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

Some time ago, I wrote about a day conference of evangelicals on the question of same-sex relationships and the Church of England. A number of thoughts have been percolating on that one over the past few months, especially a the Diocese of Manchester and my own deanery seem intent on celebrating same-sex relationships.

The recent vote in Ireland has been seen as a significant marker post in moving the discussion along and in particular in the collapse of the influence of the church.

In a perceptive piece from Matthew Parris, asking for a more coherent case from the church for traditional marriage, he writes of the repeated process of revision:

"In which case, when we run out of male celibates we shall adjust a previously absolute doctrine to a more relaxed view of priestly duty. When we run short of male priests altogether (celibate or not) we shall review the teaching on women priests. When we run short of parishioners on their first marriage, we’ll think again about divorce. And when we find we cannot stop heterosexuals using contraceptives or homosexuals coupling, God’s will on these wickednesses will be found to have been revised."
His take is that the bishops in particular never believed any of these things anyway and are driven by pragmatic concerns.  Perhaps he is right.  Certainly we have a huge problem in the Church of England with clergy and bishops who don't hold to the faith that they have professed at their ordination and have as one of their goals to change the church into line with what they actually do believe.

What Parris raises is interesting though, because as western evangelicals (he doesn't have a lot of time for us!) we wouldn't want to think that it was pragmatic concerns that drove the agenda, but biblical concerns. Yet actually, on most of the examples he lists of change, the majority of evangelicals have moved in the last century.  Celibacy admittedly goes back to the reformation and that's a rather different context.  However, I think it's probably true to say that the majority of western evangelicals have moved some way on divorce and remarriage, women in ministry and possibly contraception (note Parris has the Roman Catholic church in view here as well).  Actually, I think you could take all kinds of examples of movement (evolution, drinking, open theism, dancing, federal vision, rock music, spiritual gifts, cinemas, inerrancy, hell, atonement and so on) and observe the change or attempted change.

In fact, in my previous blog one of my observations was that it felt disturbingly similar to discussions about women bishops.  I've been trying to think a little bit about how it is that evangelicals move on contentious issues, because I think that's what we're about to see on the issue of homosexuality. Here's a few observations about how I think it goes, although these are obviously generalisations and don't fit every case:


  1. There is cultural pressure to conform.  More well-versed people than me can outline this, but it seems to me that ideas for change in the academy through some process get to the media and then get taken up, over time, by the culture.  Over time, the guns tend to be turned on the church, as one of the conservative institutions that haven't seen the light.  The Christian academic, pastor, or lay person then has to respond.
  2. Then there is the pressure of liberal "Christians", especially within mixed denominations.  I suppose by definition the liberals tend to be the first-adopters of cultural change, because it is part of their authority.  Often it's shaped by arguments about mission to the culture and engagement in the culture, as well as the giftedness and spirituality of those we disagree with.  Often, alongside that attacks are made (ignorance, fundamentalism, injustice, inequality, intolerance etc.).  Again the Christian has to respond in some way, although often in the past we've put our heads in the sand on this one.
  3. That pressure over time produces outliers within evangelicalism.  For whatever reason, perhaps something personal or specific to their context, they have felt a disjunction between the received orthodoxy and the current culture.  Some move out of evangelicalism.  Others seek to reconcile evangelicalism with their new belief.  Often the early publications and writings by this group are not that great - partly because they are the first and partly because they're not always the best people to do the work I guess - and so most conservatives read them with a kind of "huh, that really convinced you!" attitude and most conservative responses are relatively simplistic - perhaps a few proof texts to make the point.
  4. The outliers provide some momentum for other people to move (in most cases, let's be honest, being in a culturally acceptable position is appealing), but alongside this the sophistication of the argument increases.  There is a tendency to attack the proof texts, often by appealing to what the words actually mean (e.g. yom in Genesis 1, authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12 or malakoi and arsenokoitai in 1 Cor 6:9), often by appealing to the historical context or perhaps the genre. The key is to set up potentially legitimate alternative interpretations.  Having done so, more and more people will take the more appealing interpretation.
  5. Lots of other features can be brought in, e.g. biblical theology, progressive revelation, systematic theology, experience.  In reality they all ask the question: can you really believe in a God/gospel that...?  which is now much harder to answer yes to, than it used to be.  Usually both points 4 & 5 are parasitic on the liberal literature, but use it in a more evangelical way.
  6. There is often some revision of history to be done as well.  It's awkward if it seems the entire church believed the X that you've now decided should be Y, so ideally you find some individuals or groups in history who were on the same sort of trajectory as you are now.
  7. By this stage you have within evangelicalism different camps, one conservative/traditional, the other open/progressive.  Mostly they are hesitant about completely condemning each other - often because they know each other!  But depending on the issue they rub along with each other more or less comfortably.
  8. Sometimes a new view really gets the ascendancy and tends to push the other out. Alternatively, an issue may cause an actual split, although I'm not sure we've clearly seen that in evangelicalism.
Now we could read this totally negatively, but it seems to me pretty likely that right change has happened in this sort of way too (some of the Reformation could fit here - not exactly before you query, but you can probably see what I mean).  It's not wrong that culture might raise questions for us.  It's OK to realise we've got things wrong and change.  Sometimes we might note that actually our position is the oddity in church history (I guess some the anti-drinking and dancing groups might fall there).

However, I think there are a few of observations to make on this.
  1. Points 4 and 5 are the key (biblical authority should determine the case), but too many of us allow points 1-3 to take us to a state where 4 and 5 have a predetermined conclusion.  Which is really a way of saying that although points 4 and 5 should be where the decision is made, it mostly isn't made there!
  2. Points 4 and 5 are key, but too many of us have been infected by postmodernism/higher criticism or whatever and don't really believe we can deal biblically with questions with any confidence now.
  3. Some questions are more significant than others.  I think most conservatives would make the point that while the issue with women in ministry is important, the issue of legitimising same-sex relationships is central to the gospel.  The significance, it seems to me, should have more impact on points 7 and 8.
  4. Points 7 and 8 are, I think, what makes evangelicalism such a mess.  If we're happy to have people who have a different view of the atonement in the fold (you may well not be, but you know what I mean), then you will struggle to exclude people who have a different view of sexuality.
It seems to me that we are in 3, 4 and 5 at the moment on homosexuality.  I haven't seen anything much on 6 yet and I don't think 7 and 8 apply yet.  However, it seems to me that 7 and 8 are in the near future.  I think we need to be prepared, if we're more conservative, to see lots of evangelicals either move to accepting same-sex relationships or at least move to deciding that it's not a gospel issue.

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