Sexuality: A Third Way?

What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to follow Jesus with every part of ourselves? Doesn’t the traditional teaching of the Church on sex and relationships put people off? Isn’t it impossible not to have sex before marriage? Shouldn’t the Church adapt to the way culture is calling us?

Why do some parts of the Church insist on being ‘on the wrong side of history’?

As I noted in a recent book review, contemporary questions of sex and spirituality are wrapped up with so much, infused into every relationship and shaping the very way we communicate as human beings. Should the Church be crippled, unable to speak and act and love into this conversation?

Regular readers of this blog in its former, lengthier-and-slightly-less-wordpress-y incarnation will know that I am very interested in people, meaning, truth and words. One conversation inside and outside the Church that has challenged me immensely, and one that requires careful thought and prayerful study alongside real engagement with people, is what the Church should or shouldn’t do around issues of sexuality. The Church of England is on the cusp of making some progress in some direction (or no progress, or something else, it isn’t clear) on who can do what with whom. For a way forward, does the C of E need to look further afield?

The Vineyard Movement in the USA is a Charismatic, evangelical and missional church denomination that has a ‘position paper’ on Pastoring LGBT Persons. Whilst it is predominantly theological (offering a position to pastor from, rather than a set of guidelines to pastor with) it is pretty thorough, and pretty traditional in its ultimate conclusions. You can read it, though it is over 90 pages long. In a previous book review of a book about sexuality, evangelicalism and the Church of England I alluded to that position paper, and what it could teach the C of E. With the various factions (Bluntly, two ‘sides’, unfortunately) within the C of E gearing up to respond to what the Bishops might suggest, I was encouraged by an interview with Sam Allberry and Ed Shaw, both members of the C of E’s General Synod (think, however innacurately, of an Anglican Parliament, and you’ve roughly got it) who also happen to be members of Living Out.

At the risk of over-simplification, there are broadly two ‘ways’ to go with regards to the Church and sexuality. In the blue corner, you have the traditional position (that marriage is the appropriate place for sex, and marriage is between one man and one woman), and their way would be to continue with the Church’s present teaching, ideally pastorally and emotionally sensitive (Because there is, thankfully, an increasing recognition amongst ‘the blue team’ that there has been terrible injustice done in the name of truth in the past). In the red corner, you have the revisionist position, a way which would seek to overturn the Church’s present teaching, and move on ‘into the future'(this ‘way’ would include those arguing that marriage can/should be opened up to couples of the same sex/gender, as well as those using this as a launch-pad for even more radical theology). Naturally, you can probably tell where I land, but I hope this summary is reasonable enough. A lot of discussion has been had about what a ‘third way’ might look like. For the Vineyard Movement in the USA, a ‘third way’ was proposed by Ken Wilson, who at the time of initially writing was a Vineyard pastor. As I noted in my (lengthy!) review of his book ‘A Letter to My Congregation’, what Ken was offering was not a third way, but rather the ‘red team’ masquerading as the ‘blue team’.

I wonder, then, whether Living Out are offering a real ‘third way’. Instead of focusing on the present debates, they provoke us to re-orient ourselves towards Jesus. Below I link to two interviews. The first is more ‘political’, focused on the C of E situation. The second is longer, and is a brilliant example of a man who follows Jesus at considerable personal cost to how our culture views happiness and fulfilment, trying to explain that to a radio presenter. He isn’t buying into the binary options of the sexuality debate, but pointing towards Jesus in a way that I find incredibly compelling:

Listen to this snippet of a BBC Radio 4 Interview, with Martin Bashir talking to Ed Shaw and Sam Allberry.

Ed also had a longer interview, where he explored his perspective in more detail.

They provoke us to consider telling a ‘Better Story‘, and I loved what _ said:

On the whole issue of culture, the person I want to follow is Jesus. And Jesus, when asked questions about sexual ethics went back to the foundation documents of the Bible… And he said that this stuff written centuries ago, is what should inform followers of God today

In response to a very apt question by  Martin Bashir, about being on the wrong side of history, Ed put it brilliantly:

The program I want to get with is God’s program…
The program set out in the person and work of Jesus Christ

The folk at Living Out offer a challenge to both ‘sides’ in this debate, inside and outside of the Church. They are choosing obedience to Jesus over their own desires, their own wants, in the face of a bewildering plethora of options and a culture that would celebrate with pride them choosing to go another way. Whether they are right or wrong, I firmly believe that the stories of people like Ed, Sam and others need to be heard. There is, of course (and as this post by Rachel Held Evans reminds us, we need to be careful with stories) the danger of projecting one story onto a group of people. There is equally and pertinently the danger of seeing the need for a number, or quota, of stories to be told in order to make a point.

The biggest danger, though, that Church faces in conversations about sexuality is that it ignores the primary character in all of our stories: the person, life, teaching and work of Jesus.

It may be that the folk at Living Out are wrong – just as I may well be wrong in my opinion and interpretation here. The challenge they offer to the Church, though, so often missing in this conversation, is to look to Jesus, beyond ourselves, and to keep talking. Schism and division may come – but people will continue to exist long after any denomination has prevaricated or discussed or positioned. And people, according to Jesus, are to be loved.

Comments, as ever, are very much welcomed.

Do check out Living Out’s excellent website.

I actually wrote about this broad issue in more detail a couple of years ago. On a ‘practical’ and ‘academic’ note, you may enjoy my paper for the 2015 Vineyard Churches UK and Ireland Theology Symposium, ‘Stuck in the Middle with You: Seeing and Following the Spirit, an exercise in Vineyard epistemology‘, which looks at how the Vineyard and similar charismatic churches are well-situated to navigate contentious questions like this. The below quote is found towards the end of the paper:

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