Where do we go from here?



In this post I am not going to add to the discussion about what took place at the meeting of the Anglican Primates a fortnight ago. This topic has already been extensively discussed by a large number of other commentators and I am not sure there is much more to say about it.

What I am going to do in this post is instead to outline what I think are the key issues facing orthodox Anglicans as we move on to the next stage of the life of the Anglican Communion.

We need to be clear about our goal

There is no point in the Anglican Communion continuing to do things unless it knows what it is trying to achieve. There needs to be a goal towards which it is working and there needs to be clarity about what that goal is. In the absence of such clarity there is a big danger of the Communion just doing things for the sake of doing them, which would be a major waste of time and resources.

So, what should be the goal of the Anglican Communion? I would argue that the goal of the Anglican Communion should be to be a mutually supportive and mutually accountable fellowship of churches that is committed (a) to upholding, teaching and practicing the faith set forth in the Bible and witnessed to by the Fathers and the classic Anglican formularies (the Book of Common Prayer, the Thirty Nine Articles and the 1662 Ordinal)[1] and (b) to working together in the face of the three great challenges facing the churches of the Communion.

These challenges are:

First, to undertake the ‘Five Marks of Mission’:

  • To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  • To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
  • To respond to human need by loving service
  • To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation
  • To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

Secondly, to respond to two growing forms of external opposition:

  1. The opposition to Christianity from increasingly conservative and militant forms of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism in the Middle East, North Africa, India, Sri-Lanka and elsewhere.
  2. The opposition to Christianity and to religion in general from a secular ideology in the Western world.

Thirdly, to respond to internal subversion in the form of opposition to the biblical position on sexual ethics in the form of support for same-sex relationships and same-sex ‘marriage.’ This support comes not only from individuals and campaigning groups, but also from a number of Anglican Churches, most notably The Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church of Canada and the Scottish Episcopal Church.

Because people with same-sex attraction need to be accorded the same love and respect as all other human beings responding to this internal subversion must not involve a failure to love them as people. Consequently as the Primates Communique indicated, we have to condemn ‘homophobic prejudice and violence’ and ‘offer pastoral care and loving service irrespective of sexual orientation.’ [2]

We need to use our existing structures.

In facing these challenges together Anglicans should use the existing structures of the Anglican Communion.

The current Instruments of Communion (the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates Meeting), plus the various other links between the churches of the Communion, such as the various networks, the inter-diocesan links and the work of the mission agencies, are perfectly capable of providing for communication across the Communion, decision making, mutual support, forms of joint working and forms of discipline. There is thus no reason why they could not be used to achieve the goals set out in the previous section.

As the saying goes ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Any attempt to re-structure the Communion would consume large amounts of time and resources and would not help the Communion with any of the challenges it currently faces.

This does not mean, of course, that the Instruments have operated effectively in practice. The GAFCON Jerusalem Statement of 2008 talks, for example, about:

‘…the manifest failure of the Communion Instruments to exercise discipline in the face of overt heterodoxy. The Episcopal Church USA and the Anglican Church of Canada, in proclaiming this false gospel, have consistently defied the 1998 Lambeth statement of biblical moral principle (Resolution 1.10). Despite numerous meetings and reports to and from the ‘Instruments of Unity,’ no effective action has been taken, and the bishops of these unrepentant churches are welcomed to Lambeth 2008. To make matters worse, there has been a failure to honour promises of discipline, the authority of the Primates’ Meeting has been undermined and the Lambeth Conference has been structured so as to avoid any hard decisions.’[3]

This criticism of the failure of the Instruments is entirely justified, but arguably the failure does not lie with the Instruments themselves as ways of structuring the Communion, but rather with a widespread unwillingness to use the Instruments to confront ungodly teaching and practice. It is has been this unwillingness to take necessary action,[4] that has been the problem and not the way the Communion is structured. The Instruments could have been used to take action if there had been sufficiently widespread willingness to do so. The failure has been one of will, in the sense of people not wanting to take action, not one of structure.

What this means is that rather than thinking about how to re-structure the Communion attention needs to be given to the causes of this unwillingness to act and how to change the culture of the Communion so that similar failures do not go on occurring in the future.

We need to make sure that the ‘Good news of the Kingdom’ is truthfully proclaimed.

In undertaking the ‘Five marks of mission’ it is important that we distinguish between acting in a way that responds appropriately to the good news of the coming of God’s kingdom and proclaiming the good news of the coming of God’s kingdom.

The last three of the marks of mission involve acting in ways that respond appropriately to the good news of the kingdom’s coming by showing love to other people and by caring for God’s creation. It is absolutely right to do both, but neither on their own is the same as proclaiming the kingdom’s coming.

This is because according to the Bible while our actions may point to the reality of the coming of the kingdom proclamation of the kingdom has to involve verbal witness. We have to explain the significance of our actions by telling people about what God has done, is doing and will do to bring in his kingdom. This is what we see Jesus doing in the Gospels and the first Christians doing in Acts (see for example Matthew 4:23, Acts 8:12, 28:23) and that is what we need to do today.

Proclaiming the coming of the kingdom in this way means telling people about who God is, the one true God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit,[5] and telling about his activity in creation and redemption recorded in Scripture and summarised in the Creeds. It also involves making clear to people that their only true hope either in time or eternity lies in putting their faith in the grace of God given to them through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and that such faith needs to find expression in a holy life lived in obedience to God’s commands, even when such commands run contrary to the norms of the prevailing culture.

It is also important to be clear that the message of the kingdom is not simply that God loves and accepts people as they are, a distortion of the biblical message that is frequently put forward by those on the liberal wing of Anglicanism. As St Augustine argues, the truth is rather that God both loves and hates us. In his words:

‘Our being reconciled by the death of Christ must not be understood as if the Son reconciled us, in order that the Father, then hating, might begin to love us, but that we were reconciled to him already, loving, though at enmity with us because of sin. To the truth of both propositions we have the attestation of the Apostle, ‘God commendeth his love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’ (Rom. 5:8). Therefore he had this love for us even when, exercising enmity towards him, we were the workers of iniquity. Accordingly, in a manner wondrous and divine, he loved even when he hated us. For he 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.’[6]

What this means in terms of proclaiming the message of the kingdom is that what we have to tell people is that God hates all that is sinful in their lives, that God’s love means that Christ died on the cross to put to death their sinful nature, and that God invites them to share the new life free from sin that Christ made possible through his resurrection (see Romans 6:5-11).

The corollary of this is the point already made that faith involves holiness of life. In St. Paul’s words ‘Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness (Romans 6:12-13).

We must not simply be defensive in the face of opposition.

In the face of the two forms of opposition to Christianity that Anglicans now face, Anglicans obviously need protection from those who would seek to question their faith, silence their message, curtail their activities, destroy their buildings, and attack and, in extreme cases, even kill them. This means that Anglicans around the world need to pray for one another, offer each other material support when required, and take up each other’s cause with both governments and non-governmental bodies.

However, it is not enough to simply seek protection. As Anglicans we cannot simply go on to the defensive, hunker down, and seek to survive. We are still called to go on proclaiming the good news of the kingdom to those who are lost in sin and to make the reality of the kingdom visible in the way we behave.

In specific terms this means

  1. We need to realise that this opposition is part of the spiritual warfare to which St. Paul refers in Ephesians 6:10-20 and we must learn to use the spiritual weapons described in that passage.
  2. We need to find new and effective forms of apologetics and evangelism that will address the challenge of newly assertive Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.
  3. We need to find new and effective forms of apologetics and evangelism that will address the challenge of an increasingly post-Christian Western culture.
  4. We need to be what Graham Tomlin has called ‘the provocative church,’[7] a body of people that lives in a way that is sufficiently distinctive and sufficiently attractive that it will provoke people to ask what we believe and why.
  5. As part of this calling to live provocatively we must do as Jesus commanded us and love and pray for those who oppose and persecute us (Matthew 5:43-48).

In the face of internal subversion we must be truthful, we must be consistent, we must be missional, we must practice discipline and we must practice love.

In the face of the internal subversion of Anglicanism on matters of sexuality the first thing we need to do is be truthful in four ways:

  1. We need to be clear that the internal subversion of Anglicanism on matters of sexuality is an extension of the opposition to orthodox Christianity in Western culture and as such a part of the spiritual warfare in which the Church is engaged.
  2. We need to be clear that the issue is not simply that some Anglicans have unilaterally acted in ways that most Anglicans do not agree with, but that they have acted in ways that God does not agree with by going against the teaching of the Bible not only by accepting same-sex ‘marriage’, but by accepting same-sex sexual relationships in general and ordaining those involved in them.
  3. We need to be clear that this is not just as issue which concerns a few isolated texts, but an issue which concerns the whole biblical account of what it means to be human beings created in the image and likeness of God.
  4. We need to be clear that this is a first order issue which involves people’s salvation and therefore not one on which compromise is possible.

The second thing we need to do is be consistent. Orthodox Anglicans will (rightly) be accused of hypocrisy if our own sexual conduct is not in line with what we teach and if we major solely on what the Bible says about same-sex relationships and ignore, or fail to apply, what it says in matters to do with heterosexual sex such as the use of pornography, pre-marital sex, adultery and divorce and re-marriage. We need to consistently teach that the biblical and Christian viewpoint is not just that same-sex sexual activity is wrong, but that all forms of sexual activity outside of (heterosexual) marriage are wrong and that marriage is for life and in normal circumstances will involve having children ‘to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.’[8]

The third thing we need to do is to be missional. This means that we need to find new and effective ways of commending the biblical view of sexuality that will enable people to see that what the Bible teaches has been given to us by God for our good and enables human flourishing in this life as well as preparing us for participation in the life that is to come. In particular we need to explain that children do best when brought up in families with a mother and a father who are married to each other (and stay married to each other) and we need to promote a positive view of sexual abstinence and of the value of close and long term, but non-sexual, friendships.

The fourth thing we need is the application of discipline in the life of the Anglican Communion that goes further than the limited discipline of The Episcopal Church agreed by the Primates at Canterbury.

Specifically, because The Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church of Canada and the Scottish Episcopal Church have formally chosen to move away from biblical sexual ethics both in their teaching and their practice

  • The Archbishop of Canterbury should not invite these churches to meetings of the Primates or of the Lambeth Conference;
  • The Anglican Consultative Council should be invited to suspend these churches from the list of member churches of the Anglican Communion and from attendance at its meetings;
  • The churches of the Communion should be asked to consider through their own synodical structures suspending their links with these churches.

Such suspension would be for the purpose of achieving godly repentance and would therefore be lifted if and when the churches concerned return to acceptance of the biblical sexual ethic in their teaching and practice.

As the report Communion and Discipline suggested in 2004, orthodox congregations and clergy from these churches who request it should be afforded temporary episcopal oversight for the period of the suspension from a bishop elsewhere in the Communion to be appointed by the Archbishop and the Primates. [9]

As well as suspending these three churches the Primates should also issue a formal admonition to the other churches of the Communion not to depart from the teaching of Lambeth 1.10. This would be a formal warning to such churches such as the Church of New Zealand, the Church in Wales and the Church of England that they too could face discipline should they depart from a biblical   position. [10]

As already indicated earlier on in this paper, the fifth and final thing we need to do as Anglicans is to practice love. It is not enough to simply maintain the orthodox biblical position on human sexuality. We also have to provide love and effective pastoral support for those for whom living a life of Christian holiness in this area is a particular challenge. Being theologically right is not enough, we also have to welcome, listen, understand, pray with and befriend people who suffer from loneliness, misunderstanding, and strong temptation and who we may be asking to give up very significant personal relationships.

The Anglican Church in North America should be invited to join the Anglican Communion

Alongside the suspension of The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada from participation in the life of the Communion the Anglican Church in North America should be invited to join it by applying to have its name added to the schedule of membership of the Anglican Consultative Council.

Since its formation in 2009 ACNA has become a flourishing orthodox Anglican church in its own right and it would meet the normal criteria for membership of the Communion. It should therefore be invited by the Primates to apply to join the Communion.

As a starting point for the formal recognition of ACNA by the Communion, those provinces that have not as yet declared any level of ecclesial communion with ACNA, should be encouraged to use their canonical processes to recognise formally the orders administered within ACNA. This would then provide a basis for exploring movement toward visible communion.

In the long run the hope has to be that there can once again be a united Anglican presence in the United States and Canada, but that will be dependent on a return to orthodoxy by The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada and a process of reconciliation and reunion between them and ACNA. Inviting ACNA to apply to join the Communion will not make this less likely.

The Lambeth Conference in 2020 should have ability to make clear decisions and should be invited to approve a supplementary Anglican statement on sexuality building on Lambeth 1.10.

The problem with the last Lambeth in 2008 was that its ‘indaba’ structure left no place for agreed decisions by the bishops with the result that the only authoritative statements were the presidential addresses by the Archbishop of Canterbury thus encouraging the mistaken idea that the Archbishop of Canterbury can in and of himself articulate the teaching of the Anglican Communion. [11]

The ‘indaba’ approach was itself a reaction to what were perceived as problems with previous Lambeth Conferences where there was seen to have been too much focus on the production of resolutions and too little time for discussion and the building of relationships.

Taking this into account plans for the Lambeth Conference of 2020 should allow time for more extended discussion of fewer topics with a focus on the key challenges facing the Communion outlined above. However, there should be a return to the practice of agreeing resolutions by voting in plenary session. This remains the best way to allow all the bishops to make agreed decisions on behalf of the Communion.

In order to help the Church to re-evangelize Western culture in the area of sexuality, the Archbishop of Canterbury should convene a group of orthodox theologians from across the Communion to produce an additional and supplementary statement about sexuality on behalf of the Communion to be submitted for approval by the Lambeth Conference of 2020.

This would build on Lambeth 1.10 and remain in line with it, but would go beyond it in four ways:

  • It would articulate why the biblical sexual ethic leads to the flourishing of individuals and societies;
  • It would explain why a relationship between two people of the same sex cannot constitute a marriage;
  • It would look at the issue of transsexualism which is becoming the new frontier in Western sexual ethics;
  • It would draw on the experience of those who are same-sex attracted, but remain orthodox in their belief and practice (such as the members of the Living Out group in the United Kingdom[12]) in order to help develop effective pastoral strategies to help people with same-sex attraction. This would help fulfil the commitment in Lambeth 1.10 to ‘listen to the experience of homosexual persons.’

Thought should also be given to the possibility of the Lambeth Conference of 2020 formally endorsing the Jerusalem Declaration as an authorized statement of Anglican belief accepted by the Communion as a whole. If this could be achieved it would be another major step in helping to change the culture of the Communion and cementing orthodox belief and practice within it.

We need to work ecumenically

The challenges facing Anglicans identified in this paper are not unique to Anglicans. They are challenges facing orthodox Christians regardless of their particular denominational identity. Anglicans ought therefore to work with other churches and inter-denominational organisations to tackle them together.

By contrast, where there are churches with which Anglicans have ecumenical agreements and where these churches have become unorthodox these agreements ought to be suspended in order to witness to these churches that they should return to an orthodox position and in order to witness to the wider Church and the wider world that they have departed from the orthodox faith. For example, the Lutheran churches in Scandinavia with whom the Anglican churches in the British Isles are linked under the Porvoo agreement have all now made provision for same-sex ‘marriage’ and relations with them should be suspended until they return to an orthodox position on sexuality.

M B Davie 26.1.16


[1] The GAFCON Jerusalem Declaration of 2008 is an excellent modern re-statement of the Anglican tradition based on these sources and serious consideration should be given to its adoption by the Anglican Communion as a whole. The declaration can be found at http://fca.net/resources/the-complete-jerusalem-statement.

[2] ‘Walking together in the service of the Lord, ’ Comunique from the Primates Meeting 2016, text at http://www.anglicannews.org/features/2016/01/communique-from-the-primates-meeting-2016.aspx

[3] http://fca.net/resources/the-complete-jerusalem-statement

[4] The opposition to suggestions that have been made to take action has been a result of this basic unwillingness to act. It is not just that people have been unwilling to act themselves, but they have been unwilling that action should be taken.

[5] This is the name by which he has revealed himself to us and it is not legitimate to substitute other names such as ‘Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer’ instead.

[6] Augustine of Hippo, Tract in John, 110.

[7] Graham Tomlin, The Provocative Church, London: SPCK, 2002.

[8] The Book of Common Prayer, The Solemnization of Matrimony.

[9] E Radner and C. Seitz, Communion and Discipline, Colorado Springs: Anglican Communion Institute, 2004,  pp.67-68. The idea has been floated that if these churches were to be disciplined there should be an equal and balancing judgment against the Anglican churches in Uganda and Nigeria because of their support for laws against homosexual activity. However (a) discipline cannot right be enacted on the basis of the need for a politically convenient balance of judgement and (b) while there is place for a discussion about the appropriateness of criminal sanctions against particular forms of sexual conduct this is neither something on which Scripture gives a binding ruling nor something on which Anglicans have yet made a judgement. ‘Criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted people’ which the Primates have rightly stated they oppose are not the same as criminal sanctions against particular forms of same-sex activity (which also currently exist, for instance, in the United Kingdom). The actions of the Anglican churches in Uganda and Nigeria would not therefore be an appropriate subject for the exercise of discipline.

[10] It might be argued that it would be impossible to conceive of an Anglican Communion from which the Church of England was suspended. However, it would not be impossible because another Primate could be elected to fill the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury pro tem and otherwise things could still continue much as before. Unlike the Church of Rome within Roman Catholicism the Church of England is not theologically necessary for the Anglican Communion to exist. Clearly its suspension would be highly undesirable, but it is not theoretically inconceivable.

[11]It is perhaps worth noting that even in Roman Catholic theology the Pope can only speak with binding authority when he speaks on behalf of the bishops of the Church in articulating the Church’s common faith.

[12]Their website can be found at http://www.livingout.org/

On only telling half the story – yet another response to Martyn Percy

Many years of teaching theology have convinced me of the vital importance for good theology of telling the whole story. Thus we have to tell people that God is one and also three, that Jesus is fully divine and fully human, that the Bible is a book of human words and also the words of God and that salvation is a matter of divine election and also a matter of human decision.

In all these areas we have to tell the whole story by maintaining both truths simultaneously. The same also applies when we think about faith and works. We have to say that both are necessary for salvation. It is a failure to recognize this that I think is the crucial error in Martyn Percy’s new article ‘Wheat and Tares and Labourers in Vineyards – A commentary on the responses to ‘Sexuality and the Citizenship of Heaven’  ( http://modernchurch.org.uk/downloads/finish/818-articles/761-wheat-and-tares-and-labourers-in-vineyards)

Salvation is a matter of faith, of accepting the Gospel message of the grace of God in Jesus Christ which is, as the parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) makes clear, available to all without distinction. This is the point made by St. John in John 3:16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.’ It is also the point made by St. Paul in Romans 3:21-26:

‘But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.’

However, this is only half the story. Works are also necessary for salvation, not because good works can ‘put away our sins and endure the severity of God’s judgement'(Article XII), but because saving faith necessarily shows itself in good works, that is to say, in behaving in a way that is pleasing to God. Thus Jesus himself declares in Matthew 7:21-23:

‘Not everyone who says to me, `Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, `Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, `I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’’

Thus St. James teaches in in James 2:14-26 that faith is dead unless it expresses itself in works

‘What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.’

Thus also St. John warns us in 1 John 1:6 ‘If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth.’

What all this means is that Martyn Percy’s summary in his article of the gospel message, ‘accept Jesus, and welcome him in to your life; and God will share his home with you for eternity,’ is an inadequate summary of the teaching of the New Testament. This is because it ignores the fact that accepting Jesus and welcoming him in to your life means being prepared to radically change the way you behave. As St. Paul reminds the Christians in Rome, being a Christian means dying with Christ to our old sinful way of life and rising with Christ to a new life of godly obedience:

‘What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.’ (Romans 6:1-14)

In this passage we see both sides of the story clearly portrayed. Salvation is a matter of grace, but it is also a matter of responsible obedience.[1]

Of course, in this life our obedience will always be imperfect. That is why Jesus taught us to pray ‘forgive us our sins’ (Matthew 6:12) and why St. John tells us that ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:8-9). However, this does not mean that we can cease to bother about whether we are obedient at all. If we are not striving to obey God’s commands then our faith is purely nominal and it will not save us.

In the words of the Homily ‘A short declaration of the true, lively, and Christian faith’ in the First Book of Homilies:

‘Deceive not yourselves therefore, thinking that you have faith in God, or that you love God, or do trust in him, or do fear him, when you live in sin; for then your ungodly and sinful life, declareth the contrary, whatsoever ye say or think.’ [2]

All this is relevant to the question of what the Church is called to teach and how it is called to act.

In terms of what the Church is called to teach, it is not enough for the Church to simply declare ‘God is love’ and give the impression that everyone will therefore be automatically OK. The Church has to warn people that there will be a judgement in which the wheat is separated from the tares (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) and that in order to be declared righteous at the judgement what is required is a living faith in Jesus Christ, that is to say a faith that manifests itself in godly behavior. Furthermore, the Church also has to proclaim on the basis of the New Testament what this godly behaviour looks like. In the words of Matthew 28:20 it has to teach men and women ‘to observe all that I have commanded you.’

In terms of how the Church is called to act, it has to back up its words by its deeds by being willing to discipline those who are living openly and un-repentantly ungodly lives (Matthew 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 1 Timothy 1:19-20, Titus 3:10-11).

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains, the purpose of the exercise of discipline, including when necessary excommunication:

…is not to establish a community of the perfect, but a community of men who really live under the forgiving mercy of God. Discipline in a congregation is a servant of the precious grace of God. If a member of the Church falls into sin, he must be admonished and punished, lest he forfeit his own salvation and the gospel be discredited.[3]

When it comes to the current debate about sexuality the calling of the Church to teach and act in these ways means that it has to be prepared to tell people that sexual holiness, involving abstinence from all forms of sexual activity outside of monogamous heterosexual marriage, is an integral part of the holiness which is the fruit of saving faith (see for example Matthew 5:27-30, 1 Corinthians 6:9-20, Galatians 5:16-24, Colossians 3:5-6, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8). It also means that where there is open unrepentant sexual sin it would be appropriate for the Church to exercise discipline as it has done from the earliest times.

In his paper Percy criticizes the approach I have just advocated on the grounds that Christians should not be ‘policing the borders and boundaries of God’s kingdom, acting as passport control or immigration officers.’ However, this misunderstands what is going on. It is individuals who enter or exclude themselves from participation in the life of God’s kingdom. All that the Church is doing is declaring, on the basis of the teaching of the New Testament, what participation in God’s kingdom means and the fact that we need to take seriously the danger of excluding ourselves from it.

None of this means that we can ever regard ourselves as morally superior to anyone else or more deserving of God’s love. All we can ever say of ourselves is ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’ (Luke 18:13). What it does mean is that we have to ask a question about our love. Do we love God and other people enough to tell people on behalf of God what they need to do in order to be saved?

M B Davie 17.1.16

[1] The issue of the penitent thief (Luke 23:39-43) raised by Percy in his paper is a red herring. The penitent thief gave expression to the reality of his faith by means of his words prior to his death. Those to whom God grants longer life likewise need to give expression to the reality of their faith by the way they live their lives.

[2] Text in Ian Robinson (ed), The Homilies, Bishopstone: Brynmill/Preservation Press, 2006, p.33.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, London: SCM, 1959, p.360.

Say ‘no’ to cheap grace – a further response to Martyn Percy

In a response to my paper ‘I wouldn’t start from here – a response to Martyn Percy,’ Martyn Percy was kind enough to invite me to continue the discussion with him. In this paper I shall take up this invitation by exploring the key argument that he puts forward in his more recent essay ‘Sexuality and the citizenship of heaven.’ [1]

Developing a point made in his previous essay ‘Sex, Sense and Non-Sense for Christians’ [2] Percy contends in his new essay that ‘…lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians are weary of being treated as second class Christians.’ This is because:

‘As baptised members of their churches, living their Christian lives faithfully, and love lives lawfully, they will have full citizenship in heaven with their fellow Christians.  As I said in the Radio 4 interview, ‘they will not be stopped at the pearly gates and made to sit on a naughty step outside’.  Or made to sit in a dark corner inside, and subjected to further vetting – or worse.

They will be welcomed in as redeemed sisters and brothers – as equals.  Indeed, all Christians pray this prayer: ‘…thy kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven’.  If lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians are going to be treated as equal in heaven, we, as Christians, had better do this on earth, and in the church – now.  This is a theological matter, and not simply about ecclesial polity or ethical niceties.’

He then goes on to note that ‘a minority of Conservative Evangelicals’ would dispute this argument because they believe:

‘….that lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians can only be in heaven if they are celibate on earth.  The reasoning being that you might forfeit your salvation if you haven’t repented of your behaviour (rather than orientation).  In other words, you do have to (partly) earn your salvation.  It is not by grace alone. God’s love is re-cast as conditional; dependent upon good behaviour.’

This position, he says:

‘…inclines towards semi-Pelagianism (a heresy condemned by the Church in 529).  In this thinking, lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians are not behaving well, so they can’t be ‘real’ Christians – or are Second Class, at best.  Indeed, some may regard the very idea of lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians who are in active, faithful loving relationships as an oxymoron.  Yet those same Conservative Evangelicals usually have little to say about those working in banking or finance industries, or any affluent fellow-Christians also hoping for eternal bliss.  Which is a pity, as Jesus had more to say about mammon than almost any other subject.  Including sex.’

According to Percy the difference between the two sides on this issue matters because:

‘The global Anglican Communion will only stop discriminating against lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians when it acknowledges that they will be full and equal citizens in heaven.  That same epiphany has already transformed our church on race and gender.  It is no accident that when the point of origin for a theology of race or gender begins with what awaits us in the kingdom of heaven, one quickly realises how fallen the church is.’

In line with this argument Percy declares at the end of this essay that an affirmation of the equal status of lesbian gay and bisexual Christians would make a good starting point for the meeting of the Anglican Primates.

‘Jesus tells us that gender and sexuality won’t matter in heaven – we shall be like the angels (Mt. 22.30).  Paul tell us that our equality in Christ transcends our labelled identities (Gal. 3: 28), and that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved (Rom. 10.13).  So a gentle reminder that Christ died for all, receives all who receive him (Jn. 1: 12 & 3: 16), of his full atonement on the cross, his love, grace and mercy for us all – yes, even for lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians – might be a sound note on which to commence these Primatial proceedings.’

Percy’s final points about the extent of God’s grace are one with which even the most diehard conservative Evangelical would agree. It is marvellously true that the grace of God given to us in Jesus Christ extends to all types of people, whatever their sexuality. It is also marvellously true that our true identity is that given to us in Jesus Christ. In the words of the Evangelical 1995 St Andrew’s Day Statement:

‘There can be no description of human reality, in general or in particular, outside the reality in Christ. We must be on our guard, therefore, against constructing any other ground for our identities than the redeemed humanity given us in him.’[3]

Because they accept these two points Evangelicals do not think, and never have thought, that people who are sexually attracted to people of their own sex (which is what they would take the terms lesbian, gay and bisexual to mean) are ‘second class’ Christians. If they are ‘in Christ’ they are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), they are children of God (John 1:12), they are those who are justified by the blood of Jesus Christ shed on their behalf (Romans 3:23-25). No higher status is possible.

What Evangelicals[4] do think is that, precisely because they have died and risen with Christ, the words of St. Paul in Romans 6:12-13 apply to those with same-sex attraction just as much as to any other Christian:

‘Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness.’

This means that, like all other Christians, they should refrain from sexual activity outside the bounds of marriage between two people of the opposite sex, the sole God given context for sexual intercourse (Genesis 2:24).

This does not mean, as Percy seems to think, that Evangelicals believe that all people with same-sex attraction should be celibate. This is not the case. As Evangelicals would see it, there would be nothing wrong with them getting married to someone of the opposite sex and having sex in that context. What people with same-sex attraction are called to (just like all other Christians) is chastity, that is to say sexual abstinence outside marriage and sexual fidelity within it. [5]

As we have seen, Percy also seems to think that the Evangelical position ‘inclines towards semi-Pelagianism (a heresy condemned by the Church in 529).‘ This claim shows a misunderstanding of what was condemned by the Church as heretical in 529 and also a failure to understand the classical teaching of the Church of England.

What was condemned at the Council of Orange in 529 was the belief that human beings are capable of loving God, believing in God, or doing what God requires, by the exercise of free will without the prior gift of divine grace. This can be seen in the conclusion to the Canons of the Council of Orange which declares:

‘And thus according to the passages of holy scripture quoted above or the interpretations of the ancient Fathers we must, under the blessing of God, preach and believe as follows. The sin of the first man has so impaired and weakened free will that no one thereafter can either love God as he ought or believe in God or do good for God’s sake, unless the grace of divine mercy has preceded him. We therefore believe that the glorious faith which was given to Abel the righteous, and Noah, and Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and to all the saints of old, and which the Apostle Paul commends in extolling them (Heb. 11), was not given through natural goodness as it was before to Adam, but was bestowed by the grace of God. And we know and also believe that even after the coming of our Lord this grace is not to be found in the free will of all who desire to be baptized, but is bestowed by the kindness of Christ, as has already been frequently stated and as the Apostle Paul declares, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29). And again, “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). And again, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and it is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). And as the Apostle says of himself, “I have obtained mercy to be faithful” (1 Cor. 7:25, cf. 1 Tim. 1:13). He did not say, “because I was faithful,” but “to be faithful.” And again, “What have you that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7). And again, “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (Jas. 1:17). And again, “No one can receive anything except what is given him from heaven” (John 3:27). There are innumerable passages of holy scripture which can be quoted to prove the case for grace, but they have been omitted for the sake of brevity, because further examples will not really be of use where few are deemed sufficient.’[6]

The conclusion also states, however, that those who have been saved by the grace of God are called to act accordingly:

‘According to the catholic faith we also believe that after grace has been received through baptism, all baptized persons have the ability and responsibility, if they desire to labor faithfully, to perform with the aid and cooperation of Christ what is of essential importance in regard to the salvation of their soul.’[7]

The position set out in these quotations is exactly the position that Evangelicals take. They hold that saving grace is a free gift of God, but that those who have received this gift are called to act, with the aid of Christ, in a way that ensures that they continue to live in a state of salvation. This, is of course, the paradoxical truth expressed by St. Paul in Philippians 2:12-13, all is of God and yet human beings must also play their part: ‘Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.’

In relation to sexual activity what this means is that Evangelicals hold while salvation is a matter of grace, those who have been saved (whatever forms of sexual attraction they may experience) are called with the help of Christ to live out their salvation by living a life of sexual abstinence outside marriage and sexual fidelity within it (see 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8).

This position not only corresponds to the teaching of the Council of Orange, but also to the teaching of historic formularies of the Church of England.

Like the Council of Orange, Article X of the Thirty Nine Articles teaches that human beings cannot save themselves by the exercise of their free will, but are wholly dependent on the grace of God:

‘The condition of man after the fall of Adam is such that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith and calling upon God. Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us that we may have a good will, and working with us when we have that good will.’

However, Article XII then goes on to insist that those who are saved will necessarily perform good works as the fruit of their faith:

‘Albeit that good works, which are the fruits of faith and follow after justification, cannot put away our sins and endure the severity of God’s judgement, yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively faith, insomuch that by them a lively faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.’

Because the Anglican Reformers held that good works are fruit of a ‘true and lively faith’ they urged people not to deceive themselves about their state before God should good works not be present in their lives. We can see this in the homily on ‘The True, Lively and Christian faith’ in the First Book of Homilies. This states:

‘Let us therefore (good Christian people) try and examine our faith, what it is: let us not flatter ourselves, but look upon our works, and so judge of our faith what it is. Christ himself speaketh of this matter, and saith (Matt.12:33), The tree is known by the fruit. Therefore let us do good works, and thereby declare our faith to be the lively Christian faith. Let us by such virtues as ought to spring out of faith, show our election to be sure and stable, as St. Peter teacheth (2 Peter 1:10): Endeavour yourselves to make your calling and choosing certain, by good works. And also he saith, Minister or declare in your faith virtue, in virtue knowledge, in knowledge temperance, in temperance patience, again in patience godliness, in godliness brotherly charity, in brotherly charity love (1 Peter 5:7). So shall we show indeed that we have the very lively Christian faith; and may so both certify our conscience the better that we be in the right faith, and also by these means confirm other men. If these fruits do not follow, we do but mock with God, deceive ourselves, and also other men. Well may we bear the name of Christian men, but we do lack the true faith that doeth belong thereunto. For true faith doeth ever bring forth good works, as St. James saith (James 2:18). Show me thy faith by thy deeds. Thy deeds and works must be an open testimonial of thy faith; otherwise thy faith, being without good works, is but the devils faith, the faith of the wicked, a fantasy of faith, and not a true Christian faith. And like as the devils and evil people be nothing the better for their counterfeit faith, but it is unto them the more cause of damnation: so they that be christened, and have received knowledge of God, and of Christ’s merits, and yet of a set purpose do live idly, without good works, thinking the name of a naked faith to be either sufficient for them, or else setting their minds upon vain pleasures of this world, do live in sin without repentance, not uttering the fruits that do belong to such an high profession; upon such presumptuous persons, and wilful sinners, must needs remain the great vengeance of God, and eternal punishment in hell, prepared for the devil and wicked livers.’[8]

Once again this is the position that Evangelicals take. They hold with Article X that salvation is wholly dependent on the grace of God, but they also hold with Article XII and the homily just cited that saving faith elicited by the grace of God necessarily shows itself in good works , among which is a life of sexual holiness. Where these good works are not present, and where there is life of sin without repentance, saving faith does not exist.

Percy might want to say at this point that those in same-sex relationships do produce good works in that there are Christians who live in ‘faithful and loving ‘ same-sex relationships. From an Evangelical perspective such relationships are not, as Percy suggests, an oxymoron. Faithful and loving same-sex relationships do exist.

However, the presence of such virtuous elements in a same-sex relationship does not mean that the relationship itself is not sinful. For example, an adulterous, incestuous, or polygamous relationship could be both faithful and loving, but this would not mean that it was not sinful. Or, to take another example, a group of thieves could exhibit virtues such as courage, wisdom, loyalty, or fortitude, but this would not make their activity any the less a breach of the eighth commandment. Whatever their other virtues, sexually active same- sex relationships necessarily fail to exhibit the virtue of chastity and for this reason have to be judged as sinful and requiring repentance and amendment of life.

Percy’s essay also raises the question of why Evangelicals do not address the behaviour of ‘those working in banking or finance industries, or any affluent fellow-Christians also hoping for eternal bliss.’ There are two response to this. First, Evangelicals do actually address the question of how wealthy Christians ought to behave in world of widespread poverty. [9] Secondly, it is not clear why the mere fact of someone working in banking or finance (who may not personally be wealthy), or indeed the fact that someone is affluent, necessarily raises questions of whether they are sinning. Why does Percy think this is the case?

In conclusion, the issue currently facing the Anglican Communion is not that Evangelicals view those with same-sex attraction as second class Christians. They do not.

Nor is it that Evangelicals that Evangelicals want everyone with same-sex attraction to be celibate. They do not.

Nor is it that Evangelicals hold a Semi-Pelagian view of salvation akin to that condemned at the Council of Orange in 529. They do not. They hold to the biblical, Catholic and Anglican position that salvation is entirely due to the free grace of God, but that those who have received saving grace will necessarily live a life of good works, which includes, among other things, living a life of sexual holiness.

The real issue facing the Anglican Communion, and the issue hovering in the background of Percy’s essay, is the issue of cheap grace.

In his classic discussion of this issue in The Cost of Discipleship Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:

‘Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. ‘All for sin could not atone.’ The world goes on in the same old way, and we are still sinners ‘even in the best life’ as Luther said. Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin.’[10]

As Bonhoeffer goes on to say, the problem with this view of grace is that it:

‘…amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from who sin departs. Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the forgiveness we bestow on ourselves.’ [11]

What those like Percy who take a revisionist position on human sexuality are arguing for is exactly cheap grace. Percy’s position is precisely that those who experience same-sex attraction are in the right before God because of grace even if they continue to live a life of sin by engaging in same-sex sexual activity.

As Anglicans we have to say ‘no’ to cheap grace. What we have to teach and practice instead is what Bonhoeffer calls ‘costly grace.’ ‘Such grace,’ he writes:

‘…is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘ye were bought at a price,’ and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.’[12]

To proclaim costly grace means declaring that all people, regardless of their sexual attraction, must practice sexual abstinence outside (heterosexual) marriage and sexual fidelity within it. If Anglicans faithfully proclaim this message they will be unpopular and encounter strong opposition from a world that does not want its sinfulness to be challenged, but they will be blessed. As Jesus said ‘Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you’ (Matthew 5:11-12).

M B Davie 10.1.16


[1] Martyn Percy, ‘Sexuality and the Citizenship of Heaven’ at http://modernchurch.org.uk/january-2016/906-sexuality-and-the-citizenship-of-heaven

[2] Martyn Percy, ‘Sex, Sense and Non-Sense for Anglicans’ at http://modernchurch.org.uk/news-blog/senior-cleric-calls-for-canterbury-apology

[3] Church of England Evangelical Council, ‘The St Andrew’s Day Statement, ’ Application I, Text in Martin Davie,

Thinking Aloud, London: Latimer Trust, 2015, p. 92.

[4] This position is not, as Percy seems to suggest, a minority one with Evangelicalism. It remains the majority Evangelical approach.

[5] It might be suggested at this point that it is impossible for those with same-sex attraction to enter successfully into marriage. This is simply untrue. See, for example, Rosaria Butterfield, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Pittsburgh: Crown and Covenant, 2014 and Sean Doherty, The Only Way is Ethics, Part 1: Sex and Marriage, Milton Keynes: Authentic, 2015.

[6] Council of Orange, text in J H Leith, Creeds of the Churches, rev.ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 1973, pp.43-44.

[7] Ibid, p.44.

[8] Ian Robinson (ed), The Homilies, Bishopstone: Brynmill/Preservation Press, 2006, pp.33-34.

[9] See, for example, John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today, Basingstoke: Marshalls, 19884, ch.12, Craig Blomberg, Neither Poverty nor Riches, Leicester: IVP, 1999 and Marijke Hoek, Justin Thacker et al, Micah’s Challenge: The Church’s Responsibility to the Global Poor, Carlisle: Paternoster, 2008.

[10] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, London: SCM, 1959, p.35.

[11] Ibid, p.36

[12] Ibid, p.37.

I wouldn’t start from here – a response to Martyn Percy

In 1924 the Hibbert Journal published what appears to be the earliest printed version of a very well -known joke. In the 1924 version it runs as follows:

A genial Irishman, cutting peat in the wilds of Connemara, was once asked by a pedestrian Englishman to direct him on his way to Letterfrack. With the wonted enthusiasm of his race the Irishman flung himself into the problem and, taking the wayfarer to the top of a hill commanding a wide prospect of bogs, lakes, and mountains, proceeded to give him, with more eloquence than precision, a copious account of the route to be taken. He then concluded as follows: ‘Tis the divil’s own country, sorr, to find your way in. But a gintleman with a face like your honour’s can’t miss the road; though, if it was meself that was going to Letterfrack, faith, I wouldn’t start from here.’

The final words of the joke, ‘I wouldn’t start from here,’ have been quoted time and again in a variety of different forms and settings because they encompass a widely recognized truth, that where you start from can make all the difference to your subsequent journey. Starting in the wrong place can make it difficult or impossible to get your intended destination.

I was reminded of this truth when I read Martyn Percy’s recent article ‘Sex, Sense and Non-Sense for Anglicans.’ If you accept his starting point, which is that a study of the behaviour of non-human mammals shows that ‘same-sex acts and unions’ are a ‘quite normal and natural’ part of God’s good creation (pp.5-6), then all the rest of his argument makes perfectly good sense. From this starting point:

  • The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was wrong in 2014 to uphold heterosexual relationships as the default position for its view of sexual ethics (pp.1-3);
  • It would be wrong for the Church of England to reject the growing consensus in Western society (particularly amongst young people) in favour of the acceptance of same-sex relationships (pp.3-4, 6-8);
  • The Anglican Communion should not let over inflated claims about the size of the Anglican churches of the Global South or post-colonial guilt lead to the maintenance of a conservative stance on same-sex (pp.4-5);
  • Rather than accepting the conservatives’ claim that they alone uphold the ‘traditional’ biblical teaching about sexuality we need to read the Bible ‘intelligently and with compassion on matters of sexuality’ and this means noting that terms such as ‘same-sex attraction’ and ‘homosexuality’ don’t appear in Scripture and that the Early Church knew little about the ‘normal range of sexual behaviour we now take for granted’ (p.8);
  • The Archbishop of Canterbury should repent of the way that the British Empire exported homophobia across the globe and should encourage his fellow Primates to collectively repent of the oppression of gay, lesbian and homosexual people and the criminalisation of same-sex sexual activity (p.9);
  • The Archbishop of Canterbury should apologize to American and Canadian Anglicans for his gestures of support for The Anglican Church in North America, a schismatic body that has no right to exist (p.12).

However, his starting point is mistaken and this being the case the rest of his argument then crumbles away as well.

The reason that his starting point is mistaken is well explained in Alan Shlemon’s article ‘Does homosexual behavior in animals mean that it’s natural for humans?’ He notes that the rationale for an appeal to nature in support of the acceptance of same-sex behaviour among humans is that:

‘….if animals engage in a behavior, it must be natural and moral for humans do it too. Let’s apply that logic to some other animal behavior: cannibalism. Animals eating their own kind has been observed in over a thousand animal species. Following the logic of the view would mean that cannibalism is natural and moral for humans. But that’s absurd! And so is the rationale that led to that absurd conclusion.

Indeed, animals engage in all sorts of selfish, violent, and primitive behaviors that humans would almost universally categorize as immoral. That’s why taking moral cues from the animal kingdom is absurd. Yes, humans are an animal of sorts, but we’re more than that. We are rational beings with a capacity for free will and a rich intellectual life. To reduce our behavior and relationships to instincts, stimuli, and urges ignores a major component of human nature.’[1]

As he goes on to say, what we see when we observe apparently homosexual acts among animals is in fact either the operation of overpowering sexual instinct or sexual activity engaged in as a way for an animal to express itself in some way:

‘When humans have conflicting instinctive reactions, our intellect can reason between them and determine the most expedient or moral course of action. Animals, however, behave according to their strongest instinct given what they see, smell, hear, taste, and perceive. These natural impulses aid in their protection, survival, and reproduction.

But internal or external stimuli can cause their instincts to clash or get confused, leading to unusual behavior. Sometimes a cat will kill his kittens. Unlike females whose strong maternal instinct protects her babies, the predatory instinct of a tom cat can confuse his offspring for prey. Are his hunting impulses natural? Yes. Can they be misdirected? Sure. Should we declare filicide or cannibalism as natural or moral for humans? No.

The same is true for allegedly homosexual acts among animals. Their sexual drive and instinct to mate is extremely strong and can be confused. When animals are in heat, they release pheromones that trigger an instinctual behavior by males. According to an expert in the field, this inborn impulse is so strong, that it can ‘instigate a frenzy of mounting behaviors. Even other females who aren’t in heat will mount those who are. Males will mount males who have just been with females [in heat] if they still bear their scent…And males who catch wind of the estrus odor may mount the first thing (or unlucky person) they come in contact with.’ I’ve even seen a dog mount a couch. One might have good taste in sofas, but I doubt it’s so good that your dog is sexually attracted to it. The poor pooch is confused.

Plus, sexual activity among animals is known to be used for purposes other than reproduction. Although humans can express themselves by speaking, writing, gesturing, and a multitude of other ways, animals are limited. Consequently, they are known to use sexual behavior to express a range of sentiments: social dominance, aggression, avoiding conflict, and many other emotions. That’s why many researchers think it’s naive to impose a human understanding of homosexuality onto animal behavior.

‘Properly speaking, homosexuality does not exist among animals…. For reasons of survival, the reproductive instinct among animals is always directed towards an individual of the opposite sex. Therefore, an animal can never be homosexual as such. Nevertheless, the interaction of other instincts (particularly dominance) can result in behavior that appears to be homosexual. Such behavior cannot be equated with an animal homosexuality. All it means is that animal sexual behavior encompasses aspects beyond that of reproduction.’’ [2]

What all this means is that an appeal to mammalian behavior to support same-sex activity amongst human beings fails to acknowledge that behaviour observed among animals may not be right for human beings and also fails to properly understand what is actually going on when animals engage in same-sex activity. They are not engaging in a consensual loving relationship.

Indeed, one can go further than Shlemon and argue that what is observable in nature tells against the idea that same-sex activity is part of the way God intended his creation to be. The Bible tells us that the created order is out of joint because of sin (Romans 8:18-25) and in so far as same-sex activity in animals involves a confusion of instincts and is way of expressing dominance and aggression it can legitimately be seen as a manifestation of this out-of-jointness that God permits, but which goes against the way the world would have been had sin not entered into the picture.

If we cannot therefore read God’s creative intention straight off the face of nature the question then arises where we can learn about it. The answer that the Jewish and Christian traditions have always given is that the primary place we learn about it is from the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis where we learn about how God made the world to be

In his paper Percy ignores these chapters entirely, but if we do look at them what we find is that they present us with an unambiguously binary account of human existence and sexual activity.

They tell us that God created human beings in his image and likeness as male and female to exercise dominion over the world on his behalf (Genesis 1:26-27, 2:18-23) and that he also instituted marriage as a life -long, exclusive sexual union between one man and one woman through which his command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ should find its fulfilment (Genesis 2:24, 1:28).

This view of God’s creation of human beings is endorsed by Jesus (Matthew 19:3-9, Mark 10:2-12) and is reflected in the fact that, to quote the American author Michael Brown, the Bible is a ‘heterosexual book’ in the sense that it ‘presents and presupposes heterosexuality as the divinely intended norm.’ [3] This can be see, he says:

‘…throughout the entire Bible in book after book.

  • Every single reference to marriage in the entire Bible speaks of heterosexual unions without exception, to the point that a Hebrew idiom for marriage is for a man ‘to take a wife.’
  • Every warning to men about sexual purity presupposes heterosexuality, with the married man often warned not to lust after another woman.
  • Every discussion about family order and structure speaks explicitly in heterosexual terms, referring to husbands and wives, fathers and mothers.
  • Every law or instruction given to children presupposes heterosexuality, as children are urged to heed or obey or follow the counsel or example of their father and mother.
  • Every parable. Illustration or metaphor having to do with marriage is presented in exclusively heterosexual terms.
  • In the Old Testament God depicts His relationship with Israel as that of a groom and a bride; in the New Testament the image shifts to the marital union of husband and wife as a picture of Christ and the Church.
  • Since there was no such thing as in vitro fertilization and the like in biblical times, the only parents were heterosexual (it still takes a man and a woman to produce a child) and there is no hint of homosexual couples adopting children.’ [4]

Furthermore, it is because sexual relationships between men and woman are the God given norm that St. Paul teaches in Romans 1:26-27 (once again ignored by Percy) that sexual relationships between two people of the same sex are ‘unnatural.’ As Tom Wright explains, ‘taking Genesis 1 as the primary theological statement’ St. Paul:

‘….sees humans created in God’s image and given charge over the non-human creation. Humans are commanded to be fruitful: they are to celebrate in their male-plus female complementarity, the abundant life-generating capacity of God’s good world. And they are charged with bringing God’s order in the world, acting as stewards of the garden and all that is in it. Males and females are very different, and they are designed to work together to make, with God, the music of creation. Something deep within the structure of the world responds to the coming together of like and unlike, something which cannot be reached by the mere joining together of like and like.’ [5]

In the light of this theological vision, St. Paul’s rejection of same-sex sexual relationships as ‘unnatural’ and the result of idolatry in Romans 1:18-27 does not mean:

‘…simply ‘we Jews don’t approve of this,’ or ‘relationships like this are always unequal and exploitative.’ His point is ‘this is not what males and females were made for.’ Nor is he suggesting that everyone who feels sexually attracted to members of their own sex, or everyone who engages in actual same-sex relations, has got to that point through committing specific acts of idolatry. Nor, again, does he suppose that all those who find themselves in that situation have arrived there by a deliberate choice to give up heterosexual possibilities. Reading the text like that reflects a modern individualism rather than Paul’s larger all-embracing perspective. Rather, he is talking about the human race as a whole. His point is not ‘there are some exceptionally wicked people out there who do these revolting things’ but ‘the fact that such clear distortions of the creator’s male-plus-female intention occur in the world indicates that the human race as a whole is guilty of a character-twisting idolatry.’ He sees the practice of same-sex relations as a sign that the human world in general is out of joint.’  [6]

In Scripture the existence of God’s people from the time of Abraham onwards is intended to be counter sign to the out-of-jointness of the world. It is a witness to God’s coming kingdom in which everything will be as it should be because God’s will is done ‘on earth as it is heaven’ (Matthew 6:10). Consequently, in both the Old and New Testaments engaging in same-sex relationships is seen as behaviour incompatible with membership of God’s people both in this world and in the world to come (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, 1 Timothy 1:9-10 – passages which Percy also ignores).[7]

If we review the rest of Percy’s argument from this alternative biblical perspective we find that it is no longer persuasive.

First, contrary to what Percy suggests, the Church of Scotland was entirely correct to re-affirm its commitment to the biblical teaching about sexuality. Where it went wrong was to say that individual ministers and congregations should have the freedom not to obey this teaching. If this teaching really is biblical and therefore carries God’s own authority then obedience to it cannot be optional.

Secondly, it would not be legitimate for the Church of England to tailor what it says about sexuality in order to try to make evangelism easier. The Church of England is a national church, but it is first and foremost a church and as such its calling is to remain faithful in its confession of the message given to it by Christ and trust him for the result. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

‘It is a great comfort which Christ gives to his church: you confess, preach, bear witness to me, and I alone will build where it pleases me. Do not meddle in what is my province. Church, do what is given to you to do well and you have done enough. But do it well. Pay no heed to views and opinions. Don’t ask for judgements, don’t always be calculating what will happen, don’t always be on the look- out for another refuge! Church, stay a church! But church, confess, confess, confess! Christ alone is your Lord, from his grave alone you shall live as you are. Christ builds.’ [8]

Thirdly, it is true, as Percy says, that the Church of England or other churches of the Anglican Communion should not take accept the view of sexuality taken by the conservative Anglican Provinces of the Global South because of claims about the size of these churches or because of post-colonial guilt. The reason they should accept their view of sexuality (which is, incidentally, also the official view of the Anglican Communion and the Church of England itself) is because it is in agreement with the teaching about sexuality given to us by God in Holy Scripture that we have looked at above. [9]

Fourthly, the examples that Percy gives of reading the Bible intelligently and with compassion are neither compassionate nor intelligent.

To begin with, the claims that concepts such as ‘same-sex attraction’ and ‘homosexuality’ are not found in the Bible and that the Early Church knew little about the range of sexual behaviour we now take for granted are no more compassionate than claims that the cat sat on the mat, that Caesar defeated the Gauls at Alesia or that Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837. These are all claims about what happened in the past. What they are not is expressions of compassion. Percy has simply made a category mistake.

Furthermore not only is reading the Bible in the light of such claims not compassionate, but it is also unintelligent. It is unintelligent because it fails to take account of the evidence from both Ancient Near Eastern and Classical Sources and from the Bible itself which suggests that people in the Ancient Near East and the Classical world and the writers of the Bible were just as aware as we are today that people experience attraction to those of the opposite sex, to those of the same sex and to both and that people have sex with members of both the opposite and the same sex.[10] They may not have used the terms ‘same-sex attraction’ or ‘homosexuality’ but they knew about the realities to which these terms refer. It is also unintelligent because it fails to take into account the big picture of how the Bible approaches the subject of human sexuality that we have looked at above. A ‘traditional’ approach is a more intelligent approach because it avoids both these errors.

Fifthly, while it is legitimate to debate to what extent it is right for governments to criminalize either heterosexual or homosexual forms of sexual activity,[11] and while there does need to be a debate across the Anglican Communion about how best to provide pastoral support for people with same-sex attraction, it would not be right for either the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Primates as a whole to make any statement of repentance which implied that Anglicans and others have been wrong to say that same-sex sexual activity is something immoral and therefore something that people should not engage in. To say this would be to reject biblical teaching and this is something that the Primates do not have the theological authority to do. As Article XX of the Thirty Nine Articles puts it: ‘it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written.’

Sixthly, it would not be right for the Archbishop of Canterbury to make any statement to The Episcopal Church or the Anglican Church of Canada that either stated or implied that the Anglican Church in North America is a schismatic body that should not exist. This is because the existence of ACNA came about because The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada caused division in North America and within the Anglican Communion as a whole by deliberately disregarding the teaching of the Bible and the Communion about same-sexual activity through offering services of blessing for same-sex relationships and through ordaining and consecrating those involved in them. ACNA was formed by those who wished to remain loyal to traditional biblical and Anglican teaching and to remain in communion with orthodox Anglicans elsewhere in the world and who felt that remaining in The Episcopal Church or the Anglican Church of Canada would not enable either to happen. They were not seeking to be schismatic but seeking to preserve a future for orthodox Anglicanism in North America.

Where Percy has a point is that the Archbishop of Canterbury should not be simply making occasional ad hoc gestures of support towards ACNA. He should instead be seeking to regularize its position by encouraging it to apply to join the Anglican Communion and should at the same time be advocating the suspension of The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada from the Communion until such time as they are willing to return to orthodox teaching and practice with regard to human sexuality.

To conclude, what the Anglican Communion needs at this juncture is not, as Percy suggests, poetry (pp.13-14). What is requires is coherent and biblical based thinking about the challenges it faces. Unfortunately, as we have seen, Martyn Percy has given us an approach to thinking about the future of Anglicanism that does not start from Scripture and which does not hang together as an argument. Consequently, as the Irishman said, ‘I wouldn’t start from here. ‘

M B Davie 3.1.15




[1] Alan Shlemon, ‘Does homosexual behaviour in animals mean it’s natural for humans?’ at Stand to Reason, http://www.str.org/blog/does-homosexual-behavior-in-animals-mean-it-s-natural-for-humans#.VoO8D2ArHIU

[2] Ibid citing Jacque Lynn Schultz, C.P.D.T. at http://www.petfinder.com/pet-training/stopping-dog-humping.html?page-index=3& and Antonio Pardo, “Aspectos médicos de la homosexualidad,” Nuestro Tiempo, Jul.-Aug. 1995, pp. 82-89

[3] Michael Brown, Can you be Gay and Christian? Lake Mary: Front Line, 2014, p.83.

[4] Ibid, pp.88-89.

[5] Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone – Romans Part 1, London: SPCK, p.21,

[6] Ibid, pp.22-23.

[7] This last aspect of biblical teaching means that Percy’s statement ‘Lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians will not suffer discrimination in heaven. In the Kingdom of God, as faithful Christians, all enjoy a full and equal citizenship’ (p.8) requires qualification. It is certainly true that those with same-sex attraction are as capable pf achieving eternal life as any other category of human beings. However, it also true that for them, as for all other human beings, the achievement of eternal life involves refraining from, or repenting of, all forms of sexual sin (same-sex sexual activity included). Those who refuse to turn from sexual sin exclude themselves from being part of God’s eternal kingdom (Matthew 5:27-30, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Revelation 21:7-8).

[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords, London: Fontana, 1970, p. 212.

[9] The article by the Spanish Anglican Daniel Munoz which Percy quotes may or may not be correct in claiming that the number of practising Anglicans in the Global South has been exaggerated. Even if this claim is accepted, however, it is irrelevant to the key theological issue, which is that of fidelity to biblical teaching.

[10] For the evidence see David F Greenberg, The Construction of Homosexuality, Chicago and London: Chicago UP, 1988, Thomas K Hubbard, Homosexuality in Greece and Rome, Berkeley and London: University of California UP, 2003 and Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, Nashville: Abingdon Press 2001.

[11] All governments, including our own, impose criminal sanctions against some forms of sexual activity, so the debate has to be about which forms of sexual activity should be criminalised and what constitutes an appropriate degree of punishment. Saying sexual activity should never be criminalized is too simplistic.