch. 3).

[11] Oliver O’Donovan, Begotten or Made?, Oxford: OUP, 1984, pp.28-29.

[12] House of Bishops Memo.

[13] See Meyer and McHugh, op.cit, Part 3 and Ryan T Anderson, When Harry became Sally, New York: Encounter Books, 2018, Chs. 5-6 and Yarhouse, op.cit. Ch. 5.

[14] John McHugh, ‘Transgenderism: A Pathogenic Meme,’ Public Discourse, June 10, 2015 at https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2015/06/15145/

[15] Details about the motion can be found at https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media- centre/news/welcoming-transgender-people.

[16] Pastoral Guidance, Para 2

[17] Ibid, Para 4

[18] Ibid, Paras 1 and 2.

[19] Reform of the Gender Recognition Act – Government Consultation A Response from the Church of England can be found at:  https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/201810/Gender%20Recognition%20Act%2 consultation%20response.pdf.

[20] The decision of the House of Bishops in 2002 was that bishops who agreed to sponsor a transgender  candidate must also take responsibility for ordaining them and finding them a title parish. See Chris Newlands, GS 2071A Diocesan Synod Motion Welcoming Transgender People , Para 11 at: https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2017-11/gs-2071a-welcoming-transgender-people.pdf and also Ministry Division, Sending Candidates to BAP, 2017, para 1.14.

[21] Some Issues, pp. 239-242, 247-8 and 286-289.

Why is the birth of Christ the Christmas ‘must have’?

Why celebrate the birth of Christ?

This year’s Christmas advert from Marks and Spencer asks the question what is the ‘must have’ which ‘makes Christmas, Christmas’? The advert’s answers to this question include lights, parties and various types of women’s underwear, but from a Christian perspective all these answers miss the one ‘must have’ which genuinely ‘makes Christmas, Christmas,’ which is the birth of Jesus Christ.

For Christians the whole point of Christmas is to celebrate Jesus being born as a human being in Bethlehem from the Virgin Mary. From a Christian point of view to celebrate Christmas without celebrating Jesus’ birth, is to have an event that is missing its essential element. It is like having a feast with no food to eat, a coronation with no one to crown, or an election with no one to elect.

When Christians say that the point of Christmas is to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ this leads, of course, to the response ‘Why is this birth worth celebrating’? In this post I shall address this response by looking at why the birth of Jesus Christ is the one ‘must have’ for all human beings and for that reason something which should be celebrated.

C S Lewis on why the birth of Christ matters.

A helpful way to begin to understand the necessity of the birth of Jesus Christ is provided by C S Lewis in his book Mere Christianity. He starts by noting that there are two different kinds of life. The first is what he calls the natural life. This is the created life that all human beings possess as a result of having been called into existence out of nothing by God. The second is what he calls the begotten life. This is the eternal spiritual life which God the Son possesses as a result of having come forth from God the Father.

God’s will for his human creatures, he says, is that they should possess both kinds of life and so live for ever as God’s children. However, in the world as it exists today these two kinds of life are:

‘…not only different (they would always have been that) but actually opposed. The natural life in each of us is something self-centred, something that wants to be petted and admired, to take advantage of other lives, to exploit the whole universe. And especially it wants to be left by itself: to keep well away from anything better or stronger or higher than it, anything that might make it feel small. It is afraid of the light and air of the spiritual world, just as those who have been brought up to be dirty are afraid of a bath. And in a sense it is quite right. It knows that if the spiritual life gets hold of it, all its self-centredness and self-will are going to be killed and it is ready to fight tooth and nail to avoid that.’ [1]

As an analogy, Lewis asks us to imagine what would be involved in an old fashioned tin soldier becoming a real human being:

‘It would involve turning the tin into flesh. And suppose the tin soldier did not like it. He is not interested in flesh; all he sees is that the tin is being spoilt. He thinks you are killing him. He will do everything he can to prevent you. He will not be made into a man if he can help it.’ [2]

Having explained that this is the human situation, Lewis then goes on to explain how God has dealt with it through the birth of Jesus Christ. He writes:

‘What you would have done about that tin soldier I do not know. But what God did about us was this. The Second Person in God, the Son, became human Himself: was born into the world as an actual man – a real man of a particular height, with hair of a particular colour, speaking a particular language, weighing so many stone. The Eternal Being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a Woman’s body.’[3]

The result of God’s action was that:

‘…you now had one man who really was what all men were intended to be: one man in whom the created life, derived from his Mother, allowed itself to be completely and perfectly turned into the begotten life. The natural human creature in Him was taken up fully into the divine Son. Thus in one instance humanity had, so to speak, arrived: had passed into the life of Christ. And because the whole difficulty for us is that the natural life has to be, in a sense, ‘killed,’ he chose an earthly career which involved the killing of His human desires at every turn – poverty, misunderstanding from his own family, betrayal from one of His intimate friends, being jeered at and manhandled by the Police, and execution by torture. And then, after being thus killed – killed every day in a sense – the human creature in Him, because it was united to the divine Son, came to life again. The Man in Christ rose again: not only the God. That is the whole point. For the first time we saw a real man. One tin soldier – real tin, just like the rest – had come fully and splendidly alive.’ [4]

The significance of all this for us, declares Lewis, is that what Christ did by his living, and dying and rising has affected humanity as a whole and has open door of salvation for every member of the human race. In his words:

‘What, then, is the difference which he has made to the whole human mass? It is just this: that the business of becoming a son of God, of being turned from a created thing to a begotten thing, of passing over from the temporary biological life into timeless ‘spiritual’ life, has been done for us. Humanity is already ‘saved’ in principle. We individuals have to appropriate that salvation. But the really tough work – the bit we could not have done for ourselves – has been done for us. We have not got to try to climb up into spiritual life by our own efforts: it has already come down into the human race. If we will only lay ourselves open to the one Man in whom it was fully present, and who, in spite of being God, is also a real man, He will do it in us and for us. Remember what I said about ‘good infection.’ One of our own race has this new life: if we get close to Him we shall catch it from Him.’[5]

How the Bible confirms what is said by Lewis

In this section of Mere Christianity Lewis does not quote any specific passages from Scripture. However, what he writes can be viewed as an explanation of the teaching of the Bible as a whole about what Christ came to do.

The Bible teaches us that ‘sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned’ (Romans 5:12). In specific terms we are told that Adam, the first human being, rebelled against God by eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and that he and his wife Eve, who was complicit in his sin, were expelled from the Garden of Eden and being thus cut off from the tree of life became subject to death (Genesis 3:1-24). The point that is being made by this story is that sin leads to death. Why? Because, as Lewis argues, sin involves turning away from God and the spiritual life that he offers with the result that all that is left is a natural life heading inexorably towards death.

Furthermore, as the biblical narrative as a whole tells us, and as Romans 5:12 specifically affirms, sin spread from Adam to all his descendants and where sin spread death spread as well. However, that is not the end of the story. As St. Paul goes on to say, ‘if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man Christ Jesus abounded for the many’ (Romans 5:15).

In Romans 5:15 ‘the many’ refers to humanity as a whole (it is equivalent to the ‘all men’ referred to in Romans 5:18) and the free gift to which St. Paul refers here is the gift of a right relationship with God (what the New Testament calls ‘righteousness’). This righteousness, he says, is bestowed upon the human race as a result of the obedience of Christ which reverses the effects of the disobedience of Adam. In the words of Romans 5:19, ‘For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.’

According to the New Testament ‘the one man Christ Jesus’ was God himself, God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, and his obedience consisted, as Lewis says, in living a human life marked by death to self.

The Christian tradition has focussed on Christ’s death on the cross as the climax of that death to self. Thus in his work On the Incarnation the great Eastern Church Father St Athanasius of Alexandria writes:

‘…. taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire.’[6]

According to the New Testament, all that St. Athanasius says is true. In the words of St. Peter in 1 Peter 2:24 ‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.’ However, it also tells us that Christ’s death on the cross was only the culmination of a whole life marked by death to self. Whereas fallen human beings seek, as Lewis says, to do their own will, to control their own lives, Christ’s whole life was one in which his will was subordinated to the will of God the Father.

This is a point that is repeatedly made in John’s Gospel. Thus we are told in John 4:34 ‘Jesus said to them ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work,’’ in John 5:30 Jesus declares ‘I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me, in John 6:38 Jesus states ‘For I have come down from heaven not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me’ and finally in john 8:29 Jesus tells the Pharisees ‘And he who sent me is with me: he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him.’

If we enquire what was the Father’s will to which Christ was exclusively obedient the answer the New Testament gives was that Christ, the Son of God, came as a human being (the ‘Son of Man’) to ‘seek and to save the lost’ (Luke 19:10). He did this by dying and rising again, but also by his previous ministry in which he proclaimed God’s coming kingdom through word and deed and announced to his hearers that they might be part of this kingdom if they would but repent and believe the good news (Mark 1:15).

As Lewis says, this whole ministry, and not just the death at the end of it, was marked by suffering and enduring this suffering rather than taking the short cuts offered to him by the Devil (see Matthew 4:1-11) was a necessary part of that life of obedience which reached its climax on the Cross. In the words of John Calvin it was ‘the whole course of his obedience’[7] that made our salvation possible. If at any point in his life Christ had put himself first, given way to temptation, and committed sin, then his death, whatever form it took, would simply have been the natural and inevitable consequence of his sin. It would not have been the final defeat of sin and death that opened the way to the resurrection.

It is because Christ put God first and lived a life of perfect obedience throughout his life that his death was in reality the final defeat of the power of sin, and hence the defeat of death, and hence followed by the resurrection since death, being defeated, no longer had the power to hold him in the grave (Acts 2:24).

As we have seen, Lewis talk about the benefits of Christ’s saving activity in terms of a ‘good infection’ which we ‘catch’ from him. This is his illustration for what the New Testament talks about when it refers to our being ‘justified by faith’ (Romans 5:1), or when it says that all who have faith in Jesus Christ receive eternal life (John 3:16).

This is because in biblical terms faith unites us to Christ and thus enables us to receive the new life which he made possible through his life of perfect obedience. Martin Luther helpfully explains this point by saying that faith unites the believer with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom in marriage (Ephesians 5:31-32):

‘Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation. The soul is full of sins, death, and damnation. Now let faith come between them and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ’s, while grace, life, and salvation will be the soul’s; for if Christ is a bridegroom, he must take upon himself the things which are his bride’s and bestow upon her the things that are his. If he gives her his body and very self, how shall he not give her all that is his? And if he takes the body of the bride; how shall he not take all that is hers?

Here we have a most pleasing vision not only of communion but of a blessed struggle and victory and salvation and redemption. Christ is God and man in one person. He has neither sinned nor died, and is not condemned, and he cannot sin, die, or be condemned; his righteousness, life, and salvation are unconquerable, eternal, omnipotent. By the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins, death and pains of hell which are his bride’s. As a matter of fact, he makes them his own and acts as if they were his own and as if he himself had sinned; he suffered, died, and descended into hell that he might overcome them all. Now since it was such a one who did all this, and death and hell could not swallow him up, these were necessarily swallowed up by him in a mighty duel; for his righteousness is greater than the sins of all men, his life stronger than death, his salvation more invincible than hell. Thus the believing soul by means of the pledge of his faith is free in Christ,its bridegroom, free from all sins, secure against death and hell and is endowed with the eternal righteousness, life and salvation of Christ its bridegroom.’[8]

It is important to note that what Christ achieved through his incarnate obedience was not simply negative. It was not just the defeat of sin and death. Rather, as Lewis says, what he achieved opened up the possibility of sharing the eternal spiritual life which the Son of God has always possessed as the second person of the Trinity. In the New Testament this idea is expressed in 2 Peter 1:4 in terms of our becoming ‘partakers of the divine nature’ and elsewhere as our being adopted as the ‘children’ or ‘sons’ of God and our being ‘conformed to the image of his Son, in order that we might be the first born among many brethren’ (John 1:12, Romans 8:14-17, 8:23, 8:29, Galatians 4:4-7, 1 John 3:1-2).

As Calvin says, what this language teaches us is that ‘the end of the Gospel is to render us conformable to God, and so to speak, to deify us.’ [9] In the words of Charles Cranfield, this does not mean ‘that we shall become gods or be absorbed into God.’ What it does mean is that ‘without ceasing to be men, without becoming divine, we shall share in that which is characteristically God’s own, the glory, perfection, blessedness and immortality of his life: or, to put it in other words, that we who are now ‘heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ’ (Romans 8:17) shall eventually enter into possession of our inheritance. [10]

What we have seen taught by Lewis, and confirmed by the Bible, is that we are saved from sin and death through the perfect, lifelong, obedience of Christ. This obedience, which involved a life of suffering culminating in the crucifixion, put to death the inclination to self-centred rebellion against God inherent in our fallen human natures. It therefore defeated sin, and death which is the fruit of sin, and made possible the enjoyment of that eternal life in relationship with God which God always willed for his human creatures. What Christ did opens up the opportunity for salvation for the entire human race, but for any individual to benefit from it they have to catch the new life which Christ has made possible by being united with him through faith.

For all this to be true, however, Christ had to be God incarnate. In Luther’s words he had to be ‘God and man in one person.’

He had to be God because first of all, the universal corruption of human nature meant that human beings were unable to save themselves. As St. Paul notes, even direct instruction from God through the Jewish law was not able to turn fallen humanity away from the path of sin and death. All it could do was make known to people how sinful they were (Romans 3:20, 7:7-25). This being the case, what was required to save humanity was power coming from outside.

Furthermore, in order that human beings should not only be freed from sin and death, but enabled to become children of God and partakers of the divine nature, that outside power had to be the power of God himself. To use Lewis’ terminology, it is  only because Christ is the Son of God and therefore possesses the ‘begotten life’ that he is able to give us the ‘begotten life’ as well. Were he not God he could not do this. No creature could do this. No angel could do this. Only God himself could do this. Only God can share his own life with us.

Christ also had to be human. He had to unite our humanity to himself both in order defeat sin and death through his life of perfect human obedience and he had to unite our humanity to himself so that through that union we might be united to the life of God. As St. Basil of Caesarea put it:

‘If, then, the sojourn of the Lord in flesh has never taken place, the Redeemer paid not the fine to death on our behalf, nor through Himself destroyed death’s reign. For if what was reigned over by death was not that which was assumed by the Lord, death would not have ceased working his own ends, nor would the sufferings of the God-bearing flesh have been made our gain; He would not have killed sin in the flesh: we who had died in Adam should not have been made alive in Christ; the fallen to pieces would not have been framed again; the shattered would not have been set up again; that which by the serpent’s trick had been estranged from God would never have been made once more His own. [11]

Why the birth of Christ is the Christmas ‘must have.’

What he have looked at in this post shows us why the birth of Christ is the Christmas ‘must have’. As human beings we can get by quite happily with the things that are sold by Marks and Spencer and other similar retailers. Having what they sell is not a necessary part of our human existence.

However, in order for us to achieve the end for which God created us we do need Christ to have become incarnate, and therefore for the birth in Bethlehem to have taken place. Without the incarnation and the birth that was an integral part of it we would have remained trapped forever by our fallen natures, unable to defeat sin and death and unable to share the life of God. Only the Son of God taking our humanity upon himself enabled these things to happen. For that reason his birth is the one essential ‘must have’ for all human beings, not only at Christmas, but always. We don’t need Christmas lights, parties and gifts, but we do need Jesus Christ and Christians are right to celebrate his birth.

M B Davie 12.12.18

[1] C S Lewis, Mere Christianity, Glasgow: Fount, 1984, p. 151.

[2] Ibid, pp.151-2.

[3] Ibid, p.152,

[4] Ibid, p.52.

[5] Ibid, pp.153-4.

[6] St. Athanasius, On The Incarnation, 2:8-9 at http://www.onthewing.org/user/Athanasius%20-%20On%20the%20Incarnation.pdf

[7] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, BK II.16.5, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975, p.437.

[8] Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, in Martin Luther, Three Treatises, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978, pp.286-287.

[9] John Calvin on 2 Peter 1:4, cited in C E B Cranfield, I and II Peter and Jude, London: SCM, 1960, p. 176.

[10] Ibid, p.176.

[11] St Basil of Caesarea, Letter CCLXI.2 in The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, second series, vol, VIII,Edinburgh and Grand Rapids, T&T Clark/Eerdmans, 1996, p. 300.

Some thoughts on the New Zealand response to the proposal from Sydney

On 9 May this year the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia passed a motion at its General Synod (‘Motion 29’) that will allow its bishops to permit the blessing of same-sex relationships, including same-sex civil marriages, in their dioceses.

On 23 August the Archbishop of Sydney, Glen Davies, wrote to ACANZP putting forward a proposal for the future development of Anglicanism in New Zealand and Polynesia in the light of the passing of this motion.[1]

He noted that:

‘….dissenting churches from Christchurch and elsewhere cannot in good conscience remain in ACANZP, despite the gracious offer of alternative oversight from Polynesian bishops. The problem is that these brothers and sisters cannot continue to be a part of a Church which in their understanding has changed its Canons to allow the blessing of same-sex couples living in sinful relationships. Yet these brothers and sisters are still Anglican, and recognised as such by most Anglicans around the world.’

His solution to this issue was to propose that a new Anglican church should be formed in New Zealand to provide a home for these people. This church would co-exist alongside the ACAZNP in the same way that the Diocese of Gibraltar in Europe and the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe currently co-exist alongside each other in continental Europe.

In his words

‘…there would be two Anglican Churches in New Zealand, just as there are in Europe, both recognised by Canterbury as being Anglicans, by their historical connection to the formularies of the 16th and 17th century, and thereby both sharing a common Anglican heritage.’

For this solution to work he said,

‘… the ACANZP would need to allow parishes to decide whether they would leave the ACANZP to join a parallel and overlapping Anglican Diocese/Province. This would include the retention of their property, which would continue to be held in trust for the benefit of the parish. This should be the outcome of the ‘respectful conversations’ that the Motion 29 Report called for in Section H2. Each Anglican expression would recognise the other as having Anglican heritage, despite their significant differences on the issue at hand.’

In his view, if ACANZP were to adopt this proposal it could:

‘… lead the way in expressing generosity of Spirit to those who find themselves unable to accommodate the new consensus. This would be a model not only for other provinces, but for the Anglican Communion as a whole.’

On 13 November Archbishop Donald Tamihere and Archbishop Philip Richardson replied to Archbishop Davies on behalf of the General Synod Standing Committee of ACANZP.[2] In their reply they note that Anglicanism in New Zealand has been shaped by a specific two hundred year history and that:

‘To be Anglican in this land requires that we, led by our Lord Jesus Christ, face into this shared history so that we can help shape a common future for all people based on peace and justice and righteousness.’

They then argue that this means that in order to be ‘committed to that fundamental consequence of being Anglican in Aotearoa New Zealand’ people have to remain in the existing ‘constitutional and Treaty-based relationships’ which were reflected in the passing of Motion 29. As they see it, it would be impossible to recognise as Anglican a body that was not bound by the ‘laws and promises and solemn commitments’ of the current ACANZP.

On this basis they say they are unable to accept Archbishop Davies’ proposal. To an outside observer, however, it is not clear why this should be the case.

It is perfectly reasonable to say that any form of Anglicanism in New Zealand needs to reflect the distinctive history of New Zealand. However, there is no reason why the sort of parallel Anglican jurisdiction proposed by Archbishop Davies could not do this.

Prior to the passing of Motion 29, the version of Anglicanism that existed in New Zealand reflected the history of that country without accepting that it was legitimate to bless same-sex relationships. Why then would it be impossible for there to continue to be a form of Anglicanism in New Zealand that reflected that country’s history while still not accepting the legitimacy of blessing same-sex relationships?

What has historically been unique about ACAZNP is that has been a form of Anglicanism that has given constitutional recognition to the existence within it of three ethnic groups, or Tikanga, the Maoris, the Polynesians and the Pakeha or Europeans. There is no necessary connection between this and the blessing of same-sex relationships.

What if it were possible to develop a new Anglican body in New Zealand that made provision for the constitutional recognition of the three Tikanga as ACANZP currently does while continuing to hold on to an orthodox biblical view of human sexuality? On what grounds would the objection by Archbishops Tamihere and Richardson to Archbishop Davies’ proposal still have force?

What would be interesting would be for someone to develop a proposal for a new Anglican body in New Zealand along the lines just outlined and submit that to ACANZP. Their reaction to such a proposal would make it clear whether the objection was to a jurisdiction that ignored the New Zealand context or simply to any form of alternative jurisdiction outside of ACANZP

[1]http://acl.asn.au/pdf/A_Proposal_For_The_Anglican_Church_of_Aotearoa__New_Zealand__Polynesia_24_8_2018.pdf

[2] https://www.anglicannews.org/news/2018/11/new-zealand-church-leaders-rejects-sydney-proposal-for-overlapping-anglican-jurisdiction.aspx

A way forward? Reflections on a new report from the United Methodist Church

Introduction

At the end of July a report was issued by a commission of the United Methodist Church (hereafter the UMC) setting out possible ways forward for the church to enable it to overcome its present divisions on the issue of human sexuality.

This report will be of interest to Anglicans as an example of how Christians from another tradition are attempting to address the same divisions over sexuality that are being experienced within the Anglican Communion.

This post will introduce the UMC for the sake of those who are unfamiliar with it, explain the nature of the report and the proposals it contains and provide a theological assessment of what the report has to say and what Anglicans can learn from it.

What is the United Methodist Church?[1]

The United Methodist Church is an episcopally ordered church in the Methodist tradition. It was created in 1968 by the union of The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church.

The UMC has 12.5 million members worldwide and is the largest member of the worldwide Methodist family of churches. In the United States the UMC has approximately 7 million members and is the third largest denomination (after the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention), the second largest Protestant denomination and the largest mainline Protestant denomination.

In line with Methodist tradition the UMC is organised in a series of Conferences consisting of both clergy and laity. The highest authority in the UMC is the worldwide General Conference. This normally meets every four years and is the only body that can officially speak for the UMC as a whole.

Subordinate to the General Conference there are the twelve Jurisdictional and Central Conferences. There are five Jurisdictional Conferences in the United States: Northeastern, Southeastern, North Central, South Central and Western. Outside the United States there are seven Central Conferences: Africa, Congo, West Africa, Central & Southern Europe, Germany, Northern Europe and the Philippines.

Like the General Conference, the Jurisdictional and Central Conferences meet every four years. Their main purpose is to elect and appoint the bishops of the UMC who serve episcopal areas consisting of one of more Annual Conferences.

The Annual Conference is the rough equivalent of an Anglican diocese. As its name suggests, an Annual Conference meets once a year. UMC clergy are ordained at the Annual Conference and they are members of their Annual Conference rather than any individual congregation. They are also appointed to a local church or other appointment by the bishop at the Annual Conference.

The Annual Conferences are divided into Districts, each of which is served by a District Superintendent and which are made up of a number of local churches.

The law and doctrine of the UMC are contained in its Book of Discipline, which is binding across the UMC as a whole. This is published every four years to reflect decisions made by the General Conference.

Divisions over sexuality in the UMC[2]

Like other Christian churches, the UMC is divided over issues of human sexuality.

The UMC’s official position is conservative.

The Book of Discipline ‘affirms that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God’ and encourages United Methodists to be in ministry with and for all people. However, the UMC also affirms that sexual relations should take place ‘only within the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage’ and holds ‘the practice of homosexuality (to be) incompatible with Christian teaching.’

The UMC does not allow ‘self-avowed practicing homosexuals’ to be ordained or serve as ministers, supports ‘…laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman’ and prohibits unions between two people of the same sex, thus preventing UMC ministers and churches from performing same-sex marriages.

This position still has the support of many in the UMC. However, there are many who would like to see it change and in spite of the church’s official discipline there are serving UMC ministers who are openly gay or lesbian, United States Annual and Jurisdictional Conferences have ordained gay and lesbian ministers and elected a lesbian bishop, and UMC clergy have taken same sex weddings.

The Commission on a Way Forward

In the face of this division the General Conference of 2016 voted to approve a request from the Council of Bishops of the UMC to ‘pause for prayer’ and ‘form a commission to explore options that help maintain and strengthen the unity of the church.’

Following this vote the Council of Bishops formed the Commission on a Way Forward, inviting thirty two people (eight bishops, 13 other members of the clergy and 11 lay members) from all over the world who ‘identified on all sides of the issues’ to be part of it.

The Commission’s vision for its work was to:

‘…. design a way for being church that maximizes the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible, that allows for as much contextual differentiation as possible, and that balances an approach to different theological understandings of human sexuality with a desire for as much unity as possible. This unity will not be grounded in our conceptions of human sexuality, but in our affirmation of the Triune God who calls us to be a grace-filled and holy people in the Wesleyan tradition.’[3]

The Commission began its work in January 2017 and its report was published on July 31 this year. On February 23-26 next year a special UMC General Conference will be held in St Louis Missouri which will consider a report from the Council of Bishops based on the Commission’s recommendations.

The frameworks for the Commission’s Recommendations

The recommendations of the Commission on the Way Forward are based on two frameworks.

The first is a fourfold ‘theological framework’ which runs as follows:

‘An Ecumenical Church [Acts 2; John 3; Genesis 1, 3]

United Methodists are part of the great ecumenical consensus expressed in the historic creeds of the

Christian faith: affirmations about the triune God, the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the life giving ministry of the Holy Spirit, and inclusive of the marks of the church that remain before us as gift and task—one, holy, catholic and apostolic. The church is the community of people transformed by the grace of God in Jesus Christ so that personal and communal life manifests holiness by demonstrating love for God and their fellow human beings. We share with Christians across many communions, Eastern and Western, Protestant and Catholic, a commitment to the central role of scripture in forming and sustaining the church in doctrine and practice. We affirm the gracious work of God in creation, and the reality of the image of God in every human being, obscured by sin and alienation from God, but never utterly effaced.

Grace and Holiness [Romans 5, Mark 12]

As Wesleyans we are heirs of a distinctive account of grace, which is God’s pardon and God’s

empowerment in the whole journey of salvation. We believe in the universality of the call to repentance and return to God who is our life, and the universal reach of God’s Spirit which grants freedom and power to respond to that call. We affirm the free offer of unconditional pardoning love, along with the divine determination to transform and reclaim as God’s own individuals, along with the communities and institutions they inhabit. We understand the goal of salvation to be holiness, understood fundamentally as perfection in love toward God and neighbour, to be pursued in this life as well as consummated in the life to come.

Connection and Mission [Philippians 2, Matthew 28]

As the fruit of our history as a movement we affirm the communal and connected form of the church’s life, and bear witness to the social and relational character of growth in holiness through mutual support and mutual oversight. We lift up the centrality of practicing the means of grace as the essential nature of discipleship, that calls us to work out salvation trusting ever in the activity and power of the Holy Spirit. And finally, we understand the church is called into being for the sake of the world, to spread the good news of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ and to be a sign of God’s intention for peace, justice and flourishing for the whole creation. The church embodies God’s mission for the world through making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, and is called into being for the sake of the world. 

A Convicted Humility [1 Corinthians 12-14]

We begin from the recognition that our members hold a wide range of positions regarding same sexrelations and operate out of sincerely held beliefs. They are convinced of the moral views they espouse, and seek to be faithful to what they see as the truth God calls the church to uphold. It remains the case that their views on this matter are distinctly different, and in some cases cannot be reconciled. We pray the exaggeration of our differences will not divide us. We also recognize and affirm that as United Methodists we hold in common many more fundamental theological commitments, commitments which bind us together despite our real differences. These also have implications for how we understand and express our disagreements, and for what we do about them. Therefore, we seek to advocate a stance we have called convicted humility. This is an attitude which combines honesty about the differing convictions which divide us with humility about the way in which each of our views may stand in need of correction. It also involves humble repentance for all the ways in which we have spoken and acted as those seeking to win a fight rather than those called to discern the shape of faithfulness together. In that spirit, we wish to lift up the shared core commitments which define the Wesleyan movement, and ground our search for wisdom and holiness.’[4]

The second framework is a ‘missional framework’ which affirms ‘unity in mission’ and then sets out what unity in mission requires:

‘Unity in Mission

AS THE CHURCH SEEKS A WAY FORWARD, WE BELIEVE OUR MISSION UNIFIES US BOTH AS A MOVEMENT AND A CHURCH:

▶ The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. This mission begins with and belongs to God. The church and humans do not own or control mission. God’s mission reconciles individuals to God and each other through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, heals the brokenness of individuals and the world, and restores individuals and the world to God’s intended fullness for creation.

▶ The church exists to bring people to a saving knowledge of God through Christ, make and develop Christian disciples, worship the Triune God, and partner in God’s mission in the world. The church must be in mission to be fully the church. Mission is a shared responsibility of laity and clergy.

▶ Mission is incarnational. God’s mission always happens in specific times and places. Thus, it looks different in different contexts. It works through individuals’ and groups’ cultures, social systems, and senses of identity, even when it seeks to reconcile, heal, and restore them.

▶ Mission goes beyond the activity of any one group of Christians. All Christians everywhere are participants in God’s mission. All people everywhere, including all Christians, need God’s mission of reconciliation, healing, and restoration.

▶ While all United Methodists participate in the church’s mission, not all participate in the same way. The Holy Spirit gives distinctive gives and passions for mission. United Methodists as a tradition have distinctive gifts and passions while our sub-groups and members also have their own distinctive gifts and passions. We have historically been organized to support mission in all places and contexts.

To be unified in mission requires:

▶ Faithfulness. We will continue to practice shared ministry, conferencing, itinerant ministry, and general superintendency, not for their own sake but to be faithful to God’s mission.

▶ Humility. We will practice our faithfulness with humility, knowing that our understanding of God’s mission is always partial.

▶ Contextuality. We will practice our distinctive United Methodist ways of being church differently in different contexts, even as we seek agreement on their meaning.

▶ Creativity. We will experiment with new forms of mission and polity to support missional engagement with ever- changing contexts.

▶ Flexibility. We will be flexible in how we understand and practice being church to support creative experiments in United Methodism.

▶ Mutuality. We will recognize all contextual adaptations and creative expressions as valid expressions of United Methodism. No one expression is normative for all others.

▶ Generosity. We will encourage each other in the generous use of our distinctive gifts and passions for the sake of God’s mission.’ [5]

Three possible ways forward for the UMC

In the light of these frameworks the report suggests three possible ways forward for the UMC.

  • The One Church Plan

The first, called the One Church Plan, is the one that has been endorsed by the UMC’s Council of Bishops.

Under this plan the Book of Discipline would be amended to allow, but not require, UMC clergy to perform same-sex weddings in countries where these are legal, and to allow, but not require, Annual Conferences to ordain LGBTQ ministers.

Under this plan the report also proposes amending the Book of Discipline (at least as used in the United States) to delete the statement that the UMC ‘does not endorse the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching’ and to alter the statement on sexual ethics to say that sexual relations within ‘the covenant of monogamous marriage between two adults’ (the word ‘heterosexual’ being deleted before ‘marriage’). [6]

The report also suggests that if this plan were to be adopted the statement in the Book of Discipline on the church’s theological task should be amended by the addition of the following words: 

We agree that we are not of one mind regarding human sexuality. As we continue to faithfully explore issues of sexuality, we will honor the theological guidelines of Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience, acknowledging that God’s revelation of truth and God’s extension of grace as expressed in Jesus Christ (John 1:14) may cause persons of good conscience to interpret and decide issues of sexuality differently. We also acknowledge that the Church is called through Christ to unity even amidst complexity. We affirm those who continue to maintain that the Scriptural witness does not condone the practice of homosexuality. We believe that their conscience should be protected in the church and throughout society under basic principles of religious liberty. We also affirm those who believe the witness of Scripture calls us to reconsider the teaching of the church with respect to monogamous homosexual relationships.’[7]

These amendments would apply only to the Jurisdictional Conferences in the United States. Central Conferences elsewhere in the world would have the authority to continue to uphold the approach contained in the present Book of Discipline or ‘adopt wording in these contexts that best serves their mission contexts.’

The report explains that the One Church Plan:

‘… honors the perspective of United Methodists who believe that our current impasse over marriage and ordination of homosexual persons does not rise to the level of a church dividing issue. Such persons are deeply convicted by and committed to the words of Jesus prayer for unity in John 17:20-26. Here Jesus prays, “that all of them may be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (NRSV).’ [8]

With this perspective in mind the One Church Plan is designed to allow as much space as possible for different approaches to mission while continuing to maintain the current unity of the UMC:

‘The One Church Plan acknowledges that practices among vital churches need room to thrive depending on their mission field, and the necessary incarnational identification with those we seek to serve. The variety of answers to the question “Who is my neighbor?” determines how practices in one context will be different from another.

The Commission hears a yearning from both traditionalists and progressives for more space. More space means more structural distance from people who practice ministry differently or more autonomy to adapt practices to the context that may not be requested elsewhere. Traditionalists do not want to be required to participate in same-sex weddings, the ordination of gay persons, or the financial support of a bishop in a same- sex marriage. Progressives want space to freely exercise ministries that include same sex weddings, the ordination of gay persons, and the same-sex marriage of clergy. United Methodists in central conferences want space to shape conversations about sexuality according to their national context and without replicating whatever practices shape churches in the United States. Other United Methodists want to give space as generously as possible without compromising core identity and mission.

This desire for space is both a yearning for the necessary contextualization for missional vitality and a challenge to the unity of the church. Too much space challenges the unity of the church by risking

further separation of our connection. Little or no space will lead us to enforce uniformity in ways that could continue our impasse. The One Church Plan is built on the belief that it is possible to live with more space while we focus on our common mission.’ [9]

  • The Connectional Conference Plan

The second proposal, called The Connectional Conference Plan, would replace the current five geographically based Jurisdictional Conferences in the United States with ‘three values based connectional conferences.’

There would be a:

‘Traditional Connectional Conference, in which marriage shall continue to be defined asbetween one man and one woman, same-sex weddings cannot be performed, and those practicing homosexuality cannot be ordained, along with a covenantal commitment to a more traditional understanding of the doctrinal and moral standards of the church with enhanced accountability.’[10]

There would also be a: ‘Unity Connectional Conference, which acknowledges that members are not of one mind regarding biblical interpretations related to human sexuality, in which pastors are allowed but not required to perform same-sex weddings, annual conferences are allowed but not required to ordain those practicing homosexuality, local churches are allowed but not required to receive an LGBT person as pastor, and in which no bishop, pastor, or congregation is compelled to act against conscience in these matters.’[11]

Finally, there would be a:

‘Progressive Connectional Conference, in which same-sex weddings are performed by all clergy, all annual conferences ordain qualified LGBT persons, and all local churches welcome LGBT pastors who match the needs of the congregation and its ministry.’ [12]

Each of these three Conferences would cover the whole of the United States and Jurisdictional Conferences, Annual Conferences and local Methodist churches would have to decide which Conference they wanted to be part of. Outside the United States the existing Central Conferences would have the choice:

‘… of becoming their own connectional conference with the same powers as U.S. connectional conferences, or have the option of joining a U.S. connectional conference. U.S. connectional conferences joined by a central conference become a global instead of a U.S. connectional conference. Annual conferences that disagree with the decision of their central conference could vote to join a different connectional conference than their central conference. The central conferences in Africa could decide to unite in forming one African connectional conference (an option that is being discussed currently by African leadership).’ [13]

Under this plan the General Conference would be shortened, but would still have  ‘…authority over the shared doctrine and services of continuing general agencies.’ It would also ‘serve as a venue for connecting the connectional conferences, worship, sharing of best practices/learning, and inspiration.’ [14]

According to the report, what underlies this second plan is the recognition that the unity of the Church is threatened by ‘two interrelated but distinct dynamics.’

The first dynamic is ‘contextuality:’

‘… the church is called to embody and spread divine love in diverse social, cultural, economic, political, and national contexts. The way the church structures its life and engages in its mission is shaped by its dynamic relationship with these contexts. When one institutional church is present and witnessing in diverse contexts this witness will take different shapes leading to strain on the unity of the church, particularly when one group or context dominates the decision making processes. However, contextuality is vital to our mission and identity because love can only be embodied in relation to real people in concrete contexts.’[15]

The second dynamic is ‘freedom of conscience before God:’

‘Because we are fallen and fallible creatures our understanding of God and God’s purpose and will is always subject to mistakes and limitations. Christians sincerely seeking to love and serve God will come to different conclusions as to what God requires of them. Within a church people will have diverse and even contradictory understandings of the will of God. Our ultimate loyalty to God requires that we act in good conscience – that is, in accordance with what we are convinced is the will of God. Love for others requires that we do not coerce others to act against their consciences even when we are convinced that they are wrong.’ [16]

As the report sees it, the present conflict within the UMC over sexuality is a result of the ‘interaction of these dynamics’ :

‘The present conflict within the UMC over same gender marriage and ordination standards arises out of the interaction of these dynamics. Faithful Christians have come to different and contradictory understandings of God’s will in relationship to the affirmation of sexual relationships between people of the same gender. The UMC ministers in diverse socio-cultural and politico-legal contexts – these include contexts where homosexual relationships are criminal offenses punishable by death to places where same gender marriage is legal and religious or moral opposition to it is regarded as irrelevant.’[17]

The Connectional Conference Plan is designed to provide the UMC with a structure that will enable it embody and express God’s love and to remain in unity in the face of the pull towards division resulting from these dynamics:

‘The challenge before us is how to structure The United Methodist Church so that it embodies and spreads ‘the fire of heavenly love over all the earth’ given this diversity and contradiction in conviction and context. In the Connectional Conference Plan the different connectional conferences which could reflect both differences of conviction and/or context are expressions of love in the context of diversity and contradiction, while the uniting structures embody the desire to maintain as much unity and community as possible and to share resources in fulfilling our mission. Beyond this, staying together instead of dividing embodies the common core that we share.’[18]

  • The Traditionalist Plan

The third proposal, the Traditionalist Plan, is not presented in as much detail by the Commission as the other two because it received ‘modest support’ from the Council of Bishops and the members of the Commission and work on it was therefore discontinued. However, a request to include this model was received by the Commission from the Council of Bishops just before its last meeting in May 2018.

In the light of this request, a short sketch from the Commission outlining this third proposal is included in main body of the report. There is also an appendix giving further details about this proposal prepared ‘by a few members of the Council of Bishops.’

The summary of the Traditionalist Plan contained in the main body of the report is as follows:

Primary Action: Accountability to the current Book of Discipline language.

Disciplinary Language and Implications:

  • Broaden the definition of self-avowed practicing homosexual to include persons living in a same-sex marriage or civil union or persons who publicly state that they are practicing homosexuals.
  • Mandate that any just resolution shall include a commitment not to repeat the offense.
  • Require every annual conference to certify that they will uphold, enforce, and maintain the     Discipline’s standards on LGBTQ marriage and ordination.
  • Annual conferences that did not so certify would be encouraged to form something similar to an ‘autonomous, affiliated, or concordat church.’ As of 2021, annual conferences who could not so certify could no longer use the United Methodist name and logo, and they could no longer receive any funds from The United Methodist Church.
  • Require bishops (active and retired) to certify that they will uphold, enforce, and maintain the Discipline’s standards on LGBTQ marriage and ordination. Active bishops who did not so certify would not be eligible to receive compensation for expenses as of 2021, and would be encouraged to join the ‘autonomous, affiliated, or concordat church’ formed by the above annual conferences.
  • Local churches that disagreed with their annual conference’s decision to not enforce the Discipline’s standards could vote to remain with the UMC.
  • Local churches that disagreed with their annual conference’s decision to enforce the Discipline’s standards could vote to withdraw from the UMC and unite with the ‘autonomous, affiliated, or concordat church.’
  • Clergy who could not maintain the Discipline‘s standards on LGBTQ marriage and ordination would be encouraged to join the ‘autonomous, affiliated, or concordat church.’[19]

Put simply, what this means is that under this third proposal the current discipline of the UMC with regard to human sexuality would be maintained and enforced and those who were not able to accept it would be encouraged to form their own new church, which would not be part of the UMC, but would be in some form of ecumenical relationship with it.

The appendix on this proposal further explains that this proposal:

‘…. maintains the current stance of the church regarding the definition of marriage andthe ministry of and with LGBTQ persons. It flows from the presupposition that The United Methodist Church ought to have one unified moral stance on the issues of marriage and sexuality. This model continues to affirm that LGBTQ persons are welcome to attend worship services, participate in church programs, receive the sacraments, upon baptism be admitted as baptized members, and upon taking vows of membership become members of local churches.

At the same time, the Traditional Model acknowledges the deep conscientious objections on the part of some to the current stance and practices of the church. It accommodates those objections by fostering a gracious and respectful way for those persons who cannot live within the current boundaries of church practice to form or join self-governing bodies that allow them the freedom to follow their conscience and institute practices in keeping with their understanding of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Such a self-governing body could constitute a Wesleyan denomination that could maintain an ongoing connection with The United Methodist Church through a Concordat Agreement.’[20]

Echoing the emphasis on contextuality, freedom and mission elsewhere in the report, the appendix goes on to declare that:

‘The Traditional Model takes seriously the need for greater contextualization of our ministry. It provides clarity and freedom for different parts of our movement to embody our different theological emphases and values on the important questions of marriage and sexual behaviour. Given that the human sexuality disagreement is one of the most significant in American culture today, it is appropriate for there to be two different Wesleyan bodies who teach differently on the question of Christian marriage between same gender persons.

The unity of Christ’s church has, for the last 1000 years, taken different forms. There aredifferent types of unity and the Wesleyan movement itself is expressed in a variety of denominations many of which overlap geographically. We should see the formation of a new Wesleyan denomination as an opportunity for a different type of unity created for the sake of mission.’[21]

A theological assessment of the report

Given the very tight timetable under which the Commission was working, this report is an impressive piece of work.

It takes seriously the current divisions within the UMC and provides detailed proposals for possible ways forward that build on the current structures and disciplines of the UMC and seek to maintain as much unity as possible while allowing for appropriate contextual diversity for the sake of mission. It goes into copious detail about the legal amendments that would be needed for reach of the proposals and how matters such as pension arrangement would work.

Unlike similar reports from Anglican churches it does not assume that a ‘one church model’ is the only possible way forward and, albeit somewhat reluctantly, it includes proposals that would allow the UMC’s current discipline to be maintained and in fact strengthened. Unlike in many Anglican reports conservative concerns are taken seriously.

All this having been said, from a theological perspective there are a number of serious theological problems with the report and the proposals it contains.

The first problem, which emerges in the statement by the Commission about its vision for its work, is the way the report uses the concept of ‘contextual differentiation.’ What it means by this concept is allowing people the freedom to adopt different approaches to the issue of human sexuality in different contexts for the sake of the Church’s mission.

What the report never explains, however, is why it is the case that undertaking mission in different contexts may require different approaches to the issue of human sexuality. The historic Christian view point has been that what it means for humans to live rightly before God as sexual creatures is determined by God’s creation of the human race (as described in Genesis 1-2) and that for this reason there is one sexual ethic that applies to all human beings at all times and everywhere. The Commission seems to disagree with this historic approach, but it never says why its preferred approach, of allowing there to be different approaches to sexual ethics among different groups of people, is preferable.

What the report also fails to explain is what it thinks the limits of contextual differentiation should be. It declares that it wants to allow for ‘as much contextual differentiation as possible,‘ but it never spells what the limits of differentiation should be. The furthest the report proposes going is to say that the Christian sexual ethic requires sexual relations to be within marriage, but that marriage can be between two people of the same sex. However, it never says why the possibility of contextual differentiation should stop at that point. Why shouldn’t the Christian sexual ethic be extended to include polyamory, or extra-marital sexual relationships, if that is what is appropriate in particular cultural contexts? If the contextual adaptation of the Christian sexual ethic is appropriate then at what point does such adaptation cease to be appropriate and why? The report does not say.

A second and very similar problem is raised by the Commission’s suggestion that those in the UMC should ‘recognize all contextual adaptations and creative expressions as valid expressions of United Methodism.’ This is problematic because it seems to imply that anything anyone claims to be doing as a ‘contextual adaptation’ or ‘creative expression’ for the sake of mission has to be accepted as legitimate. This would mean accepting that Christian belief and practice are infinitely adaptable.

However, if Christian belief and practice were infinitely adaptable this would mean the concept of Christian belief and practice was meaningless. If any form of belief and practice could be called Christian then there would be nothing that was not Christian and so the term Christian would have no meaning. In addition, for something to be rightly called Christian there has to be some connection back to the teaching and practice of Jesus Christ and this puts limits on the forms of belief and practice that can be regarded as Christian. For these two reasons the report’s idea that all forms of contextual adaptation or creative expression should be accepted valid needs to be rejected.

This problem is not just a problem with what is said in a particular part of the Commission’s report. It is a problem with the argument of the report as whole. The reason the Commission suggests allowing some United Methodists to depart from the UMC’s current position of human sexuality is to allow for contextual adaptations for the sake of mission. However, unless all possible forms of adaptation are valid then the report has to spell out why the particular adaptations its proposals would make possible should be seen as valid. This it does not do.

A third problem, which again emerges in the Commission’s statement of its vision for its work, is the idea that the unity of Christians in the UMC, which the report seeks to promote, should be grounded not ‘in our conceptions of human sexuality’ but in ‘our affirmation of the Triune God who calls us to be a grace-filled and holy people in the Wesleyan tradition.’

The problem with this idea is that it suggests that affirmation of the Triune God who calls Christians to be a grace-filled and holy people can go alongside a range of different conceptions of human sexuality. The Christian tradition, however, challenges this suggestion. It has historically held that the Triune God has created human beings as men and women and has established marriage between one man and one woman as the sole legitimate context for sexual intercourse. As a result, living as grace-filled and holy people means living a life of chastity marked by sexual abstinence outside marriage and sexual faithfulness within it. Affirming God and accepting the call to a chaste way of life necessarily go together.

The Commission seems to want to say that they do not need to go together, that is possible for Christians to affirm God while rejecting the call to chastity. What it again fails to explain is how this can be the case.

A fourth problem is with the selectivity of what the Commission says about the theological and missiological frameworks on which its proposals for a way forward for the UMC are based. These frameworks aim to set out what Methodists, as part of the wider Christian Church, have traditionally said about theology and the mission of the Church, but they ignore the fact that a particular anthropology, and a sexual ethic based on that anthropology, has been an integral part of Christian theology from the earliest days of the Church and that teaching people to live by this sexual by sexual ethic has been an integral part of Christian mission.

What the report never tells us is why these elements of Christian theology and the Christian practice of mission can be simply left out of the picture. The answer that the report seems to give is that they do not form part of the ‘core commitments’ of Christians in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition. However, the report never explains what distinguishes these core commitments from the other things that Methodists have traditionally believed and practiced. and in the absence of such an explanation the exclusion of traditional of traditional Christian anthropology and the traditional Christian sexual ethic seems purely arbitrary, particularly given that the question of sexual ethics lies at the heart of what the Commission is discussing.

A fifth problem is with the Commission’s idea of ‘convicted humility.’ The problem here is that the Commission does not explore the important distinction between true and false humility. True humility lies in obeying St. Paul’s injunction that a Christian ‘is not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think’ (Romans 12:3). It means being honest about our importance (or lack of it) and about the limitations of our gifts, our holiness and our knowledge. False humility, on the other hand, consists in either pretending to be humble when we are not, or underplaying our importance and exaggerating our limitations.

It is this last point that is relevant to Commission’s notion of ‘convicted humility.’ As we have seen, what they advocate is that Methodists should exercise ‘humility about the way in which each of our views may stand in need of correction’ and that they should repent of ‘the ways in which we have spoken and acted as those seeking to win a fight rather than those called to discern the shape of faithfulness together.’ In terms of the debate about human sexuality what this approach would mean in practice would be those holding to traditional Christian teaching being willing to accept that their position might be wrong and therefore being willing to put this teaching to one side when thinking about what it might mean to live as a faithful Christian. They might legitimately hold on to their viewpoint as their position, but they should not insist that other Christians need to hold it as well.

From a traditional Christian perspective, however, adopting this approach would be a form of false humility. This is because the only way it would make sense for someone holding to traditional Christian teaching to take this approach would be for them to doubt the truthfulness of what they believe. They would have to be willing to accept that God might not have made it clear that sex should only take place within a marriage between one man and one woman. This is because if God has made this clear then there is no possibility of the traditional position being wrong and no justification for putting it to one side.

However, doubting the truthfulness of what one believes God has revealed is a form of false humility because it means unduly exaggerating the limitations of our knowledge of God’s will. If we believe God has made something clear to us then we have to accept that it is true and if what is true is true for everyone and not just for us (as in the case of the traditional Christian sexual ethic) then we need to be prepared to argue that everyone should accept it and live by it.

A sixth problem with the report is with its failure to offer any justification for the change in the UMC’s current teaching and practice envisaged under the One Church Plan. As we have seen, it is envisaged that under this proposal the UMC would change its statements on sexual ethics so as to accept homosexual activity in the context of same-sex marriage and would permit the celebration of same-sex marriages and the ordination of clergy in same-sex relationships. What the report does not explain is why such changes would be theologically justified.

The nearest the report gets to offering such a justification is when it claims that we should acknowledge ‘that God’s revelation of truth and God’s extension of grace as expressed in Jesus Christ (John 1:14) may cause persons of good conscience to interpret and decide issues of sexuality differently.’ However the report does not go on to say why the fact that Jesus Christ was ‘full of grace and truth’ legitimates different views of sexuality.

A seventh problem is with the report’s statement that that the One Church Plan:

‘… honors the perspective of United Methodists who believe that our current impasse over marriage and ordination of homosexual persons does not rise to the level of a church dividing issue. Such persons are deeply convicted by and committed to the words of Jesus prayer for unity in John 17:20-26. Here Jesus prays, ‘that all of them may be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’ (NRSV).’

It may well be true that there are people in the UMC who are committed to the unity of the Church on the basis of Jesus’ words in John 17. However, this does not mean that they are right to claim that same-sex marriage and the ordination of those in same-sex relationships are not properly church dividing issues. To justify such a claim one would have to explain what constitutes a church dividing issue and why issues of human sexuality do not come into this category. Once again, the report fails to offer any such explanation.

An eighth problem is that the report fails to properly explain why under the Connectional Conference Plan the ‘Unity’ and ‘Progressive’ Connectional Conferences should be allowed to perform same-sex weddings and ordain those in same-sex relationships.

As before, the report refers to the importance of contextuality, but yet again it fails to explain why performing same-sex marriages and ordaining those in same sex relationships are legitimate contextual adaptations of the Christian tradition.

The report also refers to the importance of freedom of conscience. As we have seen, it declares:

‘Our ultimate loyalty to God requires that we act in good conscience – that is, in accordance with what we are convinced is the will of God. Love for others requires that we do not coerce others to act against their consciences even when we are convinced that they are wrong.’

All that is said in this quotation is true. However, it fails to recognise that there is a difference between not forcing people to act against their conscience and making provision under church law for them to act in particular ways. It is right that the Church should not force people to violate their consciences by celebrating same-sex weddings or ordaining those in same-sex relationships. However, this does not mean that that the Church should therefore permit people to perform these actions unless as a corporate body it believes that they are in accordance with God’s will. It is perfectly legitimate for the Church to recognise that someone wants in good conscience to do something and yet hold that they are wrong to want to do it.

The key point here is St Paul’s declaration in Romans 14:23 that ‘whatever does not proceed from faith is sin’ If I believe that an action is wrong before God then I am failing to act in faith if I do it and am therefore sinning. This is true even if my belief is mistaken (as in the case of the early Christians who believed it was wrong to eat food sacrificed to idols). However if I believe that I should do something and the Church believes it is wrong then the Church would not be acting with faith in permitting me to do it.

What this means is that while the UMC should take the freedom of conscience of its members seriously it should not permit the celebration of same-sex weddings or the ordination of those in same-sex relationships simply because there are those who think this is what they should do. The Church has to have good reasons to permit them to do these things that go beyond their personal convictions and the report fails to explain what these good reasons might be.

A ninth and final problem is the failure of the report to offer any justification for the Traditionalist Plan. The only argument it offers for the UMC maintaining its present position while progressives form their own church is that:

‘Given that the human sexuality disagreement is one of the most significant in American culture today, it is appropriate for there to be two different Wesleyan bodies who teach differently on the question of Christian marriage between same gender persons.’

What this seems to be suggesting is that because society is divided over sexuality the Church should be as well. This is not a convincing argument. One could equally well argue that because America contains an increasing number of unbelievers there should be a Wesleyan body that advocates atheism alongside another that maintains belief in God.

What should Anglicans learn from this report?

The Anglican Communion is as divided as the UMC over issues of human sexuality and as Archbishop Glen Davies[22] and Nicholas Okoh[23] have recently argued, thought does need to be given to an agreed way forward for the Communion to prevent the continuing uncontrolled fracturing of the Communion.

The UMC report provides a salutary warning however, that any such way forward will require proper theological justification. We will need to develop a way forward that we can be properly confident is in accordance with God’s will because it is line with God’s self-revelation in the world he has made and in the pages of Holy Scripture.

[1] Details about the UMC can be found at its website at http://www.umc.org/

[2] For the material in this section see ‘Human Sexuality Backgrounder’ at http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/human-sexuality-backgrounder and ‘What is the denomination’s position on homosexuality’ at http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/what-is-the-denominations-position-on-homosexuality .

[3] Commission on a Way Forward, p.6.

[4] Ibid, p.7-8.

[5] Ibid, pp.9-10.

[6] Ibid, p.20.

[7] Ibid, p.20.

[8] Ibid, p.13.

[9] Ibid, pp.12-13.

[10] Ibid, p.49

[11] Ibid, pp.49-50.

[12] Ibid, p.50.

[13] Ibid, p.27.

[14] Ibid, p.26.

[15] Ibid, p.28.

[16] Ibid, p.29.

[17] Ibid, p. 29.

[18] Ibid, p.29.

[19] Ibid, pp.55-56.

[20] Ibid, p.63.

[21] Ibid, p.64.

[22] ‘Archbishop presents proposal for NZ Anglican future,’ Sydney Anglicans, 25 August 2018 at https://sydneyanglicans.net/news/archbishop-presents-proposal-for-nz-anglican-future

[23] Archbishop Nicholas Okoh, Chairman’s September 11th Letter, at https://www.gafcon.org/news/chairmans-september-11th-letter

Suum ius cuique, or why the Welsh Bishops are calling evil good.

‘Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.’ (Isaiah 5:20)

These words were addressed by the prophet Isaiah to the people of Judah as part of his warning of forthcoming divine judgement. They warn that God will judge those who seek to justify sin by arguing that it is not really sinful at all because good is evil and evil is really good. They came to mind following the announcement this week that the Governing Body of the Church in Wales had voted to support a proposal from the Welsh bishops to explore ‘formal provision for those in same-gender relationships.’

In this post I shall explain why the words of Isaiah apply to the Welsh decision.

The announcement from the Church in Wales did not explain exactly what is meant by ‘formal provision’ but the context of the statement as part of the long running Welsh discussion of same-sex relationships makes it clear that what is meant is at a minimum the liturgical blessing of same-sex relationships in Church and more probably the introduction of same-sex marriages. The fact that the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church was invited to talk to the Governing Body about the process by which the Scots came to allow the celebration of same-sex marriages is a clear indication that this is what the Welsh have in mind.

In 2015 the Governing Body voted in a secret ballot to allow same-sex marriages to be conducted in the Church in Wales, but the majority was not large enough to allow the matter to proceed further. The passing of the motion this week indicates that the intention is to re-visit this issue with a view to making it happen this time.

The motion voted on this week by took the form of the Governing Body being asked whether or not they agreed that it is ‘It is pastorally unsustainable for the Church to make no formal provision for those in same-gender relationships.’ In an explanatory memorandum provided for the debate on the motion the bishops declared ‘that it is pastorally unsustainable and unjust for the Church to continue to make no formal provision for those in committed same-gender relationships’[1] and what the Governing Body did was accept this argument.

What is meant by the current situation in the Church in Wales being ‘pastorally unsustainable and unjust’ is not entirely clear. The bishops did not spell this out in their explanatory memorandum and it has not been explained subsequently. However the argument seems to be that the current situation does not allow proper pastoral care to be offered to people with same-sex attraction and this is unjust. Making formal provision for same-sex relationships would allow proper pastoral care to be offered and this would be just.

It is this implicit argument that I think amounts to the bishops calling ‘evil good and good evil.’ To explain why, I want to start by considering what is meant by justice. To call something unjust means to say that it as an action that violates justice and so to evaluate the bishops’ argument we have to be clear about what justice involves.

The basic understanding of justice which those of us who are part of Western culture operate with (and which the Welsh bishops’ argument presupposes) is that classically expressed by the third century Roman writer Ulpian who said that the virtue of justice (iustitia) is ‘a steady and enduring will to render to each his or her ius (suum ius cuique tribuere).’[2] The word ius means that which someone has a right to, that which is their due. Hence the popular version of Ulpian’s maxim is that justice consists in ‘giving to each their due.’ We may owe people love, or money, or service, or whatever, but in each case justice consists in giving people what we owe them, that which is their due.

From a Christian perspective the fundamental obligation that we have as God’s creatures is an obligation to God. This obligation is to love God for who he is and what he has done for us, what the General Thanksgiving in the Prayer Book summarises as ‘our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life’ and above all ‘the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ…the means of grace…and the hope of glory.’ To act with justice is to fulfil this obligation. So important is this obligation that Jesus declared that the first commandment is to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength’ (Mark 12:30).

Loving God in this way involves obeying living in obedience to his commandments. ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’ (John 14:15). These commandments take many specific forms, but these are all variations on one basic obligation, which is to observe the order established in creation by God when he created the world, an order which sin has disrupted, but which Jesus Christ has acted to restore.[3] For those of you who like C S Lewis, what we are talking about is the deep magic placed in Narnia at the dawn of time.

In order to understand what acting with justice in this way means in relation to the pastoral care of people with same-sex attraction we have to move on to consider what is meant by pastoral care.

The language of pastoral care is language taken from farming. It means to care for ‘the flock of God’ (1 Peter 5:2), both those who are currently part of God’s fold and the ‘lost sheep’ (Luke 15: 3-7) who are currently outside it, just as a good shepherd cares for their sheep.

Since human beings are not sheep, what does this caring for the flock involve? The overall answer given in Scripture, and in the Tradition of the Church following Scripture, is that it involves offering people the grace of God through word and sacrament in order that they will repent of their sins, receive God’s forgiveness, enter into the new life Christ has made possible through his death and resurrection and grow in holiness, so that in the next world they will live joyfully with God and his people forever. When this happens the order established by God is honoured because people live as the creatures he made them to be.

Christians have an obligation both to God and to their fellow human creatures to offer pastoral care in this way (see John 21:15-17, Acts 20:28-30, 1 Peter 5:2-4). It follows that it is just to offer such pastoral care and unjust not to offer it.

We can therefore agree with the Welsh bishops in saying that justice requires that people with same-sex attraction should be offered proper pastoral care, However, the issue that this leaves open is what form such proper pastoral care should take in this particular case.

To decide this issue we need to return to the idea that God has established an order in the world according to which his human creatures should live. What does this order look like in relation to human sexuality?

We find the answer to this question through the study of Scripture and the exercise of reason. Scripture (in the creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2 and in the rest of the biblical text building on them) and reason, looking at the observable reality of what human beings are like, tell us that:

  • The human race is a dimorphic species consisting of men and women whose sex is determined by the biology of their bodies;
  • Sexual intercourse is designed to take place between men and women and has as its purpose not only physical and emotional pleasure, but the procreation of children;
  • God ordained marriage between two people of the opposite sex as the sole legitimate setting for sexual intercourse.

Honouring God’s order means thankfully accepting that this is how God in his wisdom and goodness created us to be, living according to this created pattern ourselves, and encouraging and supporting others to do likewise.

It is true, of course, that there are people who are sexually attracted to people of their own sex, either for the whole of their life, or for some period within it.

From a biblical perspective, however, these people’s experiences are not due to God’s creative intention (they are not part of God’s order, see Romans 1:24-27). They are instead a result of the disorder introduced into the world as a result of the Fall, a disorder which Christ came into the world to overcome.

As a result, proper pastoral care for same-sex attracted people does not mean accepting this disorder as something good, but seeking to combat it by helping the people involved to live in a way that reflects as far as possible God’s original creative intention in anticipation of God’s final kingdom in which all things will finally be made whole.

What this means in practice is helping people who are same-sex attracted to understand that God did not create three types of people, men, women and gay people, but only two, men and women. This being the case, for them to live rightly before God means living as a man or a women. This in turn means for them (as for everyone else) being open either to entering into (heterosexual) marriage, or living a life of sexual abstinence as a single person. If their calling is to be single, then they will need  a network of friendship and support to sustain this vocation.

As with people with opposite-sex attraction, either of these vocations may represent God’s calling to a particular individual. Neither is better than the other. They are equally good ways to ‘glorify God in your body’ (1 Corinthians 6:20). It is sometimes suggested that those with same-sex attraction will not be able successfully marry those of the opposite sex, or that it is impossible for people with same-sex attraction to lead fulfilled Christian lives as single people, but there are numerous counter examples which challenge both these suggestions.[4]

Justice requires that pastoral care be offered to same-sex attracted people along the lines just described. However, there is nothing in the current situation in the Church in Wales that prevents this happening. Therefore the suggestion by the Welsh bishops that it does, and that this situation is ‘pastorally unsustainable’ and therefore unjust, is simply untrue. They have called good evil.

Furthermore they have also called evil good by suggesting that proper pastoral care involves the Church making formal provision for same-gender relationships. This means suggesting that same-sex sexual relationships can be blessed by God and can even constitute marriage. Both of these suggestions are untrue and acting upon them would involve the Church in Wales leading people astray by encouraging those who are in such relationships to remain in them and those who are not yet in them to think that entering into them would be acceptable to God. In both ways the Church in Wales will be encouraging sin by calling it good. If it does this it will be turning its back on what God has said and leading people into a situation in which they are in danger of being cut off from God for ever (1 Corinthians 6:9-10), Galatians 5:16-21).

So what should faithful Christians do in response to the Welsh decision? In a word, pray. Pray for the Welsh bishops that they may be convicted of their error and turn back to God in repentance. Pray for the Welsh Governing Body that it may overturn the decision it has just made. Pray for the Evangelical Fellowship of the Church in Wales as it members seek to witness to the truth in an increasingly dark situation.

M B Davie 14.9.18

[1] Governing Body, Same-gender relationships, Explanatory Memorandum and procedural note.

[2] Quotation in Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice in Love, Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2011, p.85.

[3] For a detailed discussion of the idea of divine order and its relation to Christian ethics see Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order 2ed, Leicester: Apollos, 1994.

[4] For information about pastoral care for same-sex attracted people see the resources on the Living Out  website at http://www.livingout,org.