Church of England Evangelical Council Consultation on Scripture and Sexuality

I had received an invitation to take part if this Consultation some and had said yes. When I received a copy of Dr Martin Davie’s report Studies on the Bible and same-sex relationships since 2003 which was to form the basis of the Consultation, I withdrew my acceptance. Those who wish will be able to buy a copy of the report for themselves later this week and see why I found it such a deeply unfriendly document. The day and a sleepless night before the Consultation I veered between not wanting and wanting to attend, with different voices pulling me one way and then the other. In the end, I went, meditating on the Piccadilly Line train into central London from Northfields and breathing deeply into God’s infinite, compassionate, energised love.

My apprehensions were not realised. I was greeted with a warm smile and felt at ease from the moment I stepped into the building.

That said, my concerns about the report itself and my experience of it as being deeply unfriendly to LGBTI people and our experience were confirmed by Martin’s own presentation later in the morning and the three considered responses from Dr Adrian Thatcher, Dr Robert Song, and Savi Hensman. [And I should note here, as was raised at the Consultation, that women were totally under-represented. My prejudiced self thinks the CEEC and the conservative evangelical wing of the C of E might me somewhat misogynistic and fail to include women as equals in church and ministry.]

The report is divided into three sections. Revisionist approaches, Traditionalist approaches and Evaluation. For someone like me, the report is deeply user-unfriendly and I gave up attempting to read the report in its entirety – it’3 350 pages long.

We were told there are three possibilities for the way we approach scripture. It could be unclear, inconclusive or clear – but we might fail to interpret scripture properly. I think the premise is wrong – there are other ways in which we approach scripture. We might say that scripture doesn’t say anything about our modern understanding of gender, sexuality and homosexuality, and we might say scripture is not the only source of information, and we might add personal experience to the mix – and indeed all those things were said in the course of the day.

Martin said he didn’t want his voice to influence the presentation of the Revisionist position in the report and didn’t want to put his grid on the resources. But he selected the books and articles to be included and selected the sections from them to be quoted – the grid is entirely his.

Martin’s presumption is that same-sex attraction is the result of humanity turning away from God and is incompatible with new life in Christ. This was what I feared would be the dominating narrative of the Consultation and exactly why I felt uncomfortable about attending. Thank goodness such views were barely heard during the rest of the day.

I had assumed that the attitude of the report would characterise the whole day. I would have been helped if well beforehand, the programme for the day and the names of those presenting a response to the report had been circulated.

Three people had been invited to respond, Dr Adrian Thatcher, Dr Robert Song and Savi Hensman. The day turned out to be generously even-handed and these three provided a strong, critical counterbalance to the report.

Adrian Thatcher had produced a 6 point critique of the report which he circulated, noting the narrow focus of the report, it’s modernist assumptions, the ancient view of sex and gender, the report’s hermeneutic, bibliology and finally questioning the validity of its conclusion. The focus of the report is so narrow, he said, that it cannot deal with what it sets out to do. There is a merely apparent engagement in the report with what the ‘revisionists’ say. It commits ‘the myth of textual agency’ the assumption that ‘Scripture says’ or ‘let the Bible speak’ – we have to read and interpret personally. It ignores the ‘fateful legacy’ of sola scripture and there is no recognition the hermeneutic of the report causes untold misery. I felt a whole lot better after hearing Adrian.

Robert Song’s critique was based on his book Covenant and Calling, which was published too late for Martin to include, which clearly upset Robert. Robert was an adviser to the Pilling group. Robert’s argument is based on his reading of Jesus and Paul as celibate people who point to life in the post resurrection reality. I wasn’t convinced by Robert’s book but there was much in his critique that I found helpful.

Savi said that there is an assumption by ‘traditionalists’ that they are presenting an accurate reading of side A (‘revisionist’) thinking and practice, and they are not.

We were allocated to groups of 3 or 4 and met in these groups at the beginning of the day and other times in the course of the Consultation. It was in the smaller groups that I gained insights into the CEEC mind, or at least into the thinking of particular conservative evangelicals.

There were one or two who didn’t think they were being abusive and/or ‘clever’ when playing somewhat infantile intellectual or personal dynamic games in the conversation. This is a characteristic not exclusive to conservative evangelicals. In the context of what was, in truth,  day organised with proper concern for human dynamics and respect, it was unfortunate that one or two didn’t quite understand what that means.

The sticking point for some conservatives, a difficulty I’ve encountered elsewhere, is the possibility that LGBTI people might be granted equality in relationships and in particular, acceptance of equal marriage and the blessing in church of relationships. Those of us who support equal marriage and full equality for LGBTI people and unapologetically support this as inevitable (inevitable for me after 58 years living with the knowledge that I am gay as a member of the Church of England) are seen as unreasonable. Such a change, they fear, will make it impossible for them to stay and will make schism inevitable.

The way in which people are being labelled surfaced at a number of points during the day, and in particular the use of ‘revisionist’ and ‘traditional’. As a life-long Anglican, I experience myself as traditional and conservative evangelicals as ‘revisionist’ in their use of the bible, tradition and reason. Labels can be meaningless and unhelpful, and at worst, damaging and abusive.

The whole question of what the word evangelical itself describes and who is legitimately entitled to call themselves evangelical came under scrutiny. The idea that those who identify as born lesbian or gay and identify as evangelical, is deeply problematic for some conservative evangelicals.

The breakthrough moment for me came in the afternoon when we were discussing labels and language, questioning how inaccurate and inappropriate they can be for all ‘sides’.

I suddenly saw that if we freed ourselves from the addictive need to label others, and ourselves from some of the labels we are given and accept, space could be created, and might swiftly come to be, in which we could relax our emotional defences and human tendency to polarise attitudes. Might we be able then to release the divine love and energy which is always present, flowing and active, and discover that there is far, far more that unites us and brings us together in Christ than that which divides and separates? I talked about this but others were not to be convinced.

Perhaps the mutual conversations really will achieve such a breakthrough. It could transform Anglican life and Christian witness for all of us. But it’s a difficult dream to flow with if your heart and soul is committed to a particular relationship with scripture. And we are working against the background of the Anglican Communion’s culture wars and the dogmatic power blocks that divide Anglicans into warring camps. Such a dream of unity in diversity faces huge challenges, such as the moment the proposal to bless same-sex relationships comes to a vote in General Synod or the House of Bishops is asked to approve a change.

Thank you, CEEC, for organising the Consultation and for inviting me to participate. I’m sorry I caused Andrew Goddard palpitations before the event. If only I’d known sooner how balanced it was going to be. Late in the day, I discovered I wasn’t alone in having felt anxious.

Those who participated were: Susannah Cornwall, Colin Coward, Martin Davie, Andrew Davison, Lee Gatiss, Andrew Goddard, Giles Goddard, Benny Hazelhurst, Savi Hensman, David Hilborn, Stephen Hofmeyr, Don Horrocks, Christopher Landau, Jeremy Marks, Jayne Ozanne, Hugh Palmer, Ian Paul, David Runcorn, Robert Song, Andrew Symes, Adrian Thatcher, Mark Vasey-Saunders with as observers/facilitators: Phil Groves, Stephen Ruttle, and Lis Goddard.

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