Why the church needs its revisionists.

‘Sticks and stones may break your bones but words can never harm you.’

A well meaning phrase, delivered with ‘pastoral intent,’ but as a propositional statement woefully inaccurate; words do hurt.

Words hurt in a variety of ways: they hurt when used in an obviously discriminatory and abusive fashion and, they also hurt when used critically to assert our positions on a given issue whilst at the same time ‘dissing’ the positions taken by another individual or group.

Words have both positive and negative connotations. The meaning ascribed to a particular word or descriptor is, in part, dependent on the person using the word or phrase.

As fallen human beings we tend to both know which words and phrases wind up those with whom we are in (hopefully good) disagreement whilst, at the same time, also being suspicious of the underlying message being given when a particular word or phrase is used to describe ourselves by someone who takes a different perspective.

Members of the Church tend to be pretty good at word games!

To describe someone as either conservative or liberal can imply a perception of fundamentalism or disregard of tradition. Orthodox is often used to suggest a sense of being right or correct (beyond challenge) on a given issue.

Of course when words are used in this way they are deprived of their richness, or their purposeful ambiguity.

Take the word tradition (and its derivatives). Tradition can be used in an exclusive and static sense and taken to mean nothing more than the retaining of preexisting thoughts and patterns of behavior.  Ardent traditionalists, rightly, argue that wisdom and the good gifts of an institution, such as the church, have been passed down through the ages and therefore should not only be cherished but also protected.

However, tradition can also mean, yes accepting that which has been passed down through the generations, whilst at the same time critiquing the past. So tradition can also be taken to imply discernment and sifting.

But maybe if you are like me ‘a progressive’ in relation to issues of sexuality and gender the word that aggravates most of all is ‘revisionist?’ I have always taken it to mean, in its accusatory sense, the notion of a willful disregarding of the data which define Christian orthodoxy (and of course many do use it in this sense).

And so, I was intrigued to see someone who takes a contrary view on the theology of sexuality (though not on gender) describing ‘revisionist’ as simply this:

‘Revisionists are people who ask for change.’ 

If this is an apt description the questions then become why are they (the revisionists) asking for change? What are the guiding impulses that are driving the creation of a new or revised vision?  What theological resources can be used to assess the questions being asked of the church by the revisionists?

I suspect that the impulse driving a revisionist critique of the status quo is normally the perception of a state of injustice.

If we take ++Justin’s welcome affirmation that the church has caused pain and harm to members of the LGBTI community and rephrase it in revisionist terms it might read as follows:

‘I would like to apologize for the injustice experienced by members of the LGBTI community in the Church.’

Pain and harm are therefore located, as consequences, in a larger moral discourse at the heart of which resides the notions of injustice and justice. And, (as a revisionist) I take it as a ‘fundamental article of faith’ that the church should always resolve to counter injustice, as the monks of Taize chant ‘the kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.’ 

And so I am grateful for the revisionists throughout the ages who have called on the church to change its theology in relation to gender (and gender applied to priesthood and episcopacy), race and all manner of other issues.

The Church needs it revisionists.

Of course revisionists may not always be correct in their analysis (but perhaps on the big issues they tend to be?), but the Church does need men and women of faith who consistently challenge the church to assess its doctrine, theology and teaching through the lens of justice.

To be a revisionist need not imply a disregard of tradition. I would self identify as a traditionalist and a revisionist. My affirmation of the creed, my belief in the efficacy of the sacraments, my rejection of any liberal theologies of the resurrection, my understanding of the apostolic tradition, and the communion of saints, would all mark me out as a traditionalist.

I am a traditionalist and a revisionist, or put another way an orthodox progressive because I believe that the church’s treatment of various groups of people has, and continues to, fall short of that which is demanded by justice.

As a traditionalist and a revisionist my primary concern is asking whether groups of people previously excluded from full participation in the life of the church, expressed through its traditions, could now be legitimately invited into a greater level of participation in the traditions of the church.

The Church needs its revisionist thinkers. 







An Open Letter to the Primates

Dear Primates,

I recently wrote an article commending you for agreeing to work together for the decriminalization of homosexuality in all provinces in the Anglican Communion.

In commending you for this seemingly bold statement of communal, or denominational, intent I suggested that you would be presented with real and substantial challenges in your communal quest, but that your pledge provided some hope that the Anglican Communion may have a real, and meaningful, future.

I also praised Archbishop Justin for taking the Anglican Communion into ‘time added on for injuries,’ and the presiding bishop of the TEC for the dignity with which he accepted his provinces’ marginalization. I would still want to praise Justin and Bishop Curry. However, I would be grateful if you could clarify, what I now believe, to be a substantive ambiguity.

Let me offer back to you some words from your communique; words which I used as the platform for hope in my earlier ‘thought piece.’

‘The Primates condemned homophobic prejudice and violence and resolved to work together to offer pastoral care and loving service irrespective of sexual orientation. This conviction arises out of our discipleship of Jesus Christ. The Primates reaffirmed their rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted people.’

At the time of writing I took this to mean that the ‘college of Primates’ are collectively committed to either speaking out against the criminalization of homosexuality, or, where necessary, arguing for decriminalization. I suggested that if this is your commitment, regardless of any cherished  theological positions  regarding homosexuality per se, or same-sex marriage in particular, the communion may well remain a viable entity.

The question that I now have is this: ‘is my initial reading too optimistic?’ The reason I ask is because several readers have drawn my attention to the sentence I have underlined, and the phrase ‘same sex attracted’ in particular.

The suggestion has been made that some primates may not in fact be unequivocally committed to the eradication at law of punitive sanctions against homosexual activity.

Justice demands that you are active in seeking to repudiate all laws that discriminate against homosexuals irrespective of whether they are sexually active. The standards by which homosexuals are judged at law should be the same standards applied to heterosexuals. 

Can I therefore ask for whether collectively you support the rejection of criminal sanctions on the basis of attraction or action? It is an important distinction.

Put bluntly if your collective commitment is to reject criminal sanctions on the basis of attraction alone, I believe that you have positioned yourselves on the wrong side of salvation history and that the fine words you have written about ‘walking together,’ have all the qualities of a ‘noisy gong,’ or a ‘clanging symbol,’ you will have shown real ‘weakness in your majesty.’

If, on the other hand, you will all actively campaign, as a communion, for the decriminalization of homosexual activity, you will change the course of human (and, to my mind, salvation) history.

That is why I, and many others, crave you clarification.

Your clarification is also important in helping me to understand my own identity. If you are content to simply reject criminal sanctions based solely on attraction, then I can no longer define myself as an Anglican; a member of the Church of England yes, (maybe even an Episcopalian,) but not an Anglican. If your pledge is to pursue the decriminalization of homosexual activity, then I am happy to self define as ‘Anglican’

To vigorously campaign for the decriminalization of homosexual activity does not necessitate changing your theology concerning either homosexuality or same-sex marriage. Why not draw inspiration from Archbishop Michael Ramsey who led the campaign for the decriminalization of homosexuality from the floor of the House of Lord’s whilst still maintaining what many of you would describe as an orthodox or traditional view:

‘I would uphold the belief that just as fornication is always wrong so homosexual acts are always wrong.’

However, Ramsey also theologically reasoned  that it was wrong –unjust– that the law should be used to discriminate against a particular group of people irrespective of whether their behavior was considered sinful.

So how did he theologically reason his way to this  position? His replies to Lord Brocket (in a speech) and Suzanne Goodhew,the wife of an outraged Conservative M.P., (in a letter provide) the answer:

To Lord Brocket:

‘My support of this Bill has been increased by hearing, among those who have opposed it during these debates, what I can only call a really lopsided presentation of morality—a presentation which quotes the Old Testament, which takes the line that sexual sins are apparently the worst of all sins, and that homosexual sins are invariably the worst sort of sins among sexual sins. I think that such a presentation of morality is lopsided and is going to be rejected by the people of the new generation, who need a better presentation of morality to win their respect and admiration.’

And to Suzanne Goodhew:

‘When we look at the list of sins there given, one or two of them have to do with sex: but the rest have nothing to do with sex at all. It seems to me that an enlightened Christian morality does require that we avoid suggesting that sexual sins are necessarily more terrible than others because Christ does not suggest that. Equally, we need a well thought out principle as to which sins should be crimes and which should not.’

In coming to the conclusion that homosexuality should not be subject to criminal sanction Ramsey built on the logic employed by his predecessor as Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher:

‘He (Fisher) argued that the existing state of the law creates fear, secretiveness, despair, and deeper involvement in some homosexual practitioners, who would like to be free to make themselves known and be helped, but dare not, lest they expose themselves and their friends to criminal proceedings.’

Surely the communion and its individual churches are entitled to hope that the Church, through the offices of its Primates, should never be responsible for creating the conditions in which fear and despair reign?

And, that Primates is why your clarification is urgently required.

Yours sincerely,

The Rev’d Andrew Lightbown.


A tale of two Primates

Let me start by being up front:

I strongly believe,as a liberal or progressive or, if you really insist revisionist, on matters relating to human sexuality that last week was a bad week for the Anglican Communion.

I would have preferred a looser fitting communion to have emerged from the conference, an idea floated by ++Justin. But this didn’t happen. Has the opportunity to re-shape the communion gone forever? I think it probably has.

My own view is that by 2020 it is possible, highly possible, that the Anglican Communion, will have disintegrated, with critics blaming either Archbishop Justin or those liberal Episcopalian types such as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.

The critics will be wrong, however, for the future of the Anglican Communion will be determined by the arch conservatives. 

++Justin and +Curry, in my view, both emerged from last week have chalked up a few notches on the leadership score board.

Archbishop Justin deserved credit not because he secured some form of significant victory, because he didn’t. At best he has taken the communion, perhaps, against the odds, into ‘time added on for injuries.’

He deserves huge credit for ensuring that the discussions about human sexuality (why do we use  this phrase when we really mean homosexuality) were not limited to the scope of marriage. Above all Justin was courageous enough  to court ridicule and risk total, and personal, failure.

Justin was right to remind his colleagues, and the world, that the church has both caused pain and withheld love from same sex brothers and sisters. And, he was right in ensuring his critique was global:

I want to take this opportunity personally to say how sorry I am for the hurt and pain, in the past and in the present, that the church has caused and for the love that we at times completely failed to show, and still do so, in many parts of the world, including this country.’

For ++Justin the church is not an innocent bystander and by implication neither are his arch-episcopal colleagues. Yes primates it is official: you, as bishops, have been and continue to be agents of pain and injustice. Not my words, but Justin’s.

More on the epoch changing implications of this later.

Bishop Michael Curry was grace personified. He accepted his ‘yellow card’ with such dignity it beggars belief. In reacting to his estrangement he thanked all who had prayed for both him and the Episcopalian church. He reminded each and every one of us of our mission to bring salvation into the here and now through the eradication of all forms of injustice and, he proclaimed Jesus Christ as Lord. Finally he dared to say that the T.E.C. may well have a vocation to challenge and lead the Anglican Communion in issues relating to human sexuality and, he spoke without bitterness or rancor.

So what will determine whether the Anglican Communion has a future? I think it all comes down to the quote below  taken directly from the ‘Communique’ issued by the Primates. I suggest that on this one quote hangs the future of the Anglican Communion.

‘The Primates condemned homophobic prejudice and violence and resolved to work together to offer pastoral care and loving service irrespective of sexual orientation. This conviction arises out of our discipleship of Jesus Christ. The Primates reaffirmed their rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted people.’

Sadly, some conservative primates were, with indecent haste and little forethought, keen to stress that the precise nature of condemnation and the exercise of pastoral care should be decided upon locally. If ‘we’ really are a communion, or even a domination, this idea should be given the heave-ho. Why?

Because, the whole point of being in a communion is collective responsibility and mutual accountability. That was the rationale for excluding  the T.E.C. from active involvement in shaping the life of the communion over the next three years. 

The conservative primates simply can’t have it both ways. You are either ‘resolved to work together’ (their words) or, to work in isolation. In a communion you can’t determine your own terms and conditions. The conservative success last week was in establishing this in relation to doctrine. The liberal success was in enshrining this principle in relation to justice; specifically justice for the global LGBTI community. And it is only because both the conservative and the liberal teams (a nicer word than opponents)  were able to make partial gains that we are now in time added on for injuries.

And so, each and every primate and province faces a self-imposed, and collective, challenge namely to demonstrate to their brothers and sisters in Christ that their commitment to end violence and prejudice is concrete and real and that they don’t simply fall into the trap of saying ‘I wish you well,’ without actually doing anything to radically reduce homophobia.

The (predominately conservative) Primates have actually pledged to change the face of human history. Maybe they really mean it; maybe they need to be more careful when signing on the dotted line, but lets give them the benefit of the doubt and ask the question that arises from their amazingly bold, and collective, statement: are the primates really up for it?

If they are the Anglican Communion may have a new and better future. If their words are shallow, if they refuse to accept the principles of mutual accountability, ‘peer group review’ and the judgment of their ‘colleagues’ (even their ‘liberal’ colleagues)  despite the noblesse of the language used in the ‘Communique’ then the communion is already in a state of palliative care and deserves to be put out of its misery.

Conservative Primates over to you. You have set yourselves a hard task. It is unlikely that you are going to change your core doctrine, yet you have pledged to change human history. And, you have pledged to do it, not in isolation but together as members of a communion. You have said that you will love liberal colleague and your homosexual neighbour as yourself.

What does this mean, what does it look like, what are the specific actions that will make this a lived reality? What is grace demanding of you given the commitments you have made?  

These are your questions.







I agree withGAFCON’s Peter Jensen; up to a point

‘Truth matters even more than institutional unity,’ wrote Peter Jensen, General Secretary of GAFCON on New Year’s Day. I agree. In fact I wholeheartedly agree.

So ‘what is truth,’  as a famous roman ruler once asked before sanctioning an atrocity?

Well, GAFCON and their admirers believe that the truth of the matter is that homosexual practice (maybe even homosexual orientation) is abhorrent to God. In fact it is so abhorrent that active homosexuals cannot, under their theology, be considered as residents of the kingdom, here on earth, or in heaven.

Salvation it seems is about conduct, works and perceptions of morality and not about faith, grace and mercy. Now, for this Anglican that is not a truth, no not at all.

So what is truth? Well, it is true that many homosexuals (just like heterosexuals) live productive, generative and, faithful lives, either as single folk or in relationship with a much loved partner. Isn’t it?

And, it is also true that many homosexuals have and continue to live in fear. Fear, in western society (and churches) of not quite fitting in and being made to feel welcome and, in many GAFCON territories of being brutalized, criminalized and, terrorized.

Marginalization and isolation, or brutalization and criminalization that is frequently the choice; that is the truth of it.

And surely to God, and for God, these are the conditions that the Primates should, in a spirit of unity, be seeking to eliminate, for any unity that fosters the conditions where hatred and violence or even some form of benign toleration rule can never be, in kingdom terms, be a unity worth preserving.

Can it?










A game of two mitres; some sporting analogies for the Primates conference.

Like all analogies it is perhaps a bit simplistic to regard the GAFCON group and the T.E.C. as being the only two sides invited to play at the Primates Conference, with Justin Welby acting as match referee, as each side seeks to maintain possession of the ‘sexuality ball,’ but let’s stick with the analogy and see where it takes us.

In team sports teams that seek to dominate, as their primary strategy frequently gain a reputation for ‘winning ugly.’ They pick up league points but leave fans and spectators feeling as though they have somehow been cheated. It seems, as things stand, that neither GAFCON or TEC are prepared to cede possession. An ugly outcome appears likely.

For many onlookers, whether fans or casual spectators,  the fundamental disagreement between these two ‘teams’ is the real game, the top of the table clash, and, just as at a football or rugby match, it is legitimate to suppose that the majority of the spectators are either explicitly, or implicitly, inclined to support to one or other of the ‘top’ teams, slugging it out for what they perceive to be real glory. (It should come as know surprise to readers that I support the progressive, liberal, or as ‘our’ rivals put it ‘revisionist,’ team – not that I will be attending the conference!)

Let’s pause for a second or two, and focus on the match referee Justin Welby. Many interested spectators will be hoping he has a good game, after all this particular match needs one of the world’s best referees.

Justin has worked extensively in the field of reconciliation and so he is, presumably, highly qualified to arbitrate in the match between GAFCON and T.E.C.?   However, he faces significant problems:

First of all (and perhaps less significantly) he doesn’t have access to the tools of trade granted to a football or rugby  referee:

He doesn’t have red and yellow cards in his back pocket to raise when he gets fed up with particularly aggressive or abusive players. Paradoxically, he can’t send an errant player to the ‘sin bin.’

He can’t tell one of the leading lights from one side or the other that they are banned from the stadium and, when he isn’t clear he can’t delegate decision making to a match official in a TV truck, parked some way from the stadium.

More significantly, he can’t insist on the style of play adopted by the rival teams. Anyone who has watched a rugby game in recent years will have heard the referee encouraging players to be positive. Nigel Owens the (gay) world cup final referee is often heard telling prop forwards ‘if you don’t want to be constructive we will get someone else on and give them a go.’  Justin can’t change the players, he is stuck with what he has got.

Finally, in common with referees in the world of sport, there is nothing Justin can do to prevent pre match verbals. And we all know that the managers and coaches of leading sports teams like to say things to both unsettle the opposition and, to deflect attention away from their own players. Alex Ferguson did it, Jose the ex Chelsea manager did it and, in my own sport, Warren Gatland does it.

So ‘referee Justin,’ even more than premiership officials in the round and oval shaped ball games, has to rely on the good will of the managers and players. He is in reality impotent, he doesn’t even possess a whistle. So if he manages to hold the primates (and later on the C of E) together in something that approximates unity he will have pulled off a super human feat (or maybe a supernatural feat).

Archbishop Justin deserves our respect and prayers. And, if it all goes wrong it won’t be his fault. He can’t insist on a positive style of play, leading to a positive outcome for all; it’s not in his gift.

So a huge level of responsibility rests on the shoulders of the two competing teams and their real challenge is to accept that a score draw can equate to a good result.

As a liberal (on the issue of sexuality) I have no wish to coerce anyone to act against their conscience (if I did I wouldn’t be a liberal).

So what, as a Church of England liberal, would I find it difficult to accept?

First and foremost the idea that churches in England may seek to formally align themselves with GAFCON; seeking alternative episcopal oversight troubles me no end. I am very uncomfortable with the notion that a priest or parish may defer to a bishop who has actively supported the criminalization  of homosexuality in their home country.

Archbishop Ramsey held homosexuality to be abhorrent whilst also leading the debate in the House of Lords in favor of decriminalization. It is a line conservatives can continue to hold with integrity; respectful of ‘our’ Church of England tradition. It is a position that a progressive liberal should accept as legitimate.

However, as a liberal I would want to suggest that time has moved on and that insights from other disciplines mean that we, the Church, no longer need propagate, in Jim Cotter’s words, ‘the impressions made in a young man in the fifties and early sixties by the institutional messages that to be homosexual was at best sick (psychiatry), certainly sinful (church) and, for men, criminal (law).’ 

I am content (again as a liberal)  for this perspective to be challenged theologically, with the exception of the notion that homosexuality should be subject to the full weight of law. If new institutional and episcopal structures need to be found let them  be geographically determined. I think it would also be helpful in our domestic discussions if a leading conservative voice (on this issue) publicly and unequivocally distanced themselves from the likes of GAFCON.

Finally, as an Anglican, I would want to robustly interrogate  Michael Jensen’s statement that:

‘This sin (homosexuality) is spiritually dead and those who engage in it without repentance are outside the kingdom of God.’

This view seems to mark a departure from Anglican orthodoxy in that it implies that salvation is a matter, not of faith, grace and mercy, but of works and conduct. Is this what he means? Have the rules of the game shifted in conservative circles? What has happened to salvation by faith alone? Is sexuality a first or second order issue?

Here are my final set of  questions:

Is Archbishop Justin’s biggest problem that the two mitred teams are, in reality, playing by a completely different set of rules? If they are reconciliation will indeed be impossible, unless Justin can get each team to adopt one common rule book.Will he be able to achieve this? Time will tell.

If he can’t? Well, it won’t be his fault, so whatever the outcome no blame should be attached to the ABC.

If Justin can’t get both teams to play by the same set of rules what will the consequence be? Let me offer two possible sporting analogies:

Either, the split will be akin to William Webb Ellis picking up the ball and running with it, thereby creating a new sport (Rugby) in competition to its founding sport (football). Football and rugby are irreconcilable, there is no way that they could ever be united.   Presumably this is what the conservatives from GAFCON would accuse the liberals from TEC of doing; creating an entirely new and totally different game?

Or, the split could, if there is just a little bit of good will, look like the schism between rugby union and rugby league, whereby a new but highly similar sport is created, one which allows players (with varying degrees of success) to cross codes and where talk of one unified game still takes place from time-to-time.

For the sake of the Church let’s hope that we end up with a future that looks like a rugby union – rugby league separation, but with each ‘sport’ sharing various governance functions and where leadership is exercised locally and nationally. Unless, that is ++Justin pulls of a miracle which should be our hope and prayer.