This is the second of my planned three emails unpacking the soundbites from my election address.
Our conversation around the blessing of same sex relationships (SSRs) has become increasingly fraught. I support the Living in Love and Faith process wholeheartedly – I think it is one of the most impressive things to come out of our central institutions for many years.
Most especially, the seven ‘voices’ giving different understandings of Scripture are a useful short-hand for understanding the different perspectives and assumptions about Scripture (see pp294-297 of LLF). I would place myself very much in the middle of these voices, and dependent on the issue, would be somewhere between 3 and 5. I consider myself to have a high view of Scripture; I would want to talk about the authority of Scripture, and I would want to flesh that out with some description of what it means to live under the authority of Scripture. So I would want to say that Scripture is a) the principal witness to the Incarnation – and thereby an irreplaceable source for how we know Jesus (and that not being restricted to the Gospels, or even the New Testament); b) independent of my own preferences; and c) something which has the capacity to question and interrogate me, and overthrow my own self-delusions. Yet what is often missed is that Scripture testifies about itself that it refers beyond itself. The point of Scripture isn’t that we get to know Scripture, it’s that we get to know Jesus, that we get to know the God who is revealed in Jesus – and that by believing we have life in His name.
In the Anglican tradition this insight has been captured by making Scripture our highest authority, but also, as explicitly taught by Hooker, that Scripture needs to be interpreted using the insights of the tradition (especially the early church) and the right use of reason. In saying this Hooker was not being especially innovative as the Scholastic tradition had been pursuing just such an approach for many centuries – and still does.
What this tradition means with regard to Scripture is that it is always legitimate to ask of Scripture ‘why?’ Not with a view to disregarding Scripture but with a view to seeking to journey more deeply into the mysteries of faith that Scripture can disclose to us. The prohibition on slavery is the fruit of just such a journey.
So if we take as a starting point that Scripture prohibits same-sex relationships, what is the answer to our question ‘why?’ The answer given in the tradition is essentially a ‘natural law’ argument, that has two components. The first is that same sex activity is ‘contrary to nature’; the second is that sexual activity is only licit when it is undertaken in the context of heterosexual marriage and is open to procreation – for procreation is the fundamental purpose of sexuality (here the tradition is using a framework derived from Aristotle – procreation is the telos of sexuality).
To take the latter point first, our Anglican tradition has expanded the understanding of the purposes of marriage to three. Hence the Book of Common Prayer outlines the purposes of marriage as being 1) procreation; 2) the avoidance of fornication and 3) the mutual society and help given within the relationship. This understanding led directly to the acceptance of contraception in the 1930s – which was incredibly controversial at the time, and was a major innovation to the inherited tradition – as it recognised that there was more to our sexuality than procreation. The first thing that God says is not good in creation is that Adam is alone.
To return to the first point, what does it mean to say that same sex activity is contrary to nature? As I understand it, the framework used to understand what Scripture is saying is one that considers heterosexual desire as the universal default, and the pursuit of same sex relationships as necessarily perverse. That is, for a person to pursue a same sex relationship is a failure of integrity. It represents a collapse into sin, whereby a pursuit of a bodily pleasure undermines the harmony of body and soul and fullness of life that we are called to in Christ. There is a contradiction within the person.
The core reason why I think it is possible for the teaching of the church to change can now be simply stated: I am not persuaded that it is necessarily the case that when a person pursues a same sex relationship that it is a failure of integrity in the way understood by the tradition. On the contrary I am convinced that for some people it is a fulfilment of integrity to pursue such a relationship, an incarnational integrity – allowing something to be expressed that is inherent in the creation of that person by God.
Scripture’s prohibition of same sex relationships has a particular behaviour in view – that it is a violation of purpose and integrity for those involved in it. It sees things in this way because of an assumption about universal heterosexuality. I don’t believe that we see things in this way any more, for all sorts of reasons (see the later parts of LLF).
One way to characterise the difference that I am trying to describe here is to talk about sexuality being chosen or received as a gift (and I recognise that I am drawing two points of a much more complicated spectrum). Scripture sees same sex desire as something which is chosen by a heterosexual person for perverse reasons, and it (rightly) prohibits such behaviours. Yet what of those who do not experience their sexuality as something chosen, but as something received, something given? I am not persuaded that Scripture teaches anything specifically on this, in the same way that it does not contain any specific teaching about the internal combustion engine, to take something morally problematic that is distinctive in our own time. In other words, that which Scripture prohibits is not what those who support the blessing of SSRs are advocating.
Put simply: it is possible to have a high view of Scripture as an Anglican, yet also to support the liturgical blessing of SSRs. I emphasise here ‘as an Anglican’ because there are some views of Scripture which reject the Hookerian approach outlined above (perspective number one in the LLF list is certainly not an Anglican understanding).
If what I am describing here is true, the question then becomes – what is the legitimate context for the expression of incarnational integrity in those who are not heterosexual? Surely it is through some form of regularisation and public affirmation of a relationship, emphasising the non-procreative grounds for marriage; to enable the avoidance of fornication, and for the mutual companionship, help and support that the one offers to the other… and to do so in the sight of God.
This is why I support the liturgical blessing of same sex relationships.
A more personal postscript
In the argument above I have tried to be very precise in my language; in particular I have not entered into the conversation around non-heterosexual marriage. This is for many reasons, not least that it is a discussion that is logically distinct from the one above, is much more complex, and can only reasonably be entered into by Synod if an argument akin to the one I make here is accepted.
Yet I find this talk of linguistic precision, logical distinctions and political practicalities – however essential it might be for our common labour – I find that it draws me too close to a Pharisaical spirit, and so I would like to finish with something more personal and real:
“I realized that the opportunity for him and me to say any more than we already had said was limited, so when he was more or less conscious I asked to be left alone with him. I got onto the bed and held him as gently as I could, and told him I loved him and he had brought gifts and goods, and frustration and testing, that I had never imagined would come my way, and I was so grateful for him, and then I stroked his hair and sang him ‘A Case of You’. I don’t know if David heard what I said, or knew what it meant, but I did know that he loved me and that I loved him, and that nothing could have separated us apart from what was separating us, so I did not fret too much about leaving anything unsaid.”
(from The Madness of Grief, by Richard Coles)