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Epitaph for an Archbishop? For fear of sailing over the edge of the world, he never put out to sea April 7, 2014

Posted by Phil Groom in Christianity, Church, Current Affairs.
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NO, THE ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY hasn’t died; but he does seem to be doing a remarkably good job at digging his own grave, at least insofar as establishing good relations with the LGBTI community is concerned. In February — on St Valentine’s Day, to be precise — together with the Archbishop of York he signed off the House of Bishops’ now notorious Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage; last month he appeared to signal an end to the Church of England’s opposition to same sex marriage but offered no lessening or withdrawal of the restrictions placed upon clergy in that Pastoral Guidance; and now this month, in a phone-in on LBC radio (full transcript), he has outlined some of the thinking behind his own resistance to change: if the Church of England recognises same sex marriage, Christians in Africa will die.

This is flat earth thinking at its worst (or best, depending on your point of view), refusing to put out to sea for fear of sailing off the edge of the world — in this case, the refusal to put out to sea being the Archbishop’s resistance to same sex marriage in the Church of England and the edge of the world being Africa and the fear of further atrocities by extremist homophobes.

It’s the kind of slippery slope reasoning typified by the so-called Coalition for Marriage, C4M, driven by their fear of unintended consequences, and the moral equivalent of refusing to offer sanctuary to Jews during the Second World War for fear of Nazi reprisals; of refusing to take a stand against racism in apartheid South Africa for fear of worse oppression; of arguing that women ought not to be educated in the UK for fear of Taliban reprisals in India; or refusing to speak out for Palestinian land rights for fear of Israeli bulldozers demolishing homes — the list could go on and on, as the atrocities surely will, for those whose hearts are full of hate will always find reasons to justify their evil.

The dangers are real: all of these fears have at least some validity, but allowing them to hold sway over our decisions is not the way of Christ, who gave his own life rather than capitulate to prejudice and hate; more than that, who called his followers to take up their cross and follow him. That Christians will die is a given, given by Christ himself, but that does not make the scenes the Archbishop has witnessed any less a tragedy.

Archbishop Justin Welby is a man with a massive heart, a heart for the poor, for the oppressed and the underdog, evidenced most recently by the launch of the Listen to God: Hear the Poor initiative with Cardinal Vincent Nichols. As I noted with reference to the House of Bishops, he is right in what he affirms, but wrong in what he denies: he is right to be appalled and he is right to call us to awareness of possible global consequences; but he is wrong to allow fear of those consequences to counter right action. Refusing to do what is right for fear of others doing what is wrong paves the way for evildoers to continue with their evil and it can never be the way of Christian thinking or living: to quote Kes (aka Rebel Rev), the priest who asked the question that led to the Archbishop’s remarks, “What Justin said put the power in the hands of the oppressors and those who wield violence.” (Rebel Rev lives up to her name).

But here in the Church of England in England, this leaves us with a deep seated problem: we have an Archbishop who has publicly stated his belief that sexual relations are for marriage and that marriage is between a man and a woman, but who also says that there must be no predetermined outcomes to the Church’s ongoing conversations about human sexuality; who has signed off a document — the Pastoral Guidance — that denies his fellow priests the right to follow their conscience but which caters specifically to his own; and the reason the conservative conscience must take priority over the progressive conscience is fear.

Thus we have an Archbishop who perceives himself not as refusing to do what is right for fear of others doing what is wrong but as refusing to sanction what he believes to be wrong and backing up that refusal for fear of possible consequences elsewhere, exacerbated further by a failure to recognise his attitude as homophobic: homophobia kills; he and the House of Bishops merely hold reservations. He most likely would not recognise this statement, but it is as if he has said, “Let us show solidarity with Africa’s homophobes in the hope that they will see that our homophobia is nicer and moderate their behaviour accordingly.” And that, of course, will never work: instead, Africa’s homophobes will — indeed, do — perceive the Church of England’s position as weakness whilst theirs is strength. Thus holding back on full equality here in England has the very opposite effect to that which ++Justin hopes for: rather than moderate their behaviour, Africa’s homophobes dig in their heels, turn up the heat and expect us to follow their lead.

There can only be one way through such a brick wall and that is enlightenment by God. That enlightenment will come, as it came for me, when those opposed to equal marriage see that their fear and prejudice are groundless. It will come not by our screaming, shouting, denouncements and ad hominem attacks against a man caught between the cliff of conservative resistance and the tide of progressive opinion but rather by our willingness to follow Christ regardless of personal cost, by our willingness to show love, to show the better way.

It will come not by calling for ++Justin Welby’s resignation but by prayerful engagement; by those in favour of equal marriage demonstrating that God is, indeed, with us; that the Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of LGBTI believers in exactly the same way as in the lives of all other Christians; by showing that God does not condemn but accepts all of us just the way we are, regardless of sexual orientation; and further, that God does not curse but blesses those committed to loving, faithful marital relationships, regardless of gender difference or identity.

Christ’s message is twofold: first of all, he bids us trust in God, fear not, for he is in the boat and it won’t go down; but then comes another storm and another challenge: suddenly he is not in the boat but out there in the storm, inviting us, like Peter, to risk all, to step out of the boat and walk with him among the wind and the waves of uncertainty. It is as if he says, Who dares wins — but not so, for Jesus says, Who loves wins; it is love that conquers fear, it is love that brings courage, it is love that wins.

Pray, then, with me for Archbishop Justin’s eyes to be opened. Pray that he will discover that love which drives out all fear, and in particular drives out his fear of where it might all end, his fear of sailing over the edge of the world — for the world is not flat, as some suppose, and the answer to that question of where it will all end is this: back at home, when we have circumnavigated the globe (not without some adventure, danger and yes, even death, along the way) and returned to safe harbour, to Jesus himself, the one who is Lord of the Church and who is able, more than able, to keep his Church from falling.

And pray too for our brothers and sisters in Africa…

Some Responses and Reactions Elsewhere

Petition by Revd Mark Kenny to @C_of_E’s House of Bishops to rescind their opposition to equal marriage and take back their recent Pastoral Guidance March 10, 2014

Posted by Phil Groom in Christianity, Church, Current Affairs.
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FOLLOWING ON from my recent Open Letter to the House of Bishops, I have signed and wholeheartedly endorse the Revd Mark Kenny’s petition via change.org calling upon the Bishops to:

  • Rescind their opposition to equal marriage
  • Take back their recent Pastoral Guidance
  • Create a Church where all are welcomed

If you share these concerns and haven’t already signed Mark’s petition, please sign it today:

Petition to the Church of England's Bishops by the Revd Mark Kenny

Petition to the Church of England’s Bishops by the Revd Mark Kenny

Heaven is Weeping: An Open Letter to the House of Bishops @C_of_E @JustinWelby @JohnSentamu March 1, 2014

Posted by Phil Groom in Christianity, Church, Current Affairs.
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MY LORD BISHOPS,

Greetings in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ, your Lord and mine in our common journey of faith: to him be the glory for ever and ever!

I am writing this letter hesitantly because, as a member of a clergy household myself, I am aware of the immense pressure that you live under and of the immense burden of responsibility that you shoulder as the Lords Spiritual in our land: may the Lord give each and every one of you the courage, grace, strength and wisdom you need as you carry out your duties in his service.

First of all, I would like to thank you for all the time and effort that you put into so many different and often conflicting areas of life, especially on matters of injustice here in the UK and elsewhere in the world. Thank you, in particular, to those who put their names to the letter recently published in the Mirror newspaper challenging the government over the impact of its welfare reforms; my thanks also for the work that went into producing the Pilgrim Course, which has been well received and appreciated in the parishes I belong to; and for all the other work you carry out, so much of it unseen and unheralded by media attention.

My further thanks for the time, consideration and careful reflection that went into your recent Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage: this brings us to my main purpose in writing as I add my voice to the many others expressing concern and dismay over this matter.

I’d like to start by sharing something of my own faith journey: I was brought up as a free-church, conservative evangelical. The Bible, prayer and church were the bedrock of my early life: I read the Bible and prayed daily, more than daily; I attended the Christian Union at school and at college; and I became a Sunday School teacher and a street evangelist whilst still in my teenage years. I knew the Bible better than any of my contemporaries and was referred to as ‘the living concordance’, such was my enthusiasm; and I knew — or rather, believed I knew — what the Bible taught about sexuality. Homosexuality and Christianity were mutually exclusive: to be gay was a lifestyle choice that set a person at odds with Scripture and the revealed will of God. This did not mean that I hated gays: they were no worse sinners than anyone else and I followed the mantra of ‘love the sinner, hate the sin.’

I know, then, how some of you and some the churches under your care feel about homosexuality in the Church, for I too once felt that way; and in those days, not surprisingly, I had no dealings with gay people: why would any gay person want to know me, a person who would claim to offer them Christ’s unconditional love whilst simultaneously condemning that which lay at the very core of their being?

That was to change, however, not overnight or by any dramatic experience, but over time as I began to encounter gay people; and not simply gay people but gay Christians; and it became clear that God was as much at work in their lives as mine. Without any sign of repentance for their ‘lifestyle choice’, God was blessing them: the fruit and work of the Holy Spirit was as evident in the lives of gay Christians as it was in the lives of straight Christians!

What was going on? Was God a liar, saying one thing in Scripture yet doing another? Was God the ultimate hypocrite, playing games with people’s lives and sexuality? Surely not! So I revisited the Scriptures and by God’s grace my eyes were opened: it became clear that faithfulness was the key. From beginning to end, from Adam and Eve’s betrayal of God’s trust in the Garden of Eden, through the Law, the Histories and the Prophets and all the way on to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus’ trust in the Garden of Gethsemane and beyond into the book of Revelation, God’s call to his people has been to be faithful: faithful to God, faithful to our neighbours and faithful to one another. God loves faithfulness!

Everything fell into place: the condemnations of same-sex activity that we see in Scripture all represent betrayals of trust. The world of the Bible, of ancient Israel and of the Early Church, was a world where heterosexual relationships formed the bedrock of society, where homosexual activity could only represent a betrayal of trust; and so homosexual behaviour was condemned in the same way as other promiscuous behaviour such as adultery. This, however, is not the world we live in today: today we find ourselves in society where long-term, faithful same-sex partnerships co-exist and thrive alongside straight relationships; and against such relationships there is neither law nor biblical prohibition. Loose living, promiscuity and adultery are out, for all of these betray both human and divine trust; faithfulness is in, for this echoes the very heart of God.

Like St Peter in prayer on the rooftop, who found himself confounded by God’s apparent change of attitude towards the things and people he believed that God had declared unclean, I too was confounded; but also like Peter, seeing God transforming the lives of those whom I once regarded as unclean, I am set free and I ask, “Who am I — who are we, the Church — to deny blessing to those whom God is blessing?”

This, then, has been my journey of understanding and this is why I support equal marriage; this too is why I believe the Church of England should support equal marriage; and this is why I now find myself dismayed by your Lordships’ Pastoral Guidance on the matter when I see you making such a prohibition. Gentlemen, you are the Lords Spiritual: you yourselves commissioned the Pilling Report, which included the following amongst its recommendations:

… we believe that parishes and clergy, who conscientiously believe that celebrating faithful same sex relationships would be pastorally and missiologically the right thing to do, should be supported in doing so. [...] Consultation and agreement between clergy and PCC on the policy would be essential, although the decision whether to conduct such a service in individual cases should be for the priest alone. (Pilling, paras 391-2, p.112)

Yet rather than accept that recommendation, rather than offer priests that support, rather than allowing them to follow their conscience, you advise that any prayer with a same-sex married couple should “be accompanied by pastoral discussion of the church’s teaching and their reasons for departing from it” then state unequivocally that “Services of blessing should not be provided.” (Pastoral Guidance Appendix, para 21).

How did this come to pass? How have you managed to turn that which is supposed to provide pastoral support into a blunt instrument that can only serve to drive a further wedge between the Church of England and LGBT people? How has welcoming a same-sex couple to prayer for their ongoing relationship become an opportunity to berate them for departing from church teaching? For make no mistake about it, that is how such a so-called “pastoral discussion” — no matter how sensitively broached — will be perceived by those on the receiving end. This approach, your Lordships, is a betrayal of trust that flies in the face of all that has gone before, that undermines almost all of your introductory remarks about gay people being children of God, loved and valued as full members of the body of Christ.

In your early paragraphs you cite Part 6 of the Dromantine Communiqué of 2005, stating that “The victimisation or diminishment of human beings whose affections happen to be ordered towards people of the same sex is anathema to us” — but then you go on to do precisely that very thing, victimising and diminishing LGBT people by excluding their relationships from the possibility of affirmation or formal recognition by the Church, even going so far as to declare that “it would not be appropriate conduct for someone in holy orders to enter into a same sex marriage” (Pastoral Guidance Appendix, para 27).

So you place both gay clergy and gay laity in a double-bind, in a Catch-22 situation, caught out by the Church’s proper teaching that sexual activity belongs within the context of marriage but, when presented by the State with a lawful opportunity to marry, either denied that opportunity altogether (clergy) or denied the opportunity to celebrate that relationship (laity) by the Church.

You cite the Canons in support of your position; but you cite them selectively, for the Church’s Canons in the Thirty Nine Articles (Article XXXII) stipulate quite clearly that the call to the Priesthood within the Anglican tradition is not a call to celibacy: the clergy are free to marry at their discretion. So as the law of the land changes, you override one canon at the expense of another, making that canon which describes marriage as being between a man and woman more important than that which grants clergy freedom to marry, at the same time as denying the validity of state-sanctioned marriage in any case.

Which is it to be, your Lordships? Is the state sanctioned marriage in fact valid, such that it carries sufficient weight to threaten canon law? Or is it invalid, in which case it carries no weight whatsoever and is no different to a civil partnership?

As so often happens in theological disputes, your Lordships, you are right in what you affirm, but wrong in what you deny. You affirm the sanctity of marriage, but deny it to gay people. You affirm God’s love for gay people but deny them full inclusion as God’s people. You open the door to the sacraments of baptism and communion, but close it to marriage: you weigh the sacraments and say, “Thus far and no further!”

You are right when you say that Jesus affirmed male/female relationships; but you are wrong when you say that by that affirmation he denied same-sex relationships: for you know full well that Jesus did not say a word either for or against such relationships. He did, however, speak of the sanctity of marriage and declared that anyone who divorces and remarries, except in the case of their partner’s unfaithfulness, commits adultery — yet you allow priests discretion over whom they will remarry. Thus you not only pick and choose which aspects of Christ’s teachings you follow, but you make an area in which he gave no specific teaching more important than one in which his teaching is clear. If a priest’s discretion is permitted over remarriage of divorcees, upon what basis is it not permitted over a public act of worship which recognises a same-sex marriage?

A song from Boy George/Culture Club comes to mind and I’ve rewritten the lyrics for you:

You are men of deep conviction,
You are men who surely know
How to tell a contradiction?
You surely know, you surely know!

Your Lordships, you surely know! You surely know how Jesus responded to those whose lives were riddled with such contradiction, the religious leaders of his own day, men who swallowed camels whilst straining at gnats. I appeal to you, do not be like them! Do not say of LGBT people that the Church welcomes them as equals but deny that welcome in what you permit or prohibit!

You speak of ‘facilitated conversations’ but rather than pave the way for them, you make such conversations futile by issuing a statement that reinforces barricades instead of taking them down. You say, “[...] we are all in agreement that the Christian understanding and doctrine of marriage as a lifelong union between one man and one woman remains unchanged.” What, then, is the point of these conversations when you have unanimously predetermined their outcome? Forgive me, my Lords, but I find it difficult to believe your declaration that you are all in agreement on this: was there truly not even one dissenting voice, not one person open to the possibility of change?

More than this, gentlemen, I find your choice of words here less than helpful: the Christian understanding… — what? Is there but one definitive Christian understanding and doctrine of marriage? Do you really set your understanding over and above that of other Christian churches? By all means speak of the Church of England’s traditional understanding, but please do not presume to speak for the entire Christian community!

Your approach to this matter, your analysis of it and your response to it are not the way of Christ, the living door, who opens the Kingdom of Heaven to all who will come in. I appeal to you, as a fellow pilgrim on the way: do not close the doors that Christ is opening. Do not seek the way of the law when we are saved by grace: heed the warnings of St Paul, that those who choose to live under the law are obliged to obey the whole law — do not return to slavery but accept the freedom Christ offers!

Listen also to the wisdom of Gamaliel: if what is happening here is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to stop it — in which case you may even find yourselves fighting against God!

At the beginning of this letter, I thanked those of you who spoke out recently about the disastrous impact of the government’s welfare reforms: you protest injustice on the one hand whilst you practice it on the other, for that issue and this are both matters of injustice. Thus we have a government that is pro-equality in one arena but blind to its obligations to the poor, whilst we have a Church leadership that has a clear vision of its obligations to the poor but appears blind to injustice here: can you not see, then, why the media cry out and people castigate the Church as a haven for hypocrites?

May the Lord grant you, the leaders of his Church, the vision of our government to see that equal rights require equal rites; and may the Lord grant our government, the leaders of our nation, the compassion for the poor that you see so clearly.

And may he further grant you, as Bishops in his Church, grace and wisdom to facilitate conversations — as some of you are doing — rather than close them down, and so ensure that the gospel of Jesus Christ is indeed good news for all people in all times and situations.

As I draw to a close, the sun is shining in our garden, the sky is no longer weeping; but heaven is weeping, weeping over every lost sheep driven away from the Church by this failure of love. You are the Chief Shepherds appointed over Christ’s Church: I urge you, then, to behave as the Good Shepherd himself and follow where his Spirit is leading to help bring heaven’s tears to an end.

Yours sincerely in Christ,

Phil Groom


This letter was notified to the Church of England’s Communications Dept and to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York via twitter at the time of publication here, 1st March 2014. I have also sent it directly to both Archbishops and to the Administrative Secretary to the House of Bishops, Ross Gillson, with a covering letter inviting individual responses as well as a formal — and hopefully open — response from the House. If and when such responses are forthcoming, they too will be posted here.


For further reading, reflection and information

There is, of course, much more out there: these are simply a few links to material that I personally have found most helpful and interesting…

What matters to the Tories: somebody fetch me a sick bag, quick! February 14, 2014

Posted by Phil Groom in Current Affairs, Life, Watching.
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I HOPE THIS makes you feel as angry and sick as it makes me…

So, here we are. Disabled people clearly don’t matter. Poor people clearly don’t matter. Older people matter a bit, but not enough to ensure social care is properly funded. But suddenly, after lots of people and communities have been suffering from dreadful flooding for many weeks, the Thames breaks its banks. As if by magic, the Prime Minister tells us “Money is no object. We are a wealthy country”. I feel sick.

When disabled people can’t get suitable housing, we have no money.

When we need accessible public transport, we have no money.

When poor families can’t afford both food and heating, we have no money.

When people who appeal an incorrect “fit for work” decision need money to live on while their decision is “reconsidered”, we have no money.

When those who care 24/7 for family members are penalised financially, simply to remain in their homes, we have no money.

When A & E departments are under severe strain and sick people are waiting hours even to get into the hospital, we have no money.

BUT, when homes in middle England are flooded, money’s no object and we’re suddenly a wealthy country. Sorry, but as I said, I feel sick :(

Now we know. The shrinking of the welfare state is ideological. We ARE a wealthy country, and we need to make the right choices in 2015. Flooding is awful – but extreme poverty, isolation, freezing cold homes and hunger are as well.

Thank you for supporting Equal Marriage: The Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP responds February 6, 2013

Posted by Phil Groom in Current Affairs, Watching and Waiting.
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TODAY, as those of us who support equal marriage rejoice at the outcome of yesterday’s vote — 400:175 in favour — it gives me great pleasure to be able to follow up my last post with the Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP‘s response, and I thank Mr Burt for his prompt, courteous and carefully considered reply, received within a matter of minutes of my message to him:

From: BURT, Alistair
Subject: RE: Thank you for supporting Equal Marriage: An Open Letter
Date: 5 February 2013 12:21:28 GMT
To: Phil Groom
Cc: Colin Coward, Changing Attitude; Freedom to Marry

Dear Phil

Thank you for your email on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill coming before the House today.

As you would expect I have given a great deal of thought and consideration to my position.

I will support the Bill being put forward by the Government because I believe fundamentally in the equality of all UK citizens before the civil law. I also believe that Churches and those of all faiths should be able to make their own decisions over who is blessed by marriage as a religious rite.

I do not believe the Bill interferes with that rite, and indeed every effort is being made to ensure that it is protected.

On the issue itself I do not agree with arguments which suggest that marriage is being devalued. Marriage is not threatened by extending the right to two consenting adults who wish to make a commitment to long term stability. Marriage is more threatened by the prevalence of break up and separation which society should be trying so hard to avoid.

As a Christian, I believe that God created us all equal, and whilst I fully understand the issues of interpretation in the Bible, this is not a matter which should require Parliament and Civil Law to comply with. This is even more the case when issues of interpretation are challenged and where there are many other Biblical instructions which are not part of the law of the land.

I have given this very careful and serious thought and I trust that in time we will all appreciate the opportunity for individuals to experience what marriage means to so many.

I hope you have a clear sense of my opinions on such an important issue, and I am very grateful for your supportive email. I am very happy for it to be published on your blog.

Kind regards
Alistair Burt

Office of Alistair Burt | Member of Parliament for NE Bedfordshire | Minister for the Middle East, North Africa & South Asia | Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Thank you for supporting Equal Marriage: An Open Letter to the Rt Hon Alistair Burt, MP February 5, 2013

Posted by Phil Groom in Current Affairs, Watching and Waiting.
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Dear Mr Burt,

Thank you for supporting equal marriage.

I was delighted to discover recently that you are one of the signatories to the Freedom to Marry launch letter, a letter which I, as one of your constituents, wholeheartedly endorse.

No doubt you have received many messages urging you to reconsider your position. I, however, would like to encourage you to stand firm and vote in favour of the legislation, to ensure that LGBT people are recognised as equal members of our society and allowed to share the same freedom to marry as everyone else.

As you are no doubt aware, there are many Christians and members of the Church of England such as myself who support this measure despite the official opposition of the Church, which we say does not speak in our name: allowing gay couples to marry does not undermine the institution of marriage; to the contrary, it can only help to strengthen society and marriage itself as more people commit to lifelong, faithful relationships.

I will be publishing this letter on my blog (address below) and, with your permission, please, would also like to publish your response.

Thank you once again for your support; I look forward to hearing from you soon.

With all good wishes,

Phil Groom

Phil Groom
http://philgroom.wordpress.com
www.facebook.com/philgroom
http://twitter.com/notbovvered

CC. Colin Coward, Changing Attitude; Freedom to Marry.

Reclaiming Marriage: What it is, what it isn’t, what it will finally be December 22, 2012

Posted by Phil Groom in Advent and Christmas, Church, Current Affairs, Life.
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Your Church Wedding: The Official C of E Wedding Planner

Want to get married in the Church of England? Sorry, straights only…

MARRIAGE: We’re hearing a lot about it these days as Her Majesty’s Government crosses swords and angry words with the religious right and the Church of England’s officialdom in particular, an ecclesiastical officialdom that appears to be increasingly out of touch with its own people, who are the Church. Whilst the government seeks to make marriage inclusive and available to all irrespective of gender and orientation, these self-appointed guardians of public morality seek to restrict it as an exclusive preserve of heterosexuals. Marriage, they declare, is sacrosanct: the government has no right to govern it. Marriage, they insist, transcends government: it is ordained by God, the union of man and woman, given by God to provide a stable family life in which children can be brought up.

To which God, to anyone prepared to listen, replies: balderdash and piffle! And does so in no uncertain terms as he begets a bastard to save the world: yes, Jesus, the bastard babe of Bethlehem, born to an unmarried woman in poverty, dependent upon gifts from strangers to survive as a refugee on the run from the authorities; and this child grows up, remains single, owns no property, befriends prostitutes and others outside mainstream society, ends up framed by the religious leaders of his day and gets murdered. That, my friends, is the true Christmas story: no fairy lights, no romance, no happily ever after as the hero carries his blushing bride over the threshold. Instead, God eschews marriage both as Father and as Son, and delivers a whole new twist to the meaning of “stable family life” — all our precious human conventions tossed aside as eternity breaks into time.

In engaging with humanity, God sets himself outside marriage, for marriage is a human institution, one of the ways that our society has developed — not so much ordained by as approved by God, God’s gift to humanity, like the Sabbath; and if we would but heed his voice, I suspect we’d hear Jesus saying, as he said of the Sabbath, “Marriage was made for people, not people for marriage.”

What, then, is marriage? To marry is, quite simply, to join together: it’s a term used in the construction industry, in carpentry, plumbing and engineering as items are bonded to one another. “I’ll marry up that joint,” says the carpenter. We don’t hear the religious right objecting to the use of the term in these contexts, only when it comes to human relationships. I wonder why?

And what is marriage about? There is an absurdity here: those who claim they want to defend the importance of marriage seem to want to reduce it to nothing more than a sexual union. Really? Is that what marriage is about? A licence to have sex? Of course it isn’t: marriage is about far more than what people get up to in their bedrooms; if you dare, ask any couple, married, cohabiting or partnered, what proportion of their time is spent having sex — I’ll wager few apart from newly-weds make it up to even 5% of their time, and for most it will be far less than that.

What, then, is marriage about? Above all, it’s about faithfulness, about commitment; about making that commitment under the terms of a covenant: a covenanted relationship. Faithfulness is what God calls people to, throughout the Bible. Faithfulness versus unfaithfulness is the constant, recurring theme of scripture: from the story of Adam & Eve’s betrayal of God’s trust in Eden to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus in Gethsemane; in the Commandments; in the Prophets as Israel is lambasted for her unfaithfulness to God; in the New Testament as the church is called to remain faithful to God — and it’s this relationship with God that the human institution of marriage but faintly reflects. Again and again, God cries out to his people to be faithful. Go read those ancient prophets and experience the sorrow in God’s heart at his people’s inconstancy!

What makes a marriage is faithfulness; what breaks a marriage is unfaithfulness — and if marriage is in danger, if marriage is in disrepute, it’s heterosexuals who have done the damage and made a mockery of it. Seems to me God is now saying, “Enough! You people have disregarded my call, have betrayed my trust: you’ve thrown it away; but now I will give that trust to all people who will commit to faithfulness regardless of gender” — a repeat of what happened to Israel when Christ came and threw the doors of the covenant wide open to the Gentiles: no longer an exclusive covenant but an inclusive one, for all who will put their trust in God. Just as God once used an outsider, Cyrus, to restore Israel, it seems — irony of ironies — that God is now using the Conservative Party and David Cameron in particular to restore marriage.

Those people to whom I entrusted this gift of marriage have not honoured it, says the Lord, therefore I will find a people who will honour it.

So, at least, it seems to me. Many will disagree; and no doubt numerous marriages of gay couples will fail just as they have done for so many straight couples. No matter: because the story is not over until our hero carries his bride over the threshold. I said that in this story that didn’t happen, didn’t I? I spoke too soon, for the final threshold is death; and our hero, Jesus, tenderly carries his bride — the Church, his broken, bleeding bride, ravaged by her own self-harm and self-interest — in his own broken, bleeding arms over that final threshold into a place where marriage is no more, where questions of gender are set aside, because all are one in Christ and love wins.

Marriage: here we have the Church being precious about it, trying to put a hedge around it, and all the time Christ calls us beyond it to something far deeper — an eternity of love. Marriages are not made by church or state; nor are they made in heaven: they are made in the heart, forged in the home. Church and state, heaven and hell, can only look on in wonder at a covenanted relationship of love that culminates in God and, for those who will, in that glorious consummation between Christ and the Church, the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.

And what a party that will be!


Acknowledgements

I’d like to acknowledge the following, whose recent thought-provoking posts have helped to shape and clarify my thinking in this area. Those named, however, bear no responsibility for anything here written; that responsibility is mine, and mine alone.


Britain 2015 – if David Cameron is still @Number10gov June 25, 2012

Posted by Phil Groom in Current Affairs, Life.
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IF YOU’RE A YOUNG PERSON in Britain today, here’s how your future’s looking:

Leave school at 16 or 18 because you can’t afford higher education…
Get a low-end minimum-wage job if you’re lucky…
Maybe earn enough to rent somewhere with some mates…

Receive a pay cut because the government has scrapped the minimum wage
» or get fired for no reason because the government has scrapped employee rights
» or get made redundant because the company goes bust

Now you’ve got no money to pay the rent
» your mates can’t subsidise you
» housing benefit has been scrapped for under-25s
» your parents don’t want you back

Hello cardboard box in an alleyway at night, fight for a Big Issue pitch by day.

If you survive, turn 25 …

… by which time housing benefit for under-35s has been scrapped…

Welcome to the Tory scrapheap, if you live that long — and if you live longer, don’t even think about collecting a pension: long before you reach 68, pension age will be 75; and by the time you reach 75, it’ll be 90.

Apathy and indifference are no longer an option: if you’re old enough to vote by the time of the next General Election in 2015, use that vote or lose everything.

The Church of England and the Question of Freedom: Bishop Tim Ellis: Not in my name? June 13, 2012

Posted by Phil Groom in Christianity, Church, Current Affairs.
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3 comments

AN EXCELLENT and challenging post from Bishop Tim Ellis of Grantham this afternoon, responding to the Church of England’s recent statement opposing equal marriage, Not in my name?

He writes:

… the Church of England is not like the Roman Catholic Church or other ecclesial bodies in having a central majisterium which speaks authoritatively for the Church on any given matter. So, the Church of England has never been able to come up with the ‘party line’ about contraception, for instance, in the way that the Church of Rome has. Despite the countless people who ignore the injunction, the fact still remains that to be a Catholic is not to be a user of contraceptives. Still less is the Church of England like a political party with a manifesto that needs to be publicly shared by all adherents regardless of private belief. The religious life within the Church of England should not be about conformity to centrally created opinions at all costs-as the ‘voice of the institution’-but more ‘pilgrimaging’ together within the complexities and dilemmas of life under the refreshing and renewing guidance of the Holy Spirit. The ability for the Church in England to see things differently and to honour diversity was a hard won freedom at the time of the Reformation in the 15th and 16th centuries when folk died for the right to see the Mass, Baptism, the Bible and many other matters of the soul from different perspectives from those handed down through the, then, closely held traditions of the Church. It is this freedom of interpretation and of the need for structural adjustment to changing circumstances that has allowed our Church to leave many things to the individual’s conscience but also to make serious advancements such as the ordination of women to the priesthood. When we have veered from this freedom we have, for instance, caused ourselves the embarrassment of condemning Darwin. At the heart of this very attractive aspect of the Church of England’s life is the knowledge that we are a diverse and highly inclusive Church from which there can be no unified voice or opinion in these matters, and it this aspect of our Church that has kept me faithful to Anglicanism all my life.

So, I am forced to say that those of my colleagues who have spoken out on same-sex marriage do not speak for me and neither, I dare to say, do they speak for the Church of England-they are rehearsing their own opinions.

Bishop Tim, I salute you.

Shadow Dancing: A conversation about faith, hope and gay love in the church April 28, 2012

Posted by Phil Groom in Christianity, Current Affairs, Life, Theological Reflection.
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18 comments
An Evangelical Apology

An Evangelical Apology

IT’S UNUSUAL, I GUESS, for a conversation to start with someone else’s apology to a third party, but that’s where this one started, courtesy of my good friend the Revd Kevin Ellis, who posted an apology to one of his fellow priests for the way that some evangelicals have treated her as a gay Christian: An Evangelical Apology

It’s a exercise in grace that many evangelicals would do well to learn from, rejecting homophobia, inviting dialogue, acknowledging difficulty. Kevin does not hide his personal discomfort with respect to his friend’s sexual orientation, but rather than allow that discomfort to control his attitude, he sets it aside and reaches out to build bridges; and whilst he does not spell this out directly, his post highlights the tragedy, irony and contradiction in the typical evangelical response to homosexuality: condemnation. The very people who name themselves heralds of good news — for that is what being an evangelical must surely mean above all else — have all too often become heralds of bad news as they seek to exclude those with whom they disagree, those whose lifestyles do not meet their approval.

I thanked Kevin for his post; a couple of others commented; and the following conversation emerged. My further thanks to Kevin and Stephen, my conversation partner, for their kind agreement to my reposting the conversation here. Obvious typos and misspellings have been corrected, but no other changes have been made.

Stephen J March, April 20, 2012 at 9:10 pm

Kevin, as is often the case, your grace and love are exemplary of the Christ we love and serve. However whilst your position has much to commend it fraternally, pastorally it leaves much to be desired. For those who give leadership to the Body of Christ, a clear position on this issue, making clear what scripture teaches is essential. Personal relationships can operate in grace-filled obscurity, leadership of a community of faith cannot.

For myself, regardless of how much I feel for my brothers and sisters who struggle with homosexual drives, I cannot see any way in which the practice of a homosexuality is posible unless we disregard completely the 7 or so biblical texts which clearly speak against it. For me there is no way we can re-interpret these texts without doing serious violence to the whole of the exegetical process. This causes me much pain, but I cannot believe that God is confused about what is best for human society. As I would stand against contemorary mores for a biblical view of marriage and heterosexual continence outside of marriage, I feel bound to do the same against the allowance of homosexual practice for those who wish to be followers of Christ. Certainly I deplore all hatred and oppression. I am also highly sceptical of mooted “re-orientation” programs. Human sexuality is something that still defies the best efforts of genetic science and psychology to come up with a globally comprehensive survey. So I am clearly aware that I am expressing an exegetical view that would require life-time celibacy for homosexually inclined Christians. However, I cannot disregard Scripture on this, or any other area. It is a hard teaching, but if we would be faithful to the love of God expressed in Christ we must be faithful to all Scripture – even those parts that hurt or cause confusion.

Stephen J March, April 21, 2012 at 8:46 am

On further reflection I am reminded that the first temptation of human-kind was to doubt that the limits placed upon their freedom by God, were for their benefit. Our proto-ancestors were convinced by the lie that God was acting thusly from an unworthy motivation. We know what followed.

However, this still remains the hardest temptation to resist. I cannot but class the contemporary movement to reject the divinely ordained limits on human sexuality – both in scope and type – as the same type of temptation.

Kevin Ellis, April 21, 2012 at 9:04 am

Actually, Stephen, I do not disagree with you. I was not offering a comprehensive theology; but responding (a) to a particular encounter and (b) to some extremely offensive comments made by some British evangelicals, who should have known better. For that offensiveness, I was offering my own small apology.

Phil Groom, April 21, 2012 at 3:21 pm

Grace knows no limits, Stephen. Grace steps over the lines that we draw in the sand and rewrites the rules: God’s radical action changes everything. Everything. Everything we thought we knew about right and wrong, about judgement, sin and the devil … it’s something Jesus’ opponents could never get their heads round when he went around upsetting their precious applecarts, touching the unclean, associating with prostitutes and tax collectors, gaining himself a reputation as a drunkard and a glutton … but seriously, what else should we expect from a man who starts his ministry by turning water into wine at a party where the guests had already had too much to drink? Hmmm…

Me, well, I’ve read those half dozen or so Bible passages that seem to damn gay sex; I’ve read all those others that condemn the seemingly endless variety of sexual misdemeanours that our dear old human species is capable of dreaming up; and the more I read the more I see one clear message emerging: God loves faithfulness. That’s the overriding context, the central message from beginning to end — from Adam & Eve’s betrayal of God’s trust in Eden through to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus in Gethsemane, and everywhere in the Law, the Histories and the Prophets, right through the New Testament letters into Revelation: unfaithfulness sucks, kills and destroys.

The Bible simply knows nothing of faithful same-sex relationships: what it addresses is an idealised heterosexual world, and in that world, the sex acts it condemns are those which betray faithfulness in that context. But that idealised world never existed, hence, for instance, the concession of divorce; and at this point I don’t think I can say it better than Trace James in another, parallel conversation:

I think we can say without question there were things in the ancient society of Israel which fell well short of the creation norms for generous, fruitful, shalom-bringing practice which were outlawed in Israel. Some we understand clearly and others, not so much.

Mixing the threads of two cloths, say cotton and linen, in the same garment was among them. A teenager who refused to receive correction was also stoned and his body was left outside the camp as an example to others was another.

We probably all know we live under a different covenant from that of Moses and Israel and that what was so in the early chapters of the great story does not always work so well in later chapters, say, for instance, polygamy? So what can we bring forward from the earliest chapters of our story into our present time?

It is clear to me that the original norm for married life was one man with one woman for a lifetime. And we know creation, as it is, contains many broken situations. Some things, apparently, can be mended and others cannot.

I usually make everyone hate me when I say this yet I cannot see another way to say it, at least not yet: Homosexuality, like warfare, is apparently not only not a normative condition; it is also apparently not something which can be mended in the here and now. Perhaps we will see an end to war some day prior to the consummation of all things but it seems unlikely because situations do come to pass, such as despots like Q’daffi and Hussain, murdering their own people, situations which make war, after all other recourses have been exhausted, a better choice than the status quo. So I ask, are not committed unions between persons of the same sex a vastly more healthy circumstance than the deadly promiscuity of “the gay lifestyle?” While almost nothing is said about what we now call homosexuality in the Bible, a great deal is said about promiscuity and none of it is good. So, given violence, war may be better than some other choices. And given promiscuity, is not marriage a better choice for everyone than deadly intimacy?

The problem, of course, and the reason why most conservatives who have actually thought this thing through are so opposed to this “grace” solution in this broken situation is the knowledge that what becomes “lawful” becomes “normal” in the eyes of most (low information?) people. That is a circumstance which, I think, cannot be helped.

Of one thing I am sure: as Christians we are utterly disobedient if we continue to push God’s same-sex oriented people away from our fellowships.

- From a comment on Peter Kirk’s Hypocrisy and Gay Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage

Stephen J March, April 21, 2012 at 10:48 pm

I agree entirely with you Phil that grace knows no limits. I agree entirely that revelation is progressive and that we see at times God ordaining a model for patriarchial society in the Old Testament, both the beginning of the Old Testament and the New Testament reveal this temporary model as being far from ideal – but perhaps it was the best that was possible at that time. Certainly it was far more protective of women and children that any of the contemporary models for society.

I also understand your focus on committed faithfulness in sexual relationships and would agree with you that this is certainly what God shows as being crucial and the key criterion in heterosexual unions.
However you extrapolate God’s desire for faithfulness in heterosexual relationships to infer that God must consider that faithfulness in homosexual unions is preffarable to promiscuity and therefore God approves of such unions and (hence presumeably that the Church should recognise them and bless them with some kind of marriage).

I don’t follow the logic of your extrapolation. I don’t see that the forms of sexual perversion condemned in Scripture are so condemned simply because they express unfaithfulness. The texts themselves do not seem to me to make that connection. The texts themselves seem rather to state that certain expressions of sexual behaviour are condemned by God, presumably because they are not good for human beings – if we believe that God knows best (surely the baseline belief of those who would call themselves Christian).

Your remarks about some of the Levitical laws are significant. When we cannot see the logic of a divine interdiction it is important to identify the cultural context that it speaks to. So doing often reveals that many of the ‘bizarre’ (to us) Levitical codices are actually focused on refuting contemporary superstitious practices, or pagan religious practices of the surrounding nations.

In the New Testament, and in the practice of succeeding generations of Chirstians, it is clear that they have not felt themselves bound to follow these Levitical Laws because in the contemporary context those particular dangers no longer exist.

However Scriptural faithfulness calls us to look behind these laws and identify the principles which are eternally valid and still demand our obedience.

When we look at the condemnations of homosexual practice in Scripture, it does not seem in any way clear to me that we can treat these texts in the same way i.e. that the underlying principle concerns faithfulness and that it is this we should focus on. Whilst homosexual acts were sometimes a part of pagan religous practice, these texts do not in any way seem limited to this application.

I cannot find any way of treating these texts in this way without doing violence to the exegetical process that the Christian church has upheld and developed over 2000 years.

If we reject these texts, then it seems to me we are also able to reject any other biblical text that we find difficult to live with.

I feel the pain of this position. I regret the anguish that it wauses. I wish there were some way that I could say, don’t worry it is not serious, carry on. I do not see homosexual practice as more or less serious than any other form of human disobedience towards God. And I have enough of my own weaknesses to contend with, that I have neither the energy nor the the will to start telling other Christians how they should live.
But if we are to regard the Bible as God’s revelation of his will for humankind, which I fully believe, then our human sexuality must also come under the authority of that revelation. I cannot see how accepting homosexual practice, even in the context of life-long committment, can be coherent with God’s revelation of his will for human kind.

We either choose to stand above Scripture or below it.

Phil Groom, April 22, 2012 at 4:36 am

Alternatively, we stand alongside scripture, in that long, long line of those who have wrestled with, and continue to wrestle with, the ongoing revelation and our own experience of God at work. The Anglican tradition, to which I belong, has never embraced the approach of sola scriptura but rather looks to scripture, reason and tradition … and, thankfully, has shown willingness to change when tradition becomes folly!

I do not reject those texts, but I do not give them a weight that they will not bear in the overall context of my life and faith, which exists in the real world where I — like Kevin — see God blessing the work and ministry of gay Christians.

I find myself like Peter in prayer: but Lord, these things are unclean. I have never… but the Lord gently replies, What God has made clean, you must not call profane.

When the Lord indicates that it’s time to move on, who am I to disagree? We do not live under the authority of scripture but under the authority of God, from whom scripture obtains whatever authority it may or may not have.

Stephen J March, April 22, 2012 at 8:38 am

When God opened Peter’s eyes to see that Gentiles were now to be included in God’s grace, it was not in direct contradiction to what God had been saying for the whole of human history about the gentiles.

We see from God’s first encounter with Abraham that the Gentiles were to be included in the orbit of God’s grace. That the Jews had failed in their mission, or failed to comprehend their mission, was the issue. The Joppa event was God re-stating what he had already made clear to Abraham. He loves Gentiles.

So the argument that we can now disregard what God has said about homosexual practice is only valid if we can see earlier evidence in God’s revelation to man that would indicate the same mechanism at work.

Unfortunately, from the first reference to homosexual practice in the Old Testament, to the last refence in the New there is no difference in how homosexual practice is viewed. It is always deprecated and held up as something displeasing to God.

Your comment about God blessing practicising homosexual priests (I assume this is what you mean) can be answered by your very first response to this subject. Grace. God uses who he uses. This does not condone their lives, or even confirm their holiness (something I am very aware of in my own ministry). A survey of Scripture makes it very clear that God only uses broken and often rather dirty tools, to do his work.

Phil Groom, April 22, 2012 at 2:45 pm

… and those tools with which — or rather, through whom, because we’re talking about real people, real lives here — God chooses to work, let no human set aside as unfit for purpose; which, sadly, is what many Christians seem to seek to do.

The problem with your argument, Stephen, from my perspective, is that you’re still reading those texts through a heterosexual lens, from a perspective in which homosexual behaviour can only exist as an aberration: any engagement in same-sex activity can only constitute unfaithfulness, betrayal of what was regarded as normative behaviour. That idealised heterosexual society never existed, any more than the society in which all debts were to be cancelled in the year of jubilee existed … indeed, any more than the idealised covenant community, wholly compliant with all the statutes of Leviticus, ever existed…

We do not live in that society: we live in a society that has learnt — or rather, is still learning — the uncomfortable and painful lesson that same-sex attraction is a normal part of being human: whether people are born that way or develop that way is a moot point; but in attempting to force gay people to live outside the covenant community — when God has quite clearly welcomed them in — is to repeat the error of the older brother in the tale of the prodigal son.

The church puts gay people in a Catch 22 situation: you can’t have sex, it says, because you’re not married; and you can’t marry because you’re gay.

What is sin? Is it not that which harms another or harms oneself by driving a wedge between the self and God? Same-sex activity in the context of a loving, faithful relationship quite clearly does neither: it is sexual activity outside of such a relationship that does harm; that is the behaviour that scripture consistently condemns.

Last but not least, nor would I equate what the biblical writers say with what God has said: it is not a question of, as you put it “disregard[ing] what God has said about homosexual practice”, but rather of reading what the biblical writers say in its historical, cultural and social context, then asking ourselves, in the light of our own experience, whether or not those things can be applied to our situation. I guess that you and I have somewhat different approaches to the question of hermeneutics…

Stephen J March, April 22, 2012 at 3:20 pm

I am finding this exchange very thought-provoking and I want to thank you Phil for taking the time to share this with me. Your perspective is very helpful and illuminating and I appreciate it.

My perspective is that we should seek to choose leaders for the Christian community who best evince a life of holiness. Certainly they will never be perfect, but they should at least be honestly seeking to live lives faithful to the divine will for humankind as globally revealed in Scripture.

The comment you make about “lenses” is always a conversation finisher, because we can never be other than we are – no matter how hard we try. So am I a heterosexual – yes. Does that make it impossible for me to exegete Scripture – I cannot believe this is so.

Scripture must have a meaning that relates to its obvious reading – although certainly deeper and fuller readings may subsequently become evident. However those Scriptures whose obvious reading condemns homosexual practice, seem incapable of any reinterpretation that would read them as being in favour of it. Such as position, in my view would be illogical and undermining of any exegetical treatment.

Sin is disobedience to the revealed will of God for human kind. Sin is always primarily directed against God – the human aspects are always secondary.

It seems that if we wish to approve of homosexual practice we can do so either by so twisting and straining the very meaning of words to the degree that we destroy any possibility of exegetical science giving us access to God’s truth revealed in Scripture, or we must deny the divine origin of Scripture, in which case elements which “dérange” can simply be regarded as human ‘errors’ and easily removed.

I find both of these unacceptable, as for me they undermine the Christian faith at its most basic level. It has always been intrinsic to Christianity that God has revealed himself and his will for human kind in the revelation that we have access to in scripture.

But thank you again for your helpful insights and thought-provoking responses.

God bless you.

Phil Groom, April 22, 2012 at 5:51 pm

and my thanks to you, Stephen, for taking the time to engage with me here, for forcing me to think things through more thoroughly (and thanks, of course, to Kevin, for hosting the conversation).

I sincerely hope that recognising the lenses through which we see things isn’t a conversation finisher: it certainly wasn’t intended to be! To quote George Herbert,

A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye,
Or if he pleases, through it pass
And then the heaven espy

That’s always going to be a challenge, of course, and none of us will ever see except as “through a glass, darkly” this side of eternity. I myself am constantly asking questions… and I’ve only reached the point where I am now after a long journey, constantly asking myself, is this right? I find myself like Jacob, wrestling with God through the night — and God smites me on the hip but.I.will.not.let.go. until he blesses me, stubborn fool that I am, and I walk away limping… limping but blessed by the encounter…

I agree: we need to engage with the text that we have; any attempt to force it to say the opposite of what it does is folly. Nor should we simply sweep difficult texts aside: that too is folly. We need to read with open hearts, ready to change … and that is so, so difficult when everything within us cries out against it…

On sin … I ask what is “the revealed will of God for human kind”? Is it not that we live in love? In faithful relationships?

Some journeys we take with our heads; others with our hearts. This, for me, is a journey of the heart, into the heart of the God who tells us, through Jesus, that ultimately these questions of gender, of who is married to whom, will be no more, for we shall be like the angels, whatever that means… but for now, we must live in the world we find ourselves in…

Perhaps I can leave you with a link to a piece written by my friend, Emma Jayne: Notes from a Gay Christian Woman

Blessings to you, too.

Stephen J March, April 23, 2012 at 9:17 am

You explain very clearly the reality of our struggle to walk with God, I like the reference to Jacob. I am very much in that place too.

Thank you for your blessing.

You are certainly correct that love is the fundamental calling of human kind – firstly to love God and as an expression of that love, and empowered by that love, to love our fellow man. That is certainly more than enough challenge for me to face in one lifetime. I’m a long way from having ‘cracked’ that particular nut. I struggle on…

I also agree that the future state of those who turn to God – whatever it may be – does not seem to be one in which gender survives. That is a mystery that I cannot get my head around, but I trust that the God who gave me this wonderful life – even in a body which is broken and marred by sin – will give me something far better when sin can no longer twist and maim his creation.

I have read the linked article. It seems an angry article. I assume that Emma has been horribly hurt by her Christian brothers and sisters. I can only feel for her and pray that she would know God’s peace and healing.

However her arguments are not convincing to me of her position.

She seems to infer that it is Christians who are making the rules about inappropriate sexual behaviour, that they have decided what is right or wrong and invented an Angry God, to stand behind these rules.

Christian faith is surely the opposite of that. It is a response to the God who has revealed to us the reality of himself (his total character – which expresses righteous anger, justice, mercy, love, compassion etc.) and the reality of human existence, in particular the reality of sin (in all its forms), with its savage seriousness. It is this sin that Christ comes to liberate us from, its corrosive effects on human life and disastrous consequences for the life to come – without Christ we were doomed.

Emma points out that Christ’s ultimate word on a specific situation where sin was brought to his attention was “Go and sin no more”. In the context that Emma cites, this word was addressed to the woman who was guilty of sin – not to the accusing crowd – which rather defeats her argument. Why the crowd dispersed is rather a mystery. Some believe that Christ started to write a list the sins which the individuals in the crowd were guilty of. The elder (perhaps less hot-headed and more aware of their human brokenness, were the first to get the point and to slope off, convicted and chastened). But surely Christ’s words to the woman are words to us all, to all Christians – of all sexual orientations – we are called to seek holiness, to be holy because God is holy. “Go and sin no more” is our daily challenge.

Perhaps moot question is “How is sin revealed to us?” Do we decide for ourselves individually what is wrong and right? Do we vote and let the majority decide?

The Judaeo-Christian tradition is one that holds that it is God who has revealed to us what sin is. Generally, it consists in opposition to God and to God’s will for mankind. More specifically the Scriptures, which Jews and Christians have always believed to be God inspired, give us clear examples of what God’s will is for human kind in the specifics of a middle-eastern patriarchal culture.

The challenge of the Church has been to seek to understand these texts and to obey them. Where their meaning is unclear, due to contextual differences, we nonetheless believe them to contain serious truth, because we hold them to be inspired by God. Thus we have developed tools, such as the ‘ladder of abstraction’ exegetical method, which help us identify and apply the eternal principles these texts reveal and then to apply these principles to contemporary life. Doing so we find that these texts still speak with a profound force because humanity hasn’t at all changed and we face exactly the same struggles and issues merely expressed in different forms.

My great obstacle in seeking to find a means that one might allow homosexual practice for those who would be followers of Christ, is that I cannot find any intellectually honest way of de-classifying homosexual practice as sin. The texts that speak of homosexual practice in the Bible do not seem to me to be obscure of meaning or application, or to be so narrowly culturally tied that they require massive reinterpretation – a reinterpretation which for a positive homosexual theology must reverse their original meaning.

That is my struggle.

Phil Groom, April 23, 2012 at 12:36 pm

I share that struggle. To me, however, it is not a question of “declassifying” but rather one of … and here I’m struggling to find the right word … perspectivising…

I refer back to my earlier comment, where I quote Trace James. The vast majority of Christians would agree that killing people is wrong; but sometimes warfare becomes necessary as a lesser evil and people — innocent people — are killed, and the church has developed a very convoluted “just war” theory to allow this. Jesus spoke very plainly about divorce: to marry a divorced person is to commit adultery; yet Christians have found their way clear to accommodate divorced and remarried people into the church — even into positions of leadership — without requiring them to live in celibacy or to split up. Jesus also specifically forbade taking oaths, a teaching reiterated by James: “Let your yes be yes and your no be no” — yet the first thing the C of E requires of its ministers is to take oaths of allegiance holding the very book in which that act is forbidden! This goes directly against Jesus’ own teachings yet people do it.

Now we have a situation about Jesus said not a single word: same-sex relationships … and we have people living in faithful, committed same-sex relationships, something that none of the biblical passages under discussion — that no biblical passages — address.

Upon what basis do we accommodate soldiers, remarried divorcees and wilfully disobedient oath-takers, yet refuse such accommodation for our LGBT brothers and sisters?

And I am again driven back to that question: what, exactly, is wrong with the same-sex activity that the biblical writers condemn? It is precisely that which is wrong with all sexual activity outside of marriage; it constitutes betrayal and unfaithfulness: it is not the activity itself but that which the activity represents.

So I find myself with at least two reasons for supporting marriage equality:
1. First, I am not convinced that those biblical passages that appear to condemn same-sex activity do in fact condemn it;
2. Second, even if same-sex activity is sin, grace is greater, mercy triumphs over judgement, and I can see no justification for allowing grace in the cases of warfare, divorce/remarriage and oath taking whilst refusing it here.

To condemn same-sex relationships simply because they are same-sex relationships is to condemn an orchid as a weed merely because it is growing in the wrong place. We need to ask deeper questions: what is a weed? Is a weed really just a plant growing in the wrong place? Should we not rather take that orchid and plant it where it will flourish?

As for Emma’s story: it is a story to be read with the heart rather than the head; and as I read it, it is seeing Jesus turn things around, taking the anti-gay hatred into himself, the intentional reversal as he addresses the crowd rather than the accused with those words, “Go and sin no more”, that gives the story its power. Jesus refuses to condemn her; then neither shall I.

Stephen J March, April 24, 2012 at 8:15 am

Dear Phil, I do want to thank you for your response. It has provoked many hours of reflection on my part and I am grateful for that. If I can respond to you points in turn.

You talk about God’s command not to kill, and yet you rightly point out that Christians have nonetheless been involved in killing and have even developed a theology which supports killing in specific situations. It seems to me that your argument is rather – we can set aside God’s clear command not to do something when it becomes inconvenient.

If “thou shalt not kill” was the only word God speaks about killing then your argument might have validity. However, we find many other texts that speak of the taking of human life. God’s word to the Old Covenant community was that some sins were so destructive to godly community that death was to be meted out to those who committed them. God also sent his people into war. God also laid obligations of civil protection on leaders, who were required to put their lives on the line to defend their people – like a good shepherd to protect his sheep from predators.

Thus the just war theology is not a theological construct created to put aside the clear teaching of Scripture, but rather an attempt to take seriously the whole of Scripture.

Even so, as you are aware, the divine injunction on the taking of human life was from the start held very seriously by the Church. In the early centuries, with the reality of forced military service, many men would delay their baptism until after that service, for fear that they would be forced to take life unjustly, for such a serious (mortal) post-baptismal sin might jeapordise their salvation.

One might take issue with their theology but it certainly shows that they were still taking very seriously the divine injunction on the taking of human life. Even today many Christians would rather die themselves than take another human life.

Thus I don’t agree that this argument supports your contention.

Your second point tries to infer the same argument from Christ’s interdiction on the taking of oaths. Jesus said don’t swear oaths. We swear oaths. Thus we can disregard the clear teaching of Scripture when we want.

However, if we examine the case in point, Jesus was not addressing primarily the taking of oaths, but rather the contemporary issue of an endemic untrustworthiness of a man’s words. (One can’t but help thinking of contemporary ‘spin-doctoring’).

It appears that lying and false witness were so prevalent that a man’s words could only be counted on as even an approximation of the truth (of his testimony, or of his true intentions) if accompanied by the most serious of oaths whereby a man called down the most blood-curdling wrath of God upon himself should he be lying, or subsequently break faith.

Christ’s point is that a Christian should just speak the truth, period.

If you look at the sacramental vows, you find that we are required to make a promise, to simply give our word. We do not add any statements such as, “And may God put out my eyes, cause my entrails to rot inside my body and kill my wife and children, should I fail to keep my word”.

In effect we are obeying Christ’s command rather than putting it aside. Our simple word is our bond. Thus I do not agree that this supports your argument.

Your third point is the most moot in my opinion. You refer to divorce and seem again to infer – the although the Bible condemns it – Jesus himself very specifically – yet the Church has now accepted it. Hence, we can put aside the clear teaching of Scripture should we so wish to.

It is helpful to look at the history of this issue in the Christian Church. If we regard the history of the Church we see that it was Christ’s clear teaching that held sway at the beginning and for several centuries. Divorce was not allowed, period.

However, with the involvement of the Church with the human power structures there came pressure upon Church leadership to allow kings to put aside wives, often for the reason that they were no longer politically or militarily convenient.

In its weakness the Church acceded to these pressures and a new situation was created whereby those with wealth and power could, in return for appropriate favours/support, pretty much get their marriages annulled whenever they wanted to. In recent decades we have seen this willingness to recognise divorce extended to all, not just the rich.

It will be clear to you that I do not regard the acceptance of divorce as a positive development. For me Christ’s clear teaching is that “God hates divorce”. Jesus taught us that the Old Covenant allowed divorce only because human sinfulness made it the lesser of two evils.

Jesus further pointed out that marriage is not merely the physical union of two people (which can be broken), but also the spiritual union of two people (which cannot). Therefore whilst Christ, who again recognised that in the most extreme case of betrayal – adultery – perhaps divorce might be the least worst option. This did not, and could not, undo the spiritual union of the marriage partners. Thus re-marriage was not possible – the partners were not single spiritually thus any subsequent relationship, could not be regarded, or blessed, as a marriage union.

The driving force that has led the Church to accept divorce has not come from a desire to take seriously the clear teaching of Christ, but rather because the Church has found itself increasingly distant from the values and practices of civil society. Western civilisation, having abandonned Christian faith, is in the process of removing the laws and statutes that had their foundation in that faith.

So I think this is a very moot point for our consideration of homosexual practice. Should the Church simply jettison elements of its faith when they clash with the majority view of (a now lagely) pagan Western society, or should the Church maintain the biblical understandings, practices and beliefs that it has held throughout its history?

It seems to me that the Church has been so willing to bend over backwards to accommodate contemporary mores, that it has gone to the trouble of removing its own backbone. Certainly this has made us flexible, but at the cost of ever being able to stand up for anything anymore.

The Church has abandoned the Christian understanding of marriage as a life-long physical and spiritual union of two persons (and God), and taken on board the contemporary societal model, whereby marriage is a temporary contract, breakable at any time, by either partner, for no reason. I do not see this as something to celebrate or to take as a model for further action.

It seems to me that the Church needs to stand for the power of the gospel to transform sinful lives, not that the priority of the gospel should be to condone sinful lives.

I would like to suggest to you a thought experiment.

Imagine the 21st century Western Church transposed to the first or second century.

Faced with widespread persecution that entailed the loss of social position, the confiscation of goods, physical maltreatment and possibly even martyrdom, how do you think the 21st century Church would react?

All of this persecution is easily avoidable by the simple means of burning a handful of incense as an act of worship to Ceasar.

Is there any possibility that the 21st century Chrurch would stand firm to the teachings of Scripture and to the unique divinty of the person of Christ. Or do you not think that in a matter of minutes a theological construct would be developed and put in place that would validate and support the worship of Caesar? No doubt in return Christ would be assimilated as a minor deity into the Roman Pantheon, but the Christian faith would disappear. And you and I would not be worshipping Christ today, but Apollo or Diana.

Sadly, Western Christianty has chosen to accommodate contemporary mores rather than proclaim the historical Christian faith. We are more concerned not to cause offense to our surrounding culture in its rebellion against God, than we are not to cause offense to God himself.

“Speaking the truth in love”, has been abandoned for a policy of “agreeing with whatever society says”. This is clearly not an act of truthfulness, neither can it be act of love.

Sadly, I think it is your position on homosexual practice, rather than mine, that will win the day. A friend recently visited an Anglican seminary and found that 100% of the seminarians were practising homosexuals. This the increasing presence of homosexual clergy will certainly force the issue through, and sooner rather than later.

Once this battle has been lost, there will be an unending succession of others – perhaps the official adoption of pluralism, or maybe life-issues (euthanasia, or the use of foetus’ as ingredients in medical treatments, gene therapy). Once you attach yourself to a particular wagon, you go wherever the wagon goes.

I remember the (non-Christian) historian Will Durant’s reflection on human history. He remarked that no civilisation has ever survived the death of its gods. And I think this is where we are in the West. Our civilisation, having abandoned the Christian faith that was its foundation and support, is now in terminal decline – spiritually decline always leads inexorably to social and economic decline.

I am no prophet, I do not know if we will see a revival that will return the Church to historical Christianity and to life and health, to the power to transform lives and families and communities, the power to support a just and worthy civilsation. Or perhaps it will ba another faith will take the centre-stage. In this case it may be through the experience of subsequent persecution that the Christian Church will come to its senses.

I note the striking contrast between the Southern hemisphere Christian Church – which believes God’s word and proclaims it and is growing faster than at any other time in human history, and is transforming lives, families, communities and nations; and the Northern hemisphere Church – which abandons any doctrine or practice which proves at odds with contemporary mores and is in continual decline and increasingly irrelevant to its society.

I know which Church I would rather be a part of.

Phil Groom, April 24, 2012 at 10:17 am

Thank you, Stephen. You have indeed given this much thought and I hear what you say … especially about the church today, were we to transpose it into the 1st Century setting…

I cannot help wondering, however, whether that thought experiment can ever be valid: the church today exists as it does today precisely because it has grown from those roots, has grown through 2,000 years … in those first 300 or so years the church was a tiny seedling, an almost insignificant thornbush, a weed to be rooted out … a twist of history and it became a dominant force, a mighty forest in whose branches nations and states built their nests and under whose shade they fought their wars… and today, we live in an increasingly deforested world, where the church must once again take its place alongside the other trees, shrubs and bushes… are we now a hedgerow church, marking the old boundaries? If so, what are those boundaries? Do they have any relevance to the world today or are we simply marking them out for our own protection?

I guess in a way I’m asking Nicodemus’ question: how can a person return to their mother’s womb? And I hear Jesus’ reply:

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

… and what I see is my LGBT brothers and sisters coming into the light, not running from it… welcomed by the light, living in the light, shining as lights in the world where, so often, the so-called ‘straight’ community has done — and continues to do — everything it can to bend the light, to twist it, avoid it, evade it … to live in the shadows…

… and as I read your response, and I hope you’ll forgive me for speaking plainly, I see what seems to be more of that shadow-dancing as you seek to defend just-war theory and oath-taking as acceptable, yet deny the possibility of LGBT inclusion in the church…

You say,

the just war theology is not a theological construct created to put aside the clear teaching of Scripture, but rather an attempt to take seriously the whole of Scripture.

yet when I set out my argument that the whole of scripture points towards faithfulness as the key to understanding those few passages that abhor homosexual activity — abhorrent precisely because they could only take place as a betrayal of a heterosexual relationship in a society where a faithful homosexual relationship simply could not exist — you reject that argument…

And then, we come to the “slippery slope” … yes, there are slippery slopes out there, there are places where if we move a pebble, an avalanche will descend; but I do not see this as one of them. There is no reason to link acceptance of gay relationships to those other issues you refer to; this is no part of a bandwagon to throw aside all moral restraint. To the contrary, this a battle for faithfulness and restraint, for recognition of those who stand for integrity not only in their relationships in their own self-understanding — a battle against forcing people into lives of hypocrisy, into doomed relationships, into living in fear of who they are.

If it’s the church in Africa that you’re thinking of when you refer to Christianity in the southern hemisphere — a church where bigotry is rife, a melting pot where groups such as “The Lord’s Resistance Army” emerge, where bishops call for the death penalty for gays, where extremist fundamentalism leads to witch hunts and hatred, where the worst of the West’s mediaeval theologies are re-emerging — then I want no part of it. Because that, sadly, seems too often to be the grim reality of that growing southern-hemisphere church behind those vibrant colours and joyful singing…

For me, a church in which grace abounds, where outsiders are welcomed in Christ’s name, where sins are forgiven, where faith, hope and love touch and transform people’s lives: not condoning sinful lives but rejoicing in lives of integrity and faithfulness.

I guess that this is an area where you and I may never agree; but I am glad of this conversation, glad that we can disagree agreeably, even if uncomfortable with one another’s views. Grace and peace to you and to all who seek to live in the light; for I suspect that I too am a shadow-dancer: may we ever dance closer to the light and further from the darkness…

Phil Groom, April 24, 2012 at 10:41 am

Stephen and Kevin — with your permission, I’d like to reproduce this conversation between Stephen and myself on my own blog. May I do so, please? Linked back to here, of course…

Kevin Ellis, April 24, 2012 at 12:46 pm

I think Stephen’s permission is paramount.

One of the things that has struck me about the conversation that the two of you have had is that it has been seasoned with graciousness and respect. Part of the reason for my original posting was that I sense that such ingredients have been sparse in such dialogue; and that is true of Evangelicals as much as it is true of those who argue for a more “Inclusive” approach.

The problem with such a virtual debate is that as I have observed you talk; I have been able to hear the nuances of your speech; perhaps even more fully than the two of you have; given that I am fortunate that both of you are friends.

For my part, it is with the two of you whether it is reproduced. However, I would hope that others would act with same graciousness and respect as the two of you have done. Perhaps we could agree to delete the contributions of others who may indulge in insult and caricature? This is not censorship. It is have a sort of covenant that allows each other to be heard without rancour.

With thanks

Kevin

Phil Groom, April 24, 2012 at 2:16 pm

Thanks Kevin; and I’d have no problem whatsoever with deleting such comments: as the saying goes, don’t feed the trolls! And yes, of course: Stephen’s permission is paramount.

Stephen J March, April 24, 2012 at 2:32 pm

Thank you Phil for your thoughtful response.

Over these past few days I have found this dialogue difficult and stretching. The arguments you put forward for the condoning of same sex practices are full of deep Christian truths about the place of love, acceptance, humility, the awareness of mutual brokenness.

However, and this is my problem, to create a biblical construct which would support such an affirmation Scripture must either be put aside, or so twisted and tortured that its ‘revealed sense’ is the opposite of its obvious reading.

You cite Jesus’ text about men hating the light and preferring to live in darkness. Is that not about men choosing to ignore the will of God and instead live their lives as they please? Does that not speak to all biblical revealed patterns of behaviour that are called sin?

I do not hold up Southern hemisphere Christianity as the model of Christian perfection, I hope you did not infer that from my statement. The point I was trying to make was the vibrancy of that faith which tends to takes Scripture much more seriously than in the Northern hemisphere and its evident growth and power to transform lives, in contrast with the moribund, ever-decreasing and ineffectiveness of the Western church (globally measured).

Although deeply enriching, I have been troubled and disquieted by this dialogue and last night found myself lying awake in bed, way after midnight, still poring over these questions. In the darkness I decided to put on my ipod, which was on shuffle mode. As ‘chance’ would have it “If My People Prayed” by Casting Crowns was one of the first songs to play. Within 20 seconds of hearing this powerful call to stand by and to proclaim biblical truth, I found that I had my answer.

I remain confused. I am still searching for an understanding of how Christians should respond with Christian love and compassion to those affected at the deepest level of their being by this issue. I don’t have any answers, and I don’t think any easy ones will be to hand. I feel the pain and the hurt that this causes and I grieve over it.

However, in my confusion, I cannot but choose to stand on the solid and unchanging word of God as it has been understood and affirmed throughout the past two millennia. I must let Scripture speak to me in its own voice. I cannot take my stand on the shifting sands of mens’ theologies – regardless of their evident cleverness and obvious facility. In my confusion I must stand on the obvious reading of Scripture – whether or not I can understand it.

I am deeply grateful for this exchange. I emerge from it humbled and much more circumspect – which is always good. We are far too confident of our ability to know the mind of God.

If Phil wishes to copy this dialogue I give my consent and I hope that those with a much deeper knowledge of the Word of God than I might bless us with their insight.

Blessings

Kevin Ellis, April 24, 2012 at 3:37 pm

The strength of this conversation has not only been the grace in which it has been conducted. Whilst it would be too tight to put Phil in one category and Stephen in another in terms of churchmanship. Knowing them both, their journeys cannot be pigeon-holed. I am reminded by the book produced sometime ago by David Edwards and John Stott, which seems to be a good example of courteous disagreement.

I will make further observations later. What I am sure of is that (a) Scripture cannot be dispensed and (b) Rhetoric should not set aside pastoral need

with thanks

Kevin

Phil Groom, April 24, 2012 at 3:17 pm

Thank you, Stephen. It’s not been easy, has it? I too am challenged: how is it, I find myself asking, that others cannot see this underlying issue of unfaithfulness and betrayal that has become so plain to me? Read in that light, there is no twisting of scripture to make it say anything that it does not, no denial that those ‘texts of terror’ are anything other than they are; rather, they are set in their historical/cultural context and we find a deeper, universal truth unveiled: God’s call to faithfulness. No special pleading, no shifting sand, just the obvious — to me, if not to anyone else! — reading of scripture…

Will leave a comment here after I’ve transposed the conversation, if WordPress doesn’t get here first with a pingback…

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