Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.
This week saw the publication of the Living in Love and Faith resources. Its not just a book but a suite of materials, videos, source papers and podcasts, with a course that I hope many of us will engage with when we can meet face to face again after Easter next year. I’m not aware of any other denomination that has engaged in so thorough a process to look at what it means to be human as a sexual person. In this video I’m going to talk about process, flag up pitfalls and propose some boundaries for our conversation. I ask your forgiveness in advance if that comes across in ways that are in any way hurtful. That will not be my intention. We are all learning about taking care of one another.
I know some of you, as you look at the resources, will be disappointed because they don’t make a definitive statement agreeing with your point of view. But frankly, definitive statements and binary, polarised positions haven’t got us very far in the last decades of conversation. What the Bishops are commending here is a learning process, by which we genuinely listen to each other, reflect on scripture, tradition and experience and engage with the hard questions our culture is asking of us. This process is a time of discernment for the church and will lead to some decision making by the Bishops and General Synod in 2022.
For that to work, we will need to attend to our attitudes and take great care of one another. The six pastoral principles recently drawn up to guide us are worth repeating. We should acknowledge prejudice; speak into silence; address our ignorance; cast out our fear; admit our hypocrisy, and pay attention to the dynamics of power. If we truly take these on board, our conversation and engagement will be much more fruitful, ruling out some destructive styles of relating.
Some of us will need to recognise that we are simply prejudiced against LGBTQi people. That prejudice may arise from our own history or an unthinking sense of what we consider normal or natural. Similarly, others will need to lay to rest ideas that those who defend the churches current teaching are motivated by homophobia or blind prejudice. In my experience, this is rarely the case. Most of those (at least those I know) are motivated by a deep desire for human flourishing and see the traditional teaching of the church as the best way to secure that.
Silence about this issue in our churches has left people struggling alone with their sense of identity, in some cases with tragic consequences. But our talking should not be about people. This is not a hypothetical or abstract conversation. These are the lives of real people, our brothers and sisters in Christ, indeed it should be about all of us. We must take great care with our language and use the terms people use to describe themselves. Hereford Inclusive Church group have published some helpful contact details for people to call if they are personally affected by these conversations. They are available on the website.
We must listen to experience, but we also have to recognise that experience alone will not be sufficient to take us forward. Some of us will have tragic stories of exclusion, rejection and an experience of the traditional teaching of the church as deeply damaging and unjust to themselves or their families. But there are other stories from those who have found the churches message of abstinence before heterosexual marriage and fidelity within it to be liberating and who prefer todescribe themselves as same-sex attracted rather than LGBTQi. We must acknowledge all of us are seeking after the way of holiness and to be faithful to God.
These stories will help us to see that none of us approaches scripture from a neutral or objective standpoint. Our background, personality and culture will predispose us to accept or reject particular arguments. However, I sense the place of agreeing to disagree well, will be found in that engagement, recognising that faithful Christians have come to different conclusions on the meaning and implication of both key texts and scripture’s big story and trajectory.
When we read scripture together in this way we will be slightly wary of phrases like its plain teaching. Not because such clarity inevitably eludes us, but because the work of grappling with the meaning of texts for today is complex and nuanced. Unless we are Greek or Hebrew scholars we are reading a translation. A literal word for word translation of the original Greek or Hebrew is almost gobbledygook. It has to be re-framed, re-ordered and to some extent interpreted to be written in in English. This is why different Bible translations sound slightly different.
Sometimes the application of an underlying principle will look different in a different culture. For example, Paul appeals to what is natural when in 1 Corinthians 11:14 he says, “does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him.” That might have been the case in the 1st century, it certainly isn’t now. The length of our hair today is simply a matter of personal taste.
The underlying principle was about not needlessly offending culture and thus restricting access to the gospel. In other areas of behaviour, he was more explicit, calling Christians to a prophetic witness, directly in opposition to the culture around them. The Romans, for example regarded humility as a vice, not a virtue. The heart of our discernment must be whether we are dealing with timeless, culturally independent boundaries set by God for our flourishing or broader principles that have a different manifestation in our changed culture.
We will need to follow the implications of these wherever they lead us. Some will conclude we need to change the teaching of the church. Others will be a challenged to consider the pastoral and missional implications of our continued stance. I do not see great prospects for walking together if we conclude the scriptures say a particular thing but we think its wrong. That would be a denial both of the creed and our foundational 39 articles. A recent book which claimed in its analysis of Acts 15 that the apostles needed to learn to disobey scripture in order to be obedient to God, seems at best a distortion of the gospel teaching of Jesus. We have actually learned to live together with quite deep differences in other areas of the church’s life. Our capacity to do the same in this area could be a prophetic witness in the days of social media tribalism and savage disagreement.
In 2016 I visited the USA on sabbatical. I was able to visit a number of Anglican churches both those who had remained and those who had left over disagreements over sexuality. What I observed on both sides of the divide was spin to the point of deception, vindictiveness, caricature and bitterness. I swore I would do all in my power to avoid that here. Our disagreements pass between families, within churches and between churches – talk of easy or principled separation is naïve.
I’m sure some of you in listening to this video will be cross because I haven’t made a definitive statement about my own position on this and you’re probably right. I grapple with questions about my own integrity all the time, and ask myself is this circumspection or cowardice? Am I just being a typical wishy-washy Bishop, backbone removed at consecration, avoiding the hard questions? I hope not. I think my reticence is more to do with creating the space for this conversation to happen safely. Whether we like it or not, traditional teaching has created unsafe spaces where people haven’t been
able to be honest about who they are. Unthinking strident language has left people deeply wounded. All of us should be ashamed and repentant over that. But those who want to see the church’s teaching change need to be aware that you now have the full weight of contemporary culture behind you. Whilst the church can feel like an unsafe space, the wider culture certainly doesn’t feel like that for those who hold to traditional views of marriage and sexuality.
Let me share something unrelated but which gives me hope. All the time I’ve been here our DBF have estimated the deficit for 2020 to be between 900k and 1 million. As of last week the deficit estimate has reduced to 500k. Between those two estimates there has been a diocesan month of prayer, prayer pilgrimage and gifts days in parishes across the diocese. The financial change and that endeavour are not unrelated.
As with all aspects of our life together, I hope we will surround this process with prayer. In human terms the prospect of a way forward together looks distant. I do not underestimate the challenges we face. But I do not sense the bitter polarities in this diocese I see elsewhere. We are a small community and we basically love one another.
I trust that engagement in spirit of love, with an attitude of prayerful dependence may lead us to an unexpected place, that will have the fingerprints of the Holy Spirit all over it, and help us to commend the gospel in ways we had not thought possible. Do join me in praying for God’s grace to surround us as we travel together.