Unpersuasive and unorthodox – a response to Bishop Gregory Cameron’s words to the Welsh Governing Body.

I was away on holiday when the Governing Body of the Church in Wales narrowly voted on 6 September to permit the blessing of same-sex marriages. Nothing I write now will change that vote, but I still want to comment on the case for such blessings that was set out by Bishop Gregory Cameron when he opened the debate on the matter on behalf of the Welsh bench of bishops and exercised a right of reply at the end of the debate.[1] The reason I want to comment is because what Cameron said at the meeting of the Governing Body provides a classic example of the weakness of the case for blessing same-sex relationships, and thus shows both why the Welsh church should not have voted to permit such blessings, and why the Church of England should not follow the Welsh example.

I have known Bishop Cameron for many years and greatly respected him as a colleague when I worked with him on Faith and Order matters when I was on the staff at  Church House, Westminster and he was at the Anglican Communion Office. I therefore find it very sad to have to say that his remarks at the Governing Body were a very poor piece of theology indeed.  However, there are a number of reasons why this has to be said.

Beginning with his opening statement to the Governing Body, Cameron’s claim that the bill to permit the blessing of same-sex marriages is not a ‘a sell out to the secular spirit of the age’ goes against the historical evidence.

The historical evidence is clear that until the second half of the twentieth century there was unanimity across the Christian Church that, in the words of  C S Lewis, the Christian rule with regard to sex was ‘Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.’[2] Furthermore, there was also complete unanimity that marriage was between one man and one woman. From the second half of the twentieth century onwards, however, there has been an increasing acceptance across the Christian Church (particularly in churches within the Protestant tradition) both that sex should not be restricted to marriage and, most recently, that marriage should not be restricted to couples of the opposite sex.

If we ask why this change has taken place, the answer is that during the course of the twentieth century Western Society has become increasingly dominated by two key ideas, that people should be free to live in whatever way seems good to them, and that human beings need to engage in sexual activity in order to find happiness and fulfilment.  The confluence of these two ideas, both of which were developed in deliberate rejection of traditional Christian teaching, has inevitably meant that Western society has embraced the further ideas that people should be able to have sex in whatever form they want, providing that it is consensual, and that therefore same-sex sexual activity should also accepted as legitimate.[3]

The increasingly radical change in Christian sexual ethics has been a reflection of this wider social change. The reason why Christians now accept things that Christians have never accepted before[4] is because many Western Christians have become seduced by the thinking of the world around them and have sought for apologetic reasons to develop a reading of the Bible and an understanding of Christian sexual ethics that is line with it. However loath Cameron may be to admit it, liberal Christians have been playing catch up with developments in secular thought, and the Welsh bill to permit the blessing of same-sex marriages is part of this process of cultural assimilation.

Secondly, Cameron’s account of what he thinks  conservative Christians want to say to same-sex couples is misleading.

He declares that what they want to say is ‘Repent, go your way and sin no more – we’d prefer you live in secrecy and shame: to accept the disapproval that fractures fidelity, and is scandalised by your attempts at stability.’  

It is true that conservative Christians do want same-sex couples to repent of being in a sexually active same-sex relationship and wrongly  calling that relationship marriage. However, it is not attempts at stability by same-sex couples that scandalise conservative Christians (they have nothing against stable relationships), but the fact that such relationship involves sex outside marriage. Stability is not the issue. The issue is extra-marital sex.

Furthermore, as numerous books and articles by conservative Christians have repeatedly said in recent years, they do not want individuals with same-sex attraction to live lives of secrecy and shame. What they want is for them to feel free to be honest and open about the sexual attraction they experience while at the same time not engaging in sexual activity outside marriage (the same discipline that also applies to unmarried people with heterosexual attraction) and receiving  love, support and prayer from their fellow Christians to help them live in this way.[5]

Thirdly, Cameron misrepresents the point of the account of the baptism of the Gentile converts in Acts 10 when he says that it was a matter of ‘Scripture and tradition on one side, and the grace of God and experience on the other.’

What Luke is not in fact saying is that Peter’s experience of seeing the Spirit descend on Cornelius and his household was sufficient justification for admitting them into the Church even though such a move was contrary to the witness of Scripture. If we read on in Acts, we find that James addresses this issue in Acts 15 when he declares that Peter’s experience was in line with the predictions of Amos  9:11-12, Hosea 3:5. Jeremiah 12:15 and Isaiah 45:21 that when God had sent the promised messianic king from the line of David (‘ I will rebuild the dwelling of David’ Acts 15:16) then the Gentiles would ‘seek the Lord’ (Acts 15:14-18). The very point that Luke is making by recording the words of James is that what Peter experienced was in agreement with Scripture, and that for this reason the action  he took was legitimate (the corollary being that if it had not been in agreement with Scripture then it would not have been legitimate).[6] The lesson for us from this is not ‘experience trumps Scripture,’ but that we have to assess experience in the light of Scripture.

Fourthly , Cameron is correct when he says that the Bible ‘speaks overwhelmingly of God’s love and mercy and forgiveness, of God’s embrace of humanity without precondition or even repentance, for God’s grace always comes first.’  It is absolutely the case that the unconditional grace of God precedes repentance.

However, in Scripture the grace of God always necessarily leads to repentance, that is, turning from our ways to God’s ways. Thus, according to Mark, Jesus began his ministry with both a declaration of God’s grace and a call to repentance ‘’The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the Gospel (Mark 1:15). Similarly, in Acts 2:38, when the crowd on the day of Pentecost asks how they should respond to Peter’s  message of the grace of God he tells them ‘Repent, and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.’

The reason that repentance is required as a response to grace is that where there is no repentance God’s grace cannot achieve its goal of restoring people to a right relationship with him. If we are not willing to respond to God by accepting what he has done for us and amending our lives accordingly by the spiritual power that he gives us through the Holy Spirit, then  our relationship with God will remain fractured, and if this remains the case we will eventually be cut off from God for all eternity.

Seen from this perspective it is not the case, as Cameron suggests, that there is something wrong in principle with conservative Christians saying to those in same-sex relationships ‘unless you repent you are in danger of hell.’ If they are in fact in danger of hell it would be wrong for Christians not to say it.

This  brings me to my fifth point, which is that Cameron fails to do justice to the seriousness with which Scripture regards same-sex sexual activity. He does this first of all  by deploying the standard revisionist argument that there are numerous commands in Scripture that are no longer being binding on us today, and then asking why it should be different with regard to the Biblical prohibition of same-sex sexual activity. Why should we think that people will face eternal judgement for being in a same-sex sexual relationship, but will not be rejected by God for being uncircumcised or eating non-kosher food?

The problem with this argument is that it fails to note that there are four different types of commandments in the Bible. There is the basic command to worship and serve God alone. There are commands concerning cultic activity which regulate the worship of God under the Old Covenant. There are commandments which establish cultural markers which distinguish Jews from Gentiles (the laws regarding circumcision and kosher food come under this category). Finally, there are moral commands which regulate people’s ethical behaviour (for example, the prohibitions against murder and theft in the Decalogue come under this category).  Of these four types of commandment, the second and third cease to be obligatory as a result of the New Covenant established by Jesus Christ. According to the New Testament, however, the first and fourth remain obligatory. Thus, idolatry remains forbidden as does murder.

The  Old Testament commandments regarding sexual ethics come into the fourth category, and like the other moral commands in the Old Testament they are regarded by the New Testament as continuing to have binding authority.

In the words of the late John Richardson:  

‘…there is no indication in the New Testament that sexuality per se belongs to any other category than the moral. There is no point at which sexual practices are analysed either from a cultic perspective (and hence as fulfilled in Christ’s priestly ministry) or from a cultural one (and hence as part of the now-obsolete barrier between Jew and Gentile).

Where the New Testament does take up themes on sexuality from the Old Testament it generally assumes that what was wrong then is wrong now. If there is a difference, it consists in raising the standards of moral behaviour required of God’s people. Thus concubinage, divorce and polygamy may have been tolerated once, but are tolerable no longer (1 Corinthians 7:26, Matthew 19:7-8, 1 Timothy 3:2).

Even more so than under the Old Covenant heterosexual marriage is consistently presented under the New Covenant as the proper context for sexual activity, outside of which is only adultery and fornication. The remedy to sexual sin may be speedy marriage (as suggested in 1 Corinthians 7:26) or rigorous abstinence (as demanded by the Sermon on the Mount – see Matthew 5:27-30), but there are no sexually active alternatives to marriage envisaged. Marriage is to be welcomed, fornication is to be fled from (1 Corinthians 6:18). These are the two options for the New Covenant people.’ [7]

In the New Testament same-sex sexual activity is specifically rejected in Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, I Timothy  1:10 and Jude 7. In each of these cases it is assumed that the Old Testament prohibition of such conduct remains in force. Furthermore, such activity is also included implicitly in the New Testament’s reject of porneia in passages such asMark 7:21, Acts 15:20, Romans 1:29, Galatians 5:19 and Revelation 21:8. Contrary to what Cameron states, porneia does not mean ‘sexual behaviour divorced from relationship and commitment and love.’ That is to put a misleading modern gloss on the term. Porneia is in fact a catch all term used in the New Testament to refer to ‘unlawful sexual intercourse,’ which means any form of sexual activity forbidden in the Law of Moses.[8] This in turn means any form of sexual activity which falls outside the pattern of marriage between one man and one woman established by God in Genesis 2:18-24 (same-sex sexual activity included).

In consequence, Cameron’s statement that ‘Same sex couples who commit themselves to civil partnerships or marriages are committing themselves to the very opposite of porneia’ is simply wrong. From a New Testament perspective such relationships are precisely porneia, in that they are forms of sexual activity contrary to the pattern of sex within heterosexual marriage established by God at creation. 

In addition, Cameron fails to acknowledge that the New Testament regards all forms of porneia, like all other forms of sin without repentance, as leading people to eternal damnation.

‘You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.’ (Matthew 5:27-30)

‘Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts,  nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.’ (1 Corinthians 6:9-10)

Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.’ (Galatians 5:19-20).

‘But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.’ (Revelation 21:8)

In the light of such passages the questions that Cameron has to answer is why he thinks it can possibly be right for ministers of the Church in Wales to invoke God’s blessing on a way of life that God himself has said will lead people to be cut off from him for ever. How can such blessings possibly be justified?

If we move on to what Cameron said in his words at the end of the debate, we find that he says that he finds it ‘particularly hard when people tell me the Bible can only be read in a way which is hostile to gay and lesbian relationships; because that is not my conviction.’ Whether or not this is his conviction is not germane to the issue. The issue is whether Cameron can show that the Bible can be read in a way that supports gay and lesbian relationships. As far as what he has said at the Governing Body goes,  for the reasons set out above he has failed to establish that this is the case.

Cameron then goes on to state

‘I refuse to be told that because I’ve come to a conviction about reading scripture in the way that I do, I am ‘unorthodox’ and when the term orthodoxy is claimed for one side in this debate. I’ve been in discussions with the Eastern Orthodox Churches at Anglican Communion level and what they’ll tell you is that you can only claim Orthodoxy if you’re defending decisions of the Ecumenical Councils against heresy. No Ecumenical Council has decreed on this issue, and we should not disfellowship each other because we disagree on this issue.’

There are two problems with this statement. First of all, it ignores the fact that the Eastern Orthodox churches have in fact consistently said that those churches that have accepted same sex relationships have succumbed to heresy (a fact of which Cameron must be aware). Secondly, it fails to acknowledge the fact that the reason why the Orthodox have felt it necessary to take this stance is because they are aware of the point that I made earlier in this paper that the universal tradition of the Church since New Testament times has been that homosexual relationships are sinful and must therefore be abstained from or repented of.

A heresy is a form of teaching that goes against orthodoxy, that is, the teaching of Scripture and the historic teaching of the Christian Church based on Scripture. The reason that the great Ecumenical Councils of the fourth and fifth centuries condemned Arianism and the various Christological heresies was because they were heretical in this sense due to their rejection of the Trinity and the fact that Christ was (and is) one person with two natures, one fully human and one fully divine. In similar fashion the acceptance of homosexual relationships is heretical because it involves a rejection of the orthodox teaching that the only legitimate place for sexual intercourse is within heterosexual marriage.

Even if one accepts the Eastern Orthodox view that only an Ecumenical Council can formally define something as heretical in a universally authoritative way,  it is both possible and necessary to make a judgement that something is heretical without a formal decision being made in this fashion. This is because all that an Ecumenical Council does is recognise that something is heretical. It does not make it heretical. Thus, Arianism was already heretical before the Council of Nicaea. All that Nicaea did was recognise this existing fact.

In the case of homosexual activity, it is true that no Ecumenical Council has yet ruled on the issue. However, for the reasons just given it is still possible to say that the acceptance of homosexual relationships is heretical and that anyone who does accept them is unorthodox. It follows that if someone says to Cameron that he is being unorthodox on this matter they are not just being insulting. They are in fact simply being theologically accurate.

Furthermore, because such acceptance is unorthodox and has the capacity to lead people towards eternal separation from God, orthodox Christians have to differentiate themselves from those who espouse it through  some form of ‘disfellowship’ in order to bear witness to the people concerned, and to others inside and outside the Church, that this is the case. 

Finally, Cameron claims that:

‘The Gospel is advanced, not by cutting people off, but by inviting them in; not by telling them what they should do, but by feeding them with the waters of life.’

It is obviously the case that the Gospel is primarily advanced by inviting people to come to Jesus and drink of the living water leading to eternal life that only he can provide (John 4:13-15). However, as John’s Gospel also makes clear, we receive this water on the condition that we are willing to abide in Christ and such abiding involves obedience to Christ’s commandments. ‘If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love’ (John 15:10). This being the case, it is a necessary part of the Church’s task to tell people what they must do  in order to keep Jesus’ commandments. That is why in the Great Commission Jesus tells the disciples that they are to teach people ‘to observe all that I have commanded you.’ (Matthew 28:20).

In addition, just as Christians need to differentiate themselves from those who put foward unorthodox teaching, so also those with pastoral authority in the Church need to cut people off if they refuse to live as Christ commands in order to bear witness to them and to others that they are living in an ungodly fashion and need to repent (see for example Paul’s command to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 that they should expel someone guilty of sexually immoral  behaviour).

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains, the purpose of such discipline:

‘ …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.’[9]

What Cameron says sounds loving, but in reality it is not. Refusing to tell people how they should behave as Christians, and refusing ever to discipline them  when they go astray deprives them of the possibility of learning how to abide in Christ and so achieve eternal life,  and (however well intentioned) this is therefore  not love, but rather cruelty.

In summary, what Cameron says does not demonstrate that the Church should bless same sex marriages and his support for such blessings does have to be judged unorthodox. As I said at the beginning of this piece, what his words show is precisely why the decision by the Church in Wales was wrong and why the Church of England should not follow the same path. 

[1] What Bishop Cameron said can be found at ‘Proposal and Reply on Same Sex Blessings’ at https://dioceseofstasaph.org.uk/bishopgregory/

[2] C S Lewis, Mere Christianity (Glasgow: Fount, 1984), p.86.

[3] For the evidence for this point see Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (Wheaton: Crossway 2020).

[4] For the evidence for this point see Donald Fortson and Rollin Grams, Unchanging Witness (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016).

[5] See for example, Ed Shaw, Purposeful Sexuality (London: IVP, 2021), Sam Alberry, Is God Anti-Gay? (Epsom: Good Book Company, 2013) And David Bennett, A War of Loves (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018).

[6] See Richard Bauckham, ‘James and the Gentiles (Acts 15:13-21)’ in Ben Witherington III (ed), History, Literature and Society in the Book of Acts (Cambridge: CUP, 1996), pp.154-185.

[7] John Richardson, What God has made clean (Epsom: The Good Book Company, 2ed, 2012), Kindle edition, Loc. 590-603.

[8] Walter Bauer, F W Gingrich and Frederick Danker, A Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament (Chicagoand London: University of Chicago Press, 1979), p.693 and John Nolland, ‘Sexual Ethics and the Jesus of the Gospels,’  Anvil, vol.26, no.1 2009, pp. 26-27. 

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