Regular readers will know my thoughts on the teaching of the Church on sexuality, and what I understand (in common with the majority of Christians/history) to be the meaning of marriage. They will also know that I review a range of books, mostly books I feel are worth reading. Occasionally, though, I will review a book that I have read and engaged with but do not feel is that good. A recent example was a lengthy review of a book attacking the Resurrection. This book, “Permanent, Faithful, Stable – Christian Same-sex Marriage” by Jeffrey John, is actually a readable and engaging book. But I disagree with its conclusions, even as I appreciated the mostly careful way it is written. This review, then, is not a recommendation, but instead merely a review.
Firstly, then, a little context. Jeffrey John is the Dean of St Albans, and is a civilly-partnered member of the liberal wing of the Church of England. His impressive CV – including being Dean of Divinity at Magdalen College, Oxford, and Canon Chancellor and Theologian of Southwark Cathedral – is most notable for his nomination as a Bishop, which was withdrawn due to the opposition of traditional and evangelical elements within the Church of England. The book being reviewed today, “Permanent, Faithful, Stable: Christian Same Sex Marriage” is an attempt to provide a theological justification for ‘Christian’ same-sex partnerships being given the title of ‘marriage’.
This review is of the version of the work published in 2012, updated since its initial publication in 2000. John’s preface is interesting, and my sympathies were raised as he strongly supports the model of monogamy for all couples/relationships. Given the unfortunate accuracy of naysayers predicting that a legislation of gender-neutral marriage would result in an increased acceptance of polygamy have been proven somewhat right, this is a helpful thing to note. However, the one-sided nature of John’s argument (even as I would recognise the suffering he and his partner Grant have endured) is somewhat frustrating, even in the early stages of this book.
In the introduction, after the Preface but before the chapters, John is helpfully upfront and clear about what he is doing in this book, his argument is that “homosexual relationships should be accepted and blessed by the Church, provided that the quality and commitment of the relationship are the same as those expected of a Christian marriage“. John is very aware of traditional/majority views, and also is honest about the role that his own experience has played in forming his argument. Unfortunately for his case, the observation that “there is no such thing as the perfect Christian gay relationship, any more than one can point to the perfect heterosexual Christian marriage“, sails wide of the point. Marriage is the monogamous, lifelong union of male and female, but even that is only a picture of the true meaning of marriage, the union of Christ and his bride, the Church. That Christianity has always had this eschatological view of marriage, with a male Christ and the church as female Bride, is ignored here by John, and is in my opinion a gaping hole in this stage of the book. The ideal is Christ and the Church, human marriage is just a picture, a picture that reflects the reality.
Throughout this book, and at the start of chapter 1 particularly resonantly, is the reminder of the fact that the Church has not treated homosexual people well at all. This is absolutely true, but does not mean that the Church is thus wrong on the issue. I am grateful for Justin Welby’s call for repentance regarding institutional homophobia, that is something we can affirm fully in Johns writing too. John uses the example of divorce as an ethical issue that we are often not bible-following in. Similarly women in leadership. There are many reasons why John’s argument here is weak, and he fails to engage with them. There is not even a mention of books such as “Slaves, Women and Homosexuals”, or the concept that the liberalisation of divorce law is also not good thing, that falls short of God’s ideal.
The rest of Chapter 1, ostensibly responding to the question ‘Is It Scriptural?’, is disappointing. John gives less than ten (small) pages of attention to the biblical texts regarding same-sex activity, which is telling. Furthermore, rather than discussing what the Bible teaches about sexuality more generally, there are unsubstantiated interpretations imposed on texts. John’s lengthier (by the standards of this book, but limited compared to books such as those pictured below) discussion of ‘Creation and Natural Law’ goes some way towards engaging with the issues, but fails to engage with notions of difference, biblical pictures of marriage, or compassionate conservative engagements with these texts and issues. This chapter closes with an interesting thought implied about comparing Babylon to modern culture, but in a way that doesn’t exactly support John’s argument!
The second chapter deals with the key question (though there is a sense of resignation for a conservative reader given John’s approach to and interpretation of Scripture) of ‘Is It Moral?’. This chapter continues a slightly frustrating discussion of the ‘Natural Law’ argument, seemingly focusing on Plato at the expense of scripture, and ignoring or discounting engagements with the topic from conservative Christian sources. In arguing against even more liberal Christian views, in my opinion John fails to show why his approach is any different, why it does not fall foul of the same issues he accuses other writers of; the ironic observation that “they offer no engagement with the deep mainstream of Christian teaching…“.
The final chapter from the original book, and the third in this edition, looks at the question of ‘Is It Achievable?’. An engagement with this chapter will result from the reader’s (or reviewers) views on how successful Johns engagement with questions of Scripture and Morality has been, and so for me it is something of a formality – I think the foundations of the argument in this book are wrong, so this chapter is somewhat ‘academic’. I make my observation that John singularly fails to provide any evidence for his claims regarding the kinds of relationships he now wants to see recognised as marriage. This is frustrating, and slightly surreal.
There is later in this third chapter a discussion of how he would like to see such relationships modelled amongst the clergy. This discussion happens despite a lack of consideration of whether qualifications for marriage and leadership are the same, and has the sad irony of the statement “the position is all the more ironic because if there is a single group of people who desperately need an ideal and role models to exemplify it, it is gay people“. To me, this seems almost ironically homophobic, if not at best patronising or at worst ignorant of the plight of other sections of society. All this said, I am grateful (even if, as this review is probably demonstrating, I am on the other side of the ideological fence) for John’s observation that “The Gospel does not allow a divergence between public and private moralities, and political expediency is not a Christian virtue“. I couldn’t agree more with that statement.
As this review comes to a close, I note the 4th chapter, a brief ‘Postscript 2012’, and again agree with John’s observations regarding the homophobia of Church history. I resent his charge that “there is still not a glimmer of repentance“, though perhaps this is because I am glad of the tone taken by many senior leaders, even whilst articulating a conservative position, in recent months. I would commend recent books such as Wesley Hill’s superb ‘Washed and Waiting‘ and Sam Allberry’s brilliantly accessible ‘Is God Anti-Gay?‘ as being compassionate conservative, Christlike book-length engagements with this topic.
I don’t agree with the conclusions, nor even the argument and content, of this slim book. But I am glad I read it, because it is an engageable-with presenation of a viewpoint. Jeffrey John’s little book is a welcome voice in the discussion, but in my opinion it is not a strong one, or one that advances the conversation.