The Archbishop of Canterbury’s comments on human sexuality – reflections of a critical friend

The burden of episcopacy and the call to be critical friends

Today, when episcopal posts are publicly advertised and candidates to be bishops can go through a competitive interview process, being a bishop can be seen as something to which those in clerical orders may reasonably aspire in the same way that people aspire to be head teachers, or to be managing directors, or to achieve a top post in the government or the Civil Service.

However, as I was reminded when re-reading the Fathers as part of my research for my new book on bishops[1] there was a strong tradition in the early Church that took a very different view of the matter. Of course, then as now, there were those who were ambitious to be bishops, but there is also a repeating emphasis in the Patristic literature on the idea that any reasonable person would seek to avoid becoming a bishop.

For example, at the start of his work The Book of Pastoral Rule, Pope Gregory the Great explains that the work was written in response to a letter from John, Bishop of Ravenna, in which John reproved Gregory ‘for having wished by hiding myself to fly from the burdens of pastoral care.’[2] Gregory’s response to this reproof was to write to John explaining why he viewed the burdens of pastoral care involved in being a bishop as being so heavy that he had sought to avoid them:

‘…lest to some they should appear light, I express with my pen in the book before you all my own estimate of their heaviness, in order both that he who is free from them may not unwarily seek them, and that he who has so sought them may tremble for having got them.’[3]

The reason why Gregory and others warn that being a bishop is a burden that someone might reasonably seek to avoid was their awareness of the enormous weight of both responsibility and expectation that went with being a bishop, and because they knew that at the last judgment they would have to give an account to God himself for their shortcomings in their performance of their duties, a fact which Augustine said terrified him.

Having worked for many years for the Church of England’s House of Bishops, I also know that bishops today are similarly aware that being a bishop carries with it an enormous burden of responsibility and expectation, and that external pressures combined with their own shortcomings mean that they simply cannot perform their episcopal duties as well as they feel they ought to.

In the light of all this, those Christians who are not bishops need to understand the burdens that bishops carry, do whatever they can to support and encourage them, and pray regularly for them, asking that God will uphold them in their ministries.

However, alongside this, Christians also have a responsibility to act as ‘critical friends’ to their bishops. The same Patristic sources that emphasise why someone would not want to be a bishop also contain numerous examples of people challenging and criticising bishops about their performance of their duties. The reason for this is because of the importance of the bishops’ role.  If the shepherds are not doing their job properly, the sheep may go astray and even be lost eternally, and therefore bishops as shepherds need to be challenged to perform their ministry as well as possible. This in turn means being willing to criticise them if they fall short in their teaching or their behaviour.

Among Anglican bishops the Archbishop of Canterbury has a particularly onerous role due to the fact that he is not only a diocesan bishop, but also the senior primate of the Church of England, and the senior primate of the Anglican Communion as a whole. This triple role means that the archbishop carries a massive burden of responsibility and expectation that at times must seem insupportable.

As a result, Anglican Christians have a special responsibility to support, encourage, and pray for the Archbishop of Canterbury, and to consider how galling he must find it when he is criticised for seeking to carry out his role by people who do not properly understand how difficult it is.

Nevertheless, for the reasons previously outlined,  Anglican Christians also have the right and obligation to challenge and, when necessary, criticise the archbishop for the way in which he undertakes the ministry to which God has called him. 

This paper is an exercise of this right and obligation.

On Tuesday the archbishop set out his view of the Call on Human Dignity issued as part of the material for the bishops to consider at the Lambeth Conference. He gave his view both in his remarks at the Conference session on this Call, and in a separate but overlapping letter on the Call to all the bishops of the Anglican Communion. [4]

What he says in his remarks at the session and in his letter has particular significance because the fact that the bishops assembled at Lambeth had no opportunity to amend or vote on the Call means that what the archbishop says is the nearest we will get to an official Anglican Communion statement on the divisive issues of human sexuality covered in paragraph 2.3 of the Call. As such it will be influential in future Anglican discussion of the matter, including the discussions which will take place in the Church of England following on from the Living in Love and Faith process.

In the remainder of this paper, I shall seek to give a balanced critical assessment of what the archbishop says in his remarks and in his letter, noting what is helpful, but also explaining why, when judged as whole, his comments have to be seen as highly problematic.

What is helpful in what the archbishop says

What is helpful about what the archbishop says can be summarised as follows.

Firstly, he rightly declares at the beginning of his letter that as: ‘Anglicans we are called to share his Good News with a world in need – across a great diversity of cultures and contexts.’

Secondly, he rightly notes in his opening remarks at the session on the Call that the issue of sexuality is ‘deeply  dividing, not only for Anglicans but for every part of God’s global church.’

Thirdly, he rightly emphasises that the ‘central theological foundation’ for thinking about human sexuality is the truth that ‘all human beings are of equal worth, loved by God and are those for whom Jesus died on the Cross and rose to life.’

Fourthly , he rightly explains that the ‘large majority’ of churches in the Anglican Communion still adhere to the position on human sexuality taken in Lambeth 1.10 while only a minority do not.

Fifthly, he rightly declares that for both the majority and the minority the issue of human sexuality is one that is seen as involving a potential threat to their ‘very existence’ as churches.

Sixthly, he is right to warn in his remarks at the session that bishops will be answerable to God for the decisions that they make about the issue of sexuality, and that they have to make their own informed decisions rather than simply being swayed by the views of others.

Why the archbishop’s comments are problematic

The reasons that the archbishop’s comments are problematic is as follows.

First, the archbishop states in his remarks at the session that in section 2.3 on the Call on Human Dignity  ‘There is no attempt being made to alter the historic teaching of the vast majority of Churches of the Anglican Communion.’ This is a very surprising statement given that we know that the original version of the paragraph was altered after protests by those who very much want ‘to alter the historic teaching of the vast majority of Churches of the Anglican Communion.’

The rewording is part of their attempt to achieve precisely this end. For them the shift from talking about ‘the mind of the Communion as a whole’ in the original Call to ‘some say, this and others say that’ in the revised version is intended to shift the Call towards the idea that departing from the historic position of the churches of the Anglican Communion as set out in Lambeth resolution 1.10 can be acceptable within Anglicanism.

Secondly on the issue of process, the archbishop promises the bishops that their feedback will be ‘submitted to the Chair of the Lambeth Calls Working Group,’ but he leaves unclear what will happen to that feedback subsequently. On such an important and divisive issue, what will happen next ought to have been clearly explained in a way that would give everyone confidence in the integrity of the next step in the process.

Thirdly, in his remarks at the session, he wrongly separates out what resolution 1.10 says about pastoral care from the rest of the resolution. The resolution does say that ‘all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation are full members of the Body of Christ.’  However, these words have to be read in the context of the resolution’s declaration that ‘in view of the teaching of Scripture,’ the Lambeth conference ‘upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those not  called to marriage.’

This context means (a) that being a ‘believing and faithful’ person who belongs to the body of Christ involves accepting the traditional Christian sexual discipline of absolute sexual fidelity within marriage and absolute sexual abstinence outside it, (b) that this discipline applies to all people whatever the nature of their sexual desire and (c) that ministering ‘pastorally and sensitively to all’ has to involve helping everyone to live in the way just described.

Points b and c are made clear in sections 5- 9 of the 1997 Kuala Lumpur Statement on human sexuality to which resolution  1.10 makes reference. These sections state:

‘5. The Scripture bears witness to God’s will regarding human sexuality which is to be expressed only within the lifelong union of a man and a woman in (holy) matrimony.

6. The Holy Scriptures are clear in teaching that all sexual promiscuity is sin. We are convinced that this includes homosexual practices between men or women, as well as heterosexual relationships outside marriage.

7. We believe that the clear and unambiguous teaching of the Holy Scriptures about human sexuality is of great help to Christians as it provides clear boundaries.

8. We find no conflict between clear biblical teaching and sensitive pastoral care. Repentance precedes forgiveness and is part of the healing process. To heal spiritual wounds in God’s name we need his wisdom and truth. We see this in the ministry of Jesus, for example his response to the adulterous woman, ”…neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” (John 8:11)

9. We encourage the Church to care for all those who are trapped in their sexual brokenness and to become the channel of Christ’s compassion and love towards them. We wish to stand alongside and welcome them into a process of being whole and restored within our communities of faith. We would also affirm and resource those who exercise a pastoral ministry in this area.’ [5]

Fourthly, the archbishop states at the session and in his letter that what the majority of the churches of the Anglican Communion uphold is that ‘same-gender marriage is not permissible.’ It is unfortunate that he uses the word ‘gender’ because in the context of the culture of the Global North, in which gender now means how someone identifies themselves regardless of their biological sex, this could be taken to mean that it would be permissible for two people of the same sex, one of who identifies as a member of the opposite sex, to get married. This is not what resolution 1.10 had in mind and it is not what the majority of churches in the Anglican Communion understand it to mean.

In addition, in accordance with resolution 1.10, what the majority of Anglican churches rule out is not just same-sex marriages, but any form of affirmation of same-sex relationships, any form of sexual activity outside marriage, and the ordination of those in sexually active same-sex relationships.

This point is especially important in the context of the current discussions in the Church of England following the Living in Love and Faith Process, in which one option that is being floated is some form of pastoral recognition of same-sex relationships that falls short of solemnising same-sex marriages. For the majority of the Anglican Communion this would be a clear breach of resolution 1.10 and as such totally unacceptable.

Fifthly, the archbishop declares in his letter that ‘There is no mention of sanctions, or exclusion, in 1.10 1998.’ This is technically true, but, as he must be aware, this is not because the authors of the resolution wished to rule out the possibility of ‘sanctions or exclusion’ should churches not abide by the resolution. It is because it followed the pattern of all the previous Lambeth resolutions, none of which had ever had a mention of discipline for non-compliance on the assumption that it would never be needed. We know that sanctions were not ruled out in principle because those who supported resolution 1.10 called for sanctions to be imposed once the Canadian and American churches started to act in ways contrary to the resolution. [6]

Sixthly, the archbishop says in his comments at the session that his role as the Archbishop of Canterbury is ‘to be a focus of unity’ and ‘an instrument of Communion,’ What he does not explain is what these terms mean. Does he mean that his role is to try to keep the provinces of the Anglican  Communion in formal unity and communion within the existing structures of Anglicanism regardless of their belief and behaviour (if so,  are there any limits to Anglican diversity)?  Alternatively, does he mean what the Christian Church has traditionally meant by these terms which is that as a bishop he has to endeavour to maintain unity and Communion on the basis of common adherence to apostolic faith and practice (in which case he has to explain whether he believes that resolution 1.10 is in line with apostolic faith and practice and, if it is, what he is doing to bring about adherence to it) ?

Seventhly, in his remarks at the session the archbishop goes on to say:

‘I neither have, nor do I seek, the authority to discipline or exclude a church of the Anglican Communion. I will not do so.  I may comment in public on occasions, but that is all. We are a Communion of Churches, not a single church.’

This remark is factually incorrect. The archbishop does have disciplinary power. He could declare that he is no longer in communion with a particular province. He could refuse to invite a Primate from a particular province to attend the  Anglican Primates meeting. He could refuse to invite all or some of the bishops from a province to attend the Lambeth Conference. All these things are disciplinary measures that he could personally take. He may choose not to do so, but that is a choice and not a matter of necessity.

The fact that the Anglican Communion is not a single church is irrelevant to the issue. The question is whether the polity of the Anglican Communion permits the archbishop  to take disciplinary action. The answer is that it does.

Eighthly, in  his remarks at the session, the archbishop states: ‘Truth and unity must be held together, but Church history also says that this sometimes takes a very long time to reach a point where different teaching is rejected or received.’

Here he makes the correct point that truth and unity need to go together, but then goes on to implicitly suggest that the Anglican Communion may not yet have reached the point of knowing that same-sex relationships are not in accordance with the truth on which unity must be based. The question here is ‘How does he know?’ By the time of the 1998 Lambeth Conference Anglicans had been discussing this matter for over thirty years and by an overwhelming majority it was decided that the Church’s traditional sexual discipline should be reaffirmed, a decision which a large majority of Anglican provinces still accepts. Why then does he think the matter is still open?  What alternative criteria would he give for deciding when the matter should be regarded as settled?  

The strategy of those in the Communion who want to affirms same-sex relationships has always been to declare that the matter must remain open (unless and until their position prevails in a particular church) and to create facts on the ground to support this argument. Why is the archbishop giving in to their position?

Ninthly, in his remarks at the session he says that the provinces who have rejected 1.10 have done so because ‘they have come to a different view on sexuality after long prayer, deep study and reflection on understandings of human nature’ and in similar fashion he writes in his letter that they: ‘have blessed and welcomed same sex union/marriage, after careful theological reflection and a process of reception.’  As he must know, there are those in the provinces concerned, and in the other provinces as well, who would question whether there was actually ‘deep study’ and ‘careful theological reflection,’ but even if he is correct in his description of the processes involved, he doesn’t explain if (and why) he thinks these processes achieved the correct result.

The problem is that saying ‘this church has agreed this and therefore we must accept it’ is not a valid theological argument. What would he say, for instance, if a church agreed to give up belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ as some of the Anglican modernists wanted in the twentieth century? Would he say we had to accept that?

For Anglicans the traditional litmus test is that laid down in Article XX of the Thirty Nine Articles:

‘The Church hath power to decree rites or ceremonies and authority in controversies of faith; and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything contrary to God’s word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.’

What the archbishop has to explain (and fails to explain) is why the actions of the small minority of revisionist provinces can be judged ‘lawful’ in this sense.

This brings us on to the tenth and final problem. The archbishop closes both his comments at the session and his letter by quoting with approval the following sentence from the Call on Human Dignity: ‘As Bishops we remain committed to listening and walking together to the maximum possible degree, despite our deep disagreement on these issues.’

What he is effectively saying is that the issue of human sexuality is a matter of ‘adiaphora.’ That is to say, a matter on which Christians can disagree while continuing to remain members of a single ecclesial entity.

However, as the Anglican Communion’s Windsor Report of 2004 emphasises, it is not legitimate to use the concept of adiaphora as a theological ‘get out of jail free’ card which allows churches and groups of churches to embrace an unlimited range of differences. As the Windsor Report puts it:

‘It has never been enough to say that we must celebrate or at least respect ‘difference’ without further ado. Not all ‘differences’ can be tolerated. (We know this well enough in the cases of, say, racism or child abuse; we would not say ‘some of us are racists, some of us are not, so let’s celebrate our diversity.’ This question is frequently begged in current discussions, as for instance when people suggest without further argument, in relation to a particular controversial issue, that it should not be allowed to impair the Church’s unity, in other words that the matter in question is not as serious as some suppose. In the letters already quoted, Paul is quite clear that there are several matters – obvious examples being incest (1 Corinthians 5) and lawsuits between Christians before non-Christian courts (1 Corinthians 6) – in which there is no question of saying “some Christians think this, other Christians think that, and you must learn to live with the difference”. On the contrary: Paul insists that some types of behaviour are incompatible with inheriting God’s coming kingdom, and must not therefore be tolerated within the Church. ‘Difference’ has become a concept within current postmodern discourse which can easily mislead the contemporary western church into forgetting the principles, enshrined in scripture and often re-articulated within Anglicanism, for distinguishing one type of difference from another.’ [7]

Furthermore, as the Windsor Report goes on to say, even if something can be rightly viewed as adiaphora it does not mean that it is right to do it. Referring back to Paul’s teaching in Romans 14:1-15:13 and 1 Corinthians 8-10, the report declares:

‘Even when the notion of ‘adiaphora’ applies, it does not mean that Christians are left free to pursue their own personal choices without restriction. Paul insists that those who take what he calls the “strong” position, claiming the right to eat and drink what others regard as off limits, must take care of the “weak”, those who still have scruples of conscience about the matters in question – since those who are lured into acting against conscience are thereby drawn into sin. Paul does not envisage this as a static situation. He clearly hopes that his own teaching, and mutual acceptance within the Christian family, will bring people to one mind. But he knows from pastoral experience that people do not change their minds overnight on matters deep within their culture and experience.’ [8]

Building on these two points the report declares:

‘Whenever, therefore, a claim is made that a particular theological or ethical stance is something ‘indifferent’, and that people should be free to follow it without the Church being thereby split, there are two questions to be asked. First, is this in fact the kind of matter which can count as ‘inessential’, or does it touch on something vital? Second, if it is indeed ‘adiaphora’, is it something that, nevertheless, a sufficient number of other Christians will find scandalous and offensive, either in the sense that they will be led into acting against their own consciences or that they will be forced, for conscience’s sake, to break fellowship with those who go ahead? If the answer to the latter question is ‘yes’, the biblical guidelines insist that those who have no scruples about the proposed action should nevertheless refrain from going ahead.’[9]

There is thus a double question to be asked about matters on which Christians disagree. Is the matter truly adiaphora, and, if it is, are people acting with due regard to the consciences of their fellow believers? 

The archbishop fails to address either of these points. He simply lays down that the Call is right and that the matter of human sexuality is to be regarded as adiaphora.

Why?

In conclusion

In conclusion, we should certainly be sympathetic about the situation in which the archbishop finds himself. The Anglican Communion is falling apart on his watch and he is trying to rectify the situation (or at least stop it getting worse).  However, while we should be sympathetic and praying for the archbishop this does not mean that we should uncritically accept what he says in either his session comments or his letter.

As we have seen, he does makes some valid points, but for the ten reasons just given his overall argument is deeply unpersuasive. 


[1] Martin Davie, Bishops Past, Present and Future (Malton: Gilead, 2022).

[2] Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule, Part I: Prologue, in The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, series

    2, vol. XII (Edinburgh and Grand Rapids: T&T Clark/Eerdmans , 1997), p. 1.

[3] Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule, Part I: Prologue,  p.1.

[4] These can be found at ‘Bishops at Lambeth Conference discuss the Lambeth Call on Human Dignity’ at

https://www.lambethconference.org/bishops-at-lambeth-conference-discuss-the-lambeth-call-on-human-

   dignity/. The archbishop’s comments at the Conference session are given in full and there is a link to his

   letter. 

[5] The Kuala Lumpur Statement can be found at https://acl.asn.au/old/news/KLStatement.html.

[6] For this point see Andrew Goddard ‘Lambeth ‘Calls’, Lambeth I.10, and the nature of the Anglican

   Communion,’ at https://www.psephizo.com/life-ministry/lambeth-calls-lambeth-i-10-and-the-nature-of-the-

   anglican-communion/.

[7] The Lambeth Commission on Communion, The Windsor Report (London: Anglican Communion Office, 2004), p.52.

[8] The Windsor Report, p.51.

[9] The Windsor Report, p.51.

5 thoughts on “The Archbishop of Canterbury’s comments on human sexuality – reflections of a critical friend

  1. Very well explained, Martin. I suspect reconciliation between the two disagreeing groups is not possible.

    Although requiring correct interpretation, I have found the Bible reliably expresses truths about real life, including moral reality. Also, since sinning causes us or others harm and separates us from God, we are rightly advised against it by a loving God.

    Observation: People sometimes feel hurt/offended/outraged by the Gospel, which is not only perfectly true but God’s message of life and love to them. Someone feeling hurt/offended/outraged indicates nothing about the nature of what was said/written.

    • Improvement: Someone feeling hurt/offended/outraged does not reliably indicate a lack of truth, a lack of love or malicious intent.

  2. One could write much in response to this article, about the number of unstated assumptions which are made to arrive at what appears to be an intransigent traditionalist position on the debate around same-sex relations. One that particularly intrigues me is the one that assumes, in the discussion of managing issues ‘adiaphora’, that the ‘weak’ in this whole debate are those of a traditional perspective, whereas the ‘strong’ are assumed to be those with a revisionist perspective. Why is this so? The implication is that those with a traditional argument are potentially being bullied into having to live by with the position of those of a revisionist perspective. But I don’t see the Archbishop of Canterbury is in any way implying in his comments about the Call on Human Dignity, nor has he ever implied as far I can make out, that he believes that traditionalists should have to live by some set of principles on same-sex relationships that are forced on them by those with a revisionist perspective. That they might have to live with others in the church who take a different view, is not the same as being pressured to change their own practices.

    • Good point. However, from the two Bible passages cited about adiaphora, the term “weak” is applied to “those who still have scruples of conscience about the matters in question” (Windsor report) so it looks like it does indeed apply to those with a traditional view.

    • @Chris

      Phil has justified the way round in which is applied the linguistic distinction of the apostle Paul between “strong” and “weak” moral stances, which is in any case only of relevance if sexuality morality is rightly to be considered adiaphora in the first place. What were the other “unstated assumptions” you thought you’d detected?

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