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ss nucleus - spring 2004,  An Issue of Justice?

An Issue of Justice?

Mike Marshall analyses the sexuality debate that is splitting the church

Some years ago a very gifted young man, call him James, took a year out from his studies to work with me as a pastoral assistant in the local church where I was vicar. The experience was a great success and modelled a pattern of working that I have repeated many times since in parish work. To my dismay, shortly after his year with us James seemed to drop out of contact. Seldom in church, evasive and distant when he was there, I was worried if his work with us had in some way prejudiced his return to studies. Calling in to see him one night without notice he haltingly introduced me to his new flatmate. Finally grasping the picture, I arranged to see him one lunch time and was able to talk to him honestly about his now evident homosexuality. We talked about his partner, the difficulties he'd had working with us in the church (unperceived by me), his troubled pursuit of celibacy, and his fending off of a number of pursuing women (he is an attractive man). We also talked of my failure to help, understand him or even recognise what he was dealing with. We didn't resolve anything and he finally moved away. He never said goodbye to the church where he was much loved.

Recent debate

The Anglican church is in great turmoil over the issue of human sexuality, particularly homosexuality. The past few months have seen the nomination of Jeffrey John as suffragan Bishop of Reading with his subsequent withdrawal following the request of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. The furore surrounding his appointment and withdrawal has been ugly, with some very intemperate words being exchanged in the press. The problems have arisen not primarily on his practice (he proclaims himself a now abstinent homosexual who has in the past had a permanent stable relationship), but on his advocacy for the Christian legitimacy of permanent and stable same sex partnerships. The supposed legitimacy of such a theological position has been boosted in the Anglican church through the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in the USA. Robinson is a practising homosexual with a permanent male partner; he divorced his wife prior to this.

These incidents have exacerbated an existing polarisation in the Anglican church. The more orthodox national Anglican-linked churches in Africa and South America have been forthright in their criticism of the liberal wing of the church. Evangelicals in England have been vociferous in expressing their dissent at the way in which the debate has been forced by the appointments made. In return the liberal section of the church has been robust in the pursuit of its agenda. Accusations of homophobia and medieval intolerance have flown freely and the press, which has been very one dimensional in reporting the issue, has not helped.

In reality the Anglican church has officially held to a fairly traditional position. The Lambeth Statement on human sexuality issued in 1998 from the conference of bishops gathered by the then Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey maintained an orthodox stance. It upheld heterosexual marriage as the correct arena for physical sexual expression. The current Archbishop convened a meeting of primates from the whole Anglican Communion in October 2003 to consider the actions of the American Episcopalian church in appointing Gene Robinson. The meeting recognised that this appointment stepped outside the agreed bounds of accepted church discipline. Still, there is no mechanism for exercising a corrective on the Episcopalian church or any other independent member of the Anglican Communion.

Whose justice?

So where to now? A senior liberal archdeacon I met recently said to me, 'the thing is Mike, the issue is about justice'. He proceeded to instruct me on the rights of people to express their sexuality as they saw fit and according to their predilection. I suggested to him that on the contrary the issue is one of theology. Issues of justice can only be pursued when the authority for determining what is just or unjust has been settled. For evangelicals the authority on all issues is the will of God as discerned in Scripture. One or two writers have attempted to make a case for the legitimacy of same sex partnerships from a position of respect for the authority of Scripture (notably Jeffrey John[1] and David Atkinson, the Bishop of Thetford[2]). But on the whole there is agreement that Scripture condemns sexual engagement outside the context of heterosexual marriage. Contrary to shallow presentations of the biblical case this view is not dependent on one or two obscure verses but reflects the whole tone and tenor of Scripture. It involves a coherently worked out view of creation and fall as well as careful distinctions between cultural regulations and moral law (see the St Andrew's Day Statement).[3]

The biblical description is one of human nature flawed. This is seen in all human beings whether homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual. Not one of us is how we were meant to be. Damaged by our existence in a fallen world, the flaws run through every aspect of our make-up, including our sexuality. It matters little whether that sexuality is skewed this way or that, either by environmental conditioning or genetic predisposition. The flaws are there even if the presentation has the appearance of normality (whatever we take that to be). This means that there is no moral high ground from which one human being can pronounce judgment on another.

Walking together

What we can do, however, is say that the same biblical text that reveals to us the fallenness of our nature also offers us forgiveness and a path of behaviour to pursue in the light of being forgiven. Christian sexual ethics are biblically derived patterns of behaviour that we pursue with the Holy Spirit's help in gratitude for the forgiveness we have in Jesus. Simply put, this new behaviour is that which pleases the Creator and is best for his creation.

The Christian therefore says to all his or her brothers and sisters, whatever their sexual preferences, pleasures or former promiscuities: 'Let's walk together as forgiven people. Let's work out together what most pleases the Lord and help one another do it.' I am yet to be persuaded biblically that this can mean anything other than heterosexual marriage or its alternative, sexual abstinence.[4]

And in practice?

In practice one of the things we must do (and this is a matter of justice!) is act with consistency. The homosexual whose sexual behaviour is awry is in the same moral position as the heterosexual. Those of us who have pastoral responsibility and are heterosexual must beware of showing greater tolerance to heterosexual irregularity because we identify with its temptations more.

Secondly we must remember that we are a missionary church. As citizens of heaven we call others to walk home with us, explaining as we walk what Jesus has done for us prodigals. In contemporary missiology it is now a given that people are drawn to faith from all different social contexts and that regularisation of lifestyle may lag somewhat behind conversion.

Thirdly though, we must have agreement on what the regularised life of the disciple will look like. Where there is disagreement on this we have to acknowledge that we might not be able to walk the same path and this will be painful. I suggest though that we must never stop talking or listening to one another. We must seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit and always try to show the same grace to others as we have received from the Lord.

If I were to see James again I would want to apologise for my previous lack of empathy, and that he felt alone in trying to work things out. It would be good to talk even if we still as yet don't agree.

  1. John J. Permanent, Faithful, Stable. London: DLT, 2000
  2. Atkinson D. The Church of England and Homosexual Relationships. 2003; July. online at
  4. See also and
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