What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem

Gavin Ashenden does not believe the compromise reached by the House of Bishops on gay marriage will bring peace in our time

‘Archbishop Cranmer’ has written a balanced and generous analysis of the House of Bishops’ report on marriage and same-sex relationships.

If anyone were to be deemed genealogically competent to look both ways at once in order to hold the balance between views judged to be not contradictory but complementary, it would be a ‘Cranmer’.

He is nothing if not fair and even-handed.

One obvious question that needs to be addressed, is whether or not the Bishops’ report is a situation in which being ‘even-handed’ acts sufficiently forensically as a tool of diagnosis?

To put matters at their simplest; both warring parties claim to, if not have seen the face of God, then at least to have been privy to His mind. Is it a matter of holding the two at equal arms’ length?

The progressives say they have glimpsed God’s Justice, and want to evoke it. ‘Is it just,’ they ask, ‘that someone consigned to a particular biologically or genetically determined same-sex attraction, should suffer enforced celibacy, and be deprived of the ecstasy of sexual intimacies to enhance the affections of their heart?’

And in the context of a highly sexualised society where sexual self-expression has become the bedrock currency of existential authenticity, this plays well with the crowds.

The traditionalists evoke Purity. ‘Is it right,’ they ask, ‘to sacrifice the dominant theme of both Old and New Testaments for an issue of soi-disant ‘natural justice’ relating to amorous exchange and sexual attraction, neither of which figure greatly in the priorities of revelation?’

Should purity trump justice?

It should. The quest for justice found in the Scriptures is not the sanctioning of a human utopia, nor a commitment to egalitarianism. It is more a commitment to end injustice inflicted corruptly by the powerful against the weak. Ensuring equal access to romantically excited sexual intimacy figures nowhere in the mind of God disclosed in either the Law, the Prophets or the Gospels. It is, however, the fixation of a sexually febrile secular culture.

Invoking justice does nothing to place it at the centre of a kingdom theology. Purity, on the other hand, is constantly present, in the Law, the Prophets and intensely and increasingly internalised in the Gospels.

Much is made by progressive voices of the fact that Jesus says nothing obvious about homosexual liaisons. Old Testament scholars explain (without apparently being heard) that this was because the matter was settled permanently as non-negotiable in the purity ethics of Judaism.

Jesus does, however, offer a glance into non-heterosexual identity and sexual self-expression.

‘For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it’ (Mt 19.12).

As He says, not everyone is able to accept this. He seems to be saying, as the best modern science does, that there is a range of non-heterosexual orientation. At one end, biologically determined – at another, variations energised and contoured by encounters with others, and finally, not to be found in science, renunciation for the Kingdom.

The progressive position has been changing over the last few years. In fact, activists have created some confusion in the public mind by firstly claiming en-bloc justification that all homosexual experience was imposed on gay people by genes and biology (“from birth”). This, understandably, gained a great deal of pity from the 98.something % of heterosexuals; a tribute to their compassion if not to their grasp of the complexities of genetics and biology.

This was undermined in the development of progressive politics and culture by the subsequent claim that same-sex attraction was also a matter of experiment, freedom, choice and rights (“made eunuchs by men”).

The Church, as it always has done, does not stand in judgment over other peoples’ proclivities and choices, but instead suggests that outside the Kingdom of Heaven we tend to damage ourselves, and inside, we tend to find salve – salve for our minds, bodies and (since the two are connected) souls.

And that touches on the third category Jesus referred to: “eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven.” But this, involving renunciation, is particularly hard. Giving up sexual self-expression in order to create some space for something less tactile and tangible is highly counter-cultural today. The suggestion that a Christian might be required to be celibate outside marriage is responded to as if it is a provocative injustice. It is not surprising that a culture tipsy with the priorities of pleasure and self-authentication prefers different criteria to endorse its romantic and existential longings than the Gospels, which is why it appeals to ‘justice’.

The Church has always managed to hold together its dual role of being a hospital for the wounded and a school for would-be saints, so why should it not, as the Bishops’ report does, hold the traditional doctrine but pray for and bless diversity as they claim they have?

For three reasons: purity, prayer and politics.


To some extent Christianity is a mystery religion as much as it is a code of ethics. Despite the versatility of the interpretation of the Song of Songs, the Bible is concerned greatly with procreation and hardly at all with pleasure or personal fulfilment.

Thumb the pages as you will, there is no Karma Sutra within it to deepen the pools of our capacity for human sensuality. Instead, it is a manual for struggling with the threat that our appetites present. Pride, power and sex are especially potent enemies for the soul. But our culture has been travelling away from the New Testament towards a different destination; from Jerusalem towards Athens.

Fulfilment with one’s other half is Plato, not Jesus. It was from Plato that we learnt the distraction that if we are to become whole we need to find our other half in some amorous, erotic, sensual and romantic coupling. In his dialogue the Symposium, Plato has Aristophanes tell a story to help interpret the pain of human yearning. He tells of a humanity that was originally endowed with four arms, four legs, and completely round. The gods were terrified of the power of humans and sliced them in half (explaining the naval) to weaken them. And from that point on, humans have been searching for their lost ‘other half’.

Jesus directs us in a very different direction, telling us not that we have ‘another half’ we need to find to be happy, but that we have another home – the New Jerusalem and the bliss of the presence of God.

So, two kinds of bliss then: one sexual, amorous and complementary, gained by romance and sex – Plato  – and one spiritual, compassionate and salvific, gained by renunciation – Jesus.

From Plato comes the justification for coupling; from Jesus comes the invitation to find salvation by renouncing. So where does sex come in for Christians? As the means, steeped in delight, of sharing in the creativity of God, to allow the embodiment of souls intended for the bliss of heaven; a means to a miraculous end, not an end in itself.

The debate about the use and abuse of sex is not about the differing complementary ways of human self-fulfilment; it reflects two very different narrative and diagnoses of the human condition: one from Plato, one from Jerusalem. One from the thinkers, one from the prophets.

There is a theology of celebrating romantic love in the Christian tradition which is at its richest in Dante and Charles Williams (one of the Oxford Inklings). But chastity remains a strong theological component, with sexual expression held as contingent on heterosexual marriage as the whole of the Judaeo-Christian tradition without exception, up until this present day, insists. And within this romantic experience there is a version of the beatific vision. We see the beloved momentarily, as if it were a vision granted to us by God, through the deeply loving eyes of God himself. And having seen who they are in the eyes of God, offer a quality of love that allows them to inhabit more fully this loving and being loved.


This debate has stimulated several images in the imagination. One is a gathering outside the gates of Troy when the famous horse was left there by the Greeks. The consensus is that the danger is over and it should be embraced and welcome into the city. A voice is raised against the project of bringing it through the gates. “What if it is a trap that leads to a different outcome than the one you envisage?”

And so Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali suggested that the Trojan Horse in the Bishops’ report was the promise of liturgical prayers to sanctify the sexual dimension of gay relationships. He warned this ignored the vital principle of ‘lex orandi, lex credendi’.

The law of prayer is the law of faith: the Church believes as she prays.

The original Cranmer is one of the greatest exemplars of that. The power of his prayers were the wings that carried what the Church thought she believed.


It should not be news that the Bishops of the Church of England believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. The relief is a bit premature. They do not say ‘exclusively’ and without the possibility of change. Indeed, bishops like the Bishop of Manchester give the game away when they admit they accepted the status quo not for theological reasons, but because they couldn’t get the votes in General Synod to change the definition. “We’re not at the point where we can actually change the law,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme (28:25). “And we’re not at the point where we can change the law for one very clear reason: there’s no point in trying to change the law if we don’t think we can achieve it.”

No doubt any new prayers will not go quite as far as Kelvin Holdsworth, Provost of St Mary’s, Glasgow, has argued: “..for the Lord to bless Prince George with a love, when he grows up, of a fine young gentleman” (and so presumably be pragmatically infertile). But the prayers will both reflect and deepen a climate that urges change, which is what they are intended for.

Perhaps those who welcome the apparent statement of the obvious about marriage from the Bishops did not follow the strategy to change the definition of marriage in the Episcopal Church in America. It began with not changing the definition when the support for change was insufficient, but sanctioning prayers for the blessing of gay ‘unions’ instead. That was followed by… yes, the changing of the definition of marriage.

We know from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s advisor, Canon David Porter, from his reassurances to the pressure group Changing Attitude, that Lambeth Palace envisaged that the progressive and traditional views were irreconcilable and might produce a lamentable split in the Church of England. We know from leading spokesmen like the Bishop of Manchester that those bishops who believe in progressive accommodation will continue to press for a change in Canon Law in order to gain a redefinition of marriage. And we know, too, that if the votes aren’t there in the near future, the legal advice to the House of Bishops attached to the report is to offer prayers after a civil (gay) marriage, thereby getting round the need to change any canon law at all, but just as Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali foresaw – changing theology by changing the prayers (p17, ¶8).

A petition to Parliament to force the Church of England to change its rules on gay clergy has already been launched. Other pressures on and through Parliament to force the CofE to bend to the zeitgeist will follow.

It is staggeringly hubristic for the Bishop of Norwich to claim that it is 30 years since the Bishops last did any ‘theology’ on marriage and they need to think again because there has been so much change. The only change has been the drift of the culture away from Christianity. What sort of faith are the Bishops guarding if they need to tailor their theology to a culture that changes mostly in its repudiation of Christian ethics?

And when the culture changes again, and wants to make a case for mixed or unmixed throuples pledging their troth in ‘marriage’ rather than homosexual couples, will the Bishops reevaluate their theology again? And if not, on what grounds will they defy the epistemology of cultural development that is the driving force in the Bishop of Norwich’s desire to do some new theology?

This is not a story of bishops interpreting their revelation to the culture, but of bishops altering the priorities of their revelation as they follow the meanderings of a secular culture.

Peace in our Time

My other image is of Neville Chamberlain standing at the aircraft door cheerily waving his report from his meeting with the Führer, and declaring “Peace in our Time”.

Both Ezekiel and Jeremiah were critical of those who cried, ‘“Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.‘ Does this report promise peace in the Church?

No. It will offer neither the peace of mind that flows from theological integrity or political peace that flows from consensus. The two models of marriage, love and sex are no nearer being reconciled than they ever were. One is expressed in a formal doctrine that is immune only because its opponents lack the political heft to amend it. And the other is birthed in the praxis of those who promote it blessed with ‘maximum flexibility’.

Nor does this command the peace of a steady state equilibrium. Once the secular culture, and those who want to impose it on the Church, are given leverage in praxis, the momentum will be kept up until formal change of doctrine can be politically achieved to mirror it. That is what happened in TEC in America, and that is clearly the intention of those who favour a mirrored development in the Church of England.

The Church of England has always contained a variety of churchmanships, theologies and spiritualities living together in a kind of genteel if strained intolerance. But the changes sought here produce incompatibilities that are beyond reconciliation without renouncing integrity; and, as in America, are likely to be solved only by some kind of tragic rupture.

There are some issues where Athens and Jerusalem are able to enliven and enrich each other. There are others when they stand for values that are set in opposition to one another and a mutual exclusion that, sadly and tragically, defies even the Anglican spirit of compromise. Despite the best efforts of the Bishops’ report, this is one of them.

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