Common Roots: Ancient Evangelical Future Conference

What does Justin Welby think about same-sex marriage?

The fourth and final installment of a series on the same-sex marriage liturgies proposed for the Episcopal Church USA (TEC) and the response to it, especially in England. 

What does Justin Welby think about same-sex marriage? The answer seems to be, in the words of Herman Melville’s fictional character Bartleby the Scrivener: “I would prefer not to…”

Am I being unfair? Read for yourself the following interview which Archbishop Welby gave in GQ magazine:

GQ: Is gay sex sinful?

JW: You know very well that is a question I can’t give a straight answer to….

 GQ: Why can’t you?

JW: Because I don’t do blanket condemnation and I haven’t got a good answer to the question. I’ll be really honest about that. I know I haven’t got a good answer to the question. Inherently, within myself, the things that seem to me to be absolutely central are around faithfulness, stability of relationships and loving relationships.

GQ: But that could be a man and a man or a woman and a woman?

JW: I know it could be. I am also aware – a view deeply held by tradition since long before Christianity, within the Jewish tradition – that marriage is understood invariably as being between a man and a woman. Or, in various times, a man and several women, if you go back to the Old Testament. I know that the Church around the world is deeply divided on this in some places, including the Anglicans and other Churches, not just us, and we are – the vast majority of the Church is – deeply against gay sex.

GQ: So this is where you are having to be a politician.

JW: Yes. I am having to struggle to be faithful to the tradition, faithful to the scripture, to understand what the call and will of God is in the 21st century and to respond appropriately with an answer for all people – not condemning them, whether I agree with them or not – that covers both sides of the argument. And I haven’t got a good answer, and I am not doing that bit of work as well as I would like.

 To be sure, Archbishop Welby wasn’t being asked about same-sex marriage, but about “gay sex.” But isn’t that precisely the point, that sex and marriage are, according to God’s plan, indivisible (Genesis 2:24-25)? Dennis Prager stated this truth in a compelling way:

When Judaism demanded that all sexual activity be channeled into marriage, it changed the world…. This revolution consisted of forcing the sexual genie into the marital bottle. It ensured that sex no longer dominated society, heightened male-female love and sexuality (and thereby almost alone created the possibility of love and eroticism within marriage), and began the arduous task of elevating the status of women.

Justin Welby’s confusion and reluctance to speak derives from this fundamental conundrum, that if you divorce sex from marriage, marriage becomes a widow and sex takes on an ever-morphing variety of “lifestyles.”

As he says in the GQ interview, he is “struggling,” and the reason he is struggling is that sex outside the bounds of traditional marriage is chaotic, and as Lambeth Resolution I.10 puts it, “incompatible with Scripture.”

In the Parliamentary debate in 2014, where Archbishop Welby opposed the “Same-Sex Couples Bill” in Parliament, he tried simultaneously to affirm same-sex partnerships and distinguish them from marriage. He argued, on the one hand, that “it is clearly essential that stable and faithful same-sex relationships should, where those involved want it, be recognised and supported with as much dignity and the same legal effect as marriage.”  But on the other hand, he claimed that the Bill “contains a series of category errors”:

 The result is confusion. Marriage is abolished, redefined and recreated, being different and unequal for different categories…. The new marriage of the Bill is an awkward shape, with same-gender and different-gender categories scrunched into it, neither fitting well. The concept of marriage as a normative place for procreation is lost. The idea of marriage as a covenant is diminished. The family in its normal sense, predating the state and as our base community of society, as we have already heard, is weakened.

Frankly, neither traditional Christians nor pro-gay advocates find this argument persuasive. Indeed, Parliament was not persuaded, as it went on to pass the same-sex marriage act, though it exempted the Established Church from performing same-sex marriages (the so-called quadruple lock).

The question that emerges from Archbishop Welby’s failed advocacy is: does saying Yes to same-sex civil partnerships and No to same-sex marriage really make sense? To what extent is this rationale simply a holding action until the rest of the church catches up and unlocks the door to full blessing of same-sex marriage, as has happened in the Episcopal Church?

I think we get a hint concerning Justin Welby’s thought on this question when he speaks in the GQ interview of his “struggle to be faithful to the tradition, faithful to the scripture, to understand what the call and will of God is in the 21st century.” These two poles – tradition and contemporary reality – constitute the “arc of history,” and it only bends in one direction. Remember: new occasions breed new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth.

Reimagining Marriage

We get a further glimpse of how Archbishop Welby resolves the tension of Scripture and tradition on the one hand and contemporary reality on the other in his recent book Reimagining Britain. The very term “imagination” is derived from 18th century Romantics and historicists like Coleridge and Hegel, who flattened Christian eschatology into a secular vision.

In his critique of Reimagining Britain, Martin Davie has drawn a comparison between Archbishop Welby’s idea of reimagining – a “modest proposal for the development of existing British society and government policy” – and C.S. Lewis’ deeper vision, drawn from the Bible and Tradition, “that life in this world is only a preparation for a blessed existence in the world to come which those who are rightly related to God shall enjoy forever.”

Justin Welby reimagines marriage in chapter 2. He begins by redefining family as household with somewhat elastic boundaries (page 63) and certainly not the Victorian “nuclear family” of husband, wife and children. He surveys the Bible’s teaching on marriage and family in one paragraph (page 64), concluding that it is “profoundly positive.” He follows with two paragraphs on “Catholic Social Teaching,” which emphasizes the necessity of the family for social stability. But, he notes, the social reality in modern Britain is radically changed today with cohabiting, blended, single-parent, and same-sex configurations.

Same-sex marriage, he argues, involves a “radical reimagining,” which many faith groups “have not begun to come to terms” with, particularly some faith groups from former parts of the British Empire. “In more traditional countries,” he notes, “many people still feel that same-sex marriage is a denial of nature and a revolt against God’s laws [emphasis added]” (page 67).

What is the solution when one’s beliefs are at odds with the facts on the ground? The answer, he says, is values: “If fluidity of relationships is the reality of our society, then this should be our starting point for building values, because all values must connect with where people are and not where other people might like them to be” (page 68). Values, you see, are the true grain, and the tradition is the husk, and the church can – carefully of course – separate the one from the other and let the chaff blow away in the winds of time (Matthew 3:12).

So the solid values of fluid relationships trump God’s rigid laws. And what are these values? According to the Archbishop, “in Christian understanding, the core concepts of households and family include holiness, fidelity, hospitality and love above all, because God is holy, faithful, welcoming and overflowing in love, and any human institution that reflects these virtues also in some way reflects God” (page 69).

Justin Welby locates the biblical basis for this Christian understanding in the parable of the Prodigal Son, which is a bit odd, since the parable is not about God’s design of the family but about God’s search for one sinner who repents (Luke 15:10). In any case, he claims that post-Christian Britain is governed unknowingly by the Christian value system.

This contrast of values and laws leads to one of the more surprising parts of the chapter on families: his rejection of Islamic family law (sharia): “Sharia, which has a powerful and ancient cultural narrative of its own, deeply embedded in a system of faith and understanding of God, and thus especially powerful in forming identity, cannot become part of another narrative” (page 82). The Islamic narrative, he argues, is not wrong in itself but is just out of place – even, I suppose, in multi-cultural Britain (Justin Welby’s predecessor disagrees on this point).

The fundamental flaw in his case is that the Christian narrative begins in Genesis, with the creation of mankind in God’s image, male and female (1:27), with the command to increase and multiply (1:28), and with the institution of the husband-wife relationship as the nucleus of the family (2:24).

The “values” which Archbishop Welby identifies flow from the divine character of this institution, what the Prayer Book calls an “honourable estate.” The winds of history do not blow away this estate without incurring the wrath of God (Romans 1:18-32). Reimagining Christian marriage without this foundation is just blowing smoke.

Look, I acknowledge the “reality” of moral and family disintegration in Western societies. I myself am inclined look toward the “Benedict option” of building intentional Christian communities as a Christian response. In any case, the idea that Britain is waiting eagerly to be instructed by the Archbishop of Canterbury is about as unreal as waiting for the reincarnation of John Lennon.

Justin Welby’s “struggle” to reconcile tradition with contemporary reality may be especially acute because he desires to speak as not only as the Primate of All England but equally as the “Focus of Unity” for the Anglican Communion. It seems to me clear that he is prepared to bend with the arc of history and approve same-sex marriage for Britain. However, he realizes that there are those Anglicans in the former Empire who still feel that same-sex marriage is a denial of nature and a revolt against God’s laws.

The result, I think, is: “I would prefer not to answer.” Thumbs sideways. For now.

Addendum: Preparing the Royals for Marriage

I suppose it is providential, or perhaps a sign of God’s particular sense of humor (Psalm 2:4), that this Contention comes out just days before the world-historical wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, fourth in line to be King of England, Defender of the Faith, and Head of the Church of England and of the Commonwealth.

Not only is Justin Welby officiating at the nuptials, but he has personally prepared Ms. Markle for baptism and the couple for marriage. Any chance he explained to them the biblical basis for the opposite-sex nature of holy matrimony and that this is the current teaching of the Anglican Communion? If so, it did not seem to take, as the couple has been expressing their support for the LGBT agenda as a “basic human rights issue.”

Then we get news that the couple requested Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (TEC), to preach at their wedding. Archbishop Welby tweeted his response:

I’m thrilled that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have asked Bishop Michael Curry to preach at their wedding. @PB_Curry is a brilliant pastor, stunning preacher and someone with a great gift for sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.

Presiding Bishop Curry has gotten his “radical inclusion” and “good disagreement” lines down pat, even as he continues to spend millions of dollars suing congregations out of their property in South Carolina and Fort Worth. Surely the “good news” that PB Curry is sending to conservatives remaining in TEC is: “believe what you will, but don’t try to leave or you’ll see how far good disagreement stretches.”

Sometimes body language speaks more loudly than words. Thumbs seldom remain sideways. Any bets on which way Justin Welby’s are moving?

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