An Anglican understanding of inclusion


It looks as though the Church of England now has a new buzz word. In the past few years the buzz word has been ‘good disagreement’ but now it appears to be ‘radical inclusion.’  In his speech at the conclusion of the debate in General Synod on the House of Bishops report on Marriage and Sexual Relationships after the Shared Conversations the Archbishop of Canterbury talked about the need for ‘a radical new Christian inclusion.’ The same phrase was then used by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in their letter issued in response to the debate.

One of the problems with the term ‘good disagreement’ was that its meaning was never formally defined and so it was difficult to be sure what it actually meant. In a similar fashion the Archbishops have not given a clear definition of ‘a radical new Christian inclusion’ either, but in their letter they appear to link it to a way forward for the Church of England that is ‘about love, joy and celebration of our common humanity; of our creation in the image of God, of our belonging to Christ – all of us, without exception, without exclusion.’

There are three problems with this view of the meaning of radical inclusion. First, it mentions the creation of human beings in the image of God, but passes over the fact that human beings are also fallen. Secondly, it talks about our belonging to Christ, but is silent about what this belonging involves. Thirdly, by linking both under the rubric of our ‘common humanity,’ it suggests that all human beings without exception are not only created by God, but also belong to Christ (which is not true).

In the remainder of this blog I shall set out an alternative Anglican account of inclusion that avoids these problems, drawing on the teaching of the Thirty Nine Articles and other authorised Anglican sources, as well as the work of Martin Luther. I shall also look at how this alternative account of inclusion relates to the issue of those who experience same sex attraction.

All human beings are included in the effects of the Fall.

The starting point for this alternative account of inclusion is the fact that all human beings without exception are included in the effects of the Fall.  Genesis 1:26-27 tells us that human beings have been created in the ‘image and likeness’ of God. This means that they are called to reflect the glory of God by living in obedience to God and ruling over the world on his behalf. However, as the biblical story from Genesis 3 onwards tells us, the disobedience of the first human beings means that all human beings are by nature incapable of fulfilling this calling.

The technical theological term for the effects of this act of disobedience by the first human beings is ‘original sin,’ which is described by Article IX the Thirty Nine Articles as:

‘… the fault and corruption of the nature of every man that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea, in them that are regenerated, whereby the lust of the flesh, called in Greek φρόνημα σαρκὸς (which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire of the flesh), is not subject to the law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized, yet the Apostle doth confess that concupiscence and lust hath itself the nature of sin.’

The biblical basis for what is said in this article is the witness to universal human sinfulness borne by a range of biblical texts such as Genesis 8:21, Psalm 14:1-3, Ecclesiastes 7:20, Isaiah 53:6, Romans 3:23 and Ephesians 2:3 understood in the light of the teaching of St. Paul in Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, passages which declare that the disobedience of Adam led to sin and therefore death spreading to all his descendants.

The key point made by the article on the basis of such texts is that Adam’s sin means that all human beings, even baptised Christian believers, are by nature inclined to evil, with the result that they are in a state of continual rebellion against the promptings of the Spirit and are incapable of giving God the loving obedience that he deserves. As the general confession in the services of Morning and Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer puts it:

‘We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against thy holy laws, we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.’

The important point made in this general confession is that the nature of original sin is that our fallen nature leads to our having sinful desires and it is as we follow the promptings of these  sinful desires that we commit specific acts of sin.  This toxic combination of our fallen nature, our sinful desires and our sinful acts means that we are radically alienated from God. As Article IX indicates, by reason of original sin we all deserve God’s ‘wrath and condemnation.’ Or, as St. Paul puts it in Ephesians 2:3, we are by nature ‘children of wrath.’

All need the righteousness that comes through faith.

None of us can put ourselves in the right with God through our own efforts because the effects of original sin mean that everything we do falls short of what God requires of us. As the homily ‘Of the Misery of All Mankind’ in the First Book of Homilies declares:

‘For truly there be imperfections in our best works: we do not love God so much, as we ought to do, with all our heart, mind, and power; we do not fear God so much, as we ought to do; we do not pray to God, but with great and many imperfections; we give, forgive, believe, love, and hope unperfectly; we speak, think, and do unperfectly; we fight against the devil, the world, and the flesh unperfectly.’

However, in God’s great mercy, what we cannot do for ourselves God does for us. In the words of St. Paul: ‘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 in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 3:22-24). Because, and only because, Jesus lived, died and rose on our behalf we are accounted righteous by God (‘justified’). We are, that is to say, viewed by God as the people we ought to be, but in ourselves are not.  If we ask how this is possible the answer is, as Martin Luther explains in 1520 tract The Freedom of a Christian, that through faith we are united to Christ:

‘The third incomparable grace of faith is this, that it unites the soul to Christ, as the wife to the husband; by which mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul are made one flesh [Ephesians 5:31-32]. Now if they are one flesh, and if a true marriage – nay, by far the most perfect of all marriages – is accomplished between them (for human marriages are but feeble types of this one great marriage), then it follows that all they have becomes theirs in common, as well good things as evil things; so that whatsoever Christ possesses, that the believing soul may take to itself and boast of as its own, and whatever belongs to the soul, that Christ claims as his.

If we compare these possessions, we shall see how inestimable is the gain. Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation; the soul is full of sin, death, and condemnation. Let faith step in, and then sin, death, and hell will belong to Christ, and grace, life, and salvation to the soul. For, if he is a husband, he must needs take to himself that which is his wife’s, and, at the same time, impart to his wife that which is his. For, in giving her his own body and himself, how can he but give her all that is his? And, in taking to himself the body of his wife, how can he but take to himself all that is hers?

In this is displayed the delightful sight, not only of communion, but of a prosperous warfare, of victory, salvation, and redemption. For since Christ is God and man, and is such a person as neither has sinned, nor dies, nor is condemned,–nay, cannot sin, die, or be condemned; and since his righteousness, life, and salvation are invincible, eternal, and almighty; when, I say, such a person, by the wedding-ring of faith, takes a share in the sins, death, and hell of his wife, nay, makes them his own, and deals with them no otherwise than as if they were his, and as if he himself had sinned; and when he suffers, dies, and descends to hell, that he may overcome all things, since sin, death, and hell cannot swallow him up, they must needs be swallowed up by him in stupendous conflict. For his righteousness rises above the sins of all men; his life is more powerful than all death; his salvation is more unconquerable than all hell. Thus the believing soul, by the pledge of its faith in Christ, becomes free from all sin, fearless of death, safe from hell, and endowed with the eternal righteousness, life, and salvation of its husband Christ.’

In summary, what this means is that, in the words of Article XI: ‘We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings’ and the reason that this is the case is that through faith we belong to Christ and as a consequence all our sin is his and all his righteousness is ours.

Baptism comes into the picture as the sacramental means by which we express our faith (or, in the case of infant baptism, by which faith is expressed on our behalf) and through which we receive the blessings of faith.  That is why in the New Testament faith and baptism belong inextricably together. We can see this, for instance, in Galatians 3:26-27 where St. Paul says in verse 26 ‘for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith’ and then develops the same point in verse 27 by saying ‘for as many of you as were baptized have put on Christ.’  We can also see it in Romans 4-6 where the discussion of the benefits of faith in chapters 4 and 5 leads into the discussion of the benefits and implications of baptism in chapter 6 and what links all three chapters is a common concern with the question of how we receive and respond rightly to the grace of God that has been given to us in Jesus Christ.

All need to produce the fruit of good works.

Although, as has already been said, no good works that we can perform are capable of making us righteous before God this does not mean that performing good works, that is to say, striving to act in the way that God requires, does not matter. On the contrary good works do matter and are an indispensable sign that we possess genuine faith in Christ.

In the words of Article XII:

‘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.’

How do we know whether we have genuine faith? As Jesus says in Matthew 12:33 ‘a tree is known by its fruit.’  If we have real faith in Christ we shall want to do what God requires and when we act upon this desire in the power of the Spirit (Romans 8:4) what we do is acceptable to God as the fruit of our relationship with Christ even though in itself it will necessarily remain imperfect. Conversely, if we do not desire to do what God requires and consequently do not produce good works it follows that our faith is not genuine.

To quote the ‘Short declaration of the true, lively and Christian faith’ in the First book of Homilies:

‘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 doth belong thereunto. For true faith doth ever bring forth good works; as St. James saith. ‘Show me thy faith by thy deeds’ (James 2:18). Thy deeds and works must be an open testimonial of thy faith; otherwise thy faith, being without good works, is but the devil’s faith, the faith of the wicked, a phantasy of faith, and not a true Christian faith.’

How does this relate to the issue of same sex attraction?

The account of inclusion just given says that:

  • All human beings are created in the image and likeness of God;
  • All human beings are affected by original sin and are therefore alienated from God because of their fallen desires and the sinful actions that flow from them;
  • The way in which all human beings can have a right relationship with God is through faith in Christ;
  • Genuine faith in Christ always shows itself in the performance of good works.

What this account means In relation to those people who have same sex attraction, and who may engage in same sex activity as a result, is that:

  1. Just like all other people they have the inestimable dignity of having being created in the image and likeness of God and being called to live in obedience to him.
  2. Just like all other people they are affected by the fall and as a result they have fallen desires and perform sinful acts. This is true in the area of their sexuality in so far as they desire to have sex with a member of their own sex or actually do so (Romans 1:26-27), but it is equally true in all other areas of their life.
  3. Just like all other people the way they can have a right relationship with God is through faith in Christ by means of which they belong to Christ and his righteousness becomes theirs;
  4. Just like all other people they need to manifest their faith in Christ through performing good works. This is true in all areas of their life, including their sexuality, and in the case of their sexuality it means that they, like all other people, need to adhere to a pattern of sexual discipline involving either faithfulness within (heterosexual) marriage or abstinence outside it since this is what accords with the way God has created human beings to live (see Genesis 1-2).

In terms of pastoral care of people with same sex attraction this means:

  1. Treating them with same dignity as all other human beings;
  2. Helping them to see how (like all other people) they are sinners in all areas of their lives (and not only their sexuality) and are therefore alienated from God and cannot save themselves;
  3. Pointing them to faith in Christ as the way of salvation;
  4. Explaining to them how, with the help of the Spirit, they need to manifest their faith in all areas of their lives (including their sexuality).

Down the centuries this is the way in which the Christian Church, including the Church of England, has traditionally approached the pastoral care of those sexually attracted to members of their own sex and it remains the right approach today.  It does not see those with same sex attraction as somehow different from other people, but in a truly inclusive way it says that like all human beings they need the way of salvation provided through Christ and it stands open for them just as much as for anyone else.

M B Davie 19.2.17

Timeo danaos et dona ferentis?

There are two stories which helpfully illustrate the choice which those on General Synod who hold an orthodox view of human sexuality will have to make about whether to vote to ‘take note’ of GS 2055, the House of Bishops report on Marriage and Sexual Relationships after the Shared Conversations.

The first of these stories is told by Virgil in the second book of the Aeneid. It tells of Laocoon, a priest of Troy. He is wise to the subterfuges employed by the Greeks during the long years of the siege of the city and warns his fellow countrymen against accepting the giant horse the Greeks have left as a gift to be offered to the gods. He utters the famous words ‘timeo danaos et dona ferentis’ (‘I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts’). However, the Trojans ignore his warning and bring the horse (which is actually full of Greek soldiers) into their city with Troy being destroyed as a result.

The second is the story told by C S Lewis in The Last Battle, the final book in his Chronicles of Narnia. In this story Lewis tells of a group of dwarves who have been repeatedly lied to by people claiming to represent Aslan, the Christ figure in the Narnia stories. As a result they have become so suspicious in their thinking that they are convinced that they are sitting a dark stable with nothing but stable litter to eat when in fact they are sitting in the light in beautiful countryside with a delicious feast to eat. Furthermore, they hold that anyone who tries to convince them otherwise (including Aslan) is once again trying to deceive them.

What these two stories show us is that in thinking about what choices to make in the present we are inevitably influenced by the experiences of our past. Sometimes these experiences can lead us to perceive truth (as in the case of Laocoon) and sometimes they can lead us to reject the truth (as in the case of the dwarves).

Because of what has happened in the past, many orthodox Anglicans are now suspicious of statements of the House of Bishops relating to human sexuality. This means that they are suspicious of GS 2055 since they believe that it is intended to open the door to the revision of the Church of England’s current position with regard to sexual ethics. They think it is a Trojan horse and for this reason they are tempted to think that the best thing to do is to reject the report by voting not to take note of it.

In my view such a position, though understandable, is mistaken. As I have noted in a previous blog post, GS 2055 is not perfect (no document apart from the Bible ever is). However, the question is not whether it is perfect, but whether overall it is a helpful document that has the potential to take the Church of England in the right direction. I would argue that the answer to this question is ‘yes’ for the following reasons:

  1. It is realistic about the current challenges facing the Church of England;
  1. It means that the Church of England will continue to maintain its present law and doctrine, which means that it will continue to uphold the biblical teaching contained in Canon B.30, the 1987 General Synod motion, and Lambeth 1.10 that marriage is between one man and one woman and that God’s will is for people to be either sexually faithful within marriage or sexually abstinent outside it;
  1. It provides the opportunity to produce a teaching document that will clearly and confidently explain why the biblical teaching about sexuality is good news for both the Church and wider society and why commending this teaching is an act of love;
  1. It gives support to the approach taken by bodies such as Living Out, True Freedom Trust, and Core Issues Trust of providing understanding, welcome and support to those with same sex attraction and their families without compromising biblical teaching;
  1. It affirms that clergy should have an appropriate degree of pastoral freedom to minister to people with same sex attraction, but also makes clear in the annex that while the Church of England’s present law and doctrine remain unchanged clergy do not have the freedom to enter into same sex ‘marriages,’ or same sex sexual relationships, or to conduct forms of liturgy that explicitly or implicitly sanction or condone same sex ‘marriages’ or same sex sexual relationships.

In my opinion, what this means is that orthodox members of Synod should not fall into the trap of allowing their judgement to be clouded by suspicion as happened to the dwarves. Suspicion can be justified, but it can also be unwarranted, and in this case I think it is. GS 2055 should not be seen as a Trojan horse, but should be seen instead as a genuine gift to the Church of England, one that has the potential, if properly built upon, to lead the Church into a better future.

M B Davie 11.2.17

On being un-Anglican and un-Catholic

In his article in yesterday’s Church Times entitled ‘Everything hinges on three words,’ Andrew Davison focuses his criticism of the House of Bishops new report Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations on the difference between paragraphs 18 and 26 of the report.

He notes that in paragraph 18 the report says that there was ‘little support for changing the Church’s teaching on marriage as expressed in Canon B.30’ whereas in paragraph 26 the report proposes no change the Churches law or to its ‘doctrinal position on marriage and sexual relationships.’  According to Dr Davison the bishops went wrong by adding the three words ‘and sexual relationships’ to paragraph 26. In his view they ought to have stuck to saying there would be no change to the Church’s law and teaching on marriage, but allowed for the possibility of a change in its view on what is permissible in terms of sexual relationships.

The problem with this argument is that you cannot detach the Church’s existing law and teaching with regard to marriage from its teaching about sexual relationships. They go together. This can be seen if we go back to what is said in Canon B.30. This Canon forms part of the Church of England’s law, but in terms of its form it is a statement of the Church of England’s teaching about the nature marriage. The Canon declares:

‘The Church of England affirms, according to our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.’

These words declare not only what marriage is, but what it is for. Following a tradition going back to St. Augustine they affirm that there are three causes why marriage exists, and that the second of these is ‘the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections.’  The ‘natural instincts and affections’ referred to here are the desire for sexual relationships that human beings possess and what the Canon says is that this desire needs to be hallowed, that is to say, to be expressed in a way that is consistent with living a holy life. Marriage between one man and one woman is the way that this takes place. Sexual desire finds a holy expression when it takes place in this context.

This point is expanded slightly in the 1999 House of Bishops teaching document Marriage. This document sees marriage as a relationship ‘in which a man and a woman may learn love together over the course of their lives’ and further states:

‘Sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy, properly belongs within marriage exclusively. The three blessings that belong to marriage are traditionally described as the procreation and nurture of children, the hallowing of natural instincts and affections, and the mutual society, help and comfort which each affords the prosperity and adversity.’

This statement makes explicit the point which is implicit in the Canon, which is that because it is in marriage that the expression of sexual desire is hallowed it follows that sexual intercourse belong solely within marriage. All sexual intercourse outside marriage is not hallowed and is therefore illegitimate.

Canon B.30 further declares that the Church of England’s teaching about marriage can also be found in the Book of Common Prayer.

‘The teaching of our Lord affirmed by the Church of England is affirmed and maintained in the Form and Solemnisation of Matrimony contained in the Book of Common Prayer.’

If we turn to the Book of Common Prayer we find that it too sees marriage as something that takes place between a man and a woman and that it too lists three causes for marriage.  The second of these causes is that marriage was

‘… was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.’

The point that is being made here, building on the teaching of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 6 and 7, is that sex outside marriage is the sin known as fornication and that therefore those who have not been given by God the ability to restrain themselves from giving physical expression to their sexual desires should, if they are able to do so, enter into marriage in order they may channel their desires in a godly and disciplined way so that they can keep ourselves ‘undefiled members of Christ’s body.’

The homily ‘Of the State of Matrimony’ in the Second Book of Homilies, which is another key authorised Church of England statement about marriage, expands the point made in the Book of Common Prayer about marriage being a ‘remedy for sin.’ It says ‘The word of Almighty God doth testify and declare ‘ that marriage:

‘…. is instituted of God, to the intent that man and woman should live lawfully in a perpetual friendly fellowship, to bring forth fruit, and to avoid fornication: by which means, a good conscience might be preserved on both parties in bridling the corrupt inclinations of the flesh, within the limits of honesty; for God hath straitly forbidden all whoredom and uncleanness, and hath from time to time taken grievous punishments of this inordinate lust, as all stories and ages hath declared.’

What these four documents show is that it is simply not possible to separate the Church of England’s teaching about sexual relationships from its teaching about marriage. This is because according to the Church of England a central part of the purpose of marriage is to provide a context within which people may engage in sexual relationships in a way that negatively avoids sin and positively accords with the demands of holiness.

In taking this view of the link between sexual relationships and marriage the Church of England is not being idiosyncratic. On the contrary it is affirming what the Christian Church has taught always and everywhere, which is, in the words of C S Lewis, that the ‘Christian rule’ is ‘Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or total abstinence.’

In seeking to separate the issue of sexual relationships from the issue of the nature of marriage, Dr Davison is thus not only rejecting the teaching of the Church of England, but the teaching of the whole of the Catholic Church. Given that he would describe himself as being in the Catholic tradition of the Church of England this is a surprisingly un-Anglican and un-Catholic thing to do.

M B Davie 11.2.17

A response to GS 2055 ‘Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations’

  1. What is GS 2055?

It is a report to the General Synod from the House of Bishops outlining a proposed way forward for the Church of England on the issues of marriage and same sex relationships following the conclusion of the Shared Conversations on Scripture, Mission and Human Sexuality.

  1. Who produced the report?

The report was produced by the Bishops’ Reflection Group on Sexuality (BRGS), a group of ten bishops chaired by the Bishop of Norwich, but was agreed by the House of Bishops as a whole.

  1. What is in the report?

The report consists of an Introduction and three main sections with an additional annex setting out what is and is not possible within the Church of England’s current legal framework.

The introduction starts off by affirming that ‘for Christians, it is being in Christ that secures our identity and transforms all our human relationships’ and that it ‘is in this light that the Church of England ‘has to consider the difficulties over human sexuality that have been a source of tension and division for many years.’ (Para 1)

It then identifies the key issue facing the Church of England as being the fact that it is living at a time when ‘our teachings can be perceived through the prism of much in contemporary Western cultures as undermining, even contradicting, our Lord’s command that we should love one another as ourselves.’ (Para 2) This is a serious problem because . ‘If we are heard as lacking in love, our ability to proclaim the God of love as revealed in Jesus Christ is damaged or negated.’ (Para 2)

According to the introduction ‘it is in the nature of a Church like the Church of England that the way through this is profoundly contested’ (Para 2) and this is not just because there are conflicting approaches within the Church of England itself, but because it is part of the Anglican Communion and the worldwide Church and this means that ‘the question of proclaiming the gospel within culture must take account of the widely differing cultures around the world, where human sexuality is often a touchstone issue, but in contradictory ways.’ (Para 3)

However in spite of these difficulties ‘our Anglican inheritance has something particular to offer.’  If we ask what this is, the answer the report gives is that the Church will have served the world well if it can ‘find tentative ways forward which continue to point toward a better way of living and loving as persons in community.’ (Para 7)

The introduction then goes on to say that in this situation the responsibility of the bishops of the Church of England is to ‘identify the next steps’ towards ‘greater clarity about what is at stake and how the good news of God in Jesus Christ can be shared more effectively.’ (Para 9) In order to prevent this witness being damaged by the differences within the Church leading to fragmentation, the purpose of the bishops’ report is to ‘seek to make steps together that will allow us to act together while retaining doctrinal coherency.’ (Para 11)

Section 1, ‘Beyond the Shared Conversations- the process to date,’ explains the process of reflection and consultation that led to the publication of the report and in two key paragraphs explains that as a result of this process there was:

‘…a clear (although not unanimous) weight of opinion in favour of the option framed in the following terms:

  • • Interpreting the existing law and guidance to permit maximum freedom within it, without changes to the law, or the doctrine of the Church.

In practical terms this would mean:

(a) establishing across the Church of England a fresh tone and culture of welcome and support for lesbian and gay people, for those who experience same sex attraction, and for their families, and continuing to work toward mutual love and understanding on these issues across the Church; (b) the preferred option should be backed up by a substantial new Teaching Document on marriage and relationships, replacing (or expanding upon) the House’s teaching document of 1999 on marriage and the 1991 document Issues; (c) there should be guidance for clergy about appropriate pastoral provision for same sex couples; and (d) there should be new guidance from the House about the nature of questions put to ordinands and clergy about their lifestyle.‘(Paras 22-23)

Section 2, ‘Emerging elements,’ notes that the process outlined in the previous section has resulted in the emergence of ‘a provisional approach regarding how the Church of England should move forward.’ The two ‘key elements’ of this would be:

‘(a) proposing no change to ecclesiastical law or to the Church of England’s existing doctrinal position on marriage and sexual relationships; and (b) initiating fresh work in the four key areas identified in paragraph 23 above.’ (Para 26)

The section then goes on to look at each of these four elements in turn.

On ‘Establishing a Fresh Tone and Culture’ the section suggests that a new teaching document would be ‘an obvious opportunity to seek to set a tone that can communicate welcome and support for lesbian and gay people and for those who experience same-sex attraction, and also promote mutual understanding across the Church as a whole.’ (Para 29)

It also suggests that ‘careful, deep exploration of questions of human sexuality in dialogue with Scripture’ is ‘a vital part of establishing a fresh tone, culture and mutual understanding for the future.’ (Para 31)

On a ‘New Teaching Document on Marriage and Relationships’ the section outlines the possible contents of such a document. It says that it should:

  • • ‘Affirm the place of lesbian and gay people in the life of the Church, making their voices heard both within the document and in the life of the Church. There was some support for the view that the teaching document should include penitence for the treatment some lesbian and gay people have received at the hands of the Church.
  • • Consider the significance of community and relationships of all kinds in human flourishing, especially in the context of modern manifestations of individualism.
  • • Affirm the role of single people and solitaries, as well as those in committed relationships (including marriage) within the life of the Christian community.
  • • Include a theological exploration of friendship, including the possibility of covenanted friendships, and not just sexual relationships, affirming what is good about friendships.
  • • Explore the meaning of marriage within society, the family, and the Church and consider marriage in terms of vocation.
  • • Reaffirm our current doctrine of marriage as between one man and one woman, faithfully, for life.
  • • Explore the distinction that has opened up between the state’s conception of ‘equal marriage’ and the Church’s doctrine of Holy Matrimony, and consider the implications of this.’ (Para 35)

On ‘Guidance for Clergy in their Ministry,’ the section states that there is no proposal to change the current prohibition of clergy solemnising marriages between two people of the same sex or Civil Partnership being registered in a Church of England place of worship. What is proposed instead is neither an authorised nor a commended form of liturgy for praying with same sex couples, but ‘guidance to help them shape these prayers’ (Para 39) that would strike a balance between ‘specifying what may not take place and offering advice about what may.’ (Para 43)

On ‘Guidance on questions to clergy and ordinands’ the section declares that it is clear that ‘there are good grounds in law for holding the clergy to an exemplary standard of behaviour consistent with the Church of England’s doctrine where the laity are not bound in the same way, and that the clergy open themselves to discipline if they contravene the guidance of the bishops on such matters.’ (Para 50) However, it also notes that balance of view within the College and House of Bishops was that what was laid down in Issues in Human Sexuality in 1991 about the questioning of clergy and ordinands ‘was not working well’ (Para 54). The College and House instead ‘inclined to the view’ that:

‘…any questioning about sexual conduct should apply equally to homosexual and heterosexual people and take the same form – establishing that the person concerned understood the Church’s teaching that sexual relations were properly conducted only within heterosexual marriage and that they understood the principles of clerical obedience to the Church’s teaching.’ (Para 54)

The final paragraphs of the section sets out the ‘Theological Rationale’ for what is said in the previous paragraphs. These paragraphs note:

  • That there needs to be ‘constant and prayerful attention both to the truth of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Holy Scriptures and to what is happening in the particular culture in which we live.’ (Para 57)
  • That there is a need to draw on insights from pastoral theology, ecclesiology and moral theology. (Para 58)
  • That there is a desire for those in the Church of England to ‘walk together’ in ‘a way that is based on a common commitment to biblical truths but recognises our continuing disagreement with each other.’ (Para 59)
  • That the Church of England needs ‘to listen and learn with other Churches in and beyond the Anglican Communion’ and to take account ‘of the fact that the overwhelming majority of those Churches subscribe to the traditional teaching on marriage reflected in our own doctrine and teaching.’ (Para 60)
  • That maintaining the unity of the Church of England will involve continuing to affirm the teaching of Canon B.30 on marriage, expounding it ‘with confidence’ as the Church’s teaching and making sure that ‘what happens in our services consistently reflects that teaching.’ (Para 61)
  • That thought needs to be given to the implications for ethics and pastoral practice of the fact that same-sex sexual relationships and heterosexual relationships other than marriage can ‘embody crucial social virtues of mutuality and fidelity.’ (Para 63)
  • That it is important to ‘maintain an unambiguous position on doctrine [about marriage and sexuality]…while enabling a generous freedom for pastoral practice that does not directly and publicly undermine it.’ (Para 65)
  • That what the bishops are trying to do is ‘discern the next steps, not be sure about the end of the road.’(Para 66)

Section 3, ‘Consultation with the General Synod in February’, explains how in General Synod in February there will be group discussions and a ‘take note’ debate on the report. (Paras 67-71)

Annex 1, which is an extract from a note from the Church of England’s legal office, explores the implications of Canon B1.2, 5.2. 5.3 and 30 and Canon C 26.2 for the issues of what services Church of England clergy may lawfully conduct and whether they are free to marry someone of the same sex.

The conclusion reached in the annex is that there would need to be a revision of the Church of England’s Canons or current doctrine in order for it to be lawful for clergy to conduct a service ‘which either explicitly or implicitly treats or recognises the civil marriage of two persons of the same sex as equivalent to holy matrimony’ or for it to be possible to tolerate a member of the clergy marrying someone of the same sex. Without such revision these things would remain unlawful and intolerable.

It also notes that if the Church of England’s teaching remains that sex should only take place within heterosexual marriage, any service which implied that a sexual relationship outside marriage was approved by God would also be against the Canons:

‘…a service which sanctioned or condoned such a sexual relationship would not meet the requirement that a service must ‘edify the people’ and would probably also be contrary to, or indicative of a departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in an essential matter.’

  1. How should we respond to this report?

4.1 We should accept the truth of what the report says about the situation the Church of England is facing.

It is true that the teachings of the Church of England about marriage and human sexuality in general are widely perceived as being in conflict with Jesus’ command to love our neighbours.  We live in a culture in which love is understood in terms of acceptance and affirmation and in which therefore the refusal of the Church of England to give full and unconditional affirmation to the relationships of gay and lesbian people or to solemnise such relationships in church is necessarily seen as unloving.

It is also true that this perception of the traditional teaching and practice of the Church of England as unloving is a barrier to mission. For many people, particularly younger people, the fact that the Church of England is seen as unloving in its attitude to gay and lesbian people is a barrier to their listening to what the Church of England has to say about the gospel.

It is further true that the way forward for the Church of England in this situation is ‘profoundly contested’ (Para 2) not only because there are different approaches within the Church of England itself, but because the Church of England is part of a worldwide Church in which people take different approaches to the best way to proclaim the gospel faithfully in a range of widely differing cultural settings.

4.2 There is much in what the report says about how to address this situation that we should welcome.

  • We should welcome the fact the report says  not only that those in the Church of England need to act together, but that they need to do so with doctrinal consistency. This puts pay to any idea that we can solve the conflict over marriage and human sexuality by simply learning to embrace doctrinal diversity however doctrinally inconsistent this might cause the Church of England to be.
  • We should welcome the fact that the report proposes that there should be no changes to the law or doctrine of the Church of England on either marriage or sexual relationships. This would mean the Church of England continuing to uphold that marriage is an exclusive relationship between one man and one woman entered into for life, that Christians are called to either sexual faithfulness within marriage or sexual abstinence and that clergy are not free to enter into same-sex sexual relationships or same-sex marriages.
  • We should welcome the opportunity for fresh thinking about how to offer welcome and support to those in same sex relationships, those with same sex attraction and their families. This is an important aspect of mission and pastoral care and it is important to think how we might be able to do it better.
  • We should welcome the opportunity that a new Teaching Document will provide to both re-affirm the teaching of the Church of England about marriage and sexuality and to show its relevance for the twenty first century.
  • We should welcome the suggestion that guidance should be given to clergy as to how they may and may not respond pastorally to same sex couples who ask for prayer. There is a lack of clarity about what the clergy may or may not do in this area and it would good if this lack of clarity was rectified.
  • We should welcome the fact that the report does not back away from the idea that clergy and ordinands may be asked questions about sexual conduct and that such questions should be asked of everyone regardless of their sexual attraction. The requirement for faithfulness within marriage and abstinence outside it apply to everyone so it is right that everyone should face the same questions.
  • We should welcome the acknowledgement in the report that we need to listen to and learn from other churches and its recognition that ‘the overwhelming majority’ of churches ‘subscribe to the teaching on marriage reflected in our own doctrine and teaching.’

4.3 There are number of weaknesses that need to be pointed out in discussions of the report

Having noted what is welcome in the report, it is also important to note some weaknesses in the report that need to be pointed out when it is discussed both in General Synod and elsewhere.

The first and major weakness of the report is that it does not give any justification for the direction of travel it proposes for the Church of England. Having noted, like the Pilling report before it, that there is deep division within the Church of England about the best way forward on the issues of marriage and sexuality, it then opts for a way forward which maintains the Church of England’s current position on these issues.  However, it does not say why this is the right way forward. All it says it that this was the approach supported by the ‘weight of opinion’ in the House of Bishops.

This begs the obvious response ‘what reason do we have for thinking that the weight of opinion in the House of Bishops on this matter is correct?’  As Martin Luther said on another occasion, what is needed is an argument based on ‘Scripture and right reason’ and this the report fails to give us. Saying how the bishops reached their decision (which is what the report does) is no substitute for explaining why that decision was right.

We can surely do better than to say that the best the Church of England can offer a needy world is ‘tentative ways forward which continue to point towards a better way of living and loving as persons in community.’  What Christians have to offer the world that no one else can is the fulfilment of all our deepest needs and desires through a relationship with God through Jesus Christ and marriage and singleness as forms of Christian discipleship that point us to that relationship and enable us to live rightly in the light of it as men and women made in God’s image and likeness.

No reason is given why we should accept the claim made in paragraph 8 that ‘in some way perhaps hidden from us’ those with whom we theologically disagree ‘still have something to teach us about the Kingdom of God.’ Unless some evidence can be given that would support this claim, it is just empty rhetoric.

There needs to be clarity about the meaning of the term ‘maximum freedom’ in paragraph 22. The problem with this paragraph, and with what is said in paragraph 65 about ‘a generous freedom for pastoral practice’ that does not ‘directly or publicly’ undermine the Church’s doctrine, is that there seems to be an emphasis on people being able to push the boundaries of pastoral practice providing they don’t directly or publicly go against Church teaching. Would it not be better to emphasize that the reason for allowing people a degree of freedom of action is in order to allow them to creatively apply Church teaching in ways that will best enable people to live godly lives according to the teaching of Holy Scripture?

There needs to be clarity about what is meant by a ‘fresh tone of welcome and support’ for gay and lesbian people, those with same sex attraction, and their families.’ As noted above, the idea of engaging in fresh thinking about how to welcome and support such people is to be welcomed. However, it needs to be made clear that welcome and support is not the same as affirming same sex sexual activity or desire. Jesus welcomed everyone, regardless of their behaviour, but he also called them to repent and live lives that were in accordance with God’s will (Matthew 9:9-13 Luke 5:27-32, Luke 15:1-32) and we have to do the same. This does not, of course, mean that the first thing that we say to people is that they are sinners who need to repent, but it does mean that we make clear to them the implications for their sexual conduct of being followers of Jesus Christ.

A similar point needs to be made about the suggestion that the proposed teaching document should ‘affirm the place of gay and lesbian people in the life of the Church.’ As the report distinguishes elsewhere between gay and lesbian people and those with same-sex attraction this would seem to apply the affirmation of those in sexually active same sex relationships. It needs to be made clear that in order to be consistent with the Church’s teaching such affirmation does not mean acceptance of their sexual conduct as being in accordance with God’s will. A good example of what it might legitimately mean is provided by Rosaria Butterfield’s autobiographical account The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert in which she recounts how she was welcomed and affirmed as a person by the Pastor and members of a conservative Reformed church while she was still in a lesbian relationship, without them compromising their belief that her way of life was contrary to God’s will and would eventually need to  change.[1] It is that sort of approach that we need to be commending.

Overall the teaching document, as proposed, lacks a clear theological basis. What is missing is the sort of important theological points made by Glynn Harrison in his new book A Better Story. He notes that:

  • ‘The Christian vision for sex and relationships is grounded in the foundational truth that human beings are creatures made in the image of God. Our identity is defined by this reality. It isn’t something that we have to discover within ourselves or constructed for ourselves – our Creator revealed it to us.
  • Although sin has disfigured and distorted the image of God in human beings, Christ’s death and resurrection have made possible its full restoration. As we trust in him, and live and work towards the final restoration of all things in him, the process of renovation is already well under way.
  • Living out our God-given identity as divine image-bearers puts us on the road to a flourishing that involves fruitful creative endeavour and a transformation of our relationships – including our sexual relationships…..
  • As divine image-bearers, we are called to love in the same way that God loves. Because God’s intimate love for us is bound up with faithfulness and fruitfulness that is how we express our most intimate level of love for each other as well – in a relationship of faithfulness and fruitfulness called marriage. This form of bodily expression of our sexuality also puts the story of God’s love on display for the world.
  • Marriage is a gift from God – a sacred covenant between one man and one woman that paints a vivid picture of Christ’s love for his church. Both the married (by their faithfulness) and the unmarried (by their chastity) play their different roles in upholding the biblical concept of marriage as the only God-given context for intimate sexual love.
  • For Christians true human flourishing isn’t found in the pursuit of self-fulfilment, but in living in harmony with out true identity. It involves playing our part in the bigger story of the break-in of God’s rule; we flourish when we look outwards, serving others and working for a good greater than ourselves.
  • Two God given institutions – the family and the local church – play a central role in nourishing this big inclusive vision of human flourishing, and strong marriages have an integral part in both. These relational networks provide mutual support, help build and develop character and ensure stable and protective environments for children.
  • All Christians, regardless of age marital state gender or sexuality, by living faithfully in harmony with their identity in Christ, are called to play their part in supporting these two life-giving institutions. The biblical vision for sex is a holistic one in which everybody lives sacrificially for the common good.’[2]

It is this sort of big picture theological account, backed up with references to specific biblical teaching, which needs to provide the framework for considering the collection of issues which the report says the proposed teaching document needs to include.

Any exploration of the implications of the fact that same sex relationships and non-marital heterosexual relationships can embody ‘crucial social virtues of mutuality and fidelity’ needs to bear in mind the obvious point that the fact that a way of life displays certain virtuous characteristics does not mean that it is not sinful. Thus a gang of robbers could exhibit a range of virtues such as friendship, fortitude, ingenuity, and courage, but that does not mean that robbery is not sinful. Similarly two people in an adulterous relationship could display a range of virtues in their relationship with one another, but this would not mean that their adultery was not sin.

Taking seriously what is said in the annex would mean that if the law and doctrine of the Church of England do not change the guidance to clergy that the report proposes would have to be (a) that they could not conduct any form of liturgy that implied that two people of the same sex were married and (b) that they could  could not conduct any form of liturgy ‘which sanctioned or condoned’ a same sex sexual relationship.  The question would then arise as to what would happen if clergy decided to ignore this guidance. Would the Church of England take action against them? If so, what kind of action and on what basis?

Taking seriously what the annex says also means that the present policy of not allowing a member of the clergy to be married to someone of the same sex would likewise need to continue. The idea floated in paragraph 13 d of the annex that the Church of England could distinguish between civil marriage and holy matrimony and allow clergy to enter into the former but not the latter would not work. It would be predicated on the idea that there can be two kinds of marriage, whereas in fact Scripture and Christian tradition knows of only one kind of marriage, namely  that ‘instituted of God’[3] at creation consisting of a permanent, exclusive relationship between one man and one woman and it would be inconceivable that the Church could accept clergy entering into a form of life that claimed to be marriage, but in fact was not.

If the present prohibition of clergy marrying someone of the same sex is to continue, the question again arises as to whether the Church of England would be willing to enforce this discipline and, if so, how it should be enforced. At the moment there is a panel of bishops who give advice on the matter on a case by case basis. The question that needs to be considered is whether some more permanent and transparent form of discipline does not need  to be instituted in order to ensure fairness and consistency.

A further issue that needs to considered, and about which the report is silent, is the issue of authorised lay ministers who are married to someone of the same sex, or who are in a same sex sexual relationship. At the moment there appears to be no agreed basis for refusing them authorisation to minister or disciplining them because of the nature of their relationship. Arguably this is something that needs addressing because as ministers acting on behalf of the Church and with its authorisation they too should be expected to exemplify the Church’s teaching in their personal lives.

The argument in paragraph 48 that in Canon A5 ‘particular’ stands in contrast to ‘exclusive’ is a misreading of the Canon. What the word ‘particular’ actually means is that if we ask where the doctrine of the Church of England based on the Scripture and the teaching of the Fathers that is ‘agreeable’ to Scripture is set out for us, the answer is that it set out for us in the Thirty Nine Articles, the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal. That is where we find the Church of England’s authorised doctrine. Canon A5 is not, as paragraph 49 of the report suggests, concerned with preserving ‘a degree of latitude in how clergy interpret the doctrines of the Church of England.’ What it tells you is the basis of the Church of England’s doctrine and where it is to be found.

The form of the question to be asked of ordinands in paragraph 54 is insufficient in that it only asks whether they have ‘understood’ the Church’s teaching and the principle of clerical obedience and not whether they are willing to obey them. Understanding without subsequent obedience is irrelevant.

A final issue which needs to be addressed, and which is not in the report, is how to handle the whole issue of transgender and intersex people. Just as the Church is perceived as unloving because it will not affirm same sex sexual relationships and marriages so it will increasingly be seen as unloving if it does not affirm gender transition and the belief that some people are either neither male nor female, or are both male and female.

The Church therefore urgently needs to address the issue of why it thinks human beings are male or female and what it means for someone to be male or female (is their biology determinative, or should this be trumped by their own sense of their sexual identity, and what should we say in those rare cases where biology appears to be ambiguous?). It also urgently needs to develop a consistent policy about how to respond pastorally and liturgically to such matters.  Any Church of England policy or teaching with regard to issues of sexuality that fails to address these issues will simply be burying its head in the sand and failing to engage with contemporary society.

  1. Conclusion

In conclusion, there are significant weaknesses in the report and these need to be raised and addressed. However, these weaknesses do not negate the fact that the report proposes a direction of travel for the Church of England which has the potential to make the Church of England much more clear, confident and consistent about issues to with human sexuality than is currently the case.

However, in order for this to be the case:

  • There needs to be a strong teaching document that sets out clearly and faithfully what the Bible teaches about marriage and human sexuality and why this teaching is good news for everyone regardless of their marital status or sexual attraction.
  • The document will need to make it clear that giving welcome and support to gay, lesbian and same sex attracted people and their families cannot mean being silent about the fact that all sexual relations outside marriage are incompatible with faithful Christian discipleship. Truly loving people means explaining to them how God says they should live.
  • The teaching document needs to cover transgender and intersex issues.
  • The proposed guidelines for the clergy need to be consistent with the Church’s doctrine and therefore the ‘maximum freedom’ that is called for cannot mean freedom to conduct forms of service that are contrary to that doctrine.
  • The Church needs to be prepared to be more willing to discipline clergy and authorised lay ministers who do conduct services that are contrary to the Church’s teaching or whose personal behaviour is contrary to it. Consistent and enforced discipline is crucial.

A final and crucial point that needs to be made is that the change that is needed in the Church of England will require not just a change at the institutional level, but a change in the behaviour of the Church as a whole.

As Christopher Roberts notes in his book Creation and Covenant, traditional, Bible based, Christian teaching about marriage and sexuality involves a call to an ascetic lifestyle. That is to say it, involves renouncing things that we desire to do for the sake of God and his kingdom.  As Roberts goes on to say:

‘If the church wants to commend such asceticism as regards sex, it will be credible if the church is a community wherein a life of celibacy and singleness is plausible and attractive. If sexual difference is to be an occasion of freedom, an arena in which men and women seek together a social ecology to mock and rival the ways of concupiscence, then very few aspects of contemporary church life will remain unscathed. The early patristic confidence that ecclesial social life should be visibly different from pagan life, in particular at the sexual level, would need to be reclaimed. How would the church respond to youth culture if it genuinely believed that the dynamic of the sexes is grounded in the imago Dei and not in romance? How might courtship habits and living arrangements need to be reconfigured if lay celibacy were a bona fide response to sexuality? What new tone of voice would need to be adopted if Christians realized that everyone who has ever lusted selfishly is judged by the tradition’s teleology for sexual difference and not just the homosexually inclined? Reclaiming the theological tradition about sexual difference would entail not only a chastening word to the revisionist theologians but also a thoroughgoing revolution for almost all Christians.’ [4]

This being the case, the key question we have to face is are we up for this revolution?

M B Davie 31.1.17

[1] Rosaria Butterfield, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Pittsburgh: Crown and Covenant, 2016, Chapter 1. ’

[2] Glynn Harrison, A Better Story, London, Inter Varsity Press, 2016, Ch. 16.

[3] Introduction to the Book of Common Prayer marriage service.

[4] Christopher Roberts, Creation and Covenant, London and New York: T &T Clark, 2007, pp.245-246.