On not blaming God

The argument of the Bishop of London

If you read carefully the transcript of the Bishop of London’s presentation to the General Synod yesterday on the House of Bishops’ response to Living in Love and Faith you will find that that the heart of her argument for what the House of Bishops is proposing lies in the following passage in her speech:

‘Our call is and always will be to seek the face of Christ – yes, in each other, but above all in searching the Scriptures, examining the Church’s tradition, and exercising our reason as we strive to make sense of how truth is to be lived out with grace in our 21st century context.
The reality is that as we have done all these things – even among ourselves as bishops – our conclusions about the ‘clear teaching of Scripture’ and the trajectory of the Church’s tradition diverge. We see God at work in each other’s ministries and are forced to acknowledge that somehow, mysteriously, the people of God who seek God’s face and who want to see the Church flourish, disagree.

For some unfathomable reason, God, it seems, has allowed us to continue to disagree – disappointingly refusing to engineer a Damascus road experience for one side or the other, either in the Church of England or across the Anglican Communion.

How can this be?

Perhaps we are all prone to forget that all of us – without exception – “see in a mirror dimly… know only in part”. As confident as we might be that we have heard God’s “answer”, perhaps God is calling us to be humbler – humbler towards one another but, above all, humbler in our humanity towards the God who is above and beyond our understanding and whose love is deeper, higher and wider than we can imagine. Perhaps we need to be reminded not just of the nearness of God but of God’s wholly ‘otherness’.

So if, as it seems, God is calling us to live with our disagreements, how can we do so without causing each other so much pain and bringing the Church into humiliating disrepute? How can we cease to stand in judgment over one another? But most importantly of all, how can we stop adding to the sufferings of Christ, the one who, “opening his arms wide on the cross”, holds us together in his costly embrace?’ [1]

To summarise the argument in this passage, what the Bishop of London is suggesting is that the reason that the bishops, and the Church of England as a whole, continue to disagree about human sexuality is because God wishes to teach those in the Church of England to be humbler in thinking that they can know his will. God is wholly other, so who are we to think that we can be sure that we know the will of God concerning the matters currently under dispute?  This being the case, those in the Church of England need to learn to live with continuing disagreement about God’s will concerning marriage and human sexuality in the best way possible and what the bishops are proposing is a way for this to happen.

How should we respond to the bishop’s argument?

The Bishop of London is correct to remind us of our need to constantly remember that God’s thoughts transcend our own. In the words of Isaiah 55:8-9:

‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord.

 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
 so are my ways higher than your ways
 and my thoughts than your thoughts.’

She is also right to remind us that we need to constantly bear in mind the contrast that Paul draws in 1 Corinthians 13:12 between the limited insight that we possess in this world and the full and comprehensive understanding that we shall possess in the world to come.

‘For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.’

However, what she fails to note is that we also need to understand that the transcendent God has given us as much knowledge of his will and ways as we need to know in order to live rightly before him in this world so that we may live joyfully with him in the next, knowledge which is imparted to us through the natural order, through Scripture and through the orthodox theological tradition of the Christian Church. As Deuteronomy 29:29 puts it:

“The secret things belong to the Lord our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.’

In the words of the nineteenth century biblical commentator Thomas Scott, God:

‘…hath revealed everything that can be truly beneficial; to his revealed truth and will, man’s inquiries in divine things should be confined; They should reach to the whole, and terminate with them. These belong to us not to increase our stock of barren notions, but to direct, encourage and regulate our obedience, ‘that we may do all the words of this law.’’[2]

When such knowledge has been given to us we do not have the right either to claim ignorance or to disagree with it.

The question that all this raises, is which category issues to do with marriage and human sexuality come into. Are they among the secret things knowledge of which God has kept to himself, or are they among the things that God has revealed to us and to which we need to respond with both individual and corporate obedience?

The answer is that they fall into the second category.

  • God’s revelation in nature teaches us that God has created his human creatures as male and female and has designed them to have sexual intercourse with members of the opposite sex.
  • God’s revelation in Scripture reiterates the revelation given in nature and also tells us that God has ordained marriage between one man and one woman as the sole legitimate context for sexual intercourse and the procreation of children.
  • The orthodox theological tradition of the Church has continuously taught what is thus revealed in nature and Scripture from the earliest days of the Church and has summoned faithful Christians to live accordingly.

The Church of England has concurred with this threefold witness. Its consistent tradition was reiterated by the House of Bishops as recently as 2019:

‘The Church of England’s teaching is classically summarised in The Book of Common Prayer, where the marriage service lists the causes for which marriage was ordained, namely: ‘for the procreation of children, …for a remedy against sin [and]…. for the mutual society, help, and comfort that the one ought to have of the other.’

In the light of this understanding the Church of England teaches that “sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy, properly belongs within marriage exclusively” (Marriage: a teaching document of the House of Bishops, 1999). Sexual relationships outside heterosexual marriage are regarded as falling short of God’s purposes for human beings.’ [3]

‘Falling short’ here sounds rather mild, but it needs to be read in the light Paul’s  teaching in Romans 3:24 where to ‘fall short’ and to sin are synonymous. To fall short of God’s purposes means to be in a state of sin, a state which requires confession, repentance and amendment of life from the person or persons concerned.

Because matters to do with human sexuality fall into the second category in the way just described, it follows that it is not right for the Bishop of London to try to pin the responsibility for the Church of England’s current disagreements over marriage and human sexuality on God.

It is not because God intends his human creatures to be ignorant of his will in these areas that the current disagreement exists. The current disagreement exists because some members of the Church of England, including its bishops, under the influence of contemporary culture, have decided to reject, in whole or in part, the orthodox teaching of the Church of England and the divine revelation in nature and Scripture that it reflects.

Contrary to what the Bishop of London suggests, responding to this situation by suggesting that we are uncertain about God’s revealed will is not a matter of humility but rather of pride, pride in thinking that our doubts about what God has said have any standing in the matter. We may subjectively dislike what God has said, but true Christian humility lies in accepting what God has said and acting upon it anyway. To do otherwise is to reject God’s wisdom and to rebel against God’s sovereign authority.

It is also pure sophistry to suggest that we know what nature, Scripture and tradition say, but it is unclear what this means in today’s society. It means what it has always meant, either marriage and sexual fidelity within marriage, or sexual abstinence. This was true in the sexually permissive society of the first century Roman Empire and it remains equally true today.

All this being the case, the proper way forward for the Church of England is not to try to find a way to ‘live with our disagreements’ over human sexuality in a civilised manner. The proper way forward is for it to submit to what God has revealed and to call on those rejecting what God has revealed in their teaching or behaviour to cease to do so.

[1] ‘General Synod: Bishop of London’s Living in Love and Faith Presentation,’  text at https://www.churchofengland.org/media-and-news/press-releases/general-synod-bishop-londons-living-love-and-faith-presentation

[2] Thomas Scott, The Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments with original notes and practical

  observations, vol 1, on Deuteronomy 29:29

[3]  ‘Civil Partnerships – for same sex and opposite sex couples. A pastoral statement from the House of Bishops

    of the Church of England,’ 2019, paras 8-9, text at https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2020-01/Civil%20Partnerships%20-%20Pastoral%20Guidance%202019%20%282%29.pdf


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