On the 21st March 2013 Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, told the BBC that some same sex gay couples have loving, stable and monogamous relationships of ‘stunning quality.’
More recently, the day after his retirement, John Pritchard, the outgoing Bishop of Oxford, said:
‘I want to affirm covenanted, faithful, lifelong relationships, either gay or straight.’
Bishop John remains unconvinced over same sex marriage, as does Archbishop Justin; I am not so sure, for me the issue around same sex marriage is binary. Half way houses and strategies designed to appease always seem to end up causing even greater problems? But, the more important point may be this:
If Archbishop Justin is correct then Bishop John’s desire to affirm, liturgically, all faithful lifelong relationships, is the only logical conclusion. Unless that is love is not the clincher.
Recently a theologian and a senior member of the clergy asked me whether I really believe that love trumps all. My answer is straightforward: Yes!
It has also been suggested that my arguments are philosophical and not biblical. My response to this is that it all depends on how you engage with the Bible. I think that all who seek to make theological arguments using Scripture have an ethical responsibility to explain, and justify, their approach. My approach as described below is primarily thematic and, starts from the position that God is love. The ethical and the biblical are not therefore divisible.
Both Justin and John are rightly keen to draw our attention to the characteristic content of Christianities understanding of love, where (italicised because true love can be expressed through a vocation to celibacy) love is vested in a covenant relationship characterised by fidelity, stability and monogamy. Covenant relationships, according to the Christian tradition, should be fertile, generative and fruitful. True love, as the Lutheran theologian Anders Nygren argued, is the distinctive Christian motif. Motifs possess content (fidelity, monogamy, stability, compatibility etc) from which outcomes (fruit) flow. True love is therefore not only to be experienced but, also, to be empirically observed (not least by God in his role as judge).
As I have already said it has seemed to me, for some time, that Christianities most important proclamation is ‘love trumps all.’ After all one the bible’s best known verses is:
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life,’ (John 3, 16).
Love is God’s logic! It therefore follows that it ought to be ours!
We are called onto to ‘be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect,’ (Matthew 5, 48). God’s perfection is love, therefore love is the epitome of our, human, perfection.
Consequently if love, as defined through the Christian tradition, is to be found in human relationships, irrespective of sexuality, as Justin and John suggest, then it becomes increasingly hard to see how the church can, without recall to a very few ‘proof texts,’ taken from a very narrow range of biblical genres, deny same sex couples access to liturgical rites, designed to seal their covenant love for each other.
John’s first epistle stresses that where love is God is: ‘everyone who loves is born of God and knows God,’ (1 John 4, 7). John goes on to say ‘God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them,’ (1 John 4, 16). The remainder of 1 John 4 provides some stern reminders of the consequences for those who claim to love God whilst simultaneously denying the existence of love in human relationships. I fully accept a theology of judgement, where judgment begins in the here and now. In staking my corner I am not therefore affirming universalism, the idea that love trumps all because ultimately the love of God is so irresistible that no one can turn away from it, and therefore it doesn’t matter what we do in the here and now. It does matter. The here and now is where we seek to make the kingdom real, ‘on earth as in heaven.’ How we respond to our brothers and sisters in the here and now may well have eternal consequences. So our perspective on heavenly existence must act as a guiding principle for our earthly behaviour.
It seems to me that if the Church (of England) fails to provide opportunities for same sex couples to affirm their relationship it stands guilty of a sin of omission.
Liturgical and sacramental rites are one way – perhaps the primary way – that the Church has traditionally demonstrated both God’s love for all and, his desire to involve himself in human relationships, as well as our love for each other. In the absence of liturgical and sacramental seals it is hard to see how the Church can evidence movement beyond tolerance to loving and full inclusion in the body of Christ.
Unless I am missing something?
The choice facing the Church is therefore binary, full inclusion, liturgically verified, or some form of lesser ‘toleration’ for the status of gay Christians and toleration is not a theological virtue.
Absorption into the tradition or exclusion from the tradition; that is the choice.
The problem is this that love places a burden on us, and for many the burden is to rise above the level of subjectivity, however viscerally felt, because we are charged to love unconditionally . The other choice for those wishing to exclude same sex couples liturgical affirmation is to deny that same sex relationships can be characterised by true Christian love, and it appears that even the most ardent opponents are loathe to do this. ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’ seems to have disappeared from the discourse, thankfully.
In recent on-line debates the argument that extending marriage to same sex couples somehow diminishes heterosexual couple’s marriage also appears to be used with less frequency. From my own perspective the vows I made to my wife, in 1991, before God, and friends and family cannot be made any less sacred, or enduring, through extending the institution of marriage, for the simple reason that we meant every word we said before God, to each other.
Some critical friends suggest that fully fledged marriage is inappropriate for same sex couples because one of the primary objectives in marriage is reproduction and, of course, in Genesis 1, 28 God is recorded as saying to his prototype humans: ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’ Without in any way denying that this is a call to procreation humans are mandated to be generative (fruit bearing – ‘bear fruit,’ and…) in a far more holistic sense.
This brings me to my friend David, God-Father with his (male) partner to my children. We asked David and his partner to be God- Fathers to our children because, by my observation, David epitomises a life of radical discipleship.
One of the reasons the consequences of his love is so tangibly experienced is because he is in a loving, stable and monogamous relationships of ‘stunning quality.’
David regularly visits rural Uganda and has set up a scheme to care for some of the most vulnerable elderly people in the world. The way he uses his home and other resources are an example to us all. I love David and he has enriched my faith, he has provided me with the most incredible example of faith in action; Christian love in other words. He has been my tutor.
If I could pick one verse that describes David’s approach to his life in Christ it would be 1 Thessalonians 2, 8:
‘So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share not only the gospel of God but also our very selves, because you have become dear to us.’
Yet, he is painfully aware that many in the Church disapprove of him and are disgusted by
One of my greatest sadness’s is that the Church refuses David and his partner full liturgically affirmed recognition; suggesting the best we can offer is some form of toleration and semi inclusion.
I have written this because I want to support my friend David – to stand alongside him in solidarity – because he struggles with and in the Church. I know that many will reject my thoughts, just as a significant number will be supportive. The rationale for my blog is to provide food for thought and not ammunition for battle.