Those of us who are Christians have been the recipients of (or subjected to, depending which way you look at it) a conditioning process. The process is understood to be benign, a process of being inducted into Christian teaching about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the tradition and doctrines of the Church as revealed in the Bible and through the development of Christian tradition and an engagement with human reason.
The conditioning process weaves a web of power over us and within us – we internalize teachings, ideas and values, some creative and healthy, some unhealthy and potentially destructive for our quality of life.
For example, ideas about the perfection of Jesus and the idealized lives of the saints can produce feelings of inadequacy, inferiority and guilt in some people. The feelings and ideas may be primitive, especially if left unexamined and unquestioned, but they are common. How often have people told me they must have done something very bad to have deserved the punishment they think they have justly received.
This conditioning process is maintained in a potent and largely unexamined way by those who have responsible teaching roles in the Church – bishops, priests, licensed readers, youth leaders, Sunday school teachers, study group, Bible study and prayer group leaders.
The bishops’ responsibility is conditioned by their commitment to their own corporate responsibility. Even if they disagree with teaching documents, they are required to uphold the doctrines agreed by the House of Bishops.
You will be familiar with the many reasons advanced as to why agreed doctrine has to be observed, some of them derived from Scripture – but by no means all. These reasons are used thoughtlessly to impose discipline, whether or not the teaching and practice is healthy or unhealthy, true or false, good or bad. If Scripture is deemed to say it’s bad, it’s bad, and if Scripture is deemed to say it’s good, it’s good.
I’d like to set an essay question for every bishop – Based on Scripture the Church of England is imposing very unhealthy teaching and practice in relation to sexuality and gender. True of false? (To be strictly accurate, the question should say – based on some people’s use and interpretation of Scripture.)
The House of Bishops has decided that equal marriage is a bad thing because the Bible teaches and we have interpreted it to mean that marriage is defined by gender and gender is clearly either male or female. Men and women have complementary roles in creation and are equal but different. The book of Genesis describes how God created us male and female and ordained gender roles for us and the rest of the Bible confirms this.
The bishops’ teaching about gender and marriage is based on this inherited belief structure even when science and real human lives and bodies demonstrate that the ideas are false.
The teaching of the Church of England on equal marriage is wrong not only because the science on which it is based is false, but as significantly for Christians, because it undervalues at best and dismisses at worst, the love and fidelity of same-sex couples and causes distress to them, to their families and friends and all who value same-sex relationships. It damages society, diminishes respect for LGBTI people in certain sections of society and alienates people from core human values of love, truth and goodness, all primary Christian qualities.
One result of this false teaching is that people abandon the Church, either to seek these values and qualities in other faith traditions or spiritual paths or to dismiss belief in a God who supports prejudice on the basis of people’s varying gender and sexuality identities.
The teaching of the Church as agreed by the House of Bishops and described in the Pastoral Guidelines, the Pilling Report and the Faith and Order Commission report – Men and Women in Marriage is bad Christian teaching. It is cruel, diminishing respect for love and fidelity and people’s humanity.
The marriage, gender and sexuality doctrine of the Church of England as currently restated is based on readings and interpretations of Scripture which are disproved by scientific evidence and are opposed to core Christian spiritual values and qualities. Those opposed to equality in the Kingdom of God will deny and challenge this – and the arguments will continue.
Those whose path has led them away from adherence to bad teaching and doctrine towards a more healthy Christian faith to live immersed in truth, freedom and love will ignore the current restatements of the teaching about marriage and will disregard the authority of their bishops.
This is the moment when the authority of bishops to impose a teaching and discipline which is clearly unhealthy and unjust collapses. Individual lesbian and gay priests and lay people are going to get married and parishes are announcing their intention to bless same-sex marriages.
What will happen in two year’s time when General Synod is eventually allowed to debate homosexual matters again? Will conservatives vote to defeat a motion constructed to bring Church of England teaching into line with people’s understanding of gender and sexuality in the context of faith in the infinite, unconditional, unadulterated love of God revealed in Scripture and in Jesus the Christ, or will they continue to write a suicide note for the Church of England?