Reform’s stance should not derail church conversations on sexuality

By Savi Hensman
October 10, 2014

The network Reform has threatened to boycott ‘shared conversations’, unless its own views on sexual ethics are treated as authoritative by Church of England leaders.

It is not clear how much this will affect the chances of achieving ‘good disagreement’ among those with different opinions. Though Reform is influential, only a small proportion of Anglicans in Britain agree with its position on key issues.

It proclaims “the divine order of male headship, which makes the headship of women as priests in charge, incumbents, dignitaries and bishops inappropriate” and wrongness of sexual activity “in all its homosexual forms”.

Yet in 2013, a YouGov/Sunday Times survey found that just nine per cent of Church of England and Church in Wales members thought that the C of E should not allow women bishops. Twenty-one per cent of Anglicans in that year’s British Social Attitudes survey regarded sex between same-sex adults as always wrong.

Perhaps even more uncommon is Reform’s belief in the infallibility of its own position on a range of issues. It proclaims the Bible’s “clarity and sufficiency for the resolving of disputes about Christian faith and life” – so every Christian who disagrees with its own interpretation of biblical truth is held to be rebelling against God.

The chairman, Rod Thomas, stated that “It is difficult to see how the process of shared conversations can command credibility if those who are most committed to the Church of England's official teaching are in effect excluded. If this project is not to collapse, then decisive intervention from the House of Bishops is needed now.”

He added that “The shared conversations must acknowledge that Scripture remains authoritative for the Church of England and that the outcome of the conversations is genuinely open-ended.” Yet he appears to want certain outcomes to be ruled out from the start if Reform is to participate.

A media statement warned against “an outcome in which the Church moves from its present, biblical, understanding of marriage to one where we accommodate two separate beliefs, with one part of the Church calling for repentance over sexual sin and another declaring God's blessing. This is tantamount to asking us to accept a redefinition of what will and will not lead to salvation – as though there could be two gospels, equally valid.”

If the Church of England were really committed to biblical authority, in Reform’s view, it would consistently punish clergy who marry same-sex partners and “admonish the Bishop of Buckingham” for “refusal to uphold the teaching of the church and guidance of the House on matters of sexuality, whilst also allowing him, without criticism, repeatedly to describe Conservative Evangelicals as homophobic, including those who themselves experience same-sex attraction but seek to live celibate, God-honouring lives.”

In a recent book the bishop, Alan Wilson, stated that, when he spoke out in favour of equal marriage, “A minority of the straight people I encountered over this issue were diehard homophobes. I dislike the term intensely, but I can’t think of another for people who tell you, in the name of God, that gay people are lice and vermin who should be aborted before birth.”

Most of those who disagreed strongly with him “were bitter and angry” but about a tenth “were thoughtful and dialogued intelligently about a subject that troubled them rather than annoyed them.”

While Wilson’s style can be forceful, he is eclipsed by Reform Council member Bishop Wallace Benn (now retired) who, at one of its conferences in 2010, likened the menace posed by supporters of women bishops to the situation in 1939, though he later claimed that he did not mean they were like Nazis.

“I feel very much increasingly that we’re in January of 1939. We need to be aware that there is real serious warfare just round the corner,” he controversially declared.

In 2008 Benn had refused to attend the Lambeth Conference, convened by his own archbishop, “because I don’t think I can pretend to have fellowship with those with whom there is a broken fellowship.”

Those strongly opposed to greater inclusion may feel uncomfortable going into conversations where their cherished beliefs may be challenged. However they will not be as vulnerable as LGBT participants, the validity of whose closest relationships and personal identity are involved.

What is more, in the past bishops have repeatedly shied away from acknowledging the strength of the theological case for supporting committed faithful same-sex partnerships, and some supporters of inclusion fear this will happen again.

Despite such risks, the ‘shared conversations’ could prove valuable in a church whose members’ views on sexuality and gender identity differ so much. The 2013 BSA survey found that 14 per cent of Anglicans disagreed strongly that lesbian and gay couples should have the right to marry but 16 per cent strongly agreed.

Ultimately it is up to Reform members to choose whether to participate or exclude themselves.

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.