While I’ve not met Jayne in real life, we’ve interacted on Twitter and Facebook in various ways. The topic of conversation is often the church and its attitude to LGBT people and theology. It was with some interest, then, that I noticed that Jayne has edited and self-published a short book of essays on this question, from and for an Anglican context. The timing of the book is deliberate for internal Anglican politics, coming as it does ahead of General Synod, and much of the coverage thus far has noted this, such as this article from Christian Today. I’m simultaneously fascinated by this book – I am an evangelical Christian who lives in the UK, and work for an Anglican organisation, and care deeply about issues of mission and inclusion – and yet also had a serious sense of deja-vu. But I digress.
The context of this book is incredibly important. It sets itself up as being a ‘middle way’ type of collection, with contributions from a range of ‘leading evangelicals’ (two terms that need to be clarified, and probably shouldn’t, in my personal opinion, be used together) around the premise: ‘Is it possible to hold a positive view of same-sex relationships while being a biblically rooted evangelical? These writers believe so’. This is a very Anglican book – with contributions from bishops and other clergy, and endorsements from other bishops and some senior lay people. But this book offers nothing new, so far as I can tell, having read it through twice, and tried to be fair.
The premise of this book is that it is possible to be a ‘biblically rooted evangelical’ and to also have a ‘positive view of same-sex relationships’. There is some clever disingenuity even in these two short phrases, and it would perhaps have been easier and more honest for the book to be mooted as it actually is, as a challenge to evangelicals and the Church of England to reimagine and revise its Doctrine of Marriage to allow same-sex couples to marry in church. In her foreword, Ozanne writes ‘The critical question for all of us, I believe, is to ask what is the Spirit saying to our Church today?‘. This is absolutely true, a vital question, and one that cannot be answered in Anglican isolation any more than it can be discussed in abstract terms about ‘the church’ generally. It is unfortunate, then, that this book leans so heavily on books that have already been challenged. There is very little new argument here, with one of the key references being Jeffrey John’s ‘Permanent, Faithful, Stable‘, which I personally found very difficult to agree with. On the ‘evangelical’ front, it was disappoint to note what one might see as ‘the usual suspects’ explaining a change of mind. Matthew Vines, whose own ‘God and the Gay Christian‘ has, in my view, an inadequate theological anthropology, and Ken Wilson, whose ‘A Letter to My Congregation‘ led to little but division and disharmony amongst other things, are two of the authors whose books are positively referenced.
The list of contributors is fascinating – even if the way that the author’s biographical blurbs are clearly set up to establish the ‘evangelical credentials’ of the writers – and reflects an interesting pulling together of leaders and writers. No doubt some evangelicals, particularly Anglican evangelicals, will be dismayed to see Colin Fletcher’s name in the book. But it is worth noting what he writes:
“Now, let me be clear, I am not personally arguing for a change in the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman. I still think that it is a strong position to defend theologically. However, what I am pleading for is an openness amongst evangelicals to discuss a range of differing beliefs to their own and to engage biblically with those who hold them“
This is both reassuring and frustrating. Reassuring in that Fletcher is one of the contributors who cannot be counted as, bluntly, a fully signed up ‘revisionist’, but frustrating in that, again bluntly, many evangelicals have discussed a range of differing beliefs and engaged them. I’m reminded of Ian Paul’s blog, of Living Out, and a number of books I’ve mentioned or reviewed that can be found on my bibliography on this topic. It is a straw man to say that evangelicals aren’t open – we are, we’ve just found certain arguments wanting. I’d even plug my own ISRLC paper on 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, which gives some more context on why Christians have a particular view of sexual ethics.
One chapter that I found particularly difficult to appreciate was one that has recieved significant media interest. Paul Bayes, currently Bishop of Liverpool (J.C. Ryle springs to mind as being in a different direction) has written ‘Open Table, Open Mind’, which is a passionate but ultimately flawed call for inclusion. He simply doesn’t make an argument. The biblical interpretation questions have all been engaged with in various ways – a robust example is the Vineyard USA Position Paper – and so I’m not entirely clear what Bishop Bayes is actually arguing for. I’ve written about the way that the Lords Table is a place of welcome and transformation – I’m not clear whether Bayes is asking for a rethink of Eucharistic thought in the Church of England, or if he is actually just asking for a revision of the Doctrine of Marriage.
Two chapters that do need to be carefully read by those of us who take a ‘non-affirming’ perspective, are those which are more personal and experiential. Marcus Green and Hayley Matthews write two separate chapters which do bring personal stories into the conversation. This is important, as are the stories of those who disagree with a revisionist stance whilst identifying as gay or same-sex-attracted like Sam Allberry, Wesley Hill, Jonathan Berry, Rob Wood or any of the Living Out group. It is important to recognise the bravery of Marcus and Hayely in sharing their story – but stories alone, particularly as stories can lead us in a variety of directions – are not enough to change Doctrine or practice. If we are looking to what the Spirit might be saying to the Church today, we cannot focus only on one narrative or one kind of story, other than Scripture.
One chapter that I did find helpfully provocative was ‘A Lifetime of Learning’ by Anthony Archer. Whilst Archer doesn’t exactly bring anything new to the table, I think he is exactly right in his observation that “Over this particular issue it is doubtful whether further scholarship will aid the debate. In some ways the debate has already gone beyond one of biblical interpretation and become a matter of ecclesiology and church order“. I agree. I’m personally of the opinion that the scholarship is clear, and that the implications of this for Church order are also clear. I wonder whether the Church of England could learn from Vineyard USA, whose position paper on this topic gives clear direction whilst advocating for love. This, in tandem with the C of E’s historic understanding and application of Doctrine and polity, would seem to be a comprehensive starting point for moving forward rather than remaining mired in conversations.
Running through many of the chapters of this book is a question mark over whether this particular issue is important enough for schism. I think Wolfhart Pannenberg, a respected German Systematic Theologian has put it well:
“Here lies the boundary of a Christian church that knows itself to be bound by the authority of Scripture. Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism. If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church“
Note that Pannenberg is not directing his comments against people who identify as LGBT*. This is important, because all people are made in the Image of God, which has implications, but rather to those advocating certain things in the life of the church. We’ve already seen what happens when an Anglican-esque church abandons the biblical model of marriage, that ‘relevance’ does not equal growth.
As this review draws to a close, then, my fascination has fully turned to deja-vu. It is telling that this particular book is effectively self published – it seems to add little genuinely new to the conversation. It is important to talk about these things – I do so on this blog and in real life often – but it is also important to be honest about what we are doing and what we are claiming. In my opinion, ‘Journeys in Grace and Truth’ is a book of its time, and clearly targeted to an evangelical Anglican audience. I just hope that in the spirit of understanding and learning, for the sake of mission and ministry, this book will not be the only thing that people read.
As ever, I welcome comments, and have got a more detailed review, engaging with each chapter, on the back burner. I honestly wanted to learn something new from this book, for it to take the conversation on. I’m sorry to say that this isn’t that book.