Shared Conversations and the Bishops

On 23rd January, the House of Bishops made a statement on marriage and same sex relationships following its reflection on the 3 year Shared Conversations process in the Church of England. Predictably (and indeed, the document itself predicts it), no-one is very happy with it, though those on the conservative side are happier than those on the liberal side. The broadbrush interpretation of the statement would be “no change in the Church’s official position, but a willingness to allow ‘maximum freedom’ to express the diversity of practices and understandings within the church without actually changing anything.”

This is a huge disappointment to many, particularly LGBTI+ Anglicans who have contributed to the Shared Conversations (often at considerable cost) in the hope that they would bring about change. (Jayne Ozanne describes it as ‘unbelievable, unacceptable and ungodly’). The harsh reality is that change comes slowly in the Church of England, if at all. I have studied all the church’s various statements on sexuality since Sexual Offenders and Social Punishment in 1956. There has been no change to the basic doctrinal and legal position of the church in any of them. It was never likely that there would be in this one. However, there have been significant changes of emphasis, tone, and suggestions for future action in each of them. Some of these have had far-reaching effects, the fruits of which are apparent in this document (witness the attempt here to ‘correct’ one of the widely-recognised problems created by Issues in Human Sexuality, which introduced a distinction in the church’s expectations of sexual behaviour between its lay and ordained members). It’s in the detail rather than the big picture that the significance of this statement lies.  I want to make a few general observations about that detail, because I think they help in understanding what this statement is actually saying.

  1. This is a self-consciously limited document. It is not primarily a theological statement, but a procedural and political (in the most positive sense of the term) one – a description of what the House of Bishops has done and what they would like to do next. It presents its practical recommendations as recommendations, not as an executive fiat. These are recommendations that express the view of a majority (explicitly not all) of the House of Bishops (para 17, 56 & 57). They are presented to General Synod as a considered political judgement as to where it would be constructive for Synod to focus its efforts over the coming months, given that movement on other areas is unlikely to be fruitful (para 21, 25-27). The explicitness with which it acknowledges the disagreement within the House of Bishops over the issue is almost unprecedented, and this is significant in itself (para 17, 56). There is no attempt being made to suggest all the bishops welcome the statement as a clear expression of their position.

It’s worth noting that Bishop Paul Bayes (who has been public about his own liberal stance on the issue) has echoed this perspective (that the statement must be understood as a political one, an exercise in ‘the art of the possible’) in his blog post where he quotes the words of Bishop Peter Selby: ‘Bishops do focus the Church, but what they focus is the Church as it is.’ (My emphasis).

  1. This is not an end to the process of discernment. The statement is explicitly not drawing to an end the process begun by the Shared Conversations, but seeking to continue to ‘walk together’ (para 59). It is explicitly acknowledging the divisions within faithful members of the church in this area. It sees Anglicanism as essentially a contested tradition, which holds together those with differing convictions and not a ‘pure church’ (para 8). It commits the church to continuing to walk together towards an unknown future:

Finally, Anglican theology has been marked historically by a certain reserve. One element in this is a sense of provisionality, of knowing only in part (cf. 1 Cor. 13.9). God gives us the wisdom we need for the situation that faces us today, and that is what we should ask for, without doubting or double-mindedness (James 1.5–8). We are seeking to discern the right next steps, not be sure about the end of the road. (para 66)

It suggests that the bishops have made a political judgement that the degree of disagreement within the church at present (including within the House of Bishops) makes change to the doctrinal position of the church (and the understanding of Marriage as being between a man and a woman has explicitly been presented as a doctrinal position) impossible at this time for the Church of England without causing the sort of schism they would seek to avoid. The inclusion of the legal advice provided to the House of Bishops as to their options as an appendix shows all the options that were on the table. They are clearly wanting to signal that a wide variety of responses have been considered. They are not saying that this is an end to the discussion.

  1. One of the key principles being affirmed throughout, within the context of the recognition of faithful dissent, is a refusal of too detailed a centralised response being imposed in regard to these issues, in order to allow legitimate freedom of expression at a local level, within the established legal framework, with appropriate protection for clergy making these judgements (para 4, 43, 64, 65). There is an emphasis on the need to trust local clergy as those best able to judge how to express the mission and ministry of the church in their context. The document as a whole is remarkably robust in its disavowing of the exercise of centralised power to ‘solve’ issues (and interestingly the use of the scare quotes for the language of ‘solutions’ in this area is in the statement itself – para 9).

The Statement can be found here.

I will blog again to address the statement’s recommendations in more detail, but these are my initial impressions. Other perspectives can be found here:

Ian Paul (giving a ‘traditionalist’ response)

Miranda Threlfall-Holmes (giving a ‘liberal’ response)

Michael Sadgrove (retired Dean of Durham, giving a more liberal response)

+Paul Bayes (giving the perspective of a liberal bishop)

Review: ‘Studies on the Bible and same-sex relationships since 2003’ by Martin Davie

Davie book

This was the book commissioned by the CEEC in preparation for the Shared Conversations in the CofE, and reflection on which was intended to form the basis of their consultation in February 2015. Dr Martin Davie, the author, is the CEEC’s academic consultant. He has taught at Oak Hill and Wycliffe, and served as theological consultant for the House of Bishops and Secretary to the Faith and Order Commission.

The report is both impressively broad and open and depressingly narrow. Its openness comes from its insistence on considering every significant piece of writing on the 6 core biblical passages published in the last 10 years, and presenting them as objectively and fairly as possible, often through extensive quotation, allowing the writers to speak for themselves. This has been critiqued by Colin Coward as still containing an implicit filtering in that Davie chose what texts to present and what quotations to use, which is doubtless true (true objectivity is always impossible), but I’ve never seen a document by either ‘side’ in this debate take such pains to present a broad spread of texts with so little evaluation offered in the presentation. The narrowness, however, was evident in the above description (and in fairness to Davie, this was simply the brief he was given in preparing the report): this was a review of writings in the last 10 years, and only writings addressing the bible passages already identified as the ‘core’ texts. Earlier writings were not considered, neither were any writings addressing wider matters than biblical interpretation, nor any passages beyond the 6 ‘core passages’.

The purpose of the report, clearly set out in the introduction, was very sharply defined. ‘Some Issues’ in 2004 had suggested that the ‘traditionalist’ interpretation of these passages was accepted by most biblical scholars. The ‘Piling Report’ in 2014 suggested that there was no scholarly consensus on the ‘traditionalist’ interpretation. The report set itself the task of determining if anything had actually changed in the last 10 years that would warrant a change of this kind in the CofE’s understanding. The underlying assumption was that if no new research had been produced, then the evaluation given in ‘Some Issues’ could still be valid, and ‘Piling’ could be shown to be mistaken in its evaluation. In other words, the report started by assuming that ‘Some Issues’ could be trusted, and questioned whether ‘Piling’ could. It set out to test ‘Piling’’s evaluation, but made no attempt to similarly test the evaluation of ‘Some Issues’, which was assumed throughout to be trustworthy. (I should stress here that what is being disputed is not a ‘traditionalist’ or ‘revisionist’ interpretation of the passages in itself, but whether or not a scholarly consensus can be said to exist in their interpretation – the report is not just arguing for a particular position, it is arguing that the vast majority of biblical scholars agree with that position).

Given that the existence of dispute over the issue of same sex relationships cannot be denied, the report suggested three possible ways of understanding this dispute: that scripture is inherently unclear, that scholarly debate remains inconclusive, or that neither of these is the case and one side of the debate is simply wrong. Essentially, the final argument of the report is that by establishing that there is scholarly consensus on the traditionalist understanding of the passages (which the report considers itself to have done) it can be shown that scripture is clear, that scholars agree, and therefore that there is only disagreement because one side is wrong.

There are some obvious problems with this, but the most dangerous is the unquestioned assumption that the evaluation offered by Davie of the various scholars who are reviewed in the report represents in itself the balance of scholarly opinion. Davie presents evaluations of the various revisionist scholars that essentially all boil down to ‘this is not a good enough argument to warrant moving from a traditionalist understanding’. Personally I find some of his evaluations more convincing than others, but that isn’t the point I want to make. Davie has every right to argue for his own position, to make his own judgements about the worth of the arguments of others, and is to be commended for seeking to defend his position against the fair and robust presentation of others’ positions. What he doesn’t have the right to do is to argue that his judgement *is* the supposed scholarly consensus. Davie’s argument for his evaluation that scholarly debate cannot be judged inconclusive is that “Although writers about the issue continue to disagree the traditionalist position has not been successfully called into question.” But the measure of ‘successfully called into question’ used in the report is whether Davie finds the argument convincing.

Logically, by separating out the question of scripture itself being unclear (ie no clear position is possible) from the question of the current state of scholarly debate being unclear (ie a clear position may be possible but at present we can’t be sure what it is), Davie should be assessing not only whether the bible is itself unclear, but also whether scholars at present have the level of consensus required to establish a clear position. Despite the avowed intention of the report, he shows no real interest in exploring the second of these. His underlying assumption is that if scripture is clear, then there is no room for scholarly dispute. Having carefully separated out two legitimate reasons for continued conflict, he implicitly ignores the separate existence of the second. There is a hidden assumption that the clarity of scripture can be assessed independently of disputes amongst scholars, because Davie, unlike these other scholars, is capable of truly objective judgement (so even though it is clear that different scholars see different things in scripture, an objective observer (Davie) can tell at a glance that scripture is clear and some scholars are simply not reading it accurately). There is likewise a hidden assumption that if scripture is clear then there is no legitimate dispute. There can be no legitimate dispute over how the clear words of scripture should be applied to today’s vastly different context. In fact the clarity of scripture is assumed throughout. Davie’s evaluation of biblical scholars proceeds on the assumption not that their discerning different meanings might indicate a lack of clarity in scripture, or that different hermeneutical approaches might legitimately suggest different applications of clear passages, but that the clarity of scripture necessitates that only one applied meaning can be correct.

Indeed in his evaluation of the revisionist writings Davie gives no indication of offering two levels of evaluation: whether an interpretation of scripture is strong enough to convince him or whether it is strong enough to suggest a viable attempt to faithfully interpret scripture. The second is never treated as a serious possibility. What seems strangest about this is that, of course, anglican evangelicals have accepted that precisely this differentiation is possible in regard to women’s ministry: evangelicals accept that other evangelicals who take a different view from their own are faithfully interpreting scripture, even if they do not find their position personally convincing. The official position of Reform is now that women’s ministry is a second-order issue. This suggests that this sort of distinction has been recognised as genuine and significant in regard to a similarly divisive issue. It is interesting to consider why it is not even considered as a possibility here.

CEEC Consultation on Sexuality & Scripture Feb 2015

Belatedly realising that I never posted some of the stuff I wrote about the CEEC consultation I attended in 2015. For context: the CEEC is the Church of England Evangelical Council. It’s a representative body for Evangelical Anglicans. Prior to the Shared Conversations process, they wanted to give key leaders a chance to reflect together on the issues. So they called together some theologians and activists (from all sides) to meet with them and reflect together on a report they had commissioned by Martin Davie that reviewed recent literature on the subject. I’ll discuss the report itself in another post. I was invited as a theologian.

CEEC consultation

I told a friend just before I went to the CEEC day that the whole thing was being conducted under Chatham House rules, meaning that we couldn’t say who said what, so probably all I’d be able to tell him about it was “we met, we talked, there were disagreements, no-one changed their mind”. Well, that’s true, as far as it goes. More happened than that rather cynical summary suggests, however.

I’d gone with some personal wariness. I’m an evangelical who holds to what was described in the report as the ‘traditionalist’ position on the Biblical texts concerning same-sex relationships (though not, as I discovered from reading the report, on all of them – there are some texts on which my reading now apparently counts as ‘revisionist’). However, I’ve become increasing concerned about the way in which a traditionalist interpretation of certain texts is being used in contemporary discussions, and I’ve been convinced that in many cases evangelicalism has been guilty of a sort of institutional homophobia. This puts me somewhere in the awkward middle ground of the debate, which everyone has a vested interest in saying isn’t a credible place to stand, and so I went convinced that the more people found out about my position the less people on either side would like me.

On top of this, I had gone having spent the day before reading through the CEEC report that we were supposed to be discussing together. This is by Martin Davie, and shortly to be published. I’ll go through this rather problematic report in another post, because it warrants a bit more attention than I can give it here, but in brief it’s a review of all significant writings (by all sides) on the biblical passages that are key to the debate on homosexuality in the period between the publication of ‘Some Issues in Human Sexuality’ and the recent ‘Pilling Report’. The report follows a tight brief set by the CEEC, to determine whether in that period any new research had suggested that a conservative reading of the texts was less well founded than it had been before. The report concludes that no such significant new research has emerged, and therefore a conservative reading of the texts has not been seriously challenged. It is, in short, a document written with the purpose of showing that the Pilling Report has changed nothing.

In the event, the day was not dominated by discussion of the report. There were three responses to the report, which critiqued it in different ways, and there was plenty of space for discussion around the wider debate. The day was designed to create space for reflection, to help people to listen to each other, and to consider where the debate might be going. The provocative question was asked: is the pain we feel the pain of divorce, or of childbirth? Are we on the verge of a parting of the ways or of a new birth?

I met with some wonderful people, and found compassion and thoughtfulness on both sides of the debate. In the end, though, my feeling was that the anger I’d feared simply wasn’t there. Most of the participants, on both ‘sides’, were old hands who had hashed this out many times before. They weren’t going to change their positions, and had come determined to play nice. A few spats aside, they avoided unproductive squabbling. It was the others, who didn’t quite fit this pattern, who intruiged me. There were evangelicals who wanted to claim a revisionist position themselves. There were those who wanted to acknowledge the validity of a revisionist position they didn’t hold to themselves. There were those willing to concede that the way the debate had been framed in the past and continued to be framed now was unhelpful. And increasingly, discussion was being framed in terms of endgames. What sort of structures (if any) might allow continued disagreement with integrity? What sort of developments would mean those holding to a traditional position might have to leave the church?

Overall, though, I was left with a sense of hope for the future.

2015’s Christmas Monologue: What does peace mean? The innkeeper’s story

Monologue: What does Peace mean?

I remember hearing the announcement: Caesar Augustus, King of the world, declares that there is peace. The pax Romana – the peace of Rome. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Who doesn’t want to live in peace? Well, it doesn’t always feel like peace means the same to the Romans as it does to the rest of us. Do you know what the Roman peace means? It means the world is at peace because the Romans have killed anyone who could start a war. ‘They make a desert, and call it peace’ – that’s what it means. And do you know what the Romans do, when they’ve brought you this glorious peace, by killing your kings and breaking your armies, and grinding your cities into the ground? They tax you. They make you pay for the soldiers that have made you bleed. So that’s how we know that Caesar Augustus, son of the Divine Julius, has brought us peace on Earth – he declares that the whole world is to be taxed.

At first, I thought it was going to be great for business, the census. Caesar Augustus orders everyone to go to their hometown to register. Well, seeing as we were in Bethlehem, I thought we’d be set up, you know? I mean, sure, it’s not that big a place if you compare it to Jerusalem, up the road, but it’s Bethlehem, city of David, you know? No ordinary town. Most of the time, trade for us is slow but steady – merchants or pilgrims travelling into Jerusalem from the hill country or back out again. It picks up at festival time, you know? But for the census, you see, everyone has to register in their home town. And suddenly – aha! – everyone discovers that their mother’s mother’s mother was of the line of David. Never mind that by now their family’s been living in Emmaus for five generations and married local boys and girls – no, suddenly they’re of the line of David for tax purposes. You’d be surprised how many people want to make that sort of claim. It’s good for their business, or their political prospects, or their chances of being guru to some crazy cult or whatever. You get the picture. So, when the census gets announced, they all know if they’re going to try and cash in on this claim of theirs then they need to be seen to take it seriously. I mean, a lot of them probably aren’t that keen on paying taxes to Caesar, but if you want people to think of you as of the line of David then you need to make a big thing of it and never mind who called the census. ‘Curse these Romans and their taxes, forcing the sons of the line of David to leave home and business and travel all this way just to have their name recorded by some scribe, but we will not dishonour our ancestors by failing to be there’ Hmmm? I expect you’ve heard them too, telling every soul they pass on the road where they’re going and why.

So, I was thinking business is looking up – all these people coming to a hometown that strangely enough they have no home in. I thought, time to put my rates up for census month, this’ll set me up for life! But it didn’t work out that way. See the problem was, as fast as people were coming to Bethlehem, people were leaving it too. And most of them seemed to be on my staff. Abra, my cook, turns out her family was from Jericho. Miciah and Hila were from Jerusalem. Even my suppliers were leaving – wine merchants, oil sellers, tailors. And you couldn’t say to a guest ‘I’m sorry, but we have no wine left since the merchants left to be registered elsewhere, so I hope you’ve brought your own – oh and that’ll be 20 denarii’.

I had to beg, borrow, and steal to stockpile enough to last. Take on new staff, pay them double and find time to train them to be half as good as the ones who’d left. When I started to add it all up – well, let’s just say I just about broke even by hiking my prices to ones even I winced at. They paid of course – after all, what other choice did they have? But it was hell. I was cursing the census by the end of it. We were providing service so bad our reputation would be ruined in every town the guests came from, and working our fingers to the bone to do it. We barely had time to think, let alone eat or sleep.

That was when the young couple arrived, all the way from Galilee. Late. She was heavily pregnant – looked like she was about to pop. I expect it had slowed them down more than they thought. They’d already tried everywhere else in town. I could tell just from looking at them that they couldn’t afford what we were charging, even if we’d had the room, which we didn’t. No-one travels like that if they can afford not to. This wasn’t one of those glory-seekers. He must actually be from the line of David. I told them we had nowhere, but the poor girl was practically in labour standing there. So I showed them to the stable. I couldn’t just leave them in the street. Look, I know I’m a businessman, but I have a heart, you know? I’d hardly let them in when I had to rush back to sort out bedding for the merchant from Caesarea. It wasn’t until hours later I could spare time to go down with some blankets and bread – I know, if you thought the service for the other guests was bad… but it was the best I could do. And more than they could afford. By then they’d had the baby. A boy. My wife wanted to know.

It was then that the shepherds arrived. That was a surprise, I must admit. Half a dozen shepherds, stinking of stale sweat, sheep, and wood fires, all suddenly descending on us, hammering on the door, babbling about visions of angels. Now I’m not an irreligious man – I go to the synagogue, make the journey to Jerusalem for Passover. But if a bunch of shepherds appear at your door in the middle of the night saying they’ve seen angels, what would you think? And yes, they clearly had had a few, but they didn’t seem to be actually drunk.

Well I tried to keep them quiet – it was the middle of the night and they’re a rowdy bunch – but they were demanding to see the baby. The angels had told them about it, gave them exact instructions to find him. So exact that they were hollering outside my inn asking for the baby in the manger. Apart from the parents, me and the missus were the only ones in Bethlehem who’d know what they were talking about. That made me think. So as I led them round to the stable, I asked what else the angels had said. What they told me – well, it wasn’t what I’d expected. So I kind of stood there at the door while they went in, and looked at the couple and their baby. They looked so ordinary. Yes, I’d thought the man must be genuinely of the line of David, but they weren’t people I’d have singled out as the parents of the Messiah. But that’s what the angel had said. That child, wrapped in some cloths that had seen better days, put in the straw of a manger for lack of anywhere softer, was going to be king of the world, son of God. Absent mindedly, I pulled a denarius out and looked at the face of the man who claimed those titles today. What was it the angels had said? Peace on earth, goodwill to all. When Augustus proclaimed peace it meant blood and taxes. I looked at the baby in the manger: his parents with barely a pair of denarii between them, the shepherds, who were as rough and rowdy as you’d find, silent and awe-struck, even the donkeys and horses looking curiously out. This was a different sort of peace. A peace where the people you’d usually try to keep out were there, welcomed in.

I walked away quietly, and I wondered, (as I tried to reassure the guests that the rowdy shepherds weren’t trying to break in and they could go back to sleep) I wondered: what sort of king is this? What sort of kingdom will he bring? And is it one where I could stand in peace, with the shepherds?