Leading Evangelical bishop calls for fresh approach to sexuality row

By staff writers
7 Feb 2008

The Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Rev James Jones, has called for a change of heart among Evangelicals and others in the often bitter argument about sexuality, Scripture and authority.

But Bishop Jones has not, as reports in The Guardian and the Daily Mail newspapers have suggested, directly sanctioned same-sex relationships. In a lecture delivered at the end of 2007 and published in a new book designed to build-bridges in the run-up to the Lambeth Conference, he nevertheless points out that it is possible on the basis of the Bible to recognise that people of the same gender can have deeply involved emotional and physical friendships.

The bishop, who is a senior figure on the Evangelical wing of the Church, also forthrightly apologises for the form of action he took in opposing the appointment of Canon Jeffrey John, who declared himself to be in a non-sexual gay partnership, as Bishop of Reading. He expresses sorrow and regret over its hurtful impact, but he does not state that his reasons for doing so at the time were wrong.

Bishop Jones’ stance will nevertheless be seen as a considerable move forward by Christians arguing that an inclusive stance towards lesbian and gay relationships can be affirmed on traditional and Scriptural grounds, rather than a liberal rejection of those premises. And it is likely to be received with concern and suspicion by those who wish to maintain a hard line rejection of such relationships.

In his Lambeth Essay, entitled ‘Making Space for Grace and Truth’, which appears as a chapter in a new book edited by scholar-bishop Kenneth Stevenson, A Fallible Church (Darton Longman & Todd, 2008), the bishop also questions the Windsor process established within the Anglican Communion to try to mediate the dispute over homosexuality.

He writes: "I worry about the Windsor proposals not because I doubt the courage and integrity of those who are working on them but because I fear that they will take us in the direction of narrowing the space and of closing down the debate on this and any future issue where Christians find themselves in conversation with their culture on some new moral development or dilemma. The result is that energy is sapped by internal definitions rather than released into engaging with the world so loved of God."

The bishop’s comments are based on the practical experience of a tripartite ‘listening process’ between three very different dioceses, Liverpool, Akure and Virginia, as well as pastoral and theological reflection. He encourages considerate, faithful and exploratory engagement as the way forward – rather than the suspicion and hostility that has often been to the fore in recent years.

“The historic partnerships within the Anglican Communion can offer a different context for the debate about homosexuality where there can be a genuine dialogue between people whose mutual trust and affection protect them from jumping too soon to conclusions and keep them in conversation because a long time ago they learned to think the best and not the worst of each other,” writes Jones.

Emphasising the grace of God in Christ as the key transformative principle, and the actions of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) in which the early church creatively negotiated a potential split over fundamental identity, Bishop Jones says that Anglican “talk of ‘impaired communion’ … seems to undermine the doctrine of grace and certainly shrinks the space within which to have frank theological debate.”

Citing the Old Testament story of the close emotional and physical bond between David and Jonathan, Bishop Jones situates this and other examples within ‘a theology of friendship’. He adds: “[A]t this point some will ask, ‘Was the friendship sexual?’, ‘Were they gay?’ […] ‘Were they bisexual?’ I want to resist these questions at least initially. Immediately you start using such words you conjure up stereotypes and prejudices. Further, you assume that it is a person’s sexual inclination that defines their personhood. Is it not possible to say that here are two men with the capacity to love fully, both women and men?”

Regarding his own role, Bishop Jones writes: “I had been one of the nine Diocesan Bishops to have objected publicly to the proposed consecration of Dr Jeffrey John, now Dean of St. Albans. I deeply regret this episode in our common life. I regret too having objected publicly without first having consulted with the Archbishops of York and Canterbury and subsequently apologised to them and to colleagues in a private meeting of the House of Bishops. I still believe that it was unwise to try to take us to a place that evidently did not command the broad support of the Church of England but I am sorry for the way I opposed it and I am sorry too for adding to the pain and distress of Dr John and his partner. I regret too that this particular controversy narrowed rather than enlarged the space for healthy debate within the church.”

He adds: “I have wrestled with writing the above for fear of opening old wounds but I cannot give a true account of my part in the continuing debate without acknowledging the history I brought to the table. In the same way (and they must speak for themselves) the Bishops and correspondents from Africa and America needed to acknowledge their own stories in coming to the conversation.”

The full article can be read here, on the Liverpool diocesan website.

The new book, A Fallible Church, has contributions from leading Anglicans with different stances and starting points in current debates, including Dr Stevenson, who is also Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Rev John Gladwin, Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Rev Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, and Canon Mark Chapman, vice-principal and lecturer in systematic theology at Ripon College Cuddesdon.

Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, which has argued that an inclusive stance towards lesbian and gay people is compatible with the historic commitments of mainstream Christianity, welcomed both the book and the fresh tenor of its contributions.

“Whether you think he has gone too far or not far enough, the Bishop of Liverpool has made an honest, brave and thoughtful contribution to the painful Anglican debate about sexuality, authority and Scripture,” he commented.

“Those seeking a simple reversal of the majority Evangelical position will be disappointed, but so will those who want to leave that section of the church unchanged. Hopefully Bishop Jones’ essay will enable deeper listening, less acrimony, and the admission of a wider range of voices to the debate – including other Evangelicals who have found themselves moving towards a Gospel-based inclusivity.”

Barrow added: “Making a narrow view of sexuality the ‘deal or no-deal’ foundation of the church and its mission is a practical and theological mistake of massive proportions. This is something those outside have so far recognised more easily than many of those caught up in the row.”

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Also available on Ekklesia: titles by scholar Kenneth Stevenson.

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