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

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