The Church of England’s Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, has said he is “in sympathy” with a recent vote in Parliament to allow the use of religious elements in same-sex civil partnerships. Jones, a leading evangelical, seems to be undergoing a further shift in his own views on sexuality over the past two years.
Speaking to the Times ahead of a speech to his diocesan synod today (6 March 2010), he urged the Church to accept “a diversity of ethical convictions”, allowing “a more humane pastoral theology”.
The Bishop has not explicitly abandoned a long standing view that same-gender sexual relationships are inappropriate. However, he appeared concerned not to condemn same-sex couples when, in his words, “in a world of such little love, two people sought to express a love that no other relationship could offer them”.
Jones’ stance on religious same-sex partnerships is markedly different from certain other conservative Anglican bishops.
The amendment recently approved by the House of Lords will give churches the freedom to host same-sex partnership ceremonies if they choose, but will not require them to do so. However, Michael Scott-Joynt, the Bishop of Winchester, has been widely criticised for suggesting that the law will allow clergy to be sued for refusing to carry them out, a claim inaccurately reported as fact in parts of the media.
In contrast, James Jones’ comments are in tune with those evangelicals who have shifted their position on homosexuality in recent years. There are now several evangelical organisations which accept the validity of same-sex relationships.
In a particularly controversial section of his remarks, Jones challenges the notion that sexuality is a matter of choice, saying instead that it is a “given”.
This implies a departure from the inherited view of social conservatives and seems to have more in common with those gay and lesbian campaigners who say that people are born with a particular sexual orientation. While this view is not shared by all pro-inclusion campaigners, it will certainly put Jones at odds with most 'traditionalists'.
Jones’ comments come weeks ahead of the formal appointment of the USA’s first openly lesbian Anglican bishop. He appears to be encouraging evangelicals not to over-react against this.
The Bishop compared the Church’s divisions over sexuality with its ability to accommodate a variety of attitudes to war. “On a number of major moral issues, the Church allows a large space for a variety of nuances, interpretations, applications and disagreements,” he said.
“The day is coming when Christians who equally profoundly disagree about the consonancy of same-gender love within the discipleship of Christ will, in spite of their disagreement, drink openly from the same cup of salvation,” he added.
In 2003, Jones vocally opposed the possible appointment of an openly gay bishop in the Church of England. However, he later apologised for his aggressive behaviour on that occasion and resolved to listen more to those with other views on sexuality.
The bishop signalled his change of approach and heart in his 2008 Lambeth Essay, entitled ‘Making Space for Grace and Truth’, which appears as a chapter in a book edited by scholar-bishop Kenneth Stevenson, A Fallible Church (http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/6699 )
Earlier this year, he voted in favour of giving Church of England pensions to civil partners of clergy.
Anglican Mainstream, a group whose focus is on opposition to homosexuality, have now sought to distance themselves from James Jones.
Speaking to the Times, an Anglican Mainstream spokesperson insisted that Jones was not representative of "orthodox Anglicans", saying that “the Bishop of Winchester [Michael Scott-Joynt] has been a more significant spokesman in the last number of years”.
But Colin Coward of the pro-inclusion group Changing Attitude gave a warm welcome to Jones’ comments.
"This is both a strong affirmation of gay relationships and a confirmation of Anglican tradition,” said Coward.
He added that Anglican tradition meant that “differences in attitude to homosexuality are not church-dividing and that Christians can live together in one church community respecting each other’s convictions”.