Shared Conversations on Scripture, Mission and Human Sexuality - thoughts

There are many people now within the Church of England, writing, thinking and discussing so that a peaceable way might be paved for the 'Shared Conversations' that will happen over the next two years concluding at General Synod in July 2016. 

There is a short handbook available as background here written in thirteen chapters, covering such things as the Pilling Report, how to build trust, how the conversations will inform subsequent discussions among the bishops and in General Synod and how we might best foster a culture of listening and speaking. 

There are two essays that can be read by Dr Ian Paul and Professor Loveday Alexander and two appendices by Bishop Keith Sinclair and Dr David Runcorn and a paper by Dr Philip Groves reflecting on the ‘Continuing Indaba’ process. The Church of Scotland's ‘mixed economy’ approach to sexuality is considered. You can access those here.

The conveners are hopeful and say that the conversations ‘might enable Christ’s church to present a gospel alternative to acrimony and confrontation – a model for understanding and handling human differences and disagreements – which a fractured world desperately needs.’ (p.28)

Participants for the Shared Conversations will be selected by diocesan bishops and talks will take place in regional gatherings up and down the country as GS 2016 approaches.

Some reflections and background
Biblical hermeneutics
Regarding same-sex-sexual practice, where there was once thought to be only one trajectory – its prohibition and therefore scripture itself had to be quietened for those pro Same-Sex-Marriage, revisionists are now arguing that the Bible does not prohibit same sex activity. Bishop Alan Wilson's contribution to the debate in More Perfect Union offers such an engagement with scripture, as does David Runcorn's appendix to the Pilling Report.

Extrapolations from 'Experience'
It is typically post-modern to locate truth in 'experience.' There is a right human and ethical propensity to identify with the marginalised and experiences of marginalisation shape theology as we see with Liberation Theology. We all have to recognise our own capacity each to be shaped by 'experience.' 

The Bible is full of experiences, people experiencing God and one another. There is that danger that we make experience too much of a false god but there is the equal danger that we gloss over experience and fail to listen. We need to listen to the experiences of people on the sexuality spectrum because this is a hallmark of gospel hospitality. We need to create environments where people can be listened to, to be able to be fully themselves, with that transformation of self, always held sensitively, as a God-given movement, before them. In the Grove booklet A Gay Straight Christian dialogue edited by Mike Booker, the person coming out to a friend at theological college describes how 'I remember … that once I’d said I needed to talk to you, I’d more or less created a sense of gravity which could only be warranted by one of two things: being gay or being terminally ill ...am I getting across just how scary and uncertain and momentous this occasion was?'

The church has to ask itself questions then about how it organises pastoral encounter on a very pragmatic level. We need to ask ourselves this as ministry practitioners. The person I quoted goes on to say 'I find talking face-to-face about my sexuality very difficult, even with a friend. Even now, if we ever talk about sexuality I prefer to be driving somewhere, both of us looking in the same forwards direction and not at each other.' As we enter two years of shared conversations and speak with those with whom we disagree, there must be careful planning and care - full dialogue.  Booker's protagonist describes how: 'I look for people who listen a lot and talk a little less ...kind people.' 

Peter Lee, in an article called 'Indaba as Obedience' says 'What some see as ‘principled stands’ – and they may indeed be so – needs to be set not only against alternative opinions or equally principled stands, but against the need for others in the community to be treated humanly. That means that they will be listened to, respected, truly ‘heard’.' (Indaba as Obedience: A Post Lambeth 2008 Assessment 'If someone offends you, talk to him, Lee, Peter John, Journal of Anglican Studies; Nov2009, Vol. 7 Issue 2, p147). There really is a genius to Jesus' simple words in Mt.18.15 ‘if someone offends you, talk to him’ - we need to also be saying 'I hear you,' and as Ephraim Radner discusses in his essay on exit strategies we have to be realistic - some will exit but many more will talk ( http://covenant-communion.net/.../talking_about_things.../).  

Experience as a thing about which we must be careful
Is it that there is a post-modern tendency to champion 'experience' over Scripture? This is something about which we must be aware. At the same time though, it is necessary to acknowledge that any interpretation of the scriptures has a locus somewhere in 'experience,' in that it is impossible for me to divorce myself from my presuppositions and baggage and somehow deliver a perfect interpretation of scripture, in fact, constantly reminding ourselves of this will generate a necessary humility with which the conversations are to be characterised if they are to be generous and hospitable. 

Care needs to be taken in any Good Disagreement to not set up a straw man from whom one is seeking liberation: in other words care has to be taken so that the power of testimony draws not too heavily upon the 'wounds received in that house of friends' (Zech 13:6), subjective experience is powerful but the task before us is greater than this.   

What's it really all about anyway?
Are there other deeper questions that we have to ask ourselves?

Have we made a decision about the ontology of sexuality? In other words, might it be that we are raising sexuality as a definer of human person-hood at the cost of defining human person hood Christocentrically – in other words – am I in Christ first and a heterosexual woman second? 

What does a Christocentric shaped me mean for my life as a heterosexual and a woman? Is there any way in which God might be getting our attention so that we strive to look at the planks in our own eyes in terms of the church and sexuality before we concentrate only on same-sex-sexuality? 

These are just some of the questions that I am asking myself because my aim is to learn from any conversation. 

As we tackle these issues, it requires great humility. In Booker's Grove exploration of a Straight-Gay Christian Dialogue, the friend with whom the protagonist shares his 'coming out' says 'I think it’s also important to say that the friendship and support is mutual. It’s not about me, the straight one, befriending and supporting you, the gay one.' It is with this kind of trajectory in mind that I dare to ask what those who hold the traditional view might learn from their same-sex partnered Christian brothers and sisters? Are there aspects of relationship that they are modelling from which those of us in gender complementary Christian marriages can learn? Andrew Goddard says in an article about having good discussions that we are to be 'willing to listen and learn as well as to speak and to teach.' (http://Wellingborough/resources/how-can-we-ensure-we-have-good-discussions-with-those-christians-who-disagree-with-us-on-sexuality) We are surely being recalled to commit to the good gifts of permanent, stable, faithful and mutual in Christian marriage.  

A modern-day fixation: locating identity in our sexualities.  The challenge the church faces: reclaim the distinctives of Christian human person-hood.
Questions over sexuality should cause us to reflect on our definitions of human person-hood. The language of the Saint Andrew’s Day Statement (2005) implies that concepts like homosexual and heterosexual are not ultimate features of individual identity. These days people seem to be increasingly locating their identity in their sexualities.

J W Paris, in The End of Sexual Identity says, “The major problem for Christians with heterosexuality, and sexual identity in general, is that it is a social construct that provides a faulty pattern for understanding what it means to be human, linking desire to identity in a way that violates biblical themes. ... “Christianizing” sexual identity—whether by affirming or negating the morality of various sexual identities—doesn’t help, because it doesn’t address the faulty connections that sexual identity categories make between human desire and identity...Desire is not a trustworthy indicator of human identity...”

The challenge for the church is not to capitulate to culture but to create culture. We have to ask ourselves what it means to be in Christ. Is Jesus as concerned with our sexuality as we are?

Jesus disturbed people’s understanding of normal sexuality in his day; he was born to a woman who became pregnant without having sex, and he never married or had children. Believers from then until now struggle to understand Jesus’ conception, birth, life and death, because each upsets taken-for-granted understandings of what it means to be human. The Christian religion is grounded in cultural disturbance, a rattling of what people take for granted.”

W J Paris's assertions are all well and good but the question still needs to be asked then regarding how this impacts us practically in terms of human relating and ecclesiology.  

What are the requirements for different roles within the church? 

How should the church approach 'marriage' with heterosexual couples and explain its godly ideals and scripture's witness to it? Alan Wilson's – More Perfect Union has had an impact on my theology of marriage and has raised the value for me of covenanted relationship as something keenly distinct from contractual relationship – therefore what am I going to be doing regarding marriage preparation so that I might reinforce the good godly gifts and expectations that are permanent, stable and faithful for Christian gender complementary marriages? The church needs to better communicate a theology of traditional Christian marriage than perhaps it has been doing. Start there. 

Baptism raises interesting issues. The Press explored the rejection of a lesbian couple who had wanted their child baptised. (Aimi Leggett, 25, and her civil partner Victoria, 22, who had hoped to welcome one-year-old Alfie into the church with a traditional christening. Reverend George Gebauer told them it was ‘impossible’ for him to have two mothers (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2409755/Rev-George-Gebauer-refused-baptise-lesbian-couple-Aimi-Victoria-Leggetts-son.html#ixzz3IhYMJl12)

Cases like this should sharpen our theology. With baptism, for example, promises are being made on behalf of the child, they are being made vicariously. Take note of the House of Bishop's Statement on Civil Partnerships (July 2005) 'In relation to infant baptism, Canon B 22.4 ... priests cannot refuse to baptise simply because those caring for the infant are not, in their view, living in accordance with the Church’s teaching.'

I am also to find ways of better pastorally attuning myself to single people – to being careful that church does not give the impression that single people are somehow incomplete without a partner. They are complete because they are in Christ. Community with him and others is a constant invitation to us all – life in all its fullness is realised in the lives of single people. In Jesus' teaching the church family takes precedence over the human family and so we must be careful that Christian marriage and our theological defence of it (however we define it) does not in itself become idolatrous.

We have to develop a new theology of sexuality: ‘A sexually embodied celibacy is the search for union with God, mediated in human relationships other than sexual partnership.’ (D Goergen, The Sexual Celibate (London: SPCK, 1974) p 157)  

Is plasticity regarding sexual identity and gender then, threatening or illuminating ? It can be both - carefully handled. In what ways does plasticity inform or sharpen our definitions of personhood?

If being In Christ is the definition of right person-hood, what does Christ-likeness have to say to us about our gender and sexuality? – that they are not to be all-consuming, surely – each is to be submitted to Christ. Of neither gender nor sexuality must we make an idol either. In heaven, of course, there will be no marriage. Is it then that the same-sex-marriage debate is causing us to re-attune definitions of personhood to Christ?

We need to ask ourselves what further moral standards we might be bringing to covenanted relationships that are beyond the circumscription of the biblical text? For example – 'family values' can conform to the external pattern – but often the family; the Christian marriage, is far from ideal. 

Same-Sex-marriages can exhibit the good gifts of 'permanent, faithful and stable' but again, are we then setting those aspects as moral indicators of goodness when the gender complementarity of traditional Christian marriage is wanting?

Both fall short but which is the closest – neither value set can be absolutised –  which is the closest is essentially what the church has to work out. 

Will the church ever work this out? 

Will we conclude that there are two theological integrities on this issue? I suspect now more than ever that this will be the likely outcome. 

In some ways I am hoping that those who hold to one view or the other will each be able to see that ultimately human person hood is dignitas peccatoris: it is a sign of our worth, that at the level of our person hood, we are accounted sinners, and called to find our true selves in Christ. Or as the Saint Andrews Day statement (See Application 1)t puts it: ‘In [Christ] alone we know ourselves as we truly are. There can be no description of human reality, in general or in particular, outside the reality in Christ.’

In engaging in the shared conversations Christians will need courage to 'speak not to please mortals but to please God who tests the heart,' conducting themselves as those 'gentle among you, like a nurse caring for her children [and also] 'like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you should lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own Kingdom and glory.' 

We are assured by the Pilling Report, that “No one should be accused of homophobia solely for articulating traditional Christian teaching on same sex relationships.” Voices need to be heard without the accusations that often accompany them, on both sides. 

Perhaps what the church might have to guard in this engagement, is its own promise to exalt the name of Jesus. Here's the church's greatest challenge then – presenting the gospel in such a way that the Spirit can capture more people with the magnetism of Jesus in whom all our needs, whether they be sexual or not, are met.

Stanley Hauerwas points out that the church must better become the eschatologically orientated family that it is supposed to be. (Stanley Hauerwas, ‘Sex in Public: How Adventurous Christians are Doing it’ (1978), in, John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (eds), The Hauerwas Reader, Duke University Press, 2001, p. 499.)

What a challenge the church faces over the next two years!

1 comment:

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I was under the impression that postmodernism was to some extent anti-experience, that identity is to be found via expression in language that is a collective entity; it is modernism that held to the objective and subjective and found the rise in the subjective. Secondly, we as humans find our fulfilment in being human, not by being 'in Christ' or members of any religion or followers of one or more prophets, but by our humanity itself - and that's a modernist statement.


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A little background reading so we might mutually flourish when there are different opinions