Why gender and sexuality is an Anglican problem

Anglicanism, uniquely among the main Christian denominations in England, has not been able to make any progress on matters of sexuality and gender because of the way that these matters are treated nationally.  I will not consider Roman Catholicism here, because matters there are treated either globally from the Vatican or locally from a particular bishop.

In the Baptist church, the church model is congregationalism.  Individual congregations have a great deal of freedom in what they choose to believe and practise.  They come together in the Baptist union as an overarching model, but are independent of each other.  For example, if one congregation chooses to take a particular stance on the ministry of women, then it does not have to consider the impact on the Baptist congregation in the next village or their views. 

All Baptist churches in England have the right to register as premises for same sex marriages and are legally allowed to perform those weddings. In practice not many Baptist churches have decided to register, but whether or not a congregation chooses to do so would not be seen as a schismatic act.

Methodist churches have a different structure and work in circuits and districts.  Major decisions are taken by the annual Methodist conference.  Some delegates are elected to participate for one year, some for three years.  The chair of the conference changes annually.  This prevents the build-up on power by certain individuals, as does the fact that the laity places at Conference outnumber the clergy places.

When the 2021 annual conference decided to allow Methodist churches to perform same sex marriages in their churches, they did it in a way that moved forward by respecting conscience.  There had been a working party, the Marriage and Relations taskforce, that produced a report – God In Love Unites Us – available at The 2019 Marriage and Relationships report (methodist.org.uk)  This document was written to reflect the mind of the church, that the present position was no longer tenable, so it was written for the middle ground, looking at compromise and ways to move forward together. 

Each district was asked to study the report and the proposed resolutions and vote if they were in favour or not.  29 out of 30 districts voted in favour.  The annual conference passed the change.  It also passed a resolution condemning conversion therapy.  It is now up to each Methodist church or group of churches to decide if they wish to register to conduct same sex marriages.  They can decide as they wish, but no church is forced to do something it votes not to do.  Likewise the Methodist structure means that each church has a designated person to conduct marriages, who may be a lay person.  Conscience is respected, but movement forward can happen where it is wanted.

The Anglican church has taken a different approach.  It has been producing documents and resolutions and having working parties for around 50 years and is nowhere near a way forward.  Reading the major reports in sequence, it is very obvious how the material has become increasingly polarised.  The compromise positions of material like the Osborne report are missing from new material which favours the ‘some people think this and some people think that’ approach in more recent material.

By documenting position A and position Z and trying to show both sides of a debate, the middle position is lost.  Most people are not at position A or Z, but somewhere between B and Y.  The Church of England is moving away from the exploration of compromise positions or ones that will allow those of different views to move forward together.  The extremes will never be able to work together, let alone agree on something.

This perpetuation of polarised views just prolongs the debate and makes schismatic options more likely.  People feel they need to defend their position because the alternative is so unacceptably extreme in their view.  It is an all or nothing approach.  No other denomination has polarised the debate as the Anglican church has done, to the Church of England’s cost. 

The latest, Living in Love and Faith has taken the polarised approach too.  Each ‘side’ will find things that they find totally unacceptable and therefore are triggered to defend their views, and because of that they are not willing to find common ground or compromise. 

The Next Steps group of bishops has announced there will be a new resource entitled ‘The Gift of the Church’ to be published in September 2022.  Let’s hope those producing it can follow the lead of their Methodist colleagues and publish a less polarised document that does represent the mind of the church and allows us to move forward.  They could start by reading God in Love Unites Us.

Why inclusion is an Anglican problem

I was at a church talk earlier this week about inclusion, based on the work of Inclusive Church.  The church where the talk was being given was particularly  concerned with certain aspects of inclusion, such as hearing and sight loss, the provision of wheelchair accessible toilets, or even toilets in general, as well as provision for those who are neurodiverse.  It touched on visibility, use of websites, disability conference, resources etc.  All very helpful and with a lot of useful discussion and support.  Even ethnicity and women did not create a ripple.  Then someone mentioned sexuality…

The problem was not that those present had a problem with people having different sexualities, but they knew that if the church wanted to make moves towards being more visibly inclusive that they would get push back and opposition from other people and even other local churches who were opposed.  This is a peculiarly Anglican problem.  Denominations like the Baptists or the United Reform Church have a congregational understanding of many issues anyway and would see it as an internal matter.  The Methodists have agreed that there are some issues decided by their annual conference and then the individual circuits and churches can decide exactly how to proceed for themselves. 

Anglicanism does not accept that level of diversity.  It can certainly be argued that congregationalism is not an Anglican way of doing things, so there should be uniformity in what is done and taught.  Except that the Church of England has already made some very large exceptions to that already, where individual congregations can vote to diversify on certain matters.  For example, those with alternative episcopal oversight because they do not accept women priests or those who espouse male headship under the bishop of Maidstone.  Before that whether or not to allow the remarriage of those who had been divorced was left to the individual member of clergy who had a conscience opt out. 

There is already a great diversity of worship styles, from those who do not wear vestments and have a monthly communion service to those who have full robed choirs and clergy with several masses each week, and a whole spectrum in between.

Unfortunately, reasoned debate on inclusion and diversity in being hampered by an almost default belief in certain Anglican circles that somehow ‘inclusion’ is a secret codeword for ‘gay rights’ and a move towards inclusion would put them on a slippery slope to same sex marriage in church.  Consequently there is resistance to even the idea that a church should be moving towards more visible inclusion.

Inclusion is Biblical.  Nobody throws away their Bible to be inclusive.  It is about studying the Bible, particularly the ministry and teachings of Jesus and the early church.  Jesus went out of the temple to meet and eat with the marginalised where they were.  The early church went beyond the narrow confines of the Jewish people and admitted gentiles.  They instituted a new form of admission – baptism – that was open to anyone.  No longer was initiation to the faith just for men through circumcision.  Those who could not live up to the purity codes of Judaism could find a home in their faith in Jesus.

It is time that the contemporary church in this country caught up with the early church and recognised that the great commission was for everyone.  Inclusion is about everyone, not just those who have different sexualities.  If Samaritans could be included along with gentile widows, so can many of our excluded and marginalised groups.  Frankly, some in the Church of England need to stop trying to fight a non existent enemy.

Let’s see a church that truly wants to be inclusive.  One that is open and safe.  Not one that is obsessed with sexuality as the sole test of some sort of ideological purity.

How safe is your church?

Sunday October 10th is the Church of England’s first Safeguarding Sunday.  Some would consider this to be long overdue.    Giving a particular Sunday in the liturgical calendar for a specific theme is a way of signalling that the Church of England takes an issue seriously.  It sends a message of ‘pay attention to this’.

Unfortunately this message is too little and should have been done a long time ago.  It is the reality that many people do not feel safe in their places of worship.  Not just people who are LGBTQ+, but people who are vulnerable in other ways.  Women can have a particular vulnerability when male headship is preached and some domestic abuse is ‘justified’ by reference to the Bible.  It is true that ‘Bad Theology Kills’.

Feeling unsafe in a church starts with the preaching and goes through a lack of transparency to exclusion and othering.  How a church sees itself is fundamental to how it sees the church members and the community it serves.  Where a church embraces something like ‘faithful remnant’ theology or a theology that prioritises some people’s status in God above others, then it is a short step to treating some people as less than others and starts a slippery slope to abusive behaviour and language.

There are churches where the preaching is that being LGBTQ+ is a sin.  Preaching that as a certainty, rather than acknowledging the range of views on the subject can lead to the situation where anyone who is LGBTQ+ in that church has to adopt the ‘single and celibate’ position in order to remain in that church, albeit at the level of being tolerated rather than being fully part of the church.  Forcing people who are not called to celibacy to be single and celibate for life is harmful.  As human beings, made in the image of a loving Creator God, we are called to love.  Indeed ‘God is love’ but denying us the experience of loving others means it is an easy step to not loving yourself.  In Matthew 22.39 Jesus gave his second commandment of love, that we should ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’.  If you are not allowed to love your neighbour because you are being taught that your capacity for love is a sin, then you cannot love yourself as God intended. 

Some churches can say that they welcome all people into their communities, but their idea of welcoming people who are LGBTQ+ is to encourage them to ‘put their sexuality under obedience to God’, in other words ‘to give up their gay lifestyle and go back to being straight’.  Also known as conversion therapy. 

Conversion therapy needs to be banned by the government right now.  No more delays and consultations and certainly no religious exemptions.  The government has shown no hesitation in banning other harmful practices that are ‘justified’ on religious grounds, such as female genital mutilation.  Just because the harm is being done by Christians should not cause the government to hesitate or prevaricate. The recently published Copper report – available here The Cooper Report 2021 – Ozanne Foundation – has legal experts showing the government how to introduce the necessary legislation for a ban. 

But women are also at risk from bad theology. The recently published book The Bible doesn’t Tell Me So by Helen Paynter shows how selective and out of context Bible quotes are used to abuse women.   It shows that way that domestic abuse is ‘justified’ as ‘wives submitting to your husband’ with no understanding of the Biblical teaching to husbands on how they should treat their wives.  The theology of ‘no divorce’ is used to tell wives that they must not leave an abusive husband.  The Bible is rarely used to tell husbands that they must not be violent with their wives. 

Similarly a theology of male headship can be used to disempower women in a church.  It can justify patriarchal attitudes in church that would not be tolerated in a work place.  The line between patriarchy and misogyny can be a very thin line indeed.

The church needs to do better.  It needs to be a place where all people can feel safe.  It has to tackle bad, abusive theology and be willing to follow Jesus to create God’s kingdom on Earth, for all God’s people. 

Resources for Safeguarding Sunday can be found at  Support Safeguarding Sunday | The Church of England

Well, they didn’t actually say that, but…

In employment law there is an idea of ‘constructive dismissal’. This is where someone is not actually fired, but their working life is made so intolerably bad that they are forced to leave their job.  This can be bullying in the workplace, changes in working hours or increased workload or constant criticism and undermining or many other causes that make a job unbearable.

Under employment law there are remedies available to anyone in the situation, usually a compensation payment.  However an employment tribunal may make orders about changes in practice in an organisation or order someone to be reinstated to their job or other remedies.  You can’t just force someone out of their job – we have laws to protect people from that sort of behaviour.  Except in our places of worship.

Somehow the very places that proclaim on the door that ‘All are welcome’ often prove to be the least welcoming places.  Indeed they often prove to be the most judgemental and condemnatory places.  Somehow people may be welcome to walk through the front door and listen to the preaching and donate money, but if they want to be part of the family of faith then they have to somehow become just like everyone else, part of the collective mindset.  God help you if you are different.

This means when we are at our place of worship that we have to hide who we are and cannot bring our whole authentic self to our relationship with God.  We know what will happen if we do.  God will not reject us, but the faith family almost certainly will.

Sometimes, it is explicit – being told to go back to being straight or leave, but most of the time it is more subtle.  The words are not spoken, but we are told that our lifestyle means that we are not allowed to work with children or young people, or told that we have to give up our role in leadership or told that we have abandoned God and forsaken our sacred Scriptures.  Once the faith leadership have made up their mind that we are no longer one of the ‘in crowd’ then somehow those we had thought to be our friends can remarkably disappear.  Nobody will stand with us when we are seen to be marginalised.

Why should we stay where we are not wanted?  Where the ‘welcome’ we received at first is shown to be hollow, if we want to stay we have to change and conform. 

But it is never God who makes us feel unwelcome and rejected.  God never wants us to leave, but we do anyway.  How can we fight the injustice of those who claim God is on their side?  We have no protection in law.

We suffer ‘constructive dismissal’ from our places of worship with no redress available.  We can whistle blow and tell our side of the story, but the other side of the story is that they never actually said the words telling us to go, just criticised, demoted, excluded and marginalised. 

No wonder LGBTQ+ people of faith are under represented in faith communities.  We can read our Scriptures and say our prayers and find our own faith groups in our own community.  God is everywhere but sometimes we have to leave our place of worship to find God for ourselves. 

Why the Bible needs windows

I have been reading Torah Queeries, edited by Gregg Drinkwater, Joshua Lesser and David Shneer.  In Judaism, the Torah, consisting of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, is read in its totality every year.  The material is broken up into weekly sections of Torah, and there are additional portions for holidays such as Passover.  This book has commentaries on each of the weekly portions by rabbis and academics, taking a queer perspective.

One of the fascinating things about reading Jewish material is how the approach to Scripture is completely different from that of certain sections of Christianity.  In Judaism, the meanings of Torah are inexhaustible.  There is an infinite number of meanings and so it speaks to each individual and to each time and always has new depths of meaning to explore. In Judaism there is no concept of having ‘the right’ interpretation of scripture – there is no single right meaning. 

Even though Judaism and Christianity share Scriptures, how those are understood and interpreted is fundamentally different.  Different in a way that would make some Christians very uncomfortable.  After all, how can they understand ‘The Word of God’ if there are infinite meanings? 

An even more difficult question for some Christians would be ‘how would they know if what they understand the Bible to mean is wrong’?  No, the answer is not to go to the minister and get the ‘official answer’, the answer is windows.

Allow me to explain, starting with a quote from Menachem Creditor commenting on Parashat Yitro (Exodus 18.1 – 20.26).

Most mornings, in order to help me decide what to wear, I look out the window, thus engaging with the world as it is, grounding my decision in the context of the outside world.

I remember learning during a midrash class at the Jewish Theological Seminary that, if I were a ‘real’ rabbi, I would not have looked out the window to help me make a crucial decision.  Instead of drawing on the world around me, I would have taken a volume of Jewish text from the shelf and poured over its pages in order to truly know what was going on in the outside world. 

We test our understanding against reality.  Torah might say what is suitable for a rabbi to wear or not wear, but we need the reality of a window to make the right choice now.  We may make a different choice tomorrow – do we need that raincoat?

Christians have been very reluctant to use windows to help determine reality, often preferring interpretations of The Word and anything that conflicts with that is a result of sin and the brokenness of the world. Sometimes that means that we teach what is wrong and call it ‘from God’.  Let me give an illustration of that.

Joshua chapter 10 was used for centuries to teach that the sun went round the Earth.  The idea that the sun would stop in the heavens seemed incontrovertible proof that the Earth was the centre and everything orbited around it.  It took literally centuries of careful, daily astronomical measurements to finally convince some Christian authorities that this interpretation did not match reality.  Eventually the weight of data became indisputable.  The effect of this was twofold.  It meant that the church had to teach a different model of the way that the universe was structured, with the Earth no longer at the centre.  It also meant that there had to be a different way of interpreting scripture that did not take the literal surface meaning as true.  If this passage of the Bible was to be consistent with the reality of the universe, then it had to be understood at a deeper level. 

For some this means that there is an inconsistency between the way that descriptions of the universe are understood in the book of Joshua and the way it is understood elsewhere, for example in the book of Genesis.  Reading Genesis chapters 1 and 2 in the literal way gives the age of the Earth as just over 6000 years old.  The window of scientific evidence gives an age of billions of years. Yet despite the scientific evidence, some are reluctant to look for the deeper interpretation approach that was needed for the book of Joshua. 

‘How old is the Earth’ is as much a question of science as a question of Biblical interpretation.

A reality window check is harder in terms of ethics-based interpretations. For example, the question of being left-handed.  In contemporary society left handedness is simply seen as part pf life’s rich variety, with no ethical judgement.  Provision is routinely made for those who are left-handed, by providing appropriate scissors, golf clubs etc.  But that has not always been the case.  Being left-handed was once regarded as being a sign that someone was ‘marked with the sign of the devil’.  Nowadays we find ideas like that ridiculous or insulting.  But they were based on Biblical interpretation that was normative for being right-handed.  Mistaking what is common with what is mandatory is a common religious ethical mistake.  Just because most people are right-handed does not mean that everyone has to be.

We need to have ways of checking our understanding of the Bible to make sure that we do no harm.  We cannot impose beliefs on other people when those beliefs do not match reality.

Are you on Diocesan Synod?

Did you know that you have the right to ask two questions at each synod?  When the notice of business for the meeting gets sent out, you are allowed to send in two written questions in advance of the meeting.  These get a written answer and you can ask a supplementary question at the actual meeting.  This is a way that Diocesan Synod members can ask for information and hold diocesan officials to account. 

I show the Leicester notice of business for our next meeting so you can see what this looks like.  I also have some possible questions you can ask.  Every diocese is different and you may have better questions for your local context.  In my experience, people rarely ask questions at Diocesan Synod, but if we want radical change then that starts with raising our voices.

If possible, please share the questions and answers from your Diocesan Synod with this group.

Possible diocesan synod questions with links can be downloaded below.

Reclaiming Lambeth I.10

When I was choosing the name for this site, one thing that was never in doubt was the use of Queer.  There was discussion about other letters and whether to use a + but Q was always going to be part of this.  It is not exactly how I would define myself, but the word fits for those who choose to use it about me or about themselves. 

But it was not always like that.  The use of the word Queer has a long history, from a term of abuse and repression to the reclaiming and ownership of the word by the community.

Now it is time for those who are Christian and especially Anglican to reclaim something else too – the 1998 Lambeth resolution I.10.

Ironically it was archbishop Justin Welby who has shown us the way to start doing this.  Now, in the interests of full transparency, I am not archbishop Justin’s greatest fan.  I probably wouldn’t make the top million on that one, but here he has done something that I can applaud.

On February 26th Nigerian archbishop Henry C Ndukuba issued a statement, in response to events in American churches, in that statement he described homosexuality and homosexual relationships in very negative terms.  A pdf of the statement can be read here:

Church-of-Nigerias-Position-on-the-Recent-Developments-in-ACNA-February-2021-.pdf (thinkinganglicans.org.uk) but I would advise against it.  I include the link for completeness.

Archbishop Justin’s response can be read in full here:

Archbishop of Canterbury criticises Primate of Nigeria | Thinking Anglicans

The important parts are two paragraphs in the middle of the statement

I completely disagree with and condemn this language. It is unacceptable.It dehumanises those human beings of whom the statement speaks.

I have written privately to His Grace The Archbishop to make clear that this language is incompatible with the agreed teaching of the Anglican Communion (expressed most clearly, albeit in unsuitable language for today, in paragraphs c and d of resolution I.10 of the Lambeth Conference 1998). This resolution both restated a traditional view of Christian marriage and was clear in its condemnation of homophobic actions or words. It affirmed that “all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ.”

This is the first time I have seen Lambeth I.10 used affirmingly like this by a bishop, and when it is the Archbishop of Canterbury it shows a shift is happening.  It may be a small shift, but a welcome one.  A policy statement that has been used to oppress LGBTQI+ Christians around the world for 23 years now has precedent to use as something positive.  So – let’s start to reclaim it.

The full resolution and supporting documents can be accessed here  Section I.10 – Human Sexuality (anglicancommunion.org)

Lambeth conference resolutions are not binding on provinces in the Anglican communion, but they do carry weight.  The Church of England has never chosen to adopt or ratify Lambeth I.10, but the attitudes in it have been used against us for too long.  We have been treated as if this resolution were entirely negative. 

Archbishop Justin used paragraphs c and d in his argument, even expressing the idea that the language used was unsuitable.  Paragraph c is already something that we can reclaim as positive.  We are loved by God and are full members of the body of Christ.  I know too many Christians who have been told that their sexual orientation and gender identity and unacceptable to God.  Let us reclaim this idea which is, after all, an orthodox Anglican belief.  Paragraph c says:

recognises that there are among us persons who experience themselves as having a homosexual orientation. Many of these are members of the Church and are seeking the pastoral care, moral direction of the Church, and God’s transforming power for the living of their lives and the ordering of relationships. We commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons and we wish to assure them that they are loved by God and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ;

Paragraph d should come with a trigger warning.  It does get to the affirming material after some negativity.  It says:

while rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture, calls on all our people to minister pastorally and sensitively to all irrespective of sexual orientation and to condemn irrational fear of homosexuals, violence within marriage and any trivialisation and commercialisation of sex;

Ministry should be always pastoral and sensitive.  Unfortunately, what many of us experience is the exact opposite.  This resolution says what we should receive and what we should expect from the Anglican churches we belong to. 

In time we can work to reclaim other sections relating to marriage, relationships and blessings.  But for now, we must insist that the church abides by its own rules.  We have to start somewhere and this is as good a place to start as any.

The case of the missing theology

One of my jobs this week has been reading a lot of papers for Diocesan Synod.  Usually this is not the most gripping of tasks.  This time, along with many of the usual agenda items, were three items of interest, about women and the church, a draft anti-racism policy and reports of the progress of the Living in Love and Faith process.  Reading all three sets of papers together shows clearly what is going wrong with church today.

All three sets of papers, read together, show three very different strategies to solve the same issue and with no co-ordination or coherence. Each of these three groups has experienced significant marginalisation by the church – and apologies by the Archbishop of Canterbury – but each group is being seen and treated very differently. 

Each of the three reports contained varying amounts of theology, of varying relevance and calibre, but there was a complete absence of even an acknowledgement of the lack of an underlying, encompassing theology of the church and marginalised groups. Until the church does that theology, then each group that experiences marginalisation, and there are many, many more than these three groups, will be vulnerable to being excluded from full participation in the church.

Briefly, the church is treating these three groups in very different ways:

Women are allowed to be ordained to all levels of the church.  Some people disagree with this.  The church response is that special arrangements have been made for those who object to the ordained ministry of women – the Five Guiding Principles – available to view at:

the_five_guiding_principles.pdf (churchofengland.org)

(Finding a list of these on the church of England website was not straightforward).

This settlement allows women to be ordained as bishops but also settles an equal integrity for those who disagree and do not accept the ordained ministry of women or insist on male headship.  Both ‘sides’ are expected to ‘mutually flourish’ and extra bishops like the bishop of Maidstone are in place to minister to those who do not accept women’s ordained leadership.

Race, people of any and all ethnic backgrounds are full members of our churches and at all levels of leadership, including bishop and archbishop.  Some people disagree with this.  The church response is that racism is always wrong and needs to be rooted out of the church.  Targets are to be set for more participation of BAME people, especially in leadership and ordination.  There is a recognition of past failures and a need for work on ‘othering’ and inclusion.

LGBTQ+ people are tolerated in church.  In theory they can be promoted to high office, but in practice they only get promoted to bishop etc if they keep quiet and hide their sexuality.  LGBTQ+ people can get ordained, but have to agree to be celibate for life if they do so.  LGBTQ+ clergy can enter into a civil partnership (legally the church cannot stop them) but will lose their license if they enter into a same sex marriage.  Trans people can get ordained and can get married in their acquired legal gender, but there is a clerical optout to such marriages. Some people disagree with this.  The church response is meaningless apologies and lots of long grass.  Despite significant evidence of the real harm being done to LGBTQ+ people by conservative attitudes and behaviour in the church, there is a lot of talking, even more ‘listening’ and precious little action.  Spiritual abuse and outdated theology are not addressed.

Three different approaches – for women both sides are equal and the settlement has to be honoured no matter the cost, for race the pro equity side is always right and everyone who disagrees is likely to be accused of racism, for LGBTQ+ people toleration at best and abusive attitudes and practices are not addressed.

Jesus was not this inconsistent; He had a bias for the poor and marginalised and took their side against oppressive church authorities.  Mark 7.1 – 23 is almost a case study for Jesus supporting the oppressed and marginalised against the religious leaders. 

‘In vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.  You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition’ v 7- 8.

That is what we are seeing, human tradition being passed off as divine commandment.  As a church we need to learn the lessons of liberation theologies and do the theology of what Jesus actually taught and lived. We need to have a worked-out theology of the church and marginalised people.  We need the Bible’s teaching on the abuse of power and privilege to make sure that all people are included in God’s kingdom and in God’s church.  That means there is a lot of work still to do and a lot of precious traditions to challenge and discard.  We need the missing theology so that all God’s children have an equal place in the church.

Marriage, allegory and the rewriting of history

A long standing legal truism is that January is a good month for divorce lawyers.  After the long Christmas and New Year break, when couples have been forced to spend more time together than usual, it is the time when couples start to think about divorce.  So there is an irony that this is a time when the church is thinking about marriage. 

2020 should have been the year that the Methodist Conference made its decision about whether, as a denomination, to allow Methodist churches to register for same sex marriages and their ministers to perform these weddings.  Due to Covid 19 they were unable to finish their national consultation process so it will be this year’s 2021 conference that will have to decide.  It is expected that this year’s conference will make the decision to go ahead.       The 2019 Marriage and Relationships report (methodist.org.uk)

2021 is also the year when the Church of England enacts its Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process.  The materials were published (  Living in Love and Faith | The Church of England  ) in November and once this year’s process has happened, the Next Steps group (  Living in Love and Faith next steps | The Church of England ) will work out what to do next. 

While the Methodists are explicitly deciding about same sex marriage, the Church of England is aiming for a much broader process.  The best laid plans of church leadership can often go awry, due to factors beyond their control.  Nobody could have anticipated the intervention of a new virus, but the actions of other Christian groups should have been easier to predict.

Almost immediately after the publication of the LLF materials a video was released by the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC).  This had clearly been pre-recorded before the materials had been released and took a view that ‘the Bible is a love story because the Bible is all about marriage’.  There was talk of schism and red lines, but it was the closing down of debate that caused the strongest reaction.

Is marriage really the most important aspect of the Bible and the Christian faith?

Although I can endorse the idea that the Bible tells a story of God’s love for humanity, I think it tells a bigger story than that.  That story has usually been told in four parts – the creation, the fall, the redemption brought about by Christ and the Second Coming at the end of the world. 

There is no marriage in the kingdom of heaven (see Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 22 and Luke 20).  Marriage is a concession for this life and it ends at death.  It is not a heavenly aspiration that we look forward to at the end of all things.

And this is where allegory comes in.  In the days of the early church, literal readings of Scripture were considered superficial at best and heretical at worst.  As the church made new converts among gentiles the only scriptures available to them were the Hebrew scriptures as the New Testament scriptures were still being written.  As new gentile converts read the Hebrew scriptures there was much to learn about God and the history of the Jewish people, but a literal reading made no mention of Jesus.  So different ways of reading scripture developed.  One way was looking for prophesies that pointed to the coming of the Christ.  These still have a place in our liturgies, especially around advent, when the prophesies are read in church as we wait for the coming of the Messiah.   Allegorical readings developed which sought to look deeper into the texts and find meanings that are not apparent on a literal reading.

In the Song of Songs there is material that, on a literal reading, speaks of the love and sexual desire of a man and a woman. The literal reading shows positive endorsement of healthy love and sexual desire.  It is the early Christian writer Origen who is credited with being the first to develop the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs.  He treated it as an allegory of the relation between the soul and God. Later developments gave the interpretation of Christ as the bridegroom and the church as the bride of Christ.  This allegorical way of thinking can be found in later New Testament writing, such as Revelation 19’s image of the marriage of the lamb.

These interpretations only date from New Testament times and are a way of reconciling the lack of explicit mention of Jesus in Hebrew scriptures with the knowledge of the fundamental importance of the Hebrew scriptures to the people of God.  Yet these ideas are absent from Jewish understanding prior to this time.  These interpretations have not ‘been there from the beginning’, but are later ideas that are being read back into scripture.  This is particularly true for the interpretation of Genesis chapter 2.

Genesis 2 is the scripture often cited for the divine origin of marriage.  A selective reading of this describes how God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner’ (verse 18), then describes in verse 22 how God created woman and brought her to Adam – ‘And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.’  The implication being that God intended a woman to be Adam’s partner and that a male – female bond was the divine intent and anything else would be contrary to God’s plan for humanity. 

Jumping from verse 18 to verse 22 misses out some important points.  I reproduce the full NRSV text at the end of this blog. 

God did not impose a partner on Adam.  God presented the created animals first.  Only when these had been rejected by Adam did God go to the next level and create a woman from Adam’s body.  Adam recognised her because she was the same as him.  Not because she was different.  God gave Adam a choice and did not impose a woman on him as his helper.  Once we see that the person who would become Adam’s partner was Adam’s choice rather than part of a divine plan from the beginning then marriage becomes about choice not imposition.

Marriage has never been the only place for procreation either.  We see throughout the Hebrew Scriptures that men would have not only multiple wives but would have legitimate children with women they were not married to, such as concubines, female slaves etc.  Sexual activity in Biblical times was not confined to marriage only.  Many of the greatest figures of the Old Testament would have been in breach of the Church of England’s Issues in Human Sexuality standard.

It is time to stop rewriting history.  Marriage as a divine institution was not the way that marriage was understood in Biblical times.  Marriage was not a higher calling, but a concession to those who could not be celibate. To use Genesis chapter 2 as a divine template for the ‘one and only’ permissible type of marriage ignores the reality of the Biblical text itself.  In a church that recognises not only divorce, but remarriage in church and the use of contraception it is time to stop using marriage as a weapon and instead look to where the Spirit of God in acting and focus on supporting loving couples in healthy God filled relationships.  We need to let God decide whose committed loving relationships will be blessed. 

Genesis chapter 2, verses 18 to 25.

18 Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner’ 19So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. 21So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23Then the man said,
‘This at last is bone of my bones
   and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
   for out of Man this one was taken.’
24Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.

Marriage, divorce and a round of golf

Early last year I was talking to Jayne Ozanne about the Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith project (LLF).   For information about LLF click the link below.

Living in love and faith

Inevitably the phrase ‘long grass’ soon entered our conversation.  My expectation, at least, was that LLF would not solve the problems that the church of England is having in understanding sexuality, identity and relationships but that it might move the conversations forward.  It was that conversation with Jayne that led to the idea of thinking about the long grass like obstacles on a golf course. LLF might not get us to the clubhouse but it might move us onto the next hole on the course and a bit closer to a meal and a drink at the bar.  Or in my case a cup of Earl Grey tea (very Jean-Luc Picard).

This image of church progress like a golf course has been very helpful in seeing how things do develop in this long grass march.

With a lot of time on my hands during lockdown I was able to catch up on some reading, including the excellent, but expensive and very academic, The Church of England and Divorce in the Twentieth Century by Ann Sumner Holmes

I have found that trying to discuss same sex marriage or relationships with some in the Church of England is a waste of time.  As soon as the subject comes up, the conversation gets shut down quickly with bland sayings like ‘I believe marriage is between a man and a woman’ or ‘the Bible says its wrong’ etc.  No discussion, and a real unwillingness to engage with the big questions about what marriage actually is or what healthy relationships look like or what makes a Christian marriage.  To find what the Church of England thinks and believes about marriage, you have to look at divorce. 

The Church of England has produced lots of reports about marriage and divorce and then marriage, divorce and remarriage and then, after more long grass, marriage, divorce, remarriage and remarriage in church.  Lots of kicking the can down the road.  Reading Ann Sumner Holmes’s book, the roadmap became very familiar, the sexuality strategy has been played out before.  It took the Church of England from 1857 until 2002 to accept remarriage in church after divorce.  One hundred and forty-five years. 

As each new Church of England commission produced a report, which went to the dioceses who studied and wrote reports that needed working parties to collate and analyse and then report back on what had been decided, the debate moved slowly forward.  It moved slowly forward because the middle moved.  As people of influence had to engage with material before them on commissions they had to be challenged.  Those who couldn’t accept a report because it didn’t contain X [insert X of choice, parish clergy, working solicitors, marriage counsellors, academic theologians, ethicists etc] had their objections met or exposed for being simply intransigence. 

The path to the current position on divorce shows us the roadmap for the current debates.  In 1857 the Matrimonial causes Act introduced secular divorces by court order into this country.  It gave clergy the right to marry divorced people in church, but it gave them the opt out so no clergy were to be forced to carry out the marriage of a divorced person.  The opt out was personal, so they could not refuse to let their church be used by a different clergyman for the wedding.  It was the bishops who decreed that clergy could not carry out these marriages.

Then that eventually started to break down as parliament introduced further Acts affecting divorce and introduced the idea of the ‘innocent party’ to the divorce.  Then there was pressure on the church to allow the innocent parties to be able to remarry in church, then exceptional cases were allowed to remarry but there was no consensus on what the exceptional circumstances were and who could decide…  This led to that wonderful Anglican fudge of inconsistent practice.  That needed to be studied, of course.  Eventually it had become such a convoluted mess that there was no way to enforce any particular position.  So at the November 2002 General Synod synod voted to rescind the rules prohibiting remarriages and allowed clergy to exercise the right they had always had since 1857.

I took away some lessons from this:

One – parliament always moves first and the church always resists, but as the established church, it has to obey the laws eventually.

Two – the long grass runs out; each patch moves to the next hole and we will reach the clubhouse.

Three – the quadruple lock must go.  When clergy have the legal right to carry out all marriages then they will eventually be able to exercise that right.

Four – it is right that clergy can opt out of officiating marriages they feel is against their conscience, but the church is for all the people and must be for all marriages.  This means removing separate registrations for mixed sex and same sex marriages.  Registration for marriages would be for all marriages.

Five – Make the marriage preliminaries the same for everyone.  That way nobody can be treated differently from others.

With LLF materials soon to be published on November 9th, we are back on the fairway.  It has only taken since February 2017!  Let’s play this out and get through this hole and onto the next one.

Useful links

Marriage consultation paper, see especially chapter 9 . Clock the following link Marriage consultation

Online response form (till 2 December 2020) https://consult.justice.gov.uk/law-commission/weddings/

by e-mail to weddings@lawcommission.gov.uk; or

by post to Weddings Team, Law Commission, 1st Floor, 52 Queen Anne’s Gate, London, SW1H 9AG.

LLF materials

LLF book https://chbookshop.hymnsam.co.uk/books/9780715111673/living-in-love-and-faith