It was out of a sense of duty that I went to the report-back sessions after General Synod (one for the whole Christchurch diocese and the other for Latimer Fellowship). The same-gender issue is doctrinal and pastoral, but no matter how we engage with it on those levels the impact is strongly emotional. So I went reluctant and full of vague fears, but also feeling really over it: too much concentration on a single issue, particularly a sexual issue, feels unhealthy after a while. Despite my forebodings, I was surprised to come away from both events with hope—even with joy. It seemed to me that what participants were describing was their experience of the work of the Spirit of God among a group of Christian leaders struggling to be honest before God and each other in order to find a way forward in a challenging situation. That seems to me something to celebrate.
It could have been very different. Those who attended told us how challenging it was on the first day, with competing and conflicting opinions, and every likelihood of the proposal of a motion which would have split the Synod. However, towards the end of the day one of the younger members of Synod proposed that a prayer vigil be held overnight. During the next 12 hours in one way or another most of the Synod participated in that. The next morning, the mood of the gathering was very different. One thing that struck me was the report from Latimer Fellowship members that their distress (how interesting that it is at that level that communication happens) was recognised. They also spoke of the way in which Synod members holding a more normalising position stood up for their brothers and sisters in Christ and insisted that their point of view be heard; indeed, undertook to represent that view in sub-committee situations where those coming from a more conservative position were not involved. Question: how would we recognise the Spirit of God at work in a community?
It was out of that context that Motion 30 came to be, and was eventually affirmed by the whole Synod. It was not the motion that those favouring a normalising position would have wanted. Perhaps it is not altogether the ideal motion that those of us who come from a more… shall we say biblical, grace-oriented position, might have wanted either. (There are two aspects of the Motion that concern and frustrate me, and I’ll speak of those in a minute.) But could it be that God is wiser than we are? Do we believe that Christ is indeed Lord of his Church, that he really might answer the prayers of his people? Are we sure that he would always manage things in exactly the way we would advise him?
I would like to suggest that Motion 30 is God’s gift to the Church in two specific ways. But before I do, can I make clear where I myself stand on this issue. What might be an appropriate pastoral response to individual people in particular situations is one thing. But as soon as we make a theological decision, as soon as we take it upon ourselves to pronounce blessing in God’s name upon same-gender relationships in the same way as we would do for a heterosexual marriage, we move from solid ground into a quagmire, a place with no maps and no compass. We have lost our grasp on the only thing that matters. A steady succession of influential evangelical voices are telling us how they’ve changed their mind on this issue: the simplicities, half-truths and simple ignorance of the spirit of the age are being packaged in ways that make it very easy for evangelicals to accommodate. But the Genesis story says it all: in response to the snake’s thoughtful discussion Eve ‘saw that the tree was good for food, that it was beautiful, and that it was desirable because of the wisdom it could bring.’ It’s easy to slip by these familiar words, but they sum up every human aspiration: the satisfaction of physical needs, the experience of beauty, and the thirst for knowledge. What more could be asked than this? Only one thing. And as we know, in the story the first human pair get their wish…but somehow what they get is not quite what they thought it would be. God’s prohibition of the tree was not a rule. It was not a test. It was a warning.
The warning is not for us alone. We are responsible before God not only for ourselves, but also for others. The normalising agenda allows us to hear only one set of same-gender voices: it is as if those who struggle with same-gender desire, and those who choose to live a celibate (but rich and full!) life in obedience to God did not exist. Even the voices we do hear are mostly older, more mature people. But should we make that theological decision then in our youth groups (just as one example) we place some of the most vulnerable members of our congregations in actual spiritual and physical peril, peril from which we will have lost the ability to protect them. We have woven a romantic narrative of normalisation that has no relationship to the actual situation in real people’s lives. I don’t think any of us are under any illusions as to what is at stake.
Whatever our convictions on the matter, however, they should not blind us to two important features of Motion 30. Firstly, the motion recognises that we can still be united in Christ while differing on quite fundamental issues. This is completely biblical. In fact we have an example of it from the same New Testament letter in which we find the most explicit statement about same-gender sexual behaviour: Romans. We all know about Romans 1:24,25, even if we don’t always appreciate the context. It is not a prohibition, for example, but a description of what happens when we go our own way. God lets us go….and it doesn’t turn out quite the way we imagined. We also fail to realise the role of these verses in the carefully contrived sting operation that is designed to bring us to 2:1-5. But this is not the only passage in the letter that has bearing upon our current discussion. Virtually never noticed is the passage 14:1 – 15:6 at the end of the letter, where Paul lays out principles and offers explicit guidance on how differences within the church on crucial matters such as this should be handled. Why don’t we notice this material? Because we don’t see these particular issues as crucial any more: it is just some stuff at the tail end of the letter about being vegetarian or not, and about whether we regard this or that day as special; nothing much to do with us.
Not so. The first of the two issues Paul talks about there wasn’t about anything as minor as whether to eat meat or not. Just as in Israel meat for consumption was slaughtered before God and the blood poured out as a sign of permission, so it was across the whole Mediterranean world. All meat in the markets had been dedicated to the pagan gods before slaughter. This was the question. Was it right for Christians, followers of the One God, to each such meat, given that its blood had been poured out to idolatrous, alien gods? Would that not be compromise and faithlessness? The question was not about anything so bland as vegetarianism but about whether God was God, and how we showed or failed to show that in the face of a rival claim.
In the same way when Paul raises the issue of whether all days are alike he is weighing in to a bitter contemporary controversy: whether or not to keep the Sabbath. Alongside circumcision and the food laws, the whole Old Testament (i.e. the only scriptures that the early church had) made it clear that Sabbath-keeping was a non-negotiable demand of obedience. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos: the prophets again and again called people back to this as a sign of faithfulness (and as a sign of grace of course: a divinely ordained holiday for man and beast, a time to rejoice, a time to be instead of just to do: this is the God we have!) How could the Church possibly weaken its teaching on such a matter? Those who urged the continued keeping of the Sabbath had the whole of the scriptures totally on their side.
These were not small issues. They touched directly upon the honour of God and the fundamentals of what it meant to obey him. It’s worth turning the passage up to remind ourselves of the important guidance it gives as to what obedience might mean when it comes to differences of opinion. Differences of opinion: however crucial the issues were and are today, that is what we are talking about. We are divided, not about whether Christ is Lord, but about what his lordship means in this particular pastoral situation. We are divided, not in our understanding of the unique value of each individual person to God, but about the extent of our responsibility to warn of or to endorse particular behaviours. We are divided, not about whether or not this or that committed Christian person is fully a member of his Body, but about our responsibility to the whole Body, including the vulnerable, the heavy-laden and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
It seems to me that Motion 30 expresses this biblical principle exactly. It recognises that we are united in Christ; it also recognises that in seeking to serve and obey him there are differences among us that must be respected. Despite the deep feeling surrounding the differences in the church of his day, that they existed didn’t seem to bother Paul any. Do they bother God? Honestly, I’m not sure that they do. The church is a very human institution, but that is what God has chosen to work with. Once again the question comes to us: who is Lord of the Church? Can we trust God to be that? Or do we feel tempted to nudge his elbow a little, to make the church more like the kind of thing it would be if we were running it? In response to those who thought like that in his day, Paul is very direct: “Who are you to pass judgement on the servant of another?” he asks. “It is before their own Master that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Master is able to make them stand.” Praise God, the Master is able to make us stand. But he is equally able to make his other servants stand, though they may differ from us on matters that seem quite fundamental. The Master is able to make them stand. Who is Lord of the Church?
The final thing that I would like to suggest is a gift of God to his church is found in the so-called permissive clause itself. Amidst all the anxiety and discussion that this clause has generated can I just point out the phrase with which it concludes: “Such recognition cannot be marriage or a rite of blessing of a same-gender relationship.” That is, whatever is said and done, whether we approve of it or not, is in the nature of a pastoral response, and not a theological decision. If we were to take it upon ourselves to marry or to bless then we would be making a theological decision for which we have no warrant in either Scripture, tradition or reason. We would be making promises that we cannot keep, giving assurances that God himself cannot give. We would be bowing to an understanding of human identity and human behaviour that is different from that which the gospel teaches. We would be committing ourselves to a theology of sexuality that can only have tragic results among our young people. Paul in Romans 14:13-23 has direct and uncompromising things to say into that situation—not to mention our Lord himself (Matt 18:6). But the permissive clause in Motion 30 explicitly excludes all this. The permission is for, with appropriate checks and balances in place, a pastoral response to real people—fellow Christians!—in a particular congregational setting.
Let me push the boundaries a bit here. Given that this is a matter of pastoral response in individual cases, is it really something so manifestly alien to the spirit of Christ? It might not be something that would happen in your congregation or mine, perhaps. But do we want to attempt to exercise control over pastoral practice in congregations not our own? God has given us responsibility for our own congregations. Knowing the challenges that we meet every day, and the difficulty of discernment, and the seriousness of the issues, would we also want to take responsibility for the ways in which others fulfil the same task among the people that God has entrusted to them?
Think about it a different way. Are there divorced and remarried people in your congregation? There are in mine. And yet, from the mouth of the Lord himself we hear explicitly that divorce is not part of God’s good will for his people, and that remarriage is adultery (Mark 10:10-12, repeated Matt & Luke). Which of us would dare to preach against that as a theological principle? But which of us would treat such re-married couples as anything other than beloved brothers and sisters, fellow strugglers, journeying in hope and in faith through the challenges and mixedness of life? Is God’s grace not found among imperfect people and imperfect situations? If it is not, what hope is there for any of us?
Pastoral response and theological decision: Motion 30 permits the first and excludes the second. This I believe is God’s gift to his church in response to the prayers, listening and wrestling with this issue by our leaders at Synod. It is phrased as an interim measure, but it need not be. In both the appropriately regulated permission and the clear statement of what is permitted and what is not, I believe it provides a set of principles and a practical way forward which could meet both the very real pastoral concern and the very real theological concern that lie behind the different positions that we feel so strongly. It is a puzzle to me why we are seeking to erode or (astonishingly) even to legally challenge something that came out of prayer and listening and seeking a way forward by our representatives (including many faithful evangelicals) gathered together in the presence of God. What actually happens in those situations? Does God not answer prayer? When two or three come together in his name is it really only their human thoughts and opinions that are on the table? Are we missing something? Who is Lord of the Church?
I said at the beginning that there are two matters about Motion 30 that concern me. The first will be obvious: the commission to the working group to develop ‘a new liturgy to bless right ordered same-gender relationships.’ We should as an aside note the earnest but question-begging expression ‘right-ordered’. Naming such a thing does not mean that it exists, or that it could exist as a normal expectation. With regard to young people the bottom line is this: there is no demonstrated chaste pathway. Where does ‘right-ordered’ come in here? It is a wish, a hope, part of a narrative we have constructed for ourselves. Coming back to the commission in section 1b the main point is this: liturgy of blessing implies a theological decision, and that is a decision which the church does not before its Lord have authority to make. This is the point in the program which Motion 30 outlines upon which our experience and biblical and theological understanding must be brought to bear. But this cannot be done now, except by those on the working party. We should pray for them, that the grace and openness and listening and prayerfulness that characterised the Synod might be their experience too. And when they bring the fruit of their work before the church in a year’s time, then we will have a contribution to make.
My second concern, and one upon which I am not the first to comment, is the extraordinary codicil that comes at the end of the permissive clause: “We recognise that this may cause even further distress. Noting the commitment of the Church demonstrated in clauses 1 to 4 above, we ask the LGBT community to recognise that any process of change within our Church takes time.” But what is this community to which the Church is somehow accountable? We know of individuals, fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, but not of any alternative community. We are accountable to our Lord, and to him alone, as is every individual who names his name. The acronym LGBT is interesting in itself: the ‘B’ stands for bisexual, that is, people who feel at home in sexual activity with either the same or the opposite gender. What kind of ‘right-ordered’ relationships could we be talking about here? How is it that these alien identifications find a place in a document that otherwise speaks so clearly of Jesus Christ as the centre of all we are and all that we do?
The emotive language is also out of place. It need not be so, but the normalising narrative often seems to me to be patriarchal and patronising. Those who face the challenges of same-gender desire are treated as victims who suffer anguish and injustice and need to be protected. How affirming to take up the role of deliverer; so undemanding to accept the role of victim. But both demean us; both must be resisted. There is only one Deliverer, and he delivers us from all roles and poses, and gives us back our selves.
Distress, yes. But suffering is common to human life. It is not only those who are attracted to the same gender who know about over-mastering passion that cannot be fulfilled, about loneliness, about the longing for friendship and hope and a place in the world. Think about all the single people in your congregation. Think about your own experience at various times of your life, perhaps even your own experience now. Same-gender brothers and sisters need to be recognised, and, dare I say it, need to recognise themselves, as the mature, responsible people they are, able to choose and grow and to shape their life in obedience to Christ, whatever that obedience for them might mean. Just like all of us.
Distress, yes. But what about the distress of those who live a faithful celibate life in obedience to Christ and who feel that the Church’s current apparent willingness to shape its theology to the general feeling of the culture is a betrayal of the truth they know and the obedience they demonstrate? These voices are silent in the normalising narrative; it is as if the people themselves were invisible. Why should other voices be privileged? Besides, are our feelings, even our deepest most painful feelings, a reliable factor in determining theological truth? The rich young ruler in the gospel story went away deeply sad and disappointed. Should Jesus have run after him and said “No, no, don’t go, it was only metaphorical”? How could he have done so? He had already offered the man his heart’s desire: to follow him as one of the twelve. Any other option would have been a lesser thing.
There is, then, work to do. There is a contribution that this group is uniquely gifted to make into the thought and practice of the wider church—just as we receive and need the gifts of others. But who will make that contribution if we give up on it? I’m not sure why we are talking about the possibility of leaving our Church. Has the Lord commanded it? Have we lost trust in his ability to lead his people—all of his people, in all of our earnestness and hope and sometimes muddleheadedness? Reading some of the contributions to the discussion I fear lest instead of contributing to the process we run ahead of it, and thus create the very situation that we worry about. And if some ultimate schism were to happen, it might indeed be true that we had sacrificed much in a righteous cause. But it might equally be true that we had become our own self-fulfilling prophecy.
Les Brighton is part-time administrator at Theology House in Christchurch. He was General Secretary of Latimer Fellowship between 1985 and 1996, and is currently writing a book on Paul’s letter to the Romans.