This is my initial response after reading this discussion book produced by the Church of England:
An initial response to “Living In Love And Faith”
Steve Flashman 8th March 2021
I have read the document in full, watched all of the videos and looked at the exercises and group work.
- The video interviews represented a broad spectrum of views and experiences which I appreciated.
- I found the facts, figures, historical and cultural overview together with statistics interesting.
- There is an emphasis on listening to one another and walking together in love which I also appreciate.
- I understand the emphasis on the love of God, but I think there is a danger to assume that God’s love for us gives us permission to live any way we wish, which of course, is not the case. Grace and truth go hand in hand.
- I appreciated and agree with this phrase in the last section of the report, The Appeal: “This work demands from us that together we face our differences, divisions and disagreements honestly, humbly and compassionately, and that together we stand against homophobia, transphobia and all other unacceptable forms of behaviour, including demeaning those whose views are different from our own.”
This is my broad response.
Firstly, I am deeply concerned at the lack of any bishops within our Diocese who hold to the traditional view of marriage. I fear that the important conversations we need to have and the ability to really hear one another, will be adversely influenced, knowing that we have a hierarchy that profoundly disagrees with the orthodox view.
Secondly, “Living In Love And Faith” has prompted me to re-examine my position with an open mind. I was honestly ready to change my view of marriage after re-visiting books and resources from eminent people on both sides of the debate. If anything, my view of traditional marriage has been strengthened as a result of my study and research. This is a critical debate and the future of the Church of England as we know it is at stake.
My background informs my conclusions:
My life as a Baptist minister, an itinerant evangelist and then as an Anglican Vicar, has led me into numerous encounters with LGBTQ/SSA people in many parts of the world and I have always been welcoming and non judgemental.
I have worked with marginalised people for most of my ministry. I have never looked for or desired to create a “career path” in the church for this very reason. Working in the developing world involved supporting people in desperate circumstances that traditional church and major missionary organisations overlooked. For example, supporting with medical and practical help women in the Kibera Slum, Nairobi who had become prostitutes out of necessity to earn money to feed their children. Gay people and drug addicts pushed to the margins of society and left to fend for themselves in the ghettoes of South America and the slums of Africa, ostracised by churches who couldn’t find room for the kind of people Jesus loved and lived alongside.
Sarah and I were joint leaders of our last parish in Chichester. It became known as “the hospital church”, partly because it was set in the grounds of a de-commissioned NHS hospital site. We found that people would gravitate towards our church community from other churches where they felt unwelcomed. Different people, different backgrounds and experiences including professional people and the socially disadvantaged.
- A 170 strong community choir, the majority of whom were not “religious” with a number of gay people who were welcomed along with everyone else. Choir rehearsal nights often became a kind of church for people who didn’t feel able to come to church on a Sunday for whatever reason, many of whom asked for prayer.
- In church we welcomed a family where one partner was transitioning. We had to deal with some challenging pastoral issues, especially with the children involved. We tried our best to walk alongside the family.
- Sarah particularly had an ongoing pastoral/friendship with an older gentleman who identified as a woman. She was welcomed and loved and attended the mother and toddlers group. One time she asked where the ladies toilets were. The young mums found that difficult.
- We had numerous single parent families and divorced people who felt comfortable because they were welcomed and loved.
- Several people with severe mental health problems whose behaviour during worship might be deemed “unacceptable” in another church context, were welcomed and loved.
All were welcomed, accepted, valued, included and loved.
Currently, in one of my parishes, we have an openly gay couple. They attend our online services and they received communion from me in church. Sarah and I count them as our friends. We have accepted their hospitality on a number of occasions in their home where I have also prayed for them – with no personal agenda. They are warm, lovely people.
Similarly, Sarah has just renewed friendship with a man with whom she studied nursing many years ago. He has been married to another man for 35 years and by all accounts is in a stable, loving relationship. Sarah is delighted to renew contact again.
In Quainton and Oving, all are welcome. All are included in the life of the church. We are trying to cultivate a welcoming church for all. We do not exclude people and we do not judge people.
But, given all of the above, I still hold to a traditional view of marriage. This hasn’t prevented me from being in supportive friendships with those in the gay community who hold a different view. We love and accept each other anyway and we are not afraid to publicly embrace and show affection and friendship.
But there is a big problem looming.
Over the last 20 years, I know that many of my colleagues have felt marginalised and intimidated by gay activists who shout “homophobic” as soon as someone has a different view. This of course, closes down the debate. Conversely, there are militant voices in the “traditional marriage” lobby who also make it difficult to have a grown up conversation about these important matters. Having said that, some of my colleagues live in fear of intimidation and ultimate exclusion from church life – as has happened in North America.
The Episcopal Church attended by my sister-in-law in Los Angeles felt marginalised and finally excluded because the priest could not in all good conscience marry a gay couple. Rt. Rev. William Love, Bishop of Albany was accused by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, of violating his ordination vows because he could not go along with the Episcopal Church’s demonstrated intent to ensure all dioceses allow same-sex marriages. Bishop Love, who was found guilty at a subsequent hearing, has clearly stated, “I strongly disagree with the decision of the Hearing Panel, particularly their belief that I violated my ordination vows…” He subsequently resigned. I am surprised that Bishop Michael Curry who was very eloquent in his preaching about love at the Royal Wedding, should have created this intolerable situation for William, whose surname, ironically, is “Love”.
I believe it’s only a matter of time before we see similar situations in our own country if the Church of England changes its doctrine of marriage. Certainly this will be the case if Jayne Ozanne and other militants have their way.
Recently, Jayne, a member of Diocesan Synod and General Synod and a high-profile campaigner for same sex marriage, has been using the language of ‘abuse’ and criminality in the discussion about the Church’s doctrine on marriage. At a meeting with a group of celibate, gay Christians at St Aldate’s church, in Oxford, Jayne said that they exhibited the ‘worst kind of homophobia’ by being kind whilst still believing in the Church’s teaching that marriage was between one man and one woman. She commented, ‘I felt loved and abused at the same time’. Now she wants a public enquiry to criminalise churches she calls homophobic.
David Bennett, a gay Christian who chooses to live a celibate life, has stated that he feels under pressure from people like Jayne in the gay community. He writes, “Central to my living healthily and happily with my same-sex attractions have been conversations and prayers with Christian pastors and friends. None have ever sought to coerce me into behaving in a certain way – or change my sexuality. Indeed the only contexts in which I have felt unwelcome pressure to change my beliefs and behaviour have been from gay Christians who have rejected orthodox church teaching – and the wider culture that thinks I am crazy to embrace it. They are, ironically, the ones that are seeking to convert me – and others in my position.”
One reason that the church has become so bitterly divided over what constitutes a Biblical Sexual Ethic is that the community of faith has uncritically accepted the prevailing cultural agenda, the very thing that Jesus warns against in the letters to the seven churches in the book of Revelation.
Classical Anglican teaching is held to be rooted in the three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason based on Richard Hooker’s teaching in The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. More recently, some have argued for the addition of a fourth leg, that of Experience.
So how are we to approach this debate?
First approach: Some hold that in the light of the changing values and attitudes of the culture in which we live, Scripture, Tradition and Reason are to be interpreted differently and that Experience should carry much more weight. Whenever throughout history the church has been driven by contemporary culture, holiness and spiritual life have suffered. (The 7 Churches of Revelation)
Second approach: Scripture, Tradition and Reason should be the starting point where a robust theological faithfulness to Scripture is the foundation and a courageous, unconditional love and acceptance of all people is our pastoral response.This continues to be my approach.
LILAF Quote: “Familiarity with the Bible may be uneven around the Church of England, and rapidly vanishing in wider society, but it remains the bedrock of our faith. If we are trying to discern God’s will for our relationships and for the forms of intimacy that we enjoy, it is natural and necessary for us to turn to its pages.”
The then Bishop of Lewes, the Rt Revd Richard Jackson, now Bishop of Hereford, described the 2017 General Synod as “a theological train crash . . . of conflicting pain narratives.” People spoke with passion about their personal experience, and this was the prime focus of the debate. He went on to say, “We have to make decisions on the basis of biblical theology, not on the basis purely of listening to people’s experiences.”
By all accounts the debate was personalised and story-driven. There was little theological reflection.
We have all heard the horror stories about how the LGBTQ community has been ostracised and marginalised by the church. This disgraceful treatment of people has to stop but this can’t be our starting point.
Starting with “stories” and “experience” sounds plausible because we are desperate that people should not be hurt by the church any longer. However, if that is our starting point, we have no foundation on which to build a framework in which all can thrive and find the abundant life that Jesus spoke about, affirming and non-affirming alike. People have been hurt on both sides of the debate.
On the one hand pro-gay activists demand the church’s unqualified acceptance of homosexuality; on the other, extreme Christian moralists hold to an unqualified condemnation of their homosexual brothers and sisters. Consequently, the church has become increasingly polarized. We need to foster compassionate and carefully reasoned theological reflection within the community of faith, encouraging one another to be ruthless in searching out a robust Christian ethic within a Biblical framework and to work this out with an unqualified love and acceptance of all people.
Among the books I have read and studied more recently are:
- “The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation. A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics” by Richard Hays
- “The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics” by Robert Gagnon (Classic, 500 page, meticulously researched, in depth study of Biblical texts, their cultural background and current context.)
- “Undivided” by Vicky Beeching (A heart rending personal story of how Vicky “came out” as a gay Christian and how this affected her life and music ministry)
- “God And The Gay Christian” by Matthew Vine (Matthew presents his view of how the Bible supports same sex marriage.)
- “A Response To God And The Gay Christian” by a number of theologians including R. Albert Mohler Jr. (A number of theologians have written this as a response to Matthew Vines interpretation of Scripture)
- “People To Be Loved” by Preston Sprinkle (Through listening to the stories of LGBTQ friends and humbly considering their viewpoints, Preston challenges those on all sides of the discussion to be theologically robust and courageously loving and accepting of all)
- “Gay Girl God God” by Jackie Hill Perry: (Lesbian who tells her story about how she came to a traditional view of marriage)
- “A War Of Loves” by David Bennett. (The unexpected story of a gay activist discovering Jesus. A very honest and personal story on one person’s challenging journey)
- Digital Leaders Forum: The Centre For Faith, Sexuality and Gender. (Video Sessions with a lot of input from his friends in the LGBT+ community. Whatever conclusion you come to, I thoroughly recommend signing up to this course. A comprehensive bibliography is included from writers on both sides of the debate)
At the end of the day, isn’t it all about love? Love is a dominant theme in “Living In Love And Faith.” The big question for many people is this: “If two people of the same sex truly love each other and are committed to each other and God is love, how is their love not from God? How can love be wrong?”
One of my Anglo Catholic friends from another diocese, wrote to me recently and said: “I would argue that we need to start with love and then scripture which will lead to reason and tradition (which then becomes loosely held on with old Sellotape rather than gorilla glue).”
But surely that’s the wrong starting point. The first question to ask is:
“What is marriage?” Is marriage the union between two consenting adults, who fall in love and are committed to each other, or is marriage the union between two sexually different persons?
For me there are three basic questions to ask:
- How do we define marriage?
- Where did we get that definition from?
- How does Scripture inform our definition of marriage?
We have to distinguish between “love” and a “sexual ethic.” Our current debate is in danger of sanitising a Biblical sexual ethic by saying that God is love, so we should love everybody. Yes we should love everybody, but we should also follow a Biblical standard of sexual ethics. Jesus spoke about sexual ethics, so did Paul. Jesus demonstrated his love for the marginalised and the people that society deemed as socially unacceptable, but he didn’t endorse everything that they did or stood for.
“Living In Love And Faith”: The section looking at various Biblical texts – The Holiness Code in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, Jesus teaching on marriage which makes a connection with the created order in Genesis, Paul’s teaching in Romans which also points back to the created order and the Timothy passage – I felt that all of these passages were explored in a balanced way giving different interpretations of the text. Given the complexities of the arguments it’s not surprising that there are a few glaring omissions as far as I can see:
- There is no “trajectory” or development of thought on the issue of sexual ethics as in other areas such as slavery and the role of women in leadership. (The kind of slavery we read about in the Old Testament was nothing like the exploitative slavery that William Wilberforce fought against – slavery was abolished in England in 1833). The “women in leadership” issue is one of church order not sexual ethics, so is a bit of a red herring. This is not adequately drawn out in the report.
- One argument sometimes given about the relevance of The Holiness Code passages (Leviticus and Deuteronomy) is that some prohibitions we no longer observe. For instance, pigs being unclean, not wearing clothes of wool and linen together etc. Jesus words in Matthew 5:17 about him “fulfilling the law” is worked out in his ministry. He declared foods clean (Mark 7:19, reiterated in Acts 10:9-16) He touched lepers and dead bodies and was not made unclean. He cancelled out the temple regulations and its sacrificial system and the OT laws concerning civic life. However, the moral commandments of the OT are re-stated in the NT, including those concerning sexual ethics.
- In my view, the Sodom and Gomorrah argument is irrelevant to the debate.
The debate polarises people. You either affirm same sex marriage and therefore love gay people OR you do not affirm same sex marriage and therefore are homophobic. This is the dominant narrative in the media and popular culture and Christians tend to be driven by that agenda. Labelling someone homophobic when they really are not, is a trump card to play because the debate is immediately closed down and there is no room for a grown up, considered debate.
I have wrestled with this because of the pressure from the extremists on both sides of the debate. However, I have found through my life that you can have true friendships with LGBTQ people with honour, respect and love whilst at the same time holding a traditional view of marriage.
Andrew Marin has been working with the church and LGBT relations since 2001 and has a wealth of knowledge and experience. Over a 6-year period, he conducted a massive research project on the religious background of LGBT people. There were over 20,000 individual qualitative results in the surveys which were carried out and these were analysed by an outside consulting firm led by Andrew Means of the University of Chicago. Since these issues are contentious and studies like this are prone to bias, Marin invited two scholars from polar opposite ideologies to examine his methodology: Dr. J. Michael Baily of North Western University, an atheist who is a proponent of LGBT issues, and Dr. Mark Yarhouse of Regent University, a conservative Christian psychologist. In Marin’s own words: “they both stand behind me in the findings” of the study.
(The results and analysis of this study are published in Andrew Marin’s book: Us Versus Us: The Untold Story of Religion and the LGBT People – Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2016).
Statistics. 83% of LGBT people were raised in the church 51% of LGBT people left their faith community after the age of 18. Only 3% said they left primarily because of the church’s belief that same-sex marriage was wrong.
76% of LGBT people who left are open to returning to the church as long as the church makes some changes. Only 8% said that the church would need to change their theology of marriage for them to return. They left for relational reasons.
Conclusion from the study: It’s not the church’s theology that has driven LGBT people away—by their own admission. It’s been the church’s lack of love and care – its posture.
One of the conclusions of “Living In Love And Faith”:
“When we consider the experiences of other Christian churches, we find three broad approaches to questions of sexuality and marriage.
One approach maintains the Church’s traditional teaching but stresses listening to and walking alongside individuals who live differently. The Church of England’s current official approach is similar to this.
A second approach permits local churches to respond in different ways. For instance, some might bless or conduct same-sex marriages, while others might continue to view them as wrong. One question, however, is whether this is possible without changing church doctrine, liturgy or law. Can a church bless or marry a same-sex couple while teaching marriage is between one man and one woman?
So a third approach is to change the church’s doctrine of marriage.”
I fear that the third approach is the direction of travel in the Church.
If the church’s doctrine of marriage is changed, we will also need to change our doctrine of the church as the bride of Christ and our doctrine of the end times, the marriage feast of the Lamb in Revelation. “The Spirit and the Bride say come…” The complementarity of marriage between one woman and one man is a model of our relationship with God. Paul calls this “a mystery”. “’For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ 32 This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church.” Ephesians 5:31-32
A senior figure in Church House, Oxford has stated publicly, in the context of a lesbian wedding and the report, “Living In Love And Faith”, that our diocese “is one of the most forward thinking in the country.” Forward thinking according to what criteria? Scripture? Tradition? Reason? Experience? Contemporary Culture?
I fear that many people in our churches will be vaguely aware of references in the Bible to homosexuality, the so called “prohibition passages” and will conclude that they are irrelevant, outdated and unfit for the modern “enlightened” age in which we live. They will have been exposed to the horror stories of people who have been hurt by the church, and will want to address this without understanding that there might be a better way of loving, welcoming and caring for all people that both honours God and honours people made in his image.
Rev Steve Flashman, 8th March 2021+