Human Sexuality – choosing in the context of Communion

At our General Synod of 2012, the Scottish Episcopal Church decided by a large majority not to adopt the Anglican Covenant. I don’t think that there was a single reason for that decision. I suspect that many felt that this particular proposal for a means of bringing cohesion to the fractured life of the Anglican Communion was un-Anglican. And the Anglican Communion matters profoundly to Scottish Episcopalians.

My own feelings included some frustration that discussion of the Covenant had postponed discussion of Human Sexuality issues. It had been a displacement activity. More seriously, the Covenant had misread its context. The reality of Communion life is that all provinces have a greater or lesser degree of diversity around these issues. If that is true of Scotland, it is also true of Nigeria, Uganda and the United States. The Covenant process unhelpfully suggested that the primary divisions were between Provinces rather than within Provinces.

As I wrote recently, the decision to legislate for Same-Sex Marriage in Scotland is a significant one for all churches and faith communities in Scotland. I also suggested that the rapid change in social attitudes around these issues – particularly among young people – mean that there is a serious missional issue.

We at present have a church wide process for ‘measured discussion’ on issues of Human Sexuality. When that comes to an end later this year, we shall have to enter into careful consultation about how we should respond to the new context in which we find ourselves.

In thinking about that, we shall have to honour and respect two diversities.

The first and primary diversity is that of the Scottish Episcopal Church itself. We have catholic, evangelical, traditionalist and liberal strands in our life. We know ourselves to be enriched by that diversity. It is expressed in warm relationships of mutual respect. We have to carry that diversity with us on whatever journey we decide to undertake.

The second diversity is that of the Anglican Communion. Unhelpful patterns have been modelled for us. Strident voices in the Communion seek to prevent even discussion of the issues. Others have acted unilaterally without sensitivity to the strong feelings elsewhere in the Communion. Neither is acceptable. We are a Communion but we cannot be a Uniformity. What the Communion needs at this point is serious discussion about the nature of our belonging together and about the limits of diversity – given that we live in such different social contexts.


  1. Dennis, perhaps I don’t assume anything except that God has made us to know him and delights in revealing himself and his ways to us.
    In applying reason to the Scriptures we do see that they contain a progressive revelation. Many things that were part of the revelation to Israel – e.g. rituals and social laws which made Israel and its worship exclusive among the nations – were no longer required once the primary reason for Israel’s existence was fulfilled. That reason, of course, was to provide a nation, a people with a religion, a law, a sacrificial cultus, a history and prophetic writings all of which pointed to the Messiah, Jesus, and to provide an environment in which he could be born and fulfil his redemptive work. That work then provided a gospel which transcended differences which were merely cultural but transformed those which were moral. Israel’s ritual laws may have been superseded, its moral laws remained – and remain. The early church never attacked cultural practices, e.g. slavery, but through the gospel of grace it white anted the abuses of those practices (e.g. Eph 6:5-9). While it encouraged slaves to gain their freedom where that was possible (e.g. 1 Cor 7:21), it actually turned slavery – even with its abuses – into an evangelistic opportunity.
    We may approach the Scriptures critically but the question needs to be asked, do we want to understand what they are saying or to determine what they are saying? Will you hear them, Dennis, if they disagree with the position you hold? It is commonly said that the Scriptures are not clear on the issue we are discussing. That view is too readily accepted. As a person of good will, tell me that Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26-27 or 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 are not clear. The last text, depending on what version you use, might require a look at the Greek, but don’t read verses 9-10 without verse 11. If after looking at them – even critically – you maintain that these texts are not clear, then we cannot have an honest conversation. If you can agree that they are clear but you don’t accept them then there is no value in continuing a conversation.

  2. With regard to “acting unilaterally” and “strong feelings”, when most of the bishops of the Anglican Communion join in asserting that the American and Canadian churches have abandoned the Christian faith (to which the “instruments of communion” made no response) is there much alternative ? And is not the British assumption of American/Canadian lack of sensitivity (which the British are assumed to have) offending “strong feelings” in Africa a falsehood ? The British answer is to do nothing which might offend – – assuming that Africans have no capacity to understand. The Bishop of Gloucester has even written that Africans cannot understand homosexuality. What does he think they have between their ears ? And this distrust of American Episcopalians is not new – after World War I Canadian missionaries were not to return to what had been German East Africa as it was now part of the Empire, to which they were not devoted – – instead Australians were imported. And when the Australians wanted their bishop consecrated in Melbourne, the answer was that he must be consecrated in Canterbury as German East was now part of the Empire, and this was linked in some way to keeping American Episcopalians out of India. When I taught at a theoligical college in Kenya in the sixties, we had an American Episcopalian on the staff, who taught biblical criticism just as the British lecturers did, and cries went up in Synod, “No more Episcopals from America”. One final point about whether homosexuaity is at the root of all this. In 2000 the Archbishops of Singapore and Rwanda and another Rwandan bishop consecrated Murphy and Rogers as bishops of the first schismatic church in America – – three years before the election of Gene Robinson in New Hampshire. Why ? Who was behind this ?

  3. But perhaps you are assuming that the scriptures are a monolithic block, or even an answer book with the answers you already like? We interpret the scriptures; we don’t go looking to them like they are a manual with the answers. We apply reason to the scriptures and now find ourselves ok with things forbidden in the Bible (money lending for interest, divorce, etc.) The scriptures justify slavery in both the Old and New Testament. We now know that was wrong, and where the bible justifies slavery it was wrong in those passages. We apply reason to understand the scriptures; we don’t uncritically accept them without interpretation. Once people of good will have a chance to look and think and consider, the seven passages where it is claimed that the bible is opposed to homosexuality turn out to either be mistranslations or to be akin to the biblical defense of slavery. We put it aside and we move on.

  4. I don’t think that your blog, David, is a place for others to carry on an argument so I apologize at the start. I hope not to do it again.
    In response to Dennis, it is true that the Anglican Church makes much of tradition and reason alongside the Scriptures. However, in the current issue, as demonstrated in the posts above, many have rejected both Scripture and tradition. That leaves only reason. I would suggest that reason is only helpful when directed by the Scriptures; reason – for the Church – does ot act alone, it must not act independantly of the Scriptures, it is to be subject to the Scriptures, not above them. That very Anglican statement of faith, the Articles of Religion speak of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures and about the value of taditions and the danger of acting against them, but those very reasonable articles say nothing about reason (not that we are to be unreasonable). You may want the Anglican Church to reason itself to a particular view but it if does so contrary to or neglecting Scripture (and tradition) then it is no longer the Anglican Church that you are claiming or defending.

    1. I’ve already joined in the main argument, so I’ll just say that I regard biblical study (as opposed to complete acceptance of the words as seen) as vital to a living faith. But as for arguments on blogs: I rejoice when an argument takes place among readers as a result of something I’ve blogged. I think you’ll find that the blogfathers (and mothers) among us always saw blogs as a vehicle for discussion rather than anything more static.

  5. Since when did Anglicans become Biblical literalists? That is for other approaches and other denominations. In the Anglican branch of Christianity we look to reason, tradition, and scripture, and not just to scripture. Saying “well it is in the bible” is only a starting point and not the conclusion of the discussion. One must also take into account tradition and reason (which includes scholarship and research). The Bible is a source of our faith and not a magic guide book with all of the answers. “Sola scriptura” is many things to many different branches of Christianity, but it certainly isn’t an Anglican approach to the sources of our faith.

  6. There can be little doubt that the world is changing, that in large parts – especially the west – societal values and expectations are changing and changing rapidly. If we are to consider how, as Church, we respond to the changes, what is to be guide, what is the measure if we want to do what is right? In the end the only measure which marks out how the Church reasons from how any other organization reasons is the Bible. In the responses to your articles, David, there is a dearth of references to the Bible nor, it would seem, much desire to hear from it.
    Equality, equal rights, etc. are never the arguments of the Scriptures and should never be the basis for Church decisions or processes. Equlaity of persons is assumed but equality of social standing, political power, wealth or personal values or opinions are not. We are not called to equality in these ways but to truth, not to tolerance of each and every view – at least, not within the Church – but to love and righteousness. Love is not self-seeking and righteousness can only be that which is in accord with what God has revealed in the Old and New Testaments. To our own peril we discard what God has declared as righteous or determine, regardless of Scripture, what behaviour or beliefs we are prepared to accept. The apostles constanltly warned agianst the infiltration of worldly thinking and practices into the Church and as the Church we are warned against conforming to the world’s ways and views (e.g. Rom 12:1-2).
    The Church must not discuss the issue of human sexuality – or any other issue – apart from an honest appreciation of the whole of the Scriptures. In love it must be informed and guided (constrained if necessary) by the Scriptures and never by the ‘strong feelings’ of any party.

  7. Poor Bishop David. You cannot win no matter what you say! Be true to your heart and your vocation. You are in my prayers.

  8. Unhelpful dichotomy here. “Strong feelings” versus real people. Nice. Nice and Christian.

    Thankfully the Episcopal Church in the United States paid more attention (what you label here, with a real note of bias in your words, as “acted unilaterally”) to the real Christian needs of gay and lesbian members than to the “strong feelings elsewhere.”

    If one weighs real human lives, and the calling to take those seriously and to follow the gospel in doing so, then it becomes crystal clear that “strong feelings elsewhere” are all but meaningless. And when looks at the unmitigated hate behind those “strong feelings elsewhere” (the sort of pure hate that has resulted in the recent legislation in Uganda and elsewhere) it becomes a Christian duty to actively oppose those “strong feelings elsewhere.”

    It is time to drop this old canard. Let it go. It convinces no one who is not already biased against tolerance and welcome. Stop using a meme that only supports bigotry.

    We are human beings in the Episcopal Church in the US. Luckily we matter more in our church than “strong feelings elsewhere.”

  9. Whereas the G&G had 10 mins for an update from the Design group which stretched to (at least) 20 with all the questions and comments.

    But we had had a very interesting and relevant presentation on changes in social attitudes to same sex relationships from Prof John Curtice from Strathclyde Uni. Eye-opening (if not -watering) for some in the hall.

  10. As a CofE Anglican, I note the rhetoric and invective directed from a minority within the Church who wan’t to preserve an exclusive membership, which denies the humanity of others, because of difference, in this case human sexuality.

    The CofE HoB has just caused pain anger and disquiet and pastoral confusion by producing a letter and guidance to maintain the current position with one eye on the Post-Pilling process and another on the wider Anglican Communion, particularly the global south. Arch Bishop Welby has said that in the future we may need to learn to disagree – well, with respect for the different theological positions. This suggests that there will never be agreement within the CofE, let alone around the Anglican Communion. So why are we discussing something that will never be agreed – get on with according same-sex relationships the same status as straight relationships and move on.

    What I personally find so sad is that while all of the discussions are conducted with such vehemence, LGBT couples are continuing to live out their lives quietly in love and patience within their church communities, and many are beginning to feel like outcasts by those very conversations that they’d hoped would allow their committed, love filled relationships to be accepted as being just as valid as the lifelong marriage between one man and one woman – the churches traditional position. One which has been compromised many times in the past but is held up as the holy grail for the whole body of Christ for the future. Where is the hope and love for them in this?

    Good intentions can be as harmful to our fellow Christians as bad ones – and I’d argue that we’re not doing God’s mission any favours with our current position of human sexuality.

  11. Yet Edinburgh diocese is only allowing 20mins for a presentation and discussion (presumably) on the topic tomorrow. Not good enough.

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