Case not made — The bishop of Bangor’s plea for gay marriage isn’t convincing

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A new letter from the Bishop of Bangor

In his new episcopal letter to the Diocese of Bangor on 2 February 2019 Bishop Andy John does three things.

  • First, he sets out the result of the voting on the issue of same-sex relationships that took place in the Governing Body of the Church in Wales in September 2018 and September 2015.
  • Secondly, he notes the divisions over the issue of same-sex unions within the Anglican Communion and the Christian Church as a whole, the persecution of LGBTI+ people and the way in which for many LGBTI+ people ‘the attitudes and assumptions of the Church today makes a hostile environment in which to survive let alone participate and thrive.’
  • Thirdly, he sets out his own thinking on the issue of same-sex relationships and way forward for the Church in Wales on this matter.

In this response I shall focus on what he says about his own thinking, but I shall also return at the end to the important point about the way in which attitudes and assumptions within the Church create difficulties for people with same-sex attraction.

A critical analysis of his argument

The bishop begins his account of his own thinking by noting what is said in the Old and New Testaments about marriage being between a man and a woman and about the prohibition of same-sex sexual activity as a consequence of this. He comments:

Those Christians who urge the Church to adhere to traditional teaching believe that these texts, taken together, provide a broad and comprehensive prohibition. They rightly point out that whenever the Bible deals with this matter it is always in negative terms and is properly summed up in the oft-repeated phrase: ‘The Church cannot bless what God does not.’

What the Bishop does not then do is explain how the biblical texts to which he has just referred can be understood if his preferred approach of supporting same-sex unions is adopted. He notes that these texts exist, but subsequently ignores them. This is highly problematic because if, as the Church has always held, these texts are part of God’s revelation of his will to the human race, then the bishop needs to offer some account of what they mean for us today. How are we to understand and apply the biblical rejection of all forms of sexual relationship outside marriage (same-sex relationships included)? The Bishop simply does not say.

What he does instead is move on to a number of other biblical texts which other Christians see as supportive of same-sex relationships.

The first text he appeals to is Galatians 5:22-23. He explains that those who are same-sex attracted experience in their relationship with their partner of the same sex ‘the very fruit of the Spirit identified by St Paul as a mark of God’s presence and blessing.’ What he fails to acknowledge however, is that Galatians 5:16-24 needs to be read as a literary unit in which St. Paul contrasts walking by the Spirit to living by the ‘flesh’ (by which he means the desires of fallen human nature).

In Galatians 5:18 Paul specifies that among the works of the flesh are ‘fornication, impurity and licentiousness.’ These are all general terms for sexual immorality, which in the New Testament context means all sexual activity outside marriage. Those who engage in such immorality, he says, ‘shall not inherit the kingdom of God’ (5:21).

By contrast, one of the fruits of the Spirit specified in Galatians 5:23 is egkrateia which means self-control (including sexual self-control) and which in context means avoiding the kind of immoral behaviour previously specified including sexually immoral behaviour. Furthermore, Galatians 5:24 declares ‘those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires’ and in context living this out must mean avoiding sexual immorality since this has been specified as a work of the flesh.

What all this means is that however much those with same-sex attraction may feel they experience the other fruits of the Spirit, according to Galatians 5:16-24 as a whole they are not living according to the Spirit but according to the flesh if they engage in same-sex sexual activity and if they do so they risk exclusion from God’s eternal kingdom.

The second text he appeals to is Matthew 5:16-17 which, he says, declares ‘fruitfulness’ to be the litmus test ‘which reveals the authenticity (or not) of any claim to communion with God and grace.’ In his view this means that we have to ask ‘If the fruit of a relationship is growth in godly character, in what sense can such a relationship could be considered ‘against the will of God’?

The first problem with what the bishop says here is that Matthew 5:16-17 does not say anything about fruitfulness. The text he is actually referring to is Matthew 7:16-17.  The second problem is that Matthew 7:16-17 forms part of the Sermon on the Mount and the opening part of this sermon makes it clear that the ‘good fruit’ referred to in Matthew 7:17-18 is a life which fulfils the ‘law and the prophets’ (Matthew 5:17), by which is meant the teaching of what we call the Old Testament, and that Jesus interpreted the teaching about sexual ethics contained in the Old Testament more rather than less strictly than his Jewish contemporaries (Matthew 5:27-32). 

Given the Old Testament’s rejection of same-sex sexual activity it is therefore impossible to envisage that the good fruit in Matthew 7:17-18 includes a relationship involving such activity.

The bishop then goes on to line up three texts, Acts 10, Acts 15:20-21 and Colossians 2:20-21. His argument is that in Colossians 2:20-21 St. Paul argues on the basis of the gospel that Christians are now free to ignore the teaching of Acts 15:20-21 that Gentiles admitted into the Church on the basis of God’s revelation to St. Peter in Acts 10 should abstain from eating blood and the meat of animals sacrificed to idols. Given this precedent, asks the bishop, is ‘it inappropriate for the church to ask whether the boundaries and limits of this new freedom have been properly explored and understood?’  In other words, can we not claim a freedom from restriction on sexual relationships just as St. Paul claimed a freedom from restriction on eating certain kinds of food?

The problem with this argument is that once again the bishop has ignored the context of the verses to which he refers. As David Gooding explains in his commentary on Acts, [1] what the restriction in Acts 15 is about is Gentiles respecting the consciences of Jewish believers for the sake of the unity of the Church. St. Paul too underlines the importance of this principle of respecting the consciences of others regarding food (see Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8-10). However, in Colossians 2 the issue is different. Here St. Paul is facing teaching which says that it is necessary for Christians to observe the Jewish law in its fullness in order to be saved.  He rejects this for the same reason he rejects similar teaching in Galatians, namely that salvation comes through dying and rising with Christ and not through legal observance.

On closer inspection, therefore, the supposed development from Acts 15 to Colossians 2 collapses and therefore so too does this part of the bishop’s argument.

The bishop’s next move is to argue that we have now moved beyond biblical teaching with regard to slavery, the position of women, divorce, usury and the belief that heaven is above and hell below us. The problem with this line of argument is that for the argument to be convincing the bishop would have to establish, rather than simply assert, that the Bible gives teaching in these areas which we are right to reject and that the principles that would lead us to reject it should also lead us to accept same-sex relationships.  The bishop, however, fails to do this. 

What he does instead is appeal to the idea that discerning the will of God ‘includes reading the Scriptures as well as other sources of authority such as reason, scientific evidence and in serious dialogue with other disciplines.’  There is no problem with the idea of making use of reason and scientific evidence and theology engaging in dialogue with other intellectual disciplines. Christians have been doing this since the Patristic era.

However, because Scripture is directly inspired by God in the way that other human thinking is not we have to avoid seeking to correct Scriptural teaching on the basis of human ideas. It is important to allow reason and science to challenge and refine the way we read the Scriptures, but in the end we have to accept that the Scriptures themselves are supremely authoritative as our basis for understanding God and what it means to live rightly before him (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

In addition the bishop fails to give any explanation of why reason, science and dialogue with other disciplines should re-shape the way we read Scripture on the issue of sexuality.

The bishop goes on to declare that having ministered alongside those in same-sex relationships:

I have come to believe that the Church should now fully include without distinction those who commit to permanent loving unions with a person of the same sex. I further believe that the best way to do this is for the Church to marry these people as we do with men and women.

What this declaration does not tell us is the reasons why he has come to believe this. The fact that he has come to believe this does not mean that anyone else should unless he can show cogent reasons, in line with Scripture, why it would be right for them to do so.

As the Bishop sees it, allowing people of the same sex to marry in Church:

…will strengthen our witness to a world which longs to see justice and fairness for all, regardless of gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation, and cannot understand how the Church is still wrestling with an issue that most people have accepted long ago.

What he is basically saying here is that the Church should conform to the world. The world has a particular understanding of what justice and fairness involves and we need to conform to it. The problem here is that this appeal to the principles of justice and fairness backfires. 

What is normally meant by justice and fairness is giving people what is their due and treating equal cases equally. Contemporary society thinks this involves accepting same sex relationships and being willing to call them marriages. Anything else is seen as unjust and unfair.

However, if God has in fact created a world in which men and women are designed to engage in sexual relationships only with members of the opposite sex and has instituted marriage as a relationship between two people of the opposite sex then we do not owe it to people to say that same-sex relationships are morally acceptable and the principle of treating equal cases equally does not entail calling a relationship between two men or two women a marriage. 

We cannot get away from the basic issue of what kind of a world has God made, and to know that we need to not only look at the evidence of biology which indicates that human bodies are designed for heterosexual sex (which is the point being made by St. Paul in Romans 1:26-27), but supremely the testimony of Scripture which teaches us that our bodies are designed this way by God and that it is God who created marriage as the proper context for heterosexual sex to take place.

Although he personally supports same-sex marriage the bishop also suggests that:

… there are good arguments for developing the Church’s teaching in other ways, for example by introducing a service of life vows or revisiting the question of blessing same sex unions.

However, yet again he does not say what these arguments are or explain how such vows or blessings would be compatible with Scripture if they involved giving official church recognition to same-sex relationships.

Conclusion

For the reasons given above the argument presented by the Bishop of Bangor in his letter is not convincing. He simply does not make out a convincing case for changing the Church’s teaching and practice.

Where he is right, however, is in saying that many people with same-sex attraction experience the Church as a hostile place. However, the proper way to address this is not to change the Church’s teaching.

As Ed Shaw, himself same-sex attracted, argues in his important book The Plausibility Problem[2] the problem lies not with the Church holding that sex should only take place within heterosexual marriage, but with the way in which people within the Church collude with the culture in suggesting that you can’t be happy without sex, value marriage and family life above singleness, and wrongly identify godliness with heterosexuality.

What the Church needs to do, he argues, is recapture the importance of celibacy and singleness and provide a place where everyone is valued, loved and supported regardless of their sexual attraction. That is what is needed, not same-sex marriage.

Reprinted with permission from Anglican Essentials Wales.