‘How can you expect the Church to bless something which I consider to be inherently sinful?’
The sin which those seeking to affirm ‘a’ (rather than ‘the’) historic view of marriage is of course the sin of homosexuality, or more precisely homosexual practice, for as Ian Paul has written: ‘If you do not believe that same-sex sexual relationships are ‘a gift of God in creation, a holy way of living, which all should honour’ then you cannot ‘bless’ such things. ‘
Others have been more expansive in their analysis of sin; seeking to affirm that all sexual activity, outside heterosexual marriage, is inherently sinful. So on face value it would appear that for some homosexuality is ‘the sin,’ and for others all sex outside heterosexual marriage is the ‘the sin.’ Whichever way you look at it sex is ‘the’ sin which risks splitting the Church. To those who spend their lives outside the narrow parameters of the Church this must look just plain odd, yet within the church a group of powerful I’s is looking to block the You’s from any moves to bring the notion of “a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church” to fruition. This group of I’s are the self proclaimed arbiters and judges of sexual sin.
As self confessed progressive and revisionist I don’t expect anyone to bless something they consider inherently sinful. I have no interest in seeking to compel anyone to act against their conscience. But what I do expect is consistency, equity and honesty (which in combination = integrity). If the issue really is that all sex outside marriage is deeply sinful then surely it must also be correct that rites of affirmation, blessing and marriage should be denied to all who have fallen prey to the ‘sin’ of fornication? If those who wish to retain an understanding of marriage characterized in the preface to the service of ‘Solemnization of Holy Matrimony’ where one of the three reasons for marriage is given to be ‘a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication,’ they presumably should be forcing their argument to its logical conclusion?
To provide rites to one group of ‘sinners’ (heterosexuals) but not to another (homosexuals) gives the impression of relativising sin and discriminating against a specific set of people. Of course there may be clergy that do insist that heterosexual couples confess that they ‘followed too much the devices and desires of (their) own hearts,’ and therefore ‘offended against (God’s) holy laws,’ as a prerequisite for marriage, but……but, I am not convinced this is the norm. My suspicion is that the argument that all sexual activity outside of marriage is deeply sinful may be a useful device for continued exclusion of LGBTIQ+ people from the rites of the Church.
Unlike various conservative commentators I sincerely believe that faithful and monogamous same sex relationships can be an expression of a ‘holy way of living.’ I believe this because I have, like Archbishop Justin, been privileged to see same sex relationships of ‘stunning quality.’ I have also seen, and been the direct beneficiary of, the fruitfulness of such relationships. Through my LGBTIQ+ friends, family members and their relationships, I have seen the very image of God, and grown into an appreciation of the wonderful diversity that God has ordained in creation: LGBTIQ+ members of the human family are fully, and equally, made in the very image of God. To deny same-sex couples rites of affirmation and blessing is to deny the diversity ordained in creation.
So how could the Church progress from this point?
The pragmatist in me accepts that if the church is to make any form of progress on this issue a ‘twin cities’ approach will be required. Such an approach could take one of two forms.
Like Brexit the borders between the progressives and revisionists and the traditionalists could be either hard or soft. A soft border might well allow the Church of England to remain as one united body, where unity has ceased to be a function of mere uniformity, whilst a hard border approach would demand a new and radically different set of institutional arrangements.
The relative softness or hardness of the ecclesiological boundaries is clearly open to negotiation. However it is also clear that some, just like in the Brexit negotiations, are seeking to play hard ball and allowing the possibility of simply walking away from the table to hang in the air. The bishops who wrote to GAFCON were, for instance, keen to stress the provisionality of their calling: ‘we see it as our present calling to remain committed to the Church of England.’
If the Church of England wants to make real and substantive progress in both its understanding and practice of a “a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church” it must accept the possibility that some may feel that their calling may cease to be inside the Church of England with equanimity. My gut instinct is that, in reality, few will decide to leave, for the simple reason that for most people membership of the Church of England isn’t determined in relation to notions of sexual sin. But if a few, including bishops, decide that sexuality and sex are defining issues to the extent that they no longer feel called to serve the Church of England, so be it. It would be sad if they decided to ‘depart according to thy Word’ (as they perceived it) but it would at least allow the rest of the Church to move on and redraw the boundary lines.
The letter from the evangelical bishops and other commentators stress the importance of unity, often citing Jesus’ prayer that ‘they all may be one’ (John 17, 21). Like those who cite this verse I too hope and pray that the church imperfect – or militant – may one day be united. I do, however, find it deeply ironic that a group of protestant and reformed opponents to any form of progressive theology in relation to sexual ethics always seem to conclude their arguments by appealing for catholicity of practice.
Unity is to be desired, hoped for and, prayed for, but it can never be achieved at the expense of whole swathes of people, or at the expense of justice for as Ian Paul rightly comments ‘if pastoral practice is to have any integrity, it must be connected to liturgical coherence and doctrine grounding.’ The inbuilt diversity ordained through creation which allows people to live together ‘in love and trust……in good times and in bad,’ celebrating the virtue of ‘mutual companionship’ is the doctrinal grounding for liturgical practice. The phrase ‘radical new inclusion in the life of the Church’ can have no meaning separate from accretions to the liturgy.
So where could new boundary lines be drawn, and what would soft and hard boundaries look like?
A soft boundary, which would be my preference, would mean the Church of England exercising the principle of subsidiarity and allowing decisions over whether to affirm or bless same-sex relationships to be devolved to the lowest level; the parish. Under this scheme there would be room for a diversity of views and positions, and no one voice (including the bishops) would be privileged over and above another. Under such arrangements there would be no need for alternative oversight or for the creation of new institutional structures and there would be no ‘I’ determining sexual ethics for each and every ‘you.’
A hard boundary by contrast would imply the creation of new institutional structures and alternative oversight. It wouldn’t be a pretty or elegant solution but it might just about hold things together. What it would also do is preserve a sense of Is’s and You’s. Sexuality and sex would remain the defining issues. A hard boundary solution is a fairly unattractive solution. I suspect its efficacy would be short lived.
Some form of ‘twin cities’ approach is the only realistic way forward for the Church of England. Even if a settlement is reached some will walk away, let’s hope in peace, feeling that they can no longer serve in the Church of England. Sadly this is a price worth paying for securing ‘unity’ at the continued expense of whole swathes of people would, in my view, be a far greater sin.
It’s time start redrawing the boundary lines.