Talking of sex, sin and church unity

‘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.














12 thoughts on “Talking of sex, sin and church unity

  1. If Bishops were obliged to preside over two groups of people with different views on this, it presents a problem. I’m glad you don’t expect people to bless something they consider sinful. But what about the Bishop? And the problem is, both sides are inclined to think the other should act as they do, while holding different opinions.

  2. Great article, Andrew. In the end, in practical terms, and if we want to avoid theological domination of one group’s conscience by another group’s, it makes huge practical sense to allow each local church – membership, PCC, priest – to follow their sincere consciences about whether to affirm, celebrate, and (one day) carry out gay and lesbian marriages.

    In fact, in the end, pastoral outreach is the key issue for every parish in the country – and if a local church community believes that ‘welcome’ really does mean acceptance of everybody’s tender love, then it should not be for those in higher authority to exploit ‘privilege’ and crush the decency and conscience of a local church, and tell them how they are to interact with the local community they serve and engage.

    Perfect unity is only ever found in Jesus Christ – our unity is not dependent on uniformity (or shouldn’t be). It is found in fallible people serving their communities in the active love of God who dwells within us.

    Unity in diversity still stares the bishops in the face as the option that respects conscience: not ‘who is right’ but ‘can you love each other?’

  3. Sexual acronyms are getting longer (LGBTIQ+) and i ask have we reached a terminus – if there is one – or is it left up to us. Perhaps I can ask a question which springs out of the letter B but is not restricted to it. The bipartite nature of what was traditional marriage was based on gender but when gender is removed from the definition we know that there is no logical reason for holding to its “twoness” . My question is, Is everyone happy with this?
    The second question I have is theological. The nature of the Church as the Bride of Christ is a common theme of scripture, is the progressive understanding of sex and marriage such that the Church could now be called the Husband of Christ and what effect if any does that have on our doctrine of God and Man? Do I detect the Church’s attempt to usurp?

    • Thank you for this. My own view one the bride of Christ is that I am entirely happy with the allegorical nature of such language. As far as the doctrine of God and humanity is concerned I would point to the diversity that is built into creation and say that the creation narratives do not categorically list, or attempt to list, the diversity in creation. Theologically we work within the confines of language – we can do no other – but that doesn’t, for me, mean that language itself is sufficient to capture the fullness of doctrine. That is why concepts such as ‘the image of God’ (and yes the fall) are so important. I cannot answer for everyone (or even necessarily the majority – but in saying this wouldn’t want to be governed by a utilitarian ethic ) but I would be happy for gender difference to be a characteristic of marriage where applicable (which would be in the majority of cases but not all).Regards, Andrew

  4. Thanks for your response. My first query was whether we can think of having two partners (or three) in a revised modern marriage. I know we are moving away from New Testament morality here but that doesn’t seem to be the concern today.
    My theological one was to do with an understanding of the relationship between Christ and the Church in our developed understanding of sex and the Church. Yes, language changes from time to time but the Biblical analogy of Bridegroom and Bride understood at the time took in the ideas of provision, care and authority. If the Church today could be seen as a husband or equal with Christ I raise the question of the old serpent in Genesis as to what the Church might be hearing – “You shall be as God”. The Church does seem to be setting its own rules now so that perhaps is the end in view.

    • Forgive me for gate-crashing the dialogue, but “The Church does seem to be setting its own rules”… or exercising God-given conscience? I guess it depends on whether one regards the Bible texts as literal and inerrant; or tentative expressions of sincere, faithful, and fallible people, writing within the contexts of their own cultures, their own societies, their own historical and scientific knowledge, their own prejudices, their own social boundaries, their own literary and theological assumptions.

      Undoubtedly, many of the biblical authors have had profound encounters with the holy, the numinous, the divine (or so I believe). But – like you or like me – they had to make sense of that, and they wrote within the parameters of their own traditions, their own limitations. And they wrote with insight, with faith, and with conviction.

      But did God’s revelation end with them? or did God have to be understood and re-understood, in each generation, in each society and each culture, through the exercise of conscience, grace and love? Even Jesus used the framework “It is written… but I say…”

      Is not love alive and active, in our lives, and the God who lives within us? Are we not called into being ourselves: to love, to open up, to encounter, to share, to offer our lives? Is faith just set in aspic, ossifying in written sets of texts? Or is the living Word of God, alive and active, a Word to our consciences day to day, speaking compassion, pricking conscience, the Holy Spirit alive in our lives? The Holy Spirit calling us, practically, into more and more of who we are, and who we can be and become?

      Exercising conscience – responding to divine calls for justice and mercy – may seem to some like the Church “setting its own rules”. But maybe this is vocation for today? God sharing with us, deep within us, and opening up possibilities for love, for grace, for compassion?

  5. My first question was about marriage, bipartite or not bipartite, and I asked “What do people think?” I am happy to hear from anyone on that. My second was about what same-sex marriage equivalence makes to our understanding of the relationship between Christ and the Church.
    I wonder if I should ask a third, namely, “Is conscience God-given” or a self-evident truth. I throw it out as at least worth considering.

    • I think lesbian/gay and heterosexual marriage equivalence simply re-inforces the same values that all these marriages encapsulate: fidelity, trust, givenness to each other, love, care, the sharing of sorrow, the sharing of joy, delight, devotion. All these kind of things. And in the same way, God longs for these things in relationship with us, along with deeper and deeper sharing and union.

      I don’t see in what way the metaphor (for it is, after all, a metaphor not a literal sexual relationship with all you guys as women) is harmed by the same key values being found in marriage, whatever the gender of the participants.

      In response to your third question, isn’t it probable that with God dwelling within us, and opening up our minds to share more of God’s own mind, conscience is an opening up to the mind and presence of God within us, and in that sense a gift?

      I’m not sure what you’re trying to explore in your first question: polyamoury? threesomes? or simply whether marriage needs polar differences – male/female, butch/femme, active/recipient? I am not sure what you’re driving at. I guess I am curious for you to define what you mean by bipartite.

      In the context of the article, I’m not sure these issues are particularly significant to the basic issue: that many people seek acceptance and inclusion *in* their sexual orientation, because it’s who they are and how they feel. And there are conflicting views on that. So there seems to be a question about how we in the Church handle diversity of conscience and opinion. Do we demand uniformity (which simply doesn’t exist – fact) or do we co-exist in love, recognising different and divergent views.

  6. Hi Susannah – To answer your question about bipartite marriage has been seen as involving two , a man and a woman. Now that gender is removed from its definition are you happy about polyamory being included?
    I raised the relationship of God with his people because it has always been seen as one of exclusive faithfulness – “You shall have no gods before me” – adding another baal (husband) was not permitted.
    As far as acceptance of people is concerned I am at one with you, what we differ on is affirmation of a practice. I may accept you or anyone but not necessarily affirm all the things they do.

  7. “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.” I totally agree.
    I like the idea of a soft boundary; I remember listening to the Bishop of Copenhagen being interviewed on Radio 4 a year or so after civil partnerships were replaced by SSM in Denmark. He said it was going very well. Some conservatives had objected but they weren’t forced to conduct the services if their consciences so dictated. Those clergy who did want to conduct SSM services could do so.
    Denmark is such an enlightened country and its church reflects this. They had a very good experience of civil partnerships before opting for SSM.

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