Church of England: Is error really better than uncertainty?

By Savi Hensman
August 4, 2013

Many people like religious as well as political leaders to be clear and decisive, even if they are sometimes wrong. However Christian faith is primarily about love and trust in a living God, rather than the pretence of certainty on all kinds of matters. On issues such as sexuality, where different views are widely held, churches should be open to differences in practice.

In many churches, both among scholars and ordinary churchgoers, there is broad consensus on some issues but not others. Seeking truth is important, but this is more likely to be achieved by recognising where uncertainty exists than using power to stamp out dissent. For instance worshippers may be able to unite in proclaiming that Jesus was more than just a good man and that racism is wrong. But knowing exactly what happens after death is a different matter.

Church leaders have at times tried to use their authority to enforce an official line even when there is reasonable doubt, such as when the Vatican forced the scientist Galileo Galilei to withdraw his support for the theory (later found to be correct) that the earth goes round the sun. This was ultimately damaging to the Roman Catholic church and Christianity as a whole. It is better to recognise the possibility of error if a sizeable proportion of those who have studiously and prayerfully wrestled with particular questions reach different conclusions from the church authorities.

At times in human evolution when survival was largely reliant on hunting or escaping when being hunted, quick decision-making may have been vital. Even now, there are times when it is important to be clear and decisive. But humankind’s future is bleak if we trust too much in leaders who are absolutely confident even when wrong.

The Church of England is currently reviewing its stance on homosexuality and a review group chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling is due to report at the end of the year. Most members believe that committed same-sex partnerships are not always wrong but there is widespread reluctance to offend the minority who are passionately opposed. However holding on to the official line is damaging ministry and mission, not only to lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people but also wider communities.

To complicate matters further, the Church of England is part of an international family of churches, the Anglican Communion, as well as of the universal fellowship of Christians. For thirty-five years, at international conferences, Anglican bishops have pledged careful study of sexuality, dialogue with lesbian and gay Christians and support for their human rights. But leaders of some churches failed to do this, while demanding a right to veto change by other churches which took the conference resolutions seriously and, as a result, came to think differently.

A thought-provoking if flawed article by Andrew Goddard on the website Fulcrum, ‘Sexual Revolution: Responding Reasonably and Faithfully’, perhaps reflects a fear that the Pilling review may propose more freedom for priests and congregations who want to celebrate lifelong loving same-sex relationships. He suggests that “There are broadly four key challenges the church needs to address: doctrine, discipline, diversity/disagreement and division/differentiation.”

He appears to argue that, if the church is to be coherent and convincing, discipline should not be relaxed unless this is linked with a change of doctrine: diversity of opinion is not enough. However this would risk further division in the Anglican Communion.

Certainly the rationale for any change in Church of England policy needs to be made clear. However I see no reason why bishops should not admit that many of them privately disagree with the official position, and make sure that the theological arguments for and against greater acceptance are widely shared so that those who disagree can at least understand one another’s reasons, if they wish.

The bishops could offer greater freedom to local churches and clergy, and promote ongoing study and dialogue until broad consensus has been reached. Other churches’ views should indeed be taken into account, but leaders who simply insist on their own holiness or intellectual infallibility without engaging with others’ arguments should not be allowed to block change.

The Church of England formally (and I think rightly) rejects the notion of penal substitutionary atonement, which regards Christ’s death as appeasing the Father’s wrath, but many members openly support it, bishops included. Officially congregations are not supposed to ask Mary to pray for them, but some do. Living with difference is possible. On sexuality, it would be better to be truthful about current uncertainty, and allow local flexibility, than be dogmatic but wrong.

* Andrew Goddard's article is on

* Ekklesia's submission to the Pilling review was 'Journey towards acceptance',


(c) Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, social justice, welfare and religion. She was written extensively on the theological and religious issues involved in debates about sexuality and marriage equality. She works in the care and equalities sector and is an Ekklesia associate.

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