What miracle(s) does the Church need on sexuality?

There was a brief report in the Daily Mail online that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, believes ‘that the Church of England will need a miracle from the Holy Spirit to solve its long-running row over gay rights.’

The Most Reverend Justin Welby said the divisions cannot be healed by human hands but only by divine intervention. His remarks indicate deepening desperation among Anglican leaders over the irreconcilable gap between liberals who demand gay equality within the Church and conservative evangelicals who say that gay sex is sinful.

I was interested that it was this one sentence that an eagle-eyed reported picked out from the fairly brief paper explaining the process of creating the promised teaching document on sexuality; perhaps it is still surprising that church leaders expect God to be involved in their processes? The paragraph quoted is worth reading in full:

We do not expect the teaching document, or the process of writing it, to achieve reconciliation of all views across the Church of England. Such reconciliation, were it to happen, would be the work of the Holy Spirit, not of human hands or brains. But we need our internal debates to be grounded in the best available scholarship, across many disciplines and to draw in the perspectives of people in all their difference. And we need the whole process to happen prayerfully, and with the supportive prayers of our fellow Christians across the world. If the teaching document can express clearly the ground on which we are agreed – and be very clear about where we disagree, and why – it will have done its work well.

It is interesting to note the phrase ‘were it to happen’, indicating some doubt that the disagreement will ever end. And I think quite a few people in Synod will be curious about the last sentence; this reads like a mapping exercise, not a teaching document. ‘Teaching’ involves discerning the truth, and expressing that in a way which can be passed on. It’s not clear that mapping alone will achieve what is needed. And will there be boundaries to the issues on which we disagree? Are there grounds for that? After all, there are clergy who don’t even agree that God exists in any meaningful sense; is that the kind of disagreement that we might include?

I would certainly agree that we need a miracle—in fact, it seems to me that we need three miracles, in three distinct areas.

The first is in relation to what I think can only be called the furious assault on the Church’s current teaching on sex and marriage. It is currently taking the form of two motions in the July session of General Synod, one from Chris Newlands and Blackburn diocese on liturgies for transgender people undergoing transition, and the other from Jayne Ozanne on what she calls ‘conversion therapies’. I previously commented on Chris Newlands’ motion, including the Radio 4 discussion I had with him. But following that, I wrote to him and suggested we talk about a ‘friendly’ amendment, where we could agree on the important pastoral issue, but where we might remove the request for liturgy since there is no agreement on this, and such a debate would simply be divisive. In reply, he was not willing to consider this, since he was clear that liturgy was what was needed—and that there could be no negotiation.

Jayne Ozone’s Private Member’s Motion on ‘conversion therapy’ has been criticised by Dermot O’Callaghan, a former member of the Synod of the Church of Ireland, for lacking supportive evidence.

In 2013 I corresponded with the Bishop of Buckingham, who had been vocal on the matter.  I said, “I hope you will not feel it unreasonable that I should ask you for the name of just one reputable study to represent the ‘overwhelming evidence’ that such therapies are harmful.  My conviction on this is such that if you can do this, I shall donate £100 to a charity of your choice.”  The bishop declined my offer.

I would make the same offer to you, Jayne – £100 to a charity of your choice.  And if, as I anticipate, your researches don’t yield even one study that follows participants through therapy and finds that on average they were harmed more than helped (using a scientifically recognised measure of distress), I would appeal to your integrity not to support the unscientific 16thJanuary statement. 

The whole question of change of sexual orientation is a controversial one—though one strange thing about the discussion is that, outside the church, promoters of gay rights are very happy to agree that sexuality and sexual orientation is fluid. But the two things that are concerning here are the lack of scientific evidence involved, even on the part of the Royal College of Psychiatrists (whom O’Callaghan believes has misled the Church of England in evidence they have provided) and the lack of engagement. O’Callaghan reports that:

Jayne responded to me with a strongly worded letter characterising my request as amounting to bullying and bribery, and refusing to work alongside me to try to find an agreed position regarding the claim that such therapy is ‘harmful and not supported by evidence’, and therefore unethical.   I shall leave it to you to decide whether the charges of bullying and bribery are justified.

The third current part of this assault is Jayne Ozanne’s attempt to have ‘spiritual abuse’ recognised as an additional, separate category of abuse alongside physical, sexual, domestic and emotional abuse. In her paper arguing for this (which received national press coverage and was discussed on Radio 4’s Sunday programme last week), she specifically names HTB and Alpha, New Wine, Spring Harvest, Soul Survivor, True Freedom Trust, and the Evangelical Alliance as organisations in which spiritual abuse takes place because of ‘their attitude to the Holy Spirit’. She goes on to argue that the Church’s current teaching position, that sexual intimacy properly belongs in male-female marriage, is inherently abusive to LGBTI Christians.

I am reluctant to use the term ‘evil’ to describe this relentless attack on church teaching, since it does not help to demonise individuals—and I have valued the engagement on this blog with people with whom I disagree yet from whom I continue to learn. Yet these moves appear to be of a different order. They lack a willingness to discuss, and they are often undertaken in close partnership with individuals and organisations who have, in the past, been seriously antipathetic to the Church and to Christian faith. I don’t see any obvious prospect of such campaigns abating the near future.

The second area we need a miracle is in handling the legacy of historic abuse. Last week, Dame Moira Gibbs released her report ‘An Abuse of Faith’ on the way the Church of England handled former bishop Peter Ball’s abuse of teenagers.

The review found that “Ball’s conduct has caused serious and enduring damage to the lives of many men… Peter Ball betrayed his Church and abused individual followers of that Church” and “The Church colluded with that rather than seeking to help those he had harmed, or assuring itself of the safety of others.”

Stephen Kurht comments on the radical change that is still needed in church culture:

The most tragic aspect for me, as a Church of England Vicar, is my total lack of surprise at these findings. I’m a fervent believer in the Church of England and its mission to share God’s love with as many people within this country as possible. But none of this will count for anything until the Church of England reaches a proper clarity over safeguarding.

The review acknowledges that safeguarding procedure has improved within the Church of England over the last few years. But this is not enough. The only thing that will prevent such cases and institutional collusion with them reoccurring, will be a change of culture within the Church of England.

But there remains the fundamental difficulty of how to deal with spurious accusations. It is not a little ironic that George Carey’s son, Mark, was recently cleared of a charge which looked from the beginning to be entirely implausible—but had to endure an agonising five months from October last year to April this before the decision was made that the accusation was groundless. The needed change in culture which focusses on individuals rather than defending the institution cannot work without a comparable review of how to filter out spurious claims.

The third area where we need a miracle is in the area of Christian leaders articulating confidence in orthodox teaching on sexuality. For the Church of England, I cannot recall any public statement by any bishops expressing such confidence. I am not interested in criticising my bishops; I don’t think it is helpful, and their job is already difficult and complex enough as it is. I am also acutely aware that no individual wants to be known as ‘the anti-gay bishop’ or ‘the one obsessed with sex’. But it seems odd to me that those who question the Church’s current teaching position (and, it has to be said, the pretty clear teaching of the New Testament) feel no such reticence. Neither do the leaders of other denominations; Catholic leaders don’t equivocate on their church’s position, and see this example of Andrew Wilson addressing the question of transgender. It is not just bishops are are reluctant, it is also others who exercise episcopal ministry in other ways. The leaders of one of the networks mentioned in Jayne Ozone’s paper on spiritual abuse have been conspicuous by their silence—and it is creating a vacuum of confidence for members of the network on the ground.

It is not just the external situation which I think makes bishops nervous, but the internal one of disagreement. Since bishops are supposed to be a ‘focus of unity’, they are rightly nervous of alienating clergy and churches with other views. But surely this ‘focus of unity’ is supposed to be around the Church’s teaching, and not simply a holding it all together by not offending anyone. At the heart of this is the phrase ‘radical new Christian Inclusion, … founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology and the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it’ used by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in their rapid response to the February synod debate. If it is ‘new and radical’ how can it be ‘founded in scripture’ etc? What does the phrase mean? As David Baker asks:

As you have written publicly calling for ‘a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church’ after last week’s General Synod I wanted to write and ask the question which many are now asking: what exactly is that?

You see, the thing is, I’ve always thought the gospel was radically inclusive already. I’ve always believed that ‘the vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives’ – as the famous hymn puts it. And when I look back on churches of which I have been a part, I recall them including paedophiles, an associate of the Kray twins, pornography addicts, adulterers – and others, including myself, whose middle class respectability masked sins which might have been less obvious but were equally heart-breaking to God. We, together, were vile offenders (in the eyes of God’s law if not of the world) who chose to repent and believe. And gloriously, all of us were welcomed and included! When you add in the mind-blowing mix of age, ethnicity and background as well, that seems pretty inclusive already.

We need not one but three miracles: that the assaults on the Church will abate; that we will see a change in culture about abuse without leaving church leaders vulnerable to spurious claims; and that we will hear some clear, confident teaching on sexuality. It feels like quite a lot to ask—but we need them soon.

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