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As the Church of England discusses the Pilling report on sexuality, it has come under pressure from certain other Anglican leaders, who claim that accepting the proposals would show a lack of commitment to biblical teaching and global Anglicanism. But the rationale for these claims is flawed.
Though the report has various weaknesses, it rightly recognises that there are diverse views in the church on same-sex partnerships and these differences should be handled constructively.
“We believe the Bible is the authoritative Word of God and trustworthy to tell us the Truth. Unfortunately, some in the Anglican Communion members no longer believe the Bible is the infallible Word of God,” wrote Archbishop Stanley Ntagali of the Church of Uganda, one of the leaders of the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), after the report was published.
“We are very concerned that our mother Church of England is moving in a very dangerous direction. They are following the path the Americans in the Episcopal Church took that caused us to break communion with them ten years ago,” he warned. “The Church of England is now recommending that same-sex relationships be blessed in the church... We will resist them and, with our other GAFCON brothers and sisters, will stand with those in the Church of England who continue to uphold the Bible as the Word of God and promote Biblical faith and morality.”
However theologians and churchgoers in general do not agree on whether the Bible rules out committed and faithful same-sex relationships. Indeed some believe that to obey Ntagali would be to go against biblical teaching and betray Christ.
There is also a contradiction in his statement, since the Bible itself teaches that it is Christ who is the Word of God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being,” states the beginning of John’s Gospel. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
Indeed, as in the other Gospels, Jesus is condemned by the religious leaders of his day, who believe that his actions are contrary to Scripture. Even the most pious people can sometimes get things wrong, which is why discussion is so important.
Even more puzzlingly, Archbishop Eliud Wabukala, Primate of Kenya and chairman of the GAFCON Primates’ Council, criticised the recommendation of “a two-year process of ‘facilitated conversation’” similar to the Anglican Indaba because this contains an “unspoken assumption” that “the voice of Scripture is not clear. This amounts to a rejection of the conviction expressed in the Thirty-nine Articles that the Bible as ‘God’s Word written’ is a clear and effective standard for faith and conduct.”
However the Bible obviously does not give clear guidance on conduct in all circumstances, for instance regarding animal experiments. The Thirty-nine Articles state that nothing can be regarded as necessary for salvation unless it can be proved from the Bible, a very different matter. Besides, as the international Lambeth Conference of bishops advised in 1930, “It is no part of the purpose of the Scriptures to give information on those themes which are the proper subject matter of scientific enquiry, nor is the Bible a collection of separate oracles, each containing a final declaration of truth.”
Another of Wabukala’s criticisms of the report is that “Against the principle of Anglican teaching, right up to and beyond the Lambeth Conference of 1998, it questions the possibility that the Church can speak confidently on the basis of biblical authority and sees its teaching as essentially provisional. So Resolution 1.10 of the 1998 Lambeth conference, which affirmed that homosexual practice was ‘incompatible with Scripture’ and said it could ‘not advise the legitimisation or blessing of same sex relationships’, is undermined both in practice and in principle.”
However Lambeth Conference resolutions, though significant in reflecting prevalent views in the Communion at a particular time, are sometimes provisional. For instance, up to 1920 they emphatically ruled out contraception but the position changed. In addition they are advisory rather than mandatory, thankfully for GAFCON, since its members routinely disregard dozens of Lambeth and Anglican Consultative Council motions, on matters ranging from border-crossing to human rights, approaching the Bible to sexuality.
In 1978 and 1988, for instance, the Lambeth Conference called on members to undertake “deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality, which would take seriously both the teaching of Scripture and the results of scientific and medical research” and dialogue with homosexual people. The leaders of most GAFCON provinces ignored such calls, and indeed parts of Resolution 1.10 in 1998.
This began by commending to the church a report which stated that “We must confess that we are not of one mind about homosexuality... We have prayed, studied and discussed these issues, and we are unable to reach a common mind on the scriptural, theological, historical, and scientific questions which are raised. There is much that we do not yet understand. We request the Primates and the Anglican Consultative Council to establish a means of monitoring work done in the Communion on these issues and to share statements and resources among us.”
If GAFCON leaders want to persuade the Church of England, they will have to join in the debate rather than demanding that they be unquestioningly obeyed. If, in biblical accounts, even St Peter could get things wrong, they cannot expect to be treated as intellectually infallible.
The Pilling report has various weaknesses, as has been widely pointed out, for instance in an Ekklesia research paper (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/pilling) and Christina Beardsley’s detailed analysis published by Changing Attitude (http://changingattitude.org.uk/archives/7814). Nevertheless it opens the door to ongoing study and reflection in keeping with both the Bible and Anglican tradition.
© Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, economics, society, welfare, sexuality, theology and religion. She is an Ekklesia associate and works in the equality and care sector.Tweet