Tuesday 9 March 2010

Reactions to the Bishop of Liverpool – Andrew Goddard on Fulcrum

In August 2009 Andrew Goddard alerted me to two books. One was Andrew Marin’s ‘Love is an Orientation’ which he reviewed somewhat enthusiastically. As Laurie Roberts commented on Thinking Anglicans today, what was all that about? The second book was ‘Ex-gays?’ by Stanton L Jones and Mark A Yarhouse. I’m half-way through reading it at the moment. The purpose of this 400 page book is to prove the thesis that some in the group studied from Exodus Ministries changed their sexual orientation, thus proving wrong all those who believe sexual orientation is fixed and unalterable.

I don’t, as it happens, believe that sexual orientation is fixed and unalterable. I do believe that extreme conservative evangelicals have an addiction to proving that homosexuality as an identity doesn’t exist in reality. The study doesn’t do that (I’ve peeked at the conclusion). Those who wish to believe that homosexuals cannot exist as a category in God’s creation are nevertheless likely to add Jones and Yarhouses’s book to their Gagnon collection as another proof text for their thesis.

This week I have also read, in the latest edition of Theology and Sexuality, ‘The “Lyings” of a Woman: Male-Male incest in Leviticus 18.22?’ by K Renati Lings. Lings argues from analysis of the Hebrew text that it is proscribing incest between male family members and not prohibiting all erotic expression between men. The Hebrew is opaque, and modern translations abuse the text by interpreting it, often from contemporary (and prejudiced) understandings of sexuality and sexual behaviour.

One difference between the Colin Coward category of Christian and the conservative evangelical category is that to me, much of the Bible is opaque and cannot be read as proving ‘literal, inerrant truth’.

Andrew’s problem is that he genuinely wants to be and is a good friend to many LGBT people but wants us to adhere to his ‘biblical and traditional theological Christian sexual ethic’. He argues that James Jones is wrong to have appealed to just war and pacifism as analogies in his argument. But I think rather that it is the visceral reaction to homosexuality which arouses intense feelings among those of a conservative persuasion, much more so than divorce, abortion (though that arouses equally intense passion in the USA) and the role of women in church. The result is that homosexuality is the issue onto which all the arguments about biblical and traditional theology and sexual ethics get hitched, to the tragic disadvantage of LGBT people and the health and unity of the church.

I think the most important question is not whether we are conforming to traditional church teaching but whether homosexuality in itself and its expression in intimate sexual relationships is a sin. Conservatives say that of course it is, it’s obvious, the Bible is quite clear. Lings and others say the Bible is not clear. Romans 1 is not clear to me as a decisive argument. If I am definitively judged by Paul in 1.26,27, then so in the following verses are the envious, gossips, scandalmongers, the insolent, arrogant, boasters and those disrespectful of their parents. Is homosexuality really a sin in a category of its own, different from divorce, envy, abortion, insolence?

I don’t believe it is, of course. I believe that gay identity came into focus in the latter half of the C20th because the second world war disrupted set patterns of relationships sufficiently to open new possibilities for us in society much as it did for women – and the battle for territory for both groups continues. Conservative Christians were worried by the dramatic change in social structures that these developments presaged and have been fighting a rear-guard action against them ever since.

Andrew’s Fulcrum article and the article on Anglican Mainstream posted by Philip Giddings, Bishop Wallace Benn; David Banting; Paul Perkin and Chris Sugden (with comments from Stephen Trott, Charles Raven, Peter Ould, John Richardson and John Nolland), show just how insecure and upset conservatives are by James Jones’ address. Andrew says it ‘opens up a new phase in the Anglican, and particularly the evangelical Anglican, discussions about homosexuality’. Much is ‘vague and slippery’ in James Jones’ argument, he says.

Andrew worries, for example, about ‘the important work of True Freedom Trust’ with those who experience homosexual attraction and yet embrace traditional teaching, ‘faithful brothers and sisters who will feel abandoned, betrayed and undermined in their costly discipleship and forced to bear an even more “agonising cross”’ if the church follows James Jones. What about the rest, the other groups of faithful LGBT Christians, those whom God has called, the church has baptized confirmed (and ordained)? If the church gave “sufficient attention to their situation or to their theological, ethical and spiritual insights” (as Andrew quotes Jones), then it should steadfastly accept rather than reject the central proposal of his address and his vision of the Anglican future. But Andrew and the others are writing defensively from a conservative corner of the Church of England. Andrew thinks my teaching has to be challenged and corrected. I beg to differ. I think we have to respect difference and allow the space in the church argued for by James Jones.

I think conservatives are reacting so strongly to James Jones this week because they would like the Church of England to move in the direction of the Anglican Church of North America. The Bishop of Liverpool’s address and the defeat of Lorna Ashworth’s original motion in General Synod both show a church moving in the opposite direction. Andrew fears a future akin to the minority who have left TEC and gathered under the ACNA banner, claiming that they have been marginalised and excluded because they alone uphold the biblical and tradition sexual ethic. Andrew thinks the CofE has followed a much better pattern of “serious and rigorous study, upholding Scripture and tradition while engaging thoroughly with substantive issues biblically, theologically, sociologically and experientially.” ‘Issues’, and ‘Some Issues’, Lambeth 1.10 and the 1987 General Synod motion (does anyone really take that as Anglican policy?) may exemplify traditional CofE methodology but many would challenge the quality of research and thinking embodied in them and disagree with the conclusions they draw.

Andrew would like others in episcopal leadership to engage with, analyse and critique Bishop James’s address. Is he wishfully thinking that they would take him to task and insist that he conform with ‘the House of Bishops’ position’? His argument might have benefitted from the input of other bishops, says Andrew, and “its position certainly places many of them in a difficult position.”

The House of Bishops are in a mess. They are deeply split and totally unable to be honest with each other according to reports of House of Bishops’ meetings. Significant numbers of bishops actively go against the theoretically agreed teaching of the church. If James had taken his paper to the House and they were able to be honest, the majority may well have supported him. There would certainly be a range of views as wide as that manifest in TEC and the schismatic North American churches.


  1. I'm delighted that my diocesan has had the courage to take seriously the Lambeth (?) recommendation to listen to the experience of gay people. And to change his position as a consequence. I tried to read Andrew Goddard but couldn't follow his 'logic'. It does seem to me that most of the participants in this debate (on both sides) are travelling in opposite directions on parallel tracks, or banging their heads against opposite and equally resistant brick walls. It's good that +James has broken free of this and shown that it is possible to move beyond sloganising.

  2. Hope it is helpful to set down some of the ways in which one might critique your article:
    (1) Speaking of 'insecure', 'visceral', 'defensive', and 'upset' shows a panpsychologism (if that is a word) in which everything has an emotional root, nothing a rational root. This is not the case in the real world: everyone will agree that this is too absolutist. Some things are psychological at root and others are rational; others are a mixture. Honest people try to assess the evidence and draw appropriate conclusions. Your mistake is therefore to assume without argument that the root is in this case emotional and not rational. Since it is presented as being rational, it follows that you are making the further charge that your critics are dishonest and lying about their motivations.
    (2) Many sins are listed in Rom 1 but don't you think there is some significance in the fact that homosexual behaviour is highlighted at all? After all, it has no immediate relevance in the context, so it looks like the reason it, rather than anything else, is selected as a topic is that it is taken to be the classic example of gentile depravity. (It is certainly the case that if one were looking for a behaviour-divider between Jews and gentiles, this is one of the first places one would look.)
    (3) Why does it matter if the House of Bishops is split, if that is the result of everyone following their own reason and conscience? Surely it's not wrong for people to follow reason and conscience.
    (4) What we call the Bible is a multi-author library (not a book). Don't you accept that your generalisation that 'the Bible' is largely opaque is crazily general when applied to such a large diverse body of work. How can such a large diverse multi-author body of work all (by coincidence) happen to be opaque? No doubt it (like any other library or book) varies on a scale from very transparent to very obscure - but one needs to be specific. In any case, wherever a text is hard to understand, the thing to do is obviously not to complain about this but rather to consult the work of those who have made it their business to understand the relevant cultures and languages. And here we are very fortunate, since the biblical books are the most commented-on books that have ever existed. It ain't all doom and gloom. Best wishes, Christopher Shell.

  3. James Jones position seems to me to be precisely the official position of the AC which you have criticised elsewhere. he argues for the practical inclusivity you want. The trouble then homosexuality right or wrong? We can't have it both ways.

    The argument of Romans 1 is not that homosexuality is a specially grievous sin but that all have sinned. The verses certainly condemn some activities the question is whether this is interpreted broadly or narrowly. The answer in Romans is that in Christ God's grace is made available to all.

  4. Whatever way one looks at it, James Jones has moved his position significantly from that he held when first made bishop, and I know that hos meeting openly gay and lesbian people has made a considerable impact

  5. Hello Colin and all,

    thanks for this piece Colin. Just a thing or two - have to say I am not at all convinced by K Renati Lings' argument which you refer to, that Lev 18:22 refers to male-male incest. To my (OK, very scanty) knowledge there's no tradition of interpreting it that way. Also, given Lev 18:6, if verse 22 refers to incest surely it would be superfluous?

    Have you come across Rabbi Steven Greenberg's book, Wrestling with God and men (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2004)? A chunk of it can be read as a preview on Google books by the way. Highly recommended if you've not encountered it. Rabbi Greenberg is a (the only I think) gay Orthodox rabbi. The book is the fruit of years of 'wrestling' and scholarship on his part - and much of it is given over to Lev 18:22. R Greenberg explores various possible rationales for the prohibition and concludes that the Torah can only imagine male-male intercourse as an act of humiliation, of domination. It is this, he argues, that's 'abominated' - "...the verse prohibits the kind of sex between men that is designed to effect the power and mastery of the penetrator" (p206).

    Also, drawing on another part of Greenberg's book - might it be that homosexuality (or at least same-sex sex) is such a 'hot button' thing for many conservatives, because it's seen as threatening absolute belonging to one gender? I'm sure you've noted that opposing same-sex sex often goes with an insistence on male-female complementarity, and sometimes with an argument that being gay is a gender identity problem at root.

    Enough for now...

    in friendship, Blair