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A Church of England working party report on sexuality suggests that clergy be allowed to hold public services to mark same-sex partnerships. Some critics have complained that allowing too much flexibility might seem to affirm what the church still officially regards as wrong.
For instance, one of the criticisms made by evangelical group Fulcrum was that “Although the church’s teaching is upheld, its theological and biblical basis is not clearly articulated and there appears to be a willingness to separate teaching and practice in a way which threatens incoherence and charges of hypocrisy.”
Yet what happens in worship is often at odds with official policy, and somehow the Church of England manages to cope.
There are varying views among evangelicals on how Christ saves, as well as on sexuality (many are now in favour of celebrating same-sex partnerships). Some preach the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, in opposition to official church teaching.
The notion of “propitiation as the placating by man of an angry God is definitely unchristian,” declared the Church of England Doctrine Commission in 1938. I and many others would agree, and point out that it is at odds with much of what the Bible teaches.
This was emphasised again in 1995, when the Doctrine Commission pointed out that “the traditional vocabulary of atonement with its central themes of law, wrath, guilt, punishment and acquittal, leave many Christians cold and signally fail to move many people, young and old, who wish to take steps towards faith. These images do not correspond to the spiritual search of many people today and therefore hamper the Church’s mission.” Instead, the Cross should be presented “as revealing the heart of a fellow-suffering God.”
Yet, thankfully, the Church of England does not hunt down priests whose sermons put forward this notion. In fact, they may even be allowed to become bishops. When there is widespread disagreement, reasoned debate can be a more effective means of seeking the truth than trying to eradicate ‘heretical’ practice.
Likewise the 39 Articles of Religion state that “The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.”
The 39 Articles no longer carry the force they once had and it has been acknowledged, for instance at general synod in February 2008, that there are Anglicans who ask for the prayers of Mary and other saints. However some Anglo-Catholics worship in ways that could be said to depart from formal church teaching.
Similarly, there is a growing number of people within the Anglican Communion who embrace, or have been influenced by Anabaptist ideas, or who are pacifists, despite the condemnation of two other Articles which oppose the notion of holding goods in common (contrary to Acts 2) or of refusing military service "as some Anabaptists do falsely proclaim".
There are times when it is right for church leaders to take disciplinary action, for instance against racism, which it is generally agreed is contrary to the good news of Christ.
But where sizeable numbers have disagreed on particular theological matters, attempted crackdowns on practice which did not conform with official church teaching have usually not worked very well.
In the Church of England and some other churches, many benefit from the fact that strict discipline is not enforced on them. Yet not all of these are willing to extend the same courtesy to others.
It is important to examine the theological rationale behind different approaches to worship and pastoral care, and to continue to study and reflect on sexuality along with other controversial issues.
However until something approaching consensus is reached, practice may not consistently be in line with official teaching, or uncertainty about what is right may have to be openly acknowledged. Following Christ is not always about having definite answers.
* See Savitri Hensman's research paper for Ekklesia, Church views on sexuality: recovering the middle ground - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/19512
© Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, economics, society, welfare and religion. She is an Ekklesia associate and works in the equality and care sector.Tweet