Mind your Language: Church of England Sexuality Debates

Thu, 19/01/2023 - 09:28 -- James Oakley

Yesterday, the Church of England published a press release summarising the proposals being brought by the college of Bishops at the end of the 6-year consultation process on same-sex marriage. This included a series of national conversations (tautologically, "shared conversations"), which took place at the General Synod and locally, and a course and set of resources branded "Living in Love and Faith".

The Proposals

The full document from the College will be released tomorrow, but in summary on the table is:

  • An apology to LGBTQI+ people for the “rejection, exclusion and hostility” they have faced in churches
  • A repeal of the requirement from 1991 of the pastoral guidance that same-sex partnered clergy remain celibate
  • A statement that there is to be no change of the church's doctrine on marriage
  • The provision of a set of draft prayers, known as Prayers of Love and Faith, which could be used voluntarily in churches for couples who have marked a significant stage of their relationship such as a civil marriage or civil partnership. To be clear, the use envisaged for such prayers is "prayers of dedication, thanksgiving or for God’s blessing on the couple in church following a civil marriage or partnership".

The Problems

The logical inconsistency of all this has been commented on by many. There is no change of the church's doctrine on marriage, which means that the only place for a sexual relationship is that of one man and one woman entered into for life. Yet we are to have prayers in church to thank God for those who live contrary to that teaching and to ask God to bless this. This post does not set out to repeat what others have said.

The call of Jesus Christ is open to all. He entered Galilee at the start of his ministry to say that the Kingdom of God has come near, so we are to repent and believe the good news. Repentance entails dying to having ourselves at the centre of our lives, and put Christ back on the throne; the good news is that there is total forgiveness for all who receive him, God's presence and power to change, and a future hope of a world without sin or suffering. All of us are twisted from God's design, and all (whatever their sexual orientation) should hear the call to repent and have Christ remake us. Ironically, the proposals on the table actually withhold this invitation from same-sex attracted people, excluding them, the very thing for which an apology is being extended.

The Labels We Often Use

I want to think for a moment about the language we use as debate these things. This comes out of a conversation I had with Lee McMunn, our Senior Minister at Trinity Church Scarborough, before I was appointed to be a minister at the church. It may even have been at the interviews for that post. It's also triggered by interacting with one or two faithful C of E brothers and sisters yesterday, seeking to encourage them as they stand for God's truth.

You often hear one side of the debate labelled as the "conservative" or "traditional" view, and the other as the "progressive" or "revisionist" one. Let's think about how we should label the view that God's good gift of marriage is between one man and one woman.

  • It is traditional. This is the received teaching within the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church since the time of Jesus himself.
  • It is conservative. This is what the western church has believed and practised for as far as you go back, so resisting changing things that have worked well for some time means resisting this.

But those are not the defining features of this view. To describe this as "traditional" means nothing other than saying it's old. A view is not necessarily right because it is old.

Campaigners for change point to comparisons with slavery. Earlier generations of Christians were happy with Victorian slavery, they say, but over time we realised that this was oppressive. In the same way, we should revise our view on sexuality. Now, it's more subtle than to say that all Christians before a certain date believed the Bible condoned slavery. It is certainly wrong to say that the Bible approves of that kind of slavery, as the slavery in the Roman era was very different from the kind Wilberforce opposed.

But the comparison is fair: Sometimes deeply held, ancient views are later discovered to be wrong, and need to change. Old does not mean "right".

The Labels we Should Use

So we do not believe in marriage as one man and one woman simply because it is the ancient view.

  • We believe this because it is the biblical view. This is the teaching of Scripture.
  • We believe this is Jesus' view. Jesus taught, in Matthew 19 for example, that marriage finds its roots in God's creation of humanity as male and female.
  • And so we believe this is the Christian view. Christians deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Jesus. So the Christian way of life is to allow Jesus and his teaching to reshape life. This can take time, and Jesus is all about grace so we don't fix ourselves before we come to him. But he calls all his followers to either celibate singleness or marriage to one person of the opposite sex.

Now, let's not kid ourselves. Those we may label as "progressive" would dispute that the view outlined is the biblical, Jesus, Christian view. Those who have read widely and carefully do not seek to argue that same-sex marriage is allowed by the Bible. They admit that the Bible does not teach this. (See an earlier post about an article by Luke Timothy Johnson.) But they'd want to find ways to argue that Jesus approves, and certainly that Christianity can include it.

So maybe we need, at times, to use labels like "traditional", in the interest of clear debate. If you talk about the "Christian view" over against the "progressive view", the debate could become unclear because the whole discussion is actually about which is the Christian view.

However, I'm suggesting that we cede too much ground if we speak of simply holding the traditional view. If we need clarity about what's being discussed, say something like "the teaching of Jesus, as traditionally understood".

Why Language and Labels Matter

What's at stake here is not that there is a choice of two separate views. Do you want to hold the older view or the modern one? Do you want to be traditional or fresh-thinking? Do you want to be stationary or moving forwards? Which appeals to you?

We are those under the authority of another. We are seeking to live faithfully under the gracious rule of Jesus of Nazareth, as we encounter his teaching in the Scriptures the Word of God. We mustn't couch the debate with labels that suggests this is a matter for us to choose. This is a matter for us to submit to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We are seeking to work out what he wants from us. At stake is whether we will sit under his rule, or whether we will sit loose to what he says and carve out fresh traditions of our own.

It will offend others to call our view "the Christian view", "the Biblical view" and "the view of Jesus". But that's what we must do, because that is our claim. We don't hold the views we do simply because those views are old or we do not like change; we hold them because Jesus of Nazareth requires it.

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