What is ‘just love’?

The Ozanne Foundation’s strapline

A lot of organisations now have straplines which attempt to summarise what they stand for. Thus John Lewis uses ‘Never knowingly undersold,’ OFSTED ‘Raising standards – improving lives’ and the Church of England ‘A Christian presence in every community.’

The Ozanne Foundation, which supports the cause of LGBTI equality and which was launched amidst much publicity just before Christmas, has as its strapline ‘We believe in just love for all.’ This, it tells us, is what this new foundation stands for.

An important purpose of a strapline is to send out a positive message about the organisation that uses it in order to gain support for its activities. At first glance ‘We believe in just love for all’ succeeds in achieving this purpose because it sends out a message that resonates with two of the things that are almost universally accepted in our society. Almost everyone would say that they believe in the importance of love and the importance of justice. It would seem to follow that an organisation that indicates that it believes in both justice and love must be one that is worthy of support.

What is also important, however, is that a strapline should send a clear message about the beliefs and activities of the organisation concerned. Here the Ozanne Foundation is less successful because what it says is ambiguous. One the one hand, it could be saying that the Foundation believes in treating everyone with ‘just’ love, in the sense of nothing else but love. On the other hand it could be saying that it supports ‘just’ rather than ‘unjust’ love.

In the remainder of this article I shall explore these two ways of reading the Foundation’s strapline and explain why both of them, if taken seriously, actually undermine the very cause for which it stands.

What is love?

If we start with the first way of reading the strapline, what we are being told is that the Ozanne Foundation believes in loving everyone. This would seem to be an unproblematic statement. Surely believing in universal love has to be a good thing?

However, there is a problem with this statement. The problem is that it begs the question as to what it means to love everyone.

This question arises because the word ‘love’ has multiple meanings. Consider the following the three sentences. I love cheese toasties. I love my mother. I love the woman I have just married. Each of these sentences uses the word love, but in each of them (hopefully!) the word is being used in a different sense. If the subject of sentence three regards his new wife in the same way that he regards his mother then he is in deep trouble. Equally, he is in deep trouble if he regards her in the same way as a cheese toastie.

Down the centuries the fact that love can have different meanings has been noted and philosophers and theologians have classified these different meanings in a variety of ways (a helpful introduction to these classifications can be found in C S Lewis’ book The Four Loves). A useful way of classifying the different meanings of love is to say that the word can refer to five things.

First, love is used to refer to the strongly positively feeling that we have towards certain things. Thus someone might say ‘I love cheese toasties, the music of the Bee Gees, and the beach at Cromer.’

Secondly, love is used to refer to the affectionate feelings we have (or should have) towards the members of our families, as in ‘I love my mother, my father, and my big sister.’

Thirdly, love is used to refer to the feelings we have towards those with whom we are close friends. Thus we can talk about the love between David and Jonathan in the Bible (a love ‘passing the love of women’ – 2 Samuel 1:26) and the love between Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee that lies at the heart of The Lord of the Rings.

Fourthly, love is used to refer to what is known as ‘erotic love’, the strong combination of emotional and sexual desire that we can have for another man or woman.

From a Christian perspective these four forms of love can be regarded as positive aspects of being human. God has created us to enjoy things such as food, music and beautiful places, to have strong affection for our families and friends and to experience erotic attraction.

However, the Christian faith also tells us that there is a fifth form of love which is more important than the previous four. As C S Lewis note in Mere Christianity, this kind of love (what he calls ‘charity’) is ‘quite a different thing from liking or affection.’ It is this kind of love that St. Augustine refers to when he says that God ‘loved even when he hated us’ and to which Jesus refers when he tells us that we are to ‘love our enemies’ (Matthew 5:44).

This kind of love is an act of will that seeks to do good to someone because of the value that we perceive that person to have, regardless of whether we feel like doing so or not.

This is the kind of love that God has for us because of the value we have as creatures made by him in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27). It is the kind of love that he showed by sending Jesus to rescue us from sin and death. ‘But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8).

It is also the kind of love that we are called to show towards God and our ‘neighbour’ (i.e. every other human being). As our infinitely wise and good creator, God has infinite value and we are called to reflect this by living in obedience to him regardless of whether we feel like doing so or not. As part of this obedience we are also called to reflect the immense value of each and every human being. We do this through acting in a way that promotes their good by enabling them to flourish as the people God made them to be (again regardless of whether we feel like it or not).

This fifth kind of love does not necessarily involve affirmation. It can do so on occasions when affirming someone is in accordance with truth and is what will enable them to flourish. However, on other occasions loving someone will involve opposing how they behave even while we still continue to value them as someone created by God. The old saying that we should ‘hate the sin, but love the sinner’ is often criticised nowadays, but it encapsulates brilliantly how God behaves towards us and how we should therefore behave towards other people.

To quote Augustine again: ‘[God] hated us when we were such as he had not made us, and yet because our iniquity had not destroyed his work in every respect, he knew in regard to each one of us, to hate what we had made, and love what he had made.’ We are called to do likewise. Thus we are called to love the alcoholic but hate his enslavement to alcohol. Likewise we are called to love an adulteress, but hate her adultery.

Just and unjust love

It is this fifth kind of love that fulfils the twin commandments to love God (Deuteronomy 6:5) and to love our neighbour as ourself (Leviticus 19:18) which Jesus said form the basis for all the other commandments of God found in the Old Testament (Matthew 22:34-40).

This statement by Jesus points us to the truth that when we are talking about the fifth kind of love we have described, the concept of ‘just love’ (in the sense of love that is just rather than unjust) is a tautology, like talking about a ‘three sided triangle,’ or a ‘human man.’ This because the classic definition of justice is to give everyone their due and what we owe God and other people is that we love them according to this fifth kind of love. When we love God and human beings in this way we automatically act justly towards them. The commandments contained in the Old Testament, and the ethical instructions contained in the New Testament, are specifications of what it means to act with love (and therefore act justly) in particular situations. They teach us how to love rightly and therefore act justly.

It is important to note, however, that it only this fifth kind of love that is automatically just. The other four kinds of love that we have noted (love of things, love of family, love of friends and erotic love) may, or may not, lead to just behaviour.

We can see this if we consider the simple example of love for a cheese toastie. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with wanting to eat a cheese toastie. This is because of the basic New Testament principle that God created food ‘to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth’ (1 Timothy 4:3). Wanting to eat food that God has created for us to enjoy is therefore in itself perfectly acceptable.

Furthermore it is possible to envisage situations in which our love for cheese toasties leads us to behaviour which fulfils the twin commands to love God and neighbour. For example our love for cheese toasties may lead us to make them to feed the hungry or to give them away free as part of an outreach event designed to commend the gospel to university students. In both cases we would be showing love to our neighbour and if our acts were motivated by love for God we would be showing love to him as well.

However, it is also possible to think of scenarios in which our love for cheese toasties leads us to act in a way which goes against our obligation to love God and neighbour. For example, we might be led to steal a cheese toastie, or eat one ourselves instead of giving it to someone in need of food. In both these cases there would be a failure to love our neighbour (the shopkeeper and the person in need of food) and to love God who has told us to not to steal (Exodus 20:15) and to give bread to the hungry (Ezekiel 18:7).

One can extend these sorts of scenarios to cover all of the first four kinds of love. Thus friendship may lead us to sacrifice our life to save our neighbour’s, or it may lead us to lie on his behalf. Both forms of behaviour might equally be motivated by love of a friend, but one would be just and the other unjust.

The bottom line is that when thinking about a claim that behaviour motivated by love is just behaviour we have to ask whether it is compatible with love for God and neighbour. Only if this is the case is that behaviour truly just.

The aims of the Ozanne Foundation and why they are problematic

According to its website the purpose of the Ozanne foundation is to combat discrimination against LGBTI people.

At first sight this might seem to be seem to be an entirely loving and therefore just thing to do. LGBTI people (like all other people) have been created by God in his image and likeness and therefore have immense value which we are called upon to respect. It would seem to follow that love for God and neighbour requires combatting discrimination against them and the aim of the Ozanne Foundation is one we should support.

However, in reality things are not that simple. The known views of Jayne Ozanne and her supporters and the publicity linked to the launch of the Foundation make it clear that what they mean by combatting discrimination against LGBTI people involves getting people (particularly religious people) to accept:

  1. That it is right for two people of the same sex to have a sexual relationship;
  2. That someone can be of a different sex from the sex of their body;
  3. That it is right for people to claim to be of a sex that is neither male nor female.

As they see it, it is only when these points are accepted that discrimination against LGBTI people will have come to an end.

Unfortunately, accepting these points and acting upon then would not be an example of ‘just love.’ This is because 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 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.

Loving God and loving neighbour 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, people who feel that their true sex is different from their biological sex and a very small number of people whose biology combines both male and female elements.

From a Christian perspective, however, these people’s experiences are not due to God’s creative intention, but 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, love for God and neighbour 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.

For this reason, the real aims of the Ozanne Foundation belie their claim to stand for ‘just love for all’ and are therefore aims which we should not support

M B Davie 5.1.18

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Why did the incarnation happen as it did?

At the centre of Christmas we celebrate the fact that ‘the word became flesh’ (John 1:14). God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, who has existed alongside the Father and the Spirit from all eternity, took human nature upon himself for the sake of our salvation.

According to the accounts given to us in the Gospels of Matthew (Matthew 1:18-22) and Luke (1:26-37 and 2:1-7) the way he took human nature upon himself was through a miracle. In the words of the Apostles’ Creed he was ‘conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.’ What this means is that Jesus had no biological human father. He took his humanity from his mother Mary in whose womb he was conceived by the miraculous action of the Holy Spirit.

The question that is not often discussed is why the incarnation happened this way. Why in his infinite wisdom and goodness did God decide to take human nature upon himself by means of this particular miracle?

There are three misleading answers to this question.

The first is to say that the incarnation happened this way because Jesus’ birth from a virgin is what makes him the Son of God. This answer might seem to be supported by the words of the angel Gabriel to Mary in Luke 1:35:

‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you,

and the power of the Most High shall will overshadow you;

therefore the child to be born will be called holy,

the Son of God.’

However, these words are the angel’s answer to the question asked by Mary in the previous verse ‘How shall this be, since I have no husband?’ In verses 31-33 the Gabriel has told Mary that she will conceive and have a son who will be ‘called Son of the Most High.’ May asks how she can have this son in the absence of a husband and verse 35 supplies the answer. It describes the means by which Mary will conceive her promised son, not the reason why this son will be the Son of God (which is not what Mary asks).

The reason that Jesus will be called the Son of God is because in him created human nature will be united with the eternal divine nature of the second person of the Trinity in one person. The method by which this union will take place will be a virginal conception, but there is nothing to suggest this is the only way that it could have happened and that God the Son could not have united himself with a human nature created through sexual intercourse between a husband and wife. There is no reason why this would have been impossible.

The second is to say that Jesus had to be born of virgin because a holy God cannot be associated with sexual intercourse. The problem with this answer is that in the Bible God is associated with sexual intercourse. It is something which he created at the beginning of time as a means by which husband and wife could be united together and fulfil the divine command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28, 2:24) and it is the means he regularly uses to cause children to come into existence, whether in the normal course of events, or by means of a miracle as in the case of the birth of John the Baptist from Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5-24, 39-66). Saying that the action of God and sexual intercourse are intrinsically incompatible is therefore clearly wrong.

The third is to say that Jesus had to be born of a virgin because otherwise he would have been subject to original sin like the rest of the human race. This answer confuses sexual intercourse as the means by which original sin is passed on from one generation to the next with sexual intercourse as the reason because of which it is transmitted.

Someone who is born as a result of sexual intercourse will be subject to original sin. However, this is simply because sex was the means by which they became a member of fallen humanity as a descendant of Adam. Sex itself is not the reason for their fallen state (as if sexual intercourse created original sin), it is only the channel through which they inherit it.

In addition, even if Jesus had human descent from both Mary and Joseph this would not necessarily have made him subject to original sin. This because without divine intervention the human nature he inherited from Mary would have made Jesus subject to original sin. What preserved him from this was the positive action of the Holy Spirit who enabled him to remain free from sin from his conception onwards. This could, presumably, have been equally true if he had inherited his human nature from both Mary and Joseph.

If we set aside these three misleading answers what can we say about the reason why the miracle of the incarnation took the form it did? The answer is fourfold.

First, the nature of the miracle, which means that Jesus had no human Father, points us to the truth that his father is God since in the unity of his person he is God the Son ‘begotten from everlasting of the Father,’ as Article II of the Thirty Nine Articles puts it. Jesus the Son can save us because he is God and he is God because he has God the Father as his father. This is the first truth to which the miracle of the virgin birth points us.

Secondly, the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing about Jesus’ conception (Matthew 1:18, 20, Luke 1:35) points us to the truth that what is taking place in Jesus is the beginning of a new humanity and a new creation. Just as when the world was first made it was by means of God at work through his Spirit (Genesis 1:2, Psalm 33:6), and when humanity was created the first human (created by God without sexual intercourse) was given life through the Spirit (Genesis 2:7), so also in the birth of Jesus there is through the creative work of the Spirit the beginning of new humanity (with Jesus as the second Adam) as the first fruits of a renewed creation (Romans 8:18-25).

Thirdly, like the story of the birth of John the Baptist with which it is intertwined in the opening chapters of Luke, the story of the miraculous birth of Jesus points us to the truth that the saving grace of God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

Elizabeth and Zechariah couldn’t have children because ‘Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years’ (Luke 1:7). Yet what seemed impossible became possible because the action of God enabled them to become the parents of John the Baptist.

Even more radically, Mary couldn’t have a child because, as we have seen, she was unmarried and therefore not involved in sexual intercourse. Yet God took her virginity and used it as a symbol of how salvation, which we are unable to achieve through our own actions, is made possible through the action of the free grace of God. In the story of the birth of Jesus, all human striving and activity, symbolized by the begetting of children through sexual intercourse, is set aside in favour of simply accepting grace as a gift. As  Charles Cranfield puts it:

‘…that Jesus’ mother was a virgin attests that God’s redemption is ‘by grace alone.’ Here our humanity, represented by Mary, does nothing more than accept, than submit to, being simply the object of God’s grace. That is the real significance of the address ‘favoured one’ to Mary in Luke 1:28. The male, characteristically the dominant and aggressive element of humanity, is excluded from this action and set aside, and in Mary our humanity’s part is simply to be made the receptacle of God’s gift, the object of God’s mercy: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word’ (Luke 1:38).’

In the words of St. Paul, ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast’ (Ephesians 1:8-9).

Fourthly, just as Jesus’ resurrection is the prototype of our resurrection (1 Corinthians 15: 20-23) so also is virgin birth is the prototype of our own virgin birth. This truth is highlighted for us by St. John in John 1:12-13: ‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood not of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.’

The language St. John uses in these verses has a deliberate double reference. He is describing how Christians become children of God, but he describes this process in language that also refers back to the virgin birth of Christ. What he is saying is that through faith and baptism we become children of God through Jesus and this happens through a supernatural work of God that follows the pattern of Jesus own birth. In John 1:13 there is no reference to the work of the Spirit, but this reference is supplied in Jesus’ teaching on the new birth in John 3 to which this verse in John’s prologue looks forward. In John 3:5-8 Jesus tells Nicodemus that that the new birth referred to in John 1:13 comes through the work of the Spirit:

‘Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’’

In summary, the virgin birth of Christ as recorded by Matthew and Luke points us to four key truths:

  • Jesus is God the Son eternally begotten by God the Father;
  • What is taking place in Jesus is the beginning of a new humanity and a new creation;
  • The saving grace of God does for us what we are unable to do for ourselves;
  • The birth of Jesus is the prototype of our own miraculous re-birth as children of God.

God does all things for a purpose. With God there are no accidents and so we may be sure that the form of the miracle by which Jesus was born into the world was intended by God to point to these truths. This is what he wants us to learn as we think about the manner in which Jesus Christ was born.

M B Davie 15.12.17

 

The real problems with ‘Valuing all God’s children.’

Why the headlines got it wrong.

A week ago today the Church of England published an updated version of its guidance on tackling bullying in church schools, Valuing All God’s Children. This report generated a media firestorm, which concentrated on the issue of what little boys should be allowed to wear in school. Thus the headline in the Daily Telegraph said ‘Let boys wear Tutus and high heels if they want to, Church of England says’ the Mail online went with ‘Let little boys wear tiaras’ and the Metro’s headline was ‘Boys should be able to wear tutus, tiaras and heels if they want, says Church of England.’

These headlines, and others like them, all distort one very small part of what the report has to say. What the report actually says in one paragraph on page 20 is the following:

‘In the early years context and throughout primary school, play should be a hallmark of creative exploration. Pupils need to be able to play with the many cloaks of identity (sometimes quite literally with the dressing up box). Children should be at liberty to explore the possibilities of who they might be without judgement or derision. For example, a child may choose the tutu, princess’s tiara and heels and/or the firefighter’s helmet, tool belt and superhero cloak without expectation or comment. Childhood has a sacred space for creative self-imagining.’

Contrary to the impression given by the headlines this paragraph does not say anything at all about what boys in particular should wear and it says nothing at all about what any child should be allowed to normally wear to school. All it says is that children should be allow to choose what they like from the dressing up box.

Presumably the headlines were motivated by the fact that no one would be interested in a story headed ‘Children should have free choice from the dressing up box’ but what they succeeded in doing was missing the point of the report as whole, which can be more accurately summed up as ‘Church of England gives guidance to schools on combatting ‘homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying.’

By focusing on their own fantasy version of the report rather than what the report actually said, what the press coverage failed to spot was that there are three big problems with the report.

Problem 1: A limited focus.

The first problem lies with the fact that the report singles out three particular forms of bullying for exclusive attention.

In his Foreword to the report the Archbishop of Canterbury correctly notes that ‘All bullying, including homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying causes profound damage, leading to higher levels of mental health disorders, self-harm, depression and suicide.’ If all bullying has this effect (and no one in their right mind will deny that it does) then it is not clear why the report concentrates particularly on three particular kinds of bullying.

Such concentration could be justified if (a) these kinds of bullying need highlighting because no one has been addressing them before (b) these are the most prevalent kinds of bullying in church schools or (c) these kinds of bullying are more damaging to those involved than other kinds of bullying. However, the report does not provide any evidence to support any of these three points and in fact no such evidence seems to exist.

The truth is that Church of England schools (like all other state schools) have (rightly) been tackling bullying aimed at those who are known to be (or who are perceived as) lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender for a number of years, that this kind of bullying is not the most widespread form of bullying that takes place (numerically, the bullying of straight teenage girls on the basis of their looks, or the bullying of those with learning difficulties, is far more common and, as the report itself says, the incidences of bullying of gay, lesbian and bisexual pupils are actually declining), and that there is no research that shows that this kind of bullying is qualitatively more damaging than other forms of bullying when it does occur.

If anyone really wants to know about the reality of bullying they need to look not at this report but at the Annual Bullying Survey  – 2017 Bullying Statistics in the UK available at https://www.dichthelabel.org/research-papers/the-annual-bullying-survey- 2017. This tells us that the top reason people say they are  bullied  is attitudes to my appearance (50%) followed by attitudes to my interests or hobbies (40%). Attitudes to my sexuality and my gender identity or expression come bottom of the list at 4% and 3% respectively.

Furthermore, by concentrating on these statistically rare forms of bullying, the Church of England is sending out a message which says that, whatever the title of the report may declare, in reality it values some of God’s children more than others. We show what we value by what we focus on and the Church of England has decided to focus on the needs of some children and not others. That is not to say that these children do not matter, but they don’t matter more than those whose unhappiness is not mentioned.

In addition those who work in schools have only a limited amount of time and energy available to them and this means that if they are instructed to focus on these three forms of bullying then other forms of bullying will get overlooked, in the same way that a police focus on ‘hate crime’ will lead to other offences (such as, for example, home burglaries) being given less or no attention.

What the Church of England should have done is either issued a comprehensive anti-bullying strategy, of which action against homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying would have been a part, or issued a range of reports detailing the action to be taken to combat the whole range of different forms of bullying that children now face both at school and online. They could even have asked the bullying survey for help.

Problem 2: Some views are more equal than others.

The second problem is that integral to the action that the report calls for to tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying is ‘speaking clearly about LGBT equality.’ (p.18). What this will mean in practice is church schools promoting acceptance of same-sex sexual relationships, same-sex marriages, families with two parents of the same sex, and people changing their gender identity from male to female, or female to male, or from male or female to some other ‘non gender-binary’ identity. By extension it will also mean teaching pupils who have been brought up to think differently that they, their families, and their place of worship, are wrong and need to change their position.

On page 11 of the report we are told that:

‘Professor Trevor Cooling’s metaphor of a Bedouin ‘tent of meeting’ may be a helpful model for Church schools. This strategy asks teachers or facilitators to host a space where different views can be aired and honoured: ‘a place of hospitality, welcome and respectful engagement, sacred and mutual, but not neutral to its own Christian values, whilst being genuinely open to the free expression of engagement’.

However, this idea of a church school as a neutral place of meeting between those with different views about sexuality where a range of views can be ‘aired and honoured’ will be undermined if the school’s policy is to promote the view that same-sex relationships and families and gender transition should be accepted by everyone and anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong. If it is to be truly neutral a school surely has to say ‘some think this, and others think that, but as an institution we have no view of the matter.’ A school promoting LGBT equality cannot say that

The idea of a church school as place where a range of views about sexuality can be ‘aired and honoured’ is further undermined when Section 6 of the template for a school’s anti- bullying template talks about ‘prejudiced based incidents’ as follows:

‘A prejudice based incident is a one-off incident of unkind or hurtful behaviour that is motivated by a prejudice or negative attitudes, beliefs or views towards a protected characteristic or minority group. It can be targeted towards an individual or group of people and have a significant impact on those targeted. All prejudice based incidents are taken seriously and recorded and monitored in school, with the head teacher regularly reporting incidents to the governing body. This not only ensures that all incidents are dealt with accordingly, but also helps to prevent bullying as it enables targeted anti-bullying interventions.’ (p.33)

The difficulty with this paragraph lies in in its definition of ‘prejudice’ as ‘negative attitudes, beliefs or views towards a protected characteristic or minority group.’ What this will mean in practice is that any expression of moral disapproval of same-sex relationships (including same-sex marriage) or of gender transition that is regarded as ‘unkind’ or ‘hurtful’ by someone who identifies as homosexual, bisexual or transgender will have to be logged as a ‘prejudice based incident’ and will render the culprit (whether pupil or teacher) liable to disciplinary action (‘targeted anti-bullying interventions’). The result of such an approach will not be difficult to foresee. Staff and pupils alike will very soon learn that any such expression of disapproval will not be ‘honoured’ but will land them in serious trouble and so a regime of self- censorship will prevail.

Rather than teaching people to deal with differences of view in an open and respectful way, what pupils will be taught is not to express opinions that are disapproved by the dominant social group. They will learn, to misquote George Orwell, that all views may be equal ‘but some are more equal than others.’ Is this really what church schools should be teaching their children?

Problem 3: A thin theology.

The third problem with the report is that its theological basis is thin in the extreme. What the report tells us is that the theological basis for its recommendations is the belief that

‘… all children are loved by God, are individually unique and that the school has a mission to help each pupil to fulfil their potential in all aspects of their personhood: physically, academically, socially, morally and spiritually. Our aim is that all may flourish and have an abundant life. Schools have a duty to try to remove any factor that might represent a hindrance to a child’s fulfilment’ (p.5)

The problem is that the report does not explain how we know that helping a child find fulfilment in line with the fact that they are loved by God means telling him or her that it is OK for them to enter into same-sex relationships, or declare that they are a member of the opposite sex, or that they are gender neutral. Throughout the entire history of the Christian Church until the last few decades of the twentieth century, this view of human fulfilment would have been regarded as completely morally perverse in the same way that we would think it morally perverse to tell someone that it is OK to engage in sexual violence, or sex with children or vulnerable adults.

The implicit assumption underlying the report is that we can disregard what the Church has traditionally thought because we have now progressed morally and know better than our ancestors, However, the only way we could know this is if we had a vantage point outside the historical process that enabled us to see the goal to which humanity is meant to be heading and thereby allowed us to say that we have got closer to that goal than previous generations. As C S Lewis taught us, you can only talk about progress if you know where you are going. Otherwise what you think is progression may actually be walking round in a circle or even going backwards,

Simply saying that all children are loved by God and need to be helped to find their fulfilment does not give us the vantage point we need. It simply begs the question about how the God who loves us wants us to behave and how we can find our fulfilment by living in accordance with his will. This is a question the report not only fails to answer, but fails even to ask.

M B Davie 20.11.17

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christians united, an analysis and response.

 

Introduction

​The Nashville Statement of August 29 2017[1] reaffirming traditional Christian teaching about human identity and sexual ethics has been met with a number of responses. Among these has been the declaration Christians United in Support of LGBT+ Inclusion in the Church which was issued on 30 August.[2]

This declaration has attracted signatories on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Revd Steve Chalke and Jayne Ozanne, and it represents a significant reaffirmation of the liberal Christian position. The purpose of this paper is to analyse the theological claims made in the declaration and to respond to them.

Preamble

The claim made in the Preamble is that the Church is currently undergoing a period of reformation in which Christians are being led by the Spirit to affirm the LGBT+ community and its relationships. What should we make of this claim?

It is true, as the Preamble says, that ‘like each generation before us, are called to reflect, repent, and reform our teachings and practices to be ever more closely aligned with the heart and will of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.’ If we believe as Christians that God has made himself known to us in Jesus Christ (John 1:18) it necessarily follows that we constantly need to ensure that our teachings and practices are in accordance with this revelation, reforming them where necessary.

It is also true that it is the work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness to Christ (John 15:26) that shows us where such reformation is required.

What is questionable is the assertion in the Preamble that it is the guidance of the Holy Spirit that has led a growing number of Christians in recent years:

‘…to a renewed understanding of Christian teaching on sexuality and gender identity that includes, affirms, and embraces the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and non-binary, queer community as created and fully blessed by God and welcomed in to the life of the Church and society just as they are, without a need to conform to the heteronormative, patriarchal, binary sexuality and gender paradigm that Christianity has come to promote and embrace.’

The question raised by this quotation is how one can assess whether what is claimed to be the guidance of the Holy Spirit genuinely is the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The answer to this question is that because the Holy Spirit together with the Father and the Son is the God who had created the world (Genesis 1:2) and because the Holy Spirit inspired the biblical writing (2 Timothy 3:16) it follows that any claim to guidance by the Spirit that contradicts the witness of the created order and teaching of Scripture must be wrong.

In addition, if we believe that the Holy Spirit has been guiding the Church throughout its history we need to take seriously the witness of the Christian Church down the ages and be cautious about any claim to the Spirit’s guidance that contradicts this witness. It might be that every generation before our own has been misguided, but we would need very strong evidence to convince us that this has been the case.

What this means is that we need to look critically at the claim made in Christians United that some Christians have been guided to a fresh understanding by the Spirit and assess this claim against the witness of creation, Scripture and the witness of the Church down the ages. In order to do this we shall look in turn at the affirmations and denials contained in the ten articles of the document.

Article 1

Article 1 is correct to affirm that ‘every human being is created in the image and likeness of God.’ This is the clear teaching of Genesis 1:26 and 27 and has been universally affirmed by the Church.

Problems arise when the article declares that:

‘… the great diversity expressed in humanity through our wide spectrum of unique sexualities and gender identities is a perfect reflection of the magnitude of God’s creative work;’

and that we should reject any suggestion that:

‘God’s creative intent is limited to a gender binary or that God’s desire for human romantic relationships is only to be expressed in heterosexual relationships between one man and one woman.’

These declarations are problematic for two reasons.

First, both declarations contradict the witness of both nature and Scripture (Genesis 1 and 2, Matthew 19:4), and the universal tradition of the Church based on this witness, that God has created humanity as a binary species consisting of men and women who are distinguished from each other by their physical embodiment and who are created to procreate by means of male-female intercourse. There is no such thing as a created diversity of human beings which can be reflected in a variety of sexualities and gender identities. Human beings are created by God to be male and female and to exist sexually only on this basis.

It is now frequently suggested that the existence of a variety of intersex conditions tells against the idea of a binary division of humanity into men and women, but in fact, as Oliver O’Donovan observes, what we are actually dealing with in the case of such conditions is ‘an ambiguity which has arisen by a malfunction in a dimorphic human sexual pattern.’[3] Just as congenital blindness is a malfunction that prevents people from seeing, so also intersex conditions are malfunctions that means that people have an ambiguity in their physical sex. In neither case however, are we dealing with a separate class of human beings whose existence shows that it is not God’s intention that people should see, or be physically distinct as male and female and live accordingly.

Secondly, the second half of the second declaration contradicts the teaching of Scripture, and the Christian tradition building on Scripture, that romantic relationships should only take place between one man and one woman. The teaching of Genesis 2, on which the teaching of the rest of Scripture and the subsequent Christian tradition builds, is that the God given romantic companion for a man is a woman and vice versa and that the God given context for sexual intercourse as an expression of romantic love is marriage between one man and one woman (Genesis 2:24).

Article 2

The affirmation in article 2 that ‘God designed marriage to be a covenantal bond between human beings who have committed to love, serve, and live a life faithfully committed to one another over the course of a lifetime’ is true as far as it goes. However, it contradicts Scripture and the Christian tradition based on Scripture by failing to add that God designed marriage to a covenant bond between one man and one woman (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:4-5).

The contradiction then continues when the article denies that ‘God intended human romantic relationships to be limited to one man and one woman’ and declares that ‘that any attempts to limit the sacred or civil rights of humans to covenant and commit to love and serve one another is an affront to God’s created design’ both these statements go against the clear teaching of Scripture and the Christian tradition that marriage is designed by God to be limited to one man and one woman.

Article 3

Article 3 is in line with Scripture and the Christian tradition when it affirms that ‘relationships between fallen humans have suffered great distortions resulting in various forms of infidelity and unhealthy behaviors that contribute to the suffering of humanity.’ From Genesis 3 onwards the Bible describes and critiques these kind of distortions and the Christian ethical tradition has continued to catalogue and critique them as forms of sin. The article is also in line with Scripture and the Christian tradition when it affirms that God desires ‘all humans to enter into loving, sacrificial relationships with one another.’ Both Scripture and the Christian tradition following it teach that we are called to love our neighbours as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 19:19) and that this will inevitably involve some form of self-sacrifice. However, the article’s further suggestion that is right for people to enter into ‘romantic’ relationships ‘regardless of gender or sexual identity’ contradicts the teaching of Scripture and the Christian tradition noted above that God’s intention is for romantic relationships to take place between men and women.

There are further problems with what Article 3 denies. It denies that ‘the multiplicity of sexual orientations and gender identities’ is a result of the Fall and argues instead that ‘fallenness manifests in the human capacity to function out of hedonistic self-interest instead of the self-giving love in whose image we are created.’

The difficulty with what is said here is that it ignores St Paul’s specific teaching that same-sex attraction and same-sex relationships are a result of the fallenness of the human race (Romans 1:26-27) and the fact that if, as Scripture and the Christian tradition teaches, God created human beings to be male or female according to their physical sex any claim to gender identity that denies or obscures this truth must likewise be seen as an outworking of the Fall.

It is true that fallenness manifests itself in living a life of hedonistic self-interest rather than self-giving love (see for example Amos 2:6-8, Luke 16:19-31). However, it also needs to be noted that if we truly love someone else then we shall want the best for them. This will then mean that we want them to live according to God’s intention for their lives and that therefore we will not want them enter into any form of sexual relationship outside heterosexual marriage either with us or with anyone else. As a consequence, acting in love will necessarily involve saying ‘no’ to all such relationships.

Article 4

Article 4 is in line with Scripture and the Christian tradition when it affirms thatthose who are born as intersex are full and equal bearers of the image and likeness of God and are worthy of full dignity and respect.’ Since they are human beings they too have been created by God in his image and likeness and as such are indeed worthy of full dignity and respect.

However, the article becomes problematic when it links the claim that Christians must ‘affirm and support intersex individuals in their journey of self-realization and embracing their unique, God-created sexual orientation and gender identity, whatever it may be’ with a denial that ‘intersex individuals are required to conform to a gender binary or a heteronormative sexual paradigm.’

The suggestion here seems to be that an intersex person’s journey of self-realization could legitimately lead them to embrace an identity that was neither male nor female or to enter into a same-sex sexual relationship. The problem with this suggestion is that, as we have seen, an intersex person is not a special sub-species of humanity who form an exception to God’s creation of human beings as men and women. They are human beings whose physical sex is ambiguous as a result of a developmental malfunction and whose true identity as either men or women is for that reason more difficult to determine than is normally the case.

Faithfulness to the convergent witness of creation, Scripture and the Christian tradition, means affirming that as human beings intersex people are still either male or female. This in turn means that as far as is possible given the available evidence their calling is to discern and live out their male or female identity and (like all other human beings) to only engage in sexual activity with a member of the opposite sex.

Article 5

Article 5 begins by following the same problematic path as the previous article. It contradicts the witness of creation, Scripture and the Christian tradition by affirming ‘that while the male and female gender identity reflects a majority of the human family, God has created individuals whose gender identity does not fall on such a binary spectrum.’ The only plausible basis for such an affirmation would be if those who are intersex form a genuine exception to God’s creation of the human race as a sexually dimorphic species and as we have seen this does not seem to be the case.

The article then deviates further from the witness of creation, Scripture and tradition.by affirming that:

‘…there are many transgender individuals who are born with a physical body that is incongruent with their true gender identity, and these individuals should be supported and trusted in regards to their own self-knowledge of who they are and how God has created them’

The difficulty with this affirmation is that it is based on a denial of the truth taught to us both by biology and by the creation accounts in Genesis that human beings (unlike angels) have been created by God as physically embodied beings whose identity as male or female is determined by the particular nature of their embodiment. Human beings are creatures designed for sexual reproduction and they are male or female depending on how their bodies are configured to take part in the reproductive process.

It follows that to say someone’s true ‘gender identity’ (i.e. whether they are male or female) is incongruent with their physical body is a contradiction in terms like saying that a three sided geometrical shape is not really a triangle. A three sided geometrical shape is a triangle and a person with a particular form of human body is either male or female. Furthermore, according to the witness of Scripture and Christian tradition the resurrection of the body that will take place at the end of time (Daniel 12:2, 1 Corinthians 15:35-58) means that we shall be male or female in this way for all eternity. Jesus didn’t cease to be a male human being as a result of his resurrection and likewise we too shall retain our sexual identity in the world to come.

It also follows that it is misleading to suggest that we should accept someone’s alleged ‘self-knowledge’ of who they are when this contradicts their physical embodiment. Such ‘knowledge’ is at variance with reality and thus is not actually knowledge at all. However significant it may appear to be for the individual concerned such alleged knowledge is in fact an illusion since it contradicts the available evidence. Although the consequences are more significant, in principle someone claiming that they have a sex that is at variance with the sex of their body is like someone with red hair claiming that God has made them blonde.

Contrary to the denial in the second half of the article, saying someone with a male body is male is thus not a ‘cultural assumption’ that we are ‘forcing’ them to accept. It is saying who God has made them to be.

The article closes by further contradicting creation, Scripture and the Christian tradition by denying that ‘the heterosexual, male/female binary is the only consistent reflection of God’s holy purposes in Creation.’ What this denial is suggesting is that that if people have sexual relationships with people their own sex or reject the idea that they have been created as male or female then these are reflections of God’s holy purposes in creation. What creation, Scripture and tradition tells us by contrast is that these are examples of those disordered forms of behaviour and thought resulting from the Fall to which St. Paul refers in Romans 1:18-32.

Article 6

The opening affirmation in article 6 is something that Scripture and the Christian tradition completely support. They tells us that as human beings ‘LBGBT+ Christians’ are indeed:

‘…called to live holy and fulfilling lives that are pleasing to God through living in congruence with God’s creative intent for them, and, like all Christians, are called to walk in a rhythm of life that reflects the example of Jesus Christ our Lord.’

However, the article then contradicts the witness of creation, Scripture and tradition when it denies that ‘heterosexuality or binary gender identities are the only legitimate sexuality and gender identities that reflect the natural goodness of God’s creation.’ As we have seen, the witness of creation, Scripture, and tradition is that God has made the world in such a way that people can only truly reflect the goodness of God’s creation when they live as men and women and have sexual relation in marriage with a person of the opposite sex. Living in any other way on the basis of some alleged alternative identity contradicts how God created human beings to be.

Article 7

Article 7 makes two affirmations.

The first affirmation is that:

‘…one may live proudly and openly as an LGBT+ individual and as a faithful follower of Jesus Christ and that LGBT+ individuals must be fully embraced and included in every level of Christian leadership, life, and ministry without exception in order for the Church to fully embrace its call to be the body of Christ.’

From the perspective of Scripture and the Christian tradition if ‘living proudly and openly as an LBGT + individual’ means rejecting one’s creation as a man or a woman or being in a same-sex sexual relationship’ then this is not compatible with being ‘a faithful follower of Jesus Christ.’ This is because to be faithful means to seek to live in accordance with God’s will, as when Abraham was prepared to sacrifice Isaac at God’s command (Genesis 22), or when Jesus acted as a ‘faithful high priest’ by sacrificing himself in obedience to God’s will ‘to make expiation for the sins of the people’ (Hebrews 2:17).As explained above, those who reject their creation as a man or woman or who enter into a same-sex relationship are not living in accordance with the will of God and therefore cannot be said to be faithful.

Scripture and the Christian tradition also affirm that the leaders of the Church in particular must be people who live in accordance with God’s will (Acts 6:3, 1 Timothy 3) and therefore it would be wrong to appoint leaders who do not do so as this affirmation asks for. The Church does not require leaders living in a way that is contrary to God’s will in order to be the body of Christ.

The second affirmation is ‘We also affirm Christ’s call for the Church to be one, united in the midst of our diversity of sexual orientations, gender identities, relationships, and beliefs about the same.’ Scripture and the Christian tradition agree that Jesus prayed for the Church to be one (John 17:20-21), but they would say that this one Church is called to be a body in which God’s truth is taught and lived out (see for example Ephesians 4:1-5:20) and that therefore it would not be right for it to accept and endorse claims about sexual identity or forms of sexual behaviour that are contrary to this, which is what this article appears to be asking for.

The article goes on to deny that ‘teachings on the Biblical interpretation of sexuality and gender identity constitute a matter of orthodoxy and should be a cause for division among Christians.’ What this means is that people should be able to interpret the Bible in whatever way they like without being subject to correction or Church discipline and without the Church dividing. This goes against Scripture and the Christian tradition which warn against false teaching and calls Christians to disassociate themselves from it (Ephesians 5:6-8, 2 Peter 2, Jude, Revelation 2:19-23).

Article 8

Article 8 also contains two affirmations. It affirms, firstly, that ‘non-inclusive teaching causes significant psychological and spiritual harm to LGBT+ individuals in Christian churches around the world’ and it then affirms secondly that:

‘…the Church of Jesus Christ is guilty of preaching a harmful message that has caused hundreds of thousands of individuals to face bullying, abuse, and exclusion from their families and communities, and must publicly repent and seek reconciliation with the LGBT+ community for the harm that has been done to them in the name of Christ.’

What the first affirmation is saying is that the Church’s traditional teaching that people are either men or women depending on their embodiment and that sex should be confined to marriage between a man and a woman causes significant psychological and spiritual harm.

In relation to psychological harm there is lots of evidence that people have experienced severe and lasting mental distress because of the discrepancy between the Church’s traditional teaching and their sense of their own identity and their sexual desires. However the issue that has to be addressed is how this discrepancy should solved.

One way of solving it would be for the Church to abandon its traditional teaching and the other would be for the people concerned to change their understanding of their identity and be willing to say no to the fulfilment of their sexual desires. From the standpoint of Scripture and the Christian tradition the first solution would mean the Church ceasing to teach the truth about God’s will for his human creation, which is something that the Church cannot do. This means that the proper way forward is instead for the Church to do better at helping people to accept how God made them and how he wants them to live.

In relation to spiritual harm there is once again evidence that people have felt cut off from God because of their inability to accept the Church’s traditional teaching. Once again the issue is what needs to change. From the perspective of Scripture and the Christian tradition what needs to change is people’s inability to accept the Church’s teaching. This is because the reason people feel cut off from God is what is traditionally known as ‘conviction,’ a sense that that they are in the wrong before God, and the only proper way to deal with conviction is repentance. Like the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable, people need to abandon their life in the far country and return to the Father who longs to welcome them home (Luke 15:11-32). Telling people that they should learn to be happy living in the far country will not do them any good at all.

The point that needs to be made in relation to the second affirmation is that where people have been bullied, abused and wrongly excluded, and where the Church has encouraged this either openly or inadvertently, then this has been and is wrong and the Church does indeed need to repent. However, this does not mean that the Church should cease to preach its traditional message. From the perspective of Scripture and the Christian tradition this would simply cause further harm by preventing people from having opportunity to hear the truth about who they are and how God wants hem to live. The proper answer to bullying, abuse and exclusion is not ceasing to proclaim the truth.

Article 8 also denies ‘that any Christian who perpetuates harmful teachings and refuses to openly dialogue with LGBT+ people is living a life modeled after the faithful example of Jesus.’ From the standpoint of Scripture and the Christian tradition there are two points that need to be made in response to this. The first is that traditional Christian teaching about human identity and sexual behaviour is not harmful, but is instead beneficial in that declares that truth about how God has made human beings and how he wants them to live in response. The second is that while it is right for Christians to engage in dialogue with LBGT+ people, such dialogue needs to include Christians explaining clearly what creation, Scripture and the Christian tradition have to say about the matters under discussion. According to the Gospels Jesus declared the truth that he had been sent to proclaim and Christians need to do the same today.

It also needs to be noted that the truths that Christians have been given to proclaim are not subject to negotiation. Christians cannot adjust these truths to make their dialogue partners happier. They can explain them, but they do not have the authority to change them.

Article 9

Article 9 affirms that:

‘….sexuality and gender identity may be expressed in a variety of different ways, including celibacy’ and that ‘commitment, consent, respect, and self-sacrificial love must be the center of any life or relationship that is to be deemed holy and upright for a Christian.’

From the perspective of Scripture and the Christian tradition both these affirmation are correct. However, they would want to say that gender identity means being male or female in line with one’s embodiment and that any ‘holy and upright’ life and relationship must conform to the rule of sexual faithfulness within marriage between one man and one woman and sexual abstinence outside it.

The article also denies that: ‘… any individual, especially minors, should be forced to seek any form of treatment or therapy that promises to change their sexual orientation or gender identity in order to conform to a patriarchal, heteronormative model of relationship.’

While forcing people into treatment or therapy against their will is ethically problematic and unlikely to be effective, from the standpoint of Scripture and the Christian tradition it would seem to be legitimate in principle to offer people help to accept their God given male or female sexual identity and reduce or control unwanted same-sex desire if that is what they want. Why would one not want to try to help people to live in accordance with God’s will?

Article 10

Article 10 consists of an affirmation and two denials.

What it affirms is that: ‘Jesus Christ has come into the world to bring salvation to all people and through his life, teachings, death, and resurrection, all are invited into redemption through Christ.’

What it denies is that ‘Christ rejects anyone from his loving embrace because of their sexuality or gender identity’ and that ‘homosexuality, bisexuality, queer sexuality, trans* identity, asexuality, or any other queer identity is sinful, distorted, or outside of God’s created intent.’

What is affirmed in this article is entirely in line with the teaching of Scripture and the Christian tradition. The heart of the Christian message has always been that all people need salvation and that salvation is available to all through faith in Jesus Christ (John 3:16, Romans 3:23-25). In line with the first denial in the article Scripture and the Christian tradition also teach that no one is excluded from the possibility of salvation because of how they live their life. Providing they repent and put their faith in Christ they can be saved.

However, it does not follow from this that it is right to say that no way of life is contrary to God’s will. There are ways of living that are contrary to God’s ‘created intent’ for his human creatures and entering into the salvation that God offers us through Jesus Christ means being willing to turn from them (Romans 6:1-23, Colossians 3:1-10). The question is whether the various forms of queer identity listed in the second denial in this article constitutes forms of life that people need to turn from in this way. As we have seen, Scripture and the Christian tradition would say that they are in as much as they involve a rejection of God’s call to his human creatures to live as men and women in accordance with their embodiment and to follow a path of sexual discipline involving sexual abstinence outside marriage and complete sexual fidelity within it.

Conclusion

What we have seen in this paper is that the joint witness of creation, Scripture and the universal tradition of the Christian Church is that God has created human beings as embodied creatures who are men and women depending of their embodiment and has ordained marriage between a man and a woman as the proper context for sexual intercourse and the procreation of children.

What we have also seen is that the affirmations and declarations in Christians United constitute a rejection of this witness in favour of the acceptance of variety of other forms of sexual identity and behaviour.

It follows that the claim made in Christians United that the ideas it contains are a result of the work of the Holy Spirit bringing about a further reformation in the life of the Church needs to be rejected. Either the Spirit has not previously spoken through creation, Scripture and the Christian tradition, or the Spirit has for some reason decided to say something today that is contrary to what he has said before, or those whose ideas are reflected in Christians United are mistaken in their belief that they have been guided by the Spirit. Of these three options the last one is the one we should accept.

M B Davie 12.9.17

[1] The Nashville Statement, text at https://cbmw.org/nashville-statement.

[2] Christians United in Support of LGBT+ Inclusion in the Church, text at http://www.christiansunitedstatement.org/.

[3] Oliver O’Donovan, Transsexualism: Issues and Argument, Cambridge: Grove Books, 2007, p.8.

A review of material from Southwark Cathedral to mark Civil Partnerships

Following the recent announcement on social media that two members of the clergy in the Diocese of Southwark celebrated entering into a Civil Partnership with ‘Eucharist, dinner and dancing’ at Southwark Cathedral the question was raised as to what rules the diocese had for the marking of Civil Partnerships in its churches.

Further enquiry revealed that there is a sheet which the Dean of Southwark Cathedral sends out to those enquiring about the possibility of marking their Civil Partnership in the Cathedral. This leaflet gives the following outline for the marking of a Civil Partnership in the context of a celebration of the Eucharist (the bold type and the italics are in the original text).

Readings

One partner is invited to read.

At the Intercessions

One partner is invited to lead these

Communion

The couple receive communion together before the rest of the congregation

After Communion

Following the prayer after communion the couple kneel at the altar rail and say together

Heavenly Father,

we offer you our souls and bodies,

our thoughts and words and deeds,

our love for one another.

Unite our wills in your will,

that we may grow together

in love and peace

all the days of our life;

through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

The Priest then says

Almighty God give you grace to persevere,

that he may complete in you

the work he has already begun,

through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

Then follows the seasonal blessing of the whole congregation for which the couple remain kneeling at the altar rail. They then get up and go back to their seats and the Dismissal follows.

The issue that has subsequently been raised is whether this material is compatible with the guidelines contained in the House of Bishops’ ‘Pastoral Statement’ on Civil Partnerships published on 25 July 2005.[1]

Paragraph 27 summarises the approach taken in the Pastoral Statement as a whole. It declares:

‘…the Church’s reaching on sexual ethics remains unchanged. For Christians, marriage – that is the lifelong union between a man and a woman – remains the proper context for sexual activity. In its approach to civil partnerships the Church will continue to uphold this standard, to affirm the value of committed sexually abstinent friendships between people of the same sex and to minister sensitively and pastorally to those Christians who conscientiously decide to order their lives differently.’

On the basis of this overall approach paragraphs 16-18 give a set of guidelines relating to ‘The blessing of civil partnerships.’ These guidelines state:

‘16. It is likely that some who register civil partnerships will seek some recognition of their new situation and pastoral support by asking members of the clergy to provide a blessing for them in the context of an act of worship. The House believes that the practice of the Church of England needs to reflect the pastoral letter from the Primates of the Anglican Communion in Pentecost 2003 which said:

‘The question of public rites for the blessing of same sex unions is still a cause of potentially divisive controversy. The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke for us all when he said that it is through liturgy that we express what we believe, and that there is no theological consensus about same-sex unions. Therefore, we as a body cannot support the authorisation of such rites.’

17. One consequence of the ambiguity contained within the new legislation is that people in a variety of relationships will be eligible to register a civil partners, some living consistently with the teaching of the Church, others not. In these circumstances it would not be right to produce an authorised public liturgy in connection with the registering of civil partnerships. In addition, the House of Bishops affirms that clergy of the Church of England should not provide services of blessing for those who register a civil partnership.

18. It will be important, however, to bear in mind that registered partnerships do allow for a range of different situations – including those where the relationships is simply one of friendship. Hence, clergy need to have regard to the teaching of the church on sexual morality, celibacy, and the positive value of committed friendships within the Christian tradition. Where clergy are approached by people asking for prayer in relation to entering into a civil partnership they should respond pastorally and sensitively in the light of the circumstances of each case.’

What these paragraphs tell us is:

  • It would not be right to produce an authorised public liturgy in relation to the registration of a Civil Partnership;
  • Clergy should not provide services of blessing for those who register a Civil Partnership;
  • Clergy need to bear in mind the teaching of the Church on sexual morality, celibacy and the value of committed friendships;
  • Requests for prayer should be responded to pastorally and sensitively in the light of the circumstances of each case.

The last point clearly needs to be understood in the light of what precedes it. Requests for prayer should not be met by the use of an authorised public liturgy (since such a liturgy should not exist). They should not be met by the provision of a service of blessing (since such services are not allowed). Finally, any form of prayer needs to be in line with the Church’s teaching (hence it cannot suggest either explicitly or implicitly that the Church approves of any form of sexual relationship outside of heterosexual marriage).

In the light of all this, how should we view the material that is being sent out by Southwark Cathedral?

First, while it is not a form of public liturgy that has been authorised by the Church of England it obviously is a form of public liturgy that has been authorised by the relevant authorities at Southwark Cathedral. As such it violates the House of Bishops guidelines.

Secondly, while the material does not contain the actual word ‘blessing,’ to bless someone means to ask in prayer that someone will experience the favour of God in a particular way and that is what is asked for in the prayers after communion which it contains. Furthermore, although the material does not constitute a separate ‘service of blessing’ it is an adaption of the normal Eucharistic liturgy for the specific purpose of blessing a Civil Partnership. The material therefore violates the spirit if not the letter of the House of Bishops guidelines.

Thirdly, were the material to be used in the case of a couple who were known to be in a gay or lesbian relationship it would suggest that the Church approves of same-sex sexual relationships, since the Church does not bless forms of relationship which it does not approve of as being in accordance with God’s will (which is why, for instance, it would not bless a polygamous relationship). It would therefore violate the requirement that forms of prayer should be in line with the Church’s teaching.

For these three reasons this material currently being used by Southwark Cathedral contravenes the 2005 House of Bishops guidelines and should be withdrawn.

If the response were to be made that such a withdrawal would violate the call by the Archbishops for a new spirit of ‘radical new Christian inclusion’ in the Church of England [2] the answer would be that the Archbishops’ statement does not amount to the wholesale cancellation of the existing teaching and practice of the Church of England. The 2005 Pastoral Statement remains in force and what it says should be observed unless and until it is withdrawn, amended or superseded.

M B Davie 24.7.17

[1] Civil Partnerships – A pastoral statement from the House of Bishops of the Church of England. Text at: https://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2005/07/pr5605.aspx.

[2] Letter from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York following General Synod, 16 February 2017.

Text at: https://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2017/02/letter-from-the-archbishops-  of-canterbury-and-york-following-general-synod.aspx