Evangelical bishops differ on sexuality

By Mark Vernon
14 Feb 2008

Last week, an essay written by James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool and a leading evangelical, came to light in which he argued that the Bible includes remarkable accounts of same-sex relationships.

Jones come as near you can, without actually saying it, to suggesting that the Bible sanctions committed gay love. This represents an apparent change of mind and is doubly notable since, though known as a conservative who was willing to talk about homosexuality, he was one of those bishops who publicly protested when Jeffrey John was appointment Bishop of Reading, a couple of years back, an appointment that was subsequently withdrawn because of homophobic pressure. In the essay, he apologises for that behaviour.

However, in a newly-published book, Michael Scott-Joynt, the Bishop of Winchester and another leading evangelical, argues against the 'public advocating and vaunting of behaviour contrary to the teaching of the Church of England'. He is referring, in particular, to gay clergy who have talked in public forums - like the Church of England General Synod - about the blessing of being in a same-sex relationship. Scott-Joynt believes that the teaching of the Bible, the tradition and the Church is at risk of being ousted by the joyful testimony of such personal experience.

The gap between the attitudes these two bishops now have towards homosexuality strikes me as interesting - and not just in terms of who's up and down in the Anglican gay wars. It would appear to have opened up not because of any new ethical debate about the rights and wrongs of gay sex; nor exactly because either bishop has managed to squeeze another justification for their position out of the Bible - two ways in the which the debate is typically conducted in the church, and with growing futility.

Rather, Jones seems to have recognised that gay people love each other; and Scott-Joynt refuses to do so. Moreover, Jones is wondering whether gay love is potentially of the same quality as that between Jesus and John or David and Jonathan. Scott-Joynt, on the other hand, prefers the weight of the law to the lightness of the spirit; he prefers to keep pulling at the levers of ecclesiastical power rather than consider the fruit of gay love, 'by which you shall know them.'

It seems to me that this is the crux of where the gay debate has got to today, as much as it characterises the difference between the two bishops. For when love is recognised, it can only be a matter of time before the preacher of the gospel of love comes round. This is what has happened in Jones' case. It is love that has yet to move Scott-Joynt.

And there is another twist to add to this tale of love. The philosopher Michel Foucault pointed out that it is because homosexuality is really about love, and not just say rules of sexual conduct, that it becomes so contentious. If men and women just 'did it' together, Foucault argued, no-one would really mind. Moral authorities could publicly assert the prohibition and keep themselves pure. Individuals caught in the act could repent. This is precisely how those ecclesiastics who are anti-gay have, and want to keep, playing it.

But gay men and women love each other. That is what it means to be homosexual. And when people love, the 'act' cannot be isolated - which is why the distinction between orientation and practice is so ridiculous. Their whole lives, body and soul, act in accordance with their love. That is the joy and transformation for those who are free to love. That is the source of anger and disturbance for those who would deny it.

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(c) Mark Vernon is the author of 'After Atheism' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). www.markvernon.com

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