Striving for the Kingdom – A paper for the Sexuality & Anglican Identities Conference

This is a long post. It’s the text of the paper as given to the Sexuality and Anglican Identities day Conference in Chester on 6th May 2017. There’s talk of getting the papers published, in which case a slightly polished version of this (with proper referencing for all my dodgy arguments) will be available elsewhere at some point. Until then, though, here it is.

TLDR: The current conflicts around sexuality are reshaping the identities of both evangelicals and liberals. The activist wings of both groupings are increasingly becoming monstrous twins who are eschatologically focused.

tweedledum&tweedledee

Striving for the Kingdom – the battle-forged identities of evangelical anglicans

It’s a truism that identity is shaped in adversity. It’s certainly true contemporary evangelical Anglican identities cannot be understood without reference to a number of key debates that have happened within and beyond the Church of England in the latter part of the last century and into the current millennium. There are many of these debates that could be named: around gender and specifically women’s ministry, around relations with other faiths and specifically interfaith worship, around the engagement with an increasingly secular media and public discourse and specifically ‘persecution’ of Christians real or imagined. However, the most prominent of these, especially in recent years, has been the debate around sexuality. Broadly, these debates can be understood as key sites in evangelicalism’s response to late modernity.

 

English Evangelicalism in Late Modernity

The cultural landscape around evangelicalism has shifted over the last 60 years almost beyond recognition. There has been a massive increase in cultural and religious pluralism, leading to a corresponding shift of religion from the public to the private sphere, so that religious truth claims have been relativised and treated as subjective. Social and cultural controls over women and minority groups (including sexual minorities) have been increasingly relaxed and/or disavowed (though in some cases, clearly, a rhetoric of political correctness has encouraged public disavowal of controls that may in fact still remain in place in the form of glass ceilings and other structural inequities). Simultaneously, as Pete Ward described 20 years ago, an expansion in access to higher education, increased social mobility, and shifts in educational practices have resulted in highly educated congregations (and increasingly church leaders) from non-elite backgrounds, capable of asking critical theological questions of their tradition, and used to a more egalitarian and cooperative style of learning and leadership than had previously been the case. Evangelical church leaders, many of whom are still drawn from elite backgrounds, the legacy of a strategy of investment in summer camps and Christian unions, can no longer fall back on the comfortable assumptions of a shared public school and Oxbridge background as was the case in the 50s.

 

The most obvious symptom of Late Modernity to the churches (and the one that most evangelicals still feel keenly as the area where the church should direct most of its energies) has of course been catastrophic decline in church attendance, highlighted in increasingly detailed and widely available statistical surveys from the 70s onwards through the English Church Censuses. A corresponding rise in church closures and decline in levels of ministry provision has created a situation in which the felt experience of Anglican evangelicals over the last 60 years has been finding the modern world to be a profoundly hostile environment. In this struggle the cultural elites of the liberal intelligentsia in the Media, Higher Education, the Arts and Sciences have often been seen as the enemy without, the embodiment of a creeping secularism. Amongst charismatic circles, the world was often viewed explicitly in demonic terms. Frank Peretti’s novel This Present Darkness, which portrayed everyday life as a supernatural battle between angels and demons in which the church was a battleground was a bestseller in evangelical churches in the 80s. With Church attendance plummeting, the nominal Christianity of the nation at large declining with each successive generation, evangelicals seemed locked in a never-ending struggle against cultural forces that seemed determined to eradicate their existence. An increasingly alien and hostile culture, ‘out there’ was asking difficult and new questions, and had a growing dissatisfaction with the evangelicalism that attempted to answer, embodied as it was in establishment, within institutions and in elite white, straight male authority figures. More recently there has been a particular focus in evangelical circles on legal cases brought against evangelical believers, often these cases have been widely publicised through the charity Christian Concern. Cases around the public display of Christian symbols, or evangelicals offering praying with others in their workplace, or the public statement of traditional views on sexuality. While we may wish to resist understanding these as ‘persecution’, the felt effect of these cases being widely publicised is an evangelical sense of being marginalised, and pushed out of the public square.

 

Alongside this, Anglican evangelicals have felt themselves to be fighting a civil war within their own denomination against liberalism, largely informed by the shared history of the Christian Union movement and its struggle with SCM, later ossified by UCCF’s self-construction of its identity around the Doctrinal Basis. The experience, shared by many evangelical church leaders, of having served on the executive committee of a Christian Union in their formative years crystalises two key touchstones of evangelical (and by extension authentic Christian) identity: there is an irreducible core of doctrine that everyone should be expected to affirm, and our primary focus should be engaging in evangelism. These two key assumptions work together – all necessary doctrine can be summarised on a sheet of A4, that can be referred to once a year, signed, and then forgotten about. Because discussing doctrine is a distraction from our main focus, which is evangelism. This is a caricature, of course. Evangelicals are not simplistic or anti-intellectual, and are often also aware of and active in other areas of mission as well as evangelism – the last half century has also seen the recovery of evangelical concern with social justice, rather the point I am making is that they are characterised by what Bebbington labels as Activism: an instinctive leaning towards doing the work of the gospel, in prayer, in apologetics, or mission.

Evangelicals are wary of speculative theology. At best it’s a distraction from the work of proclaiming the gospel. At worst, it undermines those less sure in their faith and brings disunity. Liberal theology, therefore, has always been viewed with suspicion by evangelicals. Liberals were the enemy within the church, weakening its witness and unity, distracting from the task of evangelism, an impression solidified by statistical analyses of church decline which suggested that liberal churches declined significantly while evangelical churches did not.

 

Embattled evangelicalism

I don’t think any of the above is particularly controversial as a description of the position of evangelicalism in recent times. Often though, it is described in rather sterile sociological terms, with the aid of statistics. I have myself done this elsewhere, and noted the extent to which the whole conflict between evangelicalism and Modernity is in technical terms mythical – the evangelicalism which casts itself as the defender of tradition against modernity is itself thoroughly modern. However, although these sorts of nuances and specifics undoubtedly bring accuracy and perspective to discussions, they have the effect of encouraging a discourse of historical detachment, in which all of this is seen as simply evidence of long-term social trends. It’s pointless to ask how you feel about them, any more than it makes sense to ask how you feel about the tide coming in. It’s happening. You just need to decide if you’re going to move or risk being washed away. What I want to suggest is that this evasion of the felt experience of these cultural shifts that I have just outlined obscures the effect they have on the one experiencing them. Because that effect is fear. It’s the flight or fight reflex. So I want to suggest a rather more visceral language with which to discuss these shifts and evangelical responses to them: the language of warfare.

 

Evangelicals are engaged in a battle with the world. It’s a language as we’ve seen, that evangelicals themselves use. I think this language is helpful in understanding what has happened to Anglican evangelical identity, because it helps to explain the way in which particular aspects of it change. In war, lines are drawn, and positions become entrenched where they face strong resistance. Certain positions become weakened over time and are abandoned. Unexpected new fronts open up to exploit a weakness in the enemy. Other areas are unexpectedly reinforced in anticipation of an enemy attack. The point is that increasingly evangelical identity has become shaped around resistance to the claims of the world. The evangelicalism of today is not the evangelicalism of a century ago precisely because it has been shaped and formed by conflict.

 

The changes in evangelical identity can be mapped out in various ways. Rob Warner’s study Reinventing English Evangelicalism, 1966-2001 traces the ways in which doctrinal statements have changed over that period, reflecting underlying shifts and splits in evangelical identity. The changes can also be mapped out in relation to the increasingly public debates over sexuality within the Church of England. The growing understanding of the diversity of sexual identities and the campaigning for legal equalities and protections for sexual minorities, leading to growing acceptance of diverse sexualities and legal protections for their expressions has been a key part of the cultural shifts in Late Modernity I have been discussing. Throughout the 60s and 70s sexuality, along with the rest of these sites of cultural change, was reacted to by evangelicals as a problematic aspect of the world they were striving against. It was not particularly singled out, but it was very much a part of the problem. Within this there could be evangelical pastoral responses towards gay people that are remarkably affirming. This was only, however, because at this point sexuality was not being singled out by evangelicals as a particular ‘front’ in the battle against the world.

 

All this was to change. Homosexuality became an ‘issue’ to be addressed. It became a strategic front to defend in the war against the world. And increasingly, for conservative evangelicals it has become the key position in the whole front, principally because it seems to embody the clearest point where evangelicals are feeling pressured to abandon and disown a reading of scripture that most evangelicals regard as straightforwardly and uncontroversially true. If evangelicals lose this point, they fear, not only that battle but the whole war will be lost. Unfettered modernity will sweep all before it. The point was perhaps made most clearly by the American evangelical Richard Lovelace writing in 1979: ‘if we can interpret Scripture to endorse homosexual acts among Christians, we can make it endorse anything else we want to do or believe and our faith and practice are cut loose in a borderless chaos.’

 

As far as many evangelicals are concerned throughout their lifetimes, they have been locked into a life and death struggle with the world for the soul of the church. The enemy was shadowy and indistinct (sometimes ‘liberals’, or ‘gays’, or ‘the godless media’ or even ‘demonic forces’.) Occasionally a champion would emerge to do battle. But much of the time this was a war of attrition, waged against an enemy who could wear many faces, and might infiltrate your own ranks. In a word, this enemy was terrifying. It corrupted the best and the brightest and turned them against you. It captured your own weapons and fired them back at you. It served supernatural masters determined to plunge the whole world into darkness.

 

Rene Girard and Clausewitz’s On War

I want to draw into the discussion here Rene Girard’s fascinating engagement with the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s 19th Century treatise On War in his book Battling to the End. (I realise this sounds unpromising, but bear with me, and I’ll try and make it worth your while.) The work of Rene Girard has been devoted to exploring the areas where violence and the sacred interact. In Battling to the end, he reflects on the modern turn to violence in the light of apocalyptic texts and Clausewitz’s work. Clausewitz was a Prussian general writing about warfare from his experience of the Napoleonic wars, which were in many senses the first world wars. On War ostensibly describes Clausewitz’s understanding of ‘Real War’, but Girard teases out the extent to which it is haunted by the terrifying concept of the ‘Absolute War’ that Clausewitz had glimpsed in Napoleon’s mobilisation of a nation.

 

The ‘Real War’ is war that would be recogniseable to generals of the 18th century and earlier. It is, in Clausewitz’s own phrase ‘a continuation of politics by other means’. It is an attempt to achieve particular goals unachievable except by violence, based on a calculation of the probabilities of success. It does not lead to an absolute decision, but to a relative result. One side wins an advantage which the other calculates it cannot afford to challenge, and thus concedes, ending hostilities and making a peace treaty – moving back into the realm of politics. Real War is about politics embracing violence to achieve its ends. It is concerned with the possible, with the workable compromise.

 

However, Girard discerns that although he seems to be describing ‘Real War’, Clausewitz has seen that it can become something else: Absolute War. This is the unchecked form of warfare that characterises the modern age. In the Absolute War, no-one is willing to settle for a relative result. The victory of one side must entail the overthrow of the other. All violence, according to Girard, is prone to reciprocal escalation. In the words of Sean Connery in The Untouchables: ‘He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He puts one of yours in the hospital, you put one of his in the morgue.’ The cycle of reciprocal violence naturally escalates and accelerates, moving Real War into Absolute War, as we move from seeking to achieve a goal to seeking to annihilate the enemy. The escalation is suspended if we start to speculate, if our response is not immediate, if we slow to calculate what the best possible outcome might be. We start to move back to Real War, to the realm of politics. Absolute War depends on a sense of urgency.

 

It is implicit in Girard’s thought that the two sides locked in reciprocal violence are mimetic – they increasingly mirror each other to the point where they become indistinguishable. In The Untouchables it becomes harder to tell which side is which, when both essentially operate as mob families answerable to no-one, and lose sight of all goals but that of destroying their enemy. Ness’s response to the question what he’ll do when they repeal Prohibition is ‘I’ll have a drink.’ When he examines On War, therefore, Girard highlights Clausewitz’s counter-intuitive insight that it is the attacker who wants peace, where the defender wants war. The aggressor in a conflict acts pre-emptively in a bid to bring conflict quickly to an end and restore peace. They are hoping and planning for there to be as little violence as possible. The defender, meanwhile, provokes the conflict by their aggressive preparations for war. All their plans are made to ensure that the conflict will be as long and costly as possible. Girard notes

 

The aggressor has always already been attacked…people always have the impression that the other is the first to attack, that they are never the ones who begin, though in a way they are always the ones… We make others understand that we recognise the signs of aggressiveness which they manifest, and they in turn interpret our posture as aggression. And so on.

 

The rhetoric of being the aggrieved party, reluctantly drawn into a conflict they did not seek simply to defend themselves is everywhere in the sexuality debate. Liberals speak of centuries of oppression and ongoing homophobia, which necessitate harsh steps being taken now. Conservatives speak of the need to resist the ongoing liberal drift of the church, and of being continually drawn away from the urgent need to focus on mission into debates around sexuality simply in order to defend themselves against attack and misrepresentations of their position.

 

In the recent reactions to the statement of the House of Bishops on sexuality following the Shared Conversations: GS 2055(prior to its being brought to Synod), these dynamics are clearly observable.

 

Adrian Symes, Executive Secretary of Anglican Mainsteam, commented that:

 

For many decades, perhaps for centuries, evangelicals in the C of E have wrestled with their consciences as unbiblical practices have taken hold in the culture of parish churches and Diocesan administrations up and down the land, and Bishops have spoken in support of heretical ideas… While the headline recommendations mean that there is no emergency requiring an immediate alternative Anglicanism as in Scotland, the underlying theology reflects and describes a church from which more and more potential ordinands and faithful lay people are already drifting away to other spiritual homes. The preservation of orthodox Anglicanism in England requires something different to trusting in the outcome of this document.

 

Meanwhile, the then LGCM’s open letter to Synod members urging them not to take note of the report stated that:

 

The Report was a betrayal of the trust vested in the House of Bishops during the Shared Conversations process, and opens the way to a single, very conservative interpretation of these matters being introduced… Our understanding is that the majority of members of synod were looking to the College and House of Bishops, when they took the initiative to respond to the Shared Conversations process, to lay a path for a process of change, perhaps setting a programme of activity to realise some of the priorities articulated by the LGBTI Mission.

 

For many conservative evangelicals then, the report represented the latest in a long series of slow concessions by the House of Bishops to heresy and a lukewarm failure to resist the pressures of the world, something they had feared being normalised in the Shared Conversations, prompting many to boycott them. For many liberals it represented a betrayal of trust by the House of Bishops, scorning the implicit promise that change would come that they felt had been made by the Shared Conversations. Both conservatives and liberals were the aggrieved party, responding to aggression, reluctantly forced to make a stand after long suffering. And although the common interpretation of the Synod vote was that not taking note represented a liberal victory, as many evangelicals felt that the report should be taken note of despite their misgivings, some did refuse to, voting with the many liberals who did likewise. Members of Reform and LGCM both urged a vote to not take note.

 

In fact, Girard’s insights illuminate the way in which the House of Bishops is increasingly playing the part of the villain for both liberals and conservatives. Girard notes that refusing conflict does not prevent an escalation of violence, it incites it. The House of Bishops fairly clearly are doing all they can to manage a situation spiralling out of their control, attempting to stop the conflict of an open split. They want peace. But the more you want peace, the more you prepare for war. In their quest for peace, the Bishops engage in elaborate managerial expansion. This was precisely what the content of the statement was: they strengthened and clarified their systems of observation and control. They set out areas where they might permit liberty, explicitly delineated the powers they were entitled to use, the legal structures they would refer to as authority. These steps to secure peace are inevitably interpreted as acts of aggression. The one seeking peace at all costs becomes the one making the most effective preparations for war. Ultimately, putting so much effort into systems of observation and control is daring the aggressor to violence. Because only through the aggressor showing their aggression can the morality of their own stance be demonstrated. Part of the implicit purpose of the statement’s studied moderation is so that when one or the other side massively over-reacts to a statement that was utterly predictable in content the Bishops are shown to be justified in their need to focus on managing the volatility.

 

I draw on Girard, however, not simply to make the fairly obvious point that ‘well, they’re all as bad as each other’. Girard’s insights around the way in which conflicts escalate and become increasingly mimetic do not just illuminate the rather depressing way that this cultural war is progressing. They also illuminate the way in which it is changing the identity of both conservative evangelicals and liberals (and, I suspect, the House of Bishops, though that is beyond the scope of this paper). I’ve suggested that the very fact of being engaged in warfare changes you: you become entrenched in your key positions, abandon indefensible ones, seize new ground that has become strategically important. These sorts of changes are readily observable, from evangelical tactical alliances with anglo-catholics to Reform’s quiet acceptance that women’s ministry perhaps wasn’t a first order issue after all. In the paper I presented in February I drew attention to the way in which some evangelicals have adopted hierarchical understandings of the Trinity explicitly as a means of bolstering a complementarian understanding of sexual identity, with obvious implications for women’s ministry. But Girard’s insight pushes this further: the longer and more intensely warfare rages the more changes occur and the more indistinguishable the opponents become. This seems counter-intuitive, and would be strongly resisted by both liberals and conservatives, so I want to focus my discussion here. In what follows I will use the terms ‘evangelical’ and ‘liberal’ for convenience. I’m very aware that both of these are complex and multi-faceted identities which have fractured and changed over the last half century or so. For the purposes of this discussion, then, I’m going to use the terms primarily to describe those wider groupings within the Church of England who would broadly identify themselves with the causes advocated by activists and campaigners on either side of the sexuality debates.

 

Evangelicals and liberals as monstrous twins

It’s a commonplace observation that for both evangelicals and liberals this is a conflict over their seemingly irreconcileable identities as Anglicans. Both sides openly question the extent to which an Anglican identity that encompasses both of them is really possible or might have any integrity. Evangelicals believe they are fighting to defend their Anglican identity as bible-believing Christians, as good protestants who can do no other than stand on the truth of scripture as they have received it. Liberals believe they are fighting to defend the Anglican identity of being a national church for all people, gay and straight, male and female as equals within the body of Christ. Both believe that compromise in these areas would be fatal to their identity as Anglicans. Evangelicals believe they are fighting against making a compromise, holding firm to a true biblical Anglican identity. Liberals believe they are fighting to redeem an already compromised Anglican identity, stained by centuries of homophobia and oppression. So far, these positions appear clear and opposite. And yet as we have seen in the responses to the House of Bishops statement, increasingly, evangelicals also believe and explicitly speak as if they are fighting to redeem an already compromised Anglican identity. Melvin Tinker writes of the need to work for Deep Change within a compromised Anglican church. Liberals believe they are fighting against making a compromise on an existing Anglican identity that has already been discerned, but is in danger of being dishonoured. The purpose of the YouGov survey of Anglican views on sexuality commissioned by Jayne Ozanne prior to the statement being released, was to make precisely this point. The responses by LGCM and others pointing to the integrity of LGBTI Anglicans involved in the Shared Conversations, as well as the implicit promise of change that had been betrayed by the Bishops, all point to a Liberal understanding that there is a clear Anglican identity already existing that must be held firm to, and which cannot be compromised.

 

Liberals, like evangelicals, have their own statements of faith, easily reducible to a side of A4, on the basis of agreement on which doctrinal differences (and the doctrinal differences between different liberals make those between different evangelicals pale by comparison) can be shelved and activism can be engaged with. OneBodyOneFaith retains the same Statement of Conviction held by LGCM since 1976, which members must accept. The more recent Inclusive Church requires agreement to their Statement of Belief in order to become a member. Liberals increasingly define themselves by their activism in campaigning on issues of social justice. Both Evangelicals and liberals then can be characterised as doctrinally focussed, yet with a tendency to use a very brief statement of doctrine as a shibboleth of identity, on the basis of which any deeper doctrinal differences can be ignored, allowing unified activism, with their identity primarily being found in the shared activism. In a nutshell, they both follow the CU model of membership and shared purpose.

 

Both evangelicals and liberals are working to safeguard a true Anglicanism threatened with fatal compromise, and working within an already compromised Anglican church to bring redemption. For both, the question of how much longer and under what circumstances they can remain Anglican with this issue unresolved, or resolved in a way that excludes them is a very live one. These are not abstract questions, especially for those of us who are ordained and members of one tribe or the other. They can be as personal and far-reaching as “Should I be honest about who I am and what I believe”, “Should I get married?”, or “Should I defy my bishop?” The lived experience of being a liberal and being an evangelical within the Church of England at present is in fact incredibly similar. Inasmuchas their identity is increasingly shaped around this struggle, therefore, evangelicals and liberals will begin to resemble each other more and more closely. The very fact that for both their identity hinges around the deeply-felt dangers of a compromise of integrity sharply distinguishes both from the more relaxed broad Anglican identity that sees Englishness and being Anglican as unproblematically overlapping. Both are massively invested in and committed to the Church of England – which is why both feel the pain of compromised identity. Walking away is not something that comes easily to either. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, conservative evangelical Anglicans are not really free church evangelicals, and liberal Anglicans are not really closet secularists. Both have been driven by their shared pain and fear deeper and deeper into a fight to the death. They tell themselves different myths about the nature and purpose of the struggle: that it is the struggle of the oppressed against the oppressor, or the struggle for principle against convenience, or ideals against money. Though actually, all these myths are used by both sides: whether the oppressed are seen as sexual minorities or the two-thirds world, or the wealthy are seen as evangelical mega churches or the wealthy West. The struggle is itself mimetic. Any weapon used by one side will soon be used by the other. So both sides see themselves as a persecuted minority when it suits them, and both sides proclaim that their position represents the settled view of the majority when it suits them.

 

The struggle changes both sides, not into more extreme and monstrous versions of themselves (though that is what each perceives in the other) but into increasingly identically monstrous versions of each other. As time goes by, evangelicals and liberals become less evangelical and less liberal. Ironically, the very thing that compels us to fight – the fear that our identity is threatened, that distinctions are being broken down, dissolving, creating the crisis where our friends can at any moment be unmasked as our enemies – is only accelerated by the conflict. The struggle, because it is reciprocal, becomes mimetic. The more we fight, the more we resemble our enemy.

 

Striving for the Kingdom – visions of the coming apocalypse

If all this is true, and Anglican identities are increasingly being reshaped around this conflict, the future of Anglican identities is bound up in the future of the conflict. Where is it headed? Is some sort of a resolution in sight that might resolve these tensions? Well, significantly for our discussion, the hope of just such a resolution is a central myth for both evangelicals and liberals. Both have become hugely eschatological identities.

 

Both sides are explicitly describing themselves as moving towards the end, towards the coming of the Kingdom in a moment of apocalyptic judgement – the destruction of the community as a whole. Only by destroying the Church of England can it be saved. Only by tearing it in two can we hope that a unified body will rise from the carcass. What is interesting in this is what they perceive to be the eventual fate of the others who are not to be counted amongst the faithful and therefore have no place in the coming kingdom.

 

Both liberals and evangelicals are striving for the Kingdom. They want to see a church that models and proclaims the Kingdom to the world. They want it so much that they will fight with each other to get it. And in this fight, more violence is always required before victory. Both sides nurture a hope that everything will be resolved at the end of history. That when this story is over, all the differences and divisions based on violence and ignorance will be overcome and their true identities will be clear. There will be no compromise. But both also believe that there is one last remaining obstacle to be overcome first. Girard comments that this is the mark of Absolute War: ‘Peace is perpetually postponed. More violence is always needed before reconciliation.’ This can clearly be seen in the way both sides describe the struggle in which they are locked and their hopes for the future.

 

On 29th April 2017, the Gafcon primates announced their intention to consecrate a missionary bishop to operate in the British Isles, offering episcopal oversight for conservatives completely separate from the existing provinces. This move of course implies a complete loss of faith in the integrity of existing structures, however much they may stress their willingness to recognise that some faithful Anglicans may still feel the need to remain within them. GafconUK’s statement responding to this move describes the position of the Church of England, Church in Scotland and Church of Wales in this way:

 

…a weak version of the Christian faith which has too often failed to point out these dangers or even made accommodation with them. This accommodation and ‘cultural captivity’ is seen in the failure by many Anglican leaders in the UK to hold to the key principles of Holy Scripture as speaking clearly to God’s will for human flourishing, and of requiring unequivocal obedience whatever the cost… some Anglicans are already outside of these structures and need Episcopal oversight; others may do so soon… [the Primates have] expressed respect for and continued warm fellowship with those who for the moment are choosing to remain within the official structures and contend for orthodox biblical faith there, while warning that inaction in the face of revisionist pressure is not a faithful option.

 

True faithful Anglican identity requires Episcopal oversight, but this cannot come from structures that are compromised by ‘cultural captivity.’ Inaction is not a sign of faithfulness. The only faithful options are to come out of the structures, or to stay within them in order to ‘contend for orthodox biblical faith.’ The last days have come. The only options for the faithful are flight or fight. The faithful find their unity in their shared theology, whether it corresponds with official structures or not. The fate of those who are not faithful is left unspoken. But it is clear that they have no foreseeable place in the Kingdom that is to come unless they can be brought back to the faith by reformation of the Church.

 

Similarly, Martyn Percy, in his recent piece ‘Not a matter of opinion’ on the Philip North debacle, broadened the scope of his reflections to consider the wider crisis and division gripping the Church of England centred around discrimination. He argues that any discrimination based on either gender or sexuality should have no place in the church, but explicitly exempts discrimination based on religious belief (or ‘opinion which can be changed’ as he describes it) from this. Unity must come through the imposition of a shared belief:

 

Because a temporary political solution cannot resolve our deep theological divisions. Only deeper theology will bring us lasting peace. Such theology will be founded on equality and inclusion, not dubious ‘equal-but-different’ discriminatory reasoning.

 

The church may tolerate flawed and discriminatory theologies within a ghetto, but they cannot be part of the mainstream because they cannot form the basis for unity that can only come from the true deeper theology. Despite Percy’s savage critique of Forward in Faith’s secret hope that one day women priests might become ‘extinct’ as he puts it, it’s hard to tell the difference between this and his hope that:

 

they should remain in their partially sealed-off wings (but still self-constructed, incidentally), until such time as they wish to part company with those alienating opinions, and no longer choose to practice their identity-based discrimination.

 

The faithful will be united through their true theology which must coexist with the official structures of the church. Those who are not found amongst the faithful, in their half-in and half-out ghetto must be left to ponder the error of their ways. We can hope that after spending time in this purgatory, in which they are bound by nothing but their own sins and ignorance, they will rejoin the faithful in the kingdom.

 

I’m sure much could be made of the fact that GafconUK’s vision of the future is so characteristically protestant with its notion of the invisible church, and Percy’s is so characteristically catholic with its notion of purgatory, but the point I really want to make is that the language of both is almost explicitly apocalyptic and eschatological. We must strive towards the coming of the Kingdom, we must see the eternal consequences of our present action or inaction. We must turn aside from any thought of compromise or prevarication. In all this, once again, evangelicals and liberals are almost identical to each other, and profoundly different from the broad Anglicanism that thrives on ambiguity, compromise and incremental change.

 

Evangelicals and liberals are locked together in an accelerating conflict of increasing aggression and absolutism. It is changing both of them. It threatens to tear the church apart. And both of them yearn for that to happen. There are dark days ahead.

 

MVS 5th May 2017

Fight the Good Fight – A paper for the Chester ‘New Directions in Sexuality and Christianity’ forum

In February 2017, I gave a paper as part of the second open forum held in Chester Cathedral by the Sexuality & Anglican Identities Project of Chester University. The brief for speakers was to look into the future and speculate, on the basis of current trends in in gender and sexuality, what further developments might occur and how these will influence Church thinking, theology, and biblical interpretation.

Fight the Good Fight – Social change and the church as battlefield

Introduction

I suspect some of my fellow panellists will be far better able to comment on future developments in gender and sexuality than me. I feel the most useful contribution I can make is to focus on the second part of the question: how will any changes in wider society’s understanding and expression of gender and sexuality influence Church thinking, theology and biblical interpretation?

 

We are in a time of far-reaching social change. Greater awareness of diversity in sexuality and gender identity has slowly percolated through British society over the last century. Tolerance of different identities, different lifestyles, different family arrangements has grown. There are legal milestones in this, but perhaps more revealing are the cultural ones – the first gay kiss on national TV, the multiplication of options for pronouns and titles on official forms, the first openly gay & partnered Bishop.

 

There is a narrative of inevitability that has developed around these discussions. It’s rooted in classic sociological studies of these sorts of cultural shifts like Giddens’ notion of ‘plastic sexuality’. Acceptance of sexual and gender diversity is seen as a rising tide, washing further and further across the beach, and those parts of society that appear to resist this change appear like areas of higher ground, that are now islanded, and shrinking as the tide rises higher. The church of England might be the classic example of this. The slowness of structural and theological change within the churchcompared to the rapid pace of social, cultural and legal change in wider British society is hugely apparent. In 1956, when homosexual acts were still illegal, the CofE’s report Sexual Offenders and Social Punishment called for legalisation. 60 years ago, when the tide was still low, the church was at the forefront of cultural change. Now, the latest House of Bishops statement explains why the church will not change its theological or legal frameworks in a wider context where it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, and the first same-sex marriage happened 3 years ago. Without changing its position at all, the church appears now to be the relic of a prejudiced and oppressive past.

Change has occurred at an incredibly rapid pace.

A case study: Use of language

The Church of England has visibly struggled to find appropriate terminology. Sexual Offenders and Social Punishment, in 1956, when homosexual acts were still illegal, used the language of ‘inverts’ and ‘perverts’. Homosexual Relationships in 1979 spoke of Homophiles, language taken up by Issues in Human Sexuality in 1991, though now with an apologetic awareness that it ‘may have a somewhat technical ring’. Some Issues in Human Sexuality in 2003 does finally begin to make reference to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgenedered, but prefers ‘homosexual persons’ or even more vague circumlocutions, a trend continued by Pilling in 2013. The overall trend is away from overly scientific and objectifying language like ‘the invert’ and towards a far broader range of expression. However, it lags behind conventional usage. Terms like LGBT are generally avoided, let alone LGBTIQ.

The Church of England is not alone in facing difficult questions of how to respond to swift linguistic change, however. The Gay Christian Movement was founded in 1976. It wasn’t until 1987 that it changed its name to the LGCM in recognition that Gay and Lesbian could be considered as distinct identities that should be accorded equal dignity. It remains the LGCM, though their website honestly confronts the fact that the community they speak from and with is now more commonly described as the LGBTIQ community. Part of the reason they give for resisting further change is that their current name has widespread recognition.

Why has the church resisted change? – Some common explanations

Why is there such a disjunction between cultural change in society at large, and theological change within the church? If we can’t at least venture a guess at this, then our whole discussion today is useless. On the basis of the last 60 years, the prediction of what change might be expected in the next 5-10 years should probably be ‘not much’. Unless we think that something dramatic is going to happen to change whatever it is that is making the church so distinctly different, so out of step.

The most common explanations as to what might be the source of the church’s resistance to change are developments of the narrative of inevitability. Change is still inevitable, it’s just going to take a little bit longer.

The first explanation is that the church is essentially prejudiced, it’s homophobic. This is not rooted in anything rational or inherently obdurate – it’s basically cultural. It can be overcome by more awareness, by hearing the voices of gay people. The church is dominated by old men who are of an older, more reactionary generation. Wider society is dominated by those who are younger. Once generational change occurs, and the older leaders retire (or in some versions, when we get more women bishops) we’ll see the church undergo a sudden shift as this developmental delay is overcome. Much of the response to the recent House of Bishops statement picks up these assumptions. ‘We’d hoped that the Shared Conversations would change things, because the church would actually listen to its gay members. Prejudice would be overcome, the die-hard homophobes would be recognised for what they are, and the bishops would see that there is no reason why change cannot happen.’ The failure for this to happen produces feelings of betrayal because it is assumed that the bishops do know better. It’s a failure of nerve on the part of people who must recognise the inevitability and rightness of change.

The second explanation, which we’ve also seen on display in recent days, mainly among those who are linking the bishop’s statement with the revelations of historic abuse within the evangelical wing of the church, is a much harder version of the first: the church is prejudiced and homophobic because its theology and spirituality is inherently dangerous, justifying hatred, fear and abuse, linked to deeply flawed models of authority and biblical interpretation. On this analysis, change, the leadership of the church is understood as dominated by a dangerously fundamentalist spirituality and theology. The inevitable change will therefore involve not just generational change and some altered policies, but far-reaching theological change. This is obviously a far more long-term process of change, and indeed it’s one that in reality may require the church to divide on theological grounds in order to allow the necessary changes to be made. This second explanation, far more than the first, is open to questioning the narrative of inevitability itself. What if this change is not inevitable? What if some cultures, some theologies, are inherently opposed to it – meaning that accepting this change means their own death? Maybe some people will never be able to embrace this change.

They’re caricatures, of course: the homophobic church and the fundamentalist church. Maybe you recognise them. There’s evidence that can be pointed at to support both, surveys indicating generational difference in views, personal testimonies of those who have felt the need to radically change their theology to accept who they are. And clearly they overlap. The point is that these explanations themselves are part of the social change we are discussing. They’re not objective observations made from somewhere outside of society. They emerge as part of the wider cultural changes that we are discussing, and they emerge as a form of critique offered by one ‘side’ to the other.

A case study: Homophobia

The concept of homophobia has a history. It was coined by the American psychologist George Weinberg in the 60s, and he employed it in his 1972 study Society and the Healthy Homosexual. At this point, the American Psychiatric Association defined homosexuality as a mental disorder. In 1973, influenced by Weinberg, the APA removed it from their list of disorders, concluding there was no scientific evidence to suggest it wasn’t a healthy expression of sexuality. Since then, the idea that homophobia itself is a mental disorder as well as an institutional prejudice has steadily gained traction.

Homophobia as an explanation of resistance to cultural change is fundamentally a product of the process of cultural change it attempts to explain. Not only that, but it’s clearly a weaponised cultural product – it’s used to attack those perceived to stand in the way of inevitable change. It’s a weapon that has been formed because of the need to defend a community who were already being attacked. We like to avoid this language, but I’m using it deliberately, because it points to a reality that we are in danger of ignoring: that the incoming tide is not the most accurate way to describe what is happening in the church at present. This is not a natural event. This is warfare, and the church is the battlefield. Significant and rapid change like this involves acts of violence and sacrifice on both sides, and the outcomes of battles are never certain.

The Church as battleground

I want to suggest that the battle being fought in the church over gender and sexuality is a mimetic conflict, in the sense defined by Rene Girard, in which both sides are locked in a downward spiral of violence, mirroring each other increasingly closely as they reach crisis point.

In this context, some sort of ‘natural’ development or influence of trends in wider society and culture isn’t going to happen. What happens instead is the weaponisation of theology. Lines are drawn, sacrifices are made – this position is defensible, this is not. The effect on theology is unpredictable, but rarely positive. Some long-held positions are quietly surrendered (the very quiet admission from Reform that women’s ministry is not a first-order issue, but that homosexuality is – a move that effectively undermined the very reason for their having been established in the first place – is a good example of this). Some new positions are adopted because they bolster the main line of defence (I have an example later). Central positions may become distorted or degraded under the pressure of an attack. The apparent inability in some quarters to see recognition of other’s self-identity as a key part of the love commandment, but to view it as equating to agreement with a theological position (visible both in liberals branding evangelicals as fundamentalists and in evangelicals refusing to recognise a gay identity and using circumlocutions like ‘those experiencing same-sae attraction’). These are the most significant and direct ways in which this cultural shift is influencing the church.

Unpredictable theological developments

A Case Study: Hierarchical ideas of Trinity

John Piper, Wayne Grudem & Bruce Ware, all prominent evangelical theologians, are putting forward a complementarian view of the Trinity. This theology argues that the correct biblical way to understand the relationships of the Trinity is as hierarchically ordered – with the Father ruling over the Son, who eternally submits to his authority, as their roles are inherently ones with different levels of authority. Grudem argues that the eternal subordination of the role of the Son to the role of the Father is the teaching of the Nicene Creed. This all seems very unlikely to be related to developments in gender and sexuality, but these theological positions were all explicitly being adopted as a means of bolstering a complementarian view of men and women. The argument was that an ‘egalitarian Trinity’ was a theological innovation that had been introduced under the influence of egalitarian views on gender.

Obviously, in the case of a battle of this sort, there is increasingly the sense that we are hastening to some sort of violent resolution. Increasingly, both sides seem eager to see this happen – to bring about some sort of split that will leave them in a ‘pure church’, no longer bound together with the hateful other. I think, if nothing else changes, in all likelihood some sort of split looks likely. Whichever side gets to call itself the ‘Church of England’ and claim to have ‘won’ is as yet uncertain. If this happens, though, neither side will get the ‘pure church’ they long for. Battles raise demons in both sides, changing those who fight in them, and neither ‘side’ is now the same as it was before this battle began.

Review: ‘Us Versus Us’ by Andrew Marin

us versus us

Andrew Marin is an outspoken, in-your-face American. His first book Love is an Orientation described his personal journey from being a straight conservative evangelical who unthinkingly adopted a ‘traditional’ understanding of sexuality and had little or no real knowledge of gay people to moving to the Boystown area of Chicago, centre of the local gay community, and learning how to show love and acceptance to the people he met there. This has lead him to being at the forefront of efforts to get divided communities of liberals and conservatives to relate to each other. As a matter of principle, he does not set out his own views, but simply urges people to show love and acceptance to each other and find common ground without feeling the need to sacrifice their own integrity in the process.

Us Versus Us is a different sort of book. It’s the fruit of some detailed survey work that he did of LGBT people across America to get some understanding of their spiritual lives. The research was done following good social-science principles, over as wide a group as possible. He then reflects in detail on the results (often by making comparisons with other public-access data on the religious beliefs and experiences of the general population).

I won’t discuss all of his findings, but one stands out: 86% of LGBT people were raised in a faith community between the ages of 0 and 18. This is 11% higher than the general US population. Put simply, if you are gay it is more likely you had significant Christian input as a child or young person. The specific religious affiliations are consistent with their frequency in the general US population.

This fact flies in the face of the dominant cultural narrative, which casts the parties to this conversation as opposing forces. In reality, the culture war has always been a civil war: us versus us.

54% of these LGBT people who were raised in a religious community leave after the age of 18. This is twice as high as the general US population. So if you are gay you are more likely to have grown up religious but you are much more likely to have left your religious community as an adult. The experience of leaving your religious community behind is therefore a hugely significant part of the experience of being gay in America. This may explain a lot about the nature and tone of the debate in US society at large.

Marin does a lot of work on trying to identify what the reasons are why LGBT people leave and what might encourage them to come back. One of his more interesting findings in this regard is that the biggest reason why LGBT people leave is (unlike the general population) because of bad personal experiences. Feeling loved was the biggest thing that would encourage people to return. Love and acceptance counted for more than theological agreement. Marin uses all this data to suggest that Christians and the LGBT community have far more in common than is usually recognised, and that getting too focused on the theological disagreements distracts us from this.

All this is interesting, of course, but obviously poses questions as to how transferable any of these results are to the very different and far more secularised UK context, where people are far less likely to have been raised in a faith community. What might make it more transferable is the hypothesis he develops as to why LGBT people are more likely to have been raised in a faith community. His argument is that coming to terms with an LGBT orientation in a Western homophobic culture is an irrevocably spiritual experience. At least 96% of the entire sample, irrespective of their own religious beliefs, have at some point prayed that God would make them straight. 80% of the sample continue to pray regularly, including a 19% of self-identified atheists. Wrestling with your sexuality as a teenager makes you more spiritual than the average person. If this is true, then it is likely to be true in the UK too.

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.

‘In the essentials unity…’

Earlier this month, IVCF (the US version of UCCF) asked its employees to sign up to a new statement on sexuality, saying that they agreed to both believe and behave in accordance with its guidelines. This might seem fairly run-of-the-mill these days. After all, the conservative stance of the CU movement is not exactly news. Certainly it’s not something that has made a big impact over here as far as I can tell. I only really paid attention because of my previous involvement in IFES (the international umbrella body for both IVCF and UCCF).

Two things here have given me pause, however. The first is that, as highlighted in this Sojourners article, the demand for staff to both behave and believe is a new departure for IVCF (and indeed any CU movement). They have never before demanded affirmations of belief on anything but the Doctrinal Basis. In effect, this move elevates an ethical issue to the status of core doctrine. It is no longer permissible to recognise this as an area where (although the organisation has a declared view that it would expect its employees to support) it is legitimate for doubts to be held and questions asked in private. There is no legitimate space for debate on the subject. Even to entertain that the stated position may not command your wholehearted support is to suggest you cannot remain within the organisation. It is put on a par with faith in Jesus as saviour and Lord, the Bible as source of authority etc. Sexuality is the only area of ethical teaching treated in this way. Partly, it must be assumed, because it is inconceivable that any other ethical issue would command this level of unanimity amongst conservative evangelicals. It is sexuality’s totemic position within the cultural wars of the West that has elevated it to an issue that can be placed on the level of shibboleth of orthodoxy. This raises the question: is this a helpful development? The doctrinal basis was originally produced within a context where it was vital to ensure that the leadership of the CU were not theologically liberal but sat unquestionably within the mainstream of Conservative Evangelicalism. By definition, then, any change to it (even one like this that is a de facto rather than actual one) signals a change in what is considered to be the mainstream of conservative evangelicalism.

The second thing that gives me pause is the nature of the Christian Union movement. I grew up in the CU movement. I worked for the Christian Union movement. I believe in it. It’s made me who I am. At its best, it represents Christians from many different churches who can agree on the essentials of their faith, coming together and setting aside the things that divide them for the sake of the gospel. It’s about saying ‘yes we believe different things, and have different ideas about what Christian discipleship and church order look like, and we have good reasons for that, but none of that is as important as sharing the good news’. It’s a profoundly inclusive stance, way more so than that of many of the liberal Anglicans who look down their noses at it. In the Ukraine, we had Orthodox, Baptists (registered and unregistered), and Adventists all working together as brothers and sisters in Christ. The point is that it’s not a church. It’s a missionary organisation. It doesn’t have to demand unity on things that it would be inconceivable for a church not to take a stance on (like sacraments), and encourages tolerance and mutual respect between disciples following very different paths (such as those who are teetotal and those who are not). What it has to do is have a shared understanding of what the gospel is that we are sharing. As long as there exists a shared understanding of that, the rest is details: things that can be taught by whichever church you settle in.

It’s a profound commitment to the principle I alluded to in the title: ‘In the essentials unity, in the non-essentials liberty, in all things charity’. It’s a saying attributed to a 17th century German Lutheran: Rupertus Meldenius, writing in the midst of the Thirty Years War. The import is clear and profoundly Christian: our commitment to love one another should, amongst other things, express itself in our desire to restrict as much as possible the list of ‘essentials’ we demand unity to. If we accept that, then we should always be concerned when it is felt necessary to increase that list of ‘essentials’. Particularly when, as seems to be being argued here, it is not believed that any change in understanding is implied: this is a position that has been clearly understood for some time as the ‘default position’ of the organisation. What is changing is that now it is deemed to be essential to hold to it as an article of faith. The fact that this has caused some employees to leave because of their inability to comply with it demonstrates that whatever the rhetoric this represents a real shift. IVCF no longer welcomes those who harbour questions in their heart on this issue, even if they are willing to abide by the organisation’s guidelines.

Human Sexuality: Open Church Mesa Gathering

The Open Church Mesa Gathering, held back in April, was a two-day conference, organised and hosted by Steve Chalke’s Oasis Waterloo church. The full title was ‘Open Church: The church, sexuality, mission and the future. An important conversation for all those passionate about the future of the church. ‘Mesa’ is Spanish for ‘table’, and the concept was of a gathering together around a single table of different voices to discuss church, sexuality, mission, and the future. The conference consisted of a number of talks and some workshops, with plenty of time allowed around the margins of these fixed points for people to chat together. Speakers included Steve Chalke himself, Tony Campolo (by video-link), Vicky Beeching, Andrew Marin, Bishop Alan Wilson and a number of others (including a significant group of young LGBT contributors). In stating all of that, two things become clear about the event: this was what might be described as an ‘Inclusive Evangelical’ gathering (it was a gathering mainly of evangelicals, most of whom were pro-gay), and it was a gathering inextricably caught up in the politics around Steve Chalke’s declaration of his own pro-gay stance in 2013. This summed up both the strengths and weaknesses of the event: this was a safe space for a group of people (gay and pro-gay evangelicals) who often find it difficult to feel that they can find a safe place to be themselves, and partly as a consequence of that the range of views expressed and engaged with was actually fairly narrow.

I suspect the narrowness of the range of views was a surprise even to the conference organisers. One of the speakers – Counsellor and former model Susie Flashman-Jarvis, had been billed as a speaker with traditional views but seeking to support a son who was gay. It emerged that her own views were now quite liberal. Tony Campolo, the only explicitly conservative speaker, was clearly on a journey himself, expressing some reservations about many traditional positions, and clearly concerned to be as inclusive as he could.

Given the broadly evangelical makeup of the gathering, the strongly pro-gay tone was striking. I spoke to many people who were committed members of evangelical churches that would not be seen as pro-gay. Some were youth group leaders or home group leaders. Some of the young people, who had clearly experienced rejection from evangelicals, were visibly relieved at finding themselves in a safe space. Obviously this was a self-selecting group. Evangelicals who had decided Steve Chalke had put himself ‘beyond the pale’ were unlikely to attend. But this was a sold-out conference of committed evangelical churchgoers, to which (on my brief and totally unscientific sampling) most people had not travelled more than an hour to get to. This could be a window into a foreseeable future where the centre-ground in evangelicalism has shifted.

That would indisputably be good news for gay evangelicals, who may find evangelical churches become safer places for them. However, if the conference is a window into a foreseeable future, there are some other things to notice. Firstly, and hugely significantly for a gathering of evangelicals, it is clear that a shift of this nature in such a short space of time implies a (perhaps unexamined) shift in understanding of Biblical interpretation or authority. Steve Chalke explicitly called for this in his talk, and several of the speakers urged a greater embracing of mystery, but given the (often contradictory) range of biblical approaches presented by the various speakers, these questions clearly need more attention. Simply, for evangelicals (whose identity is centred around being ‘Bible people’) to make a very public shift in their biblical interpretation on a controversial issue necessitates having a serious discussion about how we read the Bible, and at present there is little sign this is happening.

Secondly, and perhaps related, the shift from a conservative to a liberal position doesn’t seem to change much else. This was not a gathering that was much more inclusive than other evangelical gatherings might have been, it simply included different people. However, my observation was that few people noticed this, being convinced that because openly LGBTI Christians could take the stage (and in an evangelical context this genuinely *is* a big deal) this automatically made the event inclusive. Andrew Marin (to his considerable credit) pointed this out in his address – challenging people to remain open and inclusive having included LGBTI Christians. But it seemed that not many people were listening. Tony Campolo (at that point the only speaker explicitly taking a conservative position) was repeatedly challenged to rethink his views. No speaker from a liberal position was ever similarly challenged by either audience or presenters. The opportunity to ask Campolo constructive questions (like ‘how can we enable an open and honest conversation about sexuality to happen with more conservative evangelicals?’) was passed up in favour of trying to get him to justify his position. Marin himself came under repeated pressure from other speakers and the conference facilitators to state clearly his own position, despite having explained that he refuses to do this as a key part of his bridge-building ministry. At one point in a panel discussion another speaker, with the tacit approval of the chair, attempted to get the audience to pressure Marin into ‘outing’ himself as either a conservative or liberal, whilst one of the other panel members did a not-too-subtle chicken impression. I should say clearly that I would defend to the utmost the need for gatherings like this, which are safe spaces for LGBTI Christians and their allies, but it concerned me that even the conference organisers seemed unable to recognise the extent to which it was not safe for others.

Reflecting on it now, I found this an exciting and challenging conference with some impressive speakers. The chance to hear younger voices was especially helpful (a number of teenagers spoke), giving a sense of freshness to the discussions. But it had the narrowest range of participants of all the three events I attended. The conversation in the title turned out to be mainly an internal one within this grouping of liberal-leaning evangelicals. It may be that that is necessary at this point in time – more liberal evangelicals have long been silent (and perhaps silenced) in the discussion about sexuality. It takes time to gather the confidence to engage with those who often give the impression of pretending you don’t exist. But this is a voice that needs to be heard.

Other people have written about the conference here:

Premier’s review

Savi Hensman’s review

Ian Paul (reflections on a pre-meeting organised by Steve Chalke)

Human Sexuality: C of E Shared Conversations

I’ve been writing and thinking about church and sexuality for some time now (and my research will hopefully get published later this year), but much of that has been done on my own. This year I’ve been lucky enough to attend three key gatherings examining homosexuality and the church. First, a gathering of evangelical leaders and theologians brought together in London by the CEEC in preparation for the Church of England’s Shared Conversations on Human Sexuality. Second, the Open Church Mesa gathering at Oasis Waterloo, which was open to anyone who wanted to attend. Third, the East Midlands Shared Conversation on Human Sexuality, that brought together representatives from 5 dioceses. They were three very different gatherings, but in different ways gave snapshots of where we as a church are on this issue. I’m going to give a quick write-up of my experience of being part of each of them, and then perhaps start to think about how the experience of being to each of them has changed my understanding of the issues. This is the first of these posts, and I will post again on each of the other gatherings.

The gathering I was at most recently was the East Midlands Shared Conversations. This brought together representatives from the dioceses of Leicester, Lincoln, Peterborough, Derby and Southwell & Nottingham. We met over three days in a conference centre just outside Leicester, where a team of facilitators led us through a series of discussions that explored the geography of the debate: the changes in British society, discussions about scripture, hopes and fears about the future of the church. Overall, the conversations took the form of a mapping exercise. The intent was to create space for people to hear those on all ‘sides’ of the debate, and therefore understand something of the overall shape of the debate within the church as a whole.

There had been strict guidelines as to the makeup of each diocesan delegation. A certain proportion should be lay people, a certain proportion should be under 40, a certain proportion should be LGBTI, and the range of views within the diocese should be represented within the delegation. (My observation was that dioceses had struggled to do this. Although there was a good proportion of lay people, and a fair number of LGBTI people, there were few under 40, and it had been hard to represent the more conservative end of the argument when various groups had advised their members not to attend). I was part of the Southwell & Nottingham group.

Overall, the conversations represented Anglicanism at its best – finding a way to talk and share communion with each other despite our differences. As Richard Coles (who was at the same gathering) said in his Pause For Thought reflection, we didn’t find the answers, but what we did find was (in his words) that our non-negotiables seem a bit more negotiable when we explore them together rather than using them as barriers to keep each other out.
The value of exploring our positions in the company of those we disagree with (as opposed to arguing with each other) is that we can see where the differences between us really lie, and as might be expected we often find that they are not where we might have thought. There were some great moments over the days we had together where there was a palpable sense that misconceptions were being set aside, and those who fundamentally disagreed with each other took the time to see each other clearly and left with a greater respect for each other. In particular, there was a session where one of the self-described conservatives sat with a group of self-confessed liberals and listened to all the things they wanted him to hear, before stating his own position as clearly and non-defensively as he could. Rather like a lion in a den of Daniels, as someone described it later. Nobody changed their minds about what they believed. But I think everyone came away with a real sense of respect for each other as people sincerely trying to live their lives as disciples of Christ.

So overall, I felt the Conversations were a positive thing and I sincerely hope that they help the church as we move forward together. However, I came away with a feeling of great sadness that I haven’t been able to shake. I took the time while I was there to talk to most of the people who were self-confessed conservatives. This wasn’t particularly onerous – they were all quite congenial and they were all evangelical (if there were conservative catholics in our gathering I don’t think I met them), so they were my people, we shared a common language. Although I think we were able to identify the areas where we disagreed (and this has given me much to ponder over) there was a great deal on which we agreed. Yet from all of them, I had the unmistakeable sense that they were disengaging from the debate. Not on a personal level – I think those who were there genuinely contributed to the Conversations – but they were self-consciously representatives of a grouping that was disengaging from the debate. Almost every one of them talked about what it would take for them to leave the church. Some seemed convinced it would happen, and sooner rather than later. And these, of course, were the conservatives who were independently-minded enough to disregard the advice of Reform to boycott the Conversations. Reform’s position in itself indicates an even more significant level of disengagement that is prevalent amongst many conservatives. I had the frustrating sense that there was a good and worthwhile conversation just starting, very hesitantly, to begin, and yet that one ‘side’ had already decided that conversation had been exhausted and was getting ready to walk out.

I’m not sure where that leaves the Church of England. It leaves me, as an evangelical anglican feeling, as I said to someone at the conversations, like a child watching their parents go through a nasty divorce, conscious that at some point I’m going to have to decide which one I’m going to have to live with.