Future Church of England: Evangelical Conversations and Same-Sex Marriage Part 1

Yesterday I attended an event sponsored by the Diocesan Evangelical Fellowships of Manchester and Chester and New Wine North called Evangelical Conversations.  It was an event to discuss the Pilling Report (which is the report related to the church response to those who experience same-sex attraction) and it's consequences from the perspective evangelicals (New Wine, AWESOME, CPAS were the main players from the front).

For me it was a mixture of encouraging, interesting and disappointing. Primarily it was encouraging because there was a commitment to an orthodox position on same-sex attraction, relationships and marriage.  In many ways this is the main thing and needs to be headlined as a great thing.

It was interesting for a number of reasons and disappointing for a number of reasons, which I want to explore a bit a time.

The first interesting thing - in fact it was very striking - was how similar it felt to meetings discussing women bishops amongst conservative evangelicals.  I wonder if it was similar to meetings discussing women's ordination in an earlier generation.  Let me draw some of the parallels:

  1. This issue will split the church.  It was interesting to hear the same language used to emphasize the significance of the decisions on the issue.
  2. The faithful, biblical, orthodox position.  The language used to describe a conservative evangelical position on women bishops and an evangelical position on homosexuality was very similar.
  3. The flawed process.  Concerns about a centralised process that seems weighted against us were expressed in both contexts.
  4. The revisionist arguments. It was interesting (especially in light of my previous post and the comments) that concern was raised about the style of arguments raised by supporters of the church accepting same-sex relationships, e.g. selective use of Scripture, emotional arguments, pejorative language.  I would observe that this concern was noted about some supporters (and I think the general tide myself) of women bishops.
  5. The nearby opponents. It was noted that there are those who would take the title evangelical and would yet be against our position in both cases.
I think there were some differences too, with respect to the latter two points in particular.  I think conservatives in my (relatively recent) experience would have given more credence to evangelicals who took a position for women bishops and I think there is more agreement that the same-sex relationship issue is more central to the gospel.  I think it is also true that the nearby opponents are much more outliers to the standard evangelical position (I think a recent survey found 88% of clergy who identified as evangelical took an orthodox position on homosexuality).  However, it might be true that if you took the debate back a few years on women's ordination that the differences might not be so clear.

The reason I think this is important is that there may be some lessons to learn from one experience for the other.  Let me suggest a few questions:
  1. Will it formally split the church? I think we need to be careful on this one.  It was thought that women's ordination would split the church.  It was thought that allowing there to be women bishops would split the church.  I think both those things have split the church, but the effect is complex.  (1) Some people, clergy and lay leave the church over the issue.  (2) Some people, clergy and lay, declare they will fight it until they are kicked out.  It was interesting to see both views on display again yesterday. (3) Some people will just never come into the church (again ordained or lay), either because they are prevented from doing so, or because they choose not to.  (4) Some people change their mind and join the opponents. The thing is, because it takes so long for the church to have conversations and make decisions, and because different people act in different ways (even though they have essentially the same view), what happens tends not be a formal split, but a gradual isolation and removal of dissenting views. We would be wise not to let that happen again!
  2. How do we respond to a flawed process? It is simply worth noting that conservative evangelicals engaged, campaigned, conversed and the like to end up with legislation that largely excludes us.  What we failed to do effectively until more recently, was to unite and plan for the future.  What we perhaps failed to do was walk away when we were wasting our time.
  3. What do we do when the nearby opponents increase? The reality is that over time this is probably inevitable.  The pressure to change our minds will increase and so more people will change their minds.  The decrease of lay and clergy from an orthodox position will lead to a proportional increase of those who are relatively close to us, but disagree on this issue.  I think this will need campaigning and teaching on many fronts: e.g. theological education, selection, raising the issues in our churches and teaching, dealing with friends who change their minds etc.  This will be extremely tough.
There's more to say about the parallels, but those are some early thoughts.  There's a few more things to comment on in another post or two!


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