This time next week, the General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church will be considering what we as a part of the Body of Christ believe about marriage. The Doctrine Committee has produced a paper on the theology of marriage which is available here. The process for discussion and decision-making is outlined on pages 46-50 of the document available here.
If the process leads to a preference for canonical change, it is possible that the SEC will become the frontrunner in terms of churches which have reappraised their understanding of what God has said about human sexuality. This will sadden and confuse many, not least those in congregations who are gay but who have chosen to hold on to Biblical teaching.
What follows is a brief response, written by the Revd Dr Iain MacRobert, which details the many concerns with, and inadequacies of, the Doctrine Committee's paper.
A brief critical review of The Theology of Marriage
General Synod members have been sent a document produced by the Doctrine Committee entitled, The Theology of Marriage. This paper, according to the Faith and Order Board, is "thorough and coherent" and "should enable General Synod members to engage with the topic in some depth".
This document, however, is not a balanced presentation of the case for and against same-sex marriage to encourage well-informed and reasoned debate and decision-making. It does present some material which advocates orthodox marriage but the overall trend and argument is to promote same-sex marriage. While claiming to be a consideration of the issue using scripture, tradition and reason, its consideration of Biblical texts and the contexts in which they were written is extremely superficial and partial. Reason is often given short shrift and references to the findings of science ill informed. The paper is strong on assertion but weak on evidence, both Biblical and scientific.
While referring briefly to the creation narratives of Genesis, it does not consider the relationship between sexual differentiation and complementarity and the Imago Dei (Genesis 1:27). It does not consider the Fall (Genesis 3) but moves from creation to eschaton. The impact of the Fall: the human propensity to ignore God and usurp God's authority to define what is good and what is evil; and the subsequent brokenness of humanity is not addressed. This brokenness means alienation from God and others and death. It affects all of who and what we are individually and in relationship: spirituality, physicality, intellectually, ethically and sexuality.
Sections 86-96 advocate taking a broad view of marriage that includes polygynous marriages, marriages that are not life-long and same-sex relationships. However, God's ideal for marriage is unambiguously clear in the creation narratives of Genesis 1 - 3 and is affirmed by Jesus and Paul:
between a man and a woman;
sexually exclusive and faithful;
open to procreation and the nurturing of children.
That marriage and sexual relationships often deviate from this ideal in a fallen and sin-damaged world is not surprising. The Bible, which addresses both the way the world is and the way God wants things to be, includes such accounts of humanity's fallen and sin-damaged state. Accommodating people in preexisting polygynous, adulterous or homoerotic relationships within the church is an exercise of grace and pastoral care. The church is for broken, sin-damaged and sinning people. Jesus reminds us that he did not “come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). However, this inclusion needs to recognize that these relationships are departures from God's ideal for marriage. Whether or not they are defined as marriage within a particular culture or legal system, they are not marriage as God intended it to be.
Section 61 of the paper states that, "the prohibition against sex between two men at Leviticus 20:13 follows a list of forbidden incestuous heterosexual acts, and it is at least probable that it refers specifically to the homosexual equivalence... and is not a blanket prohibition". Such an interpretation is perhaps possible but certainly not probable. The surrounding context is not just about prohibiting incest but also adultery and bestiality. Similarly, the parallel passage in Leviticus 18: 20 to 23, places the prohibition of male homoerotic intercourse in the context of prohibiting adultery, infanticide and bestiality rather than incest. This probably is a "blanket prohibition" of male homoerotic acts and there is good evidence, in his letter to the Church in Corinth, that Paul understood it in this way (compare the Septuagint's arsenos koiten in Leviticus 18 and 20 with Paul's arsenokoites in 1 Corinthians 9:6).
Section 63 of the paper simply fails to deal with Jesus' teaching on 'eunuchs': those for whom “it is better not to marry” because of how they were born or made by others or because of their commitment to the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 19:10-11).
Section 76 makes the point that "we cannot be certain that there is any condemnation in the Bible of consenting, non-exploitative, homosexual relationships ..." However, the overwhelming weight of evidence in Scripture is opposed to homoerotic behaviour per se. Romans 1:26 strongly implies consent and mutual sexual gratification rather than coercion. In 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, the behaviours of both active and passive participants in homoerotic intercourse are condemned.
The argument from nature in section 51 asserts that, "homosexual orientation among animals is natural, or to put it theologically, if homosexual orientation within creatures is part of God's creation, then we should find ways of being true to that". This is a very dubious argument in favour of same-sex marriage. It takes no account of God's good creation being damaged by the Fall. Many animals, such as bonobos, are bisexual and sexually promiscuous. Others, such as lions, kill their own young. Extrapolating this kind of argument from nature and applying animal behaviour to humans is both naive and dangerous. The same argument can be used to justify sexual promiscuity and infanticide as 'natural'. In fact some researchers, such as Ryan and Jetha (2010) claim that promiscuity is humanity's natural sex drive. Arguments from nature are not a good basis for social ethics including sexual ethics.
In section 52 the claim is made that, "it is now realised that sexual orientation is a natural 'given' and enduring disposition" and that "biological explanations have come to the fore". These are sweeping and unsubstantiated claims. For example, the 2011 Williams Institute survey of the US population found that 1.7% identify themselves as lesbian or gay, while 1.8% identify themselves as bisexual. Some people have a fluid sexual orientation that changes over time (see, for example Diamond, 2008, and Savin-Williams, 2005). The assertion that sexual orientation is an enduring disposition is far from proven and the evidence for fluid and changing orientations is strong. The evidence for a genetic basis for a homosexual orientation is also very thin and tentative. More recent and less-biased studies of monozygotic (identical) twins have found large proportions with different sexual orientations (e.g. Lamgstrom et al, 2010). Sanghir and Robins (1973) found that a much higher proportion of homosexual men (18%) and women (35%) had lost their father through death or divorce by age ten. For heterosexuals this was 9% and 4% respectively. Human behaviour is complex and biological causes rarely explain it adequately. Similarly, evidence for environmental causes is also inconclusive.
In section 53 of the paper the argument from nature continues. Here the claim is made that a homosexual orientation is, "a given or a natural aptitude". It seems to assume that strong feelings or emotional drives should determine human behaviour. There is certainly secular support for this view. Feelings of lust (Ryan and Jetah, 2010), anger, jealousy, greed and covetousness have all been identified as 'natural' and therefore justifications for human behaviour but few Christians would argue that they should be the basis for determining ethical behaviour. We don't claim that envy sanctions stealing or lust legitimises adultery.
In section 54 the assertion is made that, "same-sex marriage carries the potential to nurture children as equally as heterosexual marriage". This is another sweeping assertion. The research is currently inconclusive but Sullins (2015) study of a random sample of 512 children in the US raised by same-sex couples should give us cause for grave concern. Sullins found that about 17% of children raised by same-sex couples experienced serious emotional problems and about 19% developed problems like ADHD or learning disabilities compared with 7% and 10% respectively for children in opposite-sex households.
To keep this review brief, I have not commented on two millennia of Church tradition that has upheld the orthodox view of marriage, or on the historical liturgies of the Anglican Communion in which this same orthodox view is expressed. To follow the spirit of the age (in our secularised, post-modern, first world) by redefining Christian marriage is not just to overthrow two millennia of Christian tradition, it is to distance ourselves from the majority of the Church in the two-thirds world, from the teachings of Scripture and from the revealed will of God for marriage.
British Journal of Education, Society and Behavioural Science 7(2):99-120, 2015
Ryan, Christopher and Jetha, Cacilda, Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, 2010. For a critique of Ryan and Jetha see Lynn Saxon, Sex at Dusk: Lifting the Shiny Wrapping from Sex at Dawn. Createspace: Lexington, KY, 2012.
Williams Institute survey: http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/Gates-How-Many-People-LGBT-Apr-2011.pdf
Thanks to our friend Darren and his family, we were at the Celtic-Dundee United game on Saturday and had a grand old time. Our nephew loved it. Eight goals and a tremendous atmosphere despite last week's defeat by Juventus. We even got one of these celebrations. My bluenose friends were somewhat perturbed by my visit, but they ought to know about my ecumenical credentials by now.
Two things lingered with me after the game. Firstly, "The Celtic Huddle". Here it is in action from a couple of years ago:
It was a joy to be there and see it happen. And ironic as well, because in the morning I'd been teaching about a different kind of huddling as a vehicle for discipleship. The plan is to try and roll this out in the coming year as a way of making disciples who make disciples. Details of what is involved can be found here.
The second thing that struck me was how often we got to leap to our feet when a goal was scored. The standing was an acknowledgement of excitement at success and the prowess of the players. My colleague Gordon was preaching at the morning service yesterday and one thing he mentioned was the importance of acknowledging God. Instantly a light went on for me about why we stand up in church. It's not just a ritual, or something we have to do. We leap to our feet to acknowledge God: what the Father has done for us in Christ and in sending the Holy Spirit to give us Life. Next time you are in church and the leader says, "Let's stand to worship", why not try leaping to your feet and remembering who God is and what has been done for you. I'll look forward to being part of that excited congregation.
This Holy Week we are trying a fast from being negative. It's not about the power of positive thinking - it's what we are called to be as the Holy Spirit transforms our lives and helps us refrain from bad-mouthing, slagging off, or bringing down others. It's also about not listening to the lies about ourselves that we so often believe. I think it might be a lot tougher than any other fasting I've ever done......
"Finally, brothers & sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4:8 (NIV)
John Stott died today. You can read more about him via the link. Richard Bewes, one of his successors as Rector of All Souls, Langham Place, writes:
Beloved John Stott, my next-door neighbour for 22 years, went to Glory at 3.15 this afternoon, (British time). He had not been ill, but - at 90 - he had simply done enough, and slipped away peacefully at the home where he has been so well looked after, at St Barnabas College, Lingfield in Surrey. His secretary for over 50 years, Frances Whitehead, was with him; also his niece Caroline (and her daughter Emily), together with his faithful visitor Philip Herbert.
So far, that is all that there is to pass on.
There will obviously be deep thanksgiving for John, and we can be sure that more will eventually be known through the website http://johnstott.org/
John Stott had a profound influence on many a church leader and many more lay people. His Bible-teaching ministry and his commentaries have helped grow several generations of followers of Jesus who can communicate its message clearly.
I am very grateful to have spent a short time with him when I was a curate more than twenty years ago. It was a nerve wracking responsibility to look after the great man for the day when he had time off from preaching at the church I served. I knew he was a birdwatcher (or should that be birder?), and so I arranged some time in the country for him to pursue his hobby. He was very kind and interested in me throughout. On the way home he mentioned that the one book of his that he did not have a copy of was Christ the Controversialist. I think this book was based on some lectures he'd given in Edinburgh. As it happened, the week before I met him, I had acquired a first edition copy of that very book in a second hand shop. I had the joy of giving that copy to its author.
John Stott helped shape my handling of scripture and my preaching. He was a unifying figure for Anglican and non-Anglican evangelicals. Sadly, there is no-one of his stature around today who can fulfil that role. He will be sorely missed. But many around the world will be giving thanks to God for his long and fruitful ministry. May his sermons, books and life continue to encourage other followers of Jesus to remain faithful.
These then are the marks of the ideal Church - love, suffering, holiness, sound doctrine, genuineness, evangelism and humility. They are what Christ desires to find in His churches as He walks among them. John Stott - Basic Introduction to the New Testament, Eerdmans, 1964, p. 163-164
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a devotee of the Eurovision Song Contest and it's that time of year again. This year the UK has Pete Waterman and Mike Stock writing the song, and we, the great unwashed, get to choose the act to sing it.
I've just heard the song in question, "That Sounds Good To Me". Unfortunately, it doesn't.
I'm sorry, but I'd much rather choose the song - it's a song contest, silly! Please BBC, let the people choose the song, and take the risk that we might get it wrong. We've nothing to lose, save hearing those immortal words, "nil points".