b) A Comment on the Bishops' Report Issues in Human Sexuality

Introduction

That the English Bishops' statement Issues in Human Sexuality is inadequate is clear from the confusion it has caused. The bishop of Jarrow, in the North East of England, for example, uses it to justify the blessing of same-sex unions. His arguments are reasonable and can be found in the JESMOND STATEMENT. Then again, the Bishop-elect of Newcastle (also in the North East of England), from whom Jesmond Parish Church is distancing itself, says on the one hand that he sticks by the Bishops' report with regard to homosexual relationships; but on the other hand he interprets this report as accepting (and he has told the world so):

"that faithful, lifelong, committed and permanent relationships are permitted - certainly amongst the lay-members of the church, but that cannot be the position for the priests."

However, there is more than confusion in the report. There is error - serious error. That, of course, is inevitable in a document that seeks to embrace bishops who approve of homosexual sex and bishops who do not. In such a situation a report has to be something of a "lowest common denominator" [for the mathematicians, "highest common factor"]. By definition, this validates as an option in the church the most liberal of positions.

That there is such error is not surprising. The bishop that was "driving" the report was the former bishop of Salisbury. In the report's Preface George Carey writes (p.vii):

"In formulating it [the report] we have been greatly helped by the work of a small group, chaired by the Bishop of Salisbury."


The former Bishop of Salisbury

But the former Bishop of Salisbury has subsequently gone on personal record with his own views quite explicitly in his recent book The Faith of a Christian (Darton Longman and Todd, London, 1996) p. 142:

The traditional Christian norm of sexual behaviour is clear and simple: full sexual relations are in place only within a heterosexual marriage which is in intention lifelong. This, the final judgment of Scripture, is still official teaching in the great majority of churches.

This ideal can be commended for wholly positive reasons ...

This ideal has admittedly never been fully achieved, even within the Church itself. Nevertheless its basic elements were once widely accepted as valid ethical goals. Today, however, western ex-Christian society no longer regards it as either practicable or desireable and many church members have succumbed to that ethos ...

To the detached observer the most obvious feature of Christian sexual teaching is that it is an ethic for heterosexuals. Given that the overwhelming majority of the human race is heterosexual, that is reasonable enough. But it means that this ethic can be fairly applied to homosexuals only be classifying them as deviant homosexuals; and that, in the light of increasing knowledge, is no longer reasonable ...

Many heterosexuals can testify that the physical expression of their love in a faithful partnership has helped them become better people. If my neighbour reports exactly the same experience through the physical expression of his or her different sexuality and I condemn that as evil, am I not in great danger myself of condemnation for hypocrisy? Will I not be much safer to be guided by Jesus' own advice: "You will know them by their fruits"?

However excellent the Christian heterosexual ethic, it loses credibility when it is misused to dictate the way of godliness to homosexuals in their different situation. The first requirement is for the Churches to learn from Christian homosexuals what the Spirit is saying to them about growth in Christlikeness. When the listening does begin, a common mind on basic principles may freely emerge and in God's time lead to an authentic Christian homosexual ethic, accepted as such by the Church.

When you read Issues in Human Sexuality you will hear the tones of John Baker, the former Bishop of Salisbury. He is a great intellect. But that doesn't not mean he is right! Indeed, he is clearly wrong. More recently Bishop Baker gave a lecture at St Martin's in the Field that was far more "pro-Gay".

It is vital that people are not mislead and deceived by this report. It certainly must not be allowed to be a "set text" for the bishops of the world-wide Anglican Communion for Lambeth 1998.

The following is an extract from a lecture entitled The Case for Reform that I was asked to give in the University of Durham and subsequently published in the book, Has Keele Failed? (Hodder, London, 1995) pp. 52ff. Some may find this helpful. The sub heading was ...


"Issues in Human Sexuality"

Page 52 and following continued ...

Sadly, the church is not only adrift in terms of doctrine. It is also morally adrift. The House of Bishops collegially (for so they now work) must bear much of the blame and, not least, in the matter of homosexual behaviour.

There was a significant occasion, a little later than the debate over the Nature of Christian Belief, that revealed the drift (and weakness) of the late 20th century episcopate in the Church of England.

On 11 November 1987 in the General Synod I moved a modest amendment for some sort of church discipline in the context of a debate on homosexual relations. This would only affect the clergy; nor was it unfairly isolating homosexual behaviour; it was merely asking for "appropriate discipline" - appropriateness being left to the pastoral discretion of the bishop concerned. It said this:

if a bishop, priest or deacon is to be a "wholesome example and pattern to the flock of Christ" (Canon C 4) appropriate discipline among the clergy should be exercised in cases of sexual immorality.

It failed. This was because of the voting of the House of Clergy and the House of Bishops, with the bishops being most opposed to it. They rejected it by 14 votes to 5. The laity, however, supported this amendment by 136 to 84. The press then, not unreasonably, attacked the Bishops for moral cowardice.

So with this track record it was not surprising that in 1991 the bishops took tentative steps and virtually validated gay sex for lay people. This was in their report Issues in Human Sexuality. Parts of the report are quite good. But when they came to the key issue of homosexuality this is what they said:

it is ... only right that there should be an open and welcoming place in the Christian community both for those homophiles who follow the way of abstinence, giving themselves to friendship for many rather than to intimacy with one, and also for those who are conscientiously convinced that a faithful, sexually active relationship with one person, aimed at helping both partners to grow in discipleship, is the way of life God wills for them (italics mine).

The bishops have excluded, at present, clergy from this openness to 'gay sex'.

Evangelical bishops who, no doubt, were at Keele have agreed to this report as a corporate document. There was not a single word of dissent. The new Bishop of Durham, who claims personally to have repented of former criminal homosexual activity, has agreed to this report and today appeals to it. But what sort of repentance is that?


Conscience

In the report the bishops refer to the traditional teaching on the "conscience":

Christian tradition ... contains an emphasis on respect for free conscientious judgement where the individual has seriously weighed the issues involved.

Their argument for accepting (lay) homosexual-sex hinges round their commitment to the "conscience". The teaching on conscience is mediaeval. Personally I would want to question much of it as being not necessarily true or helpful. But what the bishops are doing is this: they are employing the general conclusion of this traditional teaching (respect for conscience); however, they are ignoring the detailed qualifications that must go along with that conclusion.

The bishops should have spelt out some of the essentials of this traditional teaching. These include the following. First, the paradigm case involving conscience is the duty to obey God rather than man as in Acts 5.29. Secondly, there must be a distinction made between a good conscience and one that is in error. And, thirdly, there must be a further distinction made between "vincible" and "invincible" error - error that can, and cannot, be corrected. A conscience in "invincible" error might today be called "pathological" and so is more excusable. A conscience in "vincible" error is morally guilty because it could and should have seen the truth. A conscience of a rational person that contradicts the clear teaching of the bible is always in "vincible" error and so guilty.

Now the case the bishops have in mind, if it is ruthlessly spelt out (as it must be in moral argument), is of a "conscientious conviction" that permits a person to engage in habitual acts of buggery or other same-sex genital activity on the grounds that this is not promiscuous; it is "aimed at helping both partners to grow in discipleship"; and it "is the way of life God wills for them". And because this comes from their "conscience" they are to have a welcome place in the church and "we stand alongside them in the fellowship of the Church." But this case, of course, bears no relationship whatsoever to the paradigm; it certainly is not the result of a good conscience; and it most certainly is a case of "vincible" not "invincible" error, for it transgresses a clear biblical and church mandate. As the bishops themselves admit:

there is ... in Scripture an evolving convergence ... Sexual activity of any kind outside marriage comes to be seen as sinful, and homosexual practice as especially dishonourable.

According to tradition such a "conscientious conviction" of a "vincible" error should not be encouraged or followed. It is worth noting that there is a futher distinction to be made within "vincible" error - between what such a conscience permits and what it forbids. As in the bishops' case, where a "vincibly" errant conscience is permissive, it most certainly must not be followed. However, the traditional argument was that where it forbids something, it should be followed (ie in abstinence) until the error was discovered. This was, so it was said, because conscience errs more often through being too liberal than through being too strict. (It is, of course, these progressive qualifications that throw this whole tradition into disrepute. Nevertheless the bishops are claiming the moral authority of this tradition: they need to know what they are claiming!)

Can I summarize? The bishops are seeming to validate gay sex. They do not do this through the clear teaching of the bible. They do it through an appeal to the conclusions of a mediaeval tradition that many of us now reject anyway. But I have tried to show that the bishops have not even been fair to this tradition, which if applied consistently can make some legitimate distinctions.


Drift

There has undoubtedly been a drift since Nottingham in 1977, if not since Keele in 1966. Nottingham was the Keele follow-up. A number of the evangelical bishops that are now validating conscientious gay sex among the laity in 1977 signed up to the Nottingham Statement. But that statement implied no validation for gay sex at all. It indeed wanted there to be a "welcoming place" for Christian homosexuals; but it was assumed this was only for those Christian homosexuals "who follow the way of abstinence" or try to. In those days evangelicals never dreamt it was necessary to say otherwise. So the resolution simply said:

There should be a full welcoming place in the Christian fellowship for the Christian homosexual. Nevertheless, we believe homosexual intercourse to be contrary to God's law and not a true expression of human sexuality as he has given it.

At the beginning of 1995 many evangelical bishops were present at a London conference convened to promote evangelical unity. Prior to the meeting the Council of REFORM had written to all the episcopal participants asking them to affirm "for the avoidance of doubt ... that those clergy and laity who are 'convinced that a faithful, sexually active relationship with one person (of the same sex), aimed at helping both partners to grow in discipleship, is the way of life God wills for them' are in grave error and are breaking God's law, whether they are conscientiously so convinced or not". This was, of course, the wording from the bishops' report. Not one made that affirmation.


Scribes and Pharisees

The chairman of the conference, [a bishop], conspicuously only affirmed what the bishops' report had already affirmed. He however used the language of Nottingham 1977 that homosexual intercourse is contrary to "God's law" rather than the report's "God-given moral order". But the problem is not a failure to assert God's law, ideal or moral order. The report is good on that. The problem comes from what the report then adds. This, as with the scribes and Pharisees, "nullifies" the law of God. The scribes and Pharisees affirmed the law but their casuistry allowed them to defy it (Matthew 15.6). The bishops posit a dialectic between God's law and human freedom. And they remind us, in a concluding hint, that it is quite possible for "love [to be] summoning the Church to rethink its existing perception of the truth." That is why such an affirmation as [the bishop] made, in the world of modern bishops, is compatible with saying that homosexual genital acts, while wrong from the perspective of the church, are right for a person who conscientiously thinks they are right.

This may shock some (sadly, I suspect, not all) of the evangelical bishops. But this is the logic of what they have together said and now refuse to distance themselves from. All this is no more than conventional moral relativism. At a popular level many ascribe to it in the wider world (and the church) today. There may be absolutes and ideals. But they are relative to individual circumstances. Behaviours and beliefs can only be said to be "right for me".

The bishops in their report tell us that there is an "historic tension in Christian ethical thinking between the God-given moral order and the freedom of the moral agent." But that tension, they imply, allows for the creation of new ideals. They say:

The ideal of chastity holds good for all Christians; and homophiles who do not renounce all physical sex relations must nevertheless be guided by some form of that ideal appropriate to them.

What is this if not a new ideal alongside and contradicting the old ideal?

Some bishops may delude themselves by saying that all they are proposing in the report is that when active homosexuals come into your church, you do not immediately eject them! But, of course, the text of the report says much more than that. Indeed if the bishops really meant only that, it would imply a proposal to eject all but a precisely defined class of homosexuals. You should therefore eject all promiscuous homosexuals who may visit your church and who do not have the hypocrisy to believe that their behaviour is the path of Christian discipleship. But, surely, these are people you ought to help towards salvation and wholeness.

The report is tragic evidence that the Church of England is morally adrift and in need of reform.

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