Julian Henderson and ‘the case for a conservative approach.’

I have read, and re-read, Julian Henderson’s article – ”Sexuality: the case for a Conservative Approach” – in the Church Times with a growing sense of incredulity.

The Bishop of Blackburn, who is keen to stress that even as a Diocesan Bishop he is writing solely on his own account (is this possible / credible?) set himself the aim of making the case ‘for’ a conservative approach. But he doesn’t actually do this, rather he seeks to make the case ‘against,’ any forms and variations of progressive argument.

His thesis is based on one massive sweeping assumption: that ‘conservatives’ take the Bible seriously, and ‘progressives’ don’t. This assumption cannot go unchallenged!

‘This current debate is, therefore, not so much about sexuality, as the place, interpretation, and application of the Bible in our life as a Church. Its authority must not be superseded by pastoral, anthropological, and missional arguments, if we are to maintain a faithful witness to Jesus Christ, in this generation and for those who follow.’

Julian Henderson seems to be saying that only a conservative reading of Scripture really honors Scripture, and that those who those who hold a more progressive view are in some ways manipulating Scripture and, deliberately refuting Mary’s great cry of vocational acclamation, ‘let it be with me according to your word.’  I would want to reject this line of argument, and the judgments that it makes. I would also like to ask Bishop Julian a direct question:

‘Given his choice of this verse is he implying that those who either love a partner of the same sex and desire to live in a faithful, monogamous and covenanted relationship and, those who would support them in their quest, can not, de facto, live the vocational life and have therefore placed themselves outside the mission of the Church?’

For that appears to me to be his implication.

Ironically the article criticizes those who argue for greater levels of affirmation for LGBTI Christians on the basis of ‘mission,’ whilst locating his own thesis in an anthem whose rationale is vocational and, ergo, missional.

For a bishop to believe that there is only one way of engaging with, being inspired by and, shaping one’s life according to Holy Scripture is a matter of huge regret, and one that asks his readers to ignore some of the tradition’s finest and earliest scholars.

The article does, however, beg an important question or two:

‘Is the way we engage with Scripture based necessarily on our cultural and other experiences?’ 

‘Is Scripture ever really read separate from pastoral, anthropological and missional imperatives?’ We could, in fact, slightly (maybe controversially) re-frame this question in the following way:

‘Is Scripture, (among other things) a pastoral, anthropological and missional set of holy texts?’ 

Many would believe that it is, and also that significant parts of Scripture (some of the Psalms, for instance) explicitly reflect the experiential, pastoral and anthropological dimensions of faith. Scripture is not one thing, to be read in one way, and it never has been.

The Bishop ought to both know and acknowledge this. Of course he, and the conservative voice, are perfectly free to dismiss any, or even all, progressive arguments, but what I think is unfair is the notion that progressives don’t take Scripture seriously.

Seek to correct  me, as someone inclined towards a more progressive stance, ‘with gentleness’ (2 Timothy 2, 25) by all means but, please don’t start with the assumption that ‘you’ and your tradition take Scripture seriously and ‘us’ progressives don’t.

Having heard the two bishops who contributed to Journeys in Grace and Truth preach, I simply can’t accept the case that they are guilty of ditching Scripture. I strongly believe that they have sought to enter fully into Scripture, studiously and imaginatively, as we are encouraged, through the tradition, to do so.

Origen, one of Christianity’s earliest biblical scholars, made precisely this point! He argued that all texts should be engaged with through the lenses of history, morality and spirituality. Scripture was to be entered deeply into, but with multiple sets of complimentary lenses.

Scripture is not just a never-ending rule book,to be read through the  lens of one fairly straightforward hermeneutic, but this is what the article implies.

Does the Bishop believe that Scripture is just one thing that’s its message of ‘good news’ is binary, plain and obvious, taking little account of genre, context and time? I would be intrigued to know.

It was very interesting, in considering the first question (is our reading of Scripture by necessity inter-mediated by cultural and other experiences), that the Bishop of Blackburn refers to a leading scholar from his own tradition prior to quoting the single Scripture he offers in his ‘analysis’:

‘Dr Stott taught, unequivocally that the only alternative to heterosexual marriage is sexual abstinence. As a bachelor, he wrote: ‘I know something of the pain of this.” 

Reading this causes me to ask is the Bishop of Blackburn, and the tradition, he represents just as ‘person centered’ as his progressive neighbour? The argument he seeks to build doesn’t appear to me to be as ‘text focused’ as he would have us believe. It is also a little binary. He offers only one lens (Dr. Stott) followed by one Scripture:

‘Woe to you, if all people speak well of you.’ 

This verse is offered as a defense against the perceived unpopularity of the ‘conservative’ perspective (and fails to mention the startlingly obvious fact that throughout human history homosexuals have seldom been spoken ‘well of.’) To be fair to the Bishop of Blackburn he does argue that it may be necessary to risk unpopularity in order to be ‘salt and light.’

The article also contains a significant and worrying category confusion. The terms celibacy and abstinence are used interchangeably as though they are one in the same thing. In his article the Bishop suggests that some of the evangelicals who contributed to ‘Journeys in Grace and Truth,’ are guilty of using the same words and phrases ‘to mean the same thing;’ and yet he does the same thing!

Celibacy and abstinence do not share a common meaning, and again the Bishop should be aware of this, making sure he uses each term appropriately without pastorally de-valuing the other.

The article is keen to discount the value of experience: ‘the powerful voice of experience is, however, becoming a more important driver and authority than scripture itself in our ethical decision making.’ 

This line of argument makes absolutely no allowance whatsoever to the notion that Scripture and experience are seldom neatly decoupled from one another. The bishop fails to show how his reading of Scripture is free from his own prior experiences.

The bishop, paradoxically, continues without pausing to offer any scripture whatsoever, instead applying directly to the experience of one group of people, those who have chosen to ‘live out,’ to validate his point.

I wouldn’t want to discount their experience (because I value experience and believe that some Scriptures are cries from experience), or devalue their choice, but equally I don’t understand the rationale for generalizing  from their experience.

The article set out to make ‘the case for the conservative approach,’ but, instead it seeks only to refute the ‘progressive’ case. The irony is that given the statement that ‘this debate is about the place of the Bible in our life as a Church,’ the author makes his substantive points, not through reference to Scripture, but instead tradition and, experience.

Rather than showing that Scripture stands alone as God’s objectivity the article instead reveals that all interpretation is mediated through tradition, experience, culture and prior disposition. The conservative voice might not want to admit this, but it seems to me, at least, to be both true and validated through its own apologists. The article undermines the very approach it seeks to endorse. 


7 thoughts on “Julian Henderson and ‘the case for a conservative approach.’

  1. What nonsense you all talk: ‘conservative reading’, ‘progressive view’, and then: ‘Given his choice of verse…’! You can take any verse to support, at least seemingly, whatever view you’d like to advocate. Maybe what is needed is to demote the ridiculous approach to this vast library of ancient texts that leads to picking one verse over another as if that somehow constituted an argument!

    • I agree. That’s why I prefer to look at the big themes; justice, equality, inclusivity etc. But to me these imply taking Scripture seriously. ‘Proof texts,’ are dangerous things.

  2. This notion that only conservatives take Scripture seriously is one that I’ve run into countless times, and it’s a challenging one to counter: there seems to be a mindset in which questioning an interpretation of Scripture is tantamount to trashing the entire Bible, undermining the very foundations of our faith.

    Amazing Love is another book that highlights the issue, with an entire chapter on ‘Being Biblical’ and I think this nugget, p.38, gets to the heart of it: “the problem is that none of us are, on the whole, taking the Bible seriously enough.”

    Thank you for speaking out and making the case against the Bishop’s case so clearly.

  3. The publication of Journeys in Grace and Truth (to which I contributed) was bound to result in push back from the conservatives. However, one important point to draw out from the Bishop of Blackburn’s article is that he acknowledges that evangelicals can and do interpret Scripture differently, although he challenges whether we are right to do so.

    • Its a bit of a circular argument – maybe – in that if you knowledge the practice of different interpretations but question that validity of such approaches you are, presumably, claiming that there is only one authentic way of interpreting Scripture, based on the idea that Scripture is one thing? Something I would dispute.

      • He and I spoke at General Synod. I know him quite well. He was gracious almost to the point of apology but it’s where that constituency has resided for years. The challenge for them is that this debate is fast going beyond one of biblical interpretation. It is now a matter of ecclesiology. I pray that some of them might take on board some of Paul’s theology of being the body of Christ. For any baptised believer to say to another that you are in or you are out is judgementalism of a high order and not reserved to any of us.

  4. Thanks Anthony, and I enjoyed your chapter in the book. Yes, the debate has moved beyond one of biblical interpretation, into ecclesiology and even the nature of the episcopacy.I do think that the argument, however, that in the left hand is Scripture and in the right hand is pastoral theology, anthropology and mission, isn’t a great argument.
    Hope you have recovered from synod, Andrew

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