Dr Paul has written an open letter to the bishop of Worcester addressing the bishop’s endorsement of same-sex relationships. This first appeared on Dr Paul’s website Psephizo

Dear John

Thank you for your open letter explaining the reasons for your change of mind on the status of monogamous, faithful same-sex relationships. I believe that you changed your view some time ago, but this is the first time that you have set out all your reasons. This must surely be a good thing in terms of transparency and accountability. I am guessing that you have done this both for the sake of those who agree with you, to encourage them, but also to give an account to those who think you are mistaken. For this reason, I hope you will feel it reasonable that I offer, in turn, a response to your arguments. I look forward to discussing them with you in person in due course.

Science, scripture, and sexuality

You begin with the question of science and scripture; I can see why you mention your predecessor, Charles Gore, but in the context of this discussion it strikes me as an odd choice for several reasons. First, it perpetuates the myth that the clash between science and scripture was a Victorian crisis. Michael Roberts traces the way this myth has been created retrospectively here. It also suggests that those who hold most strongly to the authority of scripture are those who are most opposed to engagement with scientific reality; on this question, it was almost the opposite.

“Reports of warfare between geology and Genesis are greatly exaggerated. In fact the converse is true, as from 1790 to 1860 the majority of educated Christians, including most Evangelicals, positively embraced geology and rejected biblical literalism. During the first half of the nineteenth century geology could be deemed the evangelical science.”

Roberts traces the beginnings of this engagement back to the 1600s.

“In 1550 few questioned the ‘biblical’ age of the earth, but by the mid-nineteenth century no educated person accepted it. The change is considered to have been a period of conflict between Christianity and science over the age of the earth. In fact, the conflict was small because from the Reformation era most considered the bible to be accommodated to its culture… The conflict between geology and Genesis is one of retrospective perception rather than historical reality. Only a minority of Christians, as with the anti- or scriptural geologists of the early nineteenth century, considered there to be a conflict.”

In any case, I don’t think that there is a real correspondence between this debate and the one on sexuality. Although there are important questions of biblical interpretation, no-one upholding the historic teaching of the church catholic is arguing for literalism, just as I don’t think you are arguing for a theological or poetic rather than literal reading of the pertinent texts. Besides, science can tell us what is; it cannot tell us what should be or what ought to be. Julian Huxley’s use of Darwinian evolution to argue for eugenics is a case in point. And ‘scientific’ biblical criticism, with its assumption of anti-supernaturalism, still haunts academic biblical studies.

I find it odd that you suggest that majority view was that ‘the expression of homosexuality was simply a perverse lifestyle choice’. To my knowledge, almost all cultures have recognised that a small minority of their number had a settled attraction to the same sex. And even ancient cultures sought to explain this; the classic example is the discussion in Plato’s Symposium.

“In Plato’s Symposium, the subject of homoeroticism and the relationships between ‘boyfriends’ and ‘lovers’ are discussed in detail. In the speeches of Phaedrus, Pausanias, and Aristophanes, this type of relationship is seen not only as natural, but also superior to heterosexual relationships.”

In the speech of Aristophanes, speculating that humans were created from dividing primordial creatures of different kinds, we even find a kind of biological explanation of the givenness of same-sex attraction.

So the question then arises: if a desire is experienced as ‘given’, how does that shape our moral evaluation of acting on that desire? I cannot think of another example where Christian moral reasoning takes the existence of desire as a moral validation for acting on it. This would appear to set aside all biblical theology of human fallenness, of the disjunction between desire and action, and the primary Christian moral virtue of discipline and self-control.

What does science say about causationThat factors including parental age difference, parental divorce in childhood, sibling group size, birth order—and even the rural or urban context of upbringing—all have a bearing. Genetic factors are reckoned to contribute between 8% and 25% to what we might call our psycho-sexual development.

Based on the evidence from twin studies, we believe that we can already provide a qualified answer to the question “Is sexual orientation genetic?” That answer is: “Probably somewhat genetic, but not mostly so.” … There can be little doubt that sexual orientation is environmentally influenced.”

But none of this should be a surprise. When babies are born they don’t even know that there are two sexes; it is something they have to learn, and have to work out which they are, and something as complex as our sexual self-understanding is bound to include environmental factors. Some prominent campaigners for gay rights note that sexuality can be fluid, especially for women, so rights should not be based on identity arguments.

“We can make claims for civil rights protection that don’t rely on the immutability and distinctiveness and uniqueness of these [gay, queer, bi-] groups…I feel like, as a community, the queers have got to stop saying ‘Please help us. We were born this way and we can’t change’.”

That is why those who consensually and freely seek help to redirect themselves away from unwanted desires can actually find this help effective and beneficial—for research evidence of this see herehere, and here—though nowhere does the gospel suggest that you need to be ‘straight’ to be saved. As we will see, Scripture focuses on our actions, not our ‘orientation’ (which is a modern invention).

The Interpretation of Scripture

You open your discussion of hermeneutics by quoting Dick France: ‘A truly biblical hermeneutic must not confine itself to the overt pronouncements …. but must be open to the biblical evidence as a whole…’ What you omit to say is that, for France, this approach leads him to accept the ordination of women, against his previous conviction, but confirms his rejection of same-sex sexual relationships as equivalent to marriage—precisely because the nature of the biblical texts on these two subjects are quite different.

Likewise, you cite Walter Brueggemann: ‘All interpretation filters the text through life experience of the interpreter’. But again, you fail to then note that this leads Brueggemann to reject all the texts in Scripture that refer negatively to same-sex sexual relationships, not least because he thinks they are crystal clear:

“Paul’s intention here is not fully clear, but he wants to name the most extreme affront of the Gentiles before the creator God, and Paul takes disordered sexual relations as the ultimate affront. This indictment is not as clear as those in the tradition of Leviticus, but it does serve as an echo of those texts. It is impossible to explain away these texts.”

So both of the people you cite in support of your approach actually disagree with your position—France in one direction (Scripture rejects same-sex sexual relationships, and we should also do so) and Brueggemann in the other (Scripture rejects same-sex sexual relationships, and we should reject its approach on this issue). Would it be unfair of me to call your citation of these authorities disingenuous?

You cite the classic texts in Paul (1 Cor 11.1–131 Cor 14.34–35; you could of course have added 1 Tim 2) and claim ‘It is very difficult to reconcile these passages with women taking an equal part in church worship, let alone being ordained’. Yet this is precisely what Dick France did in the booklet you cite; I have explored this, as have many others; and the Church of England itself has done the theological work here. There are objective reasons why these texts are ‘difficult’, unrelated to the specific subject matter. On the first, we need to think carefully about the metaphorical meaning of ‘head’; there is no term ‘sign’ in 1 Cor 11.10; the practice of head covering in worship is disputed; and Paul’s conclusion is actually that women do not need their heads covered (‘Long hair is given to her in place of a covering’ 1 Cor 11.15). On the second, there are unique text critical difficulties; and on the third (which you do not cite) the central term authentein is not only unique in the NT, but rarely used in the ancient world.

(On divorce, reading the statements of Jesus in the context of Jewish first-century debates resolves the apparent contradiction.)

By contrast, the texts on same-sex sexual relationship are clear, consistent, and of a piece with the more general claims scripture makes about humanity, sex, and marriage. Your claims about obscurity of these texts are all mistaken, and the vast majority of mainstream scholars, regardless of their view on sexuality, disagree with you.

‘The Bible never explains why same-sex sexual activity is condemned.’ This is not true. The Levitical texts (as Robert Gagnon has shown) use language of ‘male’ which point back to the creation narratives. The implied reason for the prohibition is that is contravenes God’s creation of humanity as male and female, which is the basis of sexual union; we are not to unite in sex that which God has not divided in creation. Paul’s argument in Romans 1 makes that even clearer; the reason why same-sex sex is the acme of pagan rejection of God (in Jewish eyes) is that it is a rejection of the created bodily form of humanity as male and female, and therefore a rejection of God as creator. As Bill Loader, a leading (liberal) authority on these texts, notes:

I”t is very possible that Paul knew of views which claimed some people had what we would call a homosexual orientation, though we cannot know for sure and certainly should not read our modern theories back into his world.  If he did, it is more likely that, like other Jews, he would have rejected them out of hand….He would have stood more strongly under the influence of Jewish creation tradition which declares human beings male and female, to which may well even be alluding in 1.26-27, and so seen same-sex sexual acts by people (all of whom he deemed heterosexual in our terms) as flouting divine order. (William Loader, The New Testament and Sexuality, p 323-4)”

It is not true that 1 Cor 6.9 is ‘difficult to translate with any certainty’. David Wright demonstrated as far back as 1984 that the term arsenoikoites was coined by Paul as an allusion to Lev 20.13, which even non-Greek readers can see by comparing texts:

Lev 20.13: καὶ ὃς ἂν κοιμηθῇ μετὰ ἄρσενος κοίτην γυναικός, βδέλυγμα ἐποίησαν ἀμφότεροι”

1 Cor 6.9: …οὔτε μοιχοὶ οὔτε μαλακοὶ οὔτε ἀρσενοκοῖται οὔτε κλέπται…”

I agree with you that Paul is expressing no interest in ‘orientation’ here, so that translating this term by the modern ‘homosexual’ is a category error. But you are mistaken in thinking that Paul is using the terms of active and passive partners in pederasty; these would be erastes and eramenos, and it is striking that Paul does not use these, but instead focuses on acts alone using biblical language. Nor are the elements of Paul’s vice list here ‘all examples of abusive, domineering, self-seeking, exploitative and even criminal behaviour’ as you claim; this is an idea promoted by gay scholar Dale Martin. The fact that Paul lists ten items appears designed to remind us of something! As renowned NT scholar E P Sanders (another liberal on this issue) comments:

“Paul’s vice lists are generally ignored in church polity and administration. Christian churches contain people who drink too much, who are greedy, who are deceitful, who quarrel, who gossip, who boast, who once rebelled against their parents, and who are foolish. Yet Paul’s vice lists condemn them all, just as much as they condemn people who engage in homosexual acts (Paul: The Apostle’s Life, Letters and Thought, 2016, p 372).”

“Diaspora Jews had made sexual immorality and especially homosexual activity a major distinction between themselves and gentiles, and Paul repeated Diaspora Jewish vice lists. I see no reason to focus on homosexual acts as the one point of Paul’s vice lists that must be maintained today.”

“As we read the conclusion of the chapter, I should remind readers of Paul’s own view of homosexual activities in Romans 1, where both males and females who have homosexual intercourse are condemned: ‘those who practice such things’ (the long list of vices, but the emphasis is on idolatry and homosexual conduct) ‘deserve to die’ (1.31). This passage does not depend on the term ‘soft’, but is completely in agreement with Philo and other Diaspora Jews. (p 373)”

Contrary to what you say, Paul is indeed concerned with what we do with our bodies. ‘Honour God with your bodies’ he tells the Corinthians just a few verses on (1 Cor 6.20). We are to have our minds renewed by ‘presenting our bodies as living sacrifices’ (Rom 12.1). The fruit of the Spirit in Gal 5 is seen in its contrast with bodily acts which represent the ‘works of the flesh’. Your suggestion that ‘Paul had discovered a dif­­ferent kind of freedom. It was based not on bodies but on wills’ seems like an extraordinary kind of Platonism, quite at odds with the biblical vision of humanity as a body-soul unity.  Your use of Augustine’s list of the goods of marriage, and Jeffrey John’s argument about ‘permanent, faithful, and stable’ all extract the qualities that scripture sets out from the form which scripture insists is essential for marriage, as if structures of relationships were incidental. We might well see these goods expressed in adulterous, extra-marital or polyamorous relationships—so why wouldn’t the same argument validate these forms? And if it is possible to extract these qualities and make them distinct from bodily sex difference in marriage, why didn’t Jesus or Paul (or, for that matter, Augustine) do this, if it was the qualities alone that were their real concern?

You claim that Jesus never mentioned homosexuality. But why should we expect him to? Jesus never explicitly prohibits incest, polygamy, or pre-marital sex either. So should we infer that we are at liberty to practice these? Same-sex relations were rejected out of hand by Jews, and this formed one of the four key distinctive ethical practices of Jewish identity, along with observance of food laws, Sabbath, and circumcision. If there had been any hint that Jesus approved of such relations, there would have been a scandal. As Sanders also comments:

“Homosexual activity was a subject on which there was a severe clash between Greco-Roman and Jewish views. Christianity, which accepted many aspects of Greco-Roman culture, in the case accepted the Jewish view so completely that the ways in which most of the people in the Roman Empire regarded homosexuality were obliterated, though now have been recovered by ancient historians. (Sanders, op cit, p 344)”

Jesus’ response to the question of divorce offers us a model; instead of addressing the issue directly, and debating the texts in Deuteronomy, he first goes to Gen 2 and its rationale for sex in marriage—but then makes a second move, right back to the creation of humanity as male and female. Together with the texts in Paul, this means that the biblical texts on sex and marriage offer a connected, consistent, clear and unified picture, in contrast to the other examples of women in ministry and divorce. That is why the vast majority of scholars are clear on the question.

“Professor Gagnon and I are in substantial agreement that the biblical texts that deal specifically with homosexual practice condemn it unconditionally.  However, on the question of what the church might or should make of this we diverge sharply (Dan O Via, Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views p 93).”

“Where the Bible mentions homosexual behavior at all, it clearly condemns it. I freely grant that. The issue is precisely whether that Biblical judgment is correct (Walter Wink, “Homosexuality and the Bible”).”

“This is an issue of biblical authority. Despite much well-intentioned theological fancy footwork to the contrary, it is difficult to see the Bible as expressing anything else but disapproval of homosexual activity. (Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490-1700, p 705).”

“The task demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says. But what are we to do with what the text says?  I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good (Luke Timothy Johnson).”

The problem with your dependence on the ‘pastoral theologian’ David Runcorn’s work is that he simply has not engaged properly with this wide range of agreement, not countered the arguments, and in many cases not even acknowledged that there is a whole body of literature here at all. All those I cite believe the Church’s doctrine is wrong, because Scripture, though clear and consistent, is in their view also wrong. If you disagree here, then you are going to need to show your working as to why you believe all these significant authorities are mistaken in their reading.

The idea that Scripture does not have a clear and consistent theology of marriage depends on simplistic proof-texting; the Church has long believed that it has a coherent theological vision, and it is this which shapes our liturgy.

Our eschatological hope is not that our sexes will be obliterated—after all, the man Jesus was still a man when resurrected—but that sexual union will no longer be needed in the light of our intimate union with God, to which male-female marriage was always pointing. That is why the Fathers saw single, celibate virginity, and not same-sex sexual relationships, as anticipating the life of the world to come.

Sexuality, culture, and context

There should be no surprise that our culture sees the Church’s doctrine of marriage as ‘homophobic’; we are, as Steven Croft has noted, living in a different moral universe, and (contrary to what he claims) rightly so. Our culture is operating from a completely different anthropology from that of Christian theology, in which the relationship between the body, desires, and social relationships has radically shifted in the last 50 years. If our culture agreed with us, that would be extremely worrying!

The early church’s sexual ethic was seen as scandalous and offensive, but it was instrumental in its consistent and rapid growth, as Rodney Stark highlights in The Rise of Christianity and Alan Kreider explores in The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. If believing the Church’s current doctrine is an impediment to mission, particularly amongst young people, as you claim, how is it that the majority of church growth, particularly amongst young people, is happening in churches which hold to that doctrine? In July 2019 Synod, a list was offered of the Anglican churches with the largest work amongst young people; 19 of the top 20 were evangelical. And the denominations which have changed their doctrine of marriage, as you are advocating, are accelerating in their decline everywhere in the Western world.

You commend the comments made by Justin Welby at the Lambeth Conference (which I attended for one day), but many feel that his apparent acceptance of opposing views has effectively signalled the end of the Communion.

“The implication was left that the Anglican scene is more like a federation of independent churches; while they have been indeed autonomous canonically, now they would be so theologically too. The Anglican train has pulled into an adiaphora station. Nor was there a sense of how the new teaching was to be tested by, or contend with, the received teaching- “to each his (or her) own” seemed to be the order of the day.”

I know of no Church addressing this question and following your approach which has not ended up in irresolvable disagreement and structural division. Do you? If not, then your case will lead to neither truth nor unity.

You began your piece by claiming that you are continuing to exercise your episcopal ministry in the Church by upholding the Church’s teaching to the extent that you would not marry a same-sex couple in the Church. But that is not the charge you were given—grudging acceptance of a discipline you disagree with. At your ordination you were asked:

“Will you teach the doctrine of Christ as the Church of England has received it, will you refute error, and will you hand on entire the faith that is entrusted to you?”

but, on the doctrine of marriage, you do not accept it and you are not wanting to hand it on. You were asked:

“Will you promote peace and reconciliation in the Church and in the world; and will you strive for the visible unity of Christ’s Church?”

but arguing for this change is bringing disunity and division. Darrin Snyder Belousek notes the ecumenical significance of this debate:

“The creational-covenant pattern of marriage…is a consensus doctrine of the church catholic. Until the present generation, all Christians everywhere have believed, and every branch of the Christian tradition has taught, that marriage is man-woman monogamy (Marriage, Scripture and the Church p 52).”

Changing our doctrine of marriage will seriously impair our relationship with the wider church.

And the timing of your letter seems extraordinary; you have had five years in which to make your case, either contributing to LLF, or making a separate public statement. Yet you choose to wait until one week—a single week—before the agreed House of Bishops’ statement in preparation for Synod in February. Can you understand why this looks to many of us like an attempt at last-minute sabotage?

My greatest sadness in all this is that your approach is in real danger of robbing the world of good news that it needs to hear from us about our bodies, sex, marriage, and sexuality.

Our culture currently says that our bodies don’t matter, that what matters is our inner life, that desires are there to be acted on, and this way lies the path to fulfilment. Advocacy of same-sex sexual relationship is not a cause of this inward turn, but is a symptom of it. But this inward turn, in making our bodily life secondary to our patterns of inner desires, opens the weak up to the power of the strong, and harms the vulnerable. It has already done irreversible harm to many teenage girlsEven radical feminists are recognising the harm that the sexual revolution, as part of this move, has done.

By contrast, the good news we have is that God created us, male and female in his image, and that our bodies matter—more than that, that our sexed bodies are a good gift to us in creation, to be cherished, cared for, honoured, and used to to the glory of God. Fulfilment is to be found not in satisfying our desires, but exercising them with discipline in the contexts that God has designed for them.

The world needs a church that has the confidence and courage to offer this counter-cultural good news—and that is precisely what God calls us to be and to do.