The Church of England bishops have once again alienated large numbers of people with a predictable, prejudiced, ill-informed and unbiblical statement about sexuality and relationships.
The Church of England bishops rarely produce collective statements of their position on anything. Issues of marriage and sex seem to be almost the only exception, as if the Gospel proclaimed by Jesus is somehow less relevant to all other areas of life.
Some of the people most upset by the statement are themselves members of the Church of England. By now, however, I suspect they are less surprised.
The statement is a response to the introduction of mixed-gender civil partnerships. Its basic point is that sex should take place only between mixed-gender couples in monogamous and state-sanctioned marriages, and no-one else.
As is usual, the CofE bishops have failed to define “sexual intercourse” and “sexual activity”, making it extremely unclear what sort of behaviour they believe to be allowed in contexts other than mixed-sex marriage.
Their discussion of the meaning of marriage is brief and unclear. Their define marriage as “a faithful, committed, permanent and legally sanctioned relationship between a man and a woman making a public commitment to each other”. The phrase “legally sanctioned” implies that sexual relationships are valid only if approved by the state. In effect, the bishops are saying that you need the state’s permission to have sex.
And unsurprisingly, the document does not discuss definitions of “man” or “woman”.
Despite varied views on these issues within the Church of England, and even among the bishops, they have once again gone along with the homophobic “family values” lobby.
As a Christian, I am all in favour of standing against the dominant position in society when that position goes against Jesus’ teaching. I oppose “traditional family values” not because I want to accept common practices in secular society, but because I want to uphold the Gospel. So-called family values are utterly unbiblical.
I have searched the Bible in vain for any promotion of nuclear families based solely around sexually exclusive mixed-gender marriages. Nuclear families are a modern invention. Responsibility for raising children has differed considerably across times and cultures. Understandings of marriage and divorce have varied so widely that we need to be careful even about using these words to apply to different contexts.
Of course, there are a few lines in the Bible that the homophobes and supposed traditionalists like to quote, but they are ripped from their context. By focussing on individual lines to the exclusion of wider themes, the “traditionalists” miss the wood for the trees. The Gospels show Jesus defying social norms by being unmarried and wondering around with a more-or-less egalitarian group of followers who were accused of failing in their family responsibilities. Jesus redefined family, saying that whoever did the will of God was his brother, sister or mother. The tradition of the virgin birth undermines biological notions of family, with Jesus brought up by a man who was not his father.
The anti-family tradition in the Gospels has long been recognised by New Testament scholars, although of course scholars differ from each other in how they interpret it and how radical they regard it as being. This is one of the biggest contrasts between academic New Testament studies and the way the New Testament is preached in many churches. Academics recognise the Gospels’ problems with families; clergy more often ignore them.
This is not to say that the New Testament is unconcerned with sexual ethics. Jesus spoke about marriage and sexuality many times. Jesus challenged men who blamed women for their own lustful thoughts, telling them to take responsibility for sexual immorality in their own hearts. Jesus rejected easy divorce, which in his society allowed a man to throw a woman into poverty on a whim. Jesus allowed women to make physical contact with him in a society that found it shocking (although he never initiated the contact). Jesus was criticised for socialising with sex workers and saying they would enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus challenged all people to love their neighbours as themselves, a dauntingly demanding ethic.
This is very far from an “anything goes” approach to sexual ethics. It is equally far from a legalistic approach that seeks to privilege some people over others because of their gender or because their relationships have been recognised by the state. Both legalism and hedonism are contrary to the Gospel.
The CofE bishops’ latest statement has triggered comments on social media from pro-LGBT Christians who are disappointed because of all the supposedly inclusive conversations that have gone on about these issues within the Church of England. While I am saddened to see so many people disappointed, I find it hard to see how anyone can still find these sort of statements surprising. Over the last decade, the Church of England has run a bewildering number of consultation processes about sexuality, at least two of which produced recommendations that involved yet another long consultation process.
If anything good comes from the fallout of the bishops’ statement, it may be that more pro-LGBT Christians refuse to go along with more of these absurd consultation processes. I am more than happy to engage in genuine dialogue with people who have different views to me, including those who have problems with same-sex relationships, as long as we are all willing to listen to each other. What I will not do, and what I strongly discourage others from doing, is to help the bishops to give the appearance of inclusion and dialogue by holding endless discussions before producing statements that merely repeat what they said last time – and the many, many times before that.
As Christians, let us listen to each other and learn from each other. Let us act as communities and not only as individuals. Let us pray that God will show us when we are wrong as well as when we are right. But don’t let any of this be an excuse to think we cannot act or change without permission from church leaders. The CofE’s leaders (and, to varying extents, the leaders of most other denominations) have made clear that they cannot lead us in responding to the liberating Gospel of Christ when it comes to issues of sexuality.
They will not give us permission to respond to the Gospel as we understand it. Fortunately, we don’t need their permission. We need to stop acting as if we did.