Journeying in grace and truth?

Ian Paul looks at the arguments of self-styled evangelical supporters of same-sex marriage put forward in “Journeying in grace and truth” and finds them lacking in rigor.

This weekend, General Synod are having their own ‘Share Conversations’ on sexuality as the closing event of this process in the Church. I was a bit fed up to learn that members were going to be circulated with not one but two books advocating (in some way or other) for a change in the Church’s teaching, since this was supposed to be a process of listening and not lobbying. In the end, I have been quite glad to read the one edited by Jayne Ozanne, entitled Journeys in Grace and Truth, because it does clarify a number of issues. (You can read Tom Creedy’s review here.) I offer here not a systematic review (since it is not a systematic book), but reflections on some of the issues the different chapters raise.

Jayne’s introduction includes a brief account of her extremely painful journey, about which she has spoken many times before. In one sense, it is not possible to hear this account too many times, and anything that might contribute to the ending of the kind of practices she was subjected to must be welcome—not least because it is not just people like Jayne who are abused by such ill-informed and irresponsible approaches to deliverance. But she beings with an account of a secret conversation, in which some important but unnamed cleric confides:

‘Jayne, I’m with you pastorally, honestly I am. It’s just I’m not quite there theologically yet.’

This quotation suggests two things. First, it seems to assume that we know what a pastoral response to a complex situation is by some intuitive means, and that our theological thinking functions simply to provide some rationale for a conclusion we have reached on other grounds. I am not convinced that this is a helpful or a healthy way to go about things, not that it matches what many people actually do. It marginalises processes of reflection in favour of an intuition which is not then protected from self-interest or self-delusion. The second thing it suggests is that change comes to the Church by stealth; we all secretly change our minds, and only then look around to see whether others have done the same. Even on this contentious issue that is odd, since there are now so many dissenting and debating voices in the public sphere.

Jayne calls this a collection of stories by ‘leading evangelicals’, which is an odd description, not least because one of the authors makes the point that he is ‘just an ordinary bloke you won’t have heard of.’ It is not clear that to be an archdeacon, and to have identified as evangelical in the past, makes you a ‘leading evangelical’; Paul Bayes has never been known as an evangelical of any sort, and Hayley Matthews states she is now a liberal catholic. But Jayne also tells us that she knows they all ‘hold an affirming view,’ which several state isn’t true. Colin Fletcher plainly states this isn’t the case; Marcus Green doesn’t state his view (though hints he might be writing something else); David Newman says he does not believe that same-sex relationships should be called marriage; and David Runcorn has consistently said his view is not settled.

Jayne also makes an interesting claim, which asserts that gay Christians are not just equal to others, but superior to them: ‘Please know that in my mind you bear the stigmata of Christ’. This superiority was hinted at in the title of Alan Wilson’s book, More Perfect Union? and the same claim was made by David Gillett last month:

Had the privilege of speaking at Bloomsbury Baptist Church in London at a Two 23 celebration, for LGBT Christians, their families and Allies. Afterwards it was great to share with so many of them for drinks and a meal in the pub round the corner. The presence of the love of God was so much in evidence there in a way one rarely sees in churches on Sundays.

Colin Fletcher’s ‘Foreword’ has a curious subtitle ‘Challenging times for Evangelicals’, and it includes some puzzles. Colin recounts the various debates, documents and statements produced by the Church, but says nothing about his own reading or exploration. He observes the presence of different views, but says nothing whether all those views are equally persuasive. He believes that the Church’s current teaching ‘of marriage as being between a man and a a strong position to defend theologically’, but he does not mention a single occasion on which he has done so, and I cannot recall any, which is surprising given that he has the most vocal protester, Alan Wilson, under his jurisdiction. He pleads for ‘openness amongst Evangelicals to discuss a range of different beliefs’ but doesn’t appear once to have engaged with the many who have been discussing this openly for years. If evangelicals are unclear as to what to think or how to debate, could it be because people like Colin have singularly failed, as evangelical leaders, to model either of these?

I was not quite sure what Paul Bayes was doing in a book by ‘evangelicals’, but he does at least begin with some scripture—the account in Acts 10 of Peter and Cornelius. He quotes the Swiss Reformed Pastor Walter Hollenweger who has been an important influence on his thinking:

According to Luke’s text the apostles allowed Peter to present his story. And now a very remarkable thing happens. They are won over by the facts (emphasis added)—not by the evidence from Scripture…

As an account of the whole episode, this is something of a travesty, since Luke makes it clear that the ‘facts’ push the Church to think again about theology and Scripture. At the Council in Acts 15, the centre point of James’ persuasive speech is a text of Scripture, and the guidelines for the conduct of Gentile believers are drawn from the Holiness Code of Lev 17–22. When Paul is debating with his Judaizing opponents on this question, he always goes back to Scripture, arguing that it is the pattern of Abraham, rather than Moses, that we need to follow.

But the statement by Hollenweger is also disingenuous in its reference to ‘the facts’. Alasdair MacIntyre once quipped that “facts, like telescopes and wigs for gentlemen, were a seventeenth-century invention.” As I pointed out in my Grove booklet and the C of E material for Share Conversations, we never perceive bare ‘facts’ since they are always mediated to use through a framework of interpretation. In an area as complex and disputed as sexuality, appeal to ‘the facts’ is sleight of hand. On the basis of the ‘fact’ of the spiritual experience of Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus, we might question the claims in Scripture about the uniqueness of Jesus.

Marcus Green’s autobiographical sketch was fascinating, moving, and (threaded around his anxiety about appearing on The Weakest Link) highly engaging. He was not subject to the kind of abusive ‘ministry’ that Jayne recounts, but merely the kind of low-level insensitivity which constantly sought to see him married off. What was most striking, though, was the contrast between his unspoken but intense fear and anxiety, and the unconditional welcome and support he received when he came out to Dick France, who was not only theological conservative on this issue but had published to that effect. Marcus then gives a list of clergy, archdeacons and bishops who have been unfailingly supportive and caring. This raises a vital question that is (unfortunately) passed over: how we account for the difference between Marcus’ fear and the reality of what he experienced? And for the difference between his anxiety and the experience of people like Sean Doherty, who testifies to the consistent positive support he received as a gay Christian from conservatives? There is no doubt that some churches are insensitive, even abusive—but there are clearly other factors at work here too.

David Ison’s reflections on how we read Scripture offered just the beginnings of a recognisably evangelical approach to the issue, and I agreed with much of what he said about reading the texts in context. He also qualifies his ‘affirming’ stance somewhat:

I’m not convinced that the theology of marriage can be separated from its roots of being between a man and a woman. I also think that the use of the adjective ‘gay’ or ‘same-sex’ in front of the word ‘marriage’ changes its meaning…

It is not entirely clear, though, that he follows his interpretive method through in his own reading. The few relevant texts are ‘open not closed’, he claims, but does not state what he means by that or why. Lev 18.22 and 20.13 ‘are in the context of surrounding pagan societies where sex was used in idolatrous ritual practices’—but what are the consequences then for our interpretation? The most compelling conclusion is that even the small concession in other cultures is not made in the OT, the opposite of what David hints at. The meaning of the terms in 1 Cor 6.9 and 1 Tim 1.10 ‘are disputed’—but so are many things which are actually not unclear. Ison believes that interpretation is a ‘corporate exercise’, but there is not much evidence here of collaboration with ‘traditional’ understandings, which don’t merit a mention.

Tom Creedy liked Anthony Archer’s chapter, but I was more puzzled by it. Anthony reflects on how little he thought about the issue until comparatively recently, even though evangelicals have been debating this publicly at least as far back as the Buzz magazine article I remember reading in 1978. He was involved in leading Alpha courses where it wasn’t touched on—even though early editions of Nicky Gumbel’s book had a whole chapter on it. When he does start thinking about the issue, he reaches for Boswell, who has been widely discredited in scholarship. Why not reach for Thomas Schmidt, or Richard Hays—there is even a Grove booklet on the subject! In his discussion on the OT, he mentions only Gen 19 and Judges 19despite almost universal agreement that these texts are mostly irrelevant. And he tries to sit on the worn out three-legged stool of ‘Scripture, tradition and reason’ which was explicitly rejected by Richard Harries when introducing the Synod debate on Some Issues in Human Sexuality at which Anthony was present.

Jody Stowell’s chapter was more of a reflective meander. She offers an interesting and persuasive reading of Genesis 2, with which I would agree, where the man recognises both the sameness and the otherness of the woman. It is not clear why she then immediately jettisons the ‘otherness’ element, claiming it is not a ‘necessary’ interpretation even though she has just expounded it as the way to read the text. She returns to the theme of the superiority of LGBTIIQ people by claiming that

the new knowledge we have about intergender conditions [confusing the two quite distinct ideas of transgender and intersex?] is going to show us something of the new humanity towards which we are headed.

I found Hayley Matthew’s chapter quite disturbing, not least because of the harrowing account that she hints at of her own experience of misguided ‘deliverance’ ministry, not dissimilar to some of Jayne’s experience. She does not really make the connections between this and what it means to be evangelical, or do evangelical theology; I cannot think of a place either in Scripture or in any respectable evangelical source which says we should ‘writhe on the floor, swear at them or be sick in a bucket’ as part of ‘deliverance’. Nor is it clear exactly how the Church’s current teaching position might be connected with this. Hayley’s understandable reaction to this experience was to make a decisive break with this poisonous church culture, which for her was associated with the Bible:

I had no choice but to move beyond the Scriptures if I was to understand what God was assuring me of…and eventually found a home in the liberal catholic wing of my faith.

Gavin Collins recounts the moment, in a New Wine seminar, when he admitted that he was struggling to understand why same-sex relationships were not permitted, and discovered that other church leaders were wrestling with the same question. My experience is the same; I was recently speaking with a group of leaders on this issue, and in a context of confidentiality many admitted to the same question. The resources are there to think these issues through, but we are all so busy that we don’t have time to sit and listen to those who have reflected on this—which is rather ironic given that this whole process is supposed to have been about listening. In his reflection, Gavin (like others) offers no evidence that he has engaged with the good evangelical material, of which there is much, in wrestling with these questions. He is happy for his observations of intimacy in gay relationships to dismiss the other-sexedness of marriage in Gen 2 without further thought. And the notion of celibacy outside marriage ‘is simply not a tenable position for the Church’, which in one sentence dismisses the long tradition of virginity, the needs of single women, and at the same time asserts that Paul and Jesus themselves must have been wrong. Why was this teaching any more tenable in sexualised first-century Corinth than it is now?

David Newman offers some nuanced reflections on the reality of our sexualised culture, and seems to hint from that that the Church is powerless to offer a counter-cultural ethic, though without explaining how Paul was able to do that in sexualised pagan Corinth. He offers quite a traditional (and unappealing) reading of Paul’s view of marriage from 1 Cor 7, and also returns to the inclusion of Gentiles in Acts 15, though apparently without having read Andrew Goddard’s Grove booklet which points out the major problems with this use of the episode.

David Runcorn offers his own reflections, which he has debated with David Shepherd in the comments section in the previous post on this book, and I have engaged with them previously. The postscript includes some very superficial, almost facile, remarks about ‘not following the Old Testament law’ as Christians from Cindy Kent.

Where does that all leave us? Even though I believe in the value of labels (since they have the potential to tell us what is inside), I don’t think there is any point in engaging in a ‘Who are the true evangelicals?’ debate. Most of the authors have clearly been deeply involved in the evangelical subculture at various points in their lives, even if ‘leading evangelical’ no longer applies. But the much more important question is: do the views and positions expressed connect with anything that would be recognisably evangelical in terms of engaging with Scripture and connecting with the contemporary context, and are evangelical discussions elsewhere engaged with? Sadly, for most of the material here, the answer is clearly ‘no’—and it is sadness, not least because I know many of the people here, and some have been significant for me in the past in my own spiritual journey. But it is clear that, for many, this has been less a journey in grace and truth, and more a journey away from any serious engagement with evangelical thinking and scholarship.

Where is the reflection on Richard Hays’ powerful, personal, ethical reflection? At what point has Jenell Williams Paris gone wrong in arguing the sexual orientation is not foundational to human identity? Is Wes Hill mistaken in his theological understanding of God’s call on his life? What is wrong with Thomas Schmidt’s multi-causation understanding of sexual development? Have I made a mistake in my brief exposition of the texts in my Grove booklet? Is Dan Via more persuasive than Robert Gagnon in their very short dialogue? Does Andrew Goddard fail to persuade in his setting out of the overarching themes in the biblical narrative? Was David Wright mistaken about arsenokoites? Is Christopher West’s exposition of marriage in error?

None of these questions appears to have been addressed—they are all absent from the bibliography—and without them it is difficult to see how these narratives could claim to be ‘evangelical’ journeys. Goodness me, I only live 20 minutes from one of the contributors—couldn’t he have picked up the phone? I would have happily travelled down to discuss the issues!

Jayne’s production of this book has indeed clarified things. I suspect for many evangelicals on Synod they will note carefully the direction of travel here.

Reprinted with the permission of the author from Psephizo.

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